Why does God call Ezekiel “Son of Man”?

Q. Ezekiel is constantly referred to as “Son of Man.” Since this is a reference often used for Jesus, why is it that Ezekiel seems to singled out for same designation?

Basically, the phrase “Son of Man” means something different in the book of Ezekiel than it does in the gospels.

In Ezekiel, “son of man” means “human being.”  It’s a poetic Hebrew expression that’s used with that same meaning in several other places in the Old Testament, for example, in Psalm 8, where the ESV translates the Hebrew terms literally: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”  The NLT expresses the meaning of these terms: “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

Since “son of man” means “human being” in Ezekiel, in the Common English Bible, that prophet is addressed as “human one”; in the Good News Bible as “mortal man”; in the New Century Version as “human”; and in the New Revised Standard Version as “mortal.”

Why does God address Ezekiel in this particular way?  Some have suggested that this is done to distinguish the prophet from the various supernatural beings in his visions–Ezekiel needs to know that God is speaking to him, rather than to one of them!  But I think it’s more likely, as others have suggested, that by calling Ezekiel “son of man” (“mortal”), God is stressing the difference between His own powerful words and deeds, described in the visions Ezekiel receives (for example, breathing life into dead bodies, symbolic of restoring the exiled nation), and the few things, paltry by comparison, that the Judeans might accomplish without God.

In the gospels, “Son of Man” means something different.  It’s an allusion to the Old Testament, though not to the book of Ezekiel, but rather to the book of Daniel.  As I explain in my study guide to the gospel of Mark:

This expression comes from a vision the prophet Daniel had of “one like a son of man” who was given “authority, glory and sovereign power” by God.  Jesus chooses this expression to describe himself because it communicates his divine mission without having the nationalistic and militaristic overtones of some of the other titles that were used for the Messiah at this time (such as “Son of David,” which he’ll be called later in the book).  The title Son of Man particularly highlights the humanity and humility of Jesus.  He will invoke this title repeatedly in the second part of the gospel as he speaks of his coming sufferings and death.  But here it captures the authority he has, as a divinely-appointed representative of humanity, to forgive sins and determine how to make appropriate use of the Sabbath.

As I explain further in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, commenting on Daniel’s vision of the “Ancient of Days,” books like these:

. . . use humans to represent divine figures.  The person who’s presented to the Ancient of Days here is described as “like a son of man.” This Aramaic phrase means that he “looked like a human being,” but the implications within the vision are that he was divine.  The Jewish people took the phrase “son of man” from this vision and used it as a title (“Son of Man”) to describe the divine savior figure they were expecting.  Jesus often applied this title to himself, both to show that he was the Savior sent from God, and also, paradoxically, to show that he had given up his divine prerogatives and come to earth humbly, in human form, to identify completely with those he came to save.

So Ezekiel is not really being given a title that properly belongs to Jesus alone.  Rather, the poetic phrase that meant simply “human being” in Ezekiel’s time had become a Messianic title by the time of Jesus.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

14 thoughts on “Why does God call Ezekiel “Son of Man”?”

  1. I never really made the connection before, but it’s very similar what C. S. Lewis does with the phrases “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (probably intentionally so). Literally the phrases just mean “human” but to the Narnians they had come to stand for certain prophecies.

    1. Exactly right. In fact, as a note in the ESV explains the first time God calls Ezekiel “son of man,” the Hebrew phrase is ben adam, literally “son of Adam” (or “son of the earthling”). So I think C.S. Lewis is using the phrase very intentionally.

  2. There’s another way to look at it. Of the 107 instances of בן־אדם in the OT, 93 appear in Ezekiel’s book and are used to address him. Most of the other references (going back to Num 23:19) appear before Ezekiel, and do indeed simply reflect the common Hebrew idiom “son of X” = “human.” But the overwhelming focus of the term on Ezekiel means that to any later Jew, “son of man” would inescapably call to mind Ezekiel. The reference in Daniel (the first year of Belteshazzar) is later than Ezekiel, and may very well depend on it. Perhaps the significance of the use of the term by the Lord Jesus to describe himself is not in any intrinsic meaning of the phrase, but in his consciousness that his ministry was in many ways parallel to that of Ezekiel, as C.H. Bullock has very well pointed out in JETS 25/1 (March 1982) 23-31 (http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/25/25-1/25-1-pp023-031_JETS.pdf). That is, “son of man” becomes a tag for “someone like Ezekiel,” who figuratively bears the sin of his people (Ezek 4) and in many other ways anticipates the ministry of the one Daniel sees in Dan 9 and the One who comes to fulfill both Ezekiel and Dan 7.

    1. Van, thanks for the link. The Son of Man title connects Jesus to Ezekiel. Regarding Daniel’s “Son of Man”, the last phrase/sentence in Daniel 7:13 can be taken to mean “they sacrificed him (the Son of Man) before Him (the Ancient of Days)”. English translations are mostly “(he) was presented”, but the KJV is closest with “they brought near” (3rd masculine plural active). It’s Aramaic, but the word is basically the same in Hebrew (הקריב) which often means “to offer a sacrifice” (Lev. 7:16, 10:19, etc.). So the Son of Man in Daniel is presented before the Ancient of Days first as a sacrifice (7:13), and then/after he enters his glory (7:14). This Scripture (like the parallels with Ezekiel described in the article you link to) must have been among the ways in which Jesus knew that “…the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed…(Mark 8:31).

      Jesus the Son of Man became the sin offering on our behalf (Gal. 1:4, 2 Cor. 5:11, etc.). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

      1. Bill, thanks for the observation. This would align with the Lord’s statement in Matt 28, after his death and resurrection, that he has received “all authority,” and why he now sends his disciples to “all nations” instead of restricting them to Israel as he did in ch. 10–he has appeared before the Ancient of Days and received the mandate described there.

        But we should be cautious about deriving this conclusion from הקריב. This form in Hebrew is simply the Hiphil form of the verb “to come near.” The Hiphil indicates causation, and this form of the verb means “to bring near.” You’ll notice that its use in Lev 7:16, 10:19, and other contexts where English versions may translate it “sacrifice,” it always governs a noun or pronoun that describes the sacrifice. A woodenly literal translation of the idiom would be, “he brings near his sacrifice” (Lev 7:16) or “they have brought near their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord.” The sacrificial meaning rides entirely on the object of the verb; the verb itself simply means “cause to come,” and you can find many instances of this meaning in the OT. Certainly, it is often used in sacrificial contexts, but always (as far as I can tell) naming the sacrifice explicitly. I don’t see any reference to such a sacrifice in Dan 7:13. We know from the sequence of events in the gospels that indeed he has been offered as our sin offering by the time he appears there, but I’d be very careful about claiming that the Aramaic Haphel (similar to the Hebrew Hiphil) of קרב in this place “means” that “they sacrificed him.”

  3. So, if this is true-strictly human reference, then why is it capitalized MORE than not! Wouldn’t one be general and one specific to his “ordination” by God??

    1. Capitalization in our English Bibles is strictly a matter of translator discretion. The MSS of the OT (e.g., the Leningrad codex) and NT available to us do not use use multi-case fonts. NT mss are either all capitals (e.g., A, B, Aleph ) or all lower-case. Scribal Hebrew doesn’t even have two cases.

      1. so why doesn’t the translator use the same size all the time to make his job easier…this makes no sense to me, yes Hebrew may not have capitals but that doesn’t explain this inconsistency.

    2. I think I’m going to have to agree with Mr. Van Parunak on this one, Birdie. As hard as this is to hear, the English translations we have rely heavily on the interpretation of the text by the author—that’s why we have so many of them. It is unfortunate, but because the translations we use can only present the text in one format (i.e. it cannot fully convey every single possibility of ways of interpreting the text), the translators have to make a lot of decisions like this. This is the biggest problem of translating anything—not just the Bible. On this problem of capitalization, though, many translators have picked up on this specifically, and versions like the latest NIV have attempted to remove a lot of the ambiguous capitalization.

  4. Great teaching thanks you just made something complex into something so obvious and simple . You have revealed something to me. 😀😀

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