Ezra’s Sixth Vision – 4 Ezra 13:1-58 (The Man from the Sea)

man-on-mountainAfter another seven days, Ezra experiences another vision (13:1-13.)  A great wind stirs the sea and Ezra sees a figure of a man flying with the clouds, surrounded by a great multitude. The mountains melt like wax before him.  A huge multitude has gathers to make war against him, but they are destroyed by flaming fire from his mouth. This man then came down from the mountain and called his people to him; some were joyful but others were sorrowful; some came bound while others brought offerings.

Ezra is perplexed by the vision and prays for an interpretation (13:14-20).  The Lord responds by explaining that the world will make war city against city and all of the signs described before will come to pass.  The man will come and the multitudes will gather to make war against him, but he will stand on top of Mt. Zion and judge the nations (13:21-39).

This man is called “my son” (verse 37).  The people who gather to the man are the Jews, even the “lost” ten tribes (13:40-45).  The man who is coming will destroy the nations while preserving the people of God (13:46-50).

Ezra asks why the man was coming from the heart of the sea (13:51)?  The reason is that the sea is a great mystery, nor one can know when “my son” will come (13:52-58, cf. Mt. 24:36, 42, no one knows when the Son of Man will come, but one can know the “signs,” Mt. 24:32-35.)  Ezra leaves the field and gives God great glory because he controls the times and governs whatever comes to pass.

Ezra’s Fifth Vision – 4 Ezra 11:1-12:51 (The Eagle Vision)

Ezra’s second dream in the field involves an eagle with twelve wings and three heads (11:1-35).  The heads and the wings mutate in various ways throughout the dream, some becoming dominant while others wither and become puny. Ezra hears a voice from the body of the eagle rather than from one of the mouths.    As Ezra watches this eagle, a creature like a lion appeared and addressed the eagle (11:36-46).  The lion-creature says the eagle is the last of the four beasts which remain (probably referring to Daniel 7).  The eagle has judged the earth, but not with truth, therefore it will be judged by the Most High.  As the lion is speaking, the eagle’s heads disappears and the body of the eagle burns up and the earth is terrified (12:1-3).

St-john-eagleEzra is perplexed and asks the Lord for an interpretation of this vision (12:4-9).  The Lord speaks to Ezra and confirms the eagle is the fourth beast of Daniel’s vision (12:10-39).  The wings are twelve kings which will reign over it, and the three heads are the final three kings which will arise in the final days.  One will be poisoned while the other two die by the sword.   These are probably to be taken as Roman emperors, although which is to be the start of the sequence is always a problem (Julius, Augustus, etc.) and if the three minor rulers are to be included in the sequence (Cf. Revelation 18 where there are a series of ten kings). The lion is the Messiah (12:32, cf. Rev. 5:5), who comes at the end of days from the line of David.  He will denounce the final beast and deliver the remnant of the people of the Lord and make them joyful in the end on the Day of Judgment.

Since Ezra has been gone from the people from some time, the people make a search for him.  When they discover him the field, they ask him how they have offended him (12:40-45).  Ezra tells them to take courage because the Most High has not forgotten them in their struggle.  He has been praying to the Lord on behalf of the desolation of Zion and will stay in the field another seven days (12:46-51).

Given the predominant imagery of an eagle, this vision seems to make the final empire in Daniel’s vision the Romans and describes the Messiah as overcoming the Romans and judging them for their ungodliness.  The identity of the four kingdoms in Daniel is a debated subject, many scholars take the fourth empire to be Greece, especially in the light of chapter 11 and the predictions of Antiochus IV Epiphanies and Seleucid meddling in the politics of Palestine.  Others take the fourth empire as Rome, arguing Rome is by far the most powerful and dominate of world empires.  Collins (OTP 1:550 note b) considers 4 Ezra a re-interpretation of Daniel, applying the fourth beast to Rome; I would be inclined to see 4 Ezra as confirming the fact Daniel’s fourth beast is Rome.

This prophecy was likely written after the fall of Jerusalem by a Jew who desired to comfort other Jewish readers.  God is aware of the evil of Rome, the fall has been predicted long ago by Daniel. Eventually the Messiah will come to deliver the Jews from the oppression of Rome.  It is possible this hope existed well before A.D. 70, especially during the ministry of Jesus.  We know there were a few small scale rebellions in the early part of the first century (Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, for example) as well as several false messiahs.

4 Ezra represents a messianic hope for delivery from Rome some 70 years after the time of Jesus, but it may reflect a more long standing hope for deliverance.  It was well known that after the fall of Jerusalem there were three generations, about 70 years, before the Temple was rebuilt.  4 Ezra seems to represent the thinking of people living in the “three generations” between A.D. 70 and the messianic fervor of A.D. 135.   If there was an expectation for the Messiah even after the fall of Jerusalem, it is little wonder the Jews (Pharisees and disciples both) misunderstood Jesus as messiah.  Certainly Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, but the method for establishing the kingdom was not exactly what they may have had in mind.

Ezra’s Third Vision – 4 Ezra 6:35-9:25

After seven days of fasting, Ezra is still troubled in his spirit and once again brings a complaint before the Lord. He reviews creation (6:38-54) before asking his real question – if Israel really is God’s favorite people out of all those descended from Adam, how is it that the other nations domineer and devour her (6:55-59)?

city-fieldUriel once again comes to Ezra and gives him another parable (7:1-25). This time a city is in the middle of a plain, but the entrance to the city is very narrow so that only one man may walk along the path and dangers are on either side. If a man is given the city as an inheritance, how can the man take possession of it without passing through the dangers? The angel makes the analogy clear. Israel is in sin because of Adam and therefore all her entrances are narrow and filled with danger. Israel is coming into her inheritance shortly, but to get into that city they must pass through the “narrow gate” fraught with dangers.

Uriel does not pause for another question from Ezra this time but rather moves right into the “signs” section of the vision (7:26-44). A time will come when a city appears and Israel will be delivered from the dangers of this world. “My son the Messiah” will appear and people will rejoice with him for 400 years (v. 28). Translations of this verse shows considerable variation in this title (OTP 1:537, note e). The Armenian has “the Messiah of God,” Georgian has “the elect my Messiah,” while the Latin has “my son Jesus.”

After that time he will die (v. 29) and the world will return to primeval silence. After seven days the world will be roused and all corruptible will perish. The dead will be raised to life and the Most High will be seated on the seat of judgment in order to pass judgment. The unrighteous will go down into the “furnace of hell” while the righteous into the “paradise of delight.”

This part of the vision is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, there is an indication of a temporary kingdom after the coming of the Messiah. This is not quite like Rev. 20 and the thousand-year kingdom (in 4 Ezra this kingdom only lasts four hundred years), but at least there is an expectation here of a gap between the coming of Messiah and the eternal state during which time the messiah will rule in peace on earth. Secondly, the term Messiah is used for the coming deliverer. This single Messiah will reveal himself and rescue the people from the dangers of the present age. Third, the major difference is that the Messiah dies at the end of the temporary kingdom. This expectation does not seem to be found in the New Testament at all. The description of the judgment at the end of the temporary kingdom sounds much more like the judgment in Mt. 25:31-46, although Revelation has a “complete” judgment at the end of the thousand years as well (Rev. 20:11-15, the “lake of fire” sounds much like the “furnace of hell” here in 4 Ezra).

Ezra praised God because of this revelation, but expresses some fear that there will not be many who are judged worthy at this final judgment (7:45-61). Uriel agrees, just as precious stones are precious because they are rare, so too the righteous is precious because they are so few. In 7:54-57 there is a superficial parallel to 1 Cor 3:10-14 in that a man builds on his foundation either precious things or worthless things. In 4 Ezra the earth is said to produce wither precious or worthless things as well. The point of these two passages are quite different, as are the catalog of worthless things. Ezra once again laments on behalf of the human race since so many of them are born into a world to be tormented then judged unworthy (7:62-74).

Uriel responds the state of humanity is Adam’s fault, the judgment is fair and just (contra 1 Enoch 31). Ezra then asks the angel about the place of the dead and the sorts of things which await the unrighteous dead (7:75-101). Uriel will describe this to him, but first he admonishes him to not be associated with those who are tormented. Ezra is told he has a “treasure of works laid up with the Most High” which will not be shown until the final judgment. This “storehouse of works” and the later questions about praying for those in torment are obvious hooks to later Catholic theology. It is odd, therefore, that these sections do not appear in the Latin version of 4 Ezra. Verses 36-105 are missing. Uriel gives the seven ways the unrighteous put themselves in torment (verses 81-87) and the seven ways the righteous can enter into paradise (88-99). Essentially those who serve the Lord in this life are rewarded, if not, they are tormented.

Stefan_Lochner_-_Last_Judgement_-_circa_1435After seeing these things Ezra asks if the righteous will be allowed to intercede on behalf of the tormented (7:102-105). The Day of Judgment, Ezra is told, is decisive. No one will pray for another after the Day of Judgment and everyone will bear their own righteousness or unrighteousness. Ezra wonders about this, since Abraham was allowed to intercede on behalf of Sodom (7:106-111; The Latin text resumes at verse 36, after the strong negative answer on prayers for the dead in verse 105). He mentions the prayers of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah and Hezekiah, all of whom prayed to the Lord on behalf of others and were heard. Uriel’s answer involves the difference between this age and the age to come. This age is weak, therefore the strong can pray for the weak with some effect. The coming age, however, is an age of glory and perfect righteousness (7:112-115). No one will be able to have mercy on the one who is judged in the coming age. Ezra once again laments over the seeming futility of mankind’s existence, but Uriel explains that the world is fair (7:116-131). Uriel quotes Moses – choose life that you may live!

Ezra then implores the Lord on the basis of his attributes (7:132-8:3). He lists seven divine attributes such as mercy, gracious, bountifulness, etc.  If God is this good, how can he judge people so harshly? Uriel’s response is to repeat the parable of the earth. From the earth come many clay pots which are nothing but dust, but only a few pieces of gold. “Many have been created, but few will be saved” (verse 3, a similar line to Mt. 22:14, “many are called but few are chosen” but with a completely different application).

Ezra tries to implore the Lord on the basis of creation once again (8:4-36). The point of this long prayer is that God’s creation is good and well-ordered. Why then would God, who is good and righteous, destroy those who have taught his law the same way he destroys other “beasts?” This question comes back to the problem of the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezra is told that it is true that God does not care so much for the unrighteous as he rejoices in the righteous (8:37-40). Ultimately, whatever a farmer sows will grow and give fruit (8:41). Ezra tries to shift the blame back to God: if the crop does not come in, it is because the rains did not come. He therefore begs God to spare the people and have mercy on creation (8:42-45). The Lord responds to this accusation that while Ezra is righteous, he does not love creation more than God. Ultimately everything will be judged fairly; evil will be done away with and the righteous will enter into paradise (8:46-62). Judgment is in fact drawing near, a fact which is only revealed to a few.

As in the earlier visions, last part of this vision is a description of the signs which will precede the end of the age (8:63-9:13). As before, there will be earthquakes and political chaos, showing that everything the Lord has declared from the beginning will be shown to be true. The fate of the wicked is described one more time in 9:14-25. Ezra compares the wicked to the righteous as a wave is to a drop of water. The Lord compares this to wheat on the threshing floor, more is burned than is used for food. “Let the multitude perish which has been born in vain, but let my grape and my plant be saved, because with much labor I have perfected them” (verse 22). Ezra is sent into a field to contemplate this answer and the Lord gives him a series of dreams.

Ezra’s Second Vision – 4 Ezra 5:21-6:34

After seven days of fast, Ezra returns to the Lord in prayer (5:21-30)  He reminds the Lord that out of all of the forest he has chosen a special vine which he planted in Zion, from all the cities of the world he has chosen Jerusalem.  Why then has the Lord dishonored his people?  Does he now hate Israel and Zion?  Uriel once again is sent Ezra to respond to his complaints (5:31-40).

The first response to Ezra’s complaint is once again to ask him “imponderable” questions which God alone knows. Wait long enough, Uriel says, and you see the goal of the suffering.   Ezra accepts this, but continues his complaint: what will we do while we wait (5:41-55)?  The answer once again lies in the natural order of creation.  Things happen because that is the way they have been planned.

ages_and_dispensationsEzra then asks about the end of the age: How will the Lord visit creation (5:56)? This is answered in chapter 6.  First, the plan was set before time (6:1-6).  All of history has been divided by key events, for example Esau is the end of one age while Jacob is the beginning of the next (6:7-10). Oddly enough, this is proven by the fact that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel with his hand.  The heel is the end of a man while the hand is the beginning of a man.

Rather than expand on this “division of ages” concept, Ezra asks for more signs of the end of the age (6:11-28).  In this case Uriel describes the period after Zion’s humiliation is over.  Infants will speak with a mature voice, women will give birth to premature children of three or four months and they will live and dance. Sown places will suddenly appear unsown and storehouses suddenly empty, a trumpet will sound and all will be terrified and the whole world will be stilled.  At that time people who have been taken up without experiencing death will return (presumably Enoch and Elijah are in mind here). All of the earth’s inhabitants will have a changed spirit and evil will be blotted out.

Once again Ezra is physically overcome by this vision and he must wait another seven days of prayer and fasting before his third vision (6:29-34).  Uriel exhorts him to believe what he has seen and not be quick to “think vain thoughts,” a commentary on the questions he has asked of the Lord so far.

Ezra’s First Vision – 4 Ezra 3:1-5:20

Ezra’s first vision sets the stage for all that follows.  He is troubled in his spirit over the fall of Jerusalem and calls out to the Lord in prayer asking about the justice of the destruction of the city (3:1-11).  He reviews the history of Israel with a special emphasis on the promise of God (3:12-19) and frankly acknowledges the “evil heart” of the people and their disobedience (3:20-27).  But Ezra wonders how Babylon could be allowed to survive and prosper while Israel is Visiondestroyed and her people taken captive (3:28-36).  Surely Babylon is far worse that Israel?  What nation in the whole world has kept the commands of God?  In this complaint to the Lord, Ezra stands in the tradition of Job, who complained about his personal experience with evil, and Habakkuk, who asks very similarly about the justice of allowing Babylon to prevail over Israel.

After giving this “complaint,” the angel Uriel is sent to Ezra to discuss the problem over the next few chapters.  Like Job and Habakkuk, the answers given are not exactly as expected and Ezra continues to probe and question the angel on the problem of God allowing evil to prosper in the world. Uriel begins by telling Ezra that he is arrogant to think he can understand God’s ways.  He gives Ezra three “problems” which are impossible for a human to understand, not unlike God questioning Job on Job 38-41.  Ezra’s response is to fall on his face.  He says it would be better if humans were never born rather than to have come into the world to live in ungodliness, suffer, and not to understand why.

Uriel tells Ezra a parable (4:13-21): the sea tries to take the territory of the forest, and the forest the territory of the sea.  Uriel asks Ezra which is more likely to succeed in their plan. Ezra correctly responds both have foolish plans, neither can take the other’s territory. Uriel points out that as a human Ezra might remember his place and not try to understand the things of heaven.

Ezra makes a second complaint to the angel in 4:22-25.  He asks why God has allowed Israel to become a reproach before the gentiles.  It is as if the covenant no longer exists!  Uriel responds much as the Lord did in Habakkuk 2 – have some patience!  “If you live long enough,” Uriel says, “you will see the end of the age” (4:46-32).  The seeds of ungodliness have already been sown, it will not be long the threshing floor is filled.  Ezra asks how long it will be until the end of the age (4:33-43).  Uriel’s response is as evasive as his previous ones – go and ask a pregnant woman if after nine months she can hold the child in a bit longer.  His point is simply that there is a time which has been appointed and it will surely come.

Hades is like a womb, he says, and once the birth pangs begin, there is no escaping the birth. The time of the birth is more or less fixed and there are signs which point to the soon-ness of the birth.  Once started, these birth pains cannot be stopped.  The imagery of the end of days as “birth pangs” seems common in the apocalyptic; Jesus makes use of this image in Matthew 24:8.  Ezra attempts a second time to know how long it will be until the final days, and once again Uriel answers with imagery which suggests a time is ordained and nothing can stop it (4:44-52).

Finally in 5:1-13 Uriel gives Ezra a series of “signs” which will accompany the end of the age.  Those who dwell on the earth will be seized with great terror and people will fall away from true faith.  Unrighteousness will increase and the land of Israel will be a waste and trodden under. In verses 4-5 there are a few of the typical cosmological signs: the sun shines at night, the moon during the day; blood will drip from wood and stones will speak.  Other natural oddities will occur – birds will fly away and the Dead Sea will give fish.  Menstruating women will give birth to monsters and chaos will reign.

Ezra awakens from this vision and fasts for seven days, mourning and weeping because of what the angel had shown him (5:14-20).  Some of these “signs” are found in the biblical material, but in most cases the apocalyptic in the New Testament are quite sedate in comparison.  The end of the age will be chaos and is described in terms of the natural order run amok, but the writers tend to hold back on the gory details as we have them here in 4 Ezra.