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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 4

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapter 4. Ezekiel’s First Message - Judgment Is Coming On Jerusalem.

In this chapter we have an acted out prophecy against Jerusalem. The people had been brought into captivity but Jerusalem still stood. They still had hopes of returning. But they must be made to recognise that God’s anger against Israel was such that nothing could avert the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Rather than the holy city and the temple being a guarantee of Israel’s preservation by God they had become a hindrance, and must go. Their superstitious reliance on the holy city and the temple as the proof of their favour (Jeremiah 7:4), even in the midst of their sinfulness, must be destroyed. This would now be Ezekiel’s continual stress, along with judgment on the nations (25-32), until the actual destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Ezekiel 33:21), a destruction which would outwardly be the end of all their hopes.

In the days of Hezekiah Yahweh had promised through Isaiah the prophet, “I will defend this city to save it for My own sake and for My servant David” (Isaiah 37:35). Israel had interpreted that to mean that whatever they did God would never allow the city to be destroyed. But they were wrong. That promise had been made because Hezekiah was genuinely seeking to please and obey Yahweh. But now things were very different. Sin and disobedience was rife, God was being marginalised, and the promise would no longer apply. Jerusalem was not inviolable. And that message would be repeated by Ezekiel again and again, although derided and rejected by his hearers, until the event itself took place.

In this chapter we have first the depiction of the siege of Jerusalem in miniature (Ezekiel 4:1-3), then the duration of the iniquity of Israel and Judah which has brought this on them (Ezekiel 4:4-8), then the depiction of the coming famine conditions in Jerusalem and of their exile in ‘uncleanness’ (Ezekiel 4:9-17), and finally an acted out description of the fate of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, whom the exiles probably looked back on with envy (Ezekiel 5:1-4).

The Fate of Jerusalem.

Verses 1-3

“You also, son of man, you take a tile, and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, even Jerusalem, and lay siege against it, and build forts against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it round about. And you take to yourself an iron pan, and set it as a wall between you and the city. And set your face towards it and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. This shall be a sign to the house of Israel.’

The attention of the people having been drawn to Ezekiel by his previous strange behaviour, he would no doubt by this time have become a talking point. This strange activity continued. Word would soon get around of the next strange thing that he was doing, and it would arouse curiosity and perhaps a kind of fear. For, at Gods’ command, he was to depict a siege of Jerusalem in miniature as a sign to the house of Israel of what was to be. We must assume either that he did this outside the door of his house, or that the house was now left open for people to enter and see it.

‘Take -- a tile.’ This would probably be a rectangular sun-baked brick. On this he was to depict a picture of Jerusalem which he would depict in recognisable outline. It would be placed where all could come and see it. He would then depict the details of a siege as outlined, how we are not told. Possibly they were depicted in the sand, or, if inside the house, with clay models or depicted on small clay tablets. Ezekiel and the people would be familiar with such siege activities. They had themselves seen them in action when they themselves had been made captive.

Depictions of such war machines, manned by archers and often moveable, are known from bas-reliefs in Assyria, while mounds would be built bringing the assailants more on a level with the enemy in the city. The depiction of such activities on clay tablets is also witnessed archaeologically.

Then he was to take a large iron pot or cooking plate, possibly as used for baking bread, and set it between himself and the scene he had depicted, illustrating that he himself as God’s representative, was also laying siege against it. This would leave them in no doubt that the siege was, in the last analysis, due to the activity of God. The iron plate, in contrast with the clay, would illustrate the solidity and permanence of what it represented. It represented the certainty of God in action with the result that the consequences were also certain.

Others have seen the iron plate as signifying that there was a great barrier between God and His people in Jerusalem so that He would not intervene. He would act through Ezekiel on behalf of His people in exile, but not on behalf of Jerusalem. We can compare Isaiah 59:2, ‘your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear’. Compare also Lamentations 3:44.

It was an acted out prophecy, of a kind with which their past was familiar (Exodus 9:8-12; Joshua 8:18; 1 Kings 11:30-32; 1 Kings 22:11; 2 Kings 13:15-19; Isaiah 8:1-4; Isaiah 20:2-4; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Jeremiah 16:1-9; Jeremiah 19:1-11; Jeremiah 27:1-12). The physical reproduction would be looked on as making more certain its fulfilment. It would be seen as having already taken place in miniature. And as the people flocked to see this latest sensation they would be aware of the silent, brooding figure, sitting there without saying a word, and they would draw their own conclusions, fearful and awestricken.

The Long Periods of Iniquity That Have Brought Inevitable Judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple.

Verses 4-6

“Moreover lie on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel on it. According to the number of days you will lie on it. You will bear their iniquity. For I have appointed the years of their iniquity to be to you a number of days, even three hundred and ninety days. So shall you bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And again when you have accomplished these you will lie on your right side, and you will bear the iniquity of the house of Judah. Forty days, each day for a year, have I appointed it to you.”

Having depicted the siege of Jerusalem with its inevitable end, Ezekiel was now himself to depict himself as bearing the sin of Israel and Judah. The time elements were further indication that when God spoke to ‘the house of Israel’ it depicted all the tribes, both those incorporated into Judah and those scattered elsewhere among the nations. His message would reach to them as well.

By lying on his left side Ezekiel was to show himself as bearing the iniquity of the northern kingdom of Israel. The pain and the sores resulting would at times become unbearable. But it was acted out prophecy. He suffered the pain that they should have suffered. But it was not vicarious. It depicted what would be and why their suffering and exile were necessary. The reason for selecting 390 days is not explained other than that it represents a period of 390 years, although the 390 days may represent a thirteen month year (30 x 13). If we date it from approximately 930 BC, the date of the setting up of the golden calves and the break by Israel from the central sanctuary (1 Kings 12:26-33), which to a priest of Judah could well be seen as the beginning of ‘the years of their iniquity’, it would bring us down to around this time, remembering that their suffering and rebellion still continued. It need not be seen as necessarily exact. It was symbolic, and the ‘years of their iniquity’ were still continuing. But its point was not only to accentuate the length of their iniquity, but to indicate that it was coming to an end. God would yet bring them to repentance and show mercy on them.

Three hundred and ninety represents three hundreds and three thirties (thirty being three intensified). Thus it stresses a complete period based on the significance of three, the number of completeness, a perfect period. However, 390 days also represents a thirteen month year taking the approximation regularly used of thirty days to a month (Genesis 7:24; Genesis 8:3 with Ezekiel 7:11 and Ezekiel 8:4; Revelation 11:2 with Ezekiel 11:3). Possibly then this was such a year.

After he had finished depicting the period of the iniquity of Israel he must then turn over and depict the period of the iniquity of Judah. This was to be for forty days, depicting forty years. ‘Forty’ regularly depicts a period of trial and testing. We can compare how under Moses Israel suffered forty years in the wilderness. Thus the forty years, a round number depicting trial and testing, refers to the final period of Judah’s rebellion against God. Possibly it was to be seen as ‘dating’ from the death of Josiah around 609 BC which resulted in all his activity on behalf of Yahweh’s name ceasing and its being replaced by final idolatry which was still continuing (2 Chronicles 36:5; 2 Chronicles 36:9; 2 Chronicles 36:11). Again it is symbolic rather than exact. Their period of iniquity was far shorter than that of Israel, but it was still going on (this difference confirms that the figures look back to the past and not forward to the future).

Laying on the left or right side may have come from the fact that if he was lying on his back with his head towards Jerusalem the northern kingdom would be on his left and the southern kingdom on his right.

The point behind both representations was to demonstrate that both nations had gone through long periods of iniquity, and still did so, and that that situation would go on. They did, however, also stress that their period of iniquity would eventually come to an end in God’s time. When the restoration did take place people from both Israel and Judah would participate.

A question that is disputed is whether the 40 days follows the 390 days, or whether Ezekiel turned over after 350 days, the last forty days counting for both, thus completing a theoretical thirteen month year. Ezekiel 4:9 may suggest that 390 days was the total period for which he lay there, and the passage nowhere actually says that he was to lie on his left side for 390 days. But Ezekiel 4:4; Ezekiel 4:6 strongly suggest it.

Verses 7-8

“And you shall set your face towards the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm uncovered, and you will prophesy against it, and behold I lay bands on you, and you shall not turn yourself from one side to another until you have accomplished the days of your siege.”

The suggestion that he set his face towards the siege of Jerusalem may indicate that he turned to lay facing Jerusalem, or that he set his face towards it in his mind, or more probably that he set his face towards his own representation of that siege in the model he had made, having the real city in mind. The baring of the arm indicated an arm ready for action (compare Isaiah 52:10). He was representing what God was going to do, act against Jerusalem through Nebuchadnezzar.

‘And you will prophesy against it.’ His words of prophecy would indicate to his hearers that God was about to carry out His purpose with regard to Jerusalem.

‘And behold I lay bands on you, and you shall not turn yourself from one side to another until you have accomplished the days of your siege.’ Once Ezekiel was lying in the way that God had told him, God would ‘lay bands on him’. This may mean psychologically as a result of His command, or possibly even by some kind of limited paralysis. Or it may refer back to Ezekiel 3:25. But, whichever it was, he was to remain there, not turning until the full time had been accomplished. ‘The days of your siege.’ While lying there and looking towards his model of the siege of Jerusalem, with arm laid bare ready for action, he was indicating that it would be besieged and ensuring it came about. He was, as it were, besieging it beforehand. There may be the thought here that the actual siege would last for about a year. Thus the pain that Ezekiel was suffering presaged the pain that Jerusalem would suffer,

Verse 9

Jerusalem Will Be Riddled With Famine and Its Inhabitants Will Dwell Among the Nations in Uncleanness.

“Also take to yourself wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make of it bread for yourself. According to the number of days that you will lie in your side, even three hundred and ninety days, you will eat of it.”

The purpose of these and the following instructions was to indicate siege rations (Ezekiel 4:16). This is confirmed by the quantity of the rations (Ezekiel 4:10), and the fact that it was purportedly to be baked on human dung (Ezekiel 4:12; compare Deuteronomy 23:13-14) rather than cow dung, because they were shut up in the city. It also indicated that the children of Israel, once taken captive, would eat their food ‘unclean’ among the nations (Ezekiel 4:13; compare Hosea 9:3. See also Daniel 1:8). In other words from the beginning of the siege onwards into captivity they would experience poor food, short rations, and ritual uncleanness. There was nothing ritually unclean about the food itself as far as we are aware from Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and the Mishnah - the later Jewish oral law). Among other things it would be the way such foods came in contact with uncleanness and unclean things, and the way that they might be grown (e.g. Leviticus 19:19) or stored, that would render them unclean. With regard to meat, its source, and whether it had been killed correctly, would often not be known. Foreigners could not be depended on to maintain ritual cleanness and to kill meat in the right way.

We should note, in fact, that on his protesting in horror (Ezekiel 4:14) God graciously allowed Ezekiel to use cow dung instead of human dung (Ezekiel 4:15). This was in order to maintain his own ceremonial cleanness. The use of cow dung for baking on was a recognised method of baking.

The various items were all to be baked together in some form of bread. When they were under siege people would put together whatever they had, mixing it together, in order to prepare food. In Ezekiel’s case this was then to form his means of sustenance for the 390 days, which was possibly intended to represent roughly the prospective length of the siege of Jerusalem (i.e ‘a year’).

Verse 10

“And your food which you will eat will be by weight twenty shekels a day. Each day at the same time you will eat it.”

Twenty shekels would come to about 225 grams (eight ounces). This was minimum rations indicating siege rations. ‘Each day at the same time you will eat it.’ The Hebrew is literally ‘from time to time’ but compare the similar use in 1 Chronicles 9:25. It seems to signify a recurring action taking place at the same time each day. The purpose of this was to make it a recognised activity in front of those who came to observe his behaviour.

Verse 11

“And you will drink water by measure, the sixth part of a hin. Each day at the same time you will drink it.”

As for food, so for water. He was allowed a little over 0.6 litres (a pint). This was hardly survival rations, but would often be necessary when under siege with water difficult to obtain. It may be that he was allowed to supplement it out of hours when not under observation, but that this was his general practise seems to be of some doubt. The purpose of the rations was to simulate siege conditions in the eyes of the people.

Verse 12

“And you shall eat it as barley cakes, and you will bake it in their sight with excrement that comes out of a man.”

‘Barley cakes’ indicates the poor man’s food. They were, as described earlier, made up of a mixture of ingredients. It was to be ‘baked in their sight’, possibly on heated stones or an iron plate. The onlookers would be watching someone surviving ‘under siege’.

The use of human excrement for fuel would appal not only Ezekiel but also the onlookers, yet in times of siege it would occur. Compare Deuteronomy 23:13-14 where it was to be buried out of sight to prevent defilement.

Verse 13

‘And Yahweh said, “Even thus will the children of Israel eat their food unclean among the nations whither I will drive them.” ’

The eating of food in this way would not only indicate the coming siege, it would also act as a reminder that because of their rebelliousness His people would be driven from the land of their inheritance to live in foreign lands that were seen as unclean. This signified that they would no longer be enjoying in full God’s provision for them through His covenant. While they would still be His covenant people, and be expected to live under the terms of the covenant, a major part of the privilege would have been lost. They would no longer have their own land, and their own holy city and temple, and the privilege of living fully in ritual cleanness. They would be defiled until their period of punishment was over.

Verse 14

‘Then said I, “Ah, Lord Yahweh. Behold my life has not been polluted, for from my youth up, even until now, I have not eaten of what dies of itself, or is torn of beasts, nor came there any abominable flesh into my mouth.” ’

Ezekiel had borne much without protest, but he was so appalled at the thought of using human excrement that he made his first protest to God. He pointed out the great care he had taken from childhood to keep himself ritually clean. He had not eaten meat from an animal that died naturally, nor from an animal that was killed by wild beasts (Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 11:39; Leviticus 17:15; Leviticus 22:8; Deuteronomy 14:21). Nor had he eaten ‘abominable flesh’ (Isaiah 65:4; Leviticus 7:18; Leviticus 11:4-8; Leviticus 11:10-20; Leviticus 11:23-31; Leviticus 11:41). He was horrified to think that now his body should be tainted by something ‘unclean’. This brings out how dedicated a man Ezekiel had always been, scrupulous in his dealings with things pertaining to God. And God graciously conceded to his position. He was thoughtful concerning the feelings of His servant.

Verse 15

‘Then he said, “I have given you cow’s dung for man’s excrement, and you shall prepare bread on it.”

God allowed him to use cow dung instead of man’s excrement. Cow dung was a recognised fuel used by many for cooking. Why then should God have required something that he knew would appal Ezekiel, and then made such a concession? The answer must be that it was in order to draw attention to the point in question. The uncleanness in which His people were involved. Once that was done, and the horror of their position had got over to Ezekiel, the concession could be made. It was after all only a symbol. Nothing crucial depended on it. (This brings out that all these actions were seen as symbols and not sympathetic magic. In the latter case the rules could not have been broken or else the magic would not have worked).

Verses 16-17

‘Moreover he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they will eat bread by weight and with carefulness, and they will drink water by measure and with dismay, that they may want bread and water, and be dismayed one with another, and pine away in their iniquity.” ’

‘The staff of bread.’ Compare Ezekiel 5:16; Ezekiel 14:13. To ‘break the staff of bread’ was to take away the provisions on which man depended for survival, the things on which he leaned. Thus ample provision in Jerusalem would cease and be replaced by shortage and famine, so that bread had to be measured out and eaten with careful consideration and discrimination, in order that it might be made to last, and water also would be given by measure, with dismay and astonishment at the shortage of it. Indeed they would reach a point when they both craved it, and lacked it, because the shortage was so great. And they would waste away because of their sinful ways and hearts.

The question must arise as to whether Ezekiel had to stick strictly to this diet, or whether it only applied to daylight hours. There are actually no grounds for doubting that it was strictly required. The ‘bed sores’ and the sight of Ezekiel growing thinner and thinner may well have been part of the illustration, although possibly concession might have been allowed if things became too desperate, especially as regards water. God would be there watching over him. It was the principle revealed that was important, not the fulfilling of the minute detail.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/ezekiel-4.html. 2013.
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