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In the magnificent allegory which occupies this chapter, the sin and consequent rejection of Israel is set forth in still stronger terms than in anything which has gone before. There are three main parts of the chapter: the sin (Ezekiel 16:3-34), the punishment (Ezekiel 16:35-52), and the final restoration of Israel (Ezekiel 16:53-63). The extreme aggravation of the sin is shown from the fact that Israel had no original claim upon God’s favour, nor anything to make her attractive—she was merely an exposed and repulsive foundling (Ezekiel 16:3-5)—when God took pity upon, and saved, and cared for her (Ezekiel 16:6-7). Then when she had come of age, He entered into covenant with, and greatly blessed her (Ezekiel 16:8-14); but she proved utterly unfaithful to her covenant—an unfaithful wife; wanton beyond all precedent (Ezekiel 16:15-34). Hence her punishment.
(3) Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan.—In the original the words “births” and “nativities” are in the plural, already indicating what the whole context makes plain, that the reference is not to the natural, but to the spiritual origin of Israel. So our Lord says to the Jews of His time, “Ye are of your father, the devil” (John 8:44; comp. Matthew 3:9); and Isaiah addresses his contemporaries as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrha” (Isaiah 1:10). The word births, as indicated by the margin, comes from a verb meaning to cut or dig out, as stone from the quarry; and there is a play upon this sense in Isaiah 51:1. Israel’s character, her spiritual nativity, was thoroughly Canaanitish.
An Amorite . . . an Hittite.—These two tribes, especially the former, as the most prominent in Canaan, are frequently put for the whole (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 1:44, with Numbers 14:45; Joshua 10:5; 2 Kings 21:11, &c). The dealings of the patriarchs in Canaan were particularly with the Hittites (Genesis 23:0; Genesis 26:34-35; Genesis 27:46; Genesis 28:1; Genesis 28:6-8). This once great and powerful nation had almost faded from history; but their monuments and inscriptions are just now beginning to be discovered and deciphered.
(4) Washed in water to supple thee.—The various particulars of this and the following verse describe a child cast out into the field immediately upon its birth, unpitied by any one, and in a condition in which it must soon have perished. Neither the text nor the margin seems to have hit upon the sense of the word translated “to supple,” the probable meaning of which is “to cleanse.” The rubbing of the body of the new-born infant with salt, a custom still prevailing in some parts of the east, probably had a symbolical, as well as a supposed physical effect; and is recommended for the latter reason by Galen (De Sanit. i. 7). The wrapping the body tightly in swaddling-bands (Comp. Luke 2:7) is still common, even in Italy. The time here referred to in the life of Israel is that in which it passed from its embryonic state in the family of the patriarchs to a nation in the bondage of Egypt. Despised, oppressed, and enslaved, no other people ever became a nation under such circumstances. Humanly speaking, national life was an impossibility for them.
(6) Live.—While they were in this condition, God took pity on them. He delivered them from their oppressors; He raised up a leader for them , He gave them a law and a Church, with its priesthood and its sacraments; He led them into the land of promise, delivered them from their enemies, and constituted them a nation under the most favourable circumstances for their growth and development in all righteousness. The sense is well expressed in our version; but the original does not contain the word when, nor words corresponding to the words in italics. The connection shows that “in thy blood” is to be taken with “I said,” and not with “live;” it was while Israel was in its unclean and neglected condition that the gracious word “live” was spoken. The Chaldee paraphrast has adopted the other connection, and ingeniously explained, “I revealed myself that I might redeem you, because I saw that you were afflicted in your bondage; and I said unto you, In the blood of circumcision I will pity you. and I said unto you, In the blood of the passover I will redeem you.” The word polluted is better rendered by the margin, trodden under foot, referring to their oppressed condition in Egypt.
(7) I have caused thee.—Omit the “have,” and modify the tenses throughout the verse. “I caused thee . . . thou didst increase and wax tall . . . and came to beauty . . . were fashioned . . . was grown.” In the first clause, “caused thee to multiply,” the literal sense takes the place of the figurative; but the rest of the verse describes Israel as a young woman just growing up into the beauty of early womanhood. The phrase “excellent ornaments” is somewhat difficult; but is now generally understood as meaning literally “ornament of cheeks,” i.e., beauty. The whereas in the last clause may give the impression of a contrast between the state described and the former one of infancy; this is not intended. But the meaning is, that while Israel was thus growing into the full development and beauty of womanhood, she was still “naked and bare.”
(8) Now when I passed by thee.—Here, as in Ezekiel 16:6, omit the when, and render, “and I passed by thee.” Two separate visits are spoken of: the one in Israel’s infancy in Egypt, when God blessed and multiplied her (Ezekiel 16:6); the other when she had become a nation, and God entered into covenant with her in the Exodus and at Sinai. The verse describes this covenant in terms of the marriage relation, a figure very frequent in Scripture. On the phrase “spread my skirt,” comp. Ruth 3:9, and on “becamest mine,” Ruth 4:10.
(9-14) These verses describe the purifications and preparations for marriage to one of high rank (comp. Esther 2:9; Esther 2:12). The reality corresponding to the figure is, of course, the Divine care over Israel at Sinai, in the wilderness, and in the conquest of Canaan.
(10) Badgers’ skin.—See Exodus 25:5. The thing intended is a fine kind of leather prepared from the skin of some sea animal; but the critics differ as to the particular animal intended, whether the dolphin or the dugong. “Fine linen” was a luxury much valued by the ancients, while “silk” is a word used only here and in Ezekiel 16:13, and its meaning is much questioned. By its etymology it is thought to express fineness of texture; and our translators have followed the rabbinical tradition in understanding it to mean silk.
(11-14) In these verses the Divinely-given prosperity and glory of Israel is set forth under the sustained figure of the ornaments and food of a royal eastern bride. The various particulars mentioned are familiar to all readers of the Scripture histories. The latter part of Ezekiel 16:13 and Ezekiel 16:14 evidently refer to the times of David and Solomon, when the kingdom of Israel extended from the Euphrates to the “river of Egypt,” and very many of the surrounding kingdoms were made tributary. Israel then was renowned among the heathen, but its glory was pre-eminently as the nation of Jehovah, “through my comeliness which I had put upon thee.”
(12) A jewel on thy forehead.—Literally, a nose-ring on thy nostril, the custom of the time sanctioning this mode of ornament.
In contrast to God’s kindness and abundant blessing, Israel’s grievous sin is now described (Ezekiel 16:15-34). It is to be remembered that however this extraordinary sin was the natural fruit of neglected grace, it yet was extraordinary. It is not by mere hyperbole that Israel is represented as worse than others. The grace which does not elevate always reacts by directing to a lower depth. (See Excursus at end of this Book on Ezekiel 5:7).
(15) Didst trust in thine own beauty.—Comp. Deuteronomy 32:15; Hosea 13:6. There can scarcely be a more striking instance of the working of the hand of Providence in history than the story of the kingdom of Israel during and after the reign of Solomon. Raised as a theocracy to great power and wealth by the Divine blessing, it began to trust in its own beauty. Solomon’s policy was to make it a great and powerful empire among the nations of the earth, losing sight of its true character as the kingdom of God. Consequently the very means he took to aggrandise it became the instruments of its fall. His vast Oriental harem, gathered from all surrounding nations, introduced idolatry into the palace, and fostered it throughout the land. His magnificence was sustained by taxation, which gave the pretext for revolt. The doom was pronounced that the kingdom should be divided, and when this was fulfilled at Solomon’s death, his empire outside the boundaries of Palestine fell apart like a rope of sand, while within, instead of one compact and united monarchy, were two petty kingdoms often in hostility to one another, and each inviting to its assistance the most powerful neighbouring monarchs, to whose rapacity the whole ultimately fell a prey.
Playedst the harlot . . . his it would be.—The political relation of the two parts of Israel just described, placed her at the mercy of every more powerful nation, and gave the impetus to every sort of idolatry which her masters chose to encourage. This apostacy from God, still keeping up the figure of the earlier part of the chapter, is represented as harlotry; and not only so, but as indiscriminate harlotry, for Israel never adopted and clung to any one false God, but worshipped the abominations of every nation which prevailed over her.
(16) Deckedst thy high places with divers colours.—The use of colours, and especially of tapestry in colours, in the adornment of places of worship, was universal throughout the religions of antiquity. It formed a striking feature of the adornment of the Tabernacle, and what is censured here is the perversion of this, which should have been for the glory of God, to the honour of idols. Translate the last clause of the verse, as in apposition with what goes before, “Things which should not come, and that which should not take place.”
The three following verses emphasise the apostacy of Israel by taking up various particulars of the symbolical good gifts which God had given her, and showing how she had perverted them to idolatry. It was a chief feature of the charge against her that these gifts were from God, and that she had given them to another—a charge which must for ever remain true of the perversion of the talents God has given to any other than His own service.
(20) Hast sacrificed unto them, i.e., hast sacrificed the children unto the idols. This was a terrible development of the later idolatries of Israel. At first the custom appears to have been a ceremony of passing young children through the fire to thereby consecrate them to Moloch; but afterwards it became an actual sacrifice of them in the fire to the idol. The Lord speaks of them in Ezekiel 16:20, as “thy children whom thou hast borne unto Me;” they were indeed Israel’s children, but still children whom God had given to her. Then in Ezekiel 16:21, by a most significant change of the pronoun, He calls them “My children,” the sin itself being aggravated by giving to the idol that which belonged to Jehovah. The last clause of the verse would be better translated, Were thy whoredoms too little?—i.e., was not apostacy enough without adding thereto this terrible and unnatural crime?
(23) After all thy wickedness.—The sin and idolatry hitherto described had been derived by Israel chiefly from the Canaanites, the old inhabitants of the land; but now. in accordance with what was said in Ezekiel 16:15, the prophet goes on to speak of the other abundant idolatries adopted eagerly by the Israelites from foreign nations.
(24) Built unto thee an eminent place.—The word means literally, arches. Such arched rooms were used in connection with the worship of idols for licentious purposes, and hence the translation of the margin indicates the real object of the structure, whether the word be taken in its literal sense, or spiritually, of unfaithfulness to God. In the following verse the indiscriminateness of Israel’s idolatry is expressed in the strongest terms, and then in the following verses the adoption of the idolatries of several nations in particular is specified.
(26) The Egyptians . . . great of flesh.—The Egyptians are properly named first, because, even in the golden calf of the wilderness, the Israelites turned with avidity to the worship of Egypt. This tendency seems to have been only suppressed, not extinguished, during the subsequent ages, and remained ever ready to develop itself, as in the calves of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-30); but it received great accession of strength during the reigns of Solomon and his successors. The Egyptians are called “great of flesh” from the character of their popular worship, which was a thoroughly sensuous nature worship. The connection of Israel with Egypt in the latter part of the monarchy was not only religious, but political, in bold defiance of the reiterated Divine commands. Especially at this time, a great part of the work of Jeremiah was to oppose the tendency of the successive kings of Judah to alliance with Egypt.
(27) Diminished thine ordinary food.—This cutting short of the power and prosperity of Israel was a discipline of correction designed to bring her to a consciousness of her sin.
The daughters of the Philistines, i.e., their cities, according to the figurative language of the chapter, and indeed the common figurative language of Scripture. Philistia was but a small power in the south-west corner of Palestine, yet from the time of the Judges down through the whole period of the monarchy, they were the persistent foes of Israel. During the time immediately before Samuel, they held nearly the entire land in subjection, and although subdued by David, they became troublesome again in the times of the later kings (see 2 Chronicles 26:7; 2 Chronicles 28:18), and are often spoken of not only by the earlier prophets, Isaiah and Amos, but also by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:20; Jeremiah 47:1; Jeremiah 47:4), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 25:15-16), and Zechariah Zechariah 9:6).
Ashamed of thy lewd way.—The Philistines, true to their own false gods, despised the Israelites for their unfaithfulness to Jehovah. It is the old but ever new story of the heathen repelled from the truth by the unworthiness of its professed followers.
(28) With the Assyrians.—The Assyrians and Egyptians were for many centuries in deadly hostility against each other, and it would seem that Israel could hardly have formed alliances with and adopted the idolatries of both. Nevertheless they had done so, and in addition to their Egyptian idolatries, had gone to the extent, in the time of Ahaz, of displacing the altar in the court of the Temple, and putting in its stead an altar of the gods of Assyria (2 Kings 16:0.
(29) In the land of Canaan unto Chaldæa.—Canaan was originally the name of only that strip of land between the hills and the sea occupied by the Phœnicians, in other words, the lowlands. Thence it became extended over the whole land. It is thought by some writers to revert here to its original meaning, and be equivalent to the low, flat land. The expression will become clearer if translated, “the Canaan land Chaldaea.” The word, however, bears also the meaning of traffic, commerce (Isaiah 23:8; Hosea 12:7; Zephaniah 1:11), and in this sense is applied to Babylon in Ezekiel 17:4, and this is the better meaning here. The idea will then be that Israel, beginning its idolatries in the actual Canaan, had extended them along with her commercial intercourse on every side, until at last she had carried them even to Chaldæa, the great commercial emporium of the time.
(30) Weak.—The English word scarcely expresses the force of the original :—languishing with desire. The word heart occurs here only in the feminine.
(31) Eminent place.—See note on Ezekiel 16:24.
In that thou scornest him.—It was characteristic of both the kingdoms of Israel after the division, that the interference of foreign nations in their affairs was generally sought first by Israel itself and purchased at a heavy price. The people were so situated on the great highway between the rival nations of Egypt and Assyria, that their friendship ought to have been of value to either of them, and to have been sought with great inducements. But Israel, in its weakness and wickedness, more than threw itself away and purchased its own ruin. The particulars mentioned in this verse belong to the past rather than to the present, and all the tenses should be so translated.
(33) Thou givest thy gifts.—2 Kings 16:8-9, may be referred to as an instance in illustration. Ahaz “took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord,” as well as “the treasures of the king’s house,” and used it to secure the alliance of the king of Assyria.
The prophet, having up to this point described the sin, now turns to pronounce the punishment upon Israel (Ezekiel 16:35-52). The same allegory is still preserved, and the punishment is depicted in the same figurative language as the sin. This portion of the prophecy may be subdivided into two parts, in the first of which (Ezekiel 16:35-43) the punishment itself is described in terms taken from the legal punishment of the adulteress and murderess; while in the second (Ezekiel 16:44-52) the justice of this doom is vindicated, especially by a comparison with Samaria on the one side, and with Sodom on the other.
(36) Thy filthiness.—Literally, thy brass, i.e., money, which, as said in the previous verses, Israel had lavished upon the surrounding nations. Either gold or silver is the more common term for money, and the prophet appears to have here used brass contemptuously. In this verse the people’s apostasies are briefly recapitulated, under the names of adultery and child murder, as the basis for what follows.
(37) Thou hast loved . . . hast hated.—Not only those with whom Israel had sought alliances, but those who had been her hereditary foes, like the Philistines and Edomites, shared in the spoil of her land. Much of this had been already accomplished (see 2 Kings 16:6; 2 Chronicles 28:17-18, &c). Israel’s weakness and wickedness should be fully exposed to all her enemies.
(38) Women that break wedlock and shed blood.—Under the Mosaic law the penalty for adultery was death (Leviticus 20:10), and the same penalty also was attached to the devotion of “seed to Moloch” (Leviticus 20:1-5), and to murder (Exodus 21:12). The Jewish method of capital punishment on individuals was by stoning (see Leviticus 20:2, and comp. John 8:5), and of punishing an apostate city was by the sword (Deuteronomy 13:15). Hence both modes are mentioned together in Ezekiel 16:40, though somewhat at the expense of the consistency of the allegory. The last clause would be more exactly translated, “I will make thee blood of fury and jealousy,” the fury referring to the avenging of murder, and the jealousy to the punishment of adultery, each requiring the life, or blood, of the offender.
(39) Eminent places.—See Note on Ezekiel 16:24. The destruction of her idolatries as well as the desolation of Israel herself is foretold.
(41) Shall burn thine house.—Comp. Deuteronomy 13:16. The figurative and the literal sense here blend together; the house of the unfaithful wife shall be destroyed, and the houses of Jerusalem shall be burned.
(42) My fury . . . to rest.—Not in pity but in satiety, as having accomplished the utter desolation of Israel.
(43) Hast fretted me.—Better, hast raged against me. This form of the verb does not have a transitive sense. (Comp. Genesis 45:24; Proverbs 29:9; and in this particular form, 2 Kings 19:27-28; Isaiah 37:28-29, where the same word is used.)
Thou shalt not commit.—The English here follows the Masoretic punctuation, putting the verb in the second person. Probably it should be read in the first person (which only changes the Masoretic vowels) and translated “that I may not commit wickedness concerning all thine abominations.” The word for wickedness is the especial word used for one who tolerates sin in another who is under his control (see Leviticus 19:29). God represents that it would be wrong to allow Israel’s sin to go unpunished.
(44) As is the mother.—The sin of the people had become so notorious as to attract general attention, and lead to the application of this proverb. The nativity of Israel described in Ezekiel 16:3 is here in mind, and the proverb becomes equivalent to saying, these sins belong to every people living in Canaan; once practised by the Amorites and Hittites, they are now continued by the Israelites.
(45) Which lothed their husbands.—Israel, like Samaria and Sodom, being spiritually of Amorite and Hittite descent, they are represented as her sisters. A certain difficulty arises from the statement that they, too, “lothed their husbands and their children,” and this is only removed by remembering that, notwithstanding their heathenism and long course of idolatry, they are still regarded as having gone astray from primeval revelation, and proved false to the only true God whom they once had known.
(46) Thine elder sister.—The words elder and younger mean, literally, greater and smaller. They thus come, like the Latin major and minor, to be used for older and younger; but still their original and most common meaning, which should be retained here, is greater and smaller. Chronologically, Sodom was not younger than Jerusalem, nor is there evidence that Samaria was older. The terms are to be understood of Samaria as the capital of the far larger northern kingdom, and of Sodom as a single city of no great population. The Orientals, in describing geographical positions, considered themselves as facing the east, and hence Samaria (at the north) was on the left, and Sodom on the right. Sodom is spoken of poetically as if still in existence. They were both the spiritual sisters of Judah, just as all alike were daughters of the Amorite and Hittite.
(47) As if that were a very little thing.—Better, thou hast not walked after their ways, nor done after their abominations a little only, but hast done more corruptly than they, &c. This excess of wickedness is constantly charged upon the Jews (see Ezekiel 5:6-7). Sodom had indeed sinned grievously in its day, but more than 1,000 years had since passed, in which resistance to Divine admonitions had led on to a still more grievous depth of wickedness; and Samaria had been carried into captivity more than a century before the time of the prophet, and during this period the people, with now and then a few short intervals of reformation, had been tending steadily downwards. This same thought is dwelt upon in the four following verses, in which the sin of Sodom is described, while that of Samaria is passed over as being sufficiently well known.
(49) Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness.—The description strikes at the causes rather than the overt acts of sin, and the unnatural crimes which are always associated in our minds with the name of Sodom are not mentioned. It is noticeable, however, that the distinct sin which is mentioned in this passage is the negative one too common in all ages, “neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
(50) As I saw good.—The word good is not in the original, and should be omitted, and the particle translated when: “Therefore I took them away when I saw this.” Punishment followed upon the manifestation of their sin. (Comp. Genesis 18:21.)
(51) Hast justified thy sisters.—The same expression is repeated in the following verse. In both it is evidently used in a comparative sense. By the greatness of Judah’s sins even Sodom and Samaria were made to appear innocent in comparison.
(52) Hast judged thy sisters.—Judah had approved the judgments upon Sodom and Samaria, as it is always easy for man to approve judgments upon the sins of others; but now this must be brought home to herself for her own greater sins. (Comp. Romans 2:0)
Having described the sin and the punishment, the prophet now goes on in the remainder of the chapter to speak of the restoration of Israel. This is first declared in the strongest terms to be impossible (Ezekiel 16:53-59), and the efforts of many commentators to transform the language into a covert promise of restoration are entirely unsuccessful. After this, indeed, in Ezekiel 16:60-63, the establishment of the Divine covenant with Israel is fully and distinctly promised. Yet there is no contradiction between the two, for the prophet had a right to suppose that the people would remember what had been so plainly declared before: that while the nation as a whole must perish, yet after the purifying chastisements of the Lord He would have mercy upon and bless a remnant who should be saved. The general doom is first announced as irrevocable; then the exception is made for the few.
(53) Shall bring again their captivity.—This is not a promise of restoration to Israel; but, on the contrary, is an expression of the utter hopelessness of their punishment in the strongest possible form. The “bringing again of captivity “does not, indeed, necessarily mean a return from exile (into which Sodom had not been carried); but, as explained in Ezekiel 16:55, a return to the former estate, that is, a state of happiness and prosperity. In the case of Sodom this was manifestly impossible; and even in the case of Samaria it would, if accomplished, lack any historical identification. Sodom and her daughters (the surrounding cities) had perished with all their inhabitants many ages ago, leaving no descendants behind. Restoration was, therefore, obviously impossible; and by conditioning the restoration of Jerusalem on an impossible thing, it is meant to be most strongly denied.
(54) Art a comfort unto them.—Compare what was said of justifying them in Ezekiel 16:51-52. The greater sin of Judah became a comfort by throwing their own evil into the shade.
(57) Thy reproach of the daughters of Syria—The pronoun should be omitted, and the phrase read, “the reproach.” The time referred to, when Jerusalem was too proud to make mention of Sodom, was in the days of her prosperity. Later her “wickedness was discovered,” and her pride humbled by such disasters. as fell upon her, especially from the days of Ahaz onward. At that time she was hard pressed both by the Syrians and by the Philistines (2 Kings 15:37; 2 Chronicles 28:18-19), and impoverished herself to obtain aid from Assyria (2 Kings 16:8); and such straits continued to mark her subsequent history. (See 2 Kings 24:2.) In the weakness and disasters towards the close of her kingdom, Judah became an object of contempt to the surrounding nations, “despised “by Syria and Philistia alike. Another view less probably refers “thy reproach” to Judah’s exultation at the fall of Syria and the Philistines before the march of the Assyrians.
(59) In breaking the covenant.—This was the especial point of the heinousness of the sin of the Jews, and the one which so greatly aggravated their guilt. The sin was necessarily proportioned to the light against which it had been committed. (Comp. John 9:39; John 9:41; John 15:22; John 15:24.)
(60) I will remember my covenant.—The remembrance of God’s covenant is made the basis of His mercy to His penitent people (Leviticus 26:42-45) from the beginning, and it is often spoken of as an everlasting covenant. In the New Testament (Luke 1:54-55; Luke 1:72-73, &c.) this covenant is regarded as fulfilled in the Christian dispensation. At the same time, the Christian covenant is described as new in Jeremiah 31:31-34; it was both the continuation and designed fulfilment of the old, and in its superiority and plainer revelation of the Divine will was new. Hence the contrast between My covenant here and Thy covenant in the following verse. The covenant to be afterwards established shall be “an everlasting covenant.”
(61) Give them unto thee for daughters.—The humiliation of Jerusalem must be so complete that she will gladly receive these once-despised enemies to the closest family relationship. We are not here to think of Sodom specifically, but (the concrete passing into the general) of that which Sodom represented, the heathen world at large. This shall be received with Jerusalem to the church of God; “but not by thy covenant.” The covenant with Israel, however it may have been preceded by a “preaching of the Gospel” to Abraham (Galatians 3:8), was distinctly a covenant of works, under which neither Jew nor Gentile could attain salvation (see Rom. and Gal. throughout). Not, therefore, by this should the nations of the earth be given to Jerusalem as representing the Church.
(62) Establish my covenant with thee.—The old covenant, having failed, is merged in the new and better covenant promised in 11:19; 18:31; and more fully in Jeremiah 31:31-34. This new covenant, established through a perfect Mediator, can alone perfectly fulfil God’s gracious designs for man, although the way for it must necessarily have been prepared by the less perfect covenant of old.
(63) Pacified toward theo.—Better, when I pardon thee. The original word is the one used technically in the law for the atonement or “covering up” of sins; and the thought is, when God shall forgive the sins of His people, and receive them to communion with Himself.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 16". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany