Ezekiel (active 6th century B.C.) was a Hebrew priest and prophet. He held that each man is responsible for his own acts.

Little is known about Ezekiel's personal life. The son of Buzi, he was apparently a descendant of the priestly family of Zadok. While in Jerusalem, he had been influenced by his older contemporary Jeremiah. Ezekiel was exiled to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. or shortly thereafter. Five years later he lived in the Babylonian Jewish settlement of Tel Aviv (Tel Abubu, the hill of the storm god) by the Chebar River. It was there that he received his call to prophecy in a mystical vision (Ezekiel 8:1 ff). Josephus speaks of Ezekiel as having been young at the time of his exile, but that is probably not correct. Ezekiel demonstrated the kind of precise knowledge of the Temple and its ritual that could be acquired only from personal and active participation as a priest in the Temple worship.

For 22 years Ezekiel continued his ministry. In his early period as a prophet, he denounced his people for their sins and corruption. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, however, Ezekiel became the consoler and comforter of the exiles, holding out to them the promise of return to the homeland and the restoration of the Temple and of the throne of David. Ezekiel's loftiest vision, that of the Valley of Dry Bones (37:1-14), has rarely been matched in its grandeur. It is the prophet's response to the despair of the exiles, and it has become a powerful symbol of hope, resurrection, and regeneration.

In the early days of his ministry, Ezekiel found it difficult to impress his doctrines upon his people. Later, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem, they recognized him as their spiritual leader, and they turned to him for counsel in their religious dilemmas and perplexities. The community elders evidently assembled in his home for instruction and guidance (8:1 ff, 14:1 ff), and it is possible that the institution of the synagogue grew out of these gatherings. One of the primary religious issues raised in these meetings was the problem of God's justice. The exiles thought they were sinless and should not have to suffer for the sins of their ancestors. In his reply Ezekiel laid down a vital principle in Judaism. Before Ezekiel, Jeremiah had asserted that children are not answerable for their parents' sins. Ezekiel proclaimed a new doctrine, which represents an ethical advance. The individual alone, he said, bears responsibility for his deeds. The belief "If the fathers have eaten sour grapes, the children's teeth should be set on edge" (18:2) is no longer tenable. The truth is that "the soul that sinneth, it shall die" (18:4). In other words, one is not liable for another's actions, and the innocent cannot be held liable for the guilty; each one, moreover, must atone for his own sins. This idea was a powerful motivation for ethical living.

Ezekiel speaks of an attack of "Gog of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal" (38:2), who is to lead an armed horde of nations from the north against Israel before the inauguration of God's sovereignty. This idiom is obscure and has never been adequately explained. Gog is often mentioned in the apocalyptic works; it is to be found also in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In rabbinic works the wars of Gog and Magog are to precede the coming of the Messiah.

Ezekiel was the only Hebrew prophet who ministered to his people outside the Holy Land. He is unique in his frequent use of the term "son of man" as the manner of the divine address. Unlike other Hebrew prophets, who placed the ethical above the ritual, Ezekiel fused the two elements, thereby reflecting his dual role as a pious priest and inspired prophet.

Further Reading on Ezekiel

H. H. Rowley, Book of Ezekiel in Modern Study (1953), and H. L. Ellison, Ezekiel: The Man and His Message (1956), are recommended.