Part I: Ezekiel's Call to a Prophetic Ministry
Chapters 2-3: Ezekiel's Commissioning, the Vision of the Scroll, the Prophet as Watchman, and the First Symbolic Act
Part II: Judgment of the Covenant People
Chapters 4-5: Symbolic Acts Relating to the Siege of Jerusalem

Lord God,
Sometimes we forget that, like the prophet Ezekiel, every professing Christian has a divinely appointed mission. Every Baptized Christian, anointed by the Holy Spirit, has a mission to profess the Gospel of salvation to the world. We begin with our families, with our friends and neighborhoods, and then wherever God calls us to share the message of Christ's gift of eternal salvation. The story of Ezekiel and the other prophets help us to understand that a divinely appointed mission will not always be easy. However, their stories also assure us if God has called us that He will guide us and give us what we need to succeed. Please send Your Holy Spirit, Lord, to guide us in our study of the ministry of Ezekiel, Your prophet to the covenant people in exile. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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The divine voice commanded the prophet as he lay and bade him rise. But he could in no way have risen if the Spirit of the Almighty had not entered into him, because by the grace of almighty God we can indeed try to perform good works but cannot carry them through unless he who commands us helps us.
Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, 1.9.2

Ezekiel's revelation of God in the vision of the fiery chariot-throne had seven theological implications for the young priest:

The ministry of a prophet of Yahweh is a vocation like no other, and Ezekiel's life will never be the same after his encounter with God.

Chapters 2:1-3:15 ~ Ezekiel's Commission and the Vision of the Scroll

The radiance of the encircling light was like the radiance of the bow in the clouds on rainy days. The sight was like the glory of Yahweh. I looked and fell to the ground, and I heard the voice of someone speaking to me.
Ezekiel 1:28

Ezekiel 2:1-15 ~ Yahweh Commissions Ezekiel and Presents a Scroll

1 He said, "Son of man, get to your feet; I will speak to you." 2 As he said these words the spirit came into me and put me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said, "Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been in revolt [transgressed] against me up to the present day. 4 Because they are stubborn and obstinate children, I am sending you to them, to say, Lord Yahweh says this.' 5 Whether they listen or not, this tribe of rebels will know there is a prophet among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or of what they say, though you find yourself surrounded with brambles and sitting on scorpions. Do not be afraid of their words or alarmed by their looks, for they are a tribe of rebels. 7 You are to deliver my words to them whether they listen or not, for they are a tribe of rebels. 8 But you, son of man, are to listen to what I say to you; do not be a rebel like that rebellious tribe. Open your mouth and eat what I am about to give you." 9 When I looked, there was a hand stretching out to me, holding a scroll. 10 He unrolled it in front of me; it was written on, front and back; on it was written "Lamentations, dirges and cries of grief." [...] = literal Hebrew, Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English, vol. III, page 1901.

The events in Chapters 1-7 take place in July of 593 BC. The "someone" speaking to Ezekiel in 1:28 is Yahweh who tells Ezekiel to get to his feet.

Question: For what two possible reasons does the Spirit of God intervene to raise the kneeling Ezekiel to his feet in verse 1? See Dt 10:8; Jer 35:19; Dan 1:5 Hebrew = "that they might stand before the king"; Rev 20:12.
Answer: It is possible, after his overwhelming experience of the Divine, that Ezekiel is physically unable to rise to a standing position. But it is necessary to stand before the Lord God to receive His instructions and judgments in the same way humans, after first kneeling or laying prostrate, rise to stand ready for service before earthly kings.

A similar episode took place when the prophet Daniel, a contemporary of Ezekiel serving in the royal court of the King of Babylon, falls to the ground in terror after a divine vision. God also raises Daniel to his feet as God reveals His Divine Plan (Dan 8:15-18). God's agents must be in possession of their faculties to receive and understand the divine word. Their rational state is in contrast to the loss of rational thought in the ecstasy of pagan prophets in which consciousness was obliterated (as in the priestesses receiving the oracles at Delphi).

The title "Son of man" is Yahweh's favorite title for Ezekiel and simply means a human being, emphasizing Ezekiel's mortal nature. The title also separates Ezekiel from the other "living creatures" that are present. God will call Ezekiel "Son of man" 92 times rather than using his name (a contrast to Amos in 7:8; 8:2 and Jeremiah in Jer 1:11; 24:3). Yahweh will use the same title for the prophet Daniel but only once in Daniel 8:17. Daniel is a contemporary of Ezekiel also in exile in Babylon, but he is in service to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar and separated from his countrymen in exile.

Question: What other prophet of God in the New Testament will use this same title to refer to himself? How does he use it? See Dan 7:13-14 and Mt 8:20; 9:6; and 26:64 compared with Dan 7:13.
Answer: "Son of man" is Jesus' favorite title for Himself. He uses it to point to His humanity but also to identify Himself as the Divine "Son of Man" prophesied in Daniel's vision in Daniel 7:13-14.

and I heard him speaking to me [speaking to himself].

The Hebrew, which uses a reflexive pronoun, is more accurately rendered "speaking to himself" (Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel, 1-20, page 62). The same phrase is found in Numbers 7:89 when Moses entered the Tent of Meeting: ...he heard the voice speaking to himself from above the mercy-seat on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two great winged creatures. He then spoke to him. Also see the same phrase in Ezekiel 43:6 when Ezekiel receives a vision of the future Temple and hears the voice of God. If we interpret this phrase with our knowledge of the nature of God as One God in Three Divine Persons, the phrase is understandable. There are times when the Most Holy Trinity speaks in His majesty to Himself, and His agents overhear the Divine word.

3 He said, "Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been in revolt against me up to the present day. 4 Because they are stubborn and obstinate children, I am sending you to them, to say, Lord Yahweh says this.'

Verses 3-8 contain God's divine commissioning speech and define Ezekiel's mission. His mission is to Israel, meaning the only part of Israel still occupying the Promised Land and that is the Israelites of Judah. Also, notice that there is no distinction between those still living in Judah and the exiles living in Babylon. However, in 3:11, God will define Ezekiel's audience more narrowly as the community in exile. "They and their ancestors," literally "their fathers," speaks of the history of sinful rebellion among the Israelites from the time of the Exodus (Dt 9:7, 24). God's accusation also highlights that sin is often bad behavior passed down the generations.

In the same way Yahweh warned Isaiah and Jeremiah, He warns Ezekiel not to be surprised or discouraged if the people reject his message and threaten him. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or of what they say, though you find yourself surrounded with brambles and sitting on scorpions. The opposition will surround him like stinging brambles and scorpions, but he is not to fear them, and he is to guard against becoming infected by their condition of rebellion. His mission is not to preach his words but to only tell the people the words Yahweh gives him. Ezekiel is to be completely receptive to the voice of God and then act on God's instructions without hesitation.

8 But you, son of man, are to listen to what I say to you; do not be a rebel like that rebellious tribe. Open your mouth and eat what I am about to give you." 9 When I looked, there was a hand stretching out to me, holding a scroll.

Yahweh warns Ezekiel not to be rebellious like his countrymen and women, and then God gives him his first command. The command to eat the scroll is a test of Ezekiel's obedience. Yahweh giving a prophet a scroll, ciphrah in Hebrew and sometimes badly translated into English as "book," is also a significant event in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. In Daniel 12:1 and 4a, God, speaking of the end times, tells Daniel:

10 He unrolled it in front of me; it was written on, front and back; on it was written "Lamentations, dirges and cries of grief."

What Ezekiel receives from the hand of Yahweh is probably a papyrus scroll.(1)

Question: What other sacred Biblical document had writing on both the front and back? See Ex 32:15.
Answer: The other important Biblical document that had writing on both the front and the back were the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Question: How is the scroll identified?

  1. It was a rolled-up scroll that God unrolled in front of him (2:10a).
  2. The scroll was full of writing on the front and back, implying a well-defined and complete message (2:10b).
  3. When Yahweh unrolled the scroll, Ezekiel noticed a disturbing text that he described in three words, each of which points to disaster: lamentations, dirges and cries of grief (2:10c).

The document Ezekiel receives was full of "lamentations, dirges and cries of grief," all expressions of mourning. The scroll is a covenant lawsuit. It lists the judgments against the covenant people for breaking the covenant God made with them at Mt. Sinai and bringing upon them all the covenant curse-judgments listed in Leviticus 26:14-46. Part of those judgments predicted: You will be powerless to stand up to your enemies; you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will swallow you up. Those of you who survive will pine away in their guilt in the countries of their enemies and, bearing the guilt of their ancestors too, will pine away like them (Lev 26:37b-39). Like the prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel serves as Yahweh's prosecuting attorney against a rebellious people who failed to keep their covenant oath of obedience to the commandments of Yahweh their God and must now suffer the consequences (Ex 24:3-8).

Question: What are the keywords that God uses in this passage, repeated with slight variation seven times? What is the significance of the repetition of these words?
Answer: The keywords are rebel/rebelled/rebellious. These words characterize the chief failure of the covenant people's relationship with Yahweh.

Ezekiel 3:1-11 ~ Yahweh Commands Ezekiel to Eat the Scroll
1 He then said, "Son of man, eat what you see; eat this scroll, then go and speak to the House of Israel." 2 I opened my mouth; he gave me the scroll to eat 3 and then said, "Son of man, feed on this scroll which I am giving you and eat your fill." So I ate it, and it tasted sweet as honey. 4 He then said, "Son of man, go to the House of Israel and tell them what I have said. 5 You are not being sent to a nation that speaks a difficult foreign language; you are being sent to the House of Israel. 6 Not to big nations that speak difficult foreign languages, and whose words you would not understand if I sent you to them, they would listen to you; 7 but the House of Israel will not listen to you because it will not listen to me. The whole House of Israel is defiant [hard-faced] and obstinate [tough-hearted]. 8 But now, I am making you as defiant as they are, and as obstinate as they are; 9 I am making your resolution as hard as a diamond, harder than flint. So do not be afraid of them, do not be overawed by them, for they are a tribe of rebels." 10 Then he said, "Son of man, take to heart everything I say to you, listen carefully, 11 then go to your exiled countrymen and talk to them. Say to them, Lord Yahweh says this,' whether they listen or not."

In his commissioning, Yahweh warns Ezekiel that his mission will result in a life of hardship and persecution. Yahweh delivers His message in the form of a scroll, which God commands him to eat in a test of obedience. In his mouth the scroll was sweet, which seems to suggest, despite the fact that the message was one of woe, that he found joy in being the messenger of God's word like Jeremiah: When your words came, I devoured them: your word was my delight and the joy of my heart; for I was called by your name, Yahweh, God Sabaoth (Jer 15:16).

Eating the scroll, either literally or only figuratively in the vision, signified thoroughly digesting its contents to the point that God's words and its message became part of Ezekiel body and spirit. Yahweh also put His words into Jeremiah's mouth at his commissioning: Then Yahweh stretched out his hand and touched my mouth, and Yahweh said to me: "There! I have put my words into your mouth" (Jer 1:9).

In the Book of Revelation, St. John has a similar experience. St. John sees a scroll sealed with seven seals, but only Jesus, the Lamb, can break the seals that keep it closed (Rev Chapters 6-8 and 20:12; 21:2). The opening of the seven seals brings Divine Judgment upon the earth and all its inhabitants with the seventh and last seal unleashing the destruction of the earth and the people without God's seal on their foreheads.

Question: What does the angel command John to do with the scroll the angel hands him in Revelation 10:8-11, and what happens to John compared to Ezekiel's experience?
Answer: John, like Ezekiel, must eat the scroll that also tastes sweet as honey; however, after eating it, it turned sour in his stomach.

In St. John's case, the scroll was sweet because it announced the Church's victory, but it was sour because it foretold her suffering (Rev 11:1-13).

Verses 4-11 are a second commissioning speech in which Yahweh further defines Ezekiel's mission and his target audience.

Question: In verses 4-7, how does God limit Ezekiel's mission and why does He tell Ezekiel his message he speaks will be understood but not necessarily willingly embraced?
Answer: He is to limit his message to Israelites/Judahites with whom he shares a common language.

7 but the House of Israel will not listen to you because it will not listen to me. The whole House of Israel is defiant [hard-faced] and obstinate [tough-hearted].

Their hard faces and their hard hearts express a moral fault that is both an exterior and interior condition. Their hard-hearted condition recalls the Egyptian Pharaoh's obstinacy in his failure to listen to Moses (Ex 7:3 and 13).

The second commissioning speech calls for preparation in 3:7-9:

  1. God warns His prophet that if the people reject Ezekiel, they are also rejecting God (3:7a).
  2. God assures Ezekiel that He will receive the emotional resources he needs for the challenge: 8 But now, I am making you as defiant as they are, and as obstinate as they are; 9 I am making your resolution as hard as a diamond, harder than flint. So do not be afraid of them, do not be overawed by them, for they are a tribe of rebels." Yahweh promises to give Ezekiel the strength he needs to fulfill his mission, giving him what his name means, "God strengthens."

God concludes Ezekiel's commissioning with a final speech with many of the same points He raised earlier and repeated in verses 10-11. However, God adds two additional points:

  1. The exiles are the focus of the prophet's message (3:11a).
  2. He is to announce Yahweh's message verbatim, and he is to be unaffected by their reaction (3:11b).

The eating of the scroll was significant for several reasons:

Ezekiel 3:12-15 ~ Ezekiel's Return to the Exiled Community in Preparation to Begin His Service
12 The spirit lifted me up, and behind me I heard a great vibrating sound [great earthquake], "Blessed be the glory of Yahweh in his dwelling-place!" 13 This was the sound of the living creatures' wings beating against each other, and the sound of the wheels beside them: a great vibrating sound. 14 The spirit lifted me up and took me, and I went, bitter and angry, and the hand of Yahweh lay heavy on me. 15 I came to Tel Abib, to the exiles beside the River Chebar where they were living, and there I stayed with them in a stupor for seven days.

The ruah/Spirit of God that propelled the chariot-throne (1:20) and then set Ezekiel on his feet (2:2), now picks him up and carries him to the settlement of the exiles. As the Spirit of God carries him away, he hears the rumbling of an earthquake that is the rising of the glory of God on the chariot-throne and the chanting of the living creatures declaring the glory of God.

14 The spirit lifted me up and took me, and I went, bitter and angry, and the hand of Yahweh lay heavy on me. 15 I came to Tel Abib, to the exiles beside the River Chebar where they were living, and there I stayed with them in a stupor for seven days.
The name Tel Abib translates literally "mount of spring produce" (Block, The Book of Ezekiel, page 135). Why was Ezekiel's emotional state "bitter and angry"? The glory of God weighed heavily on him, and perhaps Ezekiel wanted to resist the mission, but like Jeremiah (see Jer 20:7-9), he was compelled to fulfill the destiny God gave him. His experience left him so physically and emotionally drained that he was unable to move or speak for a week.

Ezekiel 3:16-21 ~ The Prophet's Mission as Watchman
16 After seven days the word of Yahweh was addressed to me as follows, 17 Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman for the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them from me. 18 If I say to someone wicked, "You will die," and you do not warn this person; if you do not speak to warn someone wicked to renounce evil and so save his life, it is the wicked person who will die for the guilt, but I shall hold you responsible for that death. 19 If, however, you do warn someone wicked who then fails to renounce wickedness and evil ways, the wicked person will die for the guilt, but you yourself will have saved your life. 20 When someone upright renounces uprightness to do evil and I set a trap for him, it is he who will die; since you failed to warn him, he will die for his guilt, and the uprightness he practiced will no longer be remembered; but I shall hold you responsible for his death. 21 If, however, you warn someone upright not to sin and this person does not sin, such a one will live, thanks to your warning, and you too will have saved your life.'
The seven days later is as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value. As we count, it was six days later.

17 Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman for the House of Israel.'
In verse 17, Yahweh defines the prophet's task as a "watchman" to warn the people of the danger threatening them. It was a watchman's duty to stand in a tower or another high point to watch for approaching danger and warn the people. God appointed His prophets as "watchmen" over Israel (Jer 6:17. Jeremiah was Jerusalem's "watchman" to warn the people of that their failure to repent was bringing the danger of the advancing Babylonian army.

Question: However, in Ezekiel's case, what is the "danger" they should fear?
Answer: Yahweh is the danger, and they should fear His divine judgment.

Question: In verses 17-21, what responsibility does God lay upon Ezekiel and what is Ezekiel's punishment if he does not fulfill his duty?
Answer: In verses 17-21, Yahweh lays upon Ezekiel the responsibility for preaching the judgment of doom against the nation of Israel. He can only escape divine judgment himself by a faithful declaration of God's message by warning the people of the penalty for their sins.

Question: In verses 18-21, God details Ezekiel's responsibilities toward what two endangered groups of exiles?
Answer: The doomed wicked and the righteous who are sliding into sin.

In Ezekiel's responsibility toward the doomed wicked in verses 18-19, Yahweh uses three verbal commands: Ezekiel must "warn," "speak to warn," to "save his life."
Question: God lists Ezekiel's responsibility to sinners in two steps in verses 18-19. If Ezekiel fails in his responsibility to the sinner, what consequence will Ezekiel face? If Ezekiel fulfills his responsibility to the sinner, what is the consequence?

  1. If Ezekiel fails to warn the sinner and the sinner forfeits his life because of his sins, Yahweh will hold Ezekiel responsible.
  2. However, if Ezekiel fulfills his duty to the sinner by warning him of the consequence of his sins, Ezekiel saves his life even if the sinner fails to repent and forfeits his life.

Question: In verses 20-21, God lists Ezekiel's responsibility toward the backsliding righteous in what three steps?

  1. If Ezekiel fails to warn the backslider and he dies in his sins, God will hold Ezekiel responsible for the person's death.
  2. If Ezekiel warns the backslider and calls him to repentance, he saves the backslider life and his own.
  3. If Ezekiel warns the backslider, and the person fails to repent and dies in his sins, God will not hold Ezekiel responsible.

Question: What about our ministerial priesthood, the "watchmen" over Jesus' Holy Church? Do they have the same responsibilities concerning teaching the evils of sin and warning the people of the consequences of divine judgment? Will they also be held responsible for their failures to "warn," "speak," and "save lives"?
Answer: Absolutely!

Ezekiel 3:22-27 ~ Yahweh Strikes Ezekiel with Silence (the first symbolic act)
22While I was there the hand of Yahweh came on me; he said, "Get up, go out into the valley, and there I shall speak to you." 23 I got up and went out into the valley; the glory of Yahweh was resting there, like the glory I had seen by the River Chebar, and I fell to the ground. 24 The spirit of Yahweh then entered me and put me on my feet and spoke to me. He said, "Go and shut yourself in your house. 25 Son of man, you are about to be tied and bound, and unable to mix with other people. 26 I am going to make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth; you will be dumb, and no longer able to reprove them, for they are a tribe of rebels. 27 When I speak to you, however, I shall open your mouth and then you will say to them, Lord Yahweh says this: Let anyone prepared to listen, listen; let anyone who refuses, refuse!' for they are a tribe of rebels.'"

God tells Ezekiel in an oracle to meet Him in the valley. For a second time Ezekiel as a vision of the glory of Yahweh. Both times God comes to him when he is alone and away from the other exiles. Like the first time, Ezekiel falls to the ground, and God's spirit pulls him up to his feet.
Yahweh tells Ezekiel that he is to shut himself away in his house. He is going to be "tied and bound," perhaps more figuratively than literally, and God warns Ezekiel that He will, at times, impose silence upon His prophet (3:26; also see 24:27 and 33:22).

Striking Ezekiel dumb was perhaps a warning for him not to speak his own words or ideas; he must only speak as God commands him. However, limiting his speech and interaction with the community could be because God knows the exiles will not listen to him and his seclusion will raise their curiosity and raise their interest in his symbolic acts. They will also begin to recognize that his symbolic acts are like those of the prophet Jeremiah, whose object lessons they witnessed for 24 years before their exile. And, 5 Whether they listen or not, this tribe of rebels will know there is a prophet among them (Ex 2:5).

At this same time in Jerusalem, "in the fifth month of the fourth year" of the reign of Zedekiah (July 593 BC), the false prophet Hananiah confronted Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of the priests and the people saying, "Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Israel, says this, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. In exactly two years' time I shall bring back all the vessels of the Temple of Yahweh which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from here and carried off to Babylon. And I shall also bring back Jeconiah* son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah and all the exiles of Judah who have gone to Babylon, Yahweh declares, for I shall break the yoke of the king of Babylon" (Jer 28:2-4). With this positive prophecy, the people will not listen to Ezekiel's prophecies of doom. *Also called Jehoiachin; he is the man Ezekiel considers the true Davidic king (2 Kng 23:8-17).

From this point forward, Ezekiel's mission is the driving force in his life. God still expects him to teach the coming destruction to the exiles, but he will do it from his silence through a series of symbolic acts. His speech will not return until news of the fall of Jerusalem reaches the exiles, and they know that his symbolic acts were from God. God will inform Ezekiel of the fall of Jerusalem in 24:2, but his speech isn't restored until 33:21-22, as God promised in 24:25-27.

Part II: Judgment of the Covenant People

Chapters 4-5: The Siege of Jerusalem Foretold in Ezekiel's Symbolic Acts

In Chapters 4-5, God orders Ezekiel to act out several symbolic acts that are object lessons foretelling the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that began in 588 BC:

*Septuagint translation.

Ezekiel 4:1-3 ~ The Object Lesson That is a Model of the Siege of Jerusalem
1 "For your part, son of man, take a brick [clay tile/tablet] and lay it in front of you; on it scratch a city, Jerusalem. 2 You are then to besiege it, trench round it, build earthworks, pitch camps and bring up battering-rams all round. 3 Then take an iron pan and place it as though it were an iron wall between you and the city. Then fix your gaze on it; it is being besieged and you are besieging it. This is a sign for the House of Israel."

It is five years (as we count) before the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that began in 588 BC. God instructs Ezekiel to continue to live out several prophetic acts, the second of which is a model of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem as a "sign" to the exiles (the first symbolic act was in 3:25-26). That the "sign" concerns Jerusalem is obvious from the plan of the city etched on the brick. The trench, earthworks, camps, and battering-rams represent the strategy of the Babylonians. The motionless prophet represents the inability of the people to defend themselves. The iron pan that makes an iron wall between the prophet and the brick that represents the city is symbolic of the barrier of sin that is between God and the people of Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 4:4-8 ~ The Object Lesson/Symbolic Act of Laying on the Left and Right Sides
4"Lie down on your left side and take the guilt of the House of Israel on yourself. You will bear their guilt for as many days as you lie on that side. 5 Allowing one day for every year of their guilt, I ordain that you bear it for three hundred and ninety days*; this is how you will bear the House of Israel's guilt. 6 And when you have finished doing this, you are to lie down again, on your right side, and bear the guilt of the House of Judah for forty days. I have set the length for you as one day for one year. 7 Then fix your gaze on the siege of Jerusalem, raise your bared arm and prophesy against her. 8 Look, I am going to tie you up and you will not be able to turn over from one side to the other until the period of your seclusion is over."
* The Greek Septuagint translation reads 190 days: 150 days for the sins of Israel and 40 days for the sins of Judah.

God commands Ezekiel to take the guilt of the House of Israel and Judah upon himself, as he lays on one side and then the other. Thus, Ezekiel symbolically bears the guilt of the people in keeping with the role of the priestly descendants of Aaron who, Yahweh said, are answerable for the guilt of the Sanctuary in Numbers 18:1. Perhaps he lays on one side facing towards what was the Northern Kingdom of Israel and then on the opposite side toward was is the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Notice that the sin-guilt of Israel is of a greater duration than that of Judah.

The Septuagint translation states that Ezekiel will lie on his left side for 150 days for Israel and 40 days for Israel, for a total of 190 days. In his commentary, St. Theodoret Bishop of Cry (c. 393-466), using the Septuagint translation, records that the numbers relate symbolically to the numbers in the judgment of the Great Flood (see Gen 7:17; 8:4 and 6).

If the dates are literal and not symbolic, Jewish scholars suggest the 390 years of Israel's guilt date from Israel's sin from the year the Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the reign of King Hoshea. The 40 years of Judah's sins include the 22 years for King Manasseh based on the statement in 2 Kings 21:3 and the years since, excluding the years of King Josiah since he was righteous (Seder Olam 26). The point of Ezekiel's symbolic act is that Jerusalem will not escape her doom (signified by the raising of his arm against Jerusalem), nor will the Israelites and Judahites escape divine judgment.

Ezekiel 4:9-17 ~ The Object Lesson/ Symbolic Act of the Bread
9 "Now take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt; put them all in the same pot and make them into bread for yourself. You are to eat it for as many days as you are lying on your side-three hundred and ninety days. 10 Of this food, you are to weigh out a daily portion of twenty shekels and eat it a little piece at a time. 11 And you are to ration the water you drink, a sixth of a hin, drinking that a little at a time. 12 You are to eat this in the form of a barley cake baked where they can see you, on human dung." 13 And Yahweh said, "This is how the Israelites will have to eat their defiled food, wherever I disperse them among the nations." 14 I then said, "Lord Yahweh, my soul is not defiled. From my childhood until now, I have never eaten an animal that has died a natural death or been savaged; no tainted meat has ever entered my mouth." 15 "Very well," he said, "I grant you cow-dung instead of human dung; you are to bake your bread on that." 16 He then said, "Son of man, I am going to cut off Jerusalem's food supply; in their extremity, the food they eat will be weighed out; to their horror, the water they drink will be rationed, 17 until there is no food or water left, and they fall into a stupor and waste away because of their guilt."

Yahweh next orders Ezekiel to eat unclean food in an unclean land. He is to ration his food and water in the same why the besieged citizens of Jerusalem will have to ration their food and water during the siege. He will take what was probably for the people of Jerusalem the last of their grain and make bread with the remnants. He will only allow himself 0.5 pounds of bread and 2 pints (1 liter) of water a day. When the people are starving within the city walls, with all the animals slaughtered for food, they cannot go outside the walls to gather any animal dung for fuel. Therefore, all they have for fuel is human dung to cook their food, and the lack of food will mean that the people and priests will be compelled to violate their food restrictions and eat impure food. In the Middle East, it is still common to use dried animal dung for fuel. God tells Ezekiel this is the way the besieged citizens and those sent into exile will have to eat and drink.

Question: In verse 14, what protest does Ezekiel raise against Yahweh's instructions and what concession does God allow? See Ex 22:30; Lev Chapters 7 and 10-11; 17:15; Num Chapter 18; Dt 14:3-21.
Answer: As a chief priest who stands in the image of redeemed man before God, Ezekiel has lived in a state of ritual purity all his life. He protests that he cannot use human dung for fuel because he would become ritually defiled. God allows him to use animal dung instead.

The judgment against Jerusalem in 4:16-17 recalls Yahweh's warning of the covenant judgments for covenant disobedience listed in Leviticus 26:26 and 39:

It is Ezekiel's mission to remind the exiles that the fulfillment all the covenant judgments for the failures in obedience and loyalty to the God of Israel that their ancestors agreed to in the ratification of the Sinai Covenant are now taking place in their generation.

Ezekiel 5:1-4 ~ The Symbolic Act of the Shaved Head and Beard
1 "Son of man, take a sharp sword, use it like a barber's razor and run it over your head and beard. Then take scales and divide the hair you have cut off. 2 Burn one-third inside the city, while the days of the siege are working themselves out. Then take another third and chop it up with the sword all round the city. The last third you are to scatter to the wind, while I unsheathe the sword behind them. 3 Also take a few hairs and tie them up in the folds of your cloak; 4 and of these again take a few, and throw them on the fire and burn them. From them fire will come on the whole House of Israel."

Yahweh commands Ezekiel execute six symbolic acts of judgment on the model of Jerusalem:

Yahweh will give His explanation the symbolic acts in 5:9-12.

Ezekiel 5:5-8 ~ Yahweh Pronounces His Judgment Against Jerusalem
5"The Lord Yahweh says this, This is Jerusalem, which I have placed in the middle of the nations, surrounded with foreign countries. 6 She has rebelled more perversely against my observances than the nations have, and against my laws than the surrounding countries have; for they have rejected my observances and not kept my laws." 7 "Therefore, the Lord Yahweh says this, Because your disorders are worse than those of the nations round you, since you do not keep my laws or respect my observances, and since you do not respect even the observances of the surrounding nations, 8 very well, the Lord Yahweh says this: I, too, am against you and shall execute my judgements on you for the nations to see.

Yahweh pronounces that the holy city of Jerusalem, established as a "light" to the pagan nations, has behaved more sinfully than her pagan neighbors. Since Jerusalem refused to set the example of a righteous people for the pagan nations who are her neighbors, God will make her an example of His wrathful judgment.

Ezekiel 5:9-17 ~ The Meaning of the Symbolic Acts
9 Because of all your loathsome practices I shall do such things as I have never done before, nor shall ever do again. 10 Those of you who are parents will eat their children, and children will eat their parents. I shall execute judgement on you and disperse what remains of you to the winds. 11 For as I live, declares Lord Yahweh, as sure as you have defiled my sanctuary with all your horrors and all your loathsome practices, so I too shall reject you without a glance of pity, I shall not spare you. 12 A third of your citizens will die of plague or starve to death inside you; a third will fall by the sword round you; and a third I shall scatter to the winds, unsheathing the sword behind them. 13 I shall sate my anger and bring my fury to rest on them until I am avenged; and when I have sated my fury on them, then they will know that I, Yahweh, spoke out of jealousy for you. 14 Yes, I shall reduce you to a ruin, an object of derision to the surrounding nations, in the eyes of all who pass by. 15 You will be an object of derision and insults, an example, an object of amazement to the surrounding nations, when I execute judgement on you in furious anger and furious punishments. I, Yahweh, have spoken. 16 On them I shall send the deadly arrows of famine, which will destroy you-for I shall send them to destroy you; then I shall make the famine worse and cut off your food supply. 17 I shall send famine and wild animals on you to rob you of your children; plague and bloodshed will sweep through you, and I shall bring the sword down on you. I, Yahweh, have spoken.'"

The meaning of the symbolic acts in verses 1-4:

The sharp sword symbolizes the weapons of the Babylonians. The one-third of the burned hair represents those who die when fire destroys the city. The second one-third struck with the sword symbolizes those killed trying to escape the city. Ezekiel scatters the final one-third of the hair to symbolize those who escape only to be pursued and captured by the Babylonians. Some of the hair is burned again to symbolize the loss of those taken into exile who never return, and the few saved hairs in his cloak represent the remnant saved by the grace of God. Left out is the explanation of the saved few hairs that are the faithful remnant in exile and the few hairs that represent those who will never return from exile.

This passage is the pronouncement of the judgment of Yahweh's covenant lawsuit against Israel for sins against Yahweh and His covenant. Yahweh enacts the covenant curses of Leviticus Chapter 26 and Deuteronomy 28:

  1. The prophecy of cannibalism in Leviticus 26:29 and Deuteronomy 28:53 (5:10a).
  2. The prophecy of scattering the people among the pagan nations in Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 28:64 (5:10b).
  3. The prophecy of plague and famine in Leviticus 26:25-26 and Deuteronomy 28:21, 59-61 (5:16-17a).
  4. The prophecy of war and destruction in Leviticus 26:33b and Deuteronomy 28:49-52 (5:17b).

But the curse judgments of Leviticus 26 end in a promise of God's continuing love and a future restoration: "Yet, in spite of all this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I shall not so utterly reject or detest them as to destroy them completely and break my covenant with them; for I am Yahweh their God. For their sake I shall remember the covenant I made with those first generations that I brought out of Egypt while other nations watched, so that I should be their God, I, Yahweh" (Lev 26:44-45).

1 Papyrus scrolls were often written on both sides, but animal skin scrolls usually only had writing on one side until improvements in the quality of the scrolls from animal skins in the 1st century AD (Block, The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 1-24, page 124).

Questions for discussion or reflection:
There are several descriptions of the reactions of people in the Bible who God calls to missions of divine service. Compare the reactions of Moses (Ex 3:11-12; 4:10-17), Gideon (Judg 6:11-12, 14-17), Samuel (1 Sam 3:1, 3-19), Isaiah (Is 6:1-9), Jeremiah (Jer 1:4-10), and the Virgin Mary (Lk 1:26-38) to their divine calling? How are their reactions alike and how are they different for these agents of God?

  1. Which two did God call when they were still children?
  2. Which two offered excuses for why they couldn't accept their calling?
  3. Which two asked for a sign?
  4. Which two had the courage and faith in God to speak up immediately, answering "Yes" to God's call?

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