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The Holy Spirit in Ezekiel

The Holy Spirit in Ezekiel

Anyone familiar with the Book of Ezekiel will automatically recall a number of well-known passages which speak of the Spirit/spirit. Ezekiel opens with the famous vision of the chariot-throne of the Lord powered by the ruach (spirit/breath) of the living creatures (Ezek. 1:20-21). After falling on his face before this awesome vision, it is the Spirit that enters him and stands him on his feet (Ezek. 2:2). Readers of Ezekiel will also recall the Lord’s promise to put a new heart and spirit within his people (Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26), or the vision of the valley of dry bones in which the Lord causes the bones to live by putting his Spirit in them (Ezek. 37:14). These are only a few of the many passages in Ezekiel that speak of the ruach. There are actually 51 occurrences in the book which has led Daniel Block to call Ezekiel, “the prophet of the spirit” (p. 58).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

In chapter 6 of A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, James Robson states that there are two challenges which confront the reader of Ezekiel regarding the prophet’s use of ruach. First is the question of whether there is a theological significance of any occurrence of ruach. Second, once it can be ascertained that ruach carries a theological significance in a given passage, should it be translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘Spirit’? (pp. 58-59). Furthermore, Robson states that, “In the OT, Yahweh’s ruach is more ‘an Extension of Yahweh’s Personality,’ than a separate agent. The ‘personhood’ of the Spirit arises more from the NT than the OT, though a developed articulation of Trinitarian doctrine lay beyond even the NT. To translate with ‘Spirit’ even if the referent is, after all, what Christians would term the third person of the Trinity is to introduce an anachronistic dimension” (p, 59). This means my terminology in this post (The Holy Spirit in Ezekiel), as well as my other posts in this series, is anachronistic. While Robson makes a very good point, I will stick with this terminology as it is the most familiar to readers, and also because it follows the title of this book.

The 4 Spheres of Ruach’s Operation in the Book of Ezekiel

After reviewing two scholarly approaches to the Holy Spirit in Ezekiel, Robson proposes a third approach. This approach (as the subtitle above makes clear) looks at the 4 spheres of ruach’s operation in Ezekiel and “aims to minimize anachronistic rigid distinctions and static cateorization” (p. 60). The rest of the chapter looks at these 4 spheres which include: 1) the world of nature; 2) the movement of chariot and throne; 3) the experience of the prophet; and 4) the life of Israel.

The World of Nature

Robson locates 16 instances in which ruach refers to the world of nature; 6 of which speak of a punishing  or destructive wind (pp. 60-61). In 5 instances it refers to direction (e.g., the four winds), and in 5 other instances, all occurring in Ezekiel 42:16-20, it has the meaning of “side.”

ezekiels-chariotThe Movement of Chariot and Throne

Ruach is used in several different ways in Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot-throne in chapter 1. First, it refers to the “storm wind” that catches Ezekiel’s initial attention. Robson concludes, “Though this ruach accompanies the divine theophany, it is not in any sense to be confused with Yahweh. The figure on the throne is different from the elements that surround the throne” (p. 62). Robson also suggests that “wind” best explains the movement of the living creatures. However, he notes Block’s argument that ruach in these passages (Ezek. 1:12, 20) may be a synecdoche (where a part represents the whole). If this is the case, the reference would refer to Yahweh’s presence. Thus Ezekiel 1:12 would mean, “wherever the spirit [that is, Yahweh’s presence] would go, the living creatures would also go” (p. 63). On 3 occassions, ruach is associated with the words hahayya. These words can either refer to the “living creatures,” or to “life.” When this word is combined with ruach it can also be translated “breath of life” rather than “living creatures.” Robson argues that the singular form in verses 20 and 21 refers to life, while the plural form in 1:5, 13, 15, 19 refers to the living creatures. Thus Robson concludes that “Yahweh alone is the source of the breath of life….Wherever the wind (or, Yahweh’s presence) would go, the living creatures would also go. And the wheels were not left behind. Instead, because Yahweh’s vivifying breath, the breath of life, animated them, they could rise up and follow” (p. 63). Robson concludes, “Ruach ushers in, even speaks of, Yahweh’s presence, a dangerous, vital, unconstrained presence that may judge or save; ruach conveys and brings movement and life to what is otherwise lifeless so that what has been lifeless now moves with Yahweh” (pp. 63-64).

The Experience of the Prophet

In Ezekiel’s personal experience as a prophet, ruach is used to refer to the inspiration of the prophet and the prophetic word. Robson seeks to clarify the significanc of ruach by making two distinctions. “First there is a difference between the prophetic event, of Ezekiel receiving the word of Yahweh, and the rhetorical event, of him delivering it. Second, there is a difference between ‘word-communicating’ and ‘potentiating’ inspiration” (p. 64). What he means by  the ‘word-communicating inspiration’ is that ruach is used in the sense of breath. Thus, the word is communicated through the divine breath/spirit. This reminds me of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16, when he speaks of “All Scripture” being “God-breathed.” By “potentiating inspiration,” Robson means that the ruach creates “the potential or the situation for the prophet to receive a word and empowering the prophet for the task of delivering that word” (p. 64). Robson also notes that Ezekiel 11:5 is the only place in the Old Testament that uses the word “fall” in connection with the ruach: “Then the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me, and said to me…” (NKJV). Notice also that here, as in other places in Ezekiel, ruach is connected with being the Lord’s ruach.

The Life of Israel

In Ezekiel 37:1-14 ruach is a key-word, occurring 10 times.
In Ezekiel 37:1-14 ruach is a key-word, occurring 10 times.

Due to Israel’s sin, God both calls on them, and later promises them, a new heart and spirit (Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26-27, etc.). In fact in several of these passages, Yahweh specifically refers to this spirit as “My Spirit” (Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29). Ezekiel 37 contains the famous vision of the valley of dry bones. In Ezekiel 37:1-14 ruach becomes a key-word occurring 10 times. One can clearly see several meanings behind the use of ruach in this passage. It carries the meaning of breath, as God causes the bones to live by breathing on them. As Robson points out, this recalls the Creation narrative (specifically Genesis 2:7) where God breathes (different Hebrew word) into Adam the breath of life. Ruach is also used to mean the points of the compass in 37:9, while the NKJV translates ruach as “My Spirit” in 37:14. In the vision concerning Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 39, the prophet speaks of Yahweh “pouring out His Spirit” (Ezek. 39:29). I will allow Robson to sum up its significance: “Yahweh’s ruach is the remedy for exiles whose own will is corrupt, whose breath is gone and whose rebellion is inveterate. It is the empowering gift that will assure obedience (36:27a), the life-giving gift that revives the dead exiles (37:14), in short the creating gift that Yahweh will pour out with extravagant generosity (39:29)” (p. 70).

The Holy Spirit in Ezekiel: Summary and Evaluation

The promise of the new heart and spirit will be interpreted as the promise of the Holy Spirit by NT believers.
The promise of the new heart and spirit will be interpreted in the NT as the promise of the Holy Spirit given to believers.

Ezekiel’s use of ruach is certainly deep and rich. The ruach is a destructive wind that brings judgment on the rebellious people of Israel, but it is also the life-giving agent, the breath that revives dead bones. It is also the medium of inspiration filling and enabling the prophet as well as the God-breathed words which are communicated. Ezekiel uses terms when speaking of the ruach which will become familiar to readers of the New Testament. The Spirit “falls” on Ezekiel, and he prophesies of it being “poured out” on the people of Israel. Along with words of judgment, Ezekiel holds out the hope that God will put a new spirit in his people, in fact, He will put “His Spirit” in the people enabling them to obey. These words, along with those of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:31-34, anticipate the new covenant that God will initiate with His people. Robson does an excellent job investigating the use of ruach in Ezekiel. He is an expert on this topic. I found it to be deep wading at times and had to reread parts of it several times in order to capture the significance of what he was communicating. It was time well spent.