Old Testament

Why is Ezekiel Called Son of Man?

Anyone who reads the Gospels understands that one of Jesus’ favorite titles to use of himself is the son of man. Interestingly, the son of man moniker is used 79 times in the Gospels, and once in Acts (7:56), but in each case it is Jesus using the phrase of himself. Nobody calls Jesus the son of man, nor is anyone else called the son of man.

Although there is debate about where the New Testament title son of man comes from, it almost certainly comes from the backdrop of Daniel 7:13-14, where “one like a son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over the entire world with an everlasting kingdom. Daniel 7, which was understood as Messianic even before the time of Christ (cf. 4 Ezra 13) provides the vocabulary which Jesus could appropriate for himself—indicating He is the Messianic representative of humanity.

This understanding is affirmed by Jesus himself in passages like Mark 14:61-62. In response to the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus states, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (v. 62). The combination of the son of man title and the description of the clouds of heaven only fits with the Daniel 7:13-14 backdrop. So, the title son of man in the New Testament is best understood as a Messianic reference that Christ claims for himself from the background of Daniel 7.

Why is Ezekiel a Son of Man?

Naturally, a follow-up question to the preceding observations relates to Ezekiel and the fact that he is called son of man 93 times. In fact, the singular phrase “son of man” (בֶּן־אָדָם), shows up a total of 107 times in the Old Testament. Why would Ezekiel be called son of man, when the New Testament seems to clearly indicate that the phrase as Messianic implications?

Ezekiel son of man verse

First of all, as others have noted, Jesus is referred to as “the Son of Man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) in the Gospels (the definite article being utilized). However, in contrast, Ezekiel is referred to as a son of man, generically (בֶּן־אָדָם). In Hebrew and Greek, the definite article is used to specify while the absence of the article is usually indicative of quality. So, in the case of Ezekiel and other Old Testament references, the quality of humanity is being stressed.

This point is illustrated well by one of the none-Ezekielian references in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” In other words, deity and humanity are being put in contrast here. Son of man could simply be translated as “human being” in this context.

This understanding of the title son of man being an emphasis on humanity fits well with the overall message of Ezekiel. Compared to the divine majesty and transcendent glory of God as displayed in Ezekiel 1, it is an important reminder that Ezekiel is only just a man. He may be a prophet with an important message, but he is always one of them (humans), not comparable to the One he sees in his visions.

Son of Man Language in Targum Jonathan

After Israel went into exile in 587 BC, the Jewish populace began to speak primarily Aramaic. Although the Hebrew language never died out, the primary usage of the Aramaic language continued among the Jewish population, even into the early first centuries. Because there was such a heavy usage of Aramaic as the lingua franca there was a need for the Jewish people to have access to the Scriptures in Aramaic. Thus, the Targumim (plural of Targum) were written.

The Targumim were Jewish Scriptures translated into the Aramaic language. One of the more famous of these Targumim was Targum Jonathan, a translation of the prophets (Josh–Malachi) sometime in the first two or three centuries AD.

Of interest to our present article, Alinda Damsma observes that the translator of Ezekiel in Targum Jonathan uses a unique translation of the title son of man. Rather than translating the phrase son of man (בֶּן־אָדָם) in Hebrew to the natural Aramaic equivalent (בר אנשׁא), the Ezekiel translation kept אָדָם as a proper name in the translation (בַּר אָדָם). This stands out all the more since in other places in Targum Jonathan, the phrase son of man is translated normally into Aramaic (e.g., Jer 49:33). Damsma argues that the Ezekielian translator was motivated to avoid the Messianic connotations of son of man (בר אנשׁא) as it appears in Daniel 7.

This evidence helps us understand that there was a difference between how Jewish people read Daniel 7 and Ezekiel. One was viewed as Messianic, and the other was viewed as a phrase underscoring the human mortality of Ezekiel in contrast to the divine visions which he had access to.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

One Comment

  • Eugene Henson

    “Son of Man” is clearly Messianic. It is interesting to note that in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus referring to Himself, quotes from Dan 7:13-14 foretelling His ascension and enthronement in heaven (Matt 24:30).

    Here is the passage in Daniel 7… “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)

    Notice the direction that the “Son of Man” is traveling. He is traveling UP to the Ancient of Days where He is given a dominion, Glory, and an everlasting kingdom that will never pass away!

    This is the exact opposite of how futurists today take Jesus’ reference to Daniel 13. It is viewed as the “Glorious Return” of Christ. My NASB bible even labels it as “The Glorious Return” in Matthew 24.

    Only when we go back and look at the passage that Jesus quotes from do we see its true meaning. His coming is not back to us, but rather Jesus is coming home to the Ancient of Days after accomplishing all that the Father had given Him to do. The viewpoint is clearly from the perspective of heaven.

    Jesus is now currently ruling and reigning over all things in heaven AND earth. He is King over an Everlasting Kingdom where all the peoples and nations of the earth serve Him. Jesus informed His disciples in Matt 28:18… Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς. (All authority has been given to me in heaven AND on earth). Ἐδόθη is in the aorist passive indicative form meaning that Jesus believes that this had already happened at the time He informed His disciples. Of course, we know from Luke that later the disciples watched Jesus ascend into the clouds of heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.

    Peter in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2 after quoting many Old Testament Messianic passages referring to Christ says this… “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. “And so, because he was a prophet and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS ON HIS THRONE, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY. “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. “For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET.” ’ “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2: 29-36)

    After stating that David was a prophet, Peter says that David looked ahead and spoke of One of his descendants sitting on His throne, speaking of the RESURRECTION and ascension of Christ. It was not David’s throne that Jesus would sit on, the promise was that One of David’s descendants would sit on God’s throne. To which Peter claims to be a witness along with the other disciples!!!

    Praise God for all His marvelous works!

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