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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Ezekiel 4



Symbols and Oracles Concerning the Wickedness and Doom of the Chosen People and the Holy City because of Idolatry.


It has been a question with commentators whether these symbolic actions were actually performed or whether they were merely parts of the vision described by Ezekiel after awaking from his ecstasy. It is claimed that some of the actions could not have been performed without a miracle, and if we admit that some of these were not literally accomplished, what reason have we for believing that any of them were? Dr. Davidson declares: “The prophet no more drew a sketch of Jerusalem upon a brick than he was carried by the hair of his head from the Chebar to Palestine. The symbols stood actually before his imagination, and the narration of them to the people would convey the same instruction as the actual representation of them (Ezekiel 4:3; Ezekiel 11:25).” But does it follow that because some symbolic actions were seen by the prophet in vision that therefore no symbolic actions were ever performed by him before the people? It ought not to be surprising if one who was so often in prophetic ecstasy should fail to discriminate perfectly in his narrative between the actions literally performed and those which he saw in vision. Most of the symbolic actions might easily have been performed, and if the prophet were made dumb (iii, 26), these would seem to be the only way in which he could have preached to the people. By using symbolic actions he was only following the example of many prophets (1 Kings 22:11; Jeremiah 27:2).

Verse 1

1. A tile… portray upon it the city It is a suggestive fact that on many of the bricks taken from Assyrian palaces are yet to be seen pictures of animals, forts, soldiers, royal offerings, etc.; while Gadea, one of the earliest kings, is seen seated with a tile or tablet in front of him on which is drawn a picture of the city of Babylon. Ezekiel need not have been much of an artist, but on the soft clay he could easily have drawn the walls and towers and temples of the city and an outline of the surrounding mountains so that every Israelite would recognize the place instantly. (Compare Psalms 48:12-13.)

Jerusalem It is not impossible, at least after the capture of Jerusalem, that such tiles might have been for sale in the Babylonian bazaars. It was not unusual for representations of captured forts or cities to be brought home by the victorious army. The cuneiform texts have considerable to say of Jerusalem Assyrian, Urusalem; Tel Amarna, Ursalimmu, “Possessor of Peace,” or “Salim’s Possessions” (Brown’s Hebrew and English Lexicon).

Verse 2

2. Lay siege… build a fort… cast a mount All of these ordinary acts of a besieging army are so acted out in the picture-sermon of the dumb prophet that his hearers are made to understand the calamity which must soon fall upon their national capital. The “fort” was supposed to be occupied by archers, the “mount” was built in order that the besiegers might overlook the walls of the city and command the streets (Isaiah 37:33; Jeremiah 6:6; Jeremiah 32:24).

The camp Literally, camps. The besieging army is represented as divided into encampments which guard the city at all points. How the prophet represented these soldiers, battering-rams, etc., we do not know. They hardly seem to be a part of the picture engraved upon his unbaked brick.

Battering-rams It has been doubted by a recent writer (Havet) whether battering-rams were invented as early as Ezekiel’s day, but the Assyrian monuments show pictures of them in use centuries earlier. There was usually a battering-ram in the lower part of each fort or movable tower. The Hebrew word ( kar) does not indicate that this “batterer” must have had a ram’s head upon it. The Assyrian “ram” often had a spear-shaped head.

Verse 3

3. An iron pan This expression probably refers to the machines used by the Babylonians and Assyrians behind which the archers stood, shooting through a hole or window. Representations of these may be seen on the bas-reliefs from Nineveh where engines of this kind are shown in actual use. From fragments of these discovered, and now in the Louvre, it would appear that they were made of bronze or wickerwork and cased with leather (Private note from a well-known English Assyriologist). The prophet used the best representation of this well-known bulwark which his kitchen contained. The ordinary view merely regards this as representing “a firm, impregnable wall of partition, which the prophet, as messenger and representative of God, is to raise between himself and the beleaguered city” (Keil).

Set thy face against it It was no new thing for Jerusalem to be besieged; but for the first time in history the people of Israel now see that the prophet and representative of Jehovah is taking sides with its enemies.

No wonder that Ezekiel at first grew “hot” (Ezekiel 3:14) at the thought of acting such a part before his countrymen. No wonder that such a “sign” aroused attention and bitterest antagonism.

Verses 4-5

4, 5. Lie thou also upon thy left side… three hundred and ninety days LXX., one hundred and ninety days. Most modern expositors do not believe that Ezekiel lay on one side three hundred and ninety or one hundred and ninety days without moving. Certainly if he did this he must have been paralyzed or cataleptic, as Klostermann, Kraetzschmar, etc., think. (Compare Piepenbring, Revue de L’Hist. des Rel., 1891.) Gautier, however, points out that all of these commands have reference to Ezekiel’s actions as a preacher. When alone, or in the seclusion of his own house, he can talk to his wife and walk as he pleases; but when the time comes for the sermon, and the people gather to hear the word of the Lord, they always find the prophet in the same place, and in the same posture, and maintaining an unbroken silence. This silent picture-prophecy of the length of the captivity continued week after week, and month after month, until all the exiles heard of it, as also, without doubt, the Israelites who remained in Jerusalem; for the communication seems to have been constant between Chebar and the holy city.

Thou shalt bear their iniquity This does not mean that the prophet is to be punished in their place, but that he thus prophetically announces their punishment; the term “iniquity” in this connection meaning penalty for iniquity. The duration has no reference to the days of the siege of Jerusalem, but to the years of exile. But how then can we accept as correct the figures three hundred and ninety which are given by our present Hebrew text, and which are wholly contrary to the facts in the case? Many of the old expositors, from Jerome to Keil, being unable to explain this number historically, have added to it the forty days which the prophet suffered for Judah, and have explained the total symbolically four hundred and thirty being the years spent in Egyptian bondage (Exodus 12:40). The meaning would then be that the punishment in Babylon would be as severe, though not necessarily as long, as their punishment in Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 28:68). But the fact is that the Babylonian exile was in no respect equal in hardship to the Egyptian enslavement. We prefer, therefore, to accept the Hebrew text, which the Septuagint followed, rather than our present text. If this translation, which reads one hundred and ninety instead of three hundred and ninety, is to be accepted, it is then evident that, since the captivity of both Judah and Israel ends at the same time, the forty years are not to be thought of as added to the one hundred and ninety, but as included in them (Ezekiel 16:53; Ezekiel 37:16; Ezekiel 37:19; Ezekiel 37:22; Ezekiel 47:13). The forty years, then, is to be counted from the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) to the restoration. This gives exact and almost literal fulfillment to the prophecy, “forty” being the round number which is constantly used in Scripture for one generation (Ezekiel 29:11-14; Numbers 14:33, etc.). The captivity of Israel is here counted one hundred and fifty years longer than that of Judah; its beginning probably being reckoned from the invasion and deportation of Tiglath-pileser, 734 B.C. The one hundred and ninety years of Israel would extend, then, from 734 B.C. to 538 B.C., the year of restoration. (See chronological chart.)

I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days Literally, the years of their iniquity do I make to be to thee as a number of days even as. The number of days that Ezekiel lies upon his side symbolizes the number of years daring which the people shall bear their iniquity “a day for a year” (Ezekiel 4:6). “Lying on his side, held down as with cords (Ezekiel 4:8) and unable to turn, he represents Israel pressed down and held in the grasp of the punishment of iniquity.” Davidson.

Verse 6

6. Lie again on thy right side… forty days, etc. The left side represented the northern kingdom (Israel), which lay to the left, according to Hebrew geography; the right represented the southern kingdom (Judah), which lay to the right. The punishment in both cases comes because of iniquity. Israel went into captivity earlier and therefore bears her punishment longer. For Judah the prophet is to lie upon his side for forty days; “one day for a year do I appoint it to thee” (Hebrews).

Verse 7

7. The foregoing calculation makes more dramatic the continuance of the siege. That siege is sure to be successful. The uncovered arm of the prophet represents that the arm of Jehovah is “made bare” and ready for action (Psalms 98:1; Isaiah 52:10). The prophecy has gone forth, and not only has it foretold the captivity of the city, but it has even reckoned the years in which the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be held in captivity. Nothing could be more startling than the sight of the silent prophet prostrate upon the earth with “set face” and bare arm outstretched against the city which had always stood for the Israelite nation and its religion. There were no words spoken (Ezekiel 3:26). It was in this sign-language he was to “prophesy against it.”

Verse 8

8. To have turned from one side to the other during the continuance of this tableau would have ruined its symbolic reference to Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 4:4; Ezekiel 4:6). It is not stated that he must not rise up from the earth during this long period. The next verse proves that at least occasionally he is expected to get up, not only to attend to necessary duties, but to prepare for other symbolical actions. Every day, however, for one hundred and ninety days the prophet is seen lying upon his left side before the besieged city, “crushed to the ground” under the weight of Israel’s punishment. The more suffering entailed, by his speechlessness and seeming paralysis, the more intensely effective would be the impression produced by it. Many ancient Simeon stylites and modern Indian devotees have depended for their influence chiefly on such a conquest of the physical nature.

Verse 9

9. Fitches R.V., “spelt.” “Bread was usually made of wheat; the addition of the other coarser materials, and their mixture, indicate the straits to which men will be reduced in the siege and perhaps after the fall of the city.” Davidson. “The outcome of this mixture would be a coarse, unpalatable bread, not unlike that to which the population of Paris was reduced in the siege of 1870-71.” Plumptre.

Three hundred and ninety days LXX., one hundred and ninety days. That is, all the time the prophet lies on his side before the besieged city (Ezekiel 4:5).

Verses 9-17


The prophet is commanded to take of all kinds of grain and make the mixture into cakes, which he shall bake with dung, and of which he shall eat very sparingly. This is to show the impoverished condition of the people in the siege (Ezekiel 4:16-17), and also their pollution during the exile (Ezekiel 4:13).

Verse 10

10. Thy meat… thou shalt eat… by weight, twenty shekels a day This is about half the ordinary prison fare in England and America. It was to be weighed out carefully not measured because of the extreme scarcity of provisions.

Verse 11

11. The sixth… of a hin A hin Isaiah 6:7 liters (Kautzsch). A liter contained 1.056 quarts, so one sixth hin would be a little more than two pints; terribly little in so hot a country. Surely this might have been called the “bread of affliction and the water of affliction” (1 Kings 22:27; Isaiah 30:20).

Verse 12

12. The supply of wood in a besieged city must soon give out. Camels’ and asses’ dung, which is the ordinary fuel for poor people in Egypt and Palestine even to this day, could not be used because the beasts were all dead. Besides, the once “holy people” have lost all sense of shame. This vividly represents the loathesomeness and uncleanness of the people (Ezekiel 4:13; compare Deuteronomy 23:13), and was as revolting to Ezekiel as to us (Leviticus 5:3; Leviticus 7:21). Henceforth the once holy people, having been driven out of the Lord’s land because of their sins, will eat their bread defiled (Ezekiel 4:13; Hosea 9:3).

As barley cakes He shall eat it as barley cakes the ordinary food of the poorest classes are eaten. Does this mean that after being baked in the coals it is to be eaten ravenously?

Verses 14-15

14, 15. Ezekiel, a priest, was well acquainted with the Levitical legislation (Leviticus 17:15; Leviticus 22:8), and had been an ardent keeper of the law (Leviticus 7:18; Leviticus 7:24; Leviticus 11:39-40; Leviticus 19:7). When he heard this commandment to defile himself he burst out with a pathetic appeal for mercy, and because his conscience would have been defiled by eating (Ezekiel 4:14), the Lord heard him and changed the most objectionable requirement.

Abominable flesh This may mean spoiled flesh (Leviticus 19:7), or other unclean meats (Deuteronomy 14:3-21), or possibly flesh offered to idols (Acts 15:0; 1 Corinthians 7:0).

Verses 16-17

16, 17. These verses explain Ezekiel 4:10-11.

Staff of bread Or, staff ( of life), which is bread (Leviticus 26:26; Isaiah 3:1). Expositors differ as to whether Ezekiel actually was compelled to eat this bread during the six months of the pictorial siege or not. There is no sufficient reason to doubt it. Certainly, if the painting of the tile and the pictured siege and the prophet’s lying upon his side were real acts, then this was also. Dr. Davidson’s objection that he is represented as making and eating the bread, while at the same time he is said to be lying motionless upon his side is by no means conclusive. Even if he were in a cataleptic condition, as some think, yet he might still have obeyed all these commands, the bread, of course, being made by his wife. But if, as we understand it, these commands to remain in a certain posture, motionless, applied only to the hours during which his picture-sermon was being preached, and not to his private life, then he might with his own hands have prepared the food. It could have been eaten lying upon his side, as one hand was not “bound” (Ezekiel 4:7).

Consume away for their iniquity “Another echo from the book which had so largely entered into the prophet’s education” (Leviticus 26:39). “Pine” in Hebrew is same as “consume.” “To the wretchedness of physical privation there was added the consciousness of the sufferers that it was caused by their own evil deeds.”

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.