We have completed the account of Ezekiel’s call and now begin the main body of the book, or, at least, the first of the three major sections of the book of Ezekiel, the account of the message that Yahweh gave him to give to the Jewish exiles in Babylon concerning the fate of their compatriots back home in Jerusalem. Chapters 1-24, as we noted in our introduction to the book, contain Ezekiel’s prophecies of judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem given in the years between his call in 593 B.C. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586. If chapters 2-3 were repetitive in their depiction of the Jews as hard of heart and obstinate in their refusal to humble themselves before the Lord, chapters 4-5, we will see, will prove equally repetitive in describing the Lord’s determination to punish Jerusalem for the Jews’ betrayal of his covenant. Remember, Jerusalem was still home to the Jews who saw and heard Ezekiel. Virtually every one of them had lived at or near Jerusalem. It was where they hoped to return. They had loved ones there. Ezekiel’s message of Jerusalem’s inevitable destruction as punishment for the sins of Israel was not going to make him popular with anyone!
What we have in these next two chapters is a series of actions undertaken by Ezekiel that serve as “signs,” or enacted prophecies of Jerusalem’s doom. They are followed in 5:8-17 with a more explicit account of the fate that awaits Jerusalem because of her infidelity to God and his covenant: first to be besieged and then destroyed by the Babylonian army. Ezekiel is by no means the only OT prophet to make use of sign-acts or enacted prophecies. Elijah and Elisha, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah do similar things. But no one did such things as often as Ezekiel.
The clay would be soft when the map of the city was drawn on it and then harden under the middle-eastern sun. Bricks upon which have been etched the plans of ancient cities have been found by archaeologists.
Ezekiel, presumably, would have fashioned models of siege works, ramps (since cities were built on hills, ramps were needed to get battering rams near to the gates and other weapons near to the walls), etc. and placed them around the brick upon which was etched the map of the city. Conquering a walled city in the ancient Near East was no easy task. The walls were thick and high. So ordinarily an enemy army would lay siege to a city first in order to weaken its resistance. What would eventually happen to Jerusalem was entirely typical. If Babylon were to capture Jerusalem, everyone would expect that it would be done this way.
The iron pan was a griddle used to bake flat cakes over an open fire. Here it represents the impenetrable wall – iron was the hardest metal they had – between Yahweh and Jerusalem. He was hiding his face from his people, as we might say.
We may think of a text like Isaiah 59:2: “…your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” But you can tell by the wording that the Lord is not simply abandoning Jerusalem to her fate, but is actively fighting against her. [Block, i, 173]
Now all of this was designed, of course, to be public and to incite curiosity and then a reaction. People would walk by the front door of Ezekiel’s house and every day there would be the map of Jerusalem with Ezekiel’s mock siege. They would be curious and ask about it and Ezekiel would explain what it meant. Pretty soon, everyone in the community would be talking about Ezekiel and his model of Jerusalem under siege.
Remember, “Israel” is Ezekiel’s favored term for the people of God and is used interchangeably with Judah. Israel is used more than 180x; Judah 15x in the book. [Block, I, 176] So when we have Israel here in v. 4 and Judah in v. 6, we should take the terms as interchangeable, two ways of referring to the people of God.
Lying on his left side, presumably with his face toward the brick and the models of the siege is paired with lying on his right side in v.6. We might say that our pastor preached for two years from the Gospel of Matthew. We don’t mean, by that form of words, to suggest that he preached continuously twenty-four hours a day for two years. In the same way, Ezekiel probably lay on his side only for some time each day – perhaps the busiest time of day when the most people would be in the street. We are not told precisely how the prophet symbolically placed Israel’s iniquity upon himself.
In all likelihood the 390 years is to be taken as a rough approximation of the time that would elapse from the building of the temple in Jerusalem to its destruction in 586.
The 40 years probably represents the generation – like the 40 years in the wilderness – that would suffer the consequences of exile on account of Israel’s sin. The 390 led up to the devastation of Jerusalem in 586, the 40 the time of the exile that followed. So the lying on the left side and then the right side depict subsequent events. As with the 40 years in the wilderness, the purpose of the second period is to eliminate the sinful generation and to lay the foundation for a new beginning. Taking 40 as a symbolic number eliminates the need to harmonize it with the 70 years of exile prophesied by Jeremiah. The two numbers taken together amount to 430 years, which was also the length of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt (Ex. 12:40).
The bare arm represents Yahweh’s power and determination to act. Sometimes the baring of the arm is a figure used to describe Yahweh’s action in delivering his people (e.g. Isa. 52:10). Here it refers instead to his action in punishing them.
We aren’t told precisely how this was done, but its purpose was to demonstrate the unalterable character of the prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction and Judah’s punishment.
The third sign-act involves baking bread out of an unusual combination of ingredients: grains and vegetables. Apparently the idea is that of a siege diet. There isn’t enough proper grain for bread so one has to make it out of what remains.
The twenty shekels amounts to 8 ounces, a very meager diet. The daily ration of water is about 2/3 of a quart in a very hot climate! The purpose of this dramatization is explained in v. 16-17.
The text does not say “as you would.” This may be a different sign-act. Barley cakes, in any case, were poor people’s food.
In the siege, after all the other fuel has been consumed, dung will be the only fuel left. And, once Israel has been taken captive to Babylon, they will live where wood for fuel is scarce and dung is an ordinary fuel.
Ezekiel protests that he has always followed the regulations of ceremonial purity so far as food is concerned. He does not want to be required to violate his principles.
The Lord is sympathetic and grants the prophet a concession. It is a compromise. The sense of the sign-act remains intact, but the Lord shows deference toward Ezekiel’s sensitivity on this point.
The last two verses summarize the meaning of the sign-acts that Ezekiel will perform. But notice the very important final phrase: “because of their sin.” We are never allowed to forget that the reason for the calamity that is to befall Judah is her own iniquity. The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem will be God’s judgment of Israel’s sin. That is the reason for everything and, no doubt, the reason for a very great deal that happens in this world: the sin of man and the judgment of God.
The action is more dramatic because, as a priest, Ezekiel was forbidden to shave his head (Lev. 21:5).
“inside the city” mean inside the map of the city drawn on the clay brick. The significance of these dramatizations is explained in v. 12.
The strands tucked away represent the survivors.
To have survived will lead some exiles to be complacent. The fire that consumed the Jews in Jerusalem will consume even those among the exiles who remain unrepentant. So some of those strands that represent the survivors are to be thrown on the fire that still burns on the brick.
The Bible’s consistent witness: to whom much is given, much is required. The greatest sinners are always found in a Christian church! And the closer to God one is, the more defiant the rebellion must be. Isaiah, remember, makes the point that Israel had turned into Sodom! Israel had so far failed to live up to his privileged place above all the nations of the world that it had sunk below them. [Allen, i, 74]
As we read in Jeremiah, they were still offering sacrifices to Canaanite gods in Jerusalem after God had punished her twice by Babylonian incursions and the carrying off of thousands, including Judah’s king.
The covenant curses of Lev. 26 and Deut. 28 include being driven to cannibalism.
If you remember, a desperate effort was made to escape the besieged city as we read in 2 Kings 25:4-7. It didn’t work and Zedekiah and his army were caught in the open and annihilated.
In any case, note how often in vv. 8-12 the Lord identifies himself as the one causing all of these things to happen. It will be the Babylonian army, to be sure, but only as an instrument of his will. “I myself,” “I will do,” “I will inflict,”, “I myself will withdraw my favor,” and so on.
The curses depicted in these two chapters are, in fact, the very punishments threatened, especially in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, against those who betray it and the Lord who made it with Israel. So these final verses are a reminder that the bitter fruit of Israel’s rebellion against God is precisely what the Lord promised long ago. Yahweh has become Israel’s enemy because she so brazenly threw off the yoke of his laws and decrees. [Block, i, 201-202]
Wednesday night, at the end of prayer meeting, we sang the metrical version of Psalm 145 that we have in our Trinity Hymnal as #5. And as we sang it, I noticed, as I do every time we sing that fine psalm version, that the editors of our hymnal have altered the text from its original form, the form that was printed in the first edition of Trinity Hymnal. We sing in the third verse:
They shall talk of all thy glory, on thy might and greatness dwell,
Speak of thy great acts the story, and thy deeds of wonder tell.
We used to sing, not “Speak of thy great acts the story,” but “Speak of thy dread acts the story.” It is a small change and I’m sure the editors made it because they felt that 20th and 21st century readers wouldn’t understand the sense of the word dread. But it is a loss and perhaps all the more so in our day and time when dread is precisely what people in the church almost never feel in contemplating God and his works. In such a context, as an adjective describing the acts of the Lord, dread describes their capacity to induce fear, awe, and anxiety. “Great” does not mean the same thing as dread. And Psalm 145:6 does speak of the Lord’s “awesome” or “terrible” acts. We have lost something materially important if we tone down the manifestly biblical sense of the nature of God’s works as producing awe, fear, or dread in the heart of those who witness them or who read about them with understanding. And little as the prophets are preached in our day – that part of the Bible that more than any other forces us to reckon with the dreadful works of the Lord – the tendency of today to forget this becomes all the more powerful.
What is absolutely and emphatically clear in this text – in the way in which emphasis is placed over and over again on the fact that Yahweh himself will bring these terrible judgments against Judah and Jerusalem – is that this judgment is self-revelatory. Just as the acts by which Yahweh delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt centuries before served to reveal him and his nature and character to his people, so his terrible judgments tell us who he is and what he is like. These acts of divine judgment depicted by Ezekiel and then explained, as the prophet repeats to the exiles the word of the Lord, are self-revelatory on Yahweh’s part. This is the sense of v. 13, which is the climactic statement in this section: “they will know that I the Lord have spoken.” We have an echo of that in the last verse of the chapter. This catastrophe to befall Jerusalem, this horrible death to overtake so many, the violent and unrelenting response to Israel’s apostasy: This too is the Lord!
Many of you love the books of George MacDonald, the Victorian Scottish novelist who exercised such a formative influence on C.S. Lewis. There is supposed to be an epitaph in some Scottish cemetery that, overhearing a journalist recite at a dinner party, much impressed MacDonald.
Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde;
Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God;
As I wad do, were I Lord God,
An’ ye war Martin Elginbrodde!
[Hein, George MacDonald, 158-159]
It is a view of God that was becoming very popular in Victorian Britain and one to which MacDonald had been moving for some time: a God more avuncular than terrible in majesty, a God of love, virtually only of love. It is a view of God based on human instinct and predisposition. The fact is, hardly any of us would do to Jerusalem what Yahweh did in 586 B.C.. We might feel, rightly, that Jerusalem was everything that the Lord declared it to be, an idolatrous, immoral, worldly city, utterly forgetful of the Lord and his covenant, trampling upon her immense privileges with abandon. But we still recoil from the idea of creating a situation in which so many would die – men, women, and children – and the besieged people would be reduced to feeding on the carcasses of the dead. We would rebuke, but we would not lay bare our arm and reduce that city to rubble and leave the bones of so many of her citizens bleaching in the sun. Or most of us would not and certainly an increasing number of us in the Western Church of our time. We may imagine that, as is so often said by Christians, “Oh, God would never do that…” And we would compliment ourselves on our unfailing mercy and compassion. It is a very poor, a very unreliable method to attempt to discern God’s mind and ways by imagining what we would think and what we would do – we sinful pipsqueaks who have so little of God’s mind and so much of the world’s and our own. We can only know what God might do or will do by what he has done and has said he will do. And over and over again the world has witnessed the fatal lightning of Yahweh’s terrible swift sword and he has promised that he will continue to be until the very end a God of justice and judgment and vengeance. As he says in v. 13: I will be avenged!
He is a God who takes more seriously than we do the sins of man and all the more the sins of his church. As merciful as he will be toward those who confess and repent, he is as implacable in his judgment of those who do not.
And remember! We American evangelicals in separatist churches tend to think of the church of God as ourselves or people like us. We don’t tend to think of the American Episcopal church as in some respects still really the church of Jesus Christ or any of the other large liberal Protestant churches or the Roman Catholic church. But if we are to apply to our own time Ezekiel’s pronouncements of doom and judgment against Jerusalem, we have to include in our view of the church all of those bodies. That is the church as it exists in the world. And it is an idolatrous community, immoral, worldly, utterly indifferent to the covenant that Yahweh made with her. She is in open rebellion against his laws and decrees. Like those remaining in Jerusalem, and no doubt many of the exiles in Babylon, while Ezekiel was acting out the coming destruction she was sure that God was on her side and would protect her. So with the unbelieving church in our day: she has no concern that she is storing up his wrath against her. In most every one of those churches there hasn’t been a serious sermon on the wrath of God in a generation, if not more.
We are going to have a number of opportunities to reflect on the divine wrath in coming Lord’s Day evening services because it is the primary theme of the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel. But let us begin here, at the beginning, with the acknowledgement that holy wrath and vengeance – an implacable determination to punish sin – is an undeniable feature of God’s nature and character. Because it is it is an inescapable dimension of reality and the man or woman who ignores that fact does so to his or her ruin.
One reason why it is so important for Christians not to neglect the prophets is precisely because this message – hard as it is for human beings to accept and, even once they have accepted it hard as it is for them to remember and take to heart – is so emphatically taught in their books. It is the teaching of the New Testament as well, of course. There is nothing here in Ezekiel 4 and 5 that we won’t have again in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles: remember we pointed out how similar to Ezekiel are the visions of John in the Revelation. There are plenty of warnings of the reality of God’s wrath in the New Testament. Still, the OT is much larger and its books are much larger and there is an impressiveness and an unrelenting emphasis on this reality of divine wrath in the prophets that we can scarce afford to lose. And when these large stretches of Holy Scripture are not taught and preached, they begin to slip from the heart and mind of the church. And when the church stops reckoning with the vengeance of the Lord she stops fearing his judgment and begins, inevitably, to acts those will who have no fear of God before their eyes.
A journalist and historian of Victorian Britain once explained why 19th century English merchants gained such a reputation for honesty. The reason, he said, was that among them were so many for whom “hell and heaven seemed as certain to them as tomorrow’s sunrise, and the Last Judgment as real as the week’s balance-sheet.” [Cited in Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 173] Well, I don’t know about 19th century English merchants, but I do know that every true Christian should be described in precisely that way. “Hell is as real to him or to her as tomorrow’s sunrise.”
Here is the problem, the great problem, in a sense the only problem of mankind! He has not identified his true problem! He thinks his problems are political or economic or psychological. He imagines that his enemies are Muslim terrorists or Western capitalists or anyone else who threatens his place, his position, his prosperity, his happiness, or his life. That is what the Jews were thinking. They were worried about the Babylonians or the Egyptians. They were concerned about rebuilding the economy and restoring prosperity in the new circumstances created by Babylon’s defeat of Egypt. In the same way, people are worried about this and about that, a thousand things. But they are not worried about God! But if, because of your sin, the living God is your enemy, you have no other enemies. Let them do their worst to you; it is a trifle, a bagatelle compared to what the Lord will require in his vengeance.
There are two facts and two facts only that comprise the fundamental reality of human life in this world apart from the grace of God and the salvation of Christ: the first is that God is angry with the wicked every day; the second is that the wicked will not believe or acknowledge that fact. They will not whether they are in the church or outside of it. But, this being true, the things that human beings care so much about are of infinitesimal importance; they matter not at all. To have Yahweh turn his face from you, to have him bare his arm against you, to withdraw his favor and to refuse you his pity, is to make worthless whatever blessings you now imagine you enjoy and to expose you to a fate from which any and every human being would recoil if only he could see it unfolding before his eyes.
Let us never forget that this is what makes Jesus Christ and his cross so vital, so absolutely essential, so utterly incomparable and irreplaceable: Jesus on the cross alone can stand between you and all your sins and the holy wrath of the living God; the crucified Son of God alone can carry that divine wrath and vengeance away from you by bearing it himself; the suffering Savior, our Redeemer alone can remove the reason why God turns his face away and wrecks vengeance upon the human race. Of the fact that Yahweh does and will wreck such vengeance Ezekiel bears eloquent witness, for all his predictions, all of his acting-out of God’s wrath, came so terribly true in 586 B.C. That he will again and finally is proved by the fact that, as these passages make so emphatically clear: what he did to Judah in 586 he did because of who and what he is. Not what he was, but who and what he is!