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7. Jerusalem’s history as a prostitute ch. 16
This chapter is by far the longest prophetic message in the Book of Ezekiel, the longest single oracle in the Old Testament, and the longest single allegory in the entire Bible. It carries forward the guilt of Jerusalem described in the preceding chapter. In form it is a rib (lawsuit) oracle. God’s chosen people were not only a vine that was good for nothing (ch. 15), but they had produced disgusting fruit (ch. 16). The Lord compared Jerusalem (a synecdoche for Israel) to a despised orphan who had become the beautiful wife of a king but had abandoned her privileges to become an insatiable prostitute (cf. Hosea 1-3). This chapter is also an elaborate personification.
"No one presses the margins of literary propriety as severely as Ezekiel. . . . But the semipornographic style is a deliberate rhetorical device designed to produce a strong emotional response." [Note: Block, The Book . . ., pp. 466-67. On the problem of Ezekiel’s portrayal of God’s actions in this oracle, see ibid., pp. 467-70.]
"A sad parallel to this narrative is the course of Christendom in its departure from the purity of God’s Word and the life of godliness." [Note: Feinberg, p. 85.]
The Lord instructed Ezekiel to make the detestable practices of the people of Jerusalem known to them. He prophesied to the exiles, but his message presented the people of Jerusalem as the primary object of his attention.
The birth of Jerusalem 16:1-5
Yahweh personified Jerusalem as a woman (cf. Isaiah 1:21), and he related her history as a parable (allegory). In this parable Jerusalem represents the people of Jerusalem (a metonymy), but it is the people of Jerusalem throughout Israel’s history that are particularly in view. Some interpreters take Jerusalem as representing Israel as a nation. [Note: E.g., Cooper, p. 167; Feinberg, p. 86; and Taylor, p. 133.] Others believe Jerusalem identifies the city that is only similar to the nation in its history and conduct. [Note: E.g., Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 810; and Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1255.] I think it is best to take Jerusalem as describing the city for three reasons. First, the Lord compared Jerusalem to two other cities, Samaria and Sodom (Ezekiel 16:44-56; Ezekiel 16:61). Second, everything the prophet said about Jerusalem fits the city, its history and inhabitants. Third, the purpose of the parable was to convince the Jews in exile that the city of Jerusalem, specifically, would experience destruction because of the sins of its people. The purpose of the story was to show the exiles that the destruction of Jerusalem that Ezekiel predicted was well deserved so they would believe that God would destroy it.
Canaan was the place of Jerusalem’s origin and birth, a land notorious for its depravity. Thus it was understandable that the Israelites would tend toward idolatry. Jerusalem’s founders, in pre-patriarchal days, were Amorites and Hittites, not Hebrews. Amorites and Hittites were two of the Canaanite peoples, and they often represent all the Canaanites in the Old Testament (Genesis 10:15-16; Genesis 15:16; Numbers 13:29; Joshua 1:4; Joshua 5:1; Joshua 7:7; Joshua 24:15; Joshua 24:18; Amos 2:10). The Jebusites, who occupied Jerusalem from its earliest mention in Scripture, were another Canaanite tribe. The Table of Nations lists the Jebusites between the Hittites and the Amorites (Genesis 10:15-16). When Jerusalem came into existence, she received no special treatment, not even normal care.
"It was the custom in the ancient Near East to wash a newborn child, rub it with salt for antiseptic reasons, and wrap it in cloths, changing these twice by the fortieth day after the umbilical cord was cut." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 811. See also Fisch, p. 84; Greenberg, p. 274; and Cooke, p. 162.]
Jerusalem was not an outstanding city from its founding. Many other cities in Canaan had better situations geographically, had better physical resources, and were more easily defensible militarily.
No one had compassion on Jerusalem but abandoned her because she was an unwanted child. A common method of disposing of unwanted children in the ancient Near East, especially girls, was to abandon them to the elements. [Note: See Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near . . ., p. 119; Zimmerli, p. 338; Wevers, p. 121; and Greenberg, p. 275.] When the Israelites entered the land in Joshua’s day, they did not take Jerusalem (Joshua 15:63).
The Lord had compassion on Jerusalem in her helpless and undesirable condition and took care of her so she survived. [Note: See Block, The Book . . ., p. 472, for the chiastic structure of Ezekiel 16:6-22.] The city remained as an unwanted child until, at the Lord’s direction, David captured it from the Jebusites and made it the capital of his kingdom (2 Samuel 5:6-10).
The youth of Jerusalem 16:6-14
The Lord enabled Jerusalem to thrive. Her inhabitants became numerous. She eventually developed into a fine city even though she had gotten a bad start in life. During the reigns of David and Solomon, Jerusalem was one of the most highly respected cities in the ancient Near East.
When she was mature enough, the Lord made a commitment to take care of her forever (cf. Psalms 132:13-17). Spreading a skirt over someone was a customary way of committing to marry and to provide for someone in that culture (Ruth 3:9). [Note: See P. A. Kruger, "The Hem of the Garment in Marriage: The Meaning of the Symbolic Gesture in Ruth 3:9 and Ezekiel 16:8," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 12 (1984):84-85.]
The Lord also prepared her for a special relationship with Himself. He cleansed and anointed her and clothed her with beautiful, expensive clothing including fine shoes. He also gave her jewelry to make her even more beautiful with bracelets, a necklace, a ring, earrings, and a crown (cf. Genesis 24:53; Psalms 45:13-15; Isaiah 61:10). These were Jerusalem’s glory days under Solomon’s rule (cf. 1 Kings 10:4-5).
She had the best jewelry and clothes. She also ate the best food. In other words, the love of her husband knew no bounds. She became very beautiful and even qualified as royalty; she became a royal city that was home to the Davidic dynasty of kings. Other nations even commented on her beauty since it was so extraordinary because of the grace the Lord had bestowed on her (1 Kings 10; 1 Chronicles 14:17; Lamentations 2:15).
However, Jerusalem became self-centered and unfaithful to the Lord; she forgot Him when she became preoccupied with His blessings (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-12; Deuteronomy 8). She went after every people that passed by rather than remaining faithful to Yahweh. Under King Solomon, Jerusalem became the greatest city of her day, but Solomon led the Jerusalemites into spiritual adultery by making alliances (covenants) with other nations and by establishing idolatry in the land (1 Kings 11:1-13; cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
The prostitution of Jerusalem 16:15-34
Jerusalem used the gifts that God had given her to make idols and to worship them rather than her Lord (2 Kings 23:7; Jeremiah 10:9). The people made phallic images out of God’s gifts with which they engaged in sex (Ezekiel 16:17; cf. Isaiah 57:8), or perhaps full human figures are in view.
Jerusalem went so far as slaying her own children as sacrifices to idols disregarding the fact that they were also the Lord’s children (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 32:35; cf. Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:30-32). Evidently the idolaters first slew the children and then burned their dead bodies as sacrifices.
Furthermore, Jerusalem forgot about her humble origins and that she owed her very existence to Yahweh.
"Many believers today tend to forget what Christ has done for them on the cross and all the blessings he has poured out on them (Ephesians 1:3)." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," pp. 813-14.]
On top of all this wickedness, Jerusalem multiplied shrines to idols everywhere. For this Yahweh pronounced a lament of horror on her (cf. 1 Samuel 4:8; Proverbs 23:29; Isaiah 3:9). She became a militant advocate of idolatry, not just a practitioner of it. She also made her beauty abominable by prostituting herself to every passerby. She pursued foreign alliances as well as foreign gods.
She committed adultery with her lustful neighbor, the Egyptians, and multiplied the instances of her harlotry thus angering the Lord further (2 Kings 17:4; 2 Kings 18:21; Isaiah 30:7; Isaiah 36:1). As punishment, the Lord diminished her support. He also gave her into the hands of the Philistines, pagan people who nonetheless were repulsed by her lewd behavior (2 Chronicles 21:16-17; 2 Chronicles 28:16-19; Isaiah 1:7-8).
She committed adultery with the distant Assyrians as well, but they did not satisfy her lust (2 Kings 15:19-20; 2 Kings 16:7-18). Neither did adultery with the merchant Chaldeans or the Egyptians satiate her (2 Kings 20:12-19; Isaiah 20:5-6; Isaiah 30:1-5; Isaiah 31:1).
"Jerusalem was a spiritual nymphomaniac." [Note: Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1257.]
Political alliances normally involved the weaker party taking the gods of the stronger ally into its religious system. This is how much idolatry entered Jerusalem.
All her brazen adulteries had left Jerusalem with a sick heart; she could no longer feel true love. She was worse than a common prostitute in that she practiced adultery not because she needed money from her lovers but simply because it made her feel good. She took strangers to bed with her instead of her husband. She even gave gifts to her lovers to bribe them to come to her (paying tribute to make alliances) rather than giving them what they wanted in payment for the bribes they would normally have offered her. Her adulteries were worse than those of common prostitutes in that she paid her lovers rather than receiving payment from them (cf. Hosea 8:9).
"Ezekiel enumerated at least eight reasons for the exile: pride (Ezekiel 16:15 a), spiritual prostitution (Ezekiel 16:15-19), materialistic idolatry (Ezekiel 16:16-19), human sacrifices (Ezekiel 16:20-21), forgetting God (Ezekiel 16:22), propagating her prostitution (Ezekiel 16:23-25), trusting relations with pagan nations (Ezekiel 16:26-29), and a weak will that cast off all moral restraints (Ezekiel 16:30-34)." [Note: Cooper, p. 171.]
Yahweh announced the judgment that He would mete out to Jerusalem because of all her unnatural and rebellious unfaithfulness, idolatry, and bloodshed. He would bring all the nations that Jerusalem had opened her legs to against her, and they would abuse and destroy her.
The judgment of Jerusalem 16:35-43
The Lord would deal with Jerusalem as people dealt with adulteresses and murderers. The punishment that the Mosaic Law prescribed for a city that practiced idolatry (spiritual adultery) was the sword (Deuteronomy 13:15), and the punishment for adultery was stoning (Leviticus 20:10; cf. John 8:4-5). Yahweh would punish Jerusalem severely in His wrath and jealousy. He would turn her over to her lovers who would take from her everything she had leaving her naked and bare, her original condition (cf. Ezekiel 16:7; Ezekiel 16:22; Hosea 2:12; Nahum 3:5). "Naked" and "exile" are basically the same word in Hebrew. Exile meant for the Judahites collectively what nakedness meant to them personally. Thus the idea of nakedness became an apt description of the exile.
"The public exposure of the naked body was a symbolic act of legal punishment for adulterers . . .: it reversed the husband’s provision of clothing (Ezekiel 16:10) and took away the wife’s married identity [cf. Jeremiah 13:26; Hosea 2:10; Nahum 3:5]." [Note: Allen, p. 242. Cf. Kruger, p. 82.]
Jerusalem’s lovers would also incite other nations to attack and wage war against her. Her enemies would burn her houses and punish her in the sight of even more nations. This would end her prostitution.
This punishment would satisfy the Lord’s anger against Jerusalem. She had enraged Him by not remembering His goodness to her and by her lewd conduct. Now He would punish her for that conduct so she would not practice it on top of all her other sins.
Other people would quote the proverb, "Like mother, like daughter," in regard to Jerusalem. She was like her Hittite "mother" who was also idolatrous and selfish. And she was like her older (larger) sister, Samaria, and its dependent villages, and her younger (smaller) sister, Sodom, and its dependent villages, both of which despised their husbands and children. The Hebrew text describes Samaria and Sodom as on Jerusalem’s left (north) and right (south) respectively, reflecting the customary eastern orientation of the Old Testament. However, Jerusalem acted even worse than they. The depraved worship of the Canaanites had affected all three of these cities, but Jerusalem had become the worst of the lot.
The depravity of Jerusalem 16:44-59
The people of Sodom were not as bad as the people of Jerusalem (cf. Ezekiel 22:15; 2 Kings 15:37; 2 Kings 16:6; 2 Kings 24:2; 2 Chronicles 28:18-19; Isaiah 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14). The Sodomites were arrogant, affluent, selfish, and great sinners. Material abundance and physical security fostered sexual perversion (Genesis 13:13; Genesis 18:20; Genesis 19:4-5). The Lord removed them when He saw their sins (cf. Lamentations 4:6; Matthew 11:23-24).
Samaria was bad, but not half as bad as Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem made her wicked sister cities look good by comparison. This was a disgrace to Jerusalem, that she had made other wicked cities look righteous (cf. Matthew 11:23-24).
Jerusalem would experience captivity as Sodom and Samaria had. Evidently the Lord meant that the people of Sodom had experienced captivity in the sense that He had taken them away. Jerusalem’s captivity would bring humiliation and shame to her people when they realized that their judgment had been a comfort to the people of Sodom and Samaria. Obviously these people were now dead, but the parabolic form of this message allows for some unusual details. Jerusalem’s captivity had showed them that Jerusalem was worse than these towns. Yet the Lord would end the captivity of all these towns; their descendants would have a future (cf. Deuteronomy 30:3).
"The main point seems to be that God’s willingness to restore Jerusalem, despite the magnitude of her sin, offers hope for other sinful nations, even those who violate his moral standards in blatant ways." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 252.]
Many people of Jerusalem did not even speak of the Sodomites because they were such great sinners. Yet in the future the people of Edom and the Philistines, Israel’s ancient enemies, would not speak of the Jerusalemites because they were such great sinners.
The Jerusalemites were bearing the penalty of their lewdness and abominations; the Babylonians were threatening to destroy them completely. The Lord promised to deal with them as they had dealt with Him. They had despised His covenant, and now He would despise them.
Yet the Lord promised to remember and stand by His promises in the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3). He would establish a new, everlasting covenant with His people in the future (cf. Ezekiel 11:18-20; Ezekiel 36:26-28; Ezekiel 37:26-28; Isaiah 59:21; Isaiah 61:8; Jeremiah 31:31-34). The New Covenant is an organic outgrowth of the Abrahamic Covenant in that it explains further the blessing aspect of that covenant. It does not have the same relationship to the Mosaic Covenant, which it eventually replaced. In the (far distant) future, when the other cities of Canaan would come under Israel’s authority (ch. 48; Genesis 17:7-8; Leviticus 26:42), the Israelites would remember their sinful ways and feel ashamed (cf. Ezekiel 20:43; Ezekiel 36:31; Zechariah 12:10-14). Other nations would come under Israel’s authority, not because of her faithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant, but because of God’s grace. [Note: See Martin H. Woudstra, "The Everlasting Covenant in Ezekiel 16:59-63," Calvin Theological Journal 6 (1971):22-48.]
"God can no more help being gracious than He can cease being God. He is the God of all grace, and He always finds a covenant basis on which He can exercise His grace." [Note: Feinberg, p. 92.]
The restoration of Jerusalem 16:60-63
The Lord promised to establish His new covenant with His people, and then they would know that He was Yahweh. He would do this to humble His people and to stimulate them to obey Him by demonstrating forgiveness (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13).
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezekiel 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany