Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This chapter consists of three distinct but closely-connected prophecies, which together may be called the prophecy of the sword. The first, Ezekiel 21:2-7, re-states, in comparatively plain language, the enigmatical denunciation of the last verses of Ezekiel 20; the second, Ezekiel 21:8-17, substantially repeats and emphasises the first; while the third, Ezekiel 21:18-27, goes again over the same ground, with more of circumstance and detail, closing (Ezekiel 21:28-32) with a prophecy against the Ammonites.
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Son of man, set thy face toward Jerusalem, and drop thy word toward the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel,(2) Set thy face . . . drop thy word . . . prophesy.—These expressions, with the “say to the land” of Ezekiel 21:3, connect this with 20:46, 47; but there they were followed by figurative terms, while here we have plainly “Jerusalem,” “the holy places,” and “the land of Israel.”
And say to the land of Israel, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of his sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked.(3, 4) The righteous and the wicked.—This explains the green tree and the dry of Ezekiel 20:47; and “all flesh” of Ezekiel 21:4-5, corresponds to “all faces” of the same. These expressions are meant to show the universality of the approaching desolation. The actual separation in God’s sight between the righteous and the wicked has already been plainly set forth in 9:4-6. But still in this, as in all national judgments, the innocent must of necessity be involved in the same temporal sufferings with the guilty. The general terms of this prophecy are to be limited by what is elsewhere said of the mercy which shall be shown to a remnant.
That all flesh may know that I the LORD have drawn forth my sword out of his sheath: it shall not return any more.(5) It shall not return any more—i.e., until it has fully accomplished its purpose. Other judgments upon Israel had been arrested in mercy—the sword had been returned to the scabbard while its work was still incomplete. This will go on to the end.
Sigh therefore, thou son of man, with the breaking of thy loins; and with bitterness sigh before their eyes.(6) With the breaking of thy loins.—The loins were regarded as the seat of strength (Job 40:16); and the breaking of these, therefore, expresses entire prostration. Comp. Psalm 66:11; Psalm 69:23; Isaiah 21:3; Nahum 2:10. The prophet was to do this “before their eyes,” i.e., was in some way to express before them a sense of extreme dejection and prostration, such as should call forth the question and reply of the following verse. With the expression “Every heart shall melt” comp. Luke 21:26.
Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,(8-17) This second prophecy is an expansion of the last, Ezekiel 21:8-13 corresponding to 2-5, and Ezekiel 21:14-17 to Ezekiel 21:6-7. In several of its clauses modern criticism has been able to improve the translation, and make it clearer.
It is sharpened to make a sore slaughter; it is furbished that it may glitter: should we then make mirth? it contemneth the rod of my son, as every tree.(10) Make mirth.—The answer to this question has already been given in Ezekiel 21:6, and is repeated in Ezekiel 21:12.
Contemneth the rod of my son.—This refers to Genesis 49:9-10, in which Jacob addresses Judah as “my son,” and foretells that “the sceptre shall not depart from” him until Shiloh come. There is another allusion to the same passage in Ezekiel 21:27. Comp, also Ezekiel 17:22-23. There is, however, serious difficulty as to the construction and meaning of the clause. The ancient versions and many commentators have more or less changed the text without improvement. The original is obscure in its extreme brevity, and allows “the rod of my son” to be either the object (as it is taken in the text) or the subject (as in the margin). The true sense is probably that which makes the clause into an objection offered by the Jew to the prophet’s denunciation: “But ‘the rod of my son’ despiseth every tree;” i.e., the Divine promise of old to Judah is sure, and his sceptre must remain whatever power arises against it. The objection was in a certain sense true, but the objectors had little idea of the means by which its truth should be established, and vainly imagined that it gave a temporal security to the kingdom of Judah, whatever might be its sins. The prophet does not notice the objection further than to go on with his prediction of the approaching desolation.
And he hath given it to be furbished, that it may be handled: this sword is sharpened, and it is furbished, to give it into the hand of the slayer.(11) The slayer is here mentioned indefinitely, but in the next and more circumstantial prophecy (Ezekiel 21:19) is declared to be the king of Babylon.
Cry and howl, son of man: for it shall be upon my people, it shall be upon all the princes of Israel: terrors by reason of the sword shall be upon my people: smite therefore upon thy thigh.(12) Smite therefore upon thy thigh.—A mark of extreme grief, see Jeremiah 31:19. The connection of Ezekiel 21:11-12 with the objection in Ezekiel 21:10 is this: you think there is security for you in the promise to Judah; do not deceive yourselves, but prepare for sorrow and desolation.
Because it is a trial, and what if the sword contemn even the rod? it shall be no more, saith the Lord GOD.(13) Because it is a trial.—Here again the original is obscure from its conciseness and abruptness, leading to great variety of interpretation. Neither the text nor the margin of our translation is quite intelligible. The words for “rod” and “contemn” are the same as in Ezekiel 21:10, and must be taken in the same sense. The most satisfactory translation is this: “For it (the sword) has been proved (viz., on others), and what if this contemning rod shall be no more?” i.e., the power of the sword of Babylon has already been proved; and the sceptre of Judah, which despises it, shall be clean swept away. Various other translations, differing in detail, give the same general sense.
Thou therefore, son of man, prophesy, and smite thine hands together, and let the sword be doubled the third time, the sword of the slain: it is the sword of the great men that are slain, which entereth into their privy chambers.(14) Smite thine hands together.—A gesture of strong emotion (see Ezekiel 21:17, Ezekiel 22:13, and comp. Note on Ezekiel 6:11; Numbers 24:10).
Let the sword be doubled the third time.—The exact translation is here also obscure and difficult, but the meaning is plain that the activity of the sword is to be intensified to the utmost.
The sword of the slain: it is the sword of the great men that are slain.—Literally, the sword of the overthrown (plural), it is the sword of the overthrown (sing.), of the great one. The word translated slain does not necessarily mean actually killed, but is used in a moral as well as physical sense; and in Ezekiel 20:16; Ezekiel 20:21; Ezekiel 20:24, as often, the verb from which this adjective is formed is translated polluted. The sword is called “the sword of the overthrown” because it is the means of their overthrow, and “the sword of the great one overthrown,” with especial reference to the king.
Which entereth into their privy chambers.—Rather, which begirts them round about, so that none can escape.
I have set the point of the sword against all their gates, that their heart may faint, and their ruins be multiplied: ah! it is made bright, it is wrapped up for the slaughter.(15) The point.—The Hebrew word occurs only here. The marginal rendering comes nearer its sense, but the exact meaning is the glance or the whirl of the sword. The glancing or the whirling motion of the sword was to be everywhere, “against all their gates.”
Their ruins be multiplied.—Literally, their stumbling blocks be multiplied. The thought is that in the coming desolation trouble shall be on every side and, in their perplexity, occasions for ill-advised action shall arise all around. “Bright” means “glittering.” (Comp. Deuteronomy 32:41; Job 20:25; Nahum 3:3.)
It is wrapped.—The margin has sharpened, but the exact sense is drawn, “drawn out for the slaughter.”
Go thee one way or other, either on the right hand, or on the left, whithersoever thy face is set.(16) Go thee one way or other.—An address to the sword, the animation of which is singularly lost in our version; the sword is addressed as a host, to be prepared for instant action in every quarter: “Gather thyself up (close up ranks) right; set thyself, left.”
I will also smite mine hands together, and I will cause my fury to rest: I the LORD have said it.(17) My fury to rest.—As in Ezekiel 16:42, because it has accomplished its purpose and has nothing more to do. (Comp. Ezekiel 5:13; Ezekiel 14:13.)
At Ezekiel 21:18 the third and final prophecy of the chapter begins, and, besides being much more explicit than the others, includes also a new subject (Ezekiel 21:28-32), a prophecy against Ammon. Hitherto it has only been foretold that Judah shall be desolated, now it is added that this shall be effected by the king of Babylon, and that he shall also extend his conquests to the Ammonites.
Also, thou son of man, appoint thee two ways, that the sword of the king of Babylon may come: both twain shall come forth out of one land: and choose thou a place, choose it at the head of the way to the city.(19) Appoint thee two ways.—Or, set before thee. The prophet is directed to represent Nebuchadnezzar as about to go forth with his armies, and hesitating whether he should take first the road to Jerusalem or to the capital of the Ammonites. His choice of the former is determined, as he supposes, by his divinations, but really by the overruling hand of the Lord, who thus shows beforehand what it shall be. The whole is set forth in the vivid and concrete imagery so characteristic of Ezekiel; but it is impossible that the scene in real life was to be thus determined by the prophet’s open interference. The whole is a vision, in which life and action is conveyed by this manner of describing the course of future events as actually taking place before the eyes of his hearers. The two ways “come forth out of one land;” their starting-point is the same. Babylon, and they diverge towards different destinations.
Choose thou a place.—Literally, make a hand or, as we say, a finger-post. The verb here used never means “choose,” nor does the noun ever mean “place” but the verb is often used both in the sense of to make and to engrave, and “hand” frequently occurs in the sense of a pillar, and occasionally in that of a guide post. (See 1Samuel 15:12; 2Samuel 18:18; Isaiah 56:5.) The prophet in vision sets up this guide-post to direct the king on his march. The roads to Rabbah and to Jerusalem from Babylon would be the same for many hundred miles. It is impossible, therefore, to suppose that Ezekiel actually stood at their parting.
Head of the way, called more poetically in Ezekiel 21:21 “mother of the way,” is the point where the road forks. From this point the road to Jerusalem would lie on the right, that to Rabbah, the capital of the Ammonites, on the left.
For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver.(21) To use divination.—Various particular forms of divination are mentioned just afterwards. This is a general term to include them all. Divination was always resorted to by the heathen on occasions of important questions. In this case, while Nebuchadnezzar thought in this way to determine his action, it was already fixed for him by a higher Power.
Made his arrows bright.—Rather, shook his arrows. This was a mode of divination in use among the ancient Arabs, as well as in Mesopotamia, and something very similar is mentioned by Homer as practised among the ancient Greeks (II., iii. 316). It continued to be used among the Arabs until the time of Mohammed, who strictly torbade it in the Koran (3:39, 5:4, 94). Several arrows, properly marked, were shaken together in a quiver or other vessel, and one drawn out. The mark upon the one drawn was supposed to indicate the will of the gods. It was thus simply one form of casting lots.
Consulted with images.—The particular images here mentioned were “teraphim,” small idols, which are often spoken of in Scripture as used in divination by the Israelites themselves, and common also among the heathen. (See 1Samuel 15:23, where the word “idolatry” is in the original “teraphim.”) Nothing is known of the way in which these were used in divination.
Looked in the liver.—The inspection of the entrails of sacrificial victims, and especially of the liver, as a means of ascertaining the will of the gods, is familiar to every reader of classical literature. There is evidence that the same custom prevailed also in Babylonia. The king is represented as employing all these different kinds of divination to make sure of the proper path.
At his right hand was the divination for Jerusalem, to appoint captains, to open the mouth in the slaughter, to lift up the voice with shouting, to appoint battering rams against the gates, to cast a mount, and to build a fort.(22) At his right hand was.—This is too exactly literal. The sense is, into his right hand came the divination which determined his course towards Jerusalem. “Captains” should be as in the margin, battering. rams (see Ezekiel 4:2), for the siege of Jerusalem; the same word is so translated farther on in this verse. The remaining clauses portray the operations of the attack.
And it shall be unto them as a false divination in their sight, to them that have sworn oaths: but he will call to remembrance the iniquity, that they may be taken.(23) As a false divination in their sight.—The divination of the Babylonians seemed false to the Jews, primarily, because they were determined not to believe it; yet, doubtless, there was mingled with this a secret consciousness of the worthlessness of the idolatries which they themselves practised, and a consequent readiness to cast them aside when opposed to their wishes.
To them that have sworn oaths.—These words have been very variously interpreted, but the simplest meaning seems the best; the resolution of Nebuchadnezzar to attack Jerusalem seemed impossible to the Jews, because they were his vassals, and under oaths of fidelity to him. They must have been conscious of their own violation of those oaths, and yet have persuaded themselves that their intrigues with Egypt were not known to Nebuchadnezzar, and that therefore he would not attack them.
But he will call to remembrance the iniquity.—The pronoun is here understood by many as referring to the Lord, and “iniquity” as expressing the general sinfulness of the people. It is better to refer the pronoun to Nebuchadnezzar, who will call to remembrance and punish the violation of their oaths to him. It is constantly to be remembered that Zedekiah was placed upon the throne by him under a solemn oath of fidelity to himself (2Chronicles 36:10; 2Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 52:3; Ezekiel 17:15; Ezekiel 17:18, &c).
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye have made your iniquity to be remembered, in that your transgressions are discovered, so that in all your doings your sins do appear; because, I say, that ye are come to remembrance, ye shall be taken with the hand.(24) In all your doings your sins do appear.—But one particular has just been mentioned, their rebellion and perjury; but this was only the last act of a long course of sin in many ways. These have been spoken of at large in previous chapters, and therefore, when this last sin is exposed, it may well be said that sin is shown in all their doings.
And thou, profane wicked prince of Israel, whose day is come, when iniquity shall have an end,(25) Profane.—The prophet now turns from the people as a whole to the individual prince at their head. The word for “profane” is the same as is translated “slain” in Ezekiel 21:14; it would be better rendered here, as there, overthrown. What is close at hand is described as accomplished.
When iniquity shall have an end.—Literally, at the time of the iniquity of the end. The same expression is repeated in Ezekiel 21:29, and the meaning is plainly, at the time of that final transgression which shall be closed by the immediate manifestation of the Divine judgment. The representation of iniquity as being allowed to run a certain course through the Divine forbearance, and arrested and punished when it has reached its culmination, is a common one in Scripture. (See Genesis 15:16; Daniel 8:23; Matthew 23:34-36, &c.)
Thus saith the Lord GOD; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high.(26) Remove the diadem.—The word translated “diadem” is rendered in every other place in which it occurs (Exodus 28:4; Exodus 28:37 bis, Exodus 28:39; Exodus 29:6 bis, Exodus 39:28; Exodus 39:31; Leviticus 8:9 bis, Exodus 16:4) the mitre of the high priest, and undoubtedly has the same sense here. Not only was the royal but also the high-priestly office to be overthrown in the approaching desolation. Neither of them were ever recovered in their full power after the captivity. The various verbs here, remove, take off, exalt, abase, are in the original in the infinitive, and although it is sometimes necessary to translate the infinitive as an imperative, it is better here to keep to its more common sense of indicating an action without reference to the agent which is most readily expressed in English by the passive: “The mitre shall be removed, and the crown taken off . . . the low exalted, and the high abased.”
This shall not be the same.—Literally, this not this, or, supplying the verb, as is often required, this shall not be this—i.e., as the following clauses express, there shall be an utter change and overturning of the whole existing state of things. For the abasement of the high and exaltation of the low, as an expression of the Divine interposition at the introduction of a new order of things, comp. 1Samuel 2:6-8; Luke 1:51-53.
I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him.(27) And it shall be no more.—Literally, this also shall not be. After the emphatic repetition of “over-turn” at the beginning of the verse, it is now added that the condition which follows the overthrow shall not be permanent; “the foundations” shall be put “out of course,” and everything thrown into that condition of flux and change, without permanent settlement, which was so characteristic of the state of Judaea until the coming of Christ.
Until he come whose right it is.—This is generally acknowledged as a reference to Genesis 49:10, “until Shiloh come” even by those who reject the interpretation of Shiloh as meaning “he to whom it belongs.” The promise here made refers plainly both to the priestly and to the royal prerogatives, and a still more distinct foretelling of the union of both in the Messiah may be found in Zechariah 6:12-13. In Him, and in Him alone, will all this confusion and uncertainty come to an end; for, as Ezekiel’s contemporary declared, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14).
And thou, son of man, prophesy and say, Thus saith the Lord GOD concerning the Ammonites, and concerning their reproach; even say thou, The sword, the sword is drawn: for the slaughter it is furbished, to consume because of the glittering:(28) Concerning the Ammonites.—At the opening of this prophecy (Ezekiel 21:19-20) the king of Babylon was represented as hesitating whether to attack Jerusalem or Rabbah, and as being led to the determination of attacking the former. This would leave the inference that the Ammonites might escape altogether; and from the destruction of God’s peculiar people, along with the immunity of their ancient enemies, the heathen would be likely to draw conclusions inconsistent with the power and majesty of God. Hence this prophecy is added to show that His judgments shall certainly fall on them also, and in this case the ruin foretold is final and hopeless, without the promise given to Israel in Ezekiel 21:27. Another prophecy against Ammon is given in Ezekiel 25:1-7. As a matter of history, the Ammonites were conquered, and their country desolated, by Nebuchadnezzar a few years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and they gradually dwindled away until their name and place among the nations finally disappeared.
Whiles they see vanity unto thee, whiles they divine a lie unto thee, to bring thee upon the necks of them that are slain, of the wicked, whose day is come, when their iniquity shall have an end.(29) See vanity unto thee.—“See” is used in the sense of the utterances of the “seer,” or prophet. The Ammonites also had false prophets among them.
Thee upon the necks of them that are slain.—Judah is to fall first, then Ammon immediately after, as it were, upon the necks of those already slain. The figure is taken from the battle, in which one warrior falls upon the body of him who fell before him.
When their iniquity shall have an end.—Not through repentance, but because it ceases of necessity with the death of the sinner.
Shall I cause it to return into his sheath? I will judge thee in the place where thou wast created, in the land of thy nativity.(30) Shall I cause it to return?—There is nothing in the original to indicate either a question, or that this is spoken in the first person. It is addressed to the Ammonites, “Return it” (the sword) “into his sheath;” and it means that all resistance will be vain, the coming destruction cannot be averted. And this judgment is to be executed in the Ammonites’ own country: they are to be destroyed at home.
And I will pour out mine indignation upon thee, I will blow against thee in the fire of my wrath, and deliver thee into the hand of brutish men, and skilful to destroy.(31) Mine indignation.—The figure of the sword, which has been kept up through the entire chapter, is here dropped; but the language immediately falls into another figure, already employed in Ezekiel 20:47, “I will blow against thee in” (rather, with) “the fire of my wrath.” (Comp. the same expression in Ezekiel 22:21.) The image is that of the consuming fire of God’s wrath blown by His power against Ammon, as fire is turned by the wind upon a forest to its destruction. (Comp. Isaiah 54:16.) The word “brutish” of the text in the last clause is better than the “burning” of the margin.
Thou shalt be for fuel to the fire; thy blood shall be in the midst of the land; thou shalt be no more remembered: for I the LORD have spoken it.(32) Shalt be no more remembered.—Ammon should be utterly destroyed, as fuel in the fire; the life-blood of the nation should be poured out, and her name vanish. For her there should be no future, like that promised to Israel in Ezekiel 21:27.