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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Ezekiel 4

Verse 1


(1) Take thee a tile.—The use of tiles for such purposes as that here indicated was common both in Babylonia and in Nineveh. When intended for preservation the writing or drawing was made upon the soft and plastic clay, which was afterwards baked. It is from the remains of great libraries prepared in this way that most of our modern knowledge of Nineveh and Babylon has been derived. It is, of course, quite possible that Ezekiel may have drawn in this way upon a soft clay tile; but from the whole account in this and the following chapters it is more likely that he simply described, rather than actually performed, these symbolical acts.

Verse 2

(2) Lay siege against it.—It must have seemed at this time unlikely that Jerusalem would soon become the subject of another siege. The only power by whom such a siege could be undertaken was Babylon, Egypt having been so thoroughly defeated as to be for a long time out of the question; and Nebuchadnezzar had now, within a few years, thrice completely conquered Judaea, had carried two of its kings, one after the other, captive in chains, and had also taken into captivity 10,000 of the chief of the people, setting up as king over the remnant a creature of his own, who was yet of the royal house of Judah. A fresh siege could only be the result of a fresh rebellion, an act, under the circumstances, of simple infatuation. Yet of this infatuation Zedekiah, through the “anger of the LORD” (2 Kings 24:20), was guilty, and thus the prophecy was fulfilled. The prophecy itself is undated, but must have been between the call of Ezekiel in the fifth month of the fifth year (Ezekiel 1:2) and the next date given (Ezekiel 8:1), the sixth month of the sixth year. The siege began, according to Jeremiah 52:4, in the tenth month of the ninth year, so that the prophecy preceded its fulfilment by only about four years.

Build a fort against it.—Rather, a tower. The several acts of a siege are graphically described. First the city is invested; then a tower is built, as was customary, of sufficient height to overlook the walls and thus obtain information of the doings of the besieged. Instruments for throwing stones or darts were also sometimes placed in such towers; next is “cast a mound against it,” a common operation of the ancient siege (comp. Isaiah 37:33; Jeremiah 32:24), in which a sort of artificial hill was built to give the besiegers an advantage; then the camps (not merely camp) are set round the city to prevent ingress and egress; and finally “the battering rams” are brought against the walls. These last were heavy beams, headed with iron, and slung in towers, so that they could be swung against the walls with great force. They are frequently to be noticed in the representations of sieges found in the ruins of Nineveh. The practice of forming the end of the beam like a ram’s head belongs to the Greeks and Romans; but the instrument itself was much older.

Verse 3

(3) An iron pan.—The margin gives the sense more accurately, a flat plate. It was used for baking cakes (see Leviticus 2:5, marg.). This was to be set for a wall of iron between the prophet (representing the besiegers) and the city, doubtless as symbolical of the strength of the besiegers’ lines, and of the impossibility there would be of an escape from the city by a sally. Their foes should be made too strong for them defensively as well as offensively.

A sign to the house of Israel.—As already said, the tribe of Judah, with the associated remnants of the other tribes, is considered as representing the whole nation after the Assyrian captivity, and is spoken of as “the house of Israel” except when there is occasion to distinguish especially between the two parts of the nation. (See Ezekiel 3:7; Ezekiel 3:17; Ezekiel 5:4; Ezekiel 8:6; 2 Chronicles 21:2; 2 Chronicles 28:27, &c.) The prophecy would have been equally effective whether seen as a symbolic act or only related.

Verse 4

(4) Lie thou also upon thy left side.—Here a fresh feature of this symbolical prophecy begins, while the former siege is still continued (Ezekiel 4:7).

Lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it.—The expression, to bear the iniquity of any one, is common in Scripture to denote the suffering of the punishment due to sin. (See, among many other passages, Ezekiel 18:19-20; Ezekiel 23:35; Leviticus 19:8; Numbers 14:34; Isaiah 53:12.) It is clear, therefore, that Ezekiel is here to represent the people as enduring the Divine judgment upon their sins. This may seem inconsistent with his representing at the same time the besiegers of Jerusalem, the instruments in the Divine hand for inflicting that punishment; but such inconsistencies are common enough in all symbolic representations, and neither offend nor in any way mar the effect of the representation. “The house of Israel” is here expressly distinguished from “the house of Judah,” and means the ten tribes. They are symbolised by the prophet’s lying on his left side, because it was the Oriental habit to look to the east when describing the points of the compass, and the northern kingdom was therefore on the left.

Verses 5-6

(5) The years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days.—Comp. Numbers 14:34. In regard to the number of the years, see Excursus II. at the end of this book.

(6) The iniquity of the house of Judah forty days.—This forty days is clearly subsequent and additional to the 390 days, making in all a period of 430 days. (On these numbers see Excursus II. at the end of this book.) The great disproportion between the two is in accordance with the difference in the two parts of the nation, and the consequent Divine dealings with them. Judah had remained faithful to its appointed rulers of the house of David, several of whose kings had been eminently devout men; through whatever mixture with idolatry it had yet always retained the worship of Jehovah, and had kept up the Aaronic priesthood, and preserved with more or less respect the law of Moses. It was now entering upon the period of the Babylonish captivity, from which, after seventy years, a remnant was to be again restored to keep up the people of the Messiah. Israel, on the other hand, had set up a succession of dynasties, and not one of all their kings had been a God-fearing man; they had made Baal their national god, and had made priests at their pleasure of the lowest of the people, and in consequence of their sins had been carried into a captivity from which they never returned.


The explanation of the periods of time here mentioned has occasioned great difficulty and difference of opinion among the commentators. The subject may be best approached by first observing what points are clearly determined in the text itself, and then excluding all interpretations which are inconsistent with these.
In the first place, it is expressly stated in each of these verses that these days represent years. No interpretation, therefore, can be admitted which requires them to be literal days. Secondly, it is plain that the period is one of “bearing their iniquity”; not a period in which they are becoming sinful, but one in which they are suffering the punishment of their sin. Thirdly, it is plain from the whole structure of the symbolism that this period is in some way intimately connected with the siege of Jerusalem. Finally, the two periods of 390 and of forty days are distinct. If the symbolism was carried out in act, they must have been consecutive, and it is still the natural inference that they were so, even if it was only in vision. The two periods together, then, constitute 430 days; yet this is not to be emphasised, since no express mention is made of the whole period.
These points of themselves exclude several of the explanations that have from time to time been put forward. Among these must be mentioned, first, one which has perhaps been more generally adopted than any other of its class, the supposition that the 390 years of Israel’s punishment are to be reckoned from some point in the reign of Jeroboam to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. This, however, was far more a period of accumulation of Israel’s transgression than of suffering its punishment; neither in this case could the period be fairly considered as extending beyond the end of the kingdom of Israel (which lasted in all but 253 years) unless it was also extended indefinitely. Moreover, expositors who adopt this view are quite unable to give any satisfactory account of Judah’s forty years; for the proposal to reckon them from the reformation of Josiah is quite at variance with the character of the period described.
Every attempt to make these periods refer to a future time, stretching on far beyond the date of the prophecy, fails for want of any definite event at the end of either 390, 40, or 430 years.

The periods cannot be understood of events occurring in the course of the siege because, as already said, the numbers are expressly said to stand for years. Moreover, even if they could be taken of literal days, there would be nothing to correspond to them, since from the investment of the city to the flight of Zedekiah was 539 days, and to the destruction of the Temple twenty-eight days more (2 Kings 25:1; 2 Kings 25:3; 2 Kings 25:8).

Of two other explanations, it is only necessary to say a word: that of Theodoret is based upon the Greek version, which, by a curious mistake, has 190 instead of 390 days, and of course falls to the ground when the true number is considered; the ancient Jews and some early Christians interpreted the passage of a period of 430 years, which they conceived was to be fulfilled from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, in the second year of the Emperor Vespasian, to its expected restoration, which the event has shown to be groundless.
Another ancient interpretation makes of the period of 430 years, the time from the building to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. This is open to the same objections already urged to others, and besides, it makes the total number the prominent thing, while there is no point of division for the 390 and the 40. St. Jerome reckoned the 390 years from the captivity of the northern kingdom to the deliverance of the Jews from danger in the time of Esther, and the 40 years from the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar to the decree of Cyrus for the restoration of the Jews; but his chronology is at fault, and the former part of the explanation takes no notice of the main point of the siege of Jerusalem, while the events in the time of Esther cannot be looked upon as the termination of the punishment of the Israelites.
The later Jews make up the two periods by selecting throughout the period of the Judges and the monarchy the various times in which the sins of Israel and of Judah were especially marked, and adding these together; but this is utterly arbitrary and unsatisfactory.
So much space has been given to these different interpretations in order to show that there is no definite term of years, either before or after the date of the prophecy, which the ingenuity of the commentators has been able to discover, satisfying the conditions of the prophecy itself. We are, therefore, left free to accept the interpretation now generally given by the best modern expositors.

This takes for its starting-point the evident allusion of Ezekiel to Numbers 14:14, “After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year shall ye bear your iniquities;” and the earlier prophecies declaring that the people in punishment for their sins should be brought again into Egypt, which yet should not be Egypt (Deuteronomy 28:68; Hosea 8:13; Hosea 9:3; Hosea 11:5), but Assyria or Babylonia, as is expressly defined in some of these prophecies. The meaning is plainly that they should endure sufferings corresponding to the Egyptian bondage, but in another locality. Ezekiel himself elsewhere (Ezekiel 20:35) speaks of God’s dealings with the captives as a pleading with them “in the wilderness.” Now if this be once recognised as the basis of Ezekiel’s language—the representation of the future in terms of the historic past, which is so common in all prophecy—there need be no difficulty in the mention of the precise numbers. They become mere catch-words to carry the mind to the period he would indicate. The wanderings in the wilderness were always reckoned at 40 years, and the sojourn in Egypt (see Exodus 12:40) at 430 years. Ezekiel merely follows here his habit of putting everything into vivid and concrete form. Are his people to suffer for their sins as they suffered of old? Judah is to endure the 40 years of wilderness sufferings, and Israel those of the Egyptian bondage; only, if he spoke of the latter as 430 years, it might seem that Israel was to endure the punishment belonging to both Israel and Judah, and therefore he takes from it the period already assigned to Judah, leaving for Israel 390 years. This accounts for his not mentioning the 430 years at all, and could be done the more easily because the actual bondage in Egypt was far less than either number. No precise period whatever is intended by the mention of these numbers, but only a vivid comparison of the future woes to the past. Again, whatever might be their present sufferings, they still had hope, and even indulged in defiance, while Jerusalem and the Temple stood. This hope was vain. The holy city and the Temple itself should be destroyed, and then they would know that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them indeed for the punishment of their sins. The siege of Jerusalem is, therefore, the prominent feature of the prophecy; and there is foretold, as the consequence of this, the eating of “defiled bread among the Gentiles” (Ezekiel 4:13) as in Egypt of old, together with the various forms of want and suffering set forth in the striking symbolism of this chapter.

Verse 7

(7) Set thy face is a common Scriptural expression for any steadfast purpose. (See Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 20:3; Leviticus 20:5-6; Leviticus 26:17; 2 Chronicles 20:3, marg., &c.) It is a particularly favourite phrase with Ezekiel (Ezekiel 15:7; Ezekiel 20:46, &c.). Here this steadfastness of purpose was to be exercised “toward the siege of Jerusalem;” there would be no relenting in this matter—God’s purpose of judgment should surely be fulfilled. Further symbolism to the same effect is added, “Thine arm shall be uncovered,” withdrawn from the loose sleeve of the Oriental robe, and made ready for battle. (Comp. Isaiah 52:10.) Withal he is to “prophesy against it,” doubtless by words suited to his actions.

Verse 8

(8) I will lay bands upon thee.—See on Ezekiel 3:25. This is a fresh feature of the unrelenting character of the judgment foretold: God’s power should interpose to keep the prophet to his work. Not only pity, but even human weakness and weariness, should be excluded from interfering. The prophet is spoken of as besieging the city, because he is doing so in figure.

Verse 9

(9) Take thou also unto thee wheat.—The grains enumerated are of all kinds from the best to the worst, indicating that every sort of food would be sought after in the straitness of the siege. If the mixing of these in one vessel and making bread of them all together was not against the exact letter of the law, it was, at least, a plain violation of its spirit (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9), thus again indicating the stern necessity which should be laid upon the people.

Three hundred and ninety days.—No mention is here made of the additional forty days. (See Excursus.)

Verse 10

(10) By weight, twenty shekels a day.—The weight of the shekel is somewhat differently estimated by different authorities. The best computations fix it at about 220 grains, and this would make the allowance of twenty shekels equal to something less than eleven ounces, scarcely enough to sustain life. “Meat” is here used, as often in Scripture, of any kind of food. The extreme scarcity of food is also denoted by its being weighed rather than measured. “From time to time” means at set intervals of time (see 1 Chronicles 9:25), here doubtless once a day. Only the longer period of 390 days is here mentioned, but the same command doubtless applied to both periods.

Verse 11

(11) The sixth part of an hin.—There is also a difference among the authorities as to the measures of capacity for liquids. These would make the sixth part of an hin from six-tenths to nine-tenths of a pint. This also was to be drunk once a day.

Verse 12

(12) As barley cakes.—These were commonly cooked in the hot ashes, hence the especial defilement caused by the fuel required to be used. Against this the prophet pleads, not merely as revolting in itself, but as ceremonially polluting (Ezekiel 4:14; see Leviticus 5:3; Leviticus 7:21), and a mitigation of the requirement is granted to him (Ezekiel 4:15).

In their sight—This is still a part of the vision. The words have been thought to determine that the whole transaction was an actual symbolic act and not a vision; but this does not follow. It need only have been a part of the vision that what was done was done publicly.

Verse 13

(13) Eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles.—The Mosaic law purposely so hedged the people about with detailed precepts in regard to their food and its preparation, that it was impossible for them to share the food of the Gentiles without contracting ceremonial defilement; and the declared object of this symbolism is to teach that the Israelites should thus be forced to contract defilement. Their sins had brought them to that pass, which is so often the result of continued and obdurate sin, that it should be impossible for them to avoid further transgression. Ezekiel shows by his reply, in Ezekiel 4:14, that like St. Peter, in Acts 10:14, he had ever been a scrupulous observer of the law. To St. Peter, however, it was made known that in the breadth of the Christian dispensation this ceremonial law was now done away, while to Ezekiel it still remained in full force.

Verse 15

(15) Cow’s dung.—In the scarcity of fuel in the East, cow’s dung and especially camel’s dung, is dried, and becomes the common fuel.

Verse 16

(16) I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem.—In Ezekiel 4:16-17, the meaning of the foregoing symbolism is declared in plain language. Bread, as the chief article of food is put for all food, the specific for the general. There shall be extreme suffering and distress, as a part of the punishment for their long-continued sins.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.