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Symbolic Actions Representing Jerusalem’s Siege and Captivity
Ezekiel is commanded to perform four remarkable actions setting forth the coming siege withits hardships, and the approaching captivity with its evils. It is uncertain whether these actions were literally performed or not. Symbolic methods of this-kind were certainly used by various prophets, but some of those in Ezekiel 4 are so extraordinary that many suppose that they were not actually carried out, but only imagined and described. The explanation of the second and third symbols is given along with the account of the symbols themselves. The first and fourth are explained more fully in Ezekiel 5:5-17.
(a) A Symbol of the Siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3)
Ezekiel was told to draw a representation of a city on a slab of clay, and to conduct a mimic siege of it. In this action the prophet played the part of the enemies of Jerusalem, and especially of God, who was now the great Adversary of the city.
1. A tile] or ’brick,’ a slab of clay, such as the Babylonians used for inscriptions and sculptures in relief.
2. A mount] an embankment raised in ancient warfare by besiegers to enable them to approach the top of a city wall.
3. Pan] RM ’flat plate,’ such as was used for baking (Leviticus 6:21; Leviticus 7:9). This may be taken as a symbol either of the stubbornness of the defence or of the rigour of the siege. Or it may represent the hopeless barrier which now separated God from His people. A sign to the house of Israel] The symbol was intended to teach those who witnessed or heard of it that the stern reality which it represented was close at hand.
(b) Symbols of the duration of Siege and Captivity (Ezekiel 4:4-8)
Ezekiel was directed to lie on his left side for a fixed number of days (390), and then on his right side for another fixed number (40). The whole time was supposed to represent the length of the siege of Jerusalem, and the two numbers of days were supposed to correspond to the years of the respective captivities of Israel and Judah. The constrained posture of the prophet was a symbol of the loss of freedom awaiting the people.
4. The house of Israel] used here and in Ezekiel 4:5 in the limited sense of the northern kingdom of the Ten Tribes.
5. Three hundred and ninety days] This is a difficult number. Ezekiel expected the captivities of Israel and Judah to end together (Ezekiel 37:15.). As Israel’s captivity was to be 350 years longer than Judah’s, it must have begun 350 years sooner. The captivity of Judah may be dated (a) from the first captivity (597 b.c.), or (b) from the second captivity (586 b.c.): The latter was still in the future at the time of this prophecy, and would not be a fixed date for Ezekiel, who would therefore probably reckon from 597 b.c., which he elsewhere calls ’our captivity’ (Ezekiel 40:1). The captivity of Israel is most naturally reckoned (a1) from the fall of Samaria (721 b.c., 2 Kings 17:6); but it may possibly be calculated (b1) from the first ravages of Tiglath-pileser (734 b.c., 2 Kings 15:29). From (a1) to (a) gives 124 years, and from (b1) to (a) 137 years. Taking (b) instead of (a) for the captivity of Judah, these numbers become respectively 135 and 148. The LXX has 190 instead of 390, which would give 150 instead of 350 for the difference between the two captivities, and this would agree approximately with the actual elates, especially with (b1) to (b). The only way to reach anything like 350 years is to count Israel’s captivity from the revolt of the Ten Tribes (939 b.c.). This was 342 years before (a) and 353 years before (b), but it is unlikely that Ezekiel should have given the time of Israel’s sin and only the time of Judah’s punishment. Another explanation is that since 390 + 40 = 430, Ezekiel represented the united captivities of the two kingdoms as equal in length to the bondage in Egypt (Exodus 12:40), and that of Judah as equal to the period of wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 14:34). The latter v. is certainly closely parallel to this passage, and possibly we have here an ideal and artificial scheme of numbers with no relation to actual historic dates. If a historic explanation be preferred, 350 (or 150) must be taken not as an exact, but as a round number.
6. Forty days] the years of Judah’s captivity and of Babylon’s supremacy (Ezekiel 29:11-13). The return of the exiles took place about 538 b.c., fifty-nine years after the first and forty-eight years after the second captivity. If the number 40 is not taken from Numbers 14:34 (see the note above), it is a round number, meaning ’more than a generation.’
7. The siege of Jerusalem] the mimic siege described in Ezekiel 4:1-3. The first and second symbolic actions were to be carried on together. Thine arm.. uncovered] a threatening gesture.
8. Bands] By some divine restraint Ezekiel would be prevented from turning. The days of thy siege] The number 430 represented the days of the siege of Jerusalem as well as the sum of the years of the two captivities. The actual siege lasted almost exactly a year and a half (2 Kings 25:1-3; Jeremiah 39:1-2).
(c) Symbols of Scarcity during the Siege and of Defilement in Captivity (Ezekiel 4:9-17)
Ezekiel was commanded to prepare bread from a mixture of various kinds of grain, and to live on scanty rations of meat and drink while he lay upon his side. This was in token of the scarcity which the inhabitants of Jerusalem would suffer during the siege. The bread was to be baked with loathsome fuel, as a sign of the banishment of Israel to an unclean foreign land.
9. Wheat, etc.] a mixture of all sorts of grain, fine and coarse, symbolising the poor fare which would be used in Jerusalem during the siege.
10. Twenty shekels] eight or nine ounces.
11. The sixth part of an hin] less than a quart.
12. Bread thus baked would be unclean (Leviticus 5:3; Leviticus 7:21).
13. Eat their defiled bread] RV ’eat their bread unclean.’ Foreign lands were regarded as unclean in themselves (Amos 7:17), and, besides, all food eaten in them would be unclean, because it could not be consecrated by offering a portion to God in the Temple: see Hosea 9:3, Hosea 9:4.
14. Ezekiel, as a priest, was peculiarly sensitive about ceremonial defilement.
15. A partial mitigation of the symbol for the prophet’s sake. The dung of domestic animals was often used as fuel, and does not seem to have defiled the food cooked upon it. Though the symbol was modified, it was not implied that the defilement of captivity, signified by the fuel first prescribed, would be any the less.
(d) Symbols of Three Calamities awaiting Jerusalem (Ezekiel 5:1-4)
In the previous symbols Ezekiel himself personated both the besiegers and the besieged. Now the hair of his head and beard is made to represent the people of Jerusalem. He is bidden to shave it off and divide it into three parts. One of these he is to burn, as an emblem of those who will die of pestilence and famine; another he is to smite around with a sword, as a symbol of those who will be slain; while the third part he is to scatter to the wind, as representing those who will go into captivity. A few hairs are to be reserved as an emblem of the pious remnant; but even these are partly to be burned, in token of the trials the remnant will endure.
1. A sharp knife.. a barber’s razor] RV ’a sharp sword, as a barber’s razor.’ For thereof] RY ’therefrom.’ The clause thus introduced is obscure. The meaning seems to be that the punishment of Jerusalem will extend to the whole nation.
(e) Explanation of the First and Fourth Symbols (Ezekiel 5:5-17)
The pictured city is Jerusalem, and God is her great Adversary (Ezekiel 5:5-8). Her unparalleled sins deserve an unparalleled punishment. Famine and pestilence, the sword, and captivity await her people. Only thus can God’s righteous wrath be appeased (Ezekiel 5:9-17).
5. This] the city depicted on the tile (Ezekiel 4:1-3). In the midst of the nations] God gave Jerusalem a great opportunity of displaying His righteousness and truth to the world. Her position, near the highway between Asia and Africa, was peculiarly central and conspicuous.
7. Multiplied] RV ’are turbulent.’ Neither.. my judgments.. the judgments (RV ’ordinances’) of the nations] Israel had been worse than the heathen, who had at least been faithful to their own gods: see Jeremiah 2:10, Jeremiah 2:11.
8. In the sight of the nations] Punishment must be as conspicuous as the lost opportunity.
11. Defiled my sanctuary] This charge is substantiated at length in Ezekiel 8.
13. Cause my fury to rest] RV ’satisfy my fury.’
§ 2. The Overthrow of the Jewish Kingdom Foretold (Ezekiel 4-7)
The great theme of the first part of Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry was the certainty of the complete downfall of the Jewish state. Though Zedekiah had been set on the throne by Nebuchadrezzar after the first captivity, there was no hope for the kingdom. Zedekiah’s reign was viewed by Ezekiel, as well as by Jeremiah, only as a temporary respite, to be followed by a second captivity which would bring the state to an end. Ezekiel 4-7 contain the first group of Ezekiel’s prophecies to this effect. They are to be placed between the date of his prophetic call (June-July, 592 b.c.) and that of the next group of prophecies (August-September, 591 b.c.). The present group includes a series of symbolic prophecies of the siege and captivity of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4, 5), a prophecy against the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 6), and a description, partly in the form of a poetic lament or dirge, of the final desolation of the land (Ezekiel 7).
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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