Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel, 4: Chapter 1 continued

The vision moves from the living creatures to the wheels. The key verse here is vs 18, "And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around." The wheels, which are clearly means of locomotion, demonstrate two things: first, the omnipresence of God. He is not limited as to location. It is hard for us to imagine, but in the Old Testament, though the omnipresence of God is a given (see Ps 139), there was a sense in which he had "attached" himself to the temple in Jerusalem. Thus, the mobile throne is a radical departure. Second, the plethora of eyes indicate his omniscience. In a pictorial way, this says the same thing as Ex 2:25, "God saw the people of Israel, and God knew."

The final element of the vision is the throne above the creatures. It rests on an "expanse" (same word as in Gen 1:6). The allusion to the creation narrative is deliberate. The God whom Ezekiel sees is the creator of heaven and earth. Ezekiel sees a human-like figure, but all he can describe is brightness, and a rainbow. Again, the allusion to Genesis 9 is deliberate. The figure represents God coming in judgment, but not without mercy.

"Such was the likeness of the appearance of the glory of the Lord." Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord, but at best he is able to describe it only indirectly. The vision overwhelmed him, and he ended up on his face. This reminds us that we are never to take God for granted (which the Israelites had done, assuming that because they had the temple, God would not let Jerusalem fall). Nor are we to think of God as our good buddy. He is the maker of heaven and earth, judge and savior, and were we to have Ezekiel's vision, we would respond in like fashion. In some sense, Christ bridges the gap between us and God (there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 1 Tim 2:5), but one day to him every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10-11)

Monday, November 15, 2010

What does the 2nd Commandment Forbid?

Provoked by someone's blog post this morning, I want to take a few minutes to try to explain the traditional Reformed view of the 2nd Commandment, and the prohibition of pictures of Jesus. This first thing to note is that there are two facets to the prohibition. The first facet prohibits making (Ex 20: 4). The second facet prohibits worshiping (Ex 20:5). Regarding the prohibition of making, it is usually argued (and the particular blog post in view did argue) that if the command is taken literally, it prohibits all representational art. In other words, statues, paintings, photographs, etc. of anything are prohibited by this command. This is the view that Islam takes, and explains why all Muslim art is abstract. This seems to be a plain reading of the command: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex 20:4, ESV).

However, this is where it is necessary to consult the Hebrew text. Two terms are used here, represented in the ESV by "carved image" and "likeness." Neither term refers to what we might call representational art. So, for example, the term "likeness" in Ex 20:4 is not the same word as "likeness" in Gen 1:26. Both words in Ex 20:4 refer specifically to images that are intended to represent deity. In other words, the command says, "Do not make a representation of God using anything in the created order as the foundation for that representation."

So how does this affect the "images of Christ"? First, granted that Christ is one person in two natures--human and divine. Any attempt to represent him visually can represent only his human nature. So it does not represent the "full Christ." Further, there are no descriptions given in the New Testament of what Jesus looked like. Since the death of the apostles, no one knows what Jesus looked like. Hence, any representation of his human appearance is a false representation. Thus, visual representations of Jesus fail the test of two commandments. First, they fail the 2nd Commandment test, in that they attempt to represent deity using part of the created order to do so. Second, they fail the 9th Commandment in two ways. They represent Jesus as if he were human only, which he is not. Second, they lie about his appearance.

Given this, it does not appear to me that "pictures" of Jesus can be justified, unless the 2nd and 9th Commandments are eliminated as laws for Christian behavior.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel, 3: Chapter 1

The chief difficulty with interpreting Ezekiel is the temptation to over-interpret. So, for example, in the first chapter all the details of the visions that Ezekiel describes seem to cry out for interpretation. But the reader should remember that this is a vision. Hence, much of it is not only not to be taken literally, the point of it is to communicate to the reader an impression. Second, the reader should pay attention to the frequent use of terms such as “the likeness of,” “the appearance of,” “like,” and other terms indicating comparison. In some sense this chapter is on extended set of metaphors. Third, the reader should try to grasp the big picture, and not to become lost in the details of the imagery. In other words, the details of the vision are something like the dots of color that make up a pointillist painting. (If the reader doesn't know what pointillism is, the Wikipedia article is sufficient.) The details, to some extent, do not matter in themselves. It is what they bring to the whole that creates the effect intended by Ezekiel’s description.

The chapter divides into four parts: the introduction (1-3), the four living creatures (4-14), the wheels (15-21), and the throne (22-28). The introduction sets us in time and place. The time is the fifth year of the exile of Jeoiachin, fifth day of the fourth month. According to modern chronology, that puts Ezekiel by the River Chebar (pronounced key-bar) on Jul 31, 593 BC. The Chebar River (or canal) is located between modern Baghdad and Basra. This appears to have been the location of one of the villages of the Judean exiles.

The opening of the heavens is the idea that Ezekiel is allowed to see into the heavenly realm ordinarily not accessible to us. What he saw, he attempted to describe. But the language that he used indicates that he was operating at the limits of human language to communicate what he saw. Much of the language is clearly metaphorical. So what are we to take from the vision? First, we are to apprehend the completely overwhelming nature of the vision. At the conclusion, Ezekiel fell on his face (vs 28). Second, the reader should note the main themes of the vision. The cherubim (not identified here as such, but specified in 10:1) are human in form, having faces representing the highest of the various created orders: human, domestic animals, wild animals, and birds. Thus the created order magnifies God. The frequent mention of fire carries with it the idea of the judgment of God. Note that the storm came out of the north (1:4), which is the standard direction from which judgment arrives for Israel (see also Jer 1:14). The cherubim are also connected with the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24), the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:17ff), the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex 36:8), and the walls of the temple (1 Kgs 6:29). They serve to protect the holiness of God, and hold off the unholy man who would draw too near.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel, 2: Outline, Organization, Main Themes


I. Proclaiming judgment against Judah, chs 1-24

II. Proclaiming judgment against the nations, chs 25-32

III. Proclaiming restoration for Israel, chs 33-48


The book is organized chronologically, beginning in the fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin (593 BC). The last dated prophecy (571 BC), and the only one out of chronological order, is found in ch 29:17ff. This seems to have been connected thematically to the context, accounting for the date out of order. The vision of the new temple, chs 40-48, concludes the book, being dated to 573 BC. The material from the first 24 chapters all date from the period 593-588 BC. The oracles of judgment on the nations date from 587-571 BC. The prophecies of restoration date from 585-573 BC.

Thematically, the book is organized around Ezekiel’s three visions of the glory of the Lord. The first of these visions is the account of his call to the prophetic office in chs 1-3, in which the glory of the Lord appears to him among the exiles in Mesopotamia. The second vision, chs 8-11, recounts the gross idolatry of Israel, and the moving of the glory of the Lord out of the temple and out of the city of Jerusalem, leaving it unprotected and open to the coming attack by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The final vision, concluding the promises of restoration, shows the glory of the Lord settling in the new temple, in a restored land, in a renewed city

Main Themes:

Chapter 36:16-32 is a key passage for the book as a whole. In this passage the primary themes of the book appear all together. The first theme is the holiness and transcendence of God, demonstrated by the overwhelming appearance of the glory of the Lord, and the repeated emphasis on God’s concern for his holiness.

The second theme is the sinfulness of the people, and the consequent inevitability of judgment. Obviously, this is presented in terse, summary form in chapter 36, but it takes up the whole of the first half of the book.

The third primary theme is that of God’s gracious restoration. While summarized in 36:22ff, it takes up almost the entirety of the last third of the book.

Additional Bibliographical Note:

When posting the other day, I forgot to mention the exposition of Ezekiel by Patrick Fairbairn, which is still useful. In addition, the section on Ezekiel in O. P. Robertson’s The Christ of the Prophets is probably the best short theological summary in print.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel, 1

Historical Context: 2 Kings 21-25, 2 Chronicles 33-36
In 609 BC, Josiah, king of Judah dies in battle against Pharaoh Neco. He is replaced by his son Jehoahaz, who reigns for three months before he is deposed by Neco. Neco replaces him with Eliakim, whom he renames Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim comes under pressure from Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and in 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar takes a number of Judean hostages, among whom is Daniel. Jehoiakim died in 597, and was replaced by Jehoiachin, who reigned for three months. Nebuchadnezzar took him and a number of other Judeans captive, replacing Jehoiachin with Zedekiah. Ezekiel appears to have been among this group of captives, since most of the events in the book are dated from the captivity of Jehoiachin. Thus the context for Ezekiel is that he is a captive in Babylon among the exiles. He is a priest separated from the temple in Jerusalem.

Religious/Theological Context:
About a century before we meet Ezekiel, Manasseh became king of Judah. He made idolatry official policy, and reigned for more than half a century. Though he repented near the end of his life, it was too little, too late. He was replaced by his son Amon, who reigned for two years and restored his father's official policy of state idolatry. Amon was succeeded by Josiah, who became king on 640 BC. Josiah was a godly man, and instituted religious reforms, but they seem to have had little effect on the people as a whole. After Josiah's death in battle, it appears that the people returned to the idolatry of those who had preceded Josiah.
The prophet Jeremiah began to prophecy in 627 BC, the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah. In 622 BC, the scroll of the law was found in the temple, and its legitimacy verified by Huldah the prophetess. After the death of Josiah, the religious apostasy quickened, and the final twenty years of the kingdom of Judah was a time of disaster: political, social, and religious.

Personal Context:
Assuming that the "thirty years" of Ezekiel 1:1 refers to the thirtieth year of Ezekiel, Ezekiel was born in the year that the Book of the Law was found in the temple. He grew up in a priestly household, and no doubt expected that when he reached the age of twenty-five, he would begin the five-year apprenticeship that would precede his entering into full priestly status when he turned thirty. Thus his entire life would have been one of training for the priesthood. However, the year he would have begun his apprenticeship is the year that he was taken into captivity. he spent the next five years perhaps hoping that he would return to Jerusalem and to his "real" calling as a priest. Instead, in his thirtieth year, God called him as a prophet.

The standard English-language technical commentary for some years to come will probably be that by Daniel Block in the New International Commentary series. Also worth consulting is the short commentary by John Taylor in the Tyndale OT Commentaries, and the exposition by Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel. Keil's commentary in the Keil & Delitzsch should not be omitted. The one by Lamar Cooper, Sr. in the New American Commentary series is worth consulting, though marred by a dispensational theology. William Greenhill, the Puritan commentator costs more work than I have found him to be worth. Iaian Duguid's volume in the NIV Application Commentary series well repays study. Two incomplete commentaries worth consulting are those by Calvin, who made it into chapter 20, and the Anchor Bible volumes by Moshe Greenberg. Greenberg died before completing the commentary, and Jacob Milgrom, who was appointed to complete it died not too long thereafter. It is uncertain when that set will be completed.