MBS153 The Symbolic Actions of Ezekiel the Prophet: Ezekiel 4:1-5:17

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MBS153

THE SYMBOLIC ACTIONS OF EZEKIEL THE PROPHET: EZEKIEL 4:1–5:17

By Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. THE SYMBOLIC ACTIONS—EZEKIEL 4:1–5:4

A. The Sign of the Tile—Ezekiel 4:1–3

B. The Sign of the Posture—Ezekiel 4:4–8

C. The Sign of the Defiled Bread—Ezekiel 4:9–17

1. The Symbolic Act—Ezekiel 4:9–12

2. The Application—Ezekiel 4:13–17

D. The Sign of the Shaved Head—Ezekiel 5:1–4

II. THE INTERPRETATION OF THE SYMBOLIC ACTIONS—EZEKIEL 5:5–17

A. The Judgment on Jerusalem—Ezekiel 5:5–12

B. The Description of the Judgment—Ezekiel 5:13–17

And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm uncovered; and you shall prophesy against it. And, behold, I lay bands upon you, and you shall not turn you from one side to the other, till you have accomplished the days of your siege.

Ezekiel 4:7–8

The symbolic actions of Ezekiel the Prophet are found in chapters 4 and 5 of his book. Ezekiel performed four signs before the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. Ezekiel 4:1–5:4 and gave the interpretation of those symbolic actions in chapter 5:5–17. These four signs occurred one after the other. God often instructed the prophets to do strange things. This was true of Isaiah and Jeremiah; it is also very true of the Prophet Ezekiel.

I. THE SYMBOLIC ACTIONS—EZEKIEL 4:1–5:4

A. The Sign of the Tile—Ezekiel 4:1–3

You also, son of man, take you a tile, and lay it before you, and portray upon it a city, even Jerusalem: and lay siege against it, and build forts against it, and cast up a mound against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it round about. And take you unto you an iron pan, and set it for a wall of iron between you and the city: and set your face toward it, and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. This shall be a sign to the house of Israel.

In verse 1, Ezekiel was instructed to take a tile, which was a tablet of soft clay that was normally used for writing. After the writing was inscribed into the soft clay, it was then baked to make it hard and durable. On a tablet of soft clay, Ezekiel was not to write, but to make a portrait of a city, even Jerusalem. He was to engrave the outline or the skyline of the City of Jerusalem with a writing instrument.

After portraying the City of Jerusalem upon this clay tablet, in verse 2 he is then to throw other things around it, showing the city under siege. This is spelled out in five specific statements: first, lay siege against it; secondly, build forts against it; thirdly, cast up a mound against it; fourthly, set camps also against it; and fifth, plant battering rams against it as well. All of these are things, which were normally used by armies to besiege a city were the very things the Babylonians would use to besiege the City of Jerusalem.

Along with these things, in verse 3 he is told to add an iron pan. This was a flat pan used for baking, such as the baking of clay. The same type of pan was used for baking the meal offering (Lev. 2:5). The pan was to be made of iron to emphasize the strength of the besieging army. Ezekiel was then to set it for a wall of iron between the city and himself. The pan thus served as a wall of partition between Ezekiel the Prophet and the city, and this wall emphasized protection. The point is that Ezekiel was to be protected from the wrath of his own Jewish people as he pronounced the coming judgment upon the City of Jerusalem. After having erected this pan between himself and the city depicted on the tile, he was then to set his face toward the city, in opposition to it. The city was to be besieged. That was the certainty of the prophecy: You shall lay siege against it.

The purpose of this symbolic action was that it was to be a sign to the house of Israel. What Ezekiel did was to serve as a sign to the House of Israel, and the point of the first sign is the coming siege. For the third and last time, the City of Jerusalem was destined to be besieged by the Babylonian army.

B. The Sign of the Posture—Ezekiel 4:4–8

The second symbolic action was the sign of the posture Ezekiel was to assume. For a specific number of days, he was to lie on his left side and for so many days on his right side. Verses 4–5 concern the left side: Moreover lie you upon your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it; according to the number of the days that you shall lie upon it, you shall bear their iniquity. For I have appointed the years of their iniquity to be unto you a number of days, even three hundred and ninety days: so shall you bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.

In verse 4, Ezekiel was told that because of the iniquity of the House of Israel, he was to lie on his left side. This symbolized the bearing of the iniquity of the House of Israel. According to verse 5, the number of days will equal the number of years of Israel’s sinning. Ezekiel was to lie on his left side for a period of three hundred ninety days. The rabbis interpreted these three hundred ninety days to represent the period from the division of the Jewish kingdom in the year 923 b.c. until the fall of Jerusalem, but that would only be about three hundred forty five years, not three hundred ninety years. Furthermore, historically, the northern kingdom only lasted about two hundred years, not three hundred ninety years. Trying to interpret these three hundred ninety years by going back into Israel’s past history simply does not fit. There must be another explanation for it, as will be seen.

Then Ezekiel is to turn on his right side and lie on his right side for a period of another forty days in verse 6: And again, when you have accomplished these, you shall lie on your right side, and shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah: forty days, each day for a year, have I appointed it unto you.

The purpose for this is so he can bear the iniquity of the southern kingdom, Judah. Again, these forty days represent forty years. The rabbis interpreted these forty years in two ways: first, to represent forty years following the fall of Samaria in 722 b.c.; secondly, the forty years beginning in 626 b.c. until the thirteenth year of Josiah, when Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry. But this was a hundred years, not forty. Again, going back into Israel’s history to determine the meaning of these forty days simply does not fit, either.

Next, Ezekiel was told what to face during the period of posturing in verses 7–8: And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm uncovered; and you shall prophesy against it. And, behold, I lay bands upon you, and you shall not turn you from one side to the other, till you have accomplished the days of your siege.

Whether he was lying on his left side or his right side, according to verse 7, he was always to be facing the City of Jerusalem, the first symbolic action, the tile with Jerusalem imprinted on it. Furthermore, in verse 8 God will lay bands on Ezekiel so that he will be able to lie on one side for three hundred ninety days and on the other side for another forty days. The duration was until God had “accomplished the days of the siege.”

The sum of three hundred ninety days and forty days equals a total of four hundred thirty days and symbolized four hundred thirty years. The meaning is to be determined by looking forward from Ezekiel’s time rather than backward. The total number of years during which the nation will be in subjection to foreign powers will be a total of four hundred thirty years. This period can be from the second deportation, in 597 b.c., during which Ezekiel himself was taken into captivity, subtracting four hundred thirty years, until we come to 167 b.c., the year of the Maccabean revolt. A second option is to begin the period with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. until the year 156 b.c., the year of the establishment of the Maccabean kingdom. The point of the symbolic action is that this was the period of time when the Jews would be under Gentile subjugation until a temporary respite in which they will be under Jewish authority, during the Maccabean kingdom. From the Babylonian conquest until the coming of the Maccabees was four hundred thirty years.

The point of the first symbolic act was to teach the fact that a siege of Jerusalem will come. The second symbolic act gives the period of time of national punishment will last, once the fall of Jerusalem has taken place.

C. The Sign of the Defiled Bread—Ezekiel 4:9–17

1. The Symbolic Act—Ezekiel 4:9–12

Take you also unto you wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make you bread thereof; according to the number of the days that you shall lie upon your side, even three hundred and ninety days, shall you eat thereof. And your food which you shall eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shall you eat it. And you shall drink water by measure, the sixth part of a hin: from time to time shall you drink. And you shall eat it as barley cakes, and you shall bake it in their sight with dung that comes out of man.

In verse 9, Ezekiel was instructed to take a mixture of six different types of grain: wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. He was to take these six different types of grain and put them into one vessel; with these different types of grain, he was to make bread. This was to be his main meal while lying on his left side for three hundred ninety days. Such a mixture was forbidden under the Law of Moses insofar as sowing them was concerned (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9). However, the Law of Moses did not forbid the eating of this mixture, so Ezekiel was not violating any Mosaic commandment by being told to do what he did.

Next, Ezekiel was given the specific rations in verse 10: twenty shekels a day. There are two different ways of understanding this verse, but regardless of whether it refers to ten to thirteen grams to a shekel, which comes to two hundred nineteen grams or about eight or nine ounces, the main emphasis is that this combination implies a scarcity of food (Lev. 26:26). From time to time, he was to eat this allotment and no more.

Not only was the food rationed, but the water was rationed as well, according to verse 11, and he was to drink only the sixth part of a hin. A hin was a liquid measure of about twelve pints; one sixth would be two pints or one quart of water per day. For the kind of climate in which Ezekiel was living, this was a scant amount of water. Again, the emphasis was the element of scarcity; God would make sure that Ezekiel would not die of thirst during the three hundred ninety-day period.

Finally, he was told in what manner he was to eat it in verse 12: you shall eat it as barley cakes. In other words, he was to bake bread from these mixed grains that will be similar to simple barley cakes. He was to bake it in the sight of the people. But what was he to use as fuel for fire? He was told to use dried dung that comes out of a man. The dung was obviously not in the bread; he was simply being told to use human dung as fuel for the fire with which to bake the bread. Human dung was considered ceremonially unclean, according to Deuteronomy 23:12–14.

2. The Application—Ezekiel 4:13–17

First was the application to Ezekiel personally, in verse 13: And Jehovah said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations whither I will drive them.

What Ezekiel was asked to do here, eat his bread unclean, the Jewish people will have to do: eat their bread unclean. As to the place, it will be among the nations whither I will drive them, that is, during the exile. During the exile, they will eat unclean bread. One example of this being fulfilled is in Hosea 9:3.

But being told to use human dung to cook his food caused Ezekiel to protest in verse 14: Then said I, Ah Lord Jehovah! behold, my soul has not been polluted; for from my youth up even till now have I not eaten of that which dies of itself, or is torn of beasts; neither came there abominable flesh into my mouth.

Ezekiel pointed out that he has never defiled himself in disobedience to the Mosaic Law in certain facets. First, he never ate that which died of itself because that would violate Leviticus 7:24; 22:8 and Deuteronomy 14:21. Secondly, Ezekiel has never eaten that which was killed by wild animals because this would violate Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 7:24; and 22:8. Thirdly, he has never eaten abominable flesh, meaning sacrificial meat that is more than three days old because this would violate Leviticus 7:18 and 19:7.

Was God telling Ezekiel to do something that would violate the Mosaic Law? Actually, using human dung as fuel to cook was never specifically forbidden by the Law of Moses. However, human dung was reckoned as unclean, and therefore, by extension, cooking with it was looked upon as wrong. But it was not really wrong to cook with it insofar as the Law of Moses was concerned, so Ezekiel was not told to do something that would contradict the Law of Moses.

Nevertheless, Ezekiel personally felt that he would be violating it, so God made a gracious provision for him in verse 15: Then he said unto me, See, I have given you cow’s dung for man’s dung, and you shall prepare your bread thereon.

God said that in place of human dung, Ezekiel could use cow’s dung as fuel in order to bake the grain into bread, which he was to eat. In fact, cow’s dung is still used as fuel in the Middle East to this day.

Finally, God gave the application of that third sign, the sign of the defiled bread in verses 16–17. There is to be a famine in Jerusalem in verse 16: Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with fearfulness; and they shall drink water by measure, and in dismay.

The expression “to break the staff” symbolizes famine (Lev. 26:26). The bread they will have to eat in Jerusalem will be measured out by weight. Furthermore, they will eat this meager ration with fearfulness. The same thing will be true with water; they will have to drink water by measure in dismay, realizing the water supply was getting less and less. Ezekiel, for three hundred ninety days, was to eat a limited amount of bread and drink a limited amount of water to visibly symbolize what was going to happen to the people in Jerusalem during that final siege in 586 b.c.

God then gives the reason and the result in verse 17: that they may want bread and water, and be dismayed one with another, and pine away in their iniquity.

God will bring this famine for this purpose in fulfillment of the prophecy of Leviticus 26:39.

The point of the third symbolic act was to show what will happen during the siege itself: it will be devastated by famine.

D. The Sign of the Shaved Head—Ezekiel 5:1–4

The sword Ezekiel is instructed to take is used in two ways in verses 1–2: And you, son of man, take you a sharp sword; as a barber’s razor shall you take it unto you, and shall cause it to pass upon your head and upon your beard: then take you balances to weigh, and divide the hair. A third part shall you burn in the fire in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled; and you shall take a third part, and smite with the sword round about it; and a third part you shall scatter to the wind, and I will draw out a sword after them.

In verse 1a, the first use of the sword was as a barber’s razor, for shaving his head and his beard. In those days, the shaving of the head and beard was for two purposes: first, as a sign of mourning (Is. 15:2; 22:12; Jer. 16:6; 48:37; Ezek. 27:31; Amos 8:10); secondly, as a sign of disgrace (2 Sam. 10:4; Ezek. 7:18). The hair of the priest was a mark of his consecration; these actions were forbidden to a functioning priest (Lev. 19:27; 21:5). If Ezekiel were a functioning priest, he would be forbidden to do this. But Ezekiel was in captivity and was not functioning or working as a priest, so there was nothing sinful in the actions he is asked to perform.

In verses 1b–2, after shaving his head and face, Ezekiel was to weigh, and divide the hair into equal three parts. The first part he was to burn in the fire in the midst of the city, which was portrayed on the clay tablet. When the days of the siege were fulfilled, he was to take a third part and burn it on the tile. The second part he was to smite with the sword; this was the second use of the sword: as a symbolic weapon of war for smiting. This sword represents Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. The third part he was to scatter to the wind; this symbolized the Exile. The expression I will draw a sword after them emphasized that there would be persecution in the Exile.

However, God made a promise that a surviving remnant would be left in verse 3: And you shall take thereof a few in number, and bind them in your skirts.

From the last part, which was scattered into exile, Ezekiel is to take a few strands of the hair and bind them in his skirts. This refers to the lower extremities of the long tunic that they wore in those days that could be gathered up and tucked into the belt to form a pouch for carrying things (Hag. 2:12). Into this pouch some of the hair of the last part was to be placed. This represents a surviving remnant, not the Believing Remnant.

But eventually, the fall of the surviving remnant would come in verse 4: And of these again shall you take, and cast them into the midst of the fire, and burn them in the fire; therefrom shall a fire come forth into all the house of Israel.

Ezekiel was to take the last few strands of hair from third part representing those in exile, and cast them into the midst of the fire and burn them in the fire. The point is that those who escape alive from Jerusalem will still perish, if not within it, then outside of it. The effect of the fall of Jerusalem will be felt not only by those in Jerusalem, but also by those already in exile as well.

The point of the fourth symbolic act is to show what will happen to the inhabitants of Jerusalem when is falls.

II. THE INTERPRETATION OF THE SYMBOLIC ACTIONS—EZEKIEL 5:5–17

In this section, Ezekiel gives the interpretation of the first symbolic act in general and the fourth symbolic act in particular.

A. The Judgment on Jerusalem—Ezekiel 5:5–12

First, God presents the causes of the judgment in verses 5–6: Thus says the Lord Jehovah: This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the midst of the nations, and countries are round about her. And she has rebelled against mine ordinances in doing wickedness more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries that are round about her; for they have rejected mine ordinances, and as for my statutes, they have not walked in them.

In verse 5, the position of Jerusalem was that of being set in the midst of the nations. The term in the midst in Hebrew means “navel.” Theologically, Jerusalem was considered by God to be the navel of the earth. As far as God was concerned, Jerusalem was the center while the other nations were revolving around her. Her purpose, her calling, was to testify concerning the righteousness of God. But in verse 6, she was guilty of sin. The sin of Jerusalem was that she rebelled against the ordinances of God and did wickedness, even more wickedness than the surrounding nations. She deliberately disobeyed the statutes of God more than the other countries. As a result, Israel was guilty of rejecting God’s laws, God’s statutes and God’s ordinances. These are all various terms used for the Mosaic Law (Ex. 24:3; Lev. 19:37; Deut. 4:1–5:1; 6:1–2). The point is that Israel was guilty of violating the Law of Moses.

Then God spelled out the basis of the judgment in verse 7: Therefore thus says the Lord Jehovah: Because ye are turbulent more than the nations that are round about you, and have not walked in my statutes, neither have kept mine ordinances, neither have done after the ordinances of the nations that are round about you.

Therefore, because Israel has proven to be turbulent rather than peaceful; because Jerusalem was more sinful than the other nations; because she had not kept God’s ordinances, laws, and commandments; because she was more guilty than the surrounding nations; because she was guilty of idolatry; because they could not even live in accordance with Gentile law, God was going to judge.

God then pointed out the uniqueness of this coming judgment in verses 8–9: therefore thus says the Lord Jehovah: Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations. And I will do in you that which I have not done, and whereunto I will not do any more the like, because of all your abominations.

The author of judgment was God Himself; in verse 8: Behold, I, even I, am against you. God Himself will be the executor of the judgments; although He will use the Babylonians as His instrument, it will be God who is in control. Furthermore, God will execute judgments in the midst of Israel in the sight of the nations. This is a common phrase in Ezekiel’s writing that he uses in various ways: Israel sinned in the sight of the nations; Israel will be punished in the sight of the nations; and positively, Israel will be restored in the sight of the nations. They will be judged in violation of the Mosaic Law, as was prophesied in Leviticus 26:14–39; Deuteronomy 8:11–20; and 28:1–68. The uniqueness itself is described in verse 9: And I will do in you that which I have not done. In other words, the kind of judgment they are about to suffer will be unparalleled because unparalleled sin requires unparalleled punishment.

The punishment is described in verse 10: Therefore the fathers shall eat the sons in the midst of you, and the sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments on you; and the whole remnant of you will I scatter unto all the winds.

Because of the tremendous famine predicted in the four signs, the parents will begin eating their own children. This was already prophesied by Moses in Leviticus 26:29 and Deuteronomy 28:53, and by Jeremiah in Jeremiah 19:9. The fulfillment came in Lamentations 4:10. Furthermore, there will be sons who will eat fathers, which is even worse. God will in this way execute judgment on them, and the surviving remnant will be sent into exile.

Finally, he predicts the reduction of the Jewish population in verses 11–12: Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord Jehovah, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things, and with all your abominations, therefore will I also diminish you; neither shall mine eye spare, and I also will have no pity. A third part of you shall die with the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the midst of you; and a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter unto all the winds, and will draw out a sword after them.

The cause is given in verse 11. Because they have perverted and polluted the Temple with their detestable things and with all their abominations, something Ezekiel detailed in chapter 8; by the same token, God will diminish them. This judgment is irrevocable; it is irreversible: neither shall mine eye spare, and I also will have no pity.

Finally, in verse 12, he spelled out the details of the judgment, in keeping with the sign of the shaved head. The first part, those who were burned in the fire, will die by pestilence and by famine; they will die of hunger and disease. The fulfillment is recorded in 2 Kings 25:3. The second part will fall by the sword; they will be killed in battle. The third part will be scattered to the four winds, and God will send a sword after them. Even the third part that escaped alive will suffer death during later persecutions in the Exile.

B. The Description of the Judgment—Ezekiel 5:13–17

These concluding verses give a more detailed description of the judgment. He begins by pointing out that the judgment on Jerusalem of verses 5–12 will be the fulfillment of God’s judgment in verse 13: Thus shall mine anger be accomplished, and I will cause my wrath toward them to rest, and I shall be comforted; and they shall know that I, Jehovah, have spoken in my zeal, when I have accomplished my wrath upon them.

The meaning is that once these things have happened, the wrath of God will be appeased. At that point, God will be comforted from His wrath; He will be comforted from the judgment that He sent, for God’s justice will be satisfied. Furthermore, the Jewish people will then know that Jehovah has spoken through Ezekiel, and his zeal was God’s zeal, God’s burning jealousy that brought about this decisive judgment against the City of Jerusalem.

Next, God deals with the reproach in verses 14–15: Moreover I will make you a desolation and a reproach among the nations that are round about you, in the sight of all that pass by. So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment, unto the nations that are round about you, when I shall execute judgments on you in anger and in wrath, and in wrathful rebukes (I, Jehovah, have spoken it).

In verse 14, the phrase Moreover I will make you a desolation and a reproach is a play on words in Hebrew that cannot be reproduced in English, but the point is that the observers, the nations round about Israel observing all this destruction, observing all of these judgments, will begin to reproach Israel, will begin to make fun of Israel. The fulfillment of this prophecy is in Lamentations 2:10, where Jeremiah describes what the reality of Jerusalem’s fall was like, once it came.

The result, in verse 15, will be that the people of Israel and of Jerusalem will become four things: a reproach and a taunt, an instruction [warning] and an astonishment, and this in the sight of the various nations. The fulfillment of this prophecy is in Lamentations 2:15–16. Again, the whole point of the four signs is that God has spoken in judgment. The judgment will be fulfilled. It will be recognized as such by the surrounding Gentile nations; as a result, they will come taunting the Jewish people. This was fulfilled in Ezekiel’s day, but it continues to be fulfilled to the present day.

The passage then returns to the theme of famine in verse 16: when I shall send upon them the evil arrows of famine, that are for destruction, which I will send to destroy you. And I will increase the famine upon you, and will break your staff of bread.

This is in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 32:23–24 and is described in terms of evil arrows. By means of these famines, a great part of them will be destroyed. In fact, one third are to die with the famine, followed by the pestilence. In addition to the famine they have suffered, famine is to be increased just as Jeremiah 15:2 predicted. Finally, I will break your staff of bread, a Hebrew idiom emphasizing famine in fulfillment of the prophecy by Moses in Leviticus 26:26.

The chapter ends by summarizing the method of destruction in verse 17: and I will send upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave you; and pestilence and blood shall pass through you; and I will bring the sword upon you: I, Jehovah, have spoken it.

All together, there will be five methods of destruction. First, famine; this means death by hunger and starvation. Secondly, by evil beasts. Normally, wild animals do not attack humans but, when they have trouble finding food, they will begin hunting man for food, and many will die by means of wild animals. The famine and evil beasts will cause many of them to be bereaved. Thirdly, by pestilence, which means “death by disease.” Fourthly, by blood, which means “death by a plague.” Fifth, God will “bring the sword upon them” and they will die in battle. All of this was symbolized by the four signs and is in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 32:23–25.

Ezekiel is an example of a prophet of God who was asked to do some strange things. But these strange things were always symbolic actions, prophetic pictures of what was to follow. What Ezekiel symbolically acted out was fulfilled in the course of Israel’s history much of it within the lifetime of Ezekiel himself. That is why, later in the book, even the elders of Israel who had initially rejected Ezekiel had to come to him in admission that he was a prophet indeed (Ezek. 8:1; 14:1; 20:1; 33:31–33).

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS BIBLE STUDY, DR. FRUCHTENBAUM RECOMMENDS:

MBS152, 154, 155, 156, 157 qnd 158.