GOD HAS SET HIS FACE IN JUDGMENT AGAINST JERUSALEM IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DURATION OF HER INIQUITIES
Following his commissioning, the ministry of Ezekiel opens with a series of action-sermons where the Lord uses drama to enact special sign-messages.
Daniel Block: Sign-acts are best interpreted as dramatic performances designed to visualize a message and in the process to enhance its persuasive force so that the observers’ perceptions of a given situation might be changed and their beliefs and behavior modified.
The focus is on the upcoming siege of Jerusalem. Due to the nation’s long history of iniquity and covenant-breaking, the patience of the Lord has now expired and judgment is on the horizon. Despite the Jewish exiles in Babylon clinging to unrealistic hopes of the Lord’s persistent protection for Jerusalem, the pagan enemies will soon be victorious.
There are many difficulties surrounding the interpretation of some of the specific details in this passage. In particular there is much debate over the significance of the number of years cited here: 390 and then 40. But the overall impact of the message is clear. The nation will be held accountable for her sins.
Leslie Allen: Together the two signs function like a two-part oracle of judgment that is made up of both accusation and announcement of punishment. Accordingly, this sign relates not to the future but to the meaning of the past.
(a) In the immediate context of exile, the Jews had to cling to hope of some kind. The natural focus of such hope was the city of Jerusalem, from which they had been exiled; there, God’s intimate presence had been known. But this source of hope was dashed by Ezekiel’s action; if salvation were to be found, it would not be in Jerusalem, for God’s face was steadfastly set against that city.
(b) As it would gradually become clear in the prophet’s unfolding ministry, the reason for God’s wrath against his own city was the evil of its inhabitants. If there was any hope at all for the future, it would only be found in turning from evil, for evil brought only siege and destruction. The faith of the Jews was being weaned gradually from its attachment to a particular place; the prophet was calling for a commitment to God, unlinked to a city and transcending Tel Abib, that was rooted in repentance and righteousness.
Christopher Wright: There are clearly three major acts in this drama, each with two or three internal scenes. The three acts are identified by the threefold initial command to take some object:
– take a clay tablet (4:1);
– Take wheat and barley etc. (4:9);
– take a sharp sword (5:1).
And the three acts relate, respectively, to
– the siege of Jerusalem (4:1–8),
– the suffering of the people in Jerusalem and in exile (4:9–17),
– and the final destruction of the city and the fate of its population (5:1–4).
Peter Pett: 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).
I. (:1-3) THE SIGN OF THE BRICK AND THE IRON PLATE –
GOD HAS SET HIS FACE IN JUDGMENT AGAINST JERUSALEM
A. (:1-2) The Sign of the Brick
1. (:1) Acquisition, Positioning and Inscription of the Sign
“Now you son of man, get yourself a brick, place it before you,
and inscribe a city on it, Jerusalem.”
Bruce Hurt: “Bricks” were not like the rectangular brick we encounter today. One ancient historian records “Let the bricks be two feet long, one foot broad, and four inches thick.” On a surface as large as this the whole siege might be easily portrayed. In Babylonia there was a lack of both timber and stone, and the thick clay deposited by the overflowing rivers was the only material adaptable to building.
2. (:2) Action Commanded
“Then lay siege against it, build a siege wall, raise up a ramp, pitch camps, and place battering rams against it all around.”
Lamar Cooper: In the first dramatic presentation, Ezekiel used a clay brick commonly used in building. Into the soft clay he drew the map of Jerusalem so that the completed object represented the city of Jerusalem (v. 1). Using the clay brick as his focal point, the prophet enacted a battle against it. He constructed a siege wall, a mound or rampart, set up military camps around it, and employed battering rams against it. Using an iron pan to represent an impenetrable barrier, he glared upon the city with the intensity and determination of a general leading an attack.
siege wall. In real life siege walls consisted either of a series of mounds or a continuous mound of rock or earth around the city from which the attacker could observe the movements of the defenders on and inside the walls. Ezekiel probably created his model walls by heaping up rows of sand or earth with his hands.
ramp. Since fortresses were usually located strategically at the tops of hills, hence inaccessible to offensive machines of war, attacking armies constructed huge inclines so battering rams could be positioned near the walls. These inclines were made of vast amounts of earth, rocks, and debris, which were carried in baskets and literally “poured” out.
army camps. Ezekiel’s use of the plural maḥănôt, “camps,” suggests several separate army camps or military divisions strategically positioned outside the city walls.
battering rams. Finally Ezekiel positions the battering rams. That these “siege engines” are first mentioned in the annals of Ashurbanipal suggests that the Assyrians may have invented them. Because of their weight and cumbersome design, battering rams were difficult to move over long distances. However, they were critical for conquering the walled cities of Palestine. The ram itself was rendered more effective for creating breaches in walls made of mud bricks by tipping it with metal.
B. (:3a) The Sign of the Iron Plate
1. Acquisition and Positioning of the Sign
“Then get yourself an iron plate
and set it up as an iron wall between you and the city,”
John Taylor: It seems more in keeping with the symbolism of Ezekiel as the Lord’s prophet that he was in fact representing Yahweh in this drama, and the iron wall stood for Yahweh’s determined hostility towards the holy city. It was God’s act to be bringing armies against Jerusalem; it was Jerusalem’s God who had rejected her and would soon bring her to the ground. In this way, not only the symbolical action but Ezekiel’s part in it became a sign for the house of Israel. This was one day going to happen.
David Thompson: That iron plate represented a total severance of God’s relationship with His people. God was cutting off a relationship with His own people. God was not tender to His people at this point; He was hardened to them because of their rebellion. This illustrated an “impenetrable barrier” between God and His own people. The setting of the face was a Divine glaring of God that expressed His anger. If God reaches this state concerning His own people, it is tragic news. It is deadly serious.
Feinberg: The iron pan was meant to indicate the impenetrable wall of the besieging army, to show the severity of the siege, as well as the impossibility of escape. A secondary thought may be the impregnable barrier between God and them because of their sin (see Isa. 59:2). Ezekiel was enjoined to set his face against the city to reveal the determination of the invaders to capture the city. These symbolical actions were a sign of events surely to come to pass on the whole house of Israel.
2. Action Commanded
“and set your face toward it so that it is under siege, and besiege it.”
Leslie Allen: After this representational assembly of a grim war game, Ezekiel was to use a utensil that was part of home cooking equipment and place it upright between the city and himself. It was a convex iron plate or griddle that was normally placed over the fire, with the edges resting on bricks surrounding the fire; cakes and bread were baked on it (see M. Kellermann, BRL 30, for description and illustration). The plate was to act as an iron wall and to be a figurative expression of the severance of normal relations between Jerusalem and the God whom the prophet represented. In the siege that it was to undergo, its fate was sealed: no help would be forthcoming from God. He had withdrawn his favor and hidden his face (cf. 7:22). An iron curtain of alienation divided him from the city.
C. (:3b) The Significance of the Sign
“This is a sign to the house of Israel.”
Bruce Hurt: A “sign” generally describes something that points to or represents something larger or more important than itself. In the present context the “sign” represents a non-verbal symbol or signal which is meant to be a discernible indication of what is not itself directly perceptible (the exiles can neither see the city of Jerusalem or its destruction). In this case the visible drama was a foreshadowing of coming events in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (cf Isa 20:3). We might say that Ezekiel was presenting a “preview of coming attractions”.
Bruce Hurt: News of Ezekiel’s strange action would have spread quickly through the community of Jewish exiles and they would have come to watch. The meaning of the display would not be too difficult to discern. Their beloved city, Jerusalem surrounded by siege-works certainly indicated that it would again be besieged by an enormously powerful army. Imagine what must have gone through the minds of the exiles. Surely, in this case the sign would be as impressive and perhaps even more so than any spoken utterance. Ezekiel’s was demonstrating that “A picture is worth a thousand words!” because pictures convey strong, memorable images and pictures etched on bricks would not quickly fade away.
Leslie Allen: The scene to be enacted by the prophet is called a “sign to the community of Israel,” that is, to those representatives of it who shared Ezekiel’s exile, as comparison of 2:3; 3:1, 4, 7 with 3:11 shows. Only here in this series of five sign-acts does the term “sign” appear. The prophets typically engaged in symbolic acts, and they were particularly characteristic of Ezekiel’s ministry (cf. Zimmerli 28–29). Their role was to reinforce the prophetic word of interpretation that accompanied them. Their precise intention is disputed. Did they actually create the future by prefiguring it (G. von Rad, OT Theology [New York: Harper, 1965] 2:96–97)? Or did they function as “street theater,” as a teaching aid that dramatically visualized the oral message of the prophet (Lang, “Street Theater” 305)? Krüger (Geschichtskonzepte 118–19) has observed that these explanations need not be alternatives but may both be correct: the first relates the sign-act to the spectators before whom it is performed (cf. v 12), while the second relates it to the event symbolized. However, the view that the sign-act is to be distinguished from the oracle, inasmuch as it had special power bestowed upon it to shape the future, is based on its supposed development from acts of magic (cf. Fohrer, Symbolischen Handlungen 10, 47–55, 121–24). Such a developmental view is no longer in vogue among anthropologists . . . Sign and interpretation worked in mutual confirmation. If actions speak louder than words, here they were a megaphone for the prophetic words.
II. (:4-8) THE SIGN OF LYING ON THE LEFT AND RIGHT SIDES –
THE DURATION OF JUDGMENT CORRESPONDS TO THE DURATION OF INIQUITY
A. (:4-5) Lying on the Left Side – Judgment Against Northern Kingdom
1. (:4) Symbolic Bearing of Judgment
“As for you, lie down on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel on it;
you shall bear their iniquity for the number of days that you lie on it.”
2. (:5) Duration of Judgment
“For I have assigned you a number of days corresponding to the years of their iniquity, three hundred and ninety days; thus you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.”
The natural reading of vv.4-6 would seem to suggest an emphasis first on the sins of the Northern Kingdom and then on the sins of the Southern Kingdom. However, an argument can also be made that the overall impact is to stress the culpability of the nation of Israel as a whole – both Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
Daniel Block: Moreover, whereas the name “Israel” occurs more than 180 times in the book, “Judah” appears only 15 times. In every instance where Judah is juxtaposed with “Israel,” the names are used interchangeably. Furthermore, whenever other sign-acts involve only “Israel,” the southern kingdom as the remnant of the original larger entity is in view. Finally, where the northern kingdom is contrasted with Judah, the name “Israel” is either avoided or defined more particularly. Since Ezekiel uses “Israel” and “Judah” interchangeably everywhere else, bêt yiśrāʾēl should be understood similarly here. Accordingly, the 390-day period cannot signify the duration of the exile of the northern kingdom; it has to do with the nation of Israel as a whole.
There is debate whether the correct number is 390 days (with days representing years) or actually 190 days (per the Greek Old Testament). There is also debate whether the 40 days (representing years) of verse 6 run concurrently with the end of the 390 days or should be viewed as subsequent to the 390 days. That is just the start of the confusion. From that point there is much speculation about the identification of the revealed timeline.
B. (:6) Lying on the Right Side – Judgment Against Southern Kingdom
1. Symbolic Bearing of Judgment
“When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time,
but on your right side, and bear the iniquity of the house of Judah;”
2. Duration of Judgment
“I have assigned it to you for forty days, a day for each year.”
Lamar Cooper: Although no workable solution to the problem of a literal chronology of the day-years has come to light, a literal interpretation in principle is still preferable to a symbolic one. The basic principles of hermeneutics dictate that a passage be taken literally whenever possible. That the days represent years is clearly defined in v. 6. Since the text is about the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, the logical starting point for the 390 plus forty years would be the siege of the city in which Ezekiel was deported, namely 597 b.c. Calculating the 430 years from 597 b.c. would take the judgment of Judah down to the Maccabean revolt in 167 b.c. Caution should be exercised in drawing dogmatic conclusions from this fact.
Several additional facts also are definite regarding the passage.
– First, each day of Ezekiel’s drama represented a year in the life of sinful Israel or Judah (v. 6) and signified a time of discipline.
– Second, God was aware of sin in the lives of his people, and he was going to bring sin and sinner to a time of judgment.
– Third, the siege would initiate the judgment that would proceed until the fall of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon.
– Fourth, the consequences of God’s judgment are binding and inescapable (v. 8).
God’s judgment of sin is inevitable. He is longsuffering (4:1–8) and may wait for years, but ultimately he will dispense judgment. This judgment will include his people. Judah is a universal and timeless example of this principle (see 5:15).
Daniel Block: Thus the two phases of Ezekiel’s sign-act, lying on his left and right sides, respectively, depict successive events: the long period of Israel’s apostasy, and the subsequent experience of the wrath of God. These two acts function as dramatic nonverbal accusation and announcement of judgment, respectively, corresponding to their verbal counterparts in prophetic judgment oracles. The reference to a forty-year exile speaks to the authenticity of v. 6, especially since elsewhere retrospective glances at the exile consistently recognize a seventy-year period for Judah.
Constable: It still remains difficult, however, to explain exactly which 390 and 40 years God had in mind. Perhaps they were the worst years of sin. In some way the length of the siege corresponded to the past years of Israel and Judah’s sin.
Wiersbe: The Lord explained to Ezekiel that each day represented a year in the sinful history of the Jewish nation, and somehow he conveyed this fact to the people who watched him each day. But why did the Lord choose the numbers 390 and 40? Since one day was the equivalent of one year of Israel’s rebellion, the Lord was undoubtedly looking back at the nation’s past sins and not ahead at future disobedience. The forty years probably represented Israel’s rebellion during their forty-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but what is the starting point for the 390 years? The ministry of Ezekiel focused primarily on Jerusalem, the desecration of the temple by idolatry, and the departing of God’s glory. It’s likely that the 390-year period begins with Solomon’s son Rehoboam who became king in 930 (1 Kings 14:21ff). When you add the year of the reigns of the kings of Judah from Rehoboam to Zedekiah, as recorded in 1 and 2 Kings, you have a total of 394 years. Since during three of the years of his reign Rehoboam walked with God (2 Chron. 11:16-17), we end up with a number very close to Ezekiel’s 390 years.
However we calculate the mathematics of this sign, the message is clear: God had been long-suffering toward the sinful people of Judah, warning them and chastening them, but they would not remain true to Him. Some of their kings were very godly men and sought to bring the people back to God, but no sooner did these kings die than the people returned to idolatry. Eventually, there came a time when their sins caught up with them and God’s patience had come to an end. God would rather see His land devastated, the city of Jerusalem ruined, His temple destroyed, and His people killed and exiled, than to have them give such a false witness to the Gentile nations. Judgment begins with the people of God, not with the godless pagans (1 Peter 4:17-19), and it behooves believers and congregations today to walk in the fear of the Lord.
MacArthur: It is not necessary to assume that Ezekiel was in the prone position all the time. It was doubtless part of each day, as his need for preparing food (v. 9) indicates.
C. (:7) Judicial Action from the Lord is Prepared
“Then you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem
with your arm bared, and prophesy against it.”
D. (:8) No Escaping Divine Punishment
“Now behold, I will put ropes on you so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, until you have completed the days of your siege.”
Douglas Stuart: Ezekiel’s body in this enactment prophecy represents the weight of Israel and Judah’s sins. His sides represent the respective divisions of the total nation that must bear that weight, or punishment. Before the prophet started his enactment, he had once more to face the siege model he had built (v. 7). Then he had to bare his arm as an indication of readiness for action (cf. Is. 52:10), thus symbolizing God’s readiness for action against the city. Next he had to prophesy (preach) against the city, warning it that its iniquities would result in its siege and capture. Finally, he allowed himself to be tied up again as God required (v. 8; cf. 3:25; “restrain” should be “tie up with cords”) and began the long ordeal of lying on his side.
Daniel Block: By being tied up Ezekiel affirms nonverbally the unalterable quality of his prophecy. The prophet may not adjust his message by changing his position. What Yahweh’s opening and closing of the prophet’s mouth were to his oral declarations, the binding of his body was to his sign-acts. Ezekiel is not free to fabricate his own messages; Yahweh exercises absolute control over him.