As representatives of God before the people, the lives of the prophets of the Old Testament reflect the character of God as they proclaim their message. When Ezekiel spoke God’s words to the people, God was present in his words. When Ezekiel proclaimed God’s message through symbolic acts, God was present in what Ezekiel did. As an individual called by God to speak on God’s behalf, the prophet becomes an embodiment of God to the community. When Ezekiel proclaimed his message, the people heard the words of Yahweh in the mouth of Ezekiel.
The Embodiment of God’s Word
Ezekiel’s call came through an appearance of God in which the prophet saw “visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). Ezekiel was told to “eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1). The embodiment of God’s word in Ezekiel began at the moment he was called to speak to the people who were exiled in Babylon. As Fretheim writes, the prophet “is called to function as an ongoing theophany. In the prophet we see . . . a more extended appearance of the Word of God in human form” (Fretheim 1984: 151).
In describing Ezekiel’s act of eating the words of Yahweh, von Rad writes, “We may ask whether this entry of the word into a prophet’s bodily life is not meant to approximate to what the writer of the Fourth Gospel says about the word becoming flesh” (von Rad 1965: 2:92).
Thus, Yahweh not only speaks through Ezekiel, but he also acts through Ezekiel. The death of Ezekiel’s wife prefigures the fall (death) of Jerusalem which in the book of Ezekiel is portrayed as the wife of Yahweh (Ezekiel 16:23).
The call to the prophetic ministry is costly to the one who was called, “the office with which the prophet is charged deeply affects the sphere of his personal life, and causes him to suffer” (von Rad 1965: 2:274).
The sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife and his refusal to go through the normal process of mourning for the death conveyed a message to the people. Ezekiel himself becomes a sign to the people, “and this consists in the fact that he has been drawn by God himself into enduring the judgment sooner than all others and by way of example” (von Rad 1965: 2:274).
With the death of his wife and the command that he should not mourn for her, Ezekiel becomes a sign to the people. As a sign to the people, God was sending a visible message to them through Ezekiel, “Yahweh himself acts in the symbol, through the instrument of the prophet. Again, it is not a matter of hearing that is important for God and people, it is a matter of seeing” (Fretheim 1984: 153).
As a sign to the people, “the exiles must imitate Ezekiel’s actions. This is the only instance in Ezekiel in which a sign becomes a model for others” (Odell 2005: 318).
For modern readers who tend to judge divine actions as contrary to modern day’s ethical values, the account of the death of Ezekiel’s wife is troubling. “The episode raises questions about divine justice and compassion: could Yahweh be so cruel as to cause a woman’s death in order to make a point about the destruction of Jerusalem?” (Odell 2005: 316).
Although the text is silent about the pain Ezekiel experienced because of the death of his wife, the text intimates at Ezekiel’s emotional reaction at the loss of his beloved wife. Yahweh told Ezekiel, “Groan silently” (Ezekiel 24:17). There was sorrow and suffering for his wife’s death, but there was no sound for his sorrow.
The Cost of Being a Prophet
After studying the events related to the death of Ezekiel’s wife and the role God played with the announcement of her death and the command to Ezekiel not to mourn for the delight of his eyes, we must consider how today’s reader should read this sad event in the life of a servant of God.
One of the most important lessons one draws from the text is the reality of the prophet’s life and his submission to the will of God. Most people who read the book of Jeremiah and the book of Ezekiel never stop the ponder the demands of the prophetic ministry, or the cost of being a servant of God.
Jonah was called to proclaim a message to the Assyrians, the mortal enemy of his people. Hosea was called to marry a prostitute. Jeremiah was commanded not to take a wife in order to show the people of Judah what would happen after the fall of Jerusalem.
The death of Ezekiel’s wife and the command not to mourn for her was one of the most difficult things Ezekiel had to do in order to follow God and to communicate God’s will to the people in exile.
Ezekiel’s life was the ultimate sign to a people who were despondent and who had lost all hopes for a bright future. As Stuart writes “of all the things that Israelite prophets were called by God to do, one of the hardest and saddest tasks was assigned to Ezekiel: [having] to incorporate his wife’s death and his time of mourning for her into an enactment prophecy” (Stuart 1989: 241).
The price Ezekiel was asked to pay in order to fulfill his ministry was high. Jeremiah compared himself to “a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jeremiah 11:19) because of the suffering he had to endure in discharging his ministry.
Ezekiel was a true suffering servant of Yahweh because he was called to submit his personal feelings and desires to the will of God. Some people believe that Ezekiel was an eccentric man who went to extremes with his prophetic signs.
Although many people today do not understand the intent of the prophetic actions, Block writes that prophetic actions are the most powerful way for God’s word to be proclaimed – “when it is incarnate in the life of the messenger” (Block 1997: 798).
Ezekiel was not the only messenger who was called upon to suffer in order to proclaim the word of God. Most of the prophets in the Old Testament were called upon to endure suffering to proclaim God’s word.
The Cost of Being a Follower of God
The author of the book of Hebrews describes the suffering God’s servants had to endure in the work for God. Some of God’s servants “ were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Hebrews 11:35–39).
The greatest example of the suffering servant, however, was Jesus. He was called upon to pay the ultimate price in submission to God’s divine will, to endure death on a cross in order to free us from the bondage of sin.
Today most people who call themselves followers of God are not committed to go through what Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many others had to endure to follow the will of the one who called them.
People who call themselves believers in Christ and who are called to follow him are also called to endure suffering, just as Ezekiel was, in submission to the divine will of God.
Jesus said, “”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus also said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).
The command Ezekiel received not to mourn the death of his wife is a grim reminder of the reality of the sacrifices one must make when one is called to serve God. The cost to follow Jesus may involve suffering and even death on a cross. However, we must not think that because there is suffering involved in serving God that the better option is not to serve God.
Pain and suffering are an inevitable part of being human and living in a sinful world. However, there is a difference in the reasons why God’s servants suffer in the service of God. Those in service to God suffer for a higher purpose and their suffering is not in vain.
What Ezekiel had to suffer after the death of his wife is a powerful example of faithful service to God which also served as a warning to the people in exile. Block writes that God used the death of Ezekiel’s wife to represent the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem and that this event serves as a warning for us to keep our faith in God himself rather than putting our faith in things of this world, such as the temple.
The death of Ezekiel’s wife is a troubling passage for many people because they tend to blame God for her death rather than look at what God was communicating through her death. The suffering Ezekiel endured reminds us of the reality of suffering for God’s higher purpose.
As Block writes, Ezekiel’s “personal feelings are sacrificed that he might in his body bear witness to the inexorable work of God in the lives of his people. In and through his inexplicable tragedy he is called on to point his compatriots away from the temple, the object of their affections, to God himself” (Block 1997: 794).
The death of Ezekiel’s wife confronts us with the reality of being a faithful servant of God: are we willing to make the same sacrifice in service to God?
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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Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
Fretheim, Terrence E. The Suffering of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Odell, Margaret S. Ezekiel. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2005.
Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology. Volume 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Stuart, Douglas. Ezekiel. The Communicator’s Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1989.