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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 16

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-63


Ezekiel 16:1-63

IN order to understand the place which the sixteenth chapter occupies in this section of the book, we must remember that a chief source of the antagonism between Ezekiel and his hearers was the proud national consciousness which sustained the courage of the people through all their humiliations. There were, perhaps, few nations of antiquity in which the flame of patriotic feeling burned more brightly than in Israel. No people with a past such as theirs could be indifferent to the many elements of greatness embalmed in their history. The beauty and fertility of their land, the martial exploits and signal deliverances of the nation, the great kings and heroes she had reared, her prophets and lawgivers-these and many other stirring memories were witnesses to Jehovah’s peculiar love for Israel and His power to exalt and bless His people. To cherish a deep sense of the unique privileges which Jehovah had conferred on her in giving her a distinct place among the nations of the earth was thus a religious duty often insisted on in the Old Testament. But in order that this sense might work for good it was necessary that it should take the form of grateful recognition of Jehovah as the source of the nation’s greatness, and be accompanied by a true knowledge of His character. When allied with false conceptions of Jehovah’s nature, or entirely divorced from religion, patriotism degenerated into racial prejudice and became a serious moral and political danger. That this had actually taken place is a common complaint of the prophets. They feel. that national vanity is a great obstacle to the acceptance of their message, and pour forth bitter and scornful words intended to humble the pride of Israel to the dust. No prophet addresses himself to the task so remorselessly as Ezekiel. The utter worthlessness of Israel, both absolutely in the eyes of Jehovah and relatively in comparison with other nations, is asserted by him with a boldness and emphasis which at first startle us. From a different point of view prophecy and its results might have been regarded as fruits of the national life, under the divine education vouchsafed to that people. But that is not Ezekiel’s standpoint. He seizes on the fact that prophecy was in opposition to the natural genius of the people, and was not to be regarded as in any sense an expression of it. Accepting the final attitude of Israel toward the word of Jehovah as the genuine outcome of her natural proclivities, he reads her past as an unbroken record of ingratitude and infidelity. All that was good in Israel was Jehovah’s gift, freely bestowed and justly withdrawn; all that was Israel’s own was her weakness and her sin. It was reserved for a later prophet to reconcile the condemnation of Israel’s actual history with the recognition of the divine power working there and moulding a spiritual kernel of the nation into a true "servant of the Lord". {Isaiah 40:1-31 ff.}

In chapters 15 and 16, therefore, the prophet exposes the hollowness of Israel’s confidence in her national destiny. The first of these appears to be directed against the vain hopes cherished in Jerusalem at the time. It is not necessary to dwell on it at length. The image is simple and its application to Jerusalem obvious. Earlier prophets had compared Israel to a vine, partly to set forth the exceptional privileges she enjoyed, but chiefly to emphasise the degeneration she had undergone, as shown by the bad moral fruits which she had borne. {cf. Isaiah 5:1 ff.; Jeremiah 2:21 Hosea 10:1} The popular imagination had laid hold of the thought that Israel was the vine of God’s planting, ignoring the question of the fruit. But Ezekiel reminds his hearers that apart from its fruit the vine is the most worthless of trees. Even at the best its wood can be employed for no useful purpose; it is fit only for fuel. Such was the people of Israel, considered simply as a state among other states, without regard to its religious vocation. Even in its pristine vigour, when the national energies were fresh and unimpaired, it was but a weak nation, incapable of attaining the dignity of a great power. But now the strength of the nation has been worn away by a long succession of disasters, until only a shadow of her former glory remains. Israel is no longer like a green and living vine, but like a branch burned at both ends and charred in the middle, and therefore doubly unfit for any worthy function in the affairs of the world. By the help of this illustration men may read in the present state of the nation the irrevocable sentence of rejection which Jehovah has passed on His people.

We now turn to the striking allegory of chapter 16, where the same subject is treated with far greater penetration and depth of feeling. There is no passage in the book of Ezekiel at once so powerful and so full of religious significance as the picture of Jerusalem, the foundling child, the unfaithful spouse, and the abandoned prostitute, which is here presented. The general conception is one that might have been presented in a form as beautiful as it is spiritually true. But the features which offend our sense of propriety are perhaps introduced with a stern purpose. It is the deliberate intention of Ezekiel to present Jerusalem’s wickedness in the most repulsive light, in order that, if possible, he might startle men into abhorrence of their national sin. In his own mind the feelings of moral indignation and physical disgust were very close together, and here he seems to work on the minds of his readers, so that the feeling excited by the image may call forth the feeling appropriate to the reality.

The allegory is a highly idealised history of the city of Jerusalem from its origin to its destruction, and then onward to its future restoration. It falls naturally into four divisions:-

1. Ezekiel 16:1-14 -The first emergence of Jerusalem into civic life is compared to a new-born female infant, exposed to perish, after a cruel custom which is known to have prevailed among some Semitic tribes. None of the offices customary on the birth of a child were performed in her case, whether those necessary to preserve life or those which had a merely ceremonial significance. Unblessed and unpitied she lay in the open field, weltering in blood, exciting only repugnance in all who passed by, until Jehovah Himself passed by, and pronounced over her the decree that she should live. Thus saved from death, she grew up and reached maturity, but still "naked and bare," destitute of wealth and the refinements of civilisation. These were bestowed on her when a second time Jehovah passed by and spread His skirt over her, and claimed her for His own. Not till then had she been treated as a human being with the possibilities of honourable life before her. But now, she becomes the bride of her protector, and is provided for as a high-born maiden might be, with all the ornaments and luxuries befitting her new rank. Lifted from the lowest depth of degradation, she is now transcendently beautiful, and has "attained to royal estate." The fame of her loveliness went abroad among the nations: "for it was perfect through My glory, which I put upon thee, saith Jehovah" (Ezekiel 16:14).

It will be seen that the points of contact with actual history are here extremely few as well as vague. It is indeed doubtful whether the subject of the allegory be the city of Jerusalem conceived as one through all its changes of population, or the Hebrew nation of which Jerusalem ultimately became the capital. The latter interpretation is certainly favoured by chapter 23, where both Jerusalem and Samaria are represented as having spent their youth in Egypt. That parallel may not be decisive as to the meaning of chapter 16; and the statement "thy father was the Amorite and thy mother a Hittite" may be thought to support the other alternative. Amorite and Hittite are general names for the pre-Israelite population of Canaan, and it is a well-known fact that Jerusalem was originally a Canaanitish city. It is not necessary to suppose that the prophet has any information about the early fortunes of Jerusalem when he describes the stages of the process by which she was raised to royal magnificence. The chief question is whether these details can be fairly applied to the history of the nation before it had Jerusalem as its metropolis. It is usually held that the first "passing by" of Jehovah refers to the preservation of the people in the patriarchal period, and the second to the events of the Exodus and the Sinaitic covenant. Against this it may be urged that Ezekiel would hardly have presented the patriarchal period in a hateful light, although he does go further in discrediting antiquity than any other prophet. Besides, the description of Jerusalem’s betrothal to Jehovah contains points which are more naturally understood of the glories of the age of David and Solomon than of the events of Sinai, which were not accompanied by an access of material prosperity such as is suggested. It may be necessary to leave the matter in the vagueness with which the prophet has surrounded it, and accept as the teaching of the allegory the simple truth that Jerusalem in herself was nothing, but had been preserved in existence by Jehovah’s will, and owed all her splendour to her association with His cause and His kingdom.

2. Ezekiel 16:15-34 -The dainties and rich attire enjoyed by the highly favoured bride become a snare to her. These represent blessings of a material order bestowed by Jehovah on Jerusalem. Throughout the chapter nothing is said of the imparting of spiritual privileges, or of a moral change wrought in the heart of Jerusalem. The gifts of Jehovah are conferred on one incapable of responding to the care and affection that had been lavished on her. The inborn taint of her nature, the hereditary immorality of her heathen ancestors, breaks out in a career of licentiousness in which all the advantages of her proud position are prostituted to the vilest ends. "As is the mother, so is her daughter" (Ezekiel 16:44); and Jerusalem betrayed her true origin by the readiness with which she took to evil courses as soon as she had the opportunity. The "whoredom" in which the prophet sums up his indictment against his people is chiefly the sin of idolatry. The figure may have been suggested by the fact that actual lewdness of the most flagrant kind was a conspicuous element in the form of idolatry to which Israel first succumbed-the worship of the Canaanite Baals. But in the hands of the prophets it has a deeper and more spiritual import than this. It signified the violation of all the sacred moral obligations which are enshrined in human marriage, or, in other words, the abandonment of an ethical religion for one in which the powers of nature were regarded as the highest revelation of the divine. To the mind of the prophet it made no difference whether the object of worship was called by the name of Jehovah or of Baal: the character of the worship determined the quality of the religion; and in the one case, as in the other, it was idolatry, or "whoredom."

Two stages in the idolatry of Israel appear to be distinguished in this part of the chapter. The first is the naive, half-conscious heathenism which crept in insensibly through contact with Phoenician and Canaanite neighbours (Ezekiel 16:15-25). The tokens of Jerusalem’s implication in this sin were everywhere. The "high places" with their tents and clothed images (Ezekiel 16:17), and the offerings set forth before these objects of adoration, were undoubtedly of Canaanitish origin, and their preservation to the fall of the kingdom was a standing witness to the source to which Israel owed her earliest and dearest "abominations." We learn that this phase of idolatry culminated in the atrocious rite of human sacrifice (Ezekiel 16:20-21). The immolation of children to Baal or Molech was a common practice amongst the nations surrounding Israel, and when introduced there seems to have been regarded as part of the worship of Jehovah. What Ezekiel here asserts is that the practice came through Israel’s illicit commerce with the gods of Canaan, and there is no question that this is historically true. The allegory exhibits the sin in its unnatural heinousness. The idealised city is the mother of her citizens, the children are Jehovah’s children and her own, yet she has taken them and offered them up to the false lovers she so madly pursued. Such was her feverish passion for idolatry that the dearest and most sacred ties of nature were ruthlessly severed at the bidding of a perverted religious sense.

The second form of idolatry in Israel was of a more deliberate and politic kind (Ezekiel 16:23-34). it consisted in the introduction of the deities and religious practices of the great world-powers-Egypt, Assyria, and Chaldea. The attraction of these foreign rites did not lie in the fascination of a sensuous type of religion, but rather in the impression of power produced by the gods of the conquering peoples. The foreign gods came in mostly in consequence of a political alliance with the nations whose patrons they were; in other cases a god was worshipped simply because he had shown himself able to do great things for his servants. Jerusalem as Ezekiel knew it was full of monuments of this comparatively recent type of idolatry. In every street and at the head of every way there were erections (here called "arches" or "heights") which, from the connection in which they are mentioned, must have been shrines devoted to the strange gods from abroad. It is characteristic of the political idolatry here referred to that its monuments were found in the capital, while the more ancient and rustic worship was typified by the "high places" throughout the provinces. It is probable that the description applies mainly to the later period of the monarchy, when Israel, and especially Judah, began to lean for support on one or other of the great empires on either side of her. At the same time it must be remembered that Ezekiel elsewhere teaches distinctly that the influence of Egyptian religion had been continuous from the days of the Exodus (chapter 23). There may, however, have been a revival of Egyptian influence, due to the political exigencies which arose in the eighth century.

Thus Jerusalem has "played the harlot"; nay, she has done worse-"she has been as a wife that committeth adultery, who though under her husband taketh strangers." And the result has been simply the impoverishment of the land. The heavy exactions levied on the country by Egypt and Assyria were the hire she had paid to her lovers to come to her. If false religion had resulted in an increase of wealth or material prosperity, there might have been some excuse for the eagerness with which she plunged into it. But certainly Israel’s history bore the lesson that false religion means waste and ruin. Strangers had devoured her strength from her youth, yet she never would heed the voice of her prophets when they sought to guide her into the ways of peace. Her infatuation was unnatural; it goes almost beyond the bounds of the allegory to exhibit it: "The contrary is in thee from other women, in that thou committest whoredoms, and none goeth awhoring after thee: and in that thou givest hire, and no hire is given to thee, therefore thou art contrary" (Ezekiel 16:34).

3. Ezekiel 16:35-58 .-Having thus made Jerusalem to "know her abominations" (Ezekiel 16:2), the prophet proceeds to announce the doom which must inevitably follow such a career of wickedness. The figures under which the judgment is set forth appear to be taken from the punishment meted out to profligate women in ancient Israel. The public exposure of the adulteress and her death by stoning in the presence of "many women" supply images terribly appropriate of the fate in store for Jerusalem. Her punishment is to be a warning to all surrounding nations, and an exhibition of the jealous wrath of Jehovah against her infidelity. These nations, some of them hereditary enemies, others old allies, are represented as assembled to witness and to execute the judgment of the city. The remorseless realism of the prophet spares no detail which could enhance the horror of the situation. Abandoned to the ruthless violence of her former lovers, Jerusalem is stripped of her royal attire, the emblems of her idolatry are destroyed, and so, left naked to her enemies, she suffers the ignominious death of a city that has been false to her religion. The root of her sin had been the forgetfulness of what she owed to the goodness of Jehovah, and the essence of her punishment lies in the withdrawal of the gifts He had lavished upon her and the protection which, amid all her apostasies, she had never ceased to expect.

At this point (Ezekiel 16:44 ff.) the allegory takes a new turn through the introduction of the sister cities of Samaria and Sodom. Samaria, although as a city much younger than Jerusalem, is considered the elder sister because she had once been the centre of a greater political power than Jerusalem, and Sodom, which was probably older than either, is treated as the youngest because of her relative insignificance. The order, however, is of no importance. The point of the comparison is that all three had manifested in different degrees the same hereditary tendency to immorality (Ezekiel 16:45). All three were of heathen origin-their mother a Hittite and their father an Amorite-a description which it is even more difficult to understand in the case of Samaria than in that of Jerusalem. But Ezekiel is not concerned about history. What is prominent in his mind is the family likeness observed in their characters, which gave point to the proverb "Like mother, like daughter" when applied to Jerusalem. The prophet affirms that the wickedness of Jerusalem had so far exceeded that of Samaria and Sodom that she had "justified" her sisters-i.e., she had made their moral condition appear pardonable by comparison with hers. He knows that he is saying a bold thing in ranking the iniquity of Jerusalem as greater than that of Sodom, and so he explains his judgment on Sodom by an analysis of the cause of her notorious corruptness. The name of Sodom lived in tradition as that of the foulest city of the old world, a ne plus ultra of wickedness. Yet Ezekiel dares to raise the question, What was the sin of Sodom? "This was the sin of Sodom thy sister, pride, superabundance of food, and careless ease was the lot of her and her daughters, but they did not succour the poor and needy. But they became proud, and committed abominations before Me: therefore I took them away as thou hast seen" (Ezekiel 16:49-50). The meaning seems to be that the corruptions of Sodom were the natural outcome of the evil principle in the Canaanitish nature, favoured by easy circumstances and unchecked by the saving influences of a pure religion. Ezekiel’s judgment is like an anticipation of the more solemn sentence uttered by One who knew what was in man when He said, "If the mighty works which have been done in you had been done in Sodom and Gomorrha, they would, have remained until this day."

It is remarkable to observe how some of the profoundest ideas in this chapter attach themselves to the strange conception of these two vanished cities as still capable of being restored to their place in the world. In the ideal future of the prophet’s vision Sodom and Samaria shall rise from their ruins through the same power which restores Jerusalem to her ancient glory. The promise of a renewed existence to Sodom and Samaria is perhaps connected with the fact that they lay within the sacred territory of which Jerusalem is the centre. Hence Sodom and Samaria are no longer sisters, but daughters of Jerusalem, receiving through her the blessings of the true religion. And it is her relation to these her sisters that opens the eyes of Jerusalem to, the true nature of her own relation to Jehovah. Formerly she had been proud and self-sufficient, and counted her exceptional prerogatives the natural reward of some excellence to which she could lay claim. The name of Sodom, the disgraced sister of the family, was not heard in her mouth in the days of her pride, when her wickedness had not been disclosed as it is now (Ezekiel 16:57). But when she realises that her conduct has justified and comforted her sister, anti when she has to take guilty Sodom to her heart as a daughter, she will understand that she owes all her greatness to the same sovereign grace of Jehovah which is manifested in the restoration of the most abandoned community known to history. And out of this new consciousness of grace will spring the chastened and penitent temper of mind which makes possible the continuance of the bond which unites her to Jehovah.

4. Ezekiel 16:59-63 -The way is thus prepared for the final promise of forgiveness with which the chapter closes. The reconciliation between Jehovah and Jerusalem will be effected by an act of recollection on both sides: "I will remember My covenant with thee Thou shalt remember thy ways" (Ezekiel 16:60-61). The mind of Jehovah and the mind of Jerusalem both go back on the past; but while Jehovah thinks only of the purpose of love which he had entertained towards Jerusalem in the days of her youth and the indissoluble bond between them, Jerusalem retains the memory of her own sinful history; and finds in the remembrance the source of abiding contrition and shame. It does not fall within the scope of the prophet’s purpose to set forth in this place the blessed consequences which flow from this renewal of loving intercourse between Israel and her God. He has accomplished his object when he has shown how the electing love of Jehovah reaches its end in spite of human sin and rebellion, and how through the crushing power of divine grace the failures and transgressions of the past are made to issue in a relation of perfect harmony between Jehovah and His people. The permanence of that relation is expressed by an idea borrowed from Jeremiah-the idea of an everlasting covenant, which cannot be broken because based on the forgiveness of sin and a renewal of heart. The prophet knows that when once the power of evil has been broken by a full disclosure of redeeming love it cannot resume its old ascendency in human life. So he leaves us on the threshold of the new dispensation with the picture of Jerusalem humbled and bearing her shame, yet in the abjectness of her self-accusation realising the end towards which the love of Jehovah had guided her from the beginning: "I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am Jehovah: that thou mayest remember, and be ashamed, and not open thy mouth any more for very shame, when I expiate for thee all that thou hast done, saith the Lord Jehovah" (Ezekiel 16:62-63).

Throughout this chapter we see that the prophet moves in the region of national religious ideas which are distinctive of the Old Testament. Of the influences that formed his conceptions that of Hosea is perhaps most discernible. The fundamental thoughts embodied in the allegory are the same as those by which the older prophet learned to interpret the nature of God and the sin of Israel through the bitter experiences of this family life. These thoughts are developed by Ezekiel with a fertility of imagination and a grasp of theological principles which were adapted to the more complex situation with which he had to deal. But the conception of Israel as the unfaithful wife of Jehovah, of the false gods and the world-powers as her lovers, of her conversion through affliction, and her final restoration by a new betrothal which is eternal, are all expressed in the first three chapters of Hosea. And the freedom with which Ezekiel handles and expands these conceptions shows how thoroughly he was at home in that national view of religion which he did much to break through. In the next chapter we shall have occasion to examine his treatment of the problem of the individual’s relation to God, and we cannot fail to be struck by the contrast. The analysis of individual religion may seem meagre by the side of this most profound and suggestive chapter. This arises from the fact that the full meaning of religion could not then be expressed as an experience of the individual soul. The subject of religion being the nation of Israel, the human side of it could only be unfolded in terms of what we should call the national consciousness. The time was not yet come when the great truths which the prophets and psalmists saw embodied in the history of their people could be translated in terms of individual fellowship with God. Yet the God who spake to the fathers by the prophets is the same who has spoken to us in His Son; and when from the standpoint of a higher revelation we turn back to the Old Testament, it is to find in the form of a nation’s history the very same truths which we realise as matters of personal experience.

From this point of view the chapter we have considered is one of the most evangelical passages in the writings of Ezekiel. The prophet’s conception of sin, for example, is singularly profound and true. He has been charged with a somewhat superficial conception of sin, as if he saw nothing more in it than the transgression of a law arbitrarily imposed by divine authority. There are aspects of Ezekiel’s teaching which give some plausibility to that charge, especially those which deal with the duties of the individual. But we see that to Ezekiel the real nature of sin could not possibly be manifested except as a factor in the national life. Now in this allegory it is obvious that he sees something far deeper in it than the mere transgression of positive commandments. Behind all the outward offences of which Israel had been guilty there plainly lies the spiritual fact of national selfishness, unfaithfulness to Jehovah, insensibility to His love, and ingratitude for His Benefits. Moreover, the prophet, like Jeremiah before him, has a strong sense of sin as a tendency in human life, a power which is ineradicable save by the mingled severity and goodness of God. Through the whole history of Israel it is one evil disposition which he sees asserting itself, breaking out now in one form and then in another, but continually gaining strength, until at last the spirit of repentance is created by the experience of God’s forgiveness. It is not the case, therefore, that: Ezekiel failed to comprehend the nature of sin, or that in this respect he falls below the most spiritual of the prophets who had gone before him.

In order that this tendency to sin may be destroyed, Ezekiel sees that the consciousness of guilt must take its place. In the same way the apostle Paul teaches that "every mouth must be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." Whether the subject be a nation or an individual, the dominion of sin is not broken till the sinner has taken home to himself the full responsibility for his acts and felt himself to be "without excuse." But the most striking thing in Ezekiel’s representation of the process of conversion is the thought that this saving sense of sin is produced less by judgment than by free and undeserved forgiveness. Punishment he conceives to be necessary, being demanded alike by the righteousness of God and the good of the sinful people. But the heart of Jerusalem is not changed till she finds herself restored to her former relation to God, with all the sin of her past blotted out and a new life before her. It is through the grace of forgiveness that she is overwhelmed with shame and sorrow for sin, and learns the humility which is the germ of a new hope towards God. Here the prophet strikes one of the deepest notes of evangelical doctrine. All experience confirms the lesson that true repentance is not produced by the terrors of the law, but by the view of God’s love in Christ going forth to meet the sinner and bring him back to the Father’s heart and home.

Another question of great interest and difficulty is the attitude towards the heathen world assumed by Ezekiel. The prophecy of the restoration of Sodom is certainly one of the most remarkable things in the book. It is true that Ezekiel as a rule concerns himself very little with the religious state of the outlying world under the Messianic dispensation. Where he speaks of foreign nations it is only to announce the manifestation of Jehovah’s glory in the judgments He executes upon them. The effect of these judgments is that "they shall know that I am Jehovah"; but how much is included in the expression as applied to the heathen it is impossible to say. This, however, may be due to the peculiar limitation of view which leads him to concentrate his attention on the Holy Land in his visions of the perfect kingdom of God. We can hardly suppose that he conceived all the rest of the world as a blank or filled with a seething mass of humanity outside the government of the true God. It is rather to be supposed that Canaan itself appeared to his mind as an epitome of the world such as it must be-when the latter-day glory was ushered in. And in Canaan he finds room for Sodom, but Sodom turned to the knowledge of the true God and sharing in the blessings bestowed on Jerusalem. It is surely allowable to see in this the symptom of a more hopeful view of the future of the world at large than we should gather from the rest of the prophecy. If Ezekiel could think of Sodom as raised from the dead and sharing the glories of the people of God, the idea of the conversion of heathen nations could not have been altogether foreign to his miner It is at all events significant that when he meditates most profoundly on the nature of sin and God’s method of dealing with it, he is led to the thought of a divine mercy which embraces in its sweep those communities which had reached the lowest depths of moral corruption.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 16". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-16.html.
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