How shall we understand visionary experience? What is its function in the life of the biblical prophet?
In this article, I will take a look at the prophet Ezekiel, whose florid mysticism verges, at times, on madness. I will suggest that the difference between mysticism and madness, in the context of biblical prophecy, has to do with the prophet’s receptivity to the word of God.
Ezekiel’s visions should not be reduced to mere symptoms of a deranged mind. Instead, visions and other mystical phenomena serve as points of initiation by which the holy man learns the distinctive language of the heavenly realm. Once initiated, he becomes a messenger, empowered to speak the word of God.
Throughout history, visions have served as such points of initiation. Like the baptism by fire of which the New Testament speaks (Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16), charismatic phenomena (e.g., visions, ESP) can be signs of holiness as gifts from God. Holy people may receive special capacities for healing, insight, miracle, and other extraordinary phenomena.
Just as often, suffering, ordeals, and hardships are required so that the prophet, or holy person, will develop a visionary “sixth sense”—like a new compass or navigational system to orient him or her to the ways of God.
Ezekiel’s Vision of Resurrected Life in the Valley of Bones
Led “by the spirit” (37:1) into a valley, the prophet Ezekiel speaks the word of the Lord to heaps of dry bones.
Suitable for a movie, with spooky sound effects, the bones take on flesh: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them … and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (37:7–8, 10b)*
This vision comes to Ezekiel as he addresses the Jewish people during their exile to Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem (597 BCE). The year is about 593 BCE.
According to Ezekiel, the Jews suffer exile as a consequence of their transgressions. Their kings have proved unreliable, the Lord’s covenant has been broken, and the nation is fractured. Ezekiel foresees that Israel will be blessed in the future by an enlightened ruler, a new covenant, and renewed political harmony.
Ezekiel’s resplendent vision embodies hope in restored fortunes, rendered as a resurrection of spirit and body—out of the ashes of death.
The Suffering Prophet
The resurrection that Ezekiel proclaims for the nation eludes the prophet himself. Ezekiel does not just “have” a vision, but rather the vision “has” him.
Possessed by his vision for the people of God, Ezekiel becomes a servant, undergoing misfortunes, difficulties, and illnesses. The prophet’s afflictions embody, symbolically, the sufferings of his people.
Ezekiel is struck dumb until such time as God opens his mouth, again, to speak (3:22-27). Ezekiel is confined to his house and made to perform acts that symbolize Israel’s punishment by siege (Ezekiel 4).
Compounding his hardships, Ezekiel’s wife dies. The prophet is instructed not to mourn (24:15-18). This misfortune for the prophet becomes a “sign” (24:24) of Israel’s misfortunes. Having lost their heart’s delight—the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple—the Israelites are not to mourn their loss.
According to one psychiatrist, Ezekiel exhibits clinical evidence of schizophrenia.** He hears God’s voice directly (93 times to be exact) as “auditory command hallucinations.” God addresses Ezekiel as “Son of Man,” ordering him to do weird things, such as to eat a scroll (3:3), to shave his own head (5:1), and to dig a hole to escape Jerusalem during its siege (12:1-7).
Ezekiel also exhibits delusions. He believes that people “by the walls and at the doors of the house” (33:30) are gossiping about him on account of his direct communications from God. He believes he can overhear other people’s conversations with God (9:5). Sometimes Ezekiel experiences evil auditory hallucinations or loud ones (8:18; 9:1).
As further evidence of a deranged mind, Ezekiel experiences non-verbal auditory hallucinations. In his well-known chariot vision, Ezekiel beholds odd-looking creatures with wings. Their wings are audible like mighty waters rushing (1:33).
Is Ezekiel a schizophrenic, then? One might argue that the clinical symptoms, which Ezekiel displays, are not to be taken literally. Rather, by literary symbolism, the biblical authors portray mystical experiences that defy logic.
The medical model lacks a nuanced language for mystical experiences. Whatever goes beyond rationality and the ordinary senses is generally regarded as a deteriorated state—a mental illness.
Shamans, yogis, and charismatic healers offer an alternative model for Ezekiel’s bizarre experiences. Ezekiel may be regarded as gifted by yogic powers, for instance, by the yogic phenomena of remote viewing and bilocation (8:11, 37; 40:1).
While exiled in Babylonia, he journeys “in the spirit”—in the manner of shamans—to observe events in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8–11). He has the gift, too, of foreknowledge (11:1–3).
Charismatic healers, and shamans, often undergo initiations in order to claim their extraordinary gifts. Their initiations may consist in visits from angels, spirit guides, or animals who instruct through visions and dreams.
Zeev Kolman, a contemporary Israeli healer, experienced an extraordinary vision and received the gift of bioenergetic healing. Indigenous healers of Africa or Native America often receive medical instructions through dreams. A popular book, Chariots of the Gods, even makes the improbable suggestion that, in his chariot vision, Ezekiel may have been visited by aliens.
Ezekiel’s Vision – Gift of the Spirit
The person of the prophet—and his sufferings—in the Bible are illustrative of the teachings that he delivers. Through Ezekiel, God calls the Jewish people to repent and to act with justice and mercy. Israel may prepare herself to receive a new heart and covenant. The exiles may anticipate the restoration of the temple, their homeland, and nation.
We may understand Ezekiel’s bizarre hallucinations, accordingly, as spiritual initiations. His prophetic words and visions are gifts of the spirit bestowed to celebrate his ordeals. Their authority emanates from sufferings that offer the prophet an intimate understanding of the word of God. By preaching this word of God, which rebuilds and restores life, the prophet’s sufferings are redeemed.
Through the portal of visions and other such extraordinary experiences, the spirit flows. The recipients of the spirit, such as the prophet Ezekiel, give voice to their inspiration through words, which are then preserved in books. Books are inspired not in virtue of their words alone, but rather thanks to the higher and divine source from which the text derives its power.
Visions, communicated through symbols, are instruments of the word of God. Mystical and extraordinary phenomena may appear crazy because their logic defies human reason. By extracting the wisdom of prophetic symbols, however, patiently and with reverence, the spiritual seeker may be touched by the power of God.
*All biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
**George Stein, “The voices that Ezekiel hears – Psychiatry in the Old Testament” (The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2010).