Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 25

Verses 1-17


THE next eight chapters (25-32) form an intermezzo in the Book of Ezekiel. They are inserted in this place with the obvious intention of separating the two sharply contrasted situations in which our prophet found himself before and after the siege of Jerusalem. The subject with which they deal is indeed an essential part of the prophet’s message to his time, but it is separate from the central interest of the narrative, which lies in the conflict between the word of Jehovah in the hands of Ezekiel and the unbelief of the exiles among whom he lived. The perusal of this group of chapters is intended to prepare the reader for the completely altered conditions under which Ezekiel was to resume his public ministrations. The cycle of prophecies on foreign peoples is thus a sort of literary analogue of the period of suspense which interrupted the continuity of Ezekiel’s work in the way we have seen. It marks the shifting of the scenes behind the curtain before the principal actors again step on the stage.

It is natural enough to suppose that the prophet’s mind was really occupied during this time with the fate of Israel’s heathen neighbours; but that alone does not account for the grouping of the oracles before us in this particular section of the book. Not only do some of the chronological notices carry us far past the limit of the time of silence referred to, but it will be found that nearly all the prophecies assume that the fall of Jerusalem is already known to the nations addressed. It is therefore a mistaken view which holds that in these chapters we have simply the result of Ezekiel’s meditations during his period of enforced seclusion from public duty. Whatever the nature of his activity at this time may have been, the principle of arrangement here is not chronological, but literary; and no better motive for it can be suggested than the writer’s sense of dramatic propriety in unfolding the significance of his prophetic life.

In uttering a series of oracles against heathen nations, Ezekiel follows the example set by some of his greatest predecessors. The Book of Amos, for example, opens with an impressive chapter of judgments on the peoples lying immediately round the borders of Palestine. The thundercloud of Jehovah’s anger is represented as moving over the petty states of Syria before it finally breaks in all its fury over the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Similarly the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah contain continuous sections dealing with various heathen powers, while the Book of Nahum is wholly occupied with a prediction of the ruin of the Assyrian empire. And these are but a few of the more striking instances of a phenomenon which is apt to cause perplexity to close and earnest students of the Old Testament. We have here to do, therefore, with a standing theme of Hebrew prophecy; and it may help us better to understand the attitude of Ezekiel if we consider for a moment some of the principles involved in this constant pre-occupation of the prophets with the affairs of the outer world.

At the outset it must be understood that prophecies of this kind form part of Jehovah’s message to Israel. Although they are usually cast in the form of direct address to foreign peoples, this must not lead us to imagine that they were intended for actual publication in the countries to which they refer. A prophet’s real audience always consisted of his own countrymen, whether his discourse was about themselves or about their neighbours. And it is easy to see that it was impossible to declare the purpose of God concerning Israel in words that came home to men’s business and bosoms, without taking account of the state and destiny of other nations. Just as it would not be possible nowadays to forecast the future of Egypt without alluding to the fate of the Ottoman empire, so it was not possible then to describe the future of Israel in the concrete manner characteristic of the prophets without indicating the place reserved for those peoples with whom it had close intercourse. Besides this, a large part of the national consciousness of Israel was made up of interests, friendly or the reverse, in neighbouring states.

The Hebrews had a keen eye for national idiosyncrasies, and the simple international relations of those days were almost as vivid and personal as of neighbours living in the same village. To be an Israelite was to be something characteristically different from a Moabite, and that again from an Edomite or a Philistine, and every patriotic Israelite had a shrewd sense of what the difference was. We cannot read the utterances of the prophets with regard to any of these nationalities without seeing that they often appeal to perceptions deeply lodged in the popular mind, which could be utilised to convey the spiritual lessons which the prophets desired to teach.

It must not be supposed, however, that such prophecies are in any degree the expression of national vanity or jealousy. What the prophets aim at is to elevate the thoughts of Israel to the sphere of eternal truths of the kingdom of God; and it is only in so far as these can be made to touch the conscience of the nation at this point that they appeal to what we may call its international sentiments. Now the question we have to ask is, What spiritual purpose for Israel is served by the announcements of the destiny of the outlying heathen populations? There are of course special interests attaching to each particular prophecy which it would be difficult to classify. But, speaking generally, prophecies of this class had a moral value for two reasons. In the first place, they re-echo and confirm the sentence of judgment passed on Israel herself. They do this in two ways: they illustrate the principle on which Jehovah deals with His own people, and His character as the righteous judge of men. Israel was to be destroyed for her national sins, her contempt of Jehovah, and her breaches of the moral law. But other nations, though more excusable, were not less guilty than Israel. The same spirit of ungodliness, in different forms, was manifested by Tyre, by Egypt, by Assyria, and by the petty states of Syria. Hence, if Jehovah was really the righteous ruler of the world, He must visit upon these nations their iniquities. Wherever a "sinful kingdom" was found, whether in Israel or elsewhere, that kingdom must be removed from its place among the nations. This appears most clearly, in the Book of Amos, who, though he enunciates the paradoxical truth that Israel’s sin must be punished just because it was the only people that Jehovah had known, nevertheless, as we have seen, thundered forth similar judgments on other nations for their flagrant violation of the universal law written in the human heart. In this way therefore the prophets enforced on their contemporaries the fundamental lesson of their teaching that the disasters which were coming on them were not the result of the caprice or impotence of their Deity, but the execution of His moral purpose, to which all men everywhere are subject. But again, not only was the principle of the judgment emphasised, but the manner in which it was to be carried out was more clearly exhibited. In all cases the pre-exilic prophets announce that the overthrow of the Hebrew states was to be effected either by the Assyrians or the Babylonians. These great world-powers were in succession the instruments fashioned and used by Jehovah for the performance of His great work in the earth. Now it was manifest that if this anticipation was well founded it involved the overthrow of all the nations in immediate contact with Israel.

The policy of the Mesopotamian monarchs was well understood; and if their wonderful successes were the revelation of the Divine purpose, then Israel would not be judged alone. Accordingly we find in most instances that the chastisement of the heathen is either ascribed directly to the invaders or else to other agencies set in motion by their approach. The people of Israel or Judah were thus taught to look on their fate as involved in a great scheme of Divine providence, overturning all the existing relations which gave them a place among the nations of the world and preparing for a new development of the purpose of Jehovah in the future.

When we turn to that ideal future we find a second and more suggestive aspect of these prophecies against the heathen. All the prophets teach that the destroy of Israel is inseparably bound up with the future of God’s kingdom on earth. The Old Testament never wholly shakes off the idea that the preservation and ultimate victory of the true religion demands the continued existence of the one people to whom the revelation of the true God had been committed. The indestructibility of Israel’s national life depends on its unique position in relation to the purposes of Jehovah, and it is for this reason that the prophets look forward with unwavering confidence to a time when the knowledge of Jehovah shall go forth from Israel to all the nations of mankind. And this point of view we must try to enter into if we are to understand the meaning of their declarations concerning the fate of the surrounding nations. If we ask whether an independent future is reserved in the new dispensation for the peoples with whom Israel had dealings in the past, we find that different and sometimes conflicting answers are given. Thus Isaiah predicts a restoration of Tyre after the lapse of seventy years, while Ezekiel announces its complete and final destruction. It is only when we consider these utterances in the light of the prophets’ general conception of the kingdom of God that we discern the spiritual truth that gives them an abiding significance for the instruction of all ages. It was not a matter of supreme religious importance to know whether Phoenicia or Egypt or Assyria would retain their old place in the world, and share indirectly in the blessings of the Messianic age. What men needed to be taught then, and what we need to remember still, is that each nation holds its position in subordination to the ends of God’s government, and no power or wisdom or refinement will save a state from destruction when it ceases to serve the interests of His kingdom. The foreign peoples that come under the survey of the prophets are as yet strangers to the true God, and are therefore destitute of that which could secure them a place in the reconstruction of political relationships of which Israel is to be the religious centre. Sometimes they are represented as having by their hostility to Israel or their pride of heart so encroached on the sovereignty of Jehovah that their doom is already sealed. At other times they are conceived as converted to the knowledge of the true God, and as gladly accepting the place assigned to them in the humanity of the future by consecrating their wealth and power to the service of His people Israel. In all cases it is their attitude to Israel and the God of Israel that determines their destiny: that is the great truth which the prophets design to impress on their countrymen. So long as the cause of religion was identified with the fortunes of the people of Israel no higher conception of the redemption of mankind could be formed than that of a willing subjection of the nations of the earth to the word of Jehovah which went forth from Jerusalem {cf. Isaiah 2:2-4} And whether any particular nation should survive to participate in the glories of that latter day depends on the view taken of its present condition and its fitness for incorporation in the universal empire of Jehovah soon to be established.

We now know that this was not the form in which Jehovah’s purpose of salvation was destined to be realised in the history of the world. Since the coming of Christ the people of Israel has lost its distinctive and central position as the bearer of the hopes and promises of the true religion. In its place we have a spiritual kingdom of men united by faith in Jesus Christ, and in the worship of one Father in spirit and in truth-a kingdom which from its very nature can have no local centre or political organisation. Hence the conversion of the heathen can no longer be conceived as national homage paid to the seat of Jehovah’s sovereignty on Zion; nor is the unfolding of the Divine plan of universal salvation bound up with the extinction of the nationalities which once symbolised the hostility of the world to the kingdom of God. This fact has an important bearing on the question of the fulfilment of the foreign prophecies of the Old Testament. Literal fulfilment is not to be looked for in this case any more than in the delineations of Israel’s future, which are after all the predominant element of Messianic prediction. It is true that the nations passed under review have now vanished from history, and in so far as their fall was brought about by causes operating in the world in which the prophets moved, it must be recognised as a partial but real vindication of the truth of their words. But the details of the prophecies have not been historically verified. All attempts to trace their accomplishment in events that took place long afterwards and in circumstances which the prophets themselves never contemplated only lead us astray from the real interest which belongs to them. As concrete embodiments of the eternal principles exhibited in the rise and fall of nations they have an abiding significance for the Church in all ages; but the actual working out of these principles in history could not in the nature of things be complete within the limits of the world known to the inhabitants of Judaea. If we are to look for their ideal fulfilment, we shall only find it in the progressive victory of Christianity over all forms of error and superstition, and in the dedication of all the resources of human civilisation-its wealth, its commercial enterprise, its political power-to the advancement of the kingdom of our God and His Christ.

It was natural from the special circumstances in which he wrote, as well as from the general character of his teaching, that Ezekiel, in his oracles against the heathen powers, should present only the dark side of God’s providence. Except in the case of Egypt, the nations addressed are threatened with annihilation, and even Egypt is to be reduced to a condition of utter impotence and humiliation. Very characteristic also is his representation of the purpose which comes to light in, this series of judgments. It is to he a great demonstration to all the earth of the absolute sovereignty of Jehovah. "Ye shall know that I am Jehovah" is the formula that sums up the lesson of each nation’s fall. We observe that the prophet starts from the situation created by the fall of Jerusalem. That great calamity bore in the first instance the appearance of a triumph of heathenism over Jehovah the God of Israel. It was, as the prophet elsewhere expresses it, a profanation of His holy name in the eyes of the nations. And in this light it was undoubtedly regarded by the petty, principalities around Palestine, and perhaps also by the more distant and powerful spectators, such as Tyre and Egypt. From the standpoint of heathenism the downfall of Israel meant the defeat of its tutelary Deity; and the neighbouring nations, in exulting over the tidings of Jerusalem’s fate, ‘had in their minds the idea of the prostrate Jehovah unable to save His people in their hour of need. It is not necessary to suppose that Ezekiel attributes to them any consciousness of Jehovah’s claim to be the only living and true God. It is the paradox of revelation that He who is the Eternal and Infinite first revealed Himself to the world as the God of Israel; and all the misconceptions that sprang out of that fact had to be cleared away by His self-manifestation in historical acts that appealed to the world at large. Amongst these acts the judgment of the heathen nations holds the first place in the mind of Ezekiel. A crisis has been reached at which it becomes necessary for Jehovah to vindicate His divinity by the destruction of those who have exalted themselves against Him. The world must learn once for all that Jehovah is no mere tribal god, but the omnipotent ruler of the universe. And this is the preparation for the final disclosure of His power and Godhead in the restoration of Israel to its own land, which will speedily follow the overthrow of its ancient foes. This series of prophecies forms thus an appropriate introduction to the third division of the book, which deals with the formation of the new people of Jehovah.

It is somewhat remarkable that Ezekiel’s survey of the heathen nations is restricted to those in the immediate vicinity of the land of Canaan. Although he had unrivalled opportunities of becoming acquainted with the remote countries of the East, he confines his attention to the Mediterranean states which had long played a part in Hebrew history. The peoples dealt with are seven in number-Ammon, Moab, Edom, the Philistines, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. The order of the enumeration is geographical: first the inner circle of Israel’s immediate neighbours, from Ammon on the east round to Sidon in the extreme north; then outside the circle the preponderating world-power of Egypt. It is not altogether an accidental circumstance that five of these nations are named in the twenty-seventh chapter of Jeremiah as concerned in the project of rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar in the early part of Zedekiah’s reign. Egypt and Philistia are not mentioned there, but we may surmise at least that Egyptian diplomacy was secretly at work pulling the wires which set the puppets in motion. This fact, together with the omission of Babylon from the list of threatened nations, shows that Ezekiel regards the judgment as falling within the period of Chaldean supremacy, which he appears to have estimated at forty years. What is to be the fate of Babylon itself he nowhere intimates, a conflict between that great world-power and Jehovah’s purpose being no part of his system. That Nebuchadnezzar is to be the agent of the overthrow of Tyre and the humiliation of Egypt is expressly stated; and although the crushing of the smaller states is ascribed to other agencies, we can hardly doubt that these were conceived as indirect consequences of the upheaval caused by the Babylonian invasion.

Chapter 25, then, consists of four brief prophecies addressed respectively to Ammon, Moab, Edom, and the Philistines. A few words on the fate prefigured for each of these countries will suffice for the explanation of the chapter.

1. AMMON (Ezekiel 25:2-7) lay on the edge of the desert, between the upper waters of the Jabbok and the Arnon, separated from the Jordan by a strip of Israelitish territory from twenty to thirty miles wide. Its capital, Rabbah, mentioned here (Ezekiel 25:5), was situated on a southern tributary of the Jabbok, and its ruins still bear amongst the Arabs the ancient national name Amman. Although their country was pastoral (milk is referred to in Ezekiel 25:4) as one of its chief products, the Ammonites seem to have made some progress in civilisation. Jeremiah {Jeremiah 49:4} speaks of them as trusting in their treasures: and in this chapter Ezekiel announces that they shall be for a spoil to the nations (Ezekiel 25:7). After the deportation of the transjordanic tribes by Tiglath-pileser, Ammon seized the country that had belonged to the tribe of Gad, its nearest neighbour on the west. This encroachment is denounced by the prophet Jeremiah in the opening words of his oracle against Ammon: "Hath Israel no children? or has he no heir? why doth Milcom" (the national deity of the Ammonites) "inherit Gad, why hath his" (Milcom’s) "folk settled in his" (Gad’s) "cities." {Jeremiah 49:1} We have already seen (chapter 21) that the Ammonites took part in the rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, and stood out after the other members of the league had gone back from their purpose. But this temporary union with Jerusalem did nothing to abate the old national animosity, and the disaster of Judah was a signal for an exhibition of malignant satisfaction on the part of Ammon. "Because thou hast said, Aha, against My sanctuary when it was profaned, and the land of Israel when it was laid waste, and the house of Judah when it went into captivity," etc. (Ezekiel 25:3)-for this crowning offence against the majesty of Jehovah, Ezekiel denounces an exterminating judgment on Ammon. The land shall be given up to the "children of the East"-i.e.., the Bedouin Arabs-who shall pitch their tent encampments in it, eating its fruits and drinking its milk, and turning the "great city" Rabbah itself into a resting-place for camels (Ezekiel 25:4-5). It is not quite clear (though it is commonly assumed) that the children of the East are regarded as the actual conquerors of Ammon. Their possession of the country may be the consequence rather than the cause of the destruction of civilisation, the encroachment of the nomads being as inevitable under these circumstances as the extension of the desert itself where water fails.

2. MOAB (Ezekiel 25:8-11) comes next in order. Its proper territory, since the settlement of Israel in Canaan, was the elevated tableland south of the Arnon, along the lower part of the Dead Sea. But the tribe of Reuben, which bordered it on the north, was never able to hold its ground against the superior strength of Moab, and hence the latter nation is found in possession of the lower and more fertile district stretching northwards from the Arnon, now called the Belka. All the cities, indeed, which are mentioned in this chapter as belonging to Moab-Bethjeshimoth, Baalmeon, and Kirjathaim-were situated in this northern and properly Israelite region. These were the "glory of the land," which were now to be taken away from Moab (Ezekiel 25:9). In Israel Moab appears to have been regarded as the incarnation of a peculiarly offensive form of national pride, {Isaiah 16:6; Isaiah 25:11 Jeremiah 48:29; Jeremiah 48:42} of which we happen to have a monument in the famous Moabite Stone, which was erected by the Mesha in the ninth century B.C. to commemorate the victories of Chemosh over Jehovah and Israel. The inscription shows, moreover, that in the arts of civilised life Moab was at that early time no unworthy rival of Israel itself. It is for a special manifestation of this haughty and arrogant spirit in the day of Jerusalem’s calamity that Ezekiel pronounces Jehovah’s judgment on Moab: "Because Moab hath said, Behold, the house of Judah is like all the nations" (Ezekiel 25:8). These words no doubt reflect accurately the sentiment of Moab towards Israel, and they presuppose a consciousness on the part of Moab of some unique distinction pertaining to Israel in spite of all the humiliations it had undergone since the time of David. And the thought of Moab may have been more widely disseminated among the nations than we are apt to suppose: "The kings of the earth believed not, neither all the inhabitants of the world, that the adversary and the enemy should enter into the gates of Jerusalem". {Lamentations 4:12} The Moabites at all events breathed a sigh of relief when Israel’s pretensions to religious ascendency seemed to be confuted, and thereby they sealed their own doom. They share the fate of the Ammonites, their land being handed over for a possession to the sons of the East (Ezekiel 25:10).

Both these nations, Ammon and Moab, were absorbed by the Arabs, as Ezekiel had foretold; but Ammon at least preserved its separate name and nationality through many changes of fortune down to the second century after Christ.

3. EDOM (Ezekiel 25:12-14), famous in the Old Testament for its wisdom, {Jeremiah 49:7; Obadiah 1:8} occupied the country to the south of Moab from the Dead Sea to the head of the Gulf of Akaba. In Old Testament times the centre of its power was in the region to the east of the Arabah Valley, a position of great commercial importance, as commanding the caravan route from the Red Sea port of Elath to Northern Syria. From this district the Edomites were afterwards driven (about 300 B.C.) by the Arabian tribe of the Nabataeans, when they took up their abode in the south of Judah. None of the surrounding nations were so closely akin to Israel as Edom, and with none were its relations more embittered and hostile. The Edomites had been subjugated and nearly exterminated by David, had been again subdued by Amaziah and Uzziah, but finally recovered their independence during the attack of the Syrians and Ephraimites on Judah in the reign of Ahaz. The memory of this long struggle produced in Edom a "perpetual enmity," an undying hereditary hatred towards the kingdom of Judah. But that which made the name of Edom to be execrated by the later Jews was its conduct after the fall of Jerusalem. The prophet Obadiah represents it as sharing in the spoil of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 25:10), and as "standing in the crossway to cut off those that escaped" (Ezekiel 25:14). Ezekiel also alludes to this in the thirty-fifth chapter (Ezekiel 25:5), and tells us further that in the time of the captivity the Edomites seized part of the territory of Israel (Ezekiel 25:10-12), from which indeed the Jews were never able altogether to dislodge them. For the guilt they thus incurred by taking advantage of the humiliation of Jehovah’s people, Ezekiel here threatens them with extinction; and the execution of the divine vengeance is in their case entrusted to the children of Israel themselves (Ezekiel 25:13-14). They were, in fact, finally subdued by John Hyrcanus in 126 B.C., and compelled to adopt the Jewish religion. But long before then they had lost their prestige and influence, their ancient seats having passed under the dominion of the Arabs in common with all the neighbouring countries.

4. THE PHILISTINES (Ezekiel 25:15-17)-the "immigrants" who had settled along the Mediterranean coast, and who were destined to leave their name to the whole country-had evidently played a part very similar to the Edomites at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem; but of this nothing is known beyond what is here said by Ezekiel. They were at this time a mere "remnant" (Ezekiel 25:16), having been exhausted by the Assyrian and Egyptian wars, Their fate is not precisely indicated in the prophecy. They were in point of fact gradually extinguished by the revival of Jewish domination under the Asmonean dynasty.

One other remark may here be made, as showing the discrimination which Ezekiel brought to bear in estimating the characteristics of each separate nation. He does not ascribe to the greater powers, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt, the same petty and vindictive jealousy of Israel which actuated the diminutive nationalities dealt with in this chapter. These great heathen states, which played so imposing a part in ancient civilisation, had a wide outlook over the affairs of the world; and the injuries they inflicted on Israel were due less to the blind instinct of national hatred than to the pursuit of far-reaching schemes of selfish interest and aggrandisement. If Tyre rejoices over the fall of Jerusalem, it is because of the removal of an obstacle to the expansion of her commercial enterprise. When Egypt is described as having been an occasion of sin to the people of God, what is meant is that she had drawn Israel into the net of her ambitious foreign policy, and led her away from the path of safety pointed out by Jehovah’s will through the prophets. Ezekiel pays a tribute to the grandeur of their position by the care he bestows on the description of their fate. The smaller nations embodying nothing of permanent value for the advancement of humanity, he dismisses each with a short and pregnant oracle announcing its doom. But when he comes to the fall of Tyre and of Egypt his imagination is evidently impressed; he lingers over all the details of the picture, he returns to it again and again, as if he would penetrate the secret of their greatness and understand the potent fascination which their names exercised throughout the world. It would be entirely erroneous to suppose that he sympathises with them in their calamity, but certainly he is conscious of the blank which will be caused by their disappearance from history; he feels that something will have vanished from the earth whose loss will be mourned by the nations far and near. This is most apparent in the prophecy on Tyre, to which we now proceed.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 25". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".