The Message to Israel
The message God was communicating to Israel through the death of Ezekiel’s wife was that the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife and his inability to mourn for her according to the traditional mourning rituals represents the sudden destruction of God’s house in Jerusalem. The destruction of the temple would be devastating to the people. The temple was the center of Israel’s religious life. Jerusalem and the temple were inseparably linked to Israel as a nation and as the people of Yahweh.
Goldingay writes that the death of Ezekiel’s wife was a sign that assured the reality and certainty of the destruction of the temple. Yahweh commanded Ezekiel not to mourn for his wife even though she was the delight of his eyes. The reason for not mourning for his wife was because Ezekiel would become a sign for the people.
According to Goldingay, the reason for God’s command was because “the people will not mourn when Yhwh profanes the sanctuary, even though it is their strength and pride, the delight of their eyes, and the heart’s desire of the people in exile, and even though the city’s fall means the death of the sons and daughters they left behind in Jerusalem. Indeed, it is because of these events that they will not mourn. The events will be so overwhelming that they will preclude alleviation by the regular mourning rites.”
“The exiles will be too stunned. That is how Ezekiel is when his wife dies. He is thus a portent for them (Ezek 24:15-24). Once again, it is not the prophet alone but the prophet and his wife who are part of his ministry, because it is precisely the most precious of relationships like that of marriage that can speak most powerfully about the relationship between God and the people” (Goldingay 2009: 810–811).
The destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple was caused by Israel’s disobedience. Jeremiah warned the people of Judah of the consequences of their apostasy and called the people to repent and turn to God. If Israel had listened to the words of Jeremiah and lived faithfully in obedience to the words of Yahweh, these tragic events would not have had to take place, as Jeremiah told the people. Ezekiel’s message was specifically addressed to those now living in captivity away from their home.
The death of Ezekiel’s wife served to prepare the prophet for his ministry after the fall of Jerusalem. Ezekiel knew that the people would not understand the full implication of the terrible tragedy that had come upon the nation. The tragic loss of his wife would equip Ezekiel to care for his people and explain the loss of land and lives. God did not cause the death of Ezekiel’s wife (see next post). Her death was a symbol of the great loss the people would experience with the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of thousands of fellow citizens.
According to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant who would bring divine judgment upon Judah (Jeremiah 25:9). With one stroke, God would take from the people what they loved the most, the temple. The judgment would be so devastating and of such a nature that the people would be unable to mourn in the customary fashion; they would mourn silently, unable to observe the mourning ritual.
In his commentary on Exodus, John Taylor writes, “The loss of the temple, the loss of their freedom, and the loss of their children would leave the people so distraught that the traditional mourning ritual would not console them. Only in silence, seemingly untouched by these events would the people grieve in a most intense and internal way” (Taylor 1969: 182–183).
The people believed that the temple would never fall. It was the place where Yahweh chose “there to set his name and give it a home” (Deuteronomy 12:5 NJB). The people believed that God would never allow the temple, “the delight of their eyes” to be destroyed, and yet he did. By a stroke, God took away the temple from the people in the same way he took Ezekiel’s wife.
In explaining the people’s inability to mourn, Leslie Allen writes, “So overwhelming a double calamity would force the exiles to take over Ezekiel’s precedent. Not only would it be too stunning for tears but the inevitable ‘why?’ of anguish would bring the appalling answer that the people’s deviation from the divine will had been the ultimate cause of the catastrophe” (Allen 1990: 61).
The calamity that befell Judah was the reason Ezekiel was commanded not to observe the customary mourning rituals. Ezekiel understood Yahweh’s command to be the full measure of sorrow the people would experience. As von Rad writes, “In just the same way Ezekiel in making no mourning at the death of his wife becomes ‘a sign’ for his people, a pointer to a calamity in which no one will make ritual mourning for his relatives” (von Rad 1965: 97).
His own sorrow would prepare Ezekiel to give an answer to the people for the reason he was unable to mourn. The difference between Ezekiel’s and the people’s sorrow was that he would lose his wife as part of his prophetic responsibility. The people would lose their children, their city, and their temple as a result of their rebellion against Yahweh.
Michael Fishbane writes that the actions taken by Ezekiel were a call to Israel to turn back to Yahweh. It was not the desire of the prophet to see his people suffer, but rather he desired that the people would repent. This in turn would bring Israel back into a right relationship with God.
According to Fishbane, Israel was responsible for this impending judgment. He writes, “Over and over again, the exiles are confronted with symbolic actions conveying the imminence of the doom to come and visions portraying the sinful treacheries which justify it” (Fishbane 1984: 141–142).
Israel cannot escape the judgment; Yahweh will make himself known to them even against their will. Fishbane writes, “The destruction of Jerusalem is not because an impotent god has ‘abandoned the land,’ but is rather because a providential and powerful Judge has left his shrine and land in revulsion of the abominations performed there” (Fishbane 1984: 149-150).
Ezekiel lists some of these abominations performed in the temple. According to Ezekiel, “portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 8:10).
At “the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD; women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). At “the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, prostrating themselves to the sun toward the east” (Ezekiel 8:16).
Von Rad writes that “For Ezekiel, the cause of Israel’s approaching fall lay quite indubitably in a failure in the sphere of the holy. She had defiled the sanctuary, turned aside to other cults, and taken idols into her heart, in other words, she had ‘rendered herself unclean’ in the sight of Jahweh, and this is the reason for her punishment” (von Rad 1965: 224).
The God who is jealous for his people, the God who judges, is also the same God who wishes to help and forgive his people. However, Israel refused to listen. Ezekiel’s message to the people was not God’s first warning of the coming judgment. When the judgment of Judah is viewed from the perspective of the death of Ezekiel’s wife, God’s actions may seem harsh and unforgiving, but is God quick-tempered, harsh, and unforgiving? When correctly understood, we can begin to fully grasp what God was trying to say to his people through the death of Ezekiel’s wife.
In her article, “Ezekiel’s Justification of God: Teaching Troubling Texts,” Katheryn Pfisterer Darr underscores Ezekiel’s message from God to the people. She writes, “One of the principal concerns of the book of Ezekiel is establishing Judah’s sinfulness. Toward that end, the author frequently takes up some of Israel’s most cherished historical traditions and, in his retelling of them, transforms those justifications of Israel’s existence, values, practices and hopes, into justification of Yahweh’s imminent judgment against the people” (Darr 1992: 98).
The impending judgment upon Judah was not coming from a God acting out of whim. Darr states that God’s action was a proper response in view of the magnitude of Judah’s sin, “Yahweh was just—that the punishment was proportionate to the crime. And since the anticipated punishment was exorbitant, the sin must be grievous, indeed” (Darr 1992: 110).
Posts on the Death of Ezekiel’s Wife
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – Prophetic Acts
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – Ezekiel’s Wife
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – The Message To Israel
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – God’s Supposed Cruelty – Part 1
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – God’s Supposed Cruelty – Part 2
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – Ezekiel and the Prophetic Office
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990.
Darr Pfisterer, Katheryn. “Ezekiel’s Justification of God: Teaching Troubling Texts.” Journal of the Study of the Old Testament 55 no 1 (1992): 97–117.
Fishbane, Michael. “Sin and Judgment in the Prophecies of Ezekiel.” Interpretation 38 no 2 (1984): 131–150.
Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Volume 3. Downers Grove, 2009.
Odell, Margaret S. Ezekiel. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Marcon: Smyth and Helwys, 2005.
Taylor, John B. Ezekiel. Tyndale Bible Commentary. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1969.
Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology. Volume 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.