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Ezekiel 4 is a continuation of a section that begins in Ezekiel 3:22. Ezekiel must remain in his house and his tongue will stick to the roof of his mouth. Thus, he cannot go around freely among the exiles and warn people. In his house he must perform various symbolic acts to present his message. In them he shows what will happen to Jerusalem. The LORD has several purposes in doing this:
1. He wants to cause the exiles to think through this, that they may come to repentance.
2. He wants to make it clear to the exiles through this that they will not be returning to Jerusalem anytime soon. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, will take Jerusalem.
3. The prophet is thereby identified with the people and feels what they feel when God’s discipline comes upon them. A servant of God who is suffering himself is much better able to understand and warn those who are undergoing the same suffering.
The Siege of Jerusalem Played Out
Ezekiel, again called “son of man”, must take a brick and inscribe Jerusalem on it (Eze 4:1). He is not allowed to speak, but he can communicate with his hands. The brick he must use is a clay table, the ordinary writing material of the Babylonians. In order to inscribe on it properly, Ezekiel must place it before him, for he must concentrate well while inscribing.
Then he must indicate on the brick how Jerusalem will be besieged (Eze 4:2). He is to lay siege against the city, that is, to besiege the city. The LORD gives him precise instructions on how to do this. He is to build “a siege wall”, that is, an assault tower, against it, raise up “a ramp”, pitch “camps”, and place “battering rams” against it all around the city. The people will have gathered around him and understood what he was portraying.
When Ezekiel is finished with the inscribing, he is to take “an iron plate”, which is a plate on which one bakes bread (Eze 4:3; Lev 2:5). The plate is an ordinary utensil usually made of pottery. An iron plate is a unique object at that time. That iron plate he must set up between himself and the city he has just inscribed. The plate symbolizes “an iron wall” and represents the separation between God and His people that the people caused by their sins (Isa 59:2).
Then the LORD instructs Ezekiel to set his face toward the city. The face is a face full of threat. As Ezekiel looks at what he has inscribed, so the LORD looks at the city. All the prayers from the city do not penetrate to heaven. They are held back by the iron plate. The connection with God is cut off, He delivers Jerusalem to the enemy.
As Ezekiel inscribes, it is as if he himself is laying siege to the city. This is true in a sense. The enemy will do this to the city, but in reality it is God Himself Who, in and through the enemy, is laying siege to the city and thus bringing His anger upon it. By commissioning Ezekiel to inscribe this, He lets him experience what He will do to the city (cf. Lk 19:43). At the same time, his inscribing is “a sign to the house of Israel”.
A sign is needed when words are no longer heard. False prophets in Jerusalem proclaim that the exiles will return to Jerusalem in the near future (Jer 28:1-4; 10-11). There are also prophets who prophesy that Jerusalem will not see a sword nor will be hungry (Jer 14:13-16; Jer 23:16-17). God has spoken otherwise. The exiles, if they are open to this sign, can see what will happen to Jerusalem.
The Years of Iniquity
In the symbolic act of Eze 4:1-3, Ezekiel has represented God in His dealings with Jerusalem. In the symbolic act he must now perform, he represents the people. In this, his personal involvement is great. He must feel firsthand what the people will experience. These are the two aspects of the service that every servant must know and experience. He must share in God’s feelings about evil and he must share in the sorrow of those over whom this evil comes, in the awareness of being part of this people and being no better than they are.
God tells Ezekiel what to do. Ezekiel is to lie down on his “left side” and “lay the iniquity of the house of Israel on it” (Eze 4:4). Of course, this is not a substitutionary bearing of the iniquity. Only the Lord Jesus can do that (Isa 53:6; 12). It is about suffering and experiencing the consequences of iniquity. The iniquity of the people is doing what is evil in the eyes of God and harming their neighbors, their fellow citizens, in all areas of life.
Ezekiel is to lay the iniquity on his left side, the side on which he lies. This implies at the same time that he is lying on the iniquity. Thereby Ezekiel is portraying that he is identifying with God’s people in their iniquity. It will be a touching sermon for the people.
The time he must lie like this is set by God at “three hundred and ninety days”, with Ezekiel having to suffer one day for each year (Eze 4:5). To which time period in the history of Israel (the twelve tribes) the three hundred and ninety years refers is not clear. Several commentators assume that this period begins with the tearing of Israel into two and ten tribes and specifically Rehoboam’s introduction of idolatry into Israel by making the two golden calves (1Kgs 12:28-30). In any case, it is about the iniquity, the sins, of all twelve tribes, that is, Israel as a whole. They constitute God’s people, no matter how much they have lived separately from one another.
When those days are completed, the prophet is to lie down on his “right side” (Eze 4:6). On that side he is to lie “forty days” to bear “the iniquity of the house of Judah”. Again, a day represents a year. The period of forty days connects to that of three hundred and ninety days. God tells Ezekiel to lie on his right side for a number of days and to do so when he has “completed” the days on his left side.
That an additional number of days of bearing iniquity is added for Judah is because Judah sinned even more severely than Israel (Eze 23:11-35). This is underscored by the following verses. In them it is about the siege of Jerusalem, where the Judeans are at that time.
God speaks to Ezekiel about the siege of Jerusalem. These total of four hundred and thirty days that Ezekiel lies on his side, he is to “set” his “face toward the siege of Jerusalem” (Eze 4:7; Eze 4:3), which comes down to looking at what he has inscribed on the brick. He must do so with “bare arm”. Ezekiel’s bare arm symbolizes that God is ready to act in judgment (cf. Isa 52:10a). Ezekiel’s prophecy consists not of words, but of his attitude. Everything he portrays speaks to the conscience with great force.
God will restrain him in such a way – the ropes that He puts on Ezekiel speak of this – that he will be able to accomplish this difficult task until the end (Eze 4:8). This also has a symbolic meaning. God says to him that he will be bound until he has completed the days of his siege. This means that bearing the iniquity is directly connected to the siege of Jerusalem by the armies of the king of Babylon.
By speaking of “your siege”, the siege of Jerusalem is presented as an act of Ezekiel, remembering immediately that here we symbolically see the action of God Himself with Jerusalem. The ropes also make it clear that the people cannot possibly evade this judgment of God. God is executing His judgment. He will give the city into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and have the inhabitants taken away into exile.
Eating and Drinking of Ezekiel
The next act Ezekiel is to perform is also related to the siege of Jerusalem inscribed above as a result of their iniquity (Eze 4:4-8). He is to portray food scarcity (Eze 4:9). This indicates that famine will strike the city as a result of the siege. He is to take various cereals and legumes to make bread from them.
“Wheat” is used to make the best bread. However, if wheat is scarce, it should be mixed with other grains of lesser quality, such as “barley … millet and spelt”. “Beans” and “lentils” are not grains, but they are common foods (cf. 2Sam 17:27-29). However, when they must be taken together to make bread, it does indicate the scarcity of these foods. Then it is a kind of “war bread”, which is eaten in times of food scarcity. Ezekiel is to put all the ingredients “in one vessel” and mix them together and make bread. That bread he must eat during the days that he lies on his side, for three hundred and ninety days.
The ration is “twenty shekels a day by weight”, which is two hundred to three hundred grams (Eze 4:10). This ration he must eat at set times, that is, he must divide it among several meals and not eat it all at once. Water is also rationed (Eze 4:11). He gets “the sixth part of a hin” per day, which is about a liter. For a hot country, that is very little. He also has to divide the water throughout the day.
He is also commanded to eat “a barley cake”, which he is to bake in the sight of the exiles “over human dung” (Eze 4:12). This is indicative of the state of emergency in which Jerusalem will find itself. He points to that emergency by doing this “in their sight”. The LORD explains the act He is prescribing to Ezekiel (Eze 4:13). It is symbolic of the time when the Jews will be scattered, both in Babylon and in the time after the year 70. They will be among the nations and often forced to eat food that is unclean according to the law (Hos 9:3-4).
As a faithful Jew, Ezekiel shrinks from preparing and eating his bread in this way and makes his objection to the LORD about it (Eze 4:14; cf. Acts 10:14). The use of human dung as fuel for cooking is nowhere expressly forbidden. Yet the disgust shown by Ezekiel is understandable when we know what God said about how to deal with excrement (Deu 23:13-15). We must also remember that God Himself has just attached to this symbolic act the statement that the Israelites “eat their bread unclean” among the nations.
Ezekiel points out to God how he has always kept the law, ever since he was a child. Never did he eat anything that was forbidden to eat (Lev 11:39; Exo 22:31). He never ate unclean meat. As befits a priest, he has always strictly observed the food laws. It is his fervent desire to continue to do so even in the land of exile (cf. Dan 1:8).
God takes into account the conscience of His servant. He allows him to use “cow’s dung” instead of human dung to prepare his bread over it (Eze 4:15). He does not override His command, but makes it easier for Ezekiel to obey Him.
God knows that we need time to adjust our view to His view. This Divine sensitivity is an example for us in our dealings with fellow believers who sometimes have difficulty with things in which we are free before the Lord (Rom 14:1-4; Rom 15:1-4).
God explains the actions Ezekiel must perform (Eze 4:16-17). He addresses him again as “son of man”. What Ezekiel is to portray is the lack of sufficient bread in Jerusalem during the siege. Water will also be scarce. Meals that are otherwise joyous affairs will become sad and grievous. Dismay will reign because the meals will be dominated by hardship and lack. They will “waste away in their iniquity”, meaning that they have brought their hardship and lack and dismay upon themselves by their own behavior and finally they will die of hunger.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ezekiel 4". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26