Ezekiel 21 – The Sword of Yahweh’s Judgment
“No chapter in the Bible speaks more prominently and fully of the sword of the Lord than does this chapter which has been called the sword song or the prophecy of the sword.” (Charles Feinberg)
A. The sword of the LORD comes against Jerusalem.
1. (1-5) The work of Yahweh’s sword.
And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem, preach against the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel; and say to the land of Israel, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I am against you, and I will draw My sword out of its sheath and cut off both righteous and wicked from you. Because I will cut off both righteous and wicked from you, therefore My sword shall go out of its sheath against all flesh from south to north, that all flesh may know that I, the LORD, have drawn My sword out of its sheath; it shall not return anymore.”’
a. Set your face toward Jerusalem, preach against the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel: It’s a terrible thing to have God speak against a land, especially one so favored as He gave to Israel. Yet God was not only against the land; more pointedly He was against the people (Behold, I am against you).
b. I will draw My sword out of its sheath and cut off both righteous and wicked: When God’s judgment came against the nation, it would not be against specific individuals. It would come against the people in general and both righteous and wicked would find themselves under His sword.
i. Both righteous and wicked: “The teaching here regarding the cutting off of both righteous and wicked does not contradict the teaching of Ezekiel 18 that only the soul that sins shall die (cf. Ezekiel 18:20). The former passage spoke of final judgment, while this passage speaks of temporal judgment. As regards final judgment, the righteous will not be destroyed along with the wicked. In temporal judgments, however, both often suffer equally.” (Smith)
ii. “Accordingly, the statement describes the indiscriminate nature of war, which recognizes only two parties, victors and the victims; there is no concern to subdivide the latter, particularly according to that nation’s definitions of righteous and wicked.” (Block)
iii. “The vision of that glittering, furbished, active sword is indeed a terrible one. But it is the Sword of Jehovah. Observe how that fact is kept in mind.” (Morgan)
c. That all flesh may know that I, the LORD, have drawn My sword: The magnitude and severity of God’s judgment would be a revelation to the watching world. They would know that only God Himself could be behind such a great judgment.
i. The forest fire of Ezekiel 20:46-48 becomes a sword which will slay the righteous and the wicked, just as the fire would burn both the green and the dry tree.
2. (6-7) The sighs of the prophet.
Sigh therefore, son of man, with a breaking heart, and sigh with bitterness before their eyes. And it shall be when they say to you, ‘Why are you sighing?’ that you shall answer, ‘Because of the news; when it comes, every heart will melt, all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming and shall be brought to pass,’ says the Lord GOD.”
a. Sigh therefore, son of man, with a breaking heart: God did not want Ezekiel to be an unemotional messenger of judgment. God wanted the heart of the prophet to display the same breaking heart that God Himself had.
i. With a breaking heart: This is literally breaking loins. “A phrase expressing deep emotional distress. The loins were regarded as the seat of strength, and so this represents complete nervous and physical collapse (cf. Ezekiel 29:7; Psalm 69:23; Nahum 2:10).” (Taylor)
ii. “Literally means ‘breaking of loins.’ ‘Loins’ in the OT are viewed as the center of physical strength and the seat of emotions. When they are ‘broken,’ the strength is gone and one is helpless. The emotions are shattered.” (Alexander)
b. Because of the news; when it comes, every heart will melt: The people of Jerusalem and Judah heard from Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and other prophets that judgment was coming, and they didn’t take the message seriously. Yet when the armies of Babylon actually came and they heard the news of it, they would be completely broken. Every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water.
i. The phrase all the knees will be weak as water is especially vivid, and used also in Ezekiel 7:17. “There is a vivid account of the panic that will follow. The RSV’s ‘all knees [are] weak as water’ means ‘all knees will run water’: a euphemism for the loss of bladder control in moments of terror.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
ii. “Hebrew, Shall go into water – that is, they shall bepiss themselves for fear, saith Jerome; they shall be all on a cold sweat, say others; or their knees shall shake, instar aquae tremulae, like trembling water, and knock together, as Belshazzar’s did. [Daniel 5:6]” (Trapp)
c. Behold it is coming and shall be brought to pass: This judgment was certain, and it broke the heart of prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah to consider what great devastation would come upon the land.
3. (8-17) The prophecy of Yahweh’s sword.
Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the LORD!’ Say:
‘A sword, a sword is sharpened
And also polished!
Sharpened to make a dreadful slaughter,
Polished to flash like lightning!
Should we then make mirth?
It despises the scepter of My son,
As it does all wood.
And He has given it to be polished,
That it may be handled;
This sword is sharpened, and it is polished
To be given into the hand of the slayer.’
“Cry and wail, son of man;
For it will be against My people,
Against all the princes of Israel.
Terrors including the sword will be against My people;
Therefore strike your thigh.
“Because it is a testing,
And what if the sword despises even the scepter?
The scepter shall be no more,”
says the Lord GOD.
“You therefore, son of man, prophesy,
And strike your hands together.
The third time let the sword do double damage.
It is the sword that slays,
The sword that slays the great men,
That enters their private chambers.
I have set the point of the sword against all their gates,
That the heart may melt and many may stumble.
Ah! It is made bright;
It is grasped for slaughter:
“Swords at the ready!
Set your blade!
Wherever your edge is ordered!
“I also will beat My fists together,
And I will cause My fury to rest;
I, the LORD, have spoken.”
a. A sword, a sword is sharpened and also polished: In this poetically powerful prophecy regarding the instrument of God’s judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, the first emphasis is on the readiness of God’s sword against His people. It is sharpened to make a dreadful slaughter.
i. A dreadful slaughter: “In secular usage, tabah normally refers to the slaughtering of domestic animals for consumption, but with humans as objects the term may be applied to bloody massacres, which is what is envisioned here.” (Block)
ii. Should we then make mirth? “In view of the fearful prospect, Ezekiel asked whether this was the hour for mirth, an hour of enjoyment and complacency. The implication was that any imagined basis for confidence was false.” (Feinberg)
b. It despises the scepter of My son: The son referred to here is probably the ruler of Judah, Zedekiah – or, the nation itself. God’s sword of judgment had no regard for his right to reign, for Zedekiah’s scepter. It would destroy it as a metal sword does wood. This idea is repeated again in this prophecy (Ezekiel 21:13).
i. “Despising the king of Judah (Ezekiel 21:13), the sword of Babylon would turn Judah’s scepter into nothing but a stick!” (Wiersbe)
c. To be given into the hands of the slayer: The army of Babylon would come against Judah and Jerusalem, but only because God put the sword of judgment into the hands of the slayer.
i. Strike your hands together:“Therefore, the injunction to ‘clap your hands,’ a gesture in which God even joins, with the stamping of the feet (cf. Ezekiel 6:11; 25:6) is a sign of defiance. It encourages the murderous work of the sword and exults over the inglorious end of this callous people.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
d. The third time let the sword do double damage: Nebuchadnezzar had already invaded and subjected Jerusalem twice. The next time – the third time – he would do far more damage.
i. “The sword has been doubled, and it shall come the third time. Nebuchadnezzar came against Judea THRICE. 1. Against Jehoiakim. 2. Against Jeconiah. 3. Against Zedekiah. The sword had already been doubled; it is to come now the third time, i.e., against Zedekiah.” (Clarke)
e. Swords at the ready! Thrust right: To emphasize the idea that all this is done at Yahweh’s direction, God presents Himself as something of a general over the army of judgment. He directs even the thrust of the blade and will not cease until He says, “I will cause My fury to rest.”
i. “Since he and other prophets often reinforced their messages with dramatic signs, he has perhaps drawn a sword and is whirling it round, making it flash in the sun, and shouting his words in disjointed sentences.” (Wright)
B. The path of the sword.
1. (18-21) Two paths for the sword of judgment.
The word of the LORD came to me again, saying: “And son of man, appoint for yourself two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to go; both of them shall go from the same land. Make a sign; put it at the head of the road to the city. Appoint a road for the sword to go to Rabbah of the Ammonites, and to Judah, into fortified Jerusalem. For the king of Babylon stands at the parting of the road, at the fork of the two roads, to use divination: he shakes the arrows, he consults the images, he looks at the liver.
a. Appoint for yourself two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to go: In a vivid description, God explained to Ezekiel that the sword of the king of Babylon – his army used as the instrument of God’s judgment – stood at a crossroads, deciding to next go to either Rabbah of the Ammonites or to Judah, into fortified Jerusalem.
i. Make a sign: “The use of yad (lit. “hand”) for signpost suggests a road sign on which is carved the form of a hand with fingers pointing in the direction specified.” (Block)
ii. Rabbah of the Ammonites: “In Greco-Roman times Rabbath was called Philadelphia; it is the modern Amman in Transjordan, the Old Testament Rabbath-Ammon.” (Feinberg)
b. He shakes the arrows, he consults the images, he looks at the liver: Ezekiel pictured Nebuchadnezzar at the parting of the road, using all the methods pagans used to get guidance from their gods.
i. He shakes the arrows: “First, he has shaken the arrows, a practice known as belomancy or rhabdomancy. The action consisted of shaking two inscribed arrows and then drawing one as one draws a lot, on the assumption that the gods had determined which one was selected.” (Block)
ii. He consults the images: “The next way of divining was by asking counsel of his idol, or image, which being made artificially by the skill of their juggling priests and conjurers, with little help they could give answers, and the image spake aloud what the sorcerer spake more softly, somewhat like the artificial whispering places which convey the voice, from unseen persons.” (Poole)
iii. He looks at the liver: “Here we have a truly authentic Babylonian divinatory process, which had come into Canaan. A ‘science’ had grown up around this divinatory technique. It also spawned a professional priesthood that confidently predicted a proper course of action by examining the color and the internal segmentation of the livers of newly slaughtered animals.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
iv. “Even Nebuchadnezzar’s superstition was overruled by God in order to carry out His purpose on Judah (for Babylon’s divinations see Isaiah 47:8-15). The king thought he was deciding by the help of his gods, but God was determining the course of his action.” (Feinberg)
2. (22-23) The decision to go to Jerusalem.
In his right hand is the divination for Jerusalem: to set up battering rams, to call for a slaughter, to lift the voice with shouting, to set battering rams against the gates, to heap up a siege mound, and to build a wall. And it will be to them like a false divination in the eyes of those who have sworn oaths with them; but he will bring their iniquity to remembrance, that they may be taken.
a. In his right hand is the divination for Jerusalem: At the parting of the roads, Nebuchadnezzar decided to go to Jerusalem. He would come against the city with his battering rams and bring a great slaughter.
i. Battering rams:“Engines made to beat down walls; and they had this name from the iron or brass head, which usually was at the end of it, like unto the head of a ram.” (Poole)
ii. To heap up a siege mound: “Open pitched battles were fought only if an army thought it could match the enemy sword for sword. Otherwise the troops would retreat within their defensive walls, a strategy that could succeed especially if the invading forces were far from home and lacked efficient supply lines. This would be Jerusalem’s only hope in the face of the Babylonians.” (Block)
b. It will be to them like a false divination: It would be false in the sense that though Nebuchadnezzar sought the pagan gods with their superstitions of divination, Yahweh was actually guiding him. As much as the people of Judah and Jerusalem may have prayed the king of Babylon would not come against them, God would guide him to them to bring their iniquity to remembrance.
i. Those who have sworn oaths: “Zedekiah, his princes, and nobles, who swore allegiance to the king of Babylon first, and afterward conspired with Egypt, and by new and contrary oaths perjured themselves, provoked as well as dishonoured God, and enraged Nebuchadnezzar to revenge their perfidiousness.” (Poole)
3. (24-27) The humbling of the prince of Judah.
“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because you have made your iniquity to be remembered, in that your transgressions are uncovered, so that in all your doings your sins appear—because you have come to remembrance, you shall be taken in hand. ‘Now to you, O profane, wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose iniquity shall end, thus says the Lord GOD:
“Remove the turban, and take off the crown;
Nothing shall remain the same.
Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted.
I will make it overthrown!
It shall be no longer,
Until He comes whose right it is,
And I will give it to Him.”’
a. Because you have made your iniquity to be remembered: Because Judah sinned so memorably before God, it was to be expected that He would in fact remember them in judgment. They prayed and hoped that God and Nebuchadnezzar would forget about them, but they would not.
b. Now to you, O profane, wicked prince of Israel: After generations of hardened and persistent sin, it could be said that the day has come for judgment and of the prince of Israel (probably Zedekiah), his iniquity shall end.
c. Remove the turban, and take off the crown: All the emblems of royalty and leadership would be removed from Zedekiah; nothing shall remain the same. He would be humbled, and the humble of the land would be its only inhabitants.
i. “The miter [turban] was the headdress of the high priest (Exodus 28:37); the crown, of course, belonged to the king. Priesthood and royalty were related in Israel. Now they were both to be interrupted, set aside for a time.” (Feinberg)
ii. “The removal of the priesthood and the kingship from Judah were pictured, respectively, in the removal of the high priest’s turban (Exodus 28:4, 37, 39; 29:6; 39:28, 31; Leviticus 8:9; 16:4) and the king’s crown (Ezekiel 21:26).” (Alexander)
iii. Exalt the humble: “Jeconiah; it is probable the prophet foretells the advance of this captive king, which came to pass in the 37th year of Jeconiah’s captivity, in the first year of Merodach, 2 Kings 25:27-29 Jeremiah 52:31, who exalted his seat above all the captive kings in Babylon.” (Poole)
d. Overthrown, overthrown, I will make it overthrown: The idea is repeated three times both for great emphasis and because Nebuchadnezzar subjugated Jerusalem three times, with the third bringing complete destruction and conquest.
i. “Our King is always engaged in destruction, that He may the better occupy Himself with construction. He overthrows our cities of brick that He may build them of marble. He removes the things that can be shaken, as things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Meyer)
e. Until He comes whose right it is, and I will give it to Him: Zedekiah was the last of a long line descended from David to reign in some sense over Jerusalem and Israel. He and his reign would be overthrown, and no descendant of David would sit on the throne until He comes whose right it is – that is, until God’s Messiah, the true Son of David comes. This was wonderfully and obviously fulfilled in Jesus Christ and still waits for its ultimate fulfillment.
i. “Ezekiel 21:27 is one of the great Messianic promises of the O.T., although it is often overlooked. It is similar to the promise of Genesis 49:10, (RSV). After the exile there were no more kings of David’s line. Zerubbabel, who was leader soon after the return, was of David’s line, but was never king.” (Wright)
ii. “This was Judah’s only hope in the midst of their current judgment. When Judah would ultimately be purified, then the ‘scepter’ (Messiah) would rule over his people.” (Alexander)
iii. “From Zedekiah down to the Lord Jesus there has been no one in the line of David who ever sat on that throne. Ezekiel is saying that no one would ever be able to do so. The Lord Jesus is the only One who will. Right now He is sitting at God’s right hand, waiting until His enemies are made His footstool when He comes to this earth to rule.” (McGee)
iv. “The coming of the Lord for His church in the rapture is recalled in every celebration of the Lord’s Supper: ‘till He come.’ Israel also has an ‘until He come.’ The Messiah will restore access to God in high-priestly ministry and righteous rule in royal ministry.” (Feinberg)
v. “Whatever the king of Judah thought to establish by his wit and power, God would overthrow. Nothing should stand, however carefully constructed, till the Messiah came to take up the kingdom and rule with meekness and righteousness.” (Meyer)
4. (28-32) The coming reproach of the Ammonites.
“And you, son of man, prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD concerning the Ammonites and concerning their reproach,’ and say:
‘A sword, a sword is drawn,
Polished for slaughter,
For consuming, for flashing—
While they see false visions for you,
While they divine a lie to you,
To bring you on the necks of the wicked, the slain
Whose day has come,
Whose iniquity shall end.
‘Return it to its sheath.
I will judge you
In the place where you were created,
In the land of your nativity.
I will pour out My indignation on you;
I will blow against you with the fire of My wrath,
And deliver you into the hands of brutal men who are skillful to destroy.
You shall be fuel for the fire;
Your blood shall be in the midst of the land.
You shall not be remembered,
For I the LORD have spoken.’”
a. Thus says the Lord GOD concerning the Ammonites: When God said that Nebuchadnezzar would stand at the parting of the roads and be guided by God to go to Jerusalem, it did not mean that God would not bring judgment against the Ammonites. The land of Ammon was on the eastern side of the Jordan River, in the modern-day kingdom of Jordan.
i. “Since Ammon would mock and mistreat Judah in her collapse before Babylonia, Ezekiel sang the same ‘sword song’ to Ammon.” (Alexander)
ii. “This prophecy against them was fulfilled about five years after the taking of Jerusalem. See Joseph. Ant. lib. x. c. 11; and Jeremiah 27; Jeremiah 48-49; Ezekiel 25.” (Clarke)
b. A sword, a sword is drawn: The sword of God’s judgment would also come against the Ammonites. God promised, I will judge you in the place where you were created, in the land of your nativity. The fire of God’s wrath would blow against the Ammonites. Unlike Israel, they would eventually disappear as a people (you shall not be remembered).
i. I will blow against you: “As those who melt down metals blow upon the metal in the fire, that the fire might burn the fiercer, and consume the dross.” (Poole)
ii. You shall not be remembered: “Their ultimate fate will be worse than Israel’s and worse even than Egypt’s, for they will be no more remembered. To the Semitic mind nothing could be more terrible: no prospect of restoration, no continuance in succeeding generations, no memorial, not even a memory. Oblivion.” (Taylor)