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What should persistent sinners expect from a holy God? Despite His patience and long-suffering and mercy and lovingkindness, His justice cannot be denied. Here the horrifying conditions associated with the famine of the siege against Jerusalem are portrayed. Scarcity of food and water are combined with the shock factor of being forced to use excrement for cooking fuel. The anxiety and horror of the situation would be compounded by the knowledge of their own culpability in calling down upon themselves this judgment from God.

Iain Duguid: [Review] Ezekiel is to lie on his left side for 390 days, representing 390 years, bearing the guilt of the entire covenant community of Israel. The iniquity of the community is placed on him (4:4). During this period he symbolizes Israel’s long history of accumulated sin, which culminates in the siege and fall of Jerusalem, concretely depicted by eating siege rations throughout the 390 days (4:9). Then during the period of forty days, he represents the punishment of the Exile, which he depicts in terms of the symbolic figure of forty years. Just as Israel’s ancestors in the desert were a lost generation, spending forty years in the desert for their sin (Num. 14:34), so the exilic generation is condemned to a similar fate for the nation’s long history of sin.

Leslie Allen: The next symbolic action in the series of siege-related representations dramatizes the scarcity of food to be experienced by those beleaguered inside Jerusalem.

Douglas Stuart: Ezekiel must add to his regimen of lying on his side the daily discipline of eating skimpy meals and drinking a meager amount of water. Again, these would be a public display.

Lamar Cooper: The drama of the unclean meal has three parts. First, the prophet is told to prepare the food to be cooked (vv. 9–11). Second, the prophet is to cook the meal but is granted a request that he not violate the laws of cleanliness (vv. 12–15). Third, there is an interpretation of the drama (vv. 16–17).

John Taylor: Each of the four actions described in 4:1–5:4 dealt with a different aspect of the disaster that would shortly befall Jerusalem.

• First came the fact of the siege (4:1–3),

• then the duration of the punishment of Israel and Judah (4:4–8),

• and then the famine conditions of the siege and of the exile (4:9–17).

• Last of all came the enacted oracle of the fate of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (5:1–4).

Iain Duguid: Ezekiel’s sign-acts are not diagrams on overhead projector slides with which he helps the slow-witted capture a difficult theological idea. They are “affective aids,” aimed not at people’s eyes but at their hearts and wills, the seat of their “affections.” They are designed not merely to help people see the truth, but to feel the truth. In the same way as the sacraments are not merely visual aids to the gospel but are “signs and seals of the covenant of grace,” so also the sign-acts are given not so much to clarify the message of the prophet as to drive it home to the people’s hearts.


A. (:9) Ingredients and Duration of the Meal

1. Ingredients

“But as for you, take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt,

put them in one vessel and make them into bread for yourself;”

Lamar Cooper: The mixture seems to portray a circumstance in which the people would mix anything edible due to the scarcity of the food.

Galen Doughty: He is not to eat normal food but special bread for which God gives him the recipe. He is to take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt, put them in a storage jar, meaning a pottery jar, and make bread from them. Wheat and barley were the two main grains grown in Israel and the Near East. Beans and lentils were legumes that are high in protein. Millet and spelt are two other grains that are lesser in quality than wheat and barley. Spelt was a form of rye and was often called the poor man’s wheat. Taken together the six ingredients God tells Ezekiel to use would have produced bread that had high protein and nutritional content.

[You can buy such bread today – called Ezekiel Bread –in some health food stores.]

2. Duration

“you shall eat it according to the number of the days that you lie on your side, three hundred and ninety days.”

John Taylor: This is not far short of starvation rations on any reckoning, and it seems incredible that Ezekiel could have lasted on it for over a year. On the other hand, it would not be out of harmony with our interpretation of this passage if we argued that this diet related only to his public demonstrative acts and if we at least allowed the possibility that he augmented it with other foods when nobody was looking!

Derek Thomas: Nebuchadnezzar’s final siege of Jerusalem (for Ezekiel’s compatriots still some four years away) was to last for two years. Interrupting as it did two years’ supply of harvest, as well as the possibility of cultivating the land close to the city, the ensuing famine brought the people of Jerusalem to the point of starvation: ‘By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat’ (2 Kings 25:3).

B. (:10-11) Amount of Food and Water

1. (:10) Amount of Food

“And your food which you eat shall be twenty shekels a day by weight; you shall eat it from time to time.”

2. (:11) Amount of Water

“And the water you drink will be the sixth part of a hin by measure;

you shall drink it from time to time.”

MacArthur: Scarcity of food in the 18 month siege especially made necessary the mixing of all kinds of grain for bread. The “twenty shekels” would be about 8 ounces, while “the sixth part of a hin” would be less than a quart. There would be minimums for daily rations.

Lamar Cooper: The portion of food and water Ezekiel allowed himself was little more than starvation rations. The picture enacted by Ezekiel represented conditions during an actual siege. These actions reinforced the message of the previous dramas, the siege of the clay brick and the laying on his side to portray the destruction of Jerusalem.

Christopher Wright: Some think that this meagre meal was simply a symbolic act in the course of each day’s prone ‘besieging’, and that Ezekiel would have had other meals as normal. However, it seems much more likely that he was indeed subjected to this emphatic entering into the suffering of his people. As other prophets would testify, personal suffering as part of the delivery of God’s word was not unusual. Isaiah endured the shame of wandering around Jerusalem virtually naked to illustrate a point; Jeremiah suffered exclusion from all social intercourse; Hosea went through agonies of marital betrayal. As Ezekiel’s neighbours observed his daily ritual of pathetic precision, as they witnessed the agonizingly brief moment of eating and drinking, and as they then watched him grow daily weaker, thinner and possibly ridden with the ailments of malnutrition, they were being confronted with the most powerful prophetic word imaginable of what lay ahead for those left behind in Jerusalem. They could not have remained unmoved by it—whether moved to acceptance and repentance, or to argumentative disbelief. Only years later would the reports reach the exiles of the siege and suffering of Jerusalem when it happened and of the circumstances so well described in 4:16–17. And only then would the truth of Ezekiel’s costly self-sacrificial prophecy be vindicated.

C. (:12) Public Enactment Emphasizing Defilement Based on Manner of Baking

“And you shall eat it as a barley cake,

having baked it in their sight over human dung.”

Leslie Allen: The prophet is given instructions as to how the siege food of vv 9–10 is to be baked. He is told that the baking process is to be carried out “in public view.” Evidently, it was customary to bake a barley cake, as distinct from one made from more expensive wheat, not in an oven or on a griddle but directly on hot stones (cf. 1 Kgs 19:6) or in the hot embers of a fire (cf. the parallel cited by Greenberg 107). Dried animal dung could provide fuel for the fire, but here, to depict the rigors of the siege, evidently after the animals had been eaten for food, there is to be the revolting substitution of human excrement, which would be in direct contact with the food. Its uncleanness may be illustrated from the instructions for its disposal outside the camp and the divine warrant for them in Deut 23:13–15 (12–14). Even worse siege conditions are envisioned in 2 Kgs 18:27 (= Isa 36:12), eating one’s own excrement.

Douglas Stuart: He was also told—at first and as a kind of test—to bake it by burning dried human waste as the heat source, something God knew would immediately offend Ezekiel’s priestly sensibilities in light of the Pentateuchal cleanliness laws. Thus we may be sure that God was not so much trying to get Ezekiel to violate his own priestly responsibilities as to be reminded of how many compromises of what is usual and normal would have to be made by those cooped up in Jerusalem under overwhelming enemy pressure. When Ezekiel protested the use of human waste as a fuel source (requiring, presumably, handling; v. 14), God graciously substituted what He had obviously planned all along, cow dung as cooking fuel. Cow dung was—and is—a common fuel in the Near East, and its use in cooking fires was, as far as we know, not unusual in any way, and not a violation of the orthodox Israelite cleanliness regulations.

Bruce Hurt: The process of baking in ashes was as old as the time of Abraham (Ge 18:6, cf 1Ki 19:6), and continues in Arabia and Syria to the present day. The kneaded dough was rolled into thin flat cakes, and they were placed upon, or hung over, the hot wood embers of the hearth or oven. But in a besieged city the supply of wood for fuel soon fails and the inhabitants would be forced to dried animal dung and then to use of human excrement. The besieged Jews would be forced to use the dried contents of the cesspools of Jerusalem. All this “dung sign” drama was to be before the eyes of the exiles and to show the extreme degree of wretchedness to which the besieged city would be exposed.

Feinberg: The purpose of the sign was to show how Israel’s position as a separate, sanctified people would be destroyed. The horrors of the siege and exile could not be more vividly depicted. The state of exile itself was defiling, as seen in Amos 7:17. God wanted to impress them with the pollution and uncleanness of idolatrous worship and practices. Idolatry is so vile in God’s sight that nothing could be too polluted to portray its essential nature before a thrice holy God. . . In summary, the purpose of all the acts in symbolic form was to impress the people with the coming famine during the siege of Jerusalem and the people’s subsequent pollution in exile among the heathen.


A. (:13) General Command

“Then the LORD said, ‘Thus shall the sons of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall banish them.’”

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

B. (:14) Personal Objection

“But I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never been defiled;

for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth.’”

C. (:15) Divine Concession

“Then He said to me, ‘See, I shall give you cow’s dung in place of human dung over which you will prepare your bread.’”


A. (:16-17a) Anxiety and Horror of Deprivation

“Moreover, He said to me, ‘Son of man, behold,

I am going to break the staff of bread in Jerusalem,

and they will eat bread by weight and with anxiety,

and drink water by measure and in horror,

because bread and water will be scarce;’”

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

B. (:17b) Humiliation and Dissipation of Corporate Culpability

“and they will be appalled with one another and waste away in their iniquity.”

MacArthur: They were soon to have neither bread nor water in any amount, and they were to grieve over the famine and their iniquity (cf. Lv 26:21-26).

Daniel Bock: if one treats this verse as the completion of the sentence begun in v. 16a, and one construes the intervening lines as a semipoetic aside. The result is a logical threefold statement of Yahweh’s purpose:

(1) to reduce the bread supply;

(2) that each and every person be appalled (nāšammû); and

(3) that the people succumb to the famine on account of their iniquity.

Lamar Cooper: Interpretation of this sign was not left to speculation. God specifically told Ezekiel that the meaning of his actions related to the severity of judgment. The rationing represented the interruption of the food and water supply to Jerusalem. Anxiety and despair were the natural reactions of those who lived in a city under siege. Their reaction to the sight of each other as they suffered starvation would be appalling (v. 17). The lessons were clear. Jerusalem was headed for judgment, and it would bring horrible conditions. The people would be filled with fear and despair when the siege began, and they would slowly waste away through starvation. Drastically reduced rations would take its toll on the population. Finally, all the judgments were to be understood as a direct result of the sins of the people. The interpretation of this text is not open to speculation. Sin pollutes the external environment and the lives of those who choose it. When God sends judgment, it affects the land as well as the people (4:9–17; 6:1ff.).

Christopher Wright: So Ezekiel’s little daily ritual of half a loaf and a dung-baked barley cake, along with the physical toll on his own frame, spoke powerfully of two things: on the one hand, the siege rations that would soon be a matter of anxiety and despair among the inhabitants of Jerusalem as with horror they watched themselves wasting away during the siege (4:16–17); and on the other hand, the long misery of eating food in an unclean land that would be the lot of the exiles for many years to come.

Richard Baxter: To the wretchedness of physical privation there was to be added the consciousness of the sufferers that it was caused by their own evil deeds.