Open Ezekiel 2.
The Book of Ezekiel opens in devastation. Ezekiel the priest (a son of Aaron), Jehoiachin the king (a son of David) and the other exiles (sons of Israel) sit by the waters of Babylon. Everything has fallen apart. All the progress towards restoring the earth under YHWH’s rule has been lost.
Ezekiel isn’t called son of Aaron, for the holy temple is defiled and destroyed. He isn’t called son of Israel, for the nation established at Sinai no longer exists. He isn’t called son of Abraham: Abraham left Chaldea for God’s land, but the Chaldeans have taken God’s land. God addresses Ezekiel merely as son of Adam, or son of man (since the Hebrew word adam means man.)
God reveals himself to Ezekiel as Adoni YHWH. Adoni is the title a servant would give his master, his lord. YHWH is the divine name associated with the Sinai covenant that established Israel as his nation. God hasn’t changed: he’s still Lord YHWH, but he’s the sovereign without a people. God intervened when Babel tried to take over the world by building a city with a tower to bring heaven’s power within their grasp, but now, in Ezekiel’s time, Babel had taken over the world.
When God first established his earthly realm, he lived among his people. Eden was the divine presence. He set a garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8), watered by the divine presence (2:10). Among those waters were the Tigris and Euphrates (2:14). Long ago, the divine presence was here — at the waters of Babylon.
In this fallen realm, the Sovereign Lord speaks again. The one who raised up Adam from the dust of the earth and infused him with breath speaks to Ezekiel, the ben Adam (son of man):
Ezekiel 2:1–3 (ESV)
He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me.
Ezekiel’s is a world very different from Adam’s, but the Sovereign Lord remains committed to humanity despite the rebellion of Israel and the nations. YHWH is still sovereign (Adoni YHWH), and Ezekiel is still his earthly servant (son of Adam). It’s how the kingdom of God was always to be: the union of God and humanity. They’re the odd couple: the ruler of heaven and earth, and his servant (son of man). Here in the face of the world dominator (Babylon), they discuss the restoration of his reign.
They discuss how Israel’s defilement gave the nations entry into God’s space (Ezekiel 4–24). They discuss how the rebellious nations overreached to take Eden’s authority (e.g. 28:13; 31:9-18), and they announce the nations’ demise (Ezekiel 35–32). They discuss the restoration of the fallen kingdom: re-coronation of Davidic kingship, resurrection of the deceased nation, reassignment of the Promised Land (Ezekiel 33–39). That opens the way to the ultimate goal: the sovereign’s house will be re-built, so he’s present among his people (Ezekiel 40–48).
As son of man, Ezekiel proclaims the restoration of YHWH’s reign on earth. Eden is restored. Once again, the waters flow from the throne (Ezekiel 47). The river refreshes the earth, making it fruitful, healing all that’s been wrong. The Dead Sea is no longer dead. The land and its people are restored. The renewed capital of the kingdom of God has this reputation: “YHWH is there!” (48:35)
500 years later, the nation of Israel had not been restored. The land was still dominated by foreigners. The kingship had not been re-established. They were still waiting for God to restore them from generations of captivity (Matthew 1). Jesus was “born king of the Jews,” but the usurper threatened his life (Matthew 2). The axe threatened the sons of Abraham, so they needed an anointed Son through whom heaven would be pleased to lead (Matthew 3). Jesus battled Israel’s enemy, and announced the restoration of God’s kingdom in “Galilee of the nations” (Matthew 4).
People begin to see his authority as one who speaks and acts for the heavenly sovereign (7:28–8:13), the servant to removes the affliction of his people (8:14-17). In Matthew’s account, that’s when Jesus begins to call himself son of man.
It’s the most basic claim Jesus could make. Son of God would have been seen as a claim to divine kingship. Son of Abraham would have been a claim to Israel’s mantle. But what Jesus claims is the most basic of all: the mantle of being human, a human servant of the heavenly king, in a world where the heavenly king’s rulership is challenged.
In the Book of Ezekiel, Sovereign YHWH never asked Son of Man to denounce Babylon directly. The sons of man are mortal (31:14), and Ezekiel would not last long if he did. John the Baptist learned this the hard way. Jesus was very conscious of his mortality as a son of man. The way earthly rulers grasp power, it’s a scary commission to be a son of man proclaiming the restoration of the kingdom of Adoni YHWH.
What others are saying
Gerald Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 739:
When used of an individual person, who is spoken of as Yahweh’s agent, it [son of man] points to humankind created royal, restored to a regal position, and called to serve as Yahweh’s human representative on behalf of human beings.
Steven Tuell, Ezekiel, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 13:
As “the human,” Ezekiel represents all of us. Readers of the Gospels will remember that Jesus often uses the title Son of Man to refer to himself (e.g., Mark 10:45). Perhaps there, too, the point is that Jesus, for all that he is divine, is also one of us.
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