Ezekiel 4 – Signs of Siege and Exile
A. The sign of Jerusalem’s siege.
1. (1-3) A model of the siege of Jerusalem.
“You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem. Lay siege against it, build a siege wall against it, and heap up a mound against it; set camps against it also, and place battering rams against it all around. Moreover take for yourself an iron plate, and set it as an iron wall between you and the city. Set your face against it, and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel.
a. Take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem: Living in Babylon, exiled by force from Jerusalem many years before, Ezekiel received God’s command to depict Jerusalem on a clay tablet.
i. “The tile mentioned in the text was a tablet of soft clay, baked to make it durable, such as the Babylonians used for writing purposes.” (Feinberg)
ii. “The practice of sketching a city plan on a clay brick is confirmed by several exemplars discovered by archeologists. One of these represents a 2nd-millennium plan of the city of Nippur, the predecessor of the very city in the vicinity of which the exiles were settled.” (Block)
b. Lay a siege against it: Like a child playing with toy soldiers, Ezekiel arranged a siege wall against his clay Jerusalem, along with the camps of siege armies and their battering rams.
i. “Prophets were often told to drive home their message by strange acted parables (e.g. Isaiah 20:2-3; Jeremiah 13:1-7).” (Wright)
ii. “We must imagine that the strange actions which Ezekiel was now told to perform were to be carried out either just inside his house or, more likely, on the open space in front of his doorway. The actions were pointless unless they could be watched by a large number of people.” (Taylor)
iii. “This, of course, was what would happen at Jerusalem in 588 B.C. when the Babylonian army began the siege of the city.” (Wiersbe)
c. Take for yourself an iron plate, and set it as an iron wall between you and the city: Finally, Ezekiel made an unbreakable barrier between himself and the scene he constructed. This symbolized the barrier between God and Jerusalem, meaning that God would not intervene and rescue Jerusalem in the coming siege.
i. “It was the kind of utensil that the priests used in the temple for preparing some of the offerings (Leviticus 2:5; 6:21; 7:9). The iron griddle symbolized the wall that stood between God and the sinful Jewish nation so that He could no longer look on them with approval and blessing.” (Wiersbe)
d. This will be a sign to the house of Israel: There were some among the Israelite captives in Babylon (and also in Jerusalem) who thought that God would defend Jerusalem and rescue her when the Babylonians came again against her. This was a sure sign that it would not be so.
2. (4-6) Acting out the years of iniquity.
“Lie also on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it. According to the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their iniquity. For I have laid on you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days; so you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when you have completed them, lie again on your right side; then you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days. I have laid on you a day for each year.
a. Lie also on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: God commanded Ezekiel to enact another sign related to judgment against Israel. Presumably lying on his bed in his house, Ezekiel was to lie on his left side and in some unknown symbolic way lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon himself.
i. “The symbolism of upon your left side was probably helped out by the prophet’s lying on the ground in an east-west direction, with his head towards Jerusalem, and facing northwards as if towards Israel while on his left side and southwards towards Judah while on his right.” (Taylor)
ii. “He now plays the role of the priest, carrying the burden of his people’s sins on his shoulder.” (Block)
b. According to the number of days that you lie on it, you shall bear their iniquity: Ezekiel was to act out this ritual for three hundred and ninety days. Perhaps he did it at night when he slept, or at some regular time of the day. After the 390 days for the house of Israel, he was then to do it for 40 days to symbolically bear the iniquity of the house of Judah.
i. “We should probably envision him adopting his prone position for several hours each day, and then, while the audience watched, eat one small bite of the loaf.” (Block)
c. I have laid on you a day for each year: Ezekiel acted out 390 years of iniquity for the kingdom of Israel and 40 years for Judah.
i. Many different explanations have been given for these 390 and 40 years. Probably the best one was stated by Wiersbe: “When you add the years of the reigns of the kings of Judah from Rehoboam to Zedekiah, as recorded in 1-2 Kings, you have a total of 394 years. Since during three of the years of his reign Rehoboam walked with God (2 Chronicles 11:16-17), we end up with a number very close to Ezekiel’s 390 years.”
ii. “Ezekiel 4:4 makes it plain that the period must not represent the time of Israel’s sinning, but the period during which the nation bears its iniquity and is punished.” (Feinberg)
3. (7-8) Restrained according to the years of the siege.
“Therefore you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem; your arm shall be uncovered, and you shall prophesy against it. And surely I will restrain you so that you cannot turn from one side to another till you have ended the days of your siege.
a. You shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem; your arm shall be uncovered: In this acted-out prophecy, Ezekiel demonstrated that the strong arm of God’s judgment against Jerusalem would be active and unrestrained.
i. “Thine arm, thy right arm, the stronger and more ready to act, shall be uncovered, naked and stretched out, as being ready to strike and slay.” (Poole)
b. I will restrain you so that you cannot turn from one side to another: After symbolically standing in the place of God, Ezekiel then stood in the place of Jerusalem, restrained and helpless before God and His coming judgment.
i. “It is not necessary to assume that Ezekiel was in the prone position day and night. It was doubtless part of each day, if he were to prepare his food as stated later in the chapter.” (Feinberg)
B. The sign of defiled bread.
1. (9-13) Preparing bread defiled according to the rules of kosher food.
“Also take for yourself wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread of them for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred and ninety days, you shall eat it. And your food which you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from time to time you shall eat it. You shall also drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; from time to time you shall drink. And you shall eat it as barley cakes; and bake it using fuel of human waste in their sight.” Then the LORD said, “So shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, where I will drive them.”
a. Make bread of them for yourself: During the 390 days of lying on his side, Ezekiel was commanded to make bread of many different grains and eat it during those days. This shows that during those days, Ezekiel was not completely inactive and laying on his side continually.
b. Wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt: The unusual bread was an acted-out prediction of life during a siege, when anything and everything that could be eaten was. It was also carefully measured out (by weight, twenty shekels a day) as bread (and water) would be carefully weighed and rationed during a siege.
i. “In times of scarcity, it is customary in all countries to mix several kinds of coarser grain with the finer, to make it last the longer.” (Clarke)
ii. “With a shekel calculated at about 11.4 grammes, this would amount to almost exactly 8 ounces of bread per day. The water measurement of one-sixth of a hin would be equal to a fraction over a pint, or 0.61 litres.” (Taylor)
iii. “Scarce enough to keep the man alive. Such proportions of bread and water rather fed death than the man.” (Poole)
c. Bake it using fuel of human waste: In this Ezekiel demonstrated not only the desperation of a siege but also the misery of exile among the Gentiles, where care for keeping kosher food and its preparation were impossible.
i. “Some have wholly misunderstood the command of Ezekiel 4:12 which relates only to the fuel to prepare the food and not to the making of the food itself.” (Feinberg)
ii. God did not tell Ezekiel to disobey the Law of Moses. “There is no recorded prohibition in the kashrut (‘kosher’) laws of the Torah regarding the use of human excrement for fuel.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
iii. “Dried animal dung was used as fuel in the east, and still is, and it was not regarded as ritually, unclean. However, in the siege all cattle would be killed for food, so only human excrement would be available for fuel.” (Wright)
d. In their sight: Ezekiel acted out these long, daily prophesies before the people of his community. No doubt, he would explain them as he did them daily.
2. (14-17) God’s accommodation to Ezekiel’s objection.
So I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Indeed I have never defiled myself from my youth till now; I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has abominable flesh ever come into my mouth.” Then He said to me, “See, I am giving you cow dung instead of human waste, and you shall prepare your bread over it.” Moreover He said to me, “Son of man, surely I will cut off the supply of bread in Jerusalem; they shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and shall drink water by measure and with dread, that they may lack bread and water, and be dismayed with one another, and waste away because of their iniquity.
a. I have never defiled myself from my youth till now: Ezekiel objected to the command to prepare bread from a fire fueled by burning human waste. It was both disgusting and against kosher customs. Ezekiel’s objection was based on the fact that he had never so offensively broken Jewish dietary laws.
i. “Let us be as careful of spiritual uncleanness; sin is the devil’s excrement, the corruption of a dead soul.” (Trapp)
b. See, I am giving you cow dung instead of human waste: God accommodated the appeal of the prophet. The lesson could be made without actually using human waste to bake the bread.
i. Ancients (and some in today’s world) would use dung to fuel a fire, but according to Feinberg, normally dung would not be used for a fire to bake bread. It was considered unclean whether it was animal dung or human dung. God allowed Ezekiel to lessen the offense, but not take it away.
ii. Meyer saw a lesson in God’s response to Ezekiel’s appeal. “We may be feeling that certain trials are insupportable, or certain demands beyond our power to meet. At such hours of bitter anguish it is quite permissible for us to go into the secret place of the Most High and gasp out our complaint, saying, ‘Ah, Lord God!’”
c. Surely I will cut off the supply of bread in Jerusalem: Yet God emphasized His point. A terrible siege was coming to Jerusalem and both bread and water would be cut off. The siege would bring anxiety and dread to Jerusalem, and they would waste away because of their iniquity.
i. “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.” (Feinberg)
ii. “Thus their sins would bring them to extremest want and shame.” (Poole)