Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This chapter is closely connected with the preceding, forming part of the same denunciation of judgment upon the Jews, although this is here set forth in Ezekiel 5:1-4 by a fresh symbolism, and in the rest of the chapter by plain declarations.
And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber's rasor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thy beard: then take thee balances to weigh, and divide the hair.(1) Take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber’s razor.—Rather, take thee a sharp sword, as a barber’s razor shalt thou take it to thee. The word knife is the same as that used twice in Ezekiel 5:2, and translated once by knife and once by sword. It is occasionally used for any sharp-cutting instrument, but is most commonly taken, as here, for a sword. The English version also neglects to notice the pronoun in the second clause. The thought is plainly that the prophet is to take a sword, on account of its symbolism, and use it instead of a razor.
Upon thine head, and upon thy beard.—The cutting off the hair was a common mark of mourning (see Job 1:20; Isaiah 22:12; Jeremiah 7:29); but the allusion here seems to be rather to Isaiah 7:20, in which God describes his coming judgments upon Israel as a shaving, “with a razor that is hired . . . by the king of Assyria,” of the head and the beard. The symbolism was the more marked because Ezekiel was a priest, and the priests were expressly forbidden in the law to shave either the head or the beard (Leviticus 21:5). The shaving, therefore, of a priest’s head and beard with a sword betokened a most desolating judgment.
Then take thee balances to weigh is not a mere detail introduced to give vividness to the symbolism, but seems designed to show the absolute certainty of the impending judgment.
Thou shalt burn with fire a third part in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled: and thou shalt take a third part, and smite about it with a knife: and a third part thou shalt scatter in the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them.(2) Burn with fire a third art in the midst of the city.—It is better to suppose this done only in description than to imagine that the prophet carried it out in act upon the tile on which the city (Jerusalem) was portrayed. The meaning of this verse is explained in Ezekiel 5:12, and is made plainer by translating the same word uniformly “sword,” instead of changing to “knife.” The third, which is scattered, plainly signifies the small part of the people who, escaping destruction, shall be scattered among the heathen. A similar prophecy, referring however to a later time, may be found in Zechariah 13:8-9. The expression, “when the days of the siege are fulfilled,” of course refers to the symbolic siege of the prophet. The words, “I will draw out a sword after them,” are taken from Leviticus 26:33, and are repeated in Ezekiel 5:12, and again in Ezekiel 12:14. The suffering from the Divine judgments should still follow them in their exile. Plain prophecy is here mixed with the symbolism.
Thou shalt also take thereof a few in number, and bind them in thy skirts.(3) A few in number, and bind them in thy skirts.—A small remnant of the people was still left in the land after the great captivity (2Kings 25:22); but even of these some were to perish by violence (“cast them into the midst of the fire”) in the disorders which arose, and from this “shall a fire come forth into all the house of Israel.” (See Jeremiah 40, 41) The ultimate result was the expatriation of all that remained in Judæa, and the entire emptying of the land of the chosen people.
At this point the use of symbolism ceases for a while, and the prophet now, for the first time, begins to utter his prophecies in plain language. Accordingly, he changes his style from prose to the more ordinary form of prophetic utterance in parallelisms, which constitute the distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry, and this continues until another vision begins with Ezekiel 8.
Thus saith the Lord GOD; This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her.(5) I have set it in the midst of the nations.—This was eminently true of Jerusalem, and of Israel as represented by Jerusalem, in all the ages of its history. It constituted one of the great opportunities of Israel had they been faithful to their calling, while it became a chief source of their disasters when they went astray from God. On the south were Egypt and Ethiopia; on the north, at first the great nation of the Hittites, and later the Syrians, and also Assyrians (who must reach Palestine from the north); on the coast were the Philistines, at the southern end, and on the northern the Phœnicians, the great maritime nation having intercourse with all “the isles of the sea;” while on the deserts of the east and immediate south were the Ishmaelites, the chief inland traders, who kept up an intercourse by land with all these nations. Even with the great but little-known nations of India, commerce was established by Solomon. Thus centrally situated among the chief kingdoms of antiquity, Israel had the opportunity of presenting to the world the spectacle of a people strong and prosperous in the worship, and under the guardianship, of the one true God, and of becoming the great missionary of monotheism in the ancient world. At the same time they were separated from most of these nations by natural barriers, the deserts on the east and south, the sea on the west, the mountains on the north, which were sufficient to isolate them as a nation, and allow of their free development, without interference, as a God-fearing people. But when, by the unfaithfulness of the Israelites to their religion, the one bond of national unity was weakened, they became a ready prey to the nations around them. During the period of the Judges they fell under the power of one and another of the petty tribes on their confines; and later, when the great empire of Solomon was broken up in consequence of their sins, they were easily overcome by the powerful nations on either side. In all their later history the Israelites were a football between Egypt and Chaldæa, alternately spoiled by tribute as friends or devastated as enemies by each of them. So, in the Divine ordering of the world, responsibility must always be proportioned to privilege; and the failure to fulfil the responsibility leads, as in this case, not only to a withdrawal of the privilege, but to corresponding condemnation.
And she hath changed my judgments into wickedness more than the nations, and my statutes more than the countries that are round about her: for they have refused my judgments and my statutes, they have not walked in them.(6) Changed my judgments into wickedness.—Better, hath wickedly resisted my judgments, the sense adopted by most modern expositors.
More than the nations.—Not, of course, absolutely, but in proportion to the knowledge and the privileges given them. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Israelites were actually more evil in their life than the surrounding heathen; for they were, no doubt, far better. Even of those cities which our Lord, at a later day, so strongly upbraided, it would be absurd to suppose that they equalled Sodom and Gomorrah in their iniquity. God’s judgments are always relative and proportioned to the opportunities He has granted to men. The point is that the Israelites had resisted His judgments more than the heathen; they had sinned against greater light. The pronoun they in the last clause refers, of course, to the Israelites, not to the heathen.
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye multiplied more than the nations that are round about you, and have not walked in my statutes, neither have kept my judgments, neither have done according to the judgments of the nations that are round about you;(7) Because ye multiplied.—Rather, Because ye have raged, as the same word is translated in Psalm 2:1, and as its meaning is given in the lexicons. The meaning is, because they had shown more self-will and opposition to God.
Neither have done according to the judgments of the nations.—These words admit of either of two senses: “neither have kept those natural laws observed by the heathen,” and in this case the Israelites would have been represented as worse in their actual conduct than the surrounding heathen; or, “neither have kept your Divine laws as the heathen have observed those laws which they know by the light of nature and tradition.” The latter we conceive to be the true sense here. If Israel did precisely what the heathen did, they would be far more unfaithful (See Ezekiel 11:12.) In Ezekiel 16:47, also, they are distinctly charged with being even more corrupt than the heathen; and there, too, the thought is plainly that they had sinned against more grace. (See Excursus III.)
EXCURSUS C: ON CHAPTER 5:7.
The expression in this verse, and also that in Ezekiel 16:47, are explained in the commentary as meaning that the Israelites were not absolutely worse than the heathen, but only relatively, in view of their opportunities and privileges; yet the language in both places, as well as in many other passages of the prophets, seems on its face to be absolute. The question may, therefore, be naturally asked whether it is justifiable to interpret it in a relative sense, and if so, on what grounds? The answer to these questions must be sought in a consideration of the whole character and history of Israel, which will show that what might be only a relatively greater wickedness in them according to a human standard, becomes, under the circumstances, an absolutely greater sin against God.
It certainly is not true that the Israelites as a nation habitually committed sins which were, in themselves considered, of greater enormity than the abominations of the heathen; nor is it to be supposed that they were originally chosen of God because they had a worse disposition than any other people. How, then, did they come to be regarded by Him as worse, and how did they come to have a greater proclivity to evil? The law of the moral government of the world, that responsibility is proportioned to privilege, is much insisted upon in Scripture; and hence the neglect or misuse of privilege leads to a severer condemnation than if the privilege had never been given. This law is in accordance with the fact of universal experience that grace, when resisted, hardens the heart and alienates it further from God. It is only in view of this fact that we can account for the rejection of our Lord by those among whom His mighty works were done. The same fact explains the strong terms in which the prophets continually reproach their people. The Gentiles, with less of grace and of religious privilege, could not fall into the same extreme hardness of heart by their rejection.
But this suggests the still more radical question, Why should the Israelites have been more prone to abuse their greater privileges than the Gentiles to slight those which were far inferior? The reason lies in the very nature of the privileges themselves; for the opposition of the natural heart was far more roused by the one than by the other. The various religions of the heathen were alike in imposing little check on the passions and selfishness and self-will of man; in fact, they often not only encouraged but deified the worst traits of human nature. The law of God, on the contrary, set before men as the object of their worship a Being of absolute purity and holiness, and made the devotion to Him of heart and soul and strength its first and most absolute command. If the privilege of the Israelite was far greater, it yet required of him a harder struggle against the evil of his nature to avail himself of its benefits; and the failure in this, as it led him away from a higher standard of holiness, necessarily precipitated him into a greater depth of sin. Hence arose the striking contrasts in Israel’s history between the saintliness of an Elijah, an Isaiah, or a Daniel, and the extreme wickedness of the people whom the prophet was now sent to rebuke. There is nothing therefore strange or abnormal in the history of Israel as compared with that of the Gentiles. The same old story is constantly repeated in the vices of Christian lands, and is seen everywhere in the greater faithfulness to their standards of the devotees of every false or corrupted religion. In passing, one cannot but remark upon that merciful providence of Almighty God by which His revelation has been ever progressive, rising only as men were in some degree prepared by the lower revelation to bear the higher.
Yet, while these results may thus be traced to the working of providential laws, the fault is without excuse, whether in ourselves or in the Israelites of old. Neither they nor we would willingly forego the privilege, and with this the responsibility for its improvement is inseparably joined. God gave then, as He gives now, sufficient grace to those that seek it; and freely pardons the sin of all that strive against its power.
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, am against thee, and will execute judgments in the midst of thee in the sight of the nations.(8) In the sight of the nations.—The conspicuousness of Israel’s position (see under Ezekiel 5:5) made it necessary that the punishment for their failure to keep God’s law should be as public as their sin. All had seen their unfaithfulness; all must see the consequent judgment.
And I will do in thee that which I have not done, and whereunto I will not do any more the like, because of all thine abominations.(9) That which I have not done, and where-unto I will not do any more the like.—Our Lord uses similar language (Matthew 24:21) in foretelling the final destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. But all question whether Ezekiel here looks forward to that calamity, and all comparison between that and the destruction under Nebuchadnezzar, are out of place. What the prophet here intends is not a comparison between different judgments upon the Jews, but between God’s treatment of them and of others. As they had received at His hand higher opportunities and privileges than He had before given or would afterwards give to any other nation, so must the punishment for their sin be more severe and more conspicuous than He had inflicted or would inflict on any other. All the Divine judgments upon them through all time may therefore be considered as here coming into view. The present captivity and the impending destruction of the temple were but single features of a long series of judgments, in the course of which the terrible particulars mentioned in Ezekiel 5:10 should have place, ending with what is the present condition of the people before our eyes, scattered “into all the winds.” Such evils had been foretold by their prophets all through their history as the consequence of disobedience (see Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53—the sons eating their fathers is a fearful addition here; Jeremiah 19:9), and from time to time had in some degree come to pass (2Kings 6:28-29; Lamentations 2:20), although the culmination of the punishment, like the culmination of the sin, was still future.
Wherefore, as I live, saith the Lord GOD; Surely, because thou hast defiled my sanctuary with all thy detestable things, and with all thine abominations, therefore will I also diminish thee; neither shall mine eye spare, neither will I have any pity.(11) Because thou . . . therefore will I.—The parallel between Israel’s conduct and God’s judgments is here, as everywhere, brought into strong light. God would inflict no evil upon them which they had not themselves called down by their obdurate and infatuated persistence in rebellion against Him.
Also diminish thee.—The word diminish is hardly an adequate translation of the original, and the pronoun thee is not in the Hebrew. The word properly means to withdraw, and is to be taken either as reflective, “withdraw myself,” or as having for its object “mine eye” of the following clause, the sense being the same in either case: the Lord will withdraw from them His presence and His compassion.
Ezekiel 5:12-17 follow in plain language the symbolical prophecies of Ezekiel 5:1-4, and give the inspired interpretation of their meaning. They bring out very distinctly the fact that the judgments should not end with the destruction of Jerusalem.
Thus shall mine anger be accomplished, and I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted: and they shall know that I the LORD have spoken it in my zeal, when I have accomplished my fury in them.(13) I will be comforted.—The word employed here is used in two different senses: either that of feeling compassion, and so of repenting of one’s anger, as in Isaiah 12:1; Isaiah 49:13; Isaiah 51:3; Isaiah 51:12; Isaiah 52:9, &c.; or of consoling oneself by taking vengeance, as in Genesis 27:42, Isaiah 1:24 (Authorised Version, ease myself). (Comp. also Ezekiel 31:16; Ezekiel 32:31.) The latter is evidently the meaning here; the Divine honour, wounded by the sins of the chosen people and dishonoured before the heathen, should be vindicated by their punishment in the sight of all the world.