Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Verse 1. - If we may think of Ezekiel as compiling and arranging his own prophecies, we may think of him as returning, with something like a sense of relief, to his own special work as the watchman of the house of Israel. For upwards of two years the messages which it had been given him to write (how far they were in any sense published we have no means of knowing) in Ezekiel 25-32, had dealt exclusively with foreign nations. Now his own people are again the object of his care. He resumes his pastoral office at once for warning and consolation. From this point onwards, with the exception of the strange Meshech-Tubal episode in Ezekiel 38, 39, all is leading onwards to the final vision of the rebuilt temple, and the redistributed land of Israel, and through them to the times of the Messianic restoration. No date is given here for the word of the Lord which now came to him, but it may, perhaps be inferred, from Vers. 21, 22, that it was immediately before the arrival of the messenger who brought the tidings that Jerusalem was taken. In the ecstatic state indicated by "the hand of the Lord" he knew that some great change was coming, that he had a new message to deliver, a new part to play.
Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman:
Verse 2. - Speak to the children of thy people. (On the force of the possessive pronoun, see note on Ezekiel 3:1.) The formula is carried on throughout the chapter (Vers. 12, 17, 30). Set him for their watchman. Ezekiel falls back upon the thought of Ezekiel 3:17, but the image is expanded with characteristic fullness. The function of the watchman, in which he sees a parable of his own office, is to stand upon his tower (2 Samuel 18:24, 25; 2 Kings 9:17; Habakkuk 2:1), to keep his eye on the distant horizon, and as soon as the clouds of dust or the gleam of armor gives notice of the approach of the enemy, to sound the trumpet of alarm (Amos 3:6; Hosea 8:1; Jeremiah 4:5; Jeremiah 6:1), that men may not be taken unawares. If he discharge that duty faithfully, then, as in Ezekiel 3:17-21, the blood of those that perish through their own negligence shall rest on their own head.
If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;
Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.
He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.
But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.
Verses 6-9. - But if the watchman: etc. The words imply what we might almost call the agony of self-accusation. The prophet asks himself whether he has acted on the warning which was borne in on his mind at the very beginning of his mission. Has he sounded the trumpet? Has he warned the people of the destruction that is coming on them? The outward imagery vanishes in Ver. 7. It is of no Chaldean invader that the prophet had to give personal and direct warning, but of each man's own special sin which was Bringing ruin on himself and on his country.
So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.
When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.
Therefore, O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?
Verse 10. - Thus ye speak, saying, etc. At the earlier stage the prophet had to contend with scorn, incredulity, derision (Ezekiel 12:22). They trusted in the promises of the false prophets (Ezekiel 13:6). They laid to their soul the flattering unction that they were suffering, not for their own sins, but for the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:2). Now they stand face to face with the fulfillment of the prophet's words. They cherish no hopes, and they make no excuses. They have fallen into the abyss of despair. Admitting their own sin and the righteousness of their punishment, does not the very admission exclude hope? Who can bring life to those that are thus dead in trespasses and sins? The parallelism with Leviticus 26:39-42 is so striking that it can scarcely be accidental
Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
Verse 11. - Say unto them, etc. To meet that despair the prophet has to fall back on the truth which he had proclaimed once before (Ezekiel 18:32). He must appear as uttering a message of pardon resting on the unchanging character of the great Absolver. Now, as ever, it is true that he willeth not the death of the wicked, that all punishment (in this world, at least) is meant to lead to repentance, and that for those who repent there is the hope of restoration and of life. No righteousness in the past avails against the transgression of the present (Ver. 12); but then also no wickedness of the past prevails to shut out the penitent's claim to pardon. As a man is at any given moment, when the judgment comes on him, so is he dealt with. In some sense, as in Ver. 13, the righteousness of the post may become a stumbling-block. The man may trust in it, and be off his guard, ceasing to watch and pray, and so the temptation may prevail.
Therefore, thou son of man, say unto the children of thy people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression: as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turneth from his wickedness; neither shall the righteous be able to live for his righteousness in the day that he sinneth.
When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it.
Again, when I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; if he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right;
If the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die.
Verse 15. - If the wicked restore the pledge. In Ezekiel 18:7, 12, 16, this and its opposite had been grouped with other forms of good and evil. Here it stands out in solitary preeminence. The reason may possibly be found in the fact that a time of exile and suffering was likely to make the sin, which the penitent thus showed that he had renounced, a specially common one. The starving man pledged his garment or his tools for the loan of money or of food at a price far below its value. There was a real self-sacrifice, a proof of the power of the faith that worketh by love, when the creditor restored it. The primary duty, when a man turned from evil, was, as far as in him lay, to overcome his besetting sin and make restitution for the past. Compare the words of the Baptist (Luke 3:12-14), and those of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8). The statutes of life. The words are used as in Ezekiel 20:11 and Leviticus 18:5, on the assumption that, if a man kept the statutes, he should (in the highest sense of the word) live in them. It was reserved for the fuller illumination of St. Paul, taught by a representative experience to proclaim the higher truth that the Law, ordained for life, was yet the minister of condemnation and death unless there was something higher than itself to complete the work which it could only begin (Romans 7:10; Romans 8:3; comp. also Hebrews 7:19).
None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live.
Yet the children of thy people say, The way of the Lord is not equal: but as for them, their way is not equal.
Verse 17. - The way of the Lord is not equal. The prophet now proclaims what he had been taught, perhaps then, without proclaiming it, in Ezekiel 18:25-30. Men are dealt with by the Divine Judge, not as their fathers have Been before them, not even as they themselves have been in times past, but exactly as they are. Where could there be a more perfect rule of equity? The question how far Ezekiel thinks of the judgment itself as final, whether there is the possibility of repentance and pardon after it has fallen, and during its continuance, is not directly answered. He is speaking, we must remember, of a judgment on this side the grave, and therefore what we call the problems of eschatology were not before him. But the language of the document which lies at the basis of his theology (Leviticus 26:41) asserts that if men repented and, "accepted" their earthly punishment, then Jehovah would remember his covenant, and would not destroy them utterly. And his own language as to Sodom and Samaria (Ezekiel 16:53) indicates a leaning to the wider hope. If the problems of the unseen world had been brought before him, we may believe that he would have dealt with them as with those with which he actually came in contact, and that there also his words would have been, "O house of Israel, O sons of men, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?"
When the righteous turneth from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, he shall even die thereby.
But if the wicked turn from his wickedness, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby.
Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. O ye house of Israel, I will judge you every one after his ways.
And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, in the fifth day of the month, that one that had escaped out of Jerusalem came unto me, saying, The city is smitten.
Verse 21. - In the twelfth year, etc. The capture of Jerusalem took place in the fourth month of the eleventh year (Jeremiah 39:2; Jeremiah 52:6) from the captivity of Jehoiachin and the beginning of Zedekiah's reign. Are we to assume some error of transcription? or is it within the limits of probability that eighteen months would pass without any direct communication from Jerusalem of what had passed there? There is, I conceive, nothing improbable in what is stated. The exiles of Tel-Ahib were not on the high-roads of commerce or of war. All previous communications were cut off by the presence of the Chaldean armies. In the words, one that had escaped, the prophet clearly referred to the intimation given him at the time of his wife's death (Ezekiel 24:26). When the fugitive entered he saw that the hour had at last come. One would give much to know who the fugitive was, but we can only conjecture. Had Baruch been sent by Jeremiah to bear the tidings to his brother prophet? Such a mission would have been a fulfillment of Jeremiah 45:5. A later tradition ascribes to Baruch a prominent part as a teacher among the exiles of Babylon (Bar. 1:2) shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now the hand of the LORD was upon me in the evening, afore he that was escaped came; and had opened my mouth, until he came to me in the morning; and my mouth was opened, and I was no more dumb.
Verse 22. - Now the hand of the Lord. When the messenger arrived he found the prophet in a state of ecstasy. This was in the evening. In that prophetic ecstasy his mouth was opened, and the long silence broken, and though he had not heard the message with his outward ears, he had taken, as it were, that message as his text. It was not till his discourse was ended, and the morning came, that he himself heard the terrible tidings from the lips of the messenger. Then a change came over him. He was no more dumb. The long silence was broken. Had the silence lasted, we ask, from Ezekiel 3:26 onward? Had the whole intervening period been one of simply symbolic action, and of written but unspoken prophecies? The words at first suggest that conclusion; but it is traveled by the facts; by the commands of Ezekiel 12:10, 23; by the order to "prophesy" in Ezekiel 13:2; by the message to speak unto the elders in Ezekiel 14:4; by the question, "Doth he not speak parables?" of Ezekiel 20:49. I infer, therefore, that, though the silence had been dominant, it had not been unbroken. To some, at least, a message had been spoken. Others may have been allowed to read the written prophecies. The death of the prophet's wife tended, probably, to the continuance of the silence, and it seems a legitimate inference from Ezekiel 24:27 that it had continued from that date onward.
Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Son of man, they that inhabit those wastes of the land of Israel speak, saying, Abraham was one, and he inherited the land: but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance.
Verse 24. - They that inhabit thou wastes of the land. The utterance that follows was probably the direct result of what Ezekiel heard from the messenger. He it was who reported the boastful claims of those who had been left in the land by the Chaldean armies - the "bad figs" of Jeremiah's parable, the least worthy representatives of the seed of Abraham. the assassins of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:1, 2), who in these "waste places," the dens and eaves in which they found a refuge (or, it may be, the phrase describes the condition of the whole country), led the lives of outlaws and bandits. The very words of their boast are reproduced: "Abraham, when he was yet but one, received the premise of inheritance. We are comparatively many, and are left as the true seed of Abraham (comp. Matthew 3:9). The land is ours, and we will take possession of the estates of the exiles."
Wherefore say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Ye eat with the blood, and lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood: and shall ye possess the land?
Verse 25. - Ye eat with the blood. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that the first offence which he names with horror should be a sin against a positive commandment. He felt, as it were, a sense of loathing at what seemed to him a descent into the worst form of pollution, forbidden, not to the Jews only (Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16), but to mankind (Genesis 9:4); compare the scene in 1 Samuel 14:32. The same feeling shows itself in Zechariah 9:7 and Acts 15:20, 29. The prohibition of blood took its place, in later Judaism, as among the precepts of Noah, which were binding even on the proselytes of the gate, upon whom, as distinct from the proselytes of righteousness, the rite of circumcision was not enforced; and as such were accepted by the council at Jerusalem, as binding also among Christian converts. Not for such as these was the inheritance of Israel, and the prophet asks indignantly, after naming yet . more hateful offenses, Shall ye possess the land?
Ye stand upon your sword, ye work abomination, and ye defile every one his neighbour's wife: and shall ye possess the land?
Verse 26. - Ye stand upon your sword. The words point to the open assertion of the law that might is right. Men relied on the sword, and on that only, for their support. Assassinations, as in Jeremiah 41, were, so to speak, as the order of the day. Ye work abomination. The noun, Ezekiel's ever-recurring word, indicates both the act of idolatry and the foul orgiastic rites that accompanied it. The verb, curiously enough, has the feminine suffix. Was it used intentionally, either as pointing to the prominence of women in those rites (Jeremiah 44:15), or to the degrading vices which involved the loss of true manhood (2 Kings 23:7)? So some have thought; but I agree with Keil, Smend, and others, in seeing only an error of transcription. Once more, after heaping up his accusations, Ezekiel asks the question, "Shall ye possess the land?" "Are you the seed of Abraham?"
Say thou thus unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; As I live, surely they that are in the wastes shall fall by the sword, and him that is in the open field will I give to the beasts to be devoured, and they that be in the forts and in the caves shall die of the pestilence.
Verse 27. - They that are in the wastes. The words paint, with a terrible vividness, what was passing in Ezekiel's fatherland. Did the fugitives of Judah seek the open country? they were exposed to the sword of the Chaldeans or of marauding outlaws. Did they seek safety in fortresses or caves? they were exposed, crowded together as they were under the worst possible conditions, to the ravages of pestilence.
For I will lay the land most desolate, and the pomp of her strength shall cease; and the mountains of Israel shall be desolate, that none shall pass through.
Then shall they know that I am the LORD, when I have laid the land most desolate because of all their abominations which they have committed.
Also, thou son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the LORD.
Verse 30. - The children of thy people. The words, like those of Ezekiel 14:1 and Ezekiel 20:1, 49, throw light on the prophet's relations to his people. Now that the long silence was broken, and the prophet spoke with greater freedom than he had ever done before, he acquired a fresh notoriety. The character of his last utterance, vindicating, as it might seem, the claim of the exiles to "possess the land," as against that of the remnant "in the wastes," may even have made him popular. The Authorized Version against is misleading; read, with the margin and the Revised Version, about. There was for the time no open hostility. They talked much, in places of private or public resort, of the prophet's new action. Each invited his neighbor to go and hear the prophet as he spake to them his message from Jehovah. And they came as the people cometh, in crowds, even as my people, the people of Jehovah, with reverent gestures and listening eagerly. Never before, we may well believe, had the prophet had so large or so promising a congregation. But he was taught to look below the surface and to read their thoughts, and there he read, as preachers of all ages have too often read after him, that they were hearers, and not doers (Matthew 7:24-27; James 1:23-25). In words they showed much love (the LXX. gives "falsehood"), spoke pleasant things, but the root-evil, the besetting sin, was still there. Their heart went after their covetousness (camp. Matthew 13:22; 2 Timothy 4:10).
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.
And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.
Verse 32. - A very lovely song; literally, a song of love, an erotic idyll, the word being the same as in Ver. 31. Yet this was the meaning of the large gathering. They came to hear the prophet, as they would to hear a hired singer at a banquet, like those of Amos 6:5. The prophet's words passed over them and left no lasting impression. All that they sought was the momentary tickling of the sense. The words receive a special significance from Psalm 137:3. The Jewish exiles were famous among their conquerors for the minstrel's art. The nobler singers refused to "sing the songs of Zion in a strange land;" others, it may be, were not so scrupulous. Had the prophet seen his people gather to listen to such a singer? Were they better occupied when they were listening to his message from Jehovah.
And when this cometh to pass, (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them.
Verse 33. - When this cometh to pass. The words can scarcely refer to the immediately preceding predictions in Vers. 27, 28, which were primarily addressed to "the people in the waste places," the remnant left in Judah, and we have to go back to the wider, more general teaching of Vers. 10-20. That was the prophet's message of judgment, his call to repentance. When the judgment should come, as it surely would, then they would know, in the bitterness of self-condemnation, that they had been listening, not to a hireling singer, but to a prophet of Jehovah.