“UFOs are real; they’re even talked about in the Bible!”
Those words blew my thirteen-year-old mind when I heard them from my friend Jason. He and I would sometimes discuss many of the religious topics of concern to science-fiction-loving thirteen-year-old boys—you know, aliens, space travel, and so forth. Although I had attended church and Sunday school regularly since I was about seven, I had never heard this about UFOs before. And where did Jason find accounts of humanity’s encounter with UFOs? In the book of Ezekiel, of course. After all, what else could explain the four-faced creatures and the eye-covered wheels within wheels that the prophet sees in the opening chapters of the book of Ezekiel?
More than three decades have now passed since that eighth-grade conversation. If I ever really believed that Ezekiel saw UFOs, I don’t any longer. But that hasn’t stopped many others, often people outside the church, from posting on webpages and writing books about Ezekiel’s encounter with aliens. Within the church, we’re less likely to find people talking about UFOs in the book of Ezekiel. However, there have been plenty of fantastical stories based on Ezekiel to come from the pens of Christian writers. Many of these have been accounts of apocalyptic wars between Israel and Russia and her allies (allegedly Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog) that must occur in the future, sometimes before and sometimes after the pretribulation rapture of the church.
Whether Ezekiel is used to prove the existence of UFOs or to predict the future of God’s plan for the world, there is little doubt that this prophet and the book that bears his name will continue to inspire curious readers to speculate on the meaning of his words. Yet, while Ezekiel is one of the more difficult books of the Bible to interpret, at least at first glance, we don’t have to resort to UFOs or trying to discern how he predicts contemporary or future events in order to understand him. We need only to understand him in his original context.
Ezekiel the Man
Ezekiel was born in approximately 620 BC, just as the southern kingdom of Judah was entering its final period of decline before its exile. We read in Ezekiel 1:3 that he was a priest, which makes him one of the few old covenant figures to hold the office of priest and prophet simultaneously. As part of a priestly family, Ezekiel would have been among the leading citizens of Judah, which explains why we find him in Babylon at the beginning of his book. In 609 BC, Judah came under the control of Egypt, but just a few years later, the Babylonian Empire routed the Egyptians from Judah and Judah became a client state of Babylon. As ancient Near Eastern client states were wont to do, however, Judah rebelled against Babylon in 602 BC, seeking independence. Several years of conflict followed, but by 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon had invaded Judah to put down its rebellion. Nebuchadnezzar took King Jehoiachin of Judah and many of its leading citizens into exile into Babylon, among whom was Ezekiel, then in his late twenties.
Ezekiel’s career as a prophet spanned some twenty years from his call in around 593 BC to his last vision of a restored Jerusalem in 573 BC. He was a member of a community of exiles from Judah who resided deep in the heart of the Babylonian empire alongside the Chebar canal, which was an important source of irrigation (Ezek. 1:1–3). Ezekiel 24:15–27 reports that the prophet’s wife died during his prophetic ministry, and Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn her death as a sign to the people of what was to come. This symbolic act is one of many that Ezekiel performed as a prophet in Babylon. Among the other symbolic acts Ezekiel performed were to lie on his side for 390 days, cook his bread over animal dung, shave and burn part of his beard, and build miniature siege works against a brick representing the city of Jerusalem (Ezek. 4–5). God gave Ezekiel these symbolic acts and others to be performed before the Jews to warn them of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the entire nation in 586 BC.
Ezekiel the Message
Speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, the primary message of Ezekiel is the warning of God’s coming judgment against the temple and the Lord’s people on account of their impenitent wickedness. The Jews had taken the temple for granted as if it guaranteed the presence of God among them in Jerusalem and therefore that the city would not be destroyed. Ezekiel was sent to tell them, among other things, that God would be leaving the temple and that it and the city would fall to Babylon (Ezek. 6–10). The Lord would not abide sin forever, even among His people in the promised land, but would act to discipline the Jews.
Much of Ezekiel is taken up with warning of this judgment and explaining the sins that led to it, as well as explaining to the people that God would justly use the sinful Babylonians to mete out His judgment on His sinful people (Ezek. 12–24; 33–35). Ezekiel also addresses many of the foreign powers of day, warning them that they would not escape God’s judgment either (Ezek. 25–32). Yet, Ezekiel’s message is not one only of doom and gloom. The last thirteen chapters of the book and even some of what precedes Ezekiel 36 holds out hope and the promise of restoration to the Jews. God would bring His people to life from the death of exile, circumcise their hearts, and fill them with His Spirit so that they would never be cast out of the promised land again (Ezek. 36–37). The enemies of His people, represented by Gog and Magog, would be finally defeated (Ezek. 38–39), and a new purified and perfect temple would be built, symbolizing God’s everlasting presence with His people (Ezek. 40–48).
These promises of hope, particularly the plans for the new temple, come to us in highly figurative language and are not usually meant to be literal descriptors. The dimensions of Ezekiel’s temple, in fact, make it impossible for the structure to sit on Mount Zion. The original audience reading the book would have known this and thus would not have expected a literal fulfillment in an enormous temple. Ezekiel was speaking in terms his audience could understand. If you want to assure a suffering people of God’s ultimate commitment to dwell with them forever, you talk about a glorious temple when their idea of God’s presence is tied up with a physical temple building.
The Lord, of course, is fulfilling Ezekiel’s promise of a new temple, only we know this temple to be Christ Himself and by extension those who are united to Him by faith alone. He is not building a physical structure but knitting believers together as living stones, as His redeemed people filled with His Spirit who will rule and reign with Him forever (John 2:18–22; 2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Peter 2:4–8). To us, as to ancient Judah, Ezekiel says this: God will save His people and destroy His enemies, so turn away from idolatry and worship the one true living God through the Davidic king and appointed Messiah—Jesus Christ—and God’s Spirit will dwell in you and you will dwell before the face of God forever (Ezek. 34:11–31).
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 4, 2020.