This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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1“And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. 2And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around. 3And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. 4“Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. 5For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. 6And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year.7And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. 8And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege.
Four biblical scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
Ezekiel is commanded to begin his ministry immediately by performing a series of sign-acts, warning of the coming of judgment upon Jerusalem and Judah. Many of the prophets are instructed to carry out dramatic action to accompany their messages, ranging from simple sermon illustrations to complex acted-out parables. These signs are not merely visual aids; they are designed to reach people’s wills and hearts, enabling people not just to see the truth but to feel it.1 Ezekiel performs more sign-acts than most prophets, perhaps because his communicative task is harder than most. He must preach a message of Jerusalem’s inevitable downfall to a people convinced it could not be captured by the nations—and then, after the city’s fall, he must convey hope for the future to a people crushed by despair. Even those who are reluctant to stop and listen to Ezekiel’s words will be forced to recognize the import of his message through these dramatic signs. It will become clear even to a reluctant audience that a prophet has been in their midst when these signs begin to become reality.
The first of his sign-acts is in three related parts, depicting Jerusalem as a city besieged not merely by the Babylonians but by God as a result of the people’s long history of sin. Those who remain inside the city will be reduced to starvation rations and, worse, forced to eat defiled food. The exile in Babylon will not be a brief sojourn but a lifetime, akin to the forty-year wilderness wanderings. There is a glimmer of hope in that Ezekiel’s 430-day ordeal matches the nation’s 430-year stay in Egypt, suggesting the possibility of a new exodus at its conclusion. Yet the focus of the sign-acts is very much on the reality of the imminent judgment on Jerusalem from the Lord.
Ezekiel’s first sign-act involves erecting an elaborate model depicting Jerusalem as a city under siege. He is to take a clay brick, perhaps 10 inches by 24 inches (25 cm by 61 cm), and draw a map or a picture of Jerusalem on it while it is still soft (v. 1). Such bricks were common building materials in Babylon, and city plans sketched out on bricks have been excavated at the site of Nippur, in the same region as Ezekiel’s exile.2 Then the prophet is to create a diorama of a besieged city around the brick, with siege ramps, army camps strategically located around the city, and battering rams to break through the walls (v. 2)—all the latest weaponry and the overwhelming force the Babylonians will bring to bear on Jerusalem. With the city surrounded by the Babylonians, there would be no way into or out of Jerusalem.
Yet the Babylonians are not Jerusalem’s biggest problem. The prophet himself is to take the Lord’s part in the drama, with his face fixed toward Jerusalem, representing a settled attitude toward the city, and an iron griddle, or pan, between him and the city, depicting the complete severing of relations between Israel and her God (v. 3). The use of an iron object highlights the impenetrability of the barrier. No communication between the people and the Lord will be possible, which means that their cries for mercy and relief will go unheeded. This griddle is thus the visual equivalent of the Lord’s forbidding Ezekiel in the previous chapter to act as an intercessor for the city (cf. comment on 3:24–27 [at v. 26]).
The dual agency of Jerusalem’s awful fate is prominent throughout these signs. The Babylonians may provide the army that is to besiege the city, but it is the Lord who has decreed the city’s inevitable destruction and has cut off any channels of communication. This must have seemed inconceivable to many of the prophet’s contemporaries, raised on the assurance of Psalm 46, that Zion could not fall so long as the Lord dwelt within her. Ezekiel will challenge head on this concept of Jerusalem’s inviolability in Ezekiel 8–11 (cf. the sermon of Ezekiel’s contemporary Jeremiah in Jeremiah 7).
The second sign the prophet is required to perform is related to the first and involves lying down next to the model he has built for a lengthy period of time, first on one side and then on the other. In this sign, foreshadowing the work of the final Son of Man, the prophet represents both the afflicted people and their God. Ezekiel is to be tied with ropes, representing the siege victims and confining him to a single position. These cords are placed on him by the Lord himself, emphasizing the Lord’s agency in this series of events and the unchangeable nature of what is being signed (Ezek. 4:8).
First, the prophet is to lie on his left side for 390 days to “bear [the] punishment” of the house of Israel (vv. 4–5). Then he is to lie on his right side for another forty days to “bear the punishment” of the house of Judah (v. 6). This may not necessarily require the prophet to adopt this position twenty-four hours a day; very likely he lies down daily for a period of time in a public spot and then returns home in the evening. “Bearing punishment” (the normal Hb. idiom is nasaʾ ʿawon, though here the prophet uses the verb sim) can mean either the priestly task of atoning for sin (cf. Ex. 28:38; Lev. 10:17) or the undergoing of punishment for one’s own sin (cf. Num. 14:33).
While it is tempting to think that “house of Israel” represents the northern kingdom and “house of Judah” the southern, everywhere else in Ezekiel these terms are used interchangeably. Thus the “house of Israel” here represents the whole covenant community, not only the former northern kingdom;3 its 390-year history of sin, symbolized by the prophet’s prostration on his left side, stretches back to around the time of the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, whose defilement is such a key theme in the prophecies to follow. Already during those early days of empire Solomon had begun leading Israel astray, building temples to false gods for his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1–8). During this period of the sign-act the prophet, weighed down with his heavy burden, symbolizes the entire nation’s long history of accumulated sin, which will culminate in the siege of Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, and the destruction of its temple. Ezekiel is not atoning for the people through his suffering; he merely represents the people’s being loaded down with their sin (cf. Isa. 1:4).
[Jesus] bears the fiery wrath of God against the sin of all his people—past, present, and future.
The “house of Judah,” on the other hand, here represents God’s people in their experience of exile (cf. Ezek. 25:3).4 The forty days on Ezekiel’s right side represents their time outside the land as a symbolic period of forty years—as with the wilderness generation (cf. 20:35–36). Ezekiel’s “bearing their punishment” has no atoning significance for them, either; there was no temple in exile where he could offer sacrifice, and no one is healed through his suffering.
Throughout the depiction Ezekiel continues to represent God’s wrath against Jerusalem, gesturing angrily against the city with his arm stripped and ready for decisive action (4:7). The goal of the sign-act is to represent the mountainous accumulation of Israel’s sin, ready to tumble down on the heads of this present generation. Given that reality, it is no surprise that Jerusalem’s anticipated siege will be ferocious and bloody, a just reckoning for its long history of sin.
Yet there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the total length of Ezekiel’s confinement (430 days). This number matches the years of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt (Ex. 12:40). Perhaps there can be a new exodus at the end of this period of judgment, as prophets like Isaiah had foretold, even if the people presently in exile might not see it themselves, any more than the generation of Moses and Aaron saw the Promised Land. Indeed, as far as we know, godly people like Daniel and Ezekiel died while still in exile, though Daniel at least lived to see the decree of Cyrus permitting people to go home (Dan. 6:28). Daniel was too old to take part in this new beginning himself, however, except through prayer and prophetic hope (Dan. 9:1–19). God has not completely abandoned his promises and his purposes for his people, or there would be no need to send prophets to interpret his actions to them.
The third part of the sign-act comes in the form of the prophet’s diet during this acted-out siege. Once again, as the representative of the people in Jerusalem, he is to join them in consuming siege rations while he lies down next to the surrounded city. The strange mixture of grains and legumes from which he is to make his bread is not a secret health formula, as some have supposed;4 rather it represents a situation in which food shortages are so desperate that there is not enough grain of any one kind to make proper flour, and so scrapings of whatever can be found must be mixed together into a single loaf. The Jewish commentator Moshe Greenberg reports an experiment in the third century AD that apparently determined that even dogs would not eat this bread.5
Ezekiel’s actions in this passage are certainly bizarre, and some commentators have sought to diagnose the prophet with some kind of mental illness as a result.6 However, Ezekiel undertakes these actions not as a result of any mental dysfunction but rather out of obedience to a direct command from God. As a prophet, Ezekiel embodies in his actions both the Lord who has sent him and the people of Israel to whom he goes. In this dual representation Ezekiel foreshadows the ultimate sign-act, in which the Word becomes flesh and the Lord of Glory humbles himself to come and live among us, an act far more restrictive and humiliating for divine glory than anything Ezekiel undertakes. Jesus comes not merely to show us the enormous scale of our sin for which judgment could rightly befall us. He comes also to bear our punishment through the priestly act of atoning for us, offering his own body as a sacrifice on the cross to deal with our sin, once for all (Eph. 5:2). On the cross Jesus bears not merely the anger and malice of the Romans and his own people, who hammer nails through his hands and feet and mock him as he hung there; far more profoundly, he bears the fiery wrath of God against the sin of all his people—past, present, and future. As a result, Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits of a new exodus in which he leads his people out from sin and death and hell and into the glorious heavenly inheritance he has prepared for them.
Jesus’ new exodus is not restricted to the house of Israel or Judah, the physical descendants of Abraham. Now Jews and Gentiles together become true children of Abraham by faith in Christ (cf. Romans 4). Since the old wall of division between Jew and Gentile has come down in Christ, so too has the dividing line of kosher food been erased as well. Thus when Peter echoes Ezekiel’s concern about eating unclean food (Acts 10:14), the Lord overrules him and invites him to kill and eat from a banquet of formerly off-limits foods shown to him in a vision. All of this is part of the Lord’s persuading Peter of the new welcome extended to the Gentiles to come now into the people of God through Christ.
As Christians we have been given the dramatic sign-acts of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to communicate the gospel to us with power. These provide a visual and sensory reenactment of profound spiritual truths, endued with divinely ordained power. Baptism signs and seals our need for cleansing and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit if we are to enter his people. Likewise the Lord’s Supper is a pilgrim meal of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine given to us to strengthen us for our journey to the heavenly banquet Christ has prepared for us. Sustained by these sacraments, we are called to bring the good news of salvation in Christ to those around us, incarnating God’s love in costly and self-sacrificial ways as we serve our neighbors. We have good news of freedom in Christ for them, not merely a word of God’s righteous judgment on their sins. Nonetheless, should they refuse the gospel, there remains the awful reality of a judgment to come that is far worse than anything that befell the Judeans in the siege and fall of their city to the Babylonians. They must flee to Christ as their only refuge if they are to escape the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).
- Cf. Kelvin G. Friebel, Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s Sign-Acts: Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication, JSOTSup 283 (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 384–385.
- Cf. B. J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands(Chicago: Moody, 1985), 196–197.
- Cf. Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 176–178.
- Cf. Block, Ezekiel 1–24, 179.
- In the United States there is a product called Ezekiel 4:9 Bread that is supposedly based on this verse, although it is not revealed on its packaging or website whether it is authentically baked over animal excrement. It is claimed to have special health benefits (“unrivaled honest nutrition and pure, delicious flavors”), which clearly misunderstands the context of the verse; cf. “Our Products,” Products, Food for Life, accessed September 26, 2020, https://www.foodforlife.com/about_us/ezekiel–49. The French philosopher Voltaire understood more clearly the implications of the command given to the prophet. After reflecting on the strangeness of the prophet’s work, including his diet, he concluded, “Anyone who prefers the prophecies of Ezekiel [to the Greek and Latin classics, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid] deserves to lunch with him” (AT). F. M. A. de Voltaire, Ouvres Complètes de Voltaire: Dictionnaire Philosophique (Paris: Libraire Gennequin Ainé, 1862), 3.176.
- Greenberg, Moshe, Ezekiel 1–20. AB. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983, 106.
- Cf. E. C. Broome, “Ezekiel’s Abnormal Personality,” JBL 65 (1946): 277–292; David Halperin, Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology (State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993). A more measured response is D. L. Smith-Christopher, “Ezekiel on Fanon’s Couch: A Postcolonialist Dialogue with David Halperin’s Seeking Ezekiel,” in Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible: Essays in Honor of Millard Lind, ed. Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns (Telford, PA: Pandora, 1999), 108–144. As Smith-Christopher points out, the experience of exile would have been extremely traumatic, and it would not be surprising to find the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among the exiles, including Ezekiel. Indeed, the possibility that some of the exiles suffered sexual abuse (even to the point of being made eunuchs) is not far-fetched. However, there is nothing in the text that supports a clinical diagnosis, and Ezekiel’s experience of dumbness and lying on one side for lengthy periods of time is very far from a trauma-induced state of being catatonic. He is fully aware of and in control of his actions at all times, in submission to God’s commands.
This article is by Iain M. Duguid and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Isaiah–Ezekiel (Volume 6).
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