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The Third and Fourth Cycles: The Third—Chapters 20-23
WE have here the third cycle. The prophet takes occasion for a new beginning, from the visit of men from the elders of the people. These are here, as in ch. Ezekiel 14:1, representatives, not of the totality of the exiles, but of the great mass of those only externally fearing God, but internally addicted to the spirit of the world and the age. The embassy had probably a special occasion in the circumstances of the time, in a favourable turn which the affairs of the coalition had taken. They wish to obtain confirmation of their joyful hopes from the mouth of the prophet. As long as he remains in the former position, things do not stand well with them. The prominent question is not about salvation in general, but whether there can be salvation without judgment and without repentance—salvation for the people as they now are. They do not consider that a total revolution must take place in them, if they are to be capable of salvation.
The direct answer to the embassy is contained in ch. Ezekiel 20; the further details are given in ch. Ezekiel 21:1 to Ezekiel 23:49. In ch. Ezekiel 20 the prophet sets their sins before Israel till Ezekiel 20:20. The description has four paragraphs: Israel in Egypt—the first station in the wilderness—the second station—Israel in Canaan. With a people so obstinately persevering in their sins, from their origin, through all times down to the present, God must hold a great reckoning, which is at the same time a purification ( Ezekiel 20:30-39). Yet the judgment will be followed by grace for those who are purified thereby ( Ezekiel 20:40-44).
Ezekiel 21. In vivid terms the prophet now places before the eyes of the people, captivated by foolish hopes, a figure of the fall of the city and kingdom, which formed the bright points of their hopes. The endeavour is everywhere visible, to obtain by the clearness of the description a representation of the reality not yet existing, but already germinating, and in this way to withdraw the people from their delusions, and make penitence take the place of politics.
The prophet first, in Ezekiel 20:45-49, brings before the people in a riddle the catastrophe awaiting the mother country, to which all their longing was directed. Ezekiel 20:1. And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 2. Son of man, set thy face towards the right, and drop towards the south, and prophesy against the forest of the south field. 3. And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it will devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched thereby. 4. And all flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched. 5. And I said. Ah Lord Jehovah, they say of me. Doth he not speak parables?
Judea appears as the south land ( Ezekiel 20:46), from the standpoint of the exile. It is usual with the prophets to designate Chaldea, and in general the world-monarchy in inner Asia, as the north country, wherein the geographical situation is not so much regarded as the circumstance that the armies of this power entered the land from the north through Syria, and the captives were also carried away to the north. The forest in its density is a figure for the people. It is designated as the forest of the field, in opposition to that of the mountain, because it is here treated of a people of culture. The destruction of a people under the figure of a forest on fire appears already in Isaiah 9:18. “Green tree and dry tree” ( Ezekiel 20:47) are, according to the exposition in Ezekiel 21:3-4, the righteous and the unrighteous (comp. Luke 23:31). The faces represent, as often, the whole persons. This is the noble material which the fire has to consume. Even its non-extinction ( Ezekiel 20:8) shows that the Lord kindled the fire. If we see that all human plans and devices, even the most promising, come to nothing, we are led to the confession that we have to do with personal omnipotence and righteousness, against which the battle is unavailing. The riddle is easy to solve, and the prophet has to do with a sharpwitted people; but the hearers will not understand ( Ezekiel 20:49), because the truth is unpleasant to them, and retire with a certain irony behind the difficulty of the form, and make as if they did not understand. To take away this miserable excuse from them, to punish them for their ironical hardness of hearing, he expresses the same in clear and plain terms in the following passage.
Ezekiel 20:6. And the word of the LORD came unto me, saving, 7. Son of man, set thy face toward Jerusalem, and drop toward the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel. 8. And say to the land of Israel, Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I am on thee, and will draw my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked. 9. Because I cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked, therefore shall my sword go forth out of its sheath on all flesh from south to north. 10. And all flesh shall know that I the Lord have drawn my sword out of its sheath: it shall not return. 11. And thou, son of man, sigh with the breaking of thy loins, and with bitterness shalt thou sigh before their eyes. 12. And it shall be, when they say unto thee. Wherefore sighest thou? then thou shalt say, For the tidings, because it cometh; and every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble, and every spirit shall faint, and all knees shall dissolve into water: behold, it is come, and has happened, saith the Lord Jehovah.
“Drop toward the holy places” ( Ezekiel 21:2): to drop (comp. Ezekiel 20:46) is a term of art to denote the prophetic utterance, taken from Deuteronomy 32:2, to which passage the word, wherever it occurs, points as definitely as an express citation. Moses there compares his word, the primeval form of all prophecy, with a fruitful rain, though it is a sharp discourse of punishment and repentance, and holds forth the crushing judgments of God. The salutary effect is the point of comparison. What is bitter to the mouth is wholesome to the heart. The word of God in all its parts, even there where it is sharper than a two-edged sword, is like the quickening rain. Of the holy place (the plural refers to the glory of the one sanctuary) as a building the prophet does not speak in the following words. All applies there to the people. The holy place here, as often (comp. especially Jeremiah 7:4), can only be regarded as the spiritual abode of the people. The catastrophe, according to Ezekiel 21:3, comes upon the righteous and the wicked. This is not in contradiction with Ezekiel 9:4, according to which the righteous, amidst the impending catastrophe, are the object of the protecting and sustaining activity of God. For if two suffer the same, yet it is not the same. To those who love God must all things be for the best ( Romans 8:28). “From north to south” ( Ezekiel 21:9), from Dan to Beersheba, in the whole compass of the Jewish territory (comp. Ezekiel 20:47). In the sentence, “it shall not return” ( Ezekiel 21:10), the subject is, according to Ezekiel 20:48, not misfortune in its divine determination, but misfortune generally. That God has drawn the sword, will appear from the futility of all attempts to turn away the sword or the misfortune. The prophet laments in Ezekiel 21:6 not from his own soul, but as representative of Israel.  Michaelis writes, “Because thou art set as a type of the future misfortune of the Jews.” The loins of him are said to be broken whom acute pain robs of all power and strength. The tidings in Ezekiel 21:7 is the account of the accomplished misfortune which the prophet, representing his people, wrapt into the future, has already received. All knees are dissolved as water, or into water, so that they become water, like water in laxity and incoherence. The prophet represents in his own person this future condition of the people.
 Comp. Micah 1:8; Isaiah 20:3-4; Isaiah 21:3-4; Christol. i. 490 f.
Ezekiel 21:13-22. The figure already indicated in Ezekiel 21:3-7, of the avenging sword of God, is here unfolded: we have here, so to speak, a sacred sword and battle song. Ezekiel 21:13. And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 14. Son of man, prophesy and say. Thus saith the LORD, Say, A sword, a sword is sharpened, and also furbished. 15. For slaughter to slay is it sharpened, and it is furbished that it may flash: or shall we rejoice over the rod of my son, despising every tree? 16. And he gave it to be furbished, that he might hold it with the palm: this sword is sharpened and furbished, that he may give it into the hand of the slayer. 17. Cry and howl, son of man; for it shall be upon my people, it shall be upon all the princes of Israel: they shall be devoted to the sword with my people: therefore smite upon the thigh. 18. For it is a trial, and how? Should the despising rod not be? saith the Lord Jehovah. 19. And thou, son of man, prophesy, and smite palm on palm, and the sword shall be doubled threefold: it is the sword of the slain, the sword of a slain man of the great, that pierces into them. 20. That the heart may faint, and the stumblings be multiplied at all their gates, I give the weight  of the sword: ah! it is made to flash, sharpened for slaughter. 21. Unite thyself, go to the right, give heed, go to the left, whither thy face is set. 22. And I also will smite my palm upon my palm, and make my fury rest: I the Lord have spoken.
 The sense of this word, occurring only here, can be determined only by the context.
“And also furbished” ( Ezekiel 21:9), so that with its terrible flash it dazzles the eyes of those against whom it is drawn. “The rod of the son, which despises all wood” ( Ezekiel 21:10), is the punishment hanging over Israel, which exceeds all other punishments in rigour, according to the law that is set forth in Luke 12:47: every one is judged according to the measure of grace which he has received. This rod, says the Lord, is truly no object of joy.  The joy is the counterpart to the sighing in Ezekiel 21:7; comp. Ezekiel 21:12, “Have I not had cause enough to call thee to sighing, or shall we rejoice?” etc. “We”—I and thou—comes out from the soul of the people itself. For the emotion here applies not to the representative, but to those whose lot and mood are represented. The Lord first Himself takes the sharpened and polished sword into His hand ( Ezekiel 21:11), and then hands it over to the instruments of His punitive justice. In Ezekiel 21:12 also the prophet is not to express his personal compassion, but to foreshadow the expression of those on whom the judgment fell. The words “for (it is) a trial” point with the utmost brevity to the character of the impending time, which presented itself in rosy hues to the politically excited people. Trial is a terrible word to a people that suffers the deepest calamities. When the trial comes, nothing remains undisclosed, nothing unrequited; every varnish disappears, and all glitter vanishes. With a view to the sanguine imaginations by which the people sought to banish the thought of the hardness of the times, the prophet then asks, “And how? Should the despising rod (the punishment that far outstrips all other punishments, Ezekiel 21:11) not be?” And the answer to this question he gives in the names of God, which utter a loud no to these illusions. Clapping the hands ( Ezekiel 21:14) is a gesture of lively excited feeling, which may be of various kinds ( 2 Kings 11:12; Job 27:23), and is here the prognostic of an impending energetic action. The sword shall be doubled for the third time, three times doubled,—a combination of two different designations of the earnestness and energy of the divine punishment. That it is the sword of the slain points to this, that many shall thereby fall; that it is the sword of one slain of the great, of a slain one who is great, indicates that it rages not merely in the lower regions, but ascends to the highest (comp. Ezekiel 21:30). The stumblings before the gates (: Ezekiel 21:15), at which in the sallies the fiercest conflict burns, are the heaps of the fallen over which a man stumbles. In Ezekiel 21:16 the address is to the sword. “Unite thyself” alludes to the thrice doubled sword in Ezekiel 21:14. In reality, the terrible weight is designated with which the divine judgment falls on him whom it is to strike. “Go to the right,” “go to the left,” intimates that the sphere of the judgment to be executed has wide dimensions; it embraces not merely Judea, but a whole group of peoples. “Give heed” corresponds to “unite thyself,” and implies that the sword must and will do its part earnestly and zealously. The sword will perform the said actions, whither its face is set, where only God orders it to rage for merited punishment. “And I also” ( Ezekiel 21:22): this looks back to Ezekiel 21:14, where God commands the prophet to smite on the hands. The fury rests when it reaches the object to which it is directed ( Ezekiel 21:13).
 Text: שוש with the accusative of the object of joy ( Isaiah 35:1).
Ezekiel 21:23-32. Judah, who thinks himself above all the peoples, first incurs the divine vengeance, yet not to perpetual ruin; Ammon, that mocked at his calamity, shall follow him therein, but not resemble him in his restoration. The beginning is here also fearfully threatening, sharply cutting off all hope; yet, at the end, a ray of promise falls upon the chilly night.
Ezekiel 21:23. And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, 24. And thou, son of man, appoint thee two ways, that the sword of the king of Babylon may come: they both shall come out of one land, and form a hand, form it at the head of the way to a city. 25. Thou shalt appoint a way, that the sword may come to Rabbah of the sons of Ammon, and to Judah in Jerusalem the fortified. 26. For the king of Babylon stands at the mother of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divinations: shakes the arrows, consults the teraphim, inspects the liver. 27. In his right hand is the divination, Jerusalem, to place battering-rams, to open the mouth in the slaughter, to lift up the voice with the war-cry, to place rams at the gates, to cast a mount, to build towers. 28. And it is to them a treacherous divination in their eyes, that was sworn with an oath to them; and he calls to remembrance iniquity, that he may be taken.
Ezekiel 21:19. The action belongs here also only to the inner world. The external representation would descend into the puerile. Because the matter belongs to the internal, the mere command suffices; the execution is not mentioned. We have here the outline that is carried out in what follows. According to it, two ways are parted, not from home, from Babylon; the parting commences at a determinate point, at which the prophet in the very beginning is placed, because the decision is there made. The hand, or the guide, points to the end of the way, which cannot always pursue its end on account of the difficulties presented by the country, and indicates the direction only for a short distance. The city is still undefined; the definition follows in Ezekiel 21:20. “In Jerusalem” ( Ezekiel 21:20): this shows that Judah has his essence in Jerusalem. Materially, Jerusalem lay in Judah; spiritually, Judah in Jerusalem. “The fortified:” this points out how far Judah lay in Jerusalem. It is the beating heart of the land, and therefore is fortified in the strongest manner. The historical presupposition is, that Ammon no less than Judah has incurred the anger of the king of Babylon. With Judah it belonged to the same anti-Chaldaic coalition; and it is antecedently settled that it, no less than Judah, had to expect the vengeance of the king of Babylon. It lay somewhat nearer Chaldea than Jerusalem, and hence the human probability was that the judgment would commence there. But the prophet learns the contrary by divine revelation. By the providence of God, who turns the hearts of men as the water-brooks, it comes to pass that judgment begins at the house of God. The mother of the way ( Ezekiel 21:21) is the main road, from which two by-roads, the daughters, branch off. That there are here two, is asserted in what follows, at the head of the two ways. What is said of divination is only dress taken from the manner in which decisions were usually made among the Chaldeans. The thought is simply that, in the providence of God, who is here to be conceived as standing behind the divination, which is in itself utterly delusive, according to Ezekiel 21:23 and Ezekiel 21:29, and bending it to his own objects, the king will first march against Jerusalem, lulling itself asleep with delusive hopes. The practice of soothsaying, which here includes the interpretation of signs, is the general; the three different species follow. The teraphim are intermediate gods, serving for the investigation of the future.  “In his right hand is the divination, Jerusalem” ( Ezekiel 21:22)—is handled with the right hand: he has the decision spiritually therein; is determined in his actions by the decision given for Jerusalem through the divination in its three forms, or at least in the most weighty of them. The placing of the battering-rams is followed by the cry accompanying them; it is then taken up again, and with it the other directly practical measures are connected. The slaughter-cry of the besiegers is called slaughter, because the slaughter is virtually contained in it. The inhabitants of Jerusalem ( Ezekiel 21:23) foreboded not, in their blindness, what was before them. They repelled every thought of the impending destruction, as if the question was only about delusive soothsaying (the true prophets they degraded to miserable soothsayers; the false, who promised them good fortune, they elevated into true prophets); whereas it was in truth about a fixed and irrevocable decree of God,  which is made known to them anew by His servant the prophet, the son of man, behind whom the Almighty stands. In this manner Judah brings to remembrance the iniquity, to atone for which by sincere repentance was his immediate duty. Ezekiel 21:24 shows that Israel is spoken of in the words, “and he calls to remembrance.”
 Christol. on Hosea 3:4, Zechariah 10:2.
 The sworn of the oath is that which is sworn to by oath, as the announcement of destruction in Ezekiel is mostly introduced by the formula, “As I live.”
Ezekiel 21:29-32. We have here the second paragraph of the section, connected with the first not merely by the formula, “And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,” but by the placing of Judah over against Ammon. The beginning here again is threatening. In the course of the prophecy, however, reference is made to the glorious resurrection of Israel after the judgments, whereas Ammon is doomed by them to utter perdition.
Ezekiel 21:29. Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Because ye bring your iniquity to remembrance, since your transgressions are discovered, and your sins are seen in all your doings; because ye are come to remembrance, ye shall be taken with the palm. 30. And thou, slain wicked one, prince of Israel, whose day comes at the time of the iniquity of the end: 31. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Remove the head-band, and take off the crown: this is not this; to exalt the low, and abase the high. 32. Overturn, overturn, overturn will I make it: this also is not, until he come whose right it is; to him I give it. 33. And thou, son of man, prophesy and say. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah of the children of Ammon and of their reproach: and thou shalt say, A sword, a sword is drawn to slay, furbished sufficiently,  in order to flash. 34. While they see vanity for thee, while they divine a lie to thee, to set thee on the necks of the slain among the wicked, whose day is come in the time of the iniquity of the end. 35. Return (thy sword) into its sheath: in the place where thou wast created, in the land of thy origin will I judge thee. 36. And I will pour out my anger upon thee; the fire of my indignation I will blow upon thee, and I will give thee into the hand of burning men skilful to destroy. 37. Thou shalt be for fuel to the fire; thy blood shall be in the midst of the land: thou shalt not be remembered; for I the Lord have spoken it.
 Luther, “that it shall consume.” לחכיל (comp. 23:32) means properly embracing, filling up the whole sphere of a polished sword. Luther has derived the form from אכל , to consume.
They bring their iniquity to remembrance ( Ezekiel 21:24) by this, that they continue their sinful life in the face of judgment. The palm is that of the minister of the divine vengeance. The king, in Ezekiel 21:26,  includes the people under him, and comes forward as their representative. It is not implied in this, that he shall personally and individually submit to the sword, which would be in contradiction with ch. Ezekiel 12:13, according to which he shall come to Babylon, but not see it. This can be the less thought of, as the sword in the foregoing passage is God’s sword of vengeance, the symbol of His punitive justice. The “iniquity of the end” is the iniquity that brings on the end, the catastrophe, by which the measure will at length be made full. The iniquity of the end for Zedekiah was resistance to the faithful counsel of Jeremiah. The infinitive in Ezekiel 21:26 denotes the mere action, without stating from whom it proceeds. Ideally regarded, the king bears, as the representative of the whole people, along with the crown, the head-band, or priestly cap.  The two are closely connected. The crown without the band is an empty show. The forgiveness of sins, which was secured by the mediation of the high priest, whose dignity was overthrown with the fall of the sanctuary, forms the foundation of all the royal blessings of God. In the Messiah, in whom the kingdom attained to its full reality, a real union of the kingly and priestly offices is to take place (Zechariah 6), which were practically divided under the Old Testament on account of human weakness. “This is not this:” by this an entire revolution of the existing state of things is signified. This is also intimated by the abasing of the high, and the exalting of the low.  In a general overthrow the low is exalted, even by the fact that it becomes like the high, who are involved in the same downfall. The people have in their procedure turned the lowest into the highest; and in just retribution, the same takes place in their experience. All is levelled. The threefold repetition of overturning, or destruction, in Ezekiel 21:27, points to its completeness. “An overturning I make it”—the existing state of things, or even the land. “This also,” the new state of things produced by the destruction, “is not,” has no permanence. Overthrow follows on overthrow, as on the Chaldean period soon follows the Persian, and so on, till at length the Messiah comes, brings all into order, and founds a state of unchangeable duration. The Messiah is designated as He “whose right it is,” The right is God’s, according to Deuteronomy 1:17; and this right He gives to the Messiah, as His representative on earth, that He may uphold it there, and make an end of the reign of wrong, according to Psalms 72:1, to which passage there is a pointed reference. 
 Text: On Ezekiel 21:30-32 more extended discussions are given, in Christol. ii. p. 562 f.
 מצנפת is only used for the diadem of the high priest, and stands for this in the Pentateuch, which Ezekiel closely follows no less than eleven times.
 שפלח is masc., with ה unaccented, which here only serves to make the form fuller and more sonorous.
 At the same time to the prophecy concerning Shiloh, the peaceful, to whom the peoples shall adhere, in Genesis 49:10. The letters of this word form the beginnings of the words in Ezekiel (Christol. i. 99). “To whom I give it; “properly, and I give it. The suffix refers to the right. The fundamental passage ( Psalms 72:1) requires this reference. The person to whom it is given being known from the context, needs no closer designation.
The children of Ammon ( Ezekiel 21:28) represent the world-power hostile to the kingdom of God. Yet the representative is not taken accidentally out of the multitude of the heathen peoples hostile to the kingdom of God; but the prophet takes occasion from the circumstances of the time. Amnion had at that time, no less than Judah, incurred the anger of the Chaldeans; and so it was natural to exemplify in him the general truth; the more natural, because the vengeance was first to fall on Judah, while Ammon appeared to come out of the affair with high shoes, and mocked Judah, who had to pay the score. “Their reproach”—the insults which they heaped upon Judah. The prophet foresees that the Ammonites, on the approach of danger, will withdraw from the coalition (comp. Lamentations 1:2), and on the catastrophe of Jerusalem give free course to their ancient hatred against Judah. Judah exchanges the prophecy that was unfavourable to him for the divination ( Ezekiel 21:23), and by this fatal exchange falls: Ammon exchanges ( Ezekiel 21:29) the divination favourable to him for the prophecy, and thereby prepares himself at all events for the downfall. The necks of the slain are specially prominent, because they have there received the death-stroke. All the resistance of Ammon is vain ( Ezekiel 21:31), for they have God for their foe. The prophet sees before his eyes how they draw the sword to guard against the foe. This explains the phrase “return into its sheath,” without express mention of the sword. We have here the fundamental passage for Matthew 26:52. “Burning men” ( Ezekiel 21:31) are those who are filled with glowing anger. “Thou shalt not be remembered” ( Ezekiel 21:32). From the times of the Maccabees, the Ammonites and Moabites have quite disappeared out of history.
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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ezekiel 21". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26