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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1


The absurd view that the events of this chapter existed only subjectively in the mind of Ezekiel, that it was all a vision of his, is here rejected. “The adoption of such an interpretation is not the act of an honest interpreter.”(F1)

What Ezekiel did here was only another example of what many of God’s prophets throughout the ages also did. Zedekiah’s “horns of iron” (1 Kings 22:11); Isaiah’s walking “naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 22:2-3); Jeremiah’s “yokes of wood” (Jeremiah 27:2); Hosea’s marriage to Gomer (Hosea 1:1-3:10); Zechariah’s breaking of Beauty and Bands (Zechariah 11); Agabus’ binding himself with Paul’s belt (Acts 21:10),, etc. are other examples of such enacted prophecies.

This chapter portrays (1) the visible model of Jerusalem’s siege and capture (Ezekiel 4:1-3), the certainty of punishment awaiting both the northern and southern Israels (Ezekiel 4:4-8), the scarcity of food for the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:9-11), and the ceremonial uncleanness that would come to the besieged and to the captives (Ezekiel 4:12-17).

Regarding the time of the events recorded here, Canon Cook placed it in the fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin (592 B.C.). He also noted that the destruction of Jerusalem was contrary to all human expectations.

“It could scarcely have been expected that Zedekiah, the creature of the king of Babylon and ruling by his authority in the place of Jehoiachin would have been so infatuated as to provoke the anger of the powerful Nebuchadnezzar. It was indeed to infatuation that the historian ascribed that foolish act of Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:20).(F2)

Verses 1-3

“Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and portray upon it a city, even Jerusalem: and lay siege against it, and build forts against it, and cast up a mound against it, and plant battering rams against it round about. And take thou unto thee an iron pan, and set it for a wall of iron between thee and the city: and set thy face toward it, and it shall be besieged, and thou shalt lay siege against it. This shall be a sign to the house of Israel.”

“Take thee a tile” The fact that he could draw a map on this tile identifies it as coming from Babylon, not Jerusalem, clearly indicating that Ezekiel was written from the land of Israel’s captivity, despite the concentrated focus upon Jerusalem. This special concern for Jerusalem should not surprise us. “This requires no explanation. Jerusalem was the heart and the brain of the nation, the center of its life and its religion, and in the eyes of the prophets (all of them) the fountain-head of its sin.”(F3)

The necessity of the prophetic warning to Israel regarding the ultimate fall and total destruction of Jerusalem lay in the foolish and blind optimism of the people. “Even after they were carried into captivity, numbers of them were still engaging in false optimism,”(F4) supposing that the captivity would soon end dramatically, and failing to understand that their dreadful servitude was nothing more than God’s punishment of their consummate wickedness, a punishment they richly deserved.

This unexpected, totally improbable fall of Jerusalem is throughout this section of Ezekiel the almost constant subject. “The great theme of the first part of Ezekiel is the certainty of the complete downfall of the Jewish state.”(F5)

This model of the city of Jerusalem, with the deployment of all kinds of military installations and equipment all around it, “was a proper and powerful device for capturing attention, and it amounted to a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem.”(F6)

Ezekiel probably had many examples of this type of illustration to aid him in the fulfillment of God’s command, because, “Assyrian bas-reliefs show in vigorous detail how a siege was carried out.”(F7)

In the analogy here, Ezekiel himself enacts the part of God as the true besieger of the city. It came to pass as Jeremiah prophesied, when God said, “I myself shall fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath” (Jeremiah 21:5).

The iron barrier (represented by the cooking utensil) stood for the wall of separation which the sins of Israel had erected between themselves and the Lord. “Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God,’ (Isaiah 59:2). “It meant the total severance of relation between Jerusalem and God, `You have screened yourself off with a cloud, that prayer may not pass through.’“(F8)

It would appear from the overwhelmingly bad news of such an illustrated prophecy that Israel should have been filled with sorrow and consternation over it, “But there seems to have been little response to it. Ezekiel was being taught in the crucible of human experience the incredible resistance of men to the Word of God.”(F9)

Verses 4-8

“Moreover lie thou upon thy left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it; according to the number of days thou shalt lie upon it, thou shalt bear their iniquity. For I have appointed the years of their iniquity to be unto thee a number of days, even three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And again, when thou hast accomplished these, thou shalt lie on thy right side, and shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah, each day for a year, have I appointed it unto thee. And thou shalt set thy face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with thine arm uncovered; and thou shalt prophesy against it. And, behold, I lay hands upon thee; and thou shalt not turn thee from one side to the other till thou hast accomplished the days of thy siege.”

“Left side… right side” The ancient usage of such terminology was based upon the proposition that one faced the East (the rising sun); and thus the left stood for the North, the right stood for the South; and the East was always considered “the front.”(F10) Since Northern Israel (Samaria) lay north of Jerusalem, the “right” and “left” designation applied to the Ten Northern tribes and to Judah, respectively.

“The restrained position of the prophet was a symbol of the loss of freedom awaiting the people.”(F11)

“And thou shalt set thy face toward the siege” This represented the intent purpose of God looking to the total destruction of the city.

“With thine arm uncovered” There is another echo of Jeremiah 21:5 in this. God’s arm was uncovered and outstretched to accomplish the destruction of the Jewish kingdom.

“Lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it (Ezekiel’s left side)… thou shalt bear their iniquity… so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel... and again, thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah” Right here lies the “lost message of Ezekiel.” None of dozens of commentators we have consulted pays the slightest attention whatever to the colossal teachings of the vital messages in these dramatic clauses. Ezekiel represents God in the analogy here; and as God’s representative, he bears the iniquity of both Israel and Judah. The 390 years for one and the forty years for the other, therefore have no application whatever to the duration of the captivity, either of Northern Israel or of Southern Israel, nor of any one else. The absolute inability of all the commentators to come up with any rational or reasonable explanation of what these respective time periods really prophesied is the only proof needed that they have simply not understood what is meant by them.

Here Ezekiel is a type of the Son Man (the Christ) indeed; and he becomes the sin-bearer for all Israel. That is the bold, unequivocal message of this passage.

What about the 390 years and the forty years? “Forty” throughout the Old Testament is the symbolical word for punishment; and the Ten Northern Tribes deserved ten times forty (four hundred stripes, days, years, whatever; but as the Jews always administered that “forty” as “forty stripes save one” it would mean that the Ten Tribes deserved 390 years of the wrath of God. Judah, the principal tribe of the Southern Israel also would receive “forty,” it not being considered necessary to add the limitation of “save one” here, as it may be understood. As we see it, God’s “beating the iniquity of all the tribes of earth in the person of his “Only Begotten Son,” is the sum total of what is indicated in this passage which all scholars have labeled, “impossible of understanding,” “unintelligible,” “subject to no satisfactory explanation,” etc. Some may think that our explanation is also unsatisfactory; but to us it makes more sense than anything else we have ever encountered.

In the quadruple statement in this paragraph that Ezekiel is to “bear the sins” of both houses of Israel, how can a scholar like Taylor assert that, “This is a symbol of the weight of the punishment to be borne by Israel!”(F12) Ezekiel, as a type of Christ. is the one doing the bearing, according to the holy text.

At first, we considered adopting the position on this paragraph mentioned by Pearson, who said, “With the data at our disposal, it appears unwise to be dogmatic as to how the forty and the 390 years are to be reckoned.”(F13) However, the thundering remarks about Ezekiel’s being the sin-bearer here point so clearly in the direction which we have chosen, that we are offering what seems (to us) a reasonable and logical understanding of it.

Thus all of the inconvenience, humiliation, painful physical constraint, the unclean diet, etc. are an eloquent portrayal of the sufferings, humiliation, even death, of the great Sin-Bearer, Christ, of whom Ezekiel was merely a type.

There is no device for discovering an easy solution to these numbers. The years of Israel’s sins were actually far more than 390, and the same is true of the sins of Judah. There is no evidence that the sins of Israel were ten times as much as those of Judah (except upon the premise of their being far greater in number). The device of choosing the Septuagint (LXX) over the the Hebrew text of the Old Testament here gives only 150 years, but that doesn’t work either.

Verses 9-11

“Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof; according to the number of days that thou shalt lie on thy side, even three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof. And thy food which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it. And thou shalt drink water by measure, the sixth part of a bin.’ from time to time shalt thou drink.”

In this paragraph Ezekiel is to be identified, not as a sin-bearer, but as a representation of the besieged and captive Israelites. The prophecy means that they shall suffer famine, severe food shortages, the ration of water, and all of the other rigors of a siege. Some of the measurements mentioned here may have varied a little from what we are told; but Cook gave “twenty shekels a day” as about nine ounces of food, and a “sixth part of a hin” of water as “about two pints” a day.(F14) In any case, such restricted amounts must be considered as just about the minimum survival diet.

Some have thought that the mixing of all these edibles in one vessel was a ceremonial violation regarding unnatural mixtures (Leviticus 19:19); but the more likely understanding is that it indicates merely the scarcity of food. Wheat and barley were normally used by the rich and poor respectively, and this was also true of beans and lentils; but the millet, and spelt (fitches) were often used as food for animals.(F15) The “fitches” (spelt) was a kind of wild wheat, resembling the seed of some grasses.(F16) The picture that emerges is that of a family scraping together a small handful of half a dozen different products in order to find enough for a single piece of bread.

Verses 12-17

“And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it in their sight with dung that cometh out of man. And Jehovah said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations whither I will drive them. Then said I, Ah Lord Jehovah! Behold, my soul hath not been polluted; for from my youth up even until now have I not eaten of that which dieth of itself, or is torn of beasts; neither came there abominable flesh into my mouth. Then he said unto me, See, I have given thee cow’s dung for man’s dung, and thou shalt prepare thy bread thereon. Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with fearfulness, and they shall drink water by measure, and in dismay: that they may want bread and water, and be dismayed one with another, and pine away in their iniquity.”

“And thou shalt bake it in their sight with dung” The dung mentioned here was not to be a part of the food but was to be fuel for the baking of it, thus assuring the ceremonial uncleanness of the bread.

“Thou shalt prepare thy bread thereon” This means that the bread was to be baked upon afire made of cow chips. Such a product is still used as fuel in the Mid East. “Dried cow-dung and camel-dung is still used for fuel by the Bedouin.”(F17) It is not all that unsatisfactory as a fuel, as some of the pioneer high plainsmen of the USA have testified. More than a century ago, Robinson described his journey with some Arabs, “Who baked a large cake (an `ember cake’) of bread in the embers of a fire made of camel’s and cow-dung. They took it out when done, brushed the ashes off of it, and divided it among the party... I tasted it and found it quite as good as the common bread of that country.”(F18)

The big point about this use of dung for fuel is that in Jewish minds it made the bread ceremonially unclean. Cook pointed out that there are abundant echoes of the prohibitions in th’e Pentateuch, such as those in Leviticus 26:39 in Ezekiel.(F19) Added to that, “All food eaten in a foreign land among the heathen was unclean to the Jews.”(F20)

“With his priestly background, Ezekiel had such injunctions as the prohibitions against eating an animal that had died of itself, etc. (Leviticus 7:24; Leviticus 22:8; Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 17:11-16; and Deuteronomy 14:21) before him continually. This is especially true of the regulations in Leviticus.”(F21)

Thus, in Ezekiel we find exactly the same ever-present consciousness on the part of God’s prophets of the prior existence of the covenant and every line of the Pentateuch. It was true in our studies of all twelve of the Minor Prophets, and without exception, all of the Major Prophets also.

“Pine away in their iniquity” “This is another echo from that book which had entered so largely into Ezekiel’s education (Leviticus 26:39). where the Hebrew word for “pine” is the same word as ’consume.’ To the wretchedness of physical privations there was to be added the consciousness on the part of the sufferers that their privations were caused by their own evil deeds.”(F22)

“Hunger and thirst, sorrow and dismay, would fall upon the sinners in Zion exactly as the ancient book of the law had foretold (Leviticus 26:39).”(F23)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/ezekiel-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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