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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Ezekiel 4

The First Cycle—Chapters 1-7

THE first cycle of the predictions of the prophet embraces ch. Ezekiel 1:1 to Ezekiel 7:27. A sublime vision forms the introduction. To this prophetic discourses are appended which serve to explain the vision. At the close in ch. Ezekiel 7 a song.

Verses 1-3

Ezekiel 4 — Ch. Ezekiel 2 and Ezekiel 3 are intended to place before the eyes of the people in manifold forms the dignity of the mission of Ezekiel, to fill them with a sense of the responsibility which sprang out of this mission to them. They have to do not with a mere son of man—they have to do with God in the prophet; and woe to them if they do not obey His voice. Upon the accrediting of the messenger follows then the first communication of the message. The sore judgment which is to discharge itself upon Jerusalem is announced, in harmony with the appearance in ch. Ezekiel 1, which already portrays the approach of God for judgment. The prophets are throughout “counsellors;” they announce the future everywhere only in the interest of the soul’s salvation. The moral is this: Renounce utterly your sanguine hopes, your political illusions; the only way to salvation is through repentance, which can no longer indeed avert judgment from all, though it may cause the individual to find a gracious God, and also God’s grace after judgment again to return to the people. Worthy of note is the unbounded confidence of the prophet in the announcement of the disaster, whilst the political aspects were still so favourable, and the most sagacious politicians so full of hopes for the future. This confidence, confirmed by all that followed, can only be derived from a divine principle; and he who rightly weighs this fact will not be tempted to criticise the predictions of the prophet in detail, or to doubt whether he had not afterwards given them a precision derived from the issue, such as they did not originally possess,—a doubt which is at the same time an offence against the honesty and integrity which everywhere bears witness for itself in the prophet, and can only proceed from such as measure the man of God by the standard of their own want of trustworthiness.

The line of thought, viewed apart from its symbolic form, is this: The prophet announces the close siege of the city ( Ezekiel 4:1-3, and Ezekiel 4:7); shows that this is the merited punishment for an apostasy of the people of 390 years, and especially culminating in the last 40 years ( Ezekiel 4:4-6); describes their condition during the siege as one of famine and trouble ( Ezekiel 4:8-11, and Ezekiel 4:16-17); and shows that the siege will end in exile ( Ezekiel 4:12-15).

In Ezekiel 4:1-3 the prophet receives the command to portray the siege of the city. Ezekiel 4:1. “And thou, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and portray upon it a city, Jerusalem. 2. And lay siege against it, and build towers against it, and raise a rampart against it, and set the camp against it, and place battering-rams against it round about. 3. And take thee an iron pan, and make it for an iron wall between thee and between the city; and set thy face against it, and let it be besieged, and thou shalt press hard upon it. This is a sign for the house of Israel.”

In Ezekiel 4:1 the prophet at first receives only the charge to portray a city. The more exact direction comes afterwards. Jerusalem, the last of all the cities of the earth to be thought of, if it is to be besieged by the Lord! After Jerusalem, we are to suppose, as it were, a note of exclamation. How far must it have gone, how completely must it have degenerated, when the Lord proposes to deal thus with it! To the title belongs merely the picture of the city. That which is mentioned in Ezekiel 4:2 is not figured on the tile, but is applied to the city represented by it. “And lay siege [28] against it” ( Ezekiel 4:2): how the prophet is to give or lay siege against “it,” Jerusalem, which was represented by the tile, is shown by what follows, which stands related to this as the special to the general. [29] Here it is already clear that the symbolic action belongs to the subjective; by which it is also explained that the prophet reports only the divine command, without mentioning the execution. Externally taken, the action would have made a very feeble impression, as the corresponding means of representation were wanting to the prophet, and the arrangements for besieging a city represented on a single tile must have appeared very insignificant. It is not to be forgotten that the prophet in Tel-abib, a small obscure place, had only a handful of exiles around him; whereas his mission, like that of all prophets, was to the whole of Israel, including the great mass still residing in their native land. Whence it follows that with him literary activity was the thing of chief importance; quite otherwise than with Jeremiah, who prophesied at the centre of the nation. For the purpose of literary activity, however, it was of no consequence whether the symbolic action was external or not. In what follows, invincible difficulties stand in the way of the external exhibition. The symbolic actions of Ezekiel are only vividly drawn pictures, intended to make an indelible impression on the imagination. The prophets, according to the two aspects of their calling, as mediators between God and the people, alternately represent God and the people in their symbolic actions. In Ezekiel 4:3 the prophet takes the place of God. This we learn from the fact that he is to besiege the city. But the besieger can be no other than the Lord, whose instrument the Chaldeans are. The pan, which the prophet is to place as an iron wall between himself and the city, is the embodiment of the utterance, Isaiah 59:2, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God;” and the passage must remain unintelligible if we do not refer to this key. In the pan, the only thing to be observed is that it is iron, and not the dark colour, which must have been noted, if the eye was to be fixed upon it. The pan here has nothing to do with the iron pot of Jeremiah in ch. Jeremiah 1:13. The “practical secondary object” also of the pan to prepare hot cakes ( Ezekiel 4:12), is only an invention of the expositors, whose fancy has been excessively busy in this chapter. “Against it:” this refers to the city, not to the pan. In the first part of the verse is the refusal of divine aid, which could not fail the city—which Isaiah (ch. Isaiah 29:21) designates as “Ariel, the lion of God, the city where David dwelt”—if it had not by its sins driven Him away from it who was formerly known in its palaces as a refuge ( Psalms 48:3); in the second part it is said that God Himself is the assailant.

[28] מצור , siege; comp. Ezekiel 4:7.

[29] דיק denotes the besieging tower. The word, occurring in the time of the exile, is no doubt taken from the Aramaic, and is probably the Chaldaic term. techn. For this Isaiah in ch. 23:13 has בחינים . The word occurs always in the sing., and denotes not the single tower, but the whole of the besieging towers, to which the “round about” in Jeremiah 52:4 leads.

Verses 4-6

In Ezekiel 4:4-6, the guilt by which Jerusalem brought this visitation on itself. Ezekiel 4:4. “And thou, lie upon thy left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: during the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon it, thou shalt take their iniquity on thee. 5. And I have given thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of days, three hundred and ninety days; and thou shalt take on thee the iniquity of the house of Israel. 6. And when thou hast accomplished these, thou shalt next lie on thy right side, and take on thee the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: a day for each year have I given thee.”

In this new turn of the symbolic action the prophet takes the place of Israel. He lies 390 days on his left side, and thus represents the punishment which Israel has to bear for his guilt of 390 years. To take iniquity upon him (not bear: this the word never means), means always to answer for it, to suffer punishment for it. The substitution is here, however, purely symbolic, not real, as in the servant of the Lord, Isaiah 53. That the prophet takes the iniquity upon himself, is here only a representation of the punishment falling upon Israel. The left side comes in here as the less noble. The right side is reserved for the symbolic representation of the heaviest guilt—the wicked opposition of the people to the last attempt for their deliverance. That an external symbolic action is not here intended, is as clear as day. Those who assert the contrary may make the trial to lie 390 days unmoved on the left side, and in this situation also act as besieger ( Ezekiel 4:7), prepare bread ( Ezekiel 4:9), and bake cakes ( Ezekiel 4:12). And what would have come out of this certainly enormous effort! The situation would have had a laughable effect, and the prophet would soon have become a sport for children. Its purely internal nature is also proved by Ezekiel 4:9, according to which the whole time amounts to 390 days. The 40 days of lying on the right side must thus have been included in the 390 days of lying on the left, which is impossible in an external exhibition. Three hundred and ninety days on the left side, 40 days on the right, and yet only 390 in all: this is the riddle, the solution of which is only possible if the purely internal nature of the process be acknowledged. Figures of thought are tractable and not exclusive, as bodily actions are. The coincidence of the 40 days with the close of the 390 is also demanded by the case itself, as the 390 years extend to the time of the siege of Jerusalem, and thus no space remains after them for the 40 years.

The lying of the prophet is a figure of the wretched condition of the people during the time of the siege described Ezekiel 4:1-3. As the siege of Jerusalem is to be represented, the ten tribes come into account only so far as they are part of collective Israel, which in the time of the prophet only continued to exist in Judah, which must bear the punishment for the common guilt; comp. on ch. Ezekiel 23:45, where the same view is presented. Judah answers not for foreign guilt, but on it comes to maturity the common guilt of the two houses, of the whole house of Israel, which is now represented by Judah alone. For the ten tribes were at that time, so far as they were carried into exile (those who remained in the land were included in Judah), branches cut off, that could only again come into account if they were grafted anew into the vine.

The starting-point for the 390 years we have in 2 Chronicles 12:1, compared with 2 Chronicles 11:17. In the first three years of Rehoboam a fresh theocratic zeal awoke in Judah, to which the God-fearing from the ten tribes had attached themselves: “They walked in the way of David and Solomon three years.” But at the end of these three years, in the great mass of the people, this zeal that had arisen from opposition to the revolt of the ten tribes appeared as a fire of straw: “And it came to pass, when Rehoboam had established the kingdom, and had strengthened himself, he forsook the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him.” This is the fatal year of falling into sin for the whole nation. In the ten tribes this fall coincided with the beginning of Jeroboam’s reign. But all Israel first became rebellious three years later. Thenceforth the corruption forms a continuous whole, that suffers only partial and imperfect interruptions. This long period of revolt must now be requited,—requited first by the hard and tedious siege of the capital, on which the punishment must concentrate itself, as the sin had concentrated itself in it.

The computation of the 390 years is very simple. “All the years of the kings of Judah,” says Vitringa, [30] “from the foundation of the temple, or the fourth year of Solomon, to the destruction of the state under Zedekiah the last king, computed according to the numbers in the books of Kings, give the sum of 430 years and six mouths. This number of years agrees remarkably with the 390 days of Ezekiel, during which he is to bear the iniquity of Israel (ch. Ezekiel 4:9). For these days stand symbolically for so many years, during which the Jews renounced the true worship, beginning with the fourth year of Rehoboam, in which Judah and Israel began to revolt from God. If from the 430 years be taken the 37 years of Solomon, after the foundation of the temple, and the three years of Rehoboam, there remain 390.”

[30] Text: In the admirable and hitherto unexcelled hypotyposis historiae et chronol. sacrae, that well deserves a republication, p. 31.

The 390 days corresponding to the 390 years refer only to the duration of the guilt of Israel: they are not to indicate the proper duration of the siege, but only in general to point to this, that it will be tedious. This is clear from the 40 days for the 40 years in Ezekiel 4:6, which can only be referred to the guilt. The siege also lasted longer than 390 days. It began on the tenth day of the tenth month of the ninth year of Zedekiah, and lasted till the ninth day of the second month in the eleventh year.

The contrast of the house of Judah in Ezekiel 4:6, to the house of Israel in Ezekiel 4:4, is not that of Judah and the ten tribes, but of Judah and the whole people: the house of Israel is indeed immediately before ( Ezekiel 4:3) employed to designate the whole of the people that was represented by Judah in the time of the prophet. There are three hundred and ninety years of the common guilt, then 40 years (of these 390) of special guilt; the despising of the grace of God in the awakening of Josiah the king, of whom it is said, “Like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might” ( 2 Kings 23:25), and the failure of the last attempt, which was made by Jeremiah. The beginning of the 40 years is the thirteenth year of Josiah, in which Jeremiah, shortly after the beginning of the reformation of Josiah ( 2 Chronicles 34:3), first appeared as prophet. Forty years: so long the activity of Jeremiah lasted, until the destruction of the city. [31]

[31] Michaelis, bibl. Hebr. praef. ad Jer. § 4.

Verses 7-17

In Ezekiel 4:7, the prophet again takes the same position as in Ezekiel 4:3. Standing in the place of Jehovah, he besieges Jerusalem. “And thou shalt set thy face to the siege of Jerusalem, and thine arm shall be uncovered, and thou shalt prophesy against it.’’ The uncovered, outstretched arm, not resting in the bosom, belongs to the bold combatant. The prophecy is made by this very gesture, which announces the siege begun. The recumbent posture is not suited to action, and we have here an irreconcilable contradiction, if the symbolic action be regarded as external. The verse is the mere resumption of Ezekiel 4:1-3, to indicate that the activity of the prophet there presented is not removed by what is related in Ezekiel 4:4-6. After this object has been attained, the prophet in Ezekiel 4:8 f. again connects with Ezekiel 4:6 and further developes what the people have to suffer in the siege. The two parts which the prophet has to represent are related as action and passion.

In Ezekiel 4:8-11 we have the terrors of the siege. Ezekiel 4:8. “And, behold, I lay bands upon thee, and thou shalt not turn thee from the one side to the other, till thou hast ended the days of thy siege. 9. And thou, take thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and spelt, and put them in a vessel, and make thee bread of it for the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side; three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat it. 10. And thy meat which thou shalt eat, shalt thou eat by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou cat it. 11. And water by measure thou shalt drink, the sixth part of an hin: from time to time shalt thou drink it.”

The prophet in Ezekiel 4:8 again represents the people. The bands which the Lord lays on him are to restrain him from every movement. This represents the restraint of the besieged, the futility of all attempts to attain to a freer movement. That the prophet here plays a passive part, that the days of the siege are the days in which he is besieged, appears from the mention of the side, which comes into consideration, according to Ezekiel 4:4-6, only in representing the suffering of the people. The coordinate action of lying on the right side is here, as in Ezekiel 4:9, abstracted; or rather, the distinction of right and left is entirely abandoned. In Ezekiel 4:9 the idea is, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are put on short allowance. The articles of food are considered in themselves quite good. The point of importance is, that they are put into one vessel. This shows that they have only a little of each, that they must take all together. Not the quality of the food, but the small quantity, is contemplated in Ezekiel 4:10. [32] To eat bread by weight and not be satisfied, is among the punishments of the rebellious people ( Leviticus 26:26). From time to time, not at the call of hunger, but at stated times, that are to be measured, that the life may scarcely be preserved.

[32] חטין with the Chaldaic ending only here: in barley and lentiles we have the Hebrew plural. The explanation probably lies in this, that wheat was the usual fare among the exiles. Hence the Chaldaic form appears.

In Ezekiel 4:12-15 is a new condition. In the foregoing the scarcity of the food, here the impurity. The first refers to the siege, the second to the condition after the siege—the sojourn of the exiles in the heathen land. We must not rest in the external Levitical impurity, but also ascend to that which is thereby signified. The moral impurity of the heathen world was in its gross form hard to bear, even for those who in their native land had sat very loose to the commands of God. Ezekiel 4:12. And the barley cakes which thou shalt eat, these shalt thou bake with man’s dung before their eyes. 13. And the Lord said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the heathen, whither I will drive them. 14. And I said. Ah Lord Jehovah! behold, my soul has not been polluted; and carrion, or that which is torn, I have not eaten from my youth up until now; and loathsome flesh has not come into ray mouth. 15. And he said unto me, Lo, I have given thee cow’s dung for man’s dung, and thou shalt prepare thy bread thereon.

That the man’s dung ( Ezekiel 4:12), which appears in Deuteronomy 23:13-15 as in the highest degree unclean, is not to be mingled with the food, but to serve for fuel, is evident from the expression thereon in Ezekiel 4:15. The barley cakes here have nothing whatever to do with the pot in Ezekiel 4:9. This is gone. Ezekiel 4:13-14 serve to enhance the horror of the approaching condition. The concession only sets the disagreeableness of the condition in a clearer light.

In Ezekiel 4:16-17 the conclusion returns to the main thought—that which they have to suffer in the siege itself. Ezekiel 4:16. And he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall cat bread by weight, and in trouble; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment: 17. That they may want bread and water, and be astonished one with another, and pine away in their iniquity.

Allusion is here made to Leviticus 26:26, “When I have broken for you the staff of bread;” and ver. Leviticus 26:39, “And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity.” The trouble concerns itself chiefly with the question, what shall we eat? what shall we drink? The astonishment has the state of despair for its object.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ezekiel-4.html.