The Short Story
This book is basically about the destruction and exile of Judah and the promise of its eventual restoration by God. Ezekiel's in Babylon, having been exiled there after the first siege of Judah by the Babylonians. After God drives into town on a chariot pulled by four man-beasts at the beginning of the book, things don't necessarily become less weird. But they do go from pretty bad to much worse before getting better.
So God arrives on the scene and gives Ezekiel his message predicting the fall of Judah and Jerusalem in the most violent imagery possible. Ezekiel proceeds to warn all the exiles about the coming destruction. He makes it clear that this is punishment for their idolatry and other disgusting behavior. In a vision, he sees God's presence leaving the Temple in Jerusalem to instead hang out with the exiles in Babylon.
God also orders Ezekiel to do strange things that you might call "performance art." He has to lie motionless for the same number of days as the number of years that Israel and Judah will be exiled, for example. Don't try that at home. God also relates different helpful allegories about eagles and vines and pots of meat, and compares Judah to an adulterous wife-prostitute. (This seems to be one of God's favorite metaphors for those lyin' and cheatin' Judeans. He's a jealous husband.)
Once God finishes totally reading the riot act to the people, he turns to the other nations (Ch. 25-32). They're all headed for destruction, too; no one really escapes God's wrath. He helps comfort the House of Israel by informing them that all of their enemies are going to get creamed as well.
Once Ezekiel gets the news from a messenger (a real-live human this time) that Jerusalem actually did fall, God promises he'll restore his people to their land and live with them in peace forever. They'll get their country back and be ruled by David (or a righteous descendant of David), no longer committing idolatry and other sins. The book ends with God showing Ezekiel how the Temple will be rebuilt—soon to be an episode of "This Old Old Old Old House," and tells him how the land will be distributed among the different tribes of Israel and God's presence will return to Jerusalem.
Hard to Handle
Ezekiel's coming from a different state of consciousness from most people we know, so it's unclear what he's about at first. He's tuned into a realm of four-faced creatures, he's scarfing down Ezekiel bread baked on cow dung, he's stuck lying on his side for a really long time as a kind of divinely inspired performance art. He feels persecuted and powerless. He's hard to relate to—unlike, say, the prophet Jeremiah, who's always weeping and suffering and telling us how he feels.
Despite all this, we have to have some sympathy for the guy, forced as he is to obey the mysterious and sometimes harsh dictates of God. God forces him to remain silent at times, until he's moved to prophesy. God kills his wife just to prove a symbolic point then forbids him to mourn or weep for her. That gets us every time.
Just the Facts
Ezekiel was the son of a priest named Buzi. He was born around 620 B.C. or so and worked as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish tradition claims that Ezekiel (like Jeremiah) was actually descended from Joshua and the virtuous prostitute Rahab, who helped Joshua take down the walls of Jericho. This is an interesting claim, since Ezekiel—or the voice of God—spends a lot of time railing against the House of Israel for being a "prostitute" and selling herself to other gods. If Ezekiel was descended from a virtuous and repentant prostitute, he's descended from the sort of woman that the House of Israel needs to become: a formerly "fallen" woman who finally gets her act together.
As both a priest and a prophet, Ezekiel has the concerns of both. His prophetic mission focuses on rebuking the people for their evil ways and lack of faith. But as a priest, he can't help being concerned about the details of sacrifice and ritual in the restored Temple. This sets him apart from some of the other prophets, who spent little time worrying about rams and bulls altars and sin offerings. He clearly wants to make sure things get set up pretty much as they were pre-587 BCE.
Like many officials and community leaders, Ezekiel was deported to Babylon after the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 597 BCE. His prophetic career started on the fifth year of his exile and the exile of King Jehoiachin as he was sitting by the river minding his own business. And it started with a bang. Bring on the visions. Cherubs! Wheels with eyes! Zombie Judeans! Ezekiel's job was to warn and comfort the exiles in Babylon and make sure they kept up their relationship with God while in exile.
Ezekiel's relationship with God is a bit of a debacle. Even though his prophets are specially chosen, God doesn't exactly shower them with free juicers and gift certificates for yoga classes. He makes things difficult. Like killing Ezekiel's wife and forbidding him to mourn over her.
Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. (24:21)
And then Ezekiel notes, "So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded." (24:16-18)
Early on, no one listens to Ezekiel and people ridicule him by saying he's just calls a storyteller. He complains about it to God, but only once. Unlike Jeremiah, who's always sulking about being ignored and persecuted. Ezekiel's actually pretty tough.
Oh—and the name Ezekiel in Hebrew, means "God will strengthen."
Let the Bad Times Roll
That might be the worst thing that happens to Ezekiel, but there are plenty of others. He has to eat Ezekiel Bread for one thing (but seriously, it's actually not that bad with almond butter.) He also has lie on his side for a long time feeling like he's been tied up. He has to be mute except for when God allows him to speak. He's shown terrible and disgusting visions. Ezekiel's relationship with God might be rewarding on a certain level—the dude gets to talk with God, after all. But it's not exactly a trip to Eilat.
Crazy for God
All the biblical prophets hear the word of God. That's what makes them prophets. Whether you conclude that they were just hearing voices or actually receiving the gift of prophecy depends on your personal beliefs. However, Ezekiel's visions are, ISHO, on a different level of strangeness than the other prophets. Some psychiatrists have even suggested that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia personality, with its delusions and weird hallucinations, strange bodily sensations, bizarre behavior, feelings of paranoia (all those eyes!), feelings of being controlled, and strange sexual ideas.
Then again, maybe he had Jerusalem syndrome. Of course, you can't analyze a person who lived thousands of years ago, but there's been a ton of speculation about Ezekiel's state of mind. It's just too tempting to wonder about.
Don't Blame The Messenger
Ezekiel brings a message of wrath and judgment, though he delivers better news later on in the book. He promises God's retribution not only against the House of Israel, but against all the other nations as well: Tyre and Egypt seem to get the worst of it. The idolatrous practices of the House of Israel, God's least favorite thing, also get a lot of air time. In the end, Ezekiel has a message of hope, but you sure have to wait for it. And so does he. He's subjected to some pretty unpleasant stuff as he hears about the destruction of Judah and sees those terrifying visions. Not to mention having to tell the Judeans all about it and deal with the blowback. He's probably as relieved as anyone to finally learn about the cleansing water flowing from the Temple that will restore the land to its fullness and put the fishermen and orchard owners back to work.