Sunday, April 28
Ezechiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiachin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago. In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585. Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape. Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.) Ezechiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question—“How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin. Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezechiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear. Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.
Monday, April 29
Ezechiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezechiel is to told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezechiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre. A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre, from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus, had drawn the wood for its shipwrights. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere had supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa. Fittingly the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.
Tuesday, April 30
Ezechiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles, one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon. In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty. The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power. As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Very self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment. Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of man’s initial rebellion in Eden. Satan had tempted Tyre as he tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought himself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. “Stones of fire” (28:13f), a most striking image, pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.) The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the Phoenicians’ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes Tyre’s expulsion from the garden of Eden with Israel’s restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of Adam’s fall (verse 24).
Wednesday, May 1
Ezechiel 29: The prophet’s attention is now turned southward, to Egypt, the land where Israel of old had first learned the ways of idolatry. In Ezechiel’s eyes Egypt is worthy of special blame for enticing Judah into rebellion against Babylon (verse 16). This first oracle (29:1-16) was delivered on January 7, 587 (verse 1), when the siege against Jerusalem was in progress. Two years earlier, in 589, King Zedechiah of Judah had turned to Egypt for help against Babylon. In response, Pharaoh Hophra (Apries) sent an army, which had temporarily driven off the Babylonians and made Jerusalem feel safe. But when the Babylonians came back in force, the Egyptian army fled, and the siege was renewed in earnest (cf. Jeremiah 37:5-10). Such were the events that prompted the present condemnation of Egypt, a nation that proved to be a broken reed. In this oracle, the pharaoh embodies the nation, just as the king of Tyre had represented the Phoenicians in the previous chapter, and, like the king of Tyre, the pharaoh is condemned for his arrogance. The dragon of the Nile, the crocodile, is the pharaoh’s mythic symbol, which also represents the ancient serpent of Eden (cf. Revelation 12). As the kingdom of Judah was beginning to sink, it had unwisely reached out and grabbed this reed to keep from drowning, but the reed broke at once. For Egypt’s sin, Ezechiel prophesies forty years of suffering, including a refugee status for many of its citizens, and never again, says Ezechiel, will Egypt be a great political power. This chapter’s second oracle, much shorter (29:17-21), was delivered much later, on April 26, 571. Indeed, this is the latest of all the oracles for which Ezechiel provides a specific date. According to the historian Josephus the Babylonians had maintained a siege of thirteen years against Tyre, and by 571 the siege had ended without Ezechiel’s predicted fall of Tyre (29:18). We may imagine what this circumstance did to Ezechiel’s reputation as a prophet. Had not Deuteronomy commanded that a prophet be stoned to death if his prophecy did not come to pass? Ezechiel addresses these concerns in the present oracle, arguing that the Lord would give Egypt to the Babylonians in recompense for their failure to take Tyre (29:19f). In short, the Lord is free to change His mind. In this instance the evils prophesied against Tyre have been transferred to Egypt. Prophecy, which is after all a great deal more than factual prediction, is often founded on an hypothesis, an “if,” even though that “if” my be implicit. We recall that Jonah learned this lesson in his dealings with the Ninevites.
Thursday, May 2
Ezechiel 30: There are two parts in this chapter, the first of which (30:1-19) is a series of short oracles directed against the cities of Egypt and Sudan (Kush, which is inaccurately translated as Ethiopia in several modern versions), to regions with close political and economic ties. The second part (30:20-26) is an oracle delivered on April 29, 587 (verse 20). The “broken arm” of the pharaoh refers to the recent defeat of the Egyptian army near Jerusalem when that army was driven away by the Babylonians who had returned to renew their siege of the city. Egypt, Ezechiel foresees, will share in Judah’s exile in some measure.
Friday, May 3
Ezechiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezechiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9). This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (31:10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes man’s political and economic endeavor to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezechiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry. Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing in mind Egypt’s long-time reliance on the Nile River and a highly developed system of irrigation.
Saturday, May 4
Ezechiel 32: This chapter contains Ezechiel’s final two oracles against Egypt. The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of the imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride. The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to Jerusalem’s downfall. In his massive and detailed description of the nether world, Ezechiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ezechiel’s description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezechiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against God’s authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezechiel comes to an end.