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Monday, June 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 21

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-7

CHAPTER 20:45-49, 21.


THE five concluding verses in Ezekiel 20:45-49, as already noticed, should evidently have been connected with Ezekiel 21:0, and are justly regarded by interpreters as a kind of general introduction to what follows, or a brief delineation under one aspect of what is afterwards more fully and explicitly described under another. The leading import of the vision is plain enough; but it is written throughout in a style so singularly abrupt, and in some parts so utterly enigmatical, that it may certainly be considered, as a whole, one of the darkest portions of Ezekiel’s writings. Even Horsley, who was not scrupulous in forcing a way where none naturally presented itself, has here simply left a record of his inability to proceed, in the brief note, “The difficulties of this passage are to me insuperable.” For once, at least, his ready resort to a change in the text proved insufficient to bring the necessary relief. Various emendations of the text have been suggested by late authors; but these, being of an entirely arbitrary and conjectural character, are incapable of yielding satisfaction, and are seldom even deserving of notice. I cannot, certainly, pretend to say that I see my way through all the obscurities of the passage, as it stands, and shall not hesitate to state my doubts as to the real meaning, where I have failed to get them removed. But the portions of this kind are not, after all, very numerous, and will be found to interfere comparatively little with the general import of the prophet’s communication.

For the greater facility and clearness of interpretation, we shall take the passage in successive portions.

Ezekiel 20:45 . And the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

Ezekiel 20:46 . Son of man, set thy face by the way on the right (south), and pour forth toward the south, and prophesy towards the forest of the field in the south.

Ezekiel 20:47 . And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of Jehovah: Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in thee; and it will devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree; the glowing flame (The two words here used, לַהֶבֶת שַׁלְחֶבֶת are very like in sound, and also not very different in meaning, although they are not quite so synonymous as our translators have taken them to be. The second rather means ardent, glowing heat, than flame in the ordinary sense. What is meant is evidently a flame of intense fervency.) shall not be quenched, and all faces shall be scorched by it, (Here, as not unfrequently with Ezekiel, the figure is dropt, or rather, figure and reality are mingled together. He lets out the secret, that men are represented by the trees, when he speaks of all faces being burnt. (See similar violations in Ezekiel 19:7, and various passages in Ezekiel 21:0.)) from the south to the north.

Ezekiel 20:48 . And all flesh shall see that I Jehovah have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.

Ezekiel 20:49 . And I said, Ah! Lord God, they say of me, Does he not speak in parables?

In this portion there is an obscurity, but it is an obscurity that arises simply from the want of precision in defining the exact sphere of the vision. That it indicates a severe and consuming judgment from the Lord upon some land and people, situated somewhere to the south of the prophet, admits of no doubt. For the substitution in one place of faces instead of trees, as the subjects of the burning, renders it manifest that the vision has respect to the inhabitants of a country. And when the conflagration is represented as falling upon every tree, the green as well as the dry, those that were apparently not fit as well as those that were fit fuel for the flame, this could only be meant to express the fearfully comprehensive character of the coming judgment, as not sparing even the better part, who might seem undeserving of such a visitation. It is in the same way, and with reference, doubtless, to this part of the vision, that our Lord, pointing from the troubles that were befalling himself, to those which were soon to befall the Jewish people, said, “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31); if such things befall one who has done nothing to provoke them, what may be expected for those who are the fit objects of Heaven’s vengeance? or, if the righteous suffer thus, what must be the measure of severity that is preparing to overtake the wicked? So that by the green trees can only be understood the more righteous, and by the dry trees the more wicked portions of the community; they were all alike to be involved in the coming desolation. But who precisely were the people thus to be visited, or by what kind of instrumentality the desolation was to be brought upon them, the vision so far is entirely silent; and it might truly be said in this respect, that the prophet was speaking in parables. He notices the complaint that was sometimes made respecting the parabolical character of his communications, as if on this occasion, at least, it might justly be complained of. And he presently obtains from the Lord what may be called a duplicate of the vision, only of such a kind as served to make perfectly intelligible both who the objects of the foreseen calamity were, and who also were to be the instruments of inflicting these upon them.

Ezekiel 21:1 . And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

Ezekiel 20:2 . Son of man, set thy face toward Jerusalem, and pour forth toward the holy places, and prophesy toward the land of Israel.

Ezekiel 20:3 . And say to the land of Israel, Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of its scabbard, and will cut off from thee righteous and wicked.

Ezekiel 20:4 . Because I cut off from thee righteous and wicked, therefore my sword shall go forth out of its scabbard against all flesh from south to north.

Ezekiel 20:5 . And all flesh shall know that I Jehovah do make my sword to go forth out of its scabbard; nor shall it return again.

Ezekiel 20:6 . And thou, son of man, sigh with breaking of loins, and with bitterness sigh before their eyes.

Ezekiel 20:7 . And it shall be, when they say to thee, Wherefore dost thou sigh? that thou shalt say, For the tidings; because it comes, and every heart melts, and all hands hang down, and every spirit faints, and all knees become water; lo! it comes, and shall be brought to pass, saith the Lord Jehovah.

Here the darkness and ambiguity that hung over the earlier part of the vision, so far as the precise locality is concerned, is entirely removed. The region of judgment and desolation is now expressly determined to be the land of Israel, and more especially Jerusalem and its holy places. And if any doubt had remained as to the extent of meaning indicated in the former vision by the burning up of “every green and every dry tree,” the declaration that the sword to be presently drawn was to cut off both “the righteous and the wicked,” must have set it completely at rest. But the announcement that there was going to be such an indiscriminate and unsparing execution of judgment in Judea is startling, and presents an apparent contrariety to the command given in an earlier vision (Ezekiel 9:4), to seal the fore heads of the righteous, as persons set apart and entrusted to the safe custody of God against the coming evil. It was, no doubt, the stumbling-block of this seeming contrariety which prompted the translator in the Septuagint to make a violent change in the text, so as to express the sense,” I will destroy out of thee the lawless and unjust” ( ἐξολεθρεύσω ἐκ σοῦ ἄδικον καὶ ἄνομον. ). But it is only on a superficial consideration that the one passage will appear at all contradictory to the other. For here, as is manifest from the whole nature of the representation, it is the merely external aspect of the visitation which the prophet has in his eye. The sword of the Lord’s judgment, he announced, was to pass through the land, and accomplish such a sweeping overthrow, that all, without exception, would be made to suffer in the fearful catastrophe. This did not prevent, however, but that there might be, in the midst of the outward calamities which were thus to burst like a mighty tempest over the land, a vigilant oversight maintained, and special interpositions of Providence exercised, in behalf of the pious remnant who still continued faithful to the covenant of God. It was this distinguishing goodness to some, even amid the horrors of a general desolation, which, as we showed before, was the real object of that sealing of God’s servants on the forehead in a former vision; while here, on the other hand, it is merely the general desolation itself which is contemplated by the prophet. And the very circumstance that he should now have looked so exclusively on the outward scene of carnage and distress, which he descried in the approaching future, seemed to say that this was to be the grand feature of the time, and that the special interpositions which were to be put forth in behalf of the better portion would be so few that they scarcely required to be taken into account. It is obvious, too, that the description given even of the general desolation must be understood with some limitation. For, that the sword should literally be unsheathed against all flesh from north to south in the land, and should cut off or destroy all within its borders, whether righteous or wicked, would not only be at variance with the other prophecies of Ezekiel, but would even not consist with the sequel of this prediction itself, which, as we shall see, still speaks of a purpose of mercy in behalf of the covenant-people. But undoubtedly he wished to convey the impression of a very fearful and overwhelming destruction. The immediate prospect of this national disaster had called his mind back again from the bright vision of distant glory he had unfolded at the close of the preceding communication, and as seeing all now overshadowed with gloom, his soul was filled with the deepest trouble and anguish. Agitated and rent, as he thus was, with the most painful and violent emotions, he naturally proceeds to give utterance to his feelings in abrupt sentences and plaintive reiterations.

Verses 8-17

Ezekiel 21:8 . And the word of the Lord came to me, sayinng,

Ezekiel 21:9 . Son of man, prophesy and say, Thus saith Jehovah, Say a sword, a sword sharpened, and also furbished!

Ezekiel 21:10 . Sharpened in order that it may kill, kill; furbished in order that it may glitter as lightning. (Literally, that the lightning-flash may belong to it. It was to look terrible, as well as to execute fearful desolations. The language evidently has respect to Deuteronomy 32:41, where the Lord also speaks of “whetting his glittering sword, and his hand taking hold of judgment.”) Perchance the sceptre of my son rejoiceth; it (the sword) despiseth every tree. (We have here only a choice of difficulties. The sentence is so enigmatical, that the greater part of commentators have supposed the text to be corrupted, and suggest alterations of various kinds. The LXX. express an entirely different sense from what can be made out by any construction from the present text. But the arbitrary change made at Ezekiel 21:3 clearly shows that the Greek translator was not scrupulous in making a plain sense when he thought the original did not afford it. He renders here, σφάζε , ἐξουδένει ἀπόθον πᾶν ξύλον , slay, set at nought, despise every tree. Jerome notices this strange rendering of the LXX., and himself translates with more regard to the Hebrew, but still with some licence, qui moves sceptrum filii mei, succidisti omne lignum, thou that shakest the sceptre of my son, hast felled all wood. The modern versions are endlessly varied. Of those which take the text as it stands, perhaps the nearest to our authorized version is De Wette’s, “or shall we rejoice ourselves? the rod of my son despises all wood;” a rendering, however, which is grammatically inadmissible, and, besides, makes no very intelligible sense. Hävernick translates, “or shall, on the other hand, my son’s sceptre bear itself proudly, else despising every wood?” not only coupling the masculine שֵׁבֵט with the feminine מֹאֶסֶת but giving also a quite arbitrary meaning to נָשִׂישׂ . The meaning I have given has, at least, the merit of doing no violence to the existing text, or to the received import of the words: “perchance (a quite common meaning of אוֹ ) the sceptre (rod) of my son rejoiceth,” or is glad spoken, as I take it, ironically, as if the king of Judah, proudly presuming on being God’s son (2 Samuel 7:12; 2 Samuel 7:14), could afford to exult at the display of God’s sword, because either expecting it to be drawn on behalf of his throne, or so, at least, as not to overthrow it. But the vain confidence is dispelled as soon as conceived. It (the sword, חֶרֶב , the only feminine nominative in the preceding context to agree with מִאֶסֶת ) despises every tree, or all wood. It has no respect to the rod or sceptre of Judah, no more than if it were a piece of ordinary wood. And accordingly he goes on to say, that it is to be used against both the princes and the people of Judah.)

Ezekiel 21:11 . And it is given to be furbished, that it may be taken into the hand; it is a sword sharpened and furbished, that it may be put into the hand of the destroyer.

Ezekiel 21:12 . Cry and howl, son of man; for it shall be upon my people, upon all the princes of Israel, who are given up (The word מְגוּרֵי , as is now commonly admitted, is the participle from מָגַר , to fall to, or throw. The princes of Israel were thrown to the sword, or given up to it.) to the sword with my people; therefore smite upon thy thigh.

Ezekiel 21:13 . For it makes trial (or impersonally, trial is made), and what if it (the sword) despise also the sceptre? It (the sceptre) shall not be (i.e. shall cease to exist), saith the Lord Jehovah. (Here, again, the expression is very abrupt and difficult. Numberless modes of solution have been proposed, which it is needless to recount. The rendering adopted above is at once the simplest and the most easily understood. According to it, the prophet represents the sword of the Lord as the instrument by which all were to be subjected to a stern ordeal; such an ordeal as would not respect the very sceptre of the king, and hence would bring it to nothing. This, no more than other things, could stand the severe process of judgment, but should be made to disappear.)

Ezekiel 21:14 . And thou, son of man, prophesy, and let hand strike against hand, and the sword shall be doubled threefold; (I have simply given the literal rendering of the passage; but it is hard to say what is meant by the doubling of the sword threefold. De Wette gives, “Let it be repeated for the third time;” and Häv., “Let it be multiplied into threefold.” But כּפַל occurs elsewhere only in the sense of doubling (Exodus 26:9; Exodus 28:16), etc. Perhaps it maybe taken as a pregnant construction, The sword shall be doubled, shall even go into threefold, שְּׁלִישִׁתָה the ה indicating motion towards, the tendency in this direction: into twofold, as far even as threefold, according to the works of judgment to be executed.) it is the sword of the pierced-through, it is the sword of one pierced through, even of the mighty (the singular, pointing more especially to the king), that penetrates to them. (So the older Hebrew interpreters substantially understood the expression, הַתֹדֶרֶה לָהֶם . They took the verb as a denominative from חֶדֶר , penetralia, or inner chamber; hence gave it the meaning of penetrating into, or reaching within. The explanation has recently been somewhat modified from the Aramaic, where the noun has the import of a shut in, an enclosed place; and so Ewald, and after him Häv., Hitzig, render the expression in the text, “that encloses them.” The other seems to me to be more natural, both as suiting the fierce action of the sword, and also because of the preposition ל , which seems to denote motion of some sort towards, up to.)

Ezekiel 21:15 . In order that the heart may faint, and that ruins (literally, stumbling-blocks) may be multi plied, against all their gates do I appoint the glance (or whirl) of the sword; (The expression אִבְחַת־חָרֶב is the glance or whirl of the sword. It occurs nowhere else. But אִבְחַת is understood to be = אִבְכַת , from אָבַךְ , to turn, or involve itself. It may indicate either the whirling glance, or the whirling motion of the sword, as going to be presented at all the gates. The one shade of meaning is preferred by some, and the other by others.) ah, it is made for flashing, prepared for the slaughter. (The only ascertained meaning of עָטַה is to veil or cover; hence לְטָבַה מְעֻמָּה should be covered for the slaughter. Häv. gives from the Arabic, “drawn for slaughter.” The LXX. have εὖ γέγονεν . It seems to be used in some secondary sense, denoting fitness or preparation for the terrible work.)

Ezekiel 21:15 . Concentrate thyself (addressing the sword) on the right, set thyself on the left, whither soever thy face is directed.

Ezekiel 21:17 . I also will strike my hands together, and I will cause my fury to rest; I Jehovah have said it.

While these verses abound with critical difficulties, there is very little that calls for special remark in respect to the train of thought. The passage, as a whole, is descriptive of the fearful devastation that was to be made by the Lord’s sword of vengeance, and of the painful and agitated feelings thence produced in the bosom of the prophet. The coming judgment is represented as a sweeping calamity, taking the circuit of the whole land, and reaching even to the highest personages within it, its king and princes. And as if the desolation were already proceeding under the eye of the prophet, he is called upon to howl and strike his hands together the natural indications of excessive and violent grief. But in this he acted only as the representative of God, and so Jehovah himself is spoken of as in like manner striking his hands together, on account of the mournful desolations that had taken place; while still there was no excess of evil, when viewed in respect to the occasion that called it forth, all was needed in order to make the Lord’s fury, or his indignation on account of sin, to cease.

The prophet now proceeds to indicate more expressly the nature of the visitation which was to be employed as the Lord’s sword of vengeance. And the connection in this respect, as well in regard to the subsequent as to the preceding context, is so justly stated by Hävernick, that we shall here simply translate his words: “The question might now naturally arise, Whither shall the sword of Jehovah turn itself? Shall the punishment be altogether confined to the theocracy? Shall the enemies of this escape? An opportunity was thus furnished to the prophet for drawing a parallel between Judah and Ammon. This parallel exhibits the punishment in respect to its more internal and profound meaning, by discovering wherein these two nations resembled each other, and wherein they differed: Judah has, like Ammon, become an enemy of God, therefore the same judgment alights on both. Nay, the apostate covenant-people first fall under the stroke of the Divine sword. By God’s command, Nebuchadnezzar, the instrument of Jehovah’s anger, must first be sent against Jerusalem, and then against Ammon. Both fall through the hand of one slayer. A sword lights upon their head that had long been destined to this end by God. Again, both similarly despised the threatening judgment, held God’s hand to be mere delusion and vanity (Ezekiel 21:23 and Ezekiel 21:29); they show themselves after the same manner, sinners and daring rebels against God. Judah’s sin is brought into remembrance even by the Chaldean monarch; for Ammon, the theocracy is an object only of scorn and emnity (Ezekiel 21:23, Ezekiel 21:28, and Ezekiel 21:30). So that in both alike the measure of iniquity is full: the end must come to them. But this very end is what also marks the great difference between the two. The theocracy is devoted to the sword, robbed of its splendour and its king; but still the old promises do not on that account perish. Through the awful process of deep humiliation and indescribable misery, Judah reaches the consummation of its height and glory. But the end of Ammon stands in sharp contrast to this; it perishes without hope; its end is an end of terrors, out of which no new state arises; it is devoted to absolute destruction.”

Verses 18-27

Ezekiel 21:18 . And the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

Ezekiel 21:19 . And thou, son of man, set thee two ways, by which the sword of the king of Babylon may come; from one land they shall both proceed; and make a finger-post, (Literally, make or engrave a hand, וְיָד בָּרֵא . The old rendering of “appoint a place,” is now justly exploded; for neither does יָד ever signify exactly a place, or בּרָא to appoint. That the word יָד was sometimes used in much the same sense that our word hand is, as something to indicate or point out what was to be observed or known, is evident from 1Sa 15:12 , 2 Samuel 18:18, where hand-post or index-pillar must be meant. See also Deuteronomy 23:12: “And a hand (or sign-post) shall be to thee without the camp;” and Isaiah 56:5. That בָּרָא is used in the sense of forming or engraving, needs no proof.) at the head of the way to the city make it.

Ezekiel 21:20 . Set a way for the sword to come to Rabbath of the children of Ammon, and to Judah, into Jerusalem the fortified. (The expressions here are chosen with great care to bring out an impressive sense: This way for the sword of the king of Babylon was not only to lead to Judah, but into Jerusalem, to settle and rest there, in the fortified what then will its fortifications avail? In such a connection, the fortified has a strongly ironical meaning.)

Ezekiel 21:21 . For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way (the cross- way, the point where the way to those two cities diverged), (The phrase אֵם הָדֶּרֶך , mother of the way, is peculiar, but there is no reason to think with Häv. that the Arabic sense of highway should be given to it. The point where the king stood was, as it were, the parent of ways. Two directions issued from it; the king hesitated which to take, and the prophet was, as by a finger-post, to indicate his course.) at the head of the two ways, to use divination; he shakes the arrows; he in quires at the teraphim; he inspects the liver. (These things are plainly mentioned as the practices that would naturally be followed by an idolater, such as the king of Babylon, in seeking direction regarding the course it was advisable for him to pursue. The inspection of the liver is known to have been particularly resorted to in such cases, even in the later periods of Greek and Roman History. The shaking of the arrows is not mentioned as a practice in divination among ancient European nations, although some earlier commentators, and s till also Hitzig, held it to be much the same as the βελομαντι ́ α among the Greeks; but it is referred to in some old Arabic writings as formerly in use, Pockocke Specil. Hist. Arab. p. 329, etc.; also Sale’s Koran, Prelim. Disc. sec. 5, makes mention of se ven arrows kept in the temple at Mecca, for the purpose of divining, though only three were customarily used. The practice is condemned in the Koran among other superstitions (c. 5). In one of the sculptures brought from Nineveh, a representation is given of the king with a cup in his right hand, his left resting upon his bow, and then again with two arrows in his right hand and his bow in the left; and there is reason for supposing that he there appears practising the arts of divination, both by cup and arrows (Bonomi’s Nineveh, pp. 263-5). The other action mentioned, inquiring at the teraphim, was an idolatrous practice too frequently resorted to by the covenant-people themselves. Indeed, this is the only passage where the use of teraphim is expressly ascribed to a heathen, although in 1 Samuel 15:23, it is stigmatized as of an essentially heathen, and consequently obnoxious character,” Stubbornness is as iniquity and teraphirn.” They first appear as idol-gods of Mesopotamia, whence Rachel brought them by stealth out of her father’s house, who expressly styles them “his gods.” From the connection in which they are afterwards found, there can be little doubt that they were a sort of household gods, a kind of family talisman, worshipped with the general design of obtaining a blessing on the family, and at times also for the more special purpose of getting direction respecting the future. There was consequently always a degree of superstition and idolatry connected with their use, and the idea of Horsley (on Hosea 3:4), that they were probably at first symbolical figures, somewhat like the cherubim, and not improperly used in the worship of Jehovah, is entirely without foundation. The very first mention of them is in the way of disapprobation, as not only did Jacob disown having anything to do with them, but afterwards caused them to be buried under the oak at Shechem (Genesis 35:4). The setting up of teraphim by Micah, as recorded in Judges 17:0 etc., and coupling them with the ephod (made after that of the high priest, by which he inquired of God), is in perfect accordance with what has been said: it indicated a family-worship, considerably corrupt, and closely connected with divination. And so must we regard the use of them here by the king of Babylon, for the purpose of getting direction in his course; the more so as he came from Mesopotamia, the original country of the teraphim. In Zechariah 10:2 the false prophets are said to get their lying answers from teraphim.)

Ezekiel 21:22 . In his right hand is the divination of Jerusalem (i.e. the lot determining that he should first direct his course to Jerusalem), to place battering-rains, to open the mouth in slaughter (i.e. to raise the war-cry of death), to lift the voice with shouting, to place battering-rams against the gates, to cast a mount, to erect a watch-tower.

Ezekiel 21:23 . And it is to them as a divination of nothingness in their eyes (the eyes of those) that have sworn oaths to them; (Here, again, there is room for considerable diversity of opinion. We have adopted the most natural rendering, and understand by the persons who had sworn oaths, the Jews, and by the Babylonians, the them to whom they had sworn. It certainly is rather strange that these Babylonians, to whom the them in this case refers, had not been previously mentioned, at least no further than as they were represented by the king of Babylon. To avoid this harshness, various other interpretations have been adopted. Häv.: “Oaths of oaths are to them;” meaning, they had very solemn oaths from the Lord, or pledges of his protection and support, on which they falsely relied a very far-fetched interpretation. Ewald: “They thought they were to have weeks upon weeks” changing the punctuation. But what even if they thought that? It still would not have evinced the divination to be false in their account. There is more of apparent reason in the interpretation of Jerome and some of the ancients, who take the words in substantially the same sense, but understood them as referring especially to the seventh day: keeping Sabbaths as if they were perfectly secure. But this also is strained and untenable. There can be little doubt, I think, that the words refer to the Jews; the divination which directed the course of Nebuchadnezzar to them, and promised him a successful siege, appear unworthy of credit to them, even as nothingness in their view though they were in closest compact with the invaders (so I would be inclined to take the allusion, somewhat ironically), had sworn oaths of allegiance to them; these no longer secure unanimity of mind, or suffice to avert the brooding evil, because the iniquity of those who had sworn comes into remembrance for chastisement.) but he remembers the iniquity, that they may be taken.

Ezekiel 21:24 . Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Because your iniquities are remembered for you, by reason of the discovering of your transgressions, to make your sins appear in all your doings, because of your being remembered, ye shall be taken with the hand.

Ezekiel 21:25 . And thou, pierced through, (That חָלָל here should be taken in the same sense in which it occurs at Ezekiel 21:14, seems quite manifest; for it was evidently used there in the singular, and with the additional epithet הַגָּדוֹל , the mighty one, with express allusion to the king. The apparent contrariety between this sense and the actual result in history has led very generally to the adoption of the meaning of profane. But the word never properly signifies profane, and the grammatical sense must be retained, whatever consequences follow. The contrariety, however, is only apparent, as we shall show.) wicked prince of Israel, whose day comes at the time of the sin of the end (i.e. the last stage of guilt, when the iniquity being full, the final arrest must be laid on it, Ezekiel 35:5 ).

Ezekiel 21:26 . Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, the mitre is removed, ( מִצְנֶפֶת is never used for the crown of a king, but, as is now on all hands admitted, denotes the mitre or head ornament of the high priest (Exodus 28:4, etc.). See Ges. Lex., and Hengstenberg’s Christol. on this passage.) and the crown is taken off; this is not this; the low is exalted and the high is brought down.

Ezekiel 21:27 . An overturning, overturning, overturning will I render it; also this shall not be until he comes, to whom belongs righteousness, and I will give it to him.

This remarkable passage, in its earlier part representing Nebuchadnezzar as hesitating whether he was to take the road that led to Rabbath or that to Jerusalem, and brought ultimately to decide upon the latter by the usual appliances of divination, contains as to its form a striking specimen of Ezekiel’s manner. He does not simply announce the event that was to happen, as the prophets generally do, but gives it life and motion; exhibits the springs of action as actually at work before our eyes. It were entirely to mistake the character of the representation (however commonly it is done), to suppose that the scene here described, as it appeared to the illuminated sense of the prophet, was in real life to take place precisely after this form; not less than it would be to maintain that the two ways toward Jerusalem and Rabbath, with the directing sign at the point of divergence, must have been actually constructed by the prophet’s hand. The whole is a delineation in a vision of what, as to the substance, was to happen in the regular course of things. All would occur precisely as if the lively scene here described were to pass into reality. Nebuchadnezzar would assuredly move toward the south with his hosts and implements of war, and, advancing under the auspices of his religion, would as assuredly direct his march, in the first instance, toward Jerusalem. What a sublime proof of the overruling providence and controlling agency of Jehovah! The mightiest monarch of the world, travelling at the head of almost unnumbered legions, and himself consciously owning no other direction than that furnished by the blind instruments of his own superstition, yet having his path marked out to him beforehand by this servant of the living God! How strikingly did it show that the greatest potentates on earth, and even the spiritual wickednesses in high places, have their bounds appointed to them by the hand of God, and that however magisterially they may seem to conduct themselves, still they cannot overstep the prescribed limits, and must be kept in all their operations subservient to the higher purposes of Heaven!

The chief point, however, in the representation, is the view that is given in the concluding part of the senseless security of the people at Jerusalem while the portentous cloud was gathering in the north, and of the tremendous fury with which it was soon to discharge itself upon their heads. They who were ready to believe every divination among themselves that fell in with their own vain and corrupt imaginations, would pay no regard either to the oracles of superstition, or to the solemn utterances of God’s Spirit, when these told against the infatuated and perilous course they were pursuing. Remaining confident and secure to the last, the evil was destined to come upon them as a resistless whirlwind of destruction. And to show how in this fearful convulsion all was to be really of God, while human instruments alone outwardly appeared to show that the approaching storm of violence and uproar was to be all directed by the hand of him whom they had so long offended and provoked by their sins the king of Babylon and his forces are now in a manner lost sight of, and Jehovah alone seems to speak and act. It is he who brings into remembrance the transgressions of the people, and punishes them for their sin; he who utterly subverts the order of things then existing, because of the prevailing and incorrigible wickedness; yet so as, at the same time, not to involve all in complete and final destruction, but only to level with the dust what had become so offensive to the eye of his holiness, and hold the prospect of a new and better destiny in reserve for one who could accomplish it in righteousness.

It is from this change in the mode of representation from the Lord himself being here again brought directly upon the stage, that we are to account for the peculiar language employed, especially in regard to king Zedekiah. By a lively and energetic turn in the discourse, the prophet passes from the people at large to address himself immediately to Zedekiah, and styles him not only wicked, but also pierced through; although, it is well known, he was not actually slain in the calamities that ensued. But it is not exactly what was to be done by the external sword of the Babylonians that comes here into view; it is the execution of the Lord’s judgment, under the same form and aspect of severity as that which had been presented in the former part of the vision the terrors of his drawn sword. This sword is but an image of the judgment itself, precisely as the devouring fire had been in the vision immediately preceding; and it is not the less true that Zedekiah fell under its powerful stroke, though he personally survived the catastrophe. Driven ignominiously from his throne, doomed to see his family slain before his eyes, to have these eyes themselves put out, and to be led as a miserable and helpless captive in chains to Babylon, he might with the most perfect propriety be regarded as the grand victim of the Lord’s sword already, in a manner, pierced through with it; for, to the strongly idealistic spirit of the prophet, the wickedness and the sword, the sin and its punishment, appear inseparably connected together. The overthrow to which he was destined seemed to the prophet’s eye at once so inevitable and so near, that he could speak of it no otherwise than as a thing already in existence.

But it was to be no merely personal loss and degradation; the overthrow to be accomplished on Zedekiah was to draw along with it the complete subversion of the present state of things. Therefore, while the prophet represents the day of visitation as coming upon him, he also speaks of it as being at the time when sin generally had reached its consummation, and the completeness of the guilt was to have its parallel in the complete and terminal character of the judgment. All must now be made desolate; the mitre of the high priest (the emblem of his official dignity and honour, as the representative of a consecrated and priestly people), as well as the crown of the king, was to be put away, and everything turned upside down. Such a convulsed and disorganized state of things was approaching, that, as it is said, “this should no longer be this;” in other words, nothing should be allowed to remain what it had been, it should be another thing than formerly; as is presently explained in what follows, “the low is exalted and the high is brought down,” a general revolution, in which the outward relations of things should be made to change places, in just retaliation upon the people for having so grossly perverted the moral relations of things. (Quite similar descriptions are given of great revolutions and subversions of the established order of things in the other prophets for example, Isaiah 24:1; Isaiah 2:12.) Yet the agents and participators in these revolutions are warned not to expect any settled condition to come out of them; “this also,” it is said, “shall not be,” it shall not attain to permanence and security. And so overthrow is to follow overthrow; “nowhere shall there be rest, nowhere security, all things shall be in a state of fluctuation, until the appearing of the great restorer and prince of peace.” (Hengstenberg on the verse.)

When the passage is viewed thus in its proper connection and comprehensive import, the objections vanish which have been raised (by Pradus and others) against the mention of the high priest’s insignia, and in justification of their understanding all of the king such as, that it is the king alone who is personally addressed in the preceding context, and the priesthood is not immediately contemplated in any other part of the discourse. But the king himself, who is expressly named, is not introduced as if he alone were concerned in what is said; he comes thus prominently into notice only as the political head and representative of the covenant-people; and the day of his calamity was to be for them also the time of the end, as regarded their existing privileges and comforts. The loss of these could not be more strikingly represented than by the removal, at one blow, of the distinctions of the high priest and the king; for what should become of all that peculiarly belonged to them as a people, if there was no one either to hold the reins of government, or to make intercession with Heaven! Everything, in such a case, must be in a state of prostration and ruin.

Yet only for a time, and as regarded the existing order of things; the period of trouble and desolation was to have a limit; it was only to last till one should come, who would prevail to rectify the disorder and retrieve the ruin. We can have no hesitation in understanding by this person the Messiah, whether we translate, u till he comes to whom the right is,” or, “till he comes to whom the judgment belongs;” (I am inclined to adopt the latter view; authorities are very nearly equally divided on the matter. But I scarcely think the passages referred to for ascribing to מִשְּׁפָט the sense of right or prerogative, bear out that meaning, especially when used absolutely, as here. The common and usual meaning of the word undoubtedly is judgment, or right objectively, right as administered and done, the execution of righteousness. Now, while this in the full and primary sense is ascribed to God (Deuteronomy 1:17), it is also ascribed, subordinately, to rulers, but especially to Messiah, as the grand representative and revealer of Godhead in the affairs of men (Psalms 72:0; Isaiah 9:7, etc.). He is held out to men’s hopes, in these and many similar passages, as the great avenger of evil, and the administrator of righteousness. Finally, this view appears to suit the connection much better. The contrast between those who then were in office and him that was to come was not as to the right to rule, but to the fitness and power for exercising the right. They had the right, but abused it; he was to exercise it with perfect rectitude; they had put all wrong, he was to put all right. I therefore hold with Hävernick here, in opposition to Hengstenberg, Hitzig, and many others, and believe with him that the promise has some reference to the word in Genesis 49:10. The sceptre was not to depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, till Shiloh come; but now, says Ezekiel, there shall be no crown till the Just One comes a certain withdrawal meanwhile takes place a mere fragment remains till then.) “and I give it to him.” It is not expressly said what was to be given him, and should stand waiting for its proper possessor till he should come; but the context plainly forbids us to understand anything less than what was taken away the things represented by the priestly mitre and the royal crown. The true priestly dignity and the proper regal glory were to be gone for a time into abeyance; some partial, temporary, and fluctuating possession of them might be regained, but nothing more; the adequate and permanent realization was only to be found in the person of Messiah, because in him alone was there to be a fitting representation of the Divine righteousness. It is true there was something like a restoration of the standing and honour of the priesthood after the return from the Babylonish exile; and if the ideas currently entertained upon the subject were correct, there might appear in that a failure of the prophecy. But there was no right restoration of the priestly, any more than of the regal dignity at the time specified; it was but a shadow of the original glory. For there was no longer the distinctive prerogative of the Urim and Thummim, nor the ark of the covenant, nor the glory overshadowing the mercy-seat; all was in a depressed and mutilated condition, and even that subject to many interferences from the encroachments of foreign powers. So much only was given, both in respect to the priesthood and the kingdom, as to show that the Lord had not forsaken his people, and to serve as pledge of the coming glory. But it was to the still prospective, rather than the present state of things, that the eye of faith was directed to look for the proper restoration. And lest any should expect otherwise, the prophet Zechariah, after the return from Babylon, took up the matter, as it were, where Ezekiel had left it, and intimated in the plainest manner that what was then accomplished was scarcely worth taking into account; it was, at the most, but doing in a figure what could only find its real accomplishment in the person and work of Messiah. Especially at Ezekiel 6:14: “And he (the branch) shall build the temple of the Lord, and he shall bear the glory; and shall sit and rule upon his throne, and he shall be a priest upon his throne.” Thus the mitre and the crown were both to meet in him, and the temple in its noblest sense be built, and the glory be obtained, such as it became the Lord’s anointed to possess. Meanwhile, all was but preparatory and imperfect.

But now, with this glimpse of coming revival and future glory peering through the dark cloud of judgment and tribulation, which for the present hung around the covenant-people, let us listen to the prophet’s announcement of the doom of Ammon, in which there is no such perspective of future recovery.

Verses 28-32

Ezekiel 21:28 . And thou, son of man, prophesy and say: Thus saith the Lord Jehovah concerning the Ammonites and their reproach (or scorn); even say thou, A sword, a sword, drawn for slaughter, furbished to the utmost, (The literal rendering here (taking לְהָכִיל as the infinitive of כּווֹל which seems the most natural derivation) would be furbished for what it was capable, or as much as possible; the infinitive of the verb being taken adverbially.) that it might flash!

Ezekiel 21:29 . While they see nothingness for thee, while they divine lies to thee (while this delusive process is going on, and thou art giving heed to it, there is that drawn and furbished sword flashing in the distance), to lay thee upon the necks of the pierced-through godless ones, whose day has come, at the time of the final iniquity. (The meaning seems to be, that these Ammonites were to be added to the slain in Judah, thrown, as it were, upon the decapitated bodies of those wicked men who had there perished in judgment, and whom they had imitated in their foolhardy and sinful ways.)

Ezekiel 21:30 . Let it return to the scabbard; in the place where thou wast formed, in the land of thy nativity, will I judge thee. (The destruction was to overtake them in their own territory; and the sentence at the beginning of the verse, “Let it return to the scabbard,” may be understood thus: The sword must do the work of destruction for which it is drawn; do not trouble yourselves to move out of your place; let it do its work, and then be sheathed; it is in vain to resist or strive against the doom.)

Ezekiel 21:31 . And I will pour out my indignation upon thee; with the fire of my wrath will I blow upon thee, and will give thee into the hand of savage men, forgers of destroying weapons. (The word here is singular in the Hebrew, מַשְּׁחִית , though it scarcely admits of being rendered but in the plural, forgers of that which destroys slaughter-weapons. There is an evident allusion to the language in Isaiah 54:16. But compare also Jeremiah 5:26.)

Ezekiel 21:32 . Thou shalt be for fuel to the fire; thy blood shall be in the midst of the land; thou shalt not be remembered, for I Jehovah have spoken it.

Here all is darkness, trouble, and desolation. The Ammonites had not only sinned, like other heathen nations, but they had also taken up a taunt and reproach against the covenant-people in the time of their declension, and had pressed forward, and, in the proud spirit of conquerors, spread themselves over a part of Israel’s territory (Zephaniah 2:8; Jeremiah 49:1). They might, therefore, be fitly taken here as representatives of the enemies generally of the people of God. And in them the Lord was going to show, by a palpable demonstration, that while Israel could not escape this righteous judgment, when they walked like the heathen, their fall would be no gain to the heathen adversaries, but only the forerunner of a still more severe, even a remediless destruction. A germ of life and blessing still existed in the one, which Babylon with all its might could not extirpate; but in the other there was no such divine element, and when the sword of vengeance was drawn, it must accomplish a final end. So was it with the Ammonites as a people. A few years after the fall of Jerusalem,, the arms of the king of Babylon were turned against them, and desolated their country. But this was only the beginning of their troubles, for they never attained again to political power and importance; they gradually dwindled away, till their separate existence ceased, and their place was no more known. “So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord (so shall they indeed perish in the destruction of these aliens and scorners the doom of all is reflected); but let them that love thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his strength.”

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 21". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/ezekiel-21.html.
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