Ezekiel 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Ezekiel 4:1 to Ezekiel 5:4. Symbolical actions representing the siege and capture of Jerusalem, and the fate of the inhabitants—their slaughter around the city and dispersion among the nations

(1) Ch. Ezekiel 4:1-3. Symbol of the siege of Jerusalem.

(2) Ch. Ezekiel 4:4-8. Symbol of the people’s bearing their iniquity in the siege and exile.

(3) Ch. Ezekiel 4:9-17. Symbol of scarcity during the siege, and pollution among the nations.

(4) Ch. Ezekiel 5:1-4. Symbol of the slaughter of the inhabitants around the city on its capture, and their dispersion over the world.

The following symbols seem as much designed for the prophet himself as for the people. He is commanded of God to perform them. They represent the thoughts which under the inspiration of God filled his mind at this time, regarding the fate of the city and the state. His thoughts as well as those of the captives around him are occupied with Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is almost Israel. Being far from it and from its inhabitants his imagination is fertile in devising means to bring it before him. Sometimes he portrays a picture of it on a brick, and sometimes he is carried by a lock of his head through the air and set down in the midst of it, in order to behold its iniquities (ch. Ezekiel 8:1). Though some of the symbols here might have been actually represented, others could not, such as lying on his side immoveable for many days (Ezekiel 4:4-8), and probably none of them were actually performed. The prophet no more drew a sketch of Jerusalem upon a brick than he was carried by the hair of his head from the Chebar to Palestine. At the same time there is more than mere literary artifice. The symbols stood actually before his imagination, and the narration of them to the people would convey the same instruction as the actual representation of them (Ezekiel 4:3, cf. ch. Ezekiel 11:25). The three symbolical actions (ch. 4) must go on simultaneously, viz. the siege, the lying on his side or bearing iniquity, and eating bread by measure and in pollution. For the three are the same thing under different aspects; first the actual siege, then the meaning of this, God’s judgment for sin, and finally some of the ways in which this judgment is felt, straitness of food and water, and dispersion and defilement among the nations.

Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even Jerusalem:
1. take thee a tile] or, brick. The brick would be such as those found in the ruins of the cities of Mesopotamia, covered with figures and inscriptions, engraved on them when still moist. Libraries of such bricks have been found by explorers in this region, and deciphered. For the city read a city.

Ch. Ezekiel 4:1-3. Symbolical siege of Jerusalem

The prophet is commanded to take a brick (it is to be supposed still soft) and portray on it a city, even Jerusalem. Around the city he is to draw representations of siege operations, towers, a mound, camps and battering-rams. Between him and the city he is to set an iron plate to represent an iron wall. The determination of the besiegers is shewn by his attitude, he sets his face against the city. All this is symbol of a hard siege, carried on with great determination and apparatus against a lofty city.

And lay siege against it, and build a fort against it, and cast a mount against it; set the camp also against it, and set battering rams against it round about.
2. a fort against it] The word is always used in the sing., though sometimes rightly rendered forts (2 Kings 25:1), as the term is the name of a class of offensive siege works. The work was probably a species of tower, of which a number might be erected “round about” the walls (2 Kings 25:1), and was used as a station for archers, or to discharge projectiles from (cf. LXX. ch. Ezekiel 17:17). Towers of this kind, manned by archers are seen on the Assyrian bas-reliefs. Layard, Nin. and Bab. p. 149.

cast a mount] The “mount” or mound was an embankment raised till the besiegers standing on it were on a level with the top of the wall and able to command the streets of the city, cf. Lamentations 4:18. See Isaiah 37:33; Jeremiah 6:6; Jeremiah 32:24.

set the camp] set camps, detachments of soldiery.

battering rams] These were beams of wood with a head of iron, suspended by chains or ropes from a cross plank, and swung with great force by a number of men against the walls to batter them down. The term “round about” indicates that they were applied to different parts of the wall, perhaps where it might be thought weakest. It is not probable that the siege works were also engraved upon the brick. The latter rather by its elevation above the ground represented the city, and the siege works would be upon the ground, if we are to suppose them anywhere. But as the whole is a creation of the imagination it may be doubtful if the prophet was so precise or consistent as to put to himself the question where the siege works were placed.

Moreover take thou unto thee an iron pan, and set it for a wall of iron between thee and the city: and set thy face against it, and it shall be besieged, and thou shalt lay siege against it. This shall be a sign to the house of Israel.
3. an iron pan] As marg. plate, i.e. griddle on which cakes were fired (Leviticus 2:5). This common article the prophet is to set up between him and the city to represent an iron wall. As the plate is said to be an iron wall between him and the city it is most natural to interpret it of the powerful fortifications of Jerusalem (Ew.). It might, however, be a symbol of the implacable and iron severity of the siege, which itself but shews the inexorable grasp which the judgment of God has taken of the city. The word it in the end of the verse refers to the city; and the prophet plays the rôle of besieger.

All this is a sign to the house of Israel of what shall come to pass. Comp. ch. Ezekiel 12:11.

Lie thou also upon thy left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon it thou shalt bear their iniquity.
4. lay the iniquity … upon it] The meaning seems to be that as when one lies on his side it bears his weight, so this laying of the prophet’s weight upon his side is a symbol of the weight of punishment which shall be laid on Israel for its iniquity. Others propose to alter the pointing and read: and I will lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon thee. The alteration is unnecessary.

thou shalt bear their iniquity] To “bear iniquity” is a standing expression meaning to bear the punishment of iniquity. Possibly the word actually means “punishment of iniquity” in such phrases. The prophet does not bear the iniquity of Israel instead of Israel, as the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, his act is entirely symbolical, representing how Israel shall bear its iniquity.

4–6. Symbol of the people’s bearing their iniquity

In the former symbol the prophet carried on the siege, representing the besiegers; here he changes his part and represents the besieged. This symbol is shewn contemporaneously with the former, of which it is but the inner side. He is commanded to lie first on his left side for a great number of days; thus he bears the iniquity of the Northern Kingdom. To bear the iniquity means to endure the punishment due to it. When the prophet is said to bear the iniquity of Israel, the meaning is that in his action he is a sign or symbol of the house of Israel bearing its iniquity. Lying on his side, held down as with cords (Ezekiel 4:8) and unable to turn he represents Israel pressed down and held in the grasp of the punishment of its iniquity. The left side represents the Kingdom of Israel, which lay to the left or north. The number of days during which the prophet lies on his side corresponds to the number of years during which Israel shall be bound under the weight of its iniquity (Ezekiel 4:5). Secondly, having finished the days for the Northern Kingdom the prophet has to lie on his right side forty days to represent Judah also bearing its iniquity for forty years. The right side is suitable to Judah, which lay on the south or right. The prophet being unable to lie on both sides at once has to lie first on one and then on the other. It is obvious, however, that the symbolism here is not quite exact. Israel and Judah bear the penalty of their iniquity for part of the time simultaneously. The period of bearing iniquity ends for both at the same moment, when both are restored together as the prophet hopes. Consequently Judah’s forty years are concurrent with the last forty years of Israel’s chastisement. The whole period is not 390 + 40 = 430, but 390 in all for Israel and the last 40 of that period for Judah. See on Ezekiel 4:6.

For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.
5. Read with R.V., for I have appointed the years of their iniquity to be unto thee a number of days, even 390 days. The number of years during which the people shall bear their iniquity is symbolized by the number of days during which Ezekiel lies on his side, as is said explicitly in Ezekiel 4:6 “a day for a year.”

And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year.
6. In Ezekiel 4:5 the number of days for Israel is stated to be 390, and in Ezekiel 4:6 the number for Judah 40. The number 390 creates a difficulty. Several things have to be borne in mind. 1. To bear iniquity means to bear the penalty of it. The period of bearing iniquity, therefore, does not refer to the time of sinning but to the time of being punished for sin. Consequently any allusion to the period of the duration of the Northern Kingdom is excluded. 2. The representation in this prophet, as in all the prophets, is that the overthrow of the state is due to the sin of the people, and this overthrow with the continued state of the Exile and its hardships is the punishment of the people’s sin. To be subdued by the heathen and driven into exile is for the people to have to bear their iniquity. Hence restoration is impossible until the iniquity of the people is paid off, or atoned in suffering (Isaiah 40:2). Israel’s bearing of iniquity comes to an end with the Restoration: “Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity pardoned.” 3. It is the view of all the prophets, Ezekiel included, that the Restoration will embrace all the existing captives both of the North and South, every one called by Jehovah’s name (Isaiah 43:6-7; cf. Isaiah 11:12 seq.; Jeremiah 3:12; Jeremiah 3:18; Ezekiel 37:16 seq. &c.). And this restoration is final. 4. It follows from all this that the periods during which Israel and Judah bear their iniquity terminate simultaneously. Israel bears iniquity longer than Judah because it began to bear earlier. It is evident (cf. Ezekiel 4:9) that the whole period of bearing iniquity in exile is 390 years, not 390 + 40 or 430, but 350 + 40, the 40 years of Judah running parallel to the last 40 of Israel. The period of 40 years for Judah’s exile is confirmed by ch. Ezekiel 29:11-14, where it is said that Egypt shall be carried into captivity 40 years by Nebuchadnezzar, and at the end of that period restored, though not to its former greatness. Forty years is the period of Chaldean supremacy; at the end of that period Babylon shall fall, a new world arise, and the captive nations shall be restored. Now the prophet cannot possibly have supposed that Israel went into exile 350 years before Judah. From the fall of Samaria (722) to the destruction of Jerusalem (586) is only 136 years. In Ezekiel 4:5 LXX. reads 190 (so Ezekiel 4:9); in Ezekiel 4:4 the reading is 150, which probably is an addition (Field’s Hex.). The number 190 is probably the original one. It is not quite certain from what point the prophet computed, whether from the fall of Samaria (722), which is most natural, or from the deportation of the Northern tribes by Tiglath Pileser twelve years earlier; as he spoke also before the fall of Jerusalem even this point may be somewhat indefinite. Most probably he used general and round numbers, computing the time which Israel had already passed in captivity at 150 years, to which, if the 40 years still to be undergone in common with Judah be added, the whole period is 190 years.

Ezekiel 4:7-8 recapitulate Ezekiel 4:1-6 : Ezekiel 4:7, Ezekiel 4:1-3, and Ezekiel 4:8, Ezekiel 4:4-6. Ezekiel 4:1-6 form one passage describing first the siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3), and secondly the rigours of the siege, which are prolonged into exile (Ezekiel 4:4-6). While enduring these hardships in siege and exile the people are bearing their iniquity. The apparent incongruity of the prophet’s playing two rôles, that of besieger (Ezekiel 4:1-3), and that of being besieged (Ezekiel 4:4-6), could hardly be avoided if both things were to be represented.

Therefore thou shalt set thy face toward the siege of Jerusalem, and thine arm shall be uncovered, and thou shalt prophesy against it.
7. Therefore thou shalt set] With R.V., and thou shalt set … with thine arm uncovered. In this verse the prophet resumes Ezekiel 4:1-3, representing the besiegers; he sets his face towards the siege, presses it steadily and with determination; his arm is bare—the instrument with which he works unentangled and effective (Isaiah 52:10); and he prophesies against the city, for all that is done to Jerusalem is but the irresistible word of the Lord against it taking effect.

And, behold, I will lay bands upon thee, and thou shalt not turn thee from one side to another, till thou hast ended the days of thy siege.
8. from one side to another] lit. from thy side to thy side. Here the prophet represents those pressed by the rigours of the siege, as in Ezekiel 4:4-6. The “days of thy siege” most naturally means the days of thy suffering siege (ch. Ezekiel 5:2).

Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof.
9. and fitches] So Vulg. viciam, vetches. Others spelt, as marg. and R.V. Bread was usually made of wheat, the addition of the other coarser materials and their mixture indicate the straits to which men will be reduced in the siege and perhaps after the fall of the city; cf. Lamentations 5:6; Lamentations 5:10, “We gave the hand to the Egyptians and to the Assyrians to be satisfied with bread … Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.” It is not certain that a mixture of various kinds of grain was regarded as a thing unclean, though the Law forbade sowing a field with divers sorts of seed, Leviticus 19:19; cf. Deuteronomy 22:9.

three hundred and ninety] Probably 190 should be read as in Ezekiel 4:5. The language here shews that the 190 (or, 390) was the whole number, and that the 40 for Judah were not additional but included.

9–17. Symbol of scarcity during the siege and pollution in the dispersion from having to eat unclean things among the Gentiles

The passage continues Ezekiel 4:8. The prophet is commanded (while lying immovably on his side in siege) to take of all kinds of grain, coarse as well as fine, of everything that will still hunger, and cast them into one vessel. These are to be baked into cakes and fired with hot ashes of men’s dung, though on the prophet’s entreaty a relaxation of this repulsive condition is granted and he is allowed to substitute the dung of cows. These cakes are to be eaten sparingly in small quantity from time to time, and water drunk with them sparingly. And this use of the cakes so prepared is to continue all the time that the prophet lies on his side. These actions symbolize first, great scarcity and straitness during the siege (Ezekiel 4:16-17); and secondly, pollution from eating unclean things in the exile among the nations (Ezekiel 4:13).

And thy meat which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it.
10. twenty shekels a day] Twenty shekels might be eight or nine ounces. In this country two pounds of bread is held an ordinary allowance.

Thou shalt drink also water by measure, the sixth part of an hin: from time to time shalt thou drink.
11. sixth part of a hin] The hin was rather less than a gallon, and the sixth part under a quart. Both the bread and water were to be consumed from time to time, always in unsatisfying quantities.

And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight.
12. It was customary in the East to use the dung of animals when perfectly dried as fuel. The hot ashes remaining from it are perfectly clean, and retaining their glow for a considerable time were used for firing cakes upon or under. See Wetzstein in Del. Job, p. 261 (Trans. i. p. 377). Whether the Hebrews would have considered such fuel unclean is not certain (cf. Leviticus 5:3; Leviticus 7:21; Deuteronomy 23:13); the material for firing which the prophet is commanded to use would certainly be unclean (Deuteronomy 23:13) as well as loathsome. The command is explained in Ezekiel 4:13.

And the LORD said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, whither I will drive them.
13. eat their defiled bread] Rather: eat their bread unclean. This is the meaning of the symbol: the food which the people shall eat among the nations will be unclean. In a pathetic passage of Hosea it is said: “they shall not dwell in the Lord’s land; but Ephraim shall eat unclean food in Assyria. They shall not pour out wine offerings to the Lord, neither shall their sacrifices be pleasing unto him; their bread shall be unto them as the bread of mourners, all that eat thereof shall be polluted; for their bread shall be for their appetite; it shall not come into the house of the Lord” (ch. Ezekiel 9:3-4 R.V. marg.). A foreign land was in itself unclean (Amos 7:17), no presence of Jehovah sanctified it; all food eaten in it was also common for it was not hallowed by part of it being brought into the house of the Lord and offered to him. Food eaten among the heathen was as the bread of mourners in Israel, all who partook of it were polluted. But as the words of the prophet suggest (Ezekiel 4:14) in addition to this general uncleanness the people were forced in their straits or induced to eat many things actually prohibited by the Law, such as that which died of itself or was torn by wild beasts (ch. Ezekiel 44:31; Leviticus 17:15; Deuteronomy 14:21. Comp. Isaiah 65:4). And it is natural that in the sore famine during the siege such unclean food was eaten, as indeed more terrible practices prevailed (ch. Ezekiel 5:10). Ezekiel 4:13 appears in a shorter form in LXX., but there is no reason to regard the whole verse as a gloss.

Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! behold, my soul hath not been polluted: for from my youth up even till now have I not eaten of that which dieth of itself, or is torn in pieces; neither came there abominable flesh into my mouth.
14. abominable flesh] This word “abomination” is applied to the sacrificial flesh kept over till the third day (Leviticus 7:18; Leviticus 19:7), and in Isaiah 65:4 broth of “abominations” is coupled with swine’s flesh. The meaning seems to be “carrion.” The word occurs only these four times.

Then he said unto me, Lo, I have given thee cow's dung for man's dung, and thou shalt prepare thy bread therewith.
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 care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment:
16. the staff of bread] i.e. the staff which bread is; a common figure, ch. Ezekiel 5:16; Leviticus 26:26; Isaiah 3:1; Psalm 105:16.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the symbolical actions of this chapter were not actually performed. They naturally passed through the mind of the prophet as described, but so far as others were concerned they were merely narrated. The truth expressed by the symbolical action was as plain when the action was merely described as it would have been had the action been performed and seen. It is evident that the actions referred to here could not have been performed because they are represented as being done simultaneously. It is while he presses the siege with arm uncovered that the prophet also lies on his side held down by bands, bearing the sin of the people (Ezekiel 4:5; Ezekiel 4:7-8), and it is while lying immoveable in this condition that he prepares cakes upon the coals and eats them (Ezekiel 4:8-9). The prophet’s symbols merely express an idea; it is only when supposed to be actually performed that inconsistencies appear.

The siege and the hardships of it prolonged into the exile—the people’s bearing their sin—are the two chief ideas of the chapter. These are of course contemporaneous with one another so far, but they are spoken of separately in Ezekiel 4:1-6, the siege in Ezekiel 4:1-3, and the hardships of it and the exile in Ezekiel 4:4-6. But from Ezekiel 4:7 onwards they are somewhat mixed together. Cornill reconstructs the chapter in a very drastic way with the view of keeping the two things, the siege and the exile, distinct throughout. He groups the verses as follows: first, bearing the sin of the people, i.e. the exile with its uncleanness, Ezekiel 4:4-6; Ezekiel 4:8 (7 is a gloss), 9, 12–5; and secondly, the siege with its scarcity, Ezekiel 4:1-3; Ezekiel 4:10-11; Ezekiel 4:16-17. This reconstruction of the text is too violent to have any probability. A different suggestion was made by Well. (Hist. p. 273, note), to the effect that in Ezekiel 4:9, 390 is the right reading (though erroneously transferred also to Ezekiel 4:5 for 190), and that the reference is exclusively to the siege, which the prophet calculated would last so long. Further, the prophet’s lying on his side and being bound with bands, Ezekiel 4:8, is a different thing from his lying on his side, Ezekiel 4:5. In Ezekiel 4:5 he represented the bondage of the exile, in Ezekiel 4:8 seq. the straitness of the siege. This view requires that Ezekiel 4:13, which interprets Ezekiel 4:8 seq. of eating unclean food in the dispersion, should be struck out as a gloss. The verse certainly appears in a shorter form in LXX., though there seems no ground for considering it wholly interpolated. And it is more natural that the repulsive symbol of Ezekiel 4:12 should refer to the fact that all food eaten in exile was unclean rather than to uncleanness due to scarcity of fuel during the siege. The introduction too of a literal number of 390 days among other numbers of days which are symbolical is scarcely probable.

16, 17. Explanation of the symbol of eating bread by measure (Ezekiel 4:10-11).

That they may want bread and water, and be astonied one with another, and consume away for their iniquity.
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bible Hub
Ezekiel 3
Top of Page
Top of Page