Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Ezechiel, prophet and martyr

Fra Angelico's "Vision of Ezechiel," 1452, showing the Throne of God's "wheel in the midst of a wheel" (Ezech. 1:16) -- a wheel of Apostles and Evangelists within a wheel of Old Testament Prophets, all gazing upon and drawing inspiration from the rays of the Light Divine, but the Apostles and Evangelists have a closer and clearer vision of the Light.

While the sacred observance of Holy Week is now under way in which the Church relives with her Lord that suffering and death He endured to save her, we also may mark the commemorations of the saints and martyrs who showed forth the Lord's salvation in their own lives and deaths. On this day, the traditional Roman Martyrology presents for our veneration another Old Testament saint -- the holy prophet Ezechiel, author of the Book of Ezechiel, one of the three Major Prophets (so called due to their length). Like so many of his fellow prophets, St. Ezechiel traditionally is said to have been martyred by his countrymen. St. Ezechiel (Hebrew Yehezqel, which means "Whom God strengthens") was an Aaronite priest who in 597 B.C. was carried away from Judah and Jerusalem to Babylon, where over the course of more than two decades God and His angels repeatedly appeared to him in striking visions, revealing to him that Jerusalem would be destroyed but that a new David would arise to restore Israel, and directing him to teach, reprove, and encourage his fellow exiled Jews with his divinely inspired prophecies. St. Ezechiel's name heads the list of saints in the Roman Martyrology for this date, which says:

This Day, the Tenth Day of April

The prophet Ezechiel, who was put to death in Babylon by the Judge of the people of Israel, because he reproved him for worshipping idols. He was buried in the sepulcher of Sem and Arphaxad, Abraham's ancestors. To his tomb many were wont to resort for the purpose of prayer.

This account of St. Ezechiel's martyrdom and burial is an extra-biblical tradition. Like many of the Roman Martyrology's other accounts of the deaths and burials of Old Testament saints, what the Martyrology says of St. Ezechiel is derived from the first century A.D. Jewish work known as The Lives of the Prophets, which in the past was erroneously attributed to the Christian Father and Doctor St. Epiphanius. The Jewish traditions concerning St. Ezechiel in The Lives of the Prophets are notably more extensive than those of most of the other prophets. We find the Roman Martyrology's legends of St. Ezechiel toward the very beginning of this work's account of the prophet's life:

He was from the district of Sarira, of the priests; and he died in the land of Chaldea, in the time of the captivity, after uttering many prophecies to those who were in Judea. He was slain by the leader of the Israelite exiles, who had been rebuked by him for his worship of idols; and they buried him in the field of Nahor, in the tomb of Shem and Arphaxad, the ancestors of Abraham. The tomb is a double cave, according to whose plan Abraham also made the tomb of Sarah in Hebron. It is called "double" because it has a winding (stairway) and there is an upper chamber hidden from the main floor, hung in the rock above the ground-level.
This prophet gave to the people a sign, that they should pay attention to the river Chebar; when its waters should fail, they were to expect "the sickle of desolation to the ends of the earth" when it should overflow, the return to Jerusalem.
While the saint was dwelling there, many kept coming to him; and on one occasion, when a throng had assembled to him, the Chaldeans feared an uprising and came upon them to destroy them. He made the water cease its flow, so that they could flee to the other side; but when the enemy ventured to pursue, they were drowned.
Through his prayer he provided for them ample sustenance in fish which came of their own accord to be caught. Many who were at the point of death he cheered with the news of life coming to them from God. When the people were being destroyed by the enemy, he went to the hostile captains and so terrified them with marvels which he wrought that they ceased. It was then that he said to the people: "Are we indeed perishing? is our hope at an end?" and by the vision of the dry bones" he persuaded them that there is hope for Israel both now and in the time to come.
While he was there he showed to the people of Israel what was being done in Jerusalem and in the temple. He himself was borne away thence, and came to Jerusalem, for a rebuke to the faithless. Also after the manner of Moses he foresaw the fashion of the temple, with its walls and its broad surroundings, as Daniel also declared that it should be built.
He pronounced judgment in Babylon on the tribes of Dan and Gad, because they dealt wickedly against the Lord, persecuting those who were keeping the law; and he wrought upon them this grievous wonder, that their children and all their cattle should be killed by serpents. He also foretold, that because of their sin Israel would not return to its land but would remain in Media, until the end of this evildoing.
One of their number was the man who slew Ezekiel, for they opposed him all the days of his life.

The traditions of the tomb of the patriarchs Sem (Shem) and Arphaxad (Arpakshad, ancestor and eponym of the Kasdim or Chaldeans) are remarkably detailed, indicating that their tomb's location or believed location was known to the writer even after the lapse of about two and a half millennia. Whatever the case, the site of the tomb of Ezechiel has long been said to be at a shrine in al-Kifl near Babylon on the River Euphrates.

Ezechiel's book of prophecy opens with an account of his divine vocation to be a prophet, in which he describes the four Cherubim around the throne of God, who appeared to him in the form of "one like unto the son of man." The divinely-inspired Jewish sage Ben-Sirach recalls "the glorious vision, which was shewn him upon the chariot of cherubims" as St. Ezechiel's most remarkable and memorable vision (Ecclesiasticus 49:10), and later St. John the Apostle in his Apocalypse will have a heavenly vision in which he sees four of the same kind of angelic beings -- spirits whom Christians have long traditionally identified with the four Evangelists (Apoc. 4:6-7) -- singing the Sanctus praises to God just as in St. Isaias' vision of the Seraphim.

Although the destruction of Jerusalem brought an end to the Davidic dynasty's royal rule in Israel, St. Ezechiel nevertheless was inspired by God to confidently predict the resurrection of the dead, the restoration of Israel under Davidic rule and the re-establishment of God's Temple with a renewal of the holy priesthood and sacrifices. These visions, related in extraordinarily specific detail, are usually of a deeply mystical and often allegorical character. They are summarized by the old Catholic Encyclopedia in this way:

. . . The manner in which God will restore His people is only indicated in a general way. The Lord will cause the evil shepherds to perish; He will gather in, guide, and feed the sheep by means of the second David, the Messiah (xxxiv).Though Mount Seir shall remain a waste, Israel shall return unto its own. There God will purify His people, animate the nation with a new spirit, and re-establish it in its former splendour for the glory of His name (xxxv-xxxvii). Israel, though dead, shall rise again, and the dry bones shall be covered with flesh and endowed with life before the eyes of the prophet. Ephraim and Juda shall, under the second David, be united into one kingdom, and the Lord shall dwell in their midst (xxxvii). The invincibleness and indestructibility of the restored kingdom are then symbolically presented in the war upon Gog, his inglorious defeat, and the annihilation of his armies (xxxviii-xxxix). In the last prophetic vision, God shows the new temple (xl-xliii), the new worship (xliii-xlvi), the return to their own land, and the new division thereof among the twelve tribes (xlvii-xlviii), as a figure of His foundation of a kingdom where He shall dwell among His people, and where He shall be served in His tabernacle according to strict rules, by priests of His choice, and by the prince of the house of David. . . .

St. Ezechiel's vision of the dreadful war that the evil nations of Gog and Magog attempt to wage upon the restored Israelite kingdom also appears in St. John's visions of the End of the World and Second Coming of Christ (Apoc. 20:7-10).  According to St. John's visions, the Final Judgment follows God's annihilation of the anti-Christian armies of Gog and Magog.  But then, even as St. Ezechiel concludes his prophecies with a breathtaking vision of the New Temple and the New Jerusalem, so St. John also concludes his Apocalypse with an even more glorious vision of the New Jerusalem wherein the blessed will dwell forever with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, healed by the leaves and fed by the fruit of the Tree of Life. In his visions of the New Temple, St. Ezechiel foresees the beautiful mystery of the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady (ch. 44:1-2) and the divine mission of the Catholic Church that restores life to the world that is spiritually dead (ch. 47:1-12) -- the mission whereby the Gentiles are added to the New Israel (ch. 47:21-23).  It is from the prophet's vision of a rejuvenating life-giving river that springs from the holy altar of God in the Temple that the Church draws her antiphon Vidi aquam in the Paschaltide Asperges rite:

"And he brought me again to the gate of the house, and behold waters issued out from under the threshold of the house toward the east: for the forefront, of the house looked toward the east: but the waters came down to the right side of the temple to the south part of the altar. And he led me out by the way of the north gate, and he caused me to turn to the way without the outward gate to the way that looked toward the east: and behold there ran out waters on the right side. . . . These waters that issue forth toward the hillocks of sand to the east, and go down to the plains of the desert, shall go into the sea, and shall go out, and the waters shall be healed. And every living creature that creepeth whithersoever the torrent shall come, shall live: and there shall be fishes in abundance after these waters shall come thither, and they shall be healed, and all things shall live to which the torrent shall come." (Ezech. 47:1-2, 8-9)

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo a latere dextro, alleluia; et omnes ad quos pervenit aqua ista salvi facti sunt, de dicent: alleluia, alleluia.
"I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia; and all to whom that water came were saved, and they shall say: alleluia, alleluia."

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!