SWORD, FAMINE, PLAGUE Ezekiel 4–7
“Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again” (Ezek. 5:9).There are times when the most severe of judgments is absolutely necessary. It was so in Ezekiel’s day. As God’s watchman, the prophet began his ministry by uttering dark and terrible words.
It was not unknown for prophets to act out their messages. In Jerusalem, Jeremiah placed a yoke on his shoulders when calling for submission to Babylon. In Babylon, Ezekiel communicated a certainty of divine judgment by making the street in front of his house a stage, and performing strange acts there. How quickly the gossip would have spread, and members of the captive community would have come by to see and puzzle over the peculiar acts of their eccentric prophet. And, when everyone was talking and wondering what it all meant, Ezekiel would explain in blunt and powerful words. The drama drew the audience. The explanation must have aroused the utmost horror, as well as denial and disbelief. For over a year Ezekiel lay before a rough model of Jerusalem under siege, portraying the final Babylonian attack on the Holy City. It was unnecessary for Ezekiel to explain what his actions meant: the terrible meaning was plain to every observer.
Ezekiel publicly acted out the siege of Jerusalem (4:1–17) and shaved his head and beard to symbolize the city’s fate (5:1–17). He prophesied against the mountains of Israel where pagan worship services were performed (6:1–14), and then announced plainly that judgment day was here: doom had burst forth (7:1–27).
Understanding the Text
“This will be a sign to the house of Israel” Ezek. 4:1–8.
For some 400 days Ezekiel lay bound, first on one side and then the other before a model of Jerusalem under siege. Each of the 400 days represented a year during which Israel and Judah were to “bear their sin.” If we calculate ahead from the dating Ezekiel uses, the first year of Jehoiachin’s exile, the 400 years ended in 167B.C-the initial year of the Maccabean revolt, which won Judah limited independence from foreign powers. “I will cut off the supply of food” Ezek. 4:9–17. Bread was commonly made of barley or wheat. Bread made by scraping together “wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt” was “bread of affliction.” That is, it was eaten only when a people were starving, mixing every scrap of food they could find. During the months Ezekiel was to act out the siege, he was allowed only eight ounces of this bread a day! This tiny ration, and Ezekiel’s own deteriorating condition, spoke powerfully of famine and suffering, to be experienced as Jerusalem fell. The drama Ezekiel performed reminds us that when God judges a society even those who speak up against its sins suffer with the rest. There is no safe place anyone can hide when judgment comes. How much better to speak out before it is too late, and turn our own nation back toward righteousness. “Shave your head and your beard” Ezek. 5:1–17. It was considered shameful in Old Testament times for a man to shave either head or beard. Ezekiel was told to bear the ridicule and reproach. His hair was divided into thirds, and disposed of in ways that illustrated the fate God intended for Jerusalem’s inhabitants (vv. 11–12). Again we sense the horror of sin, not so much by the listing of evils, but by descriptions of the punishments Judah would experience. As the desperate people of Jerusalem turned to cannibalism, eating even members of their own families, we sense a revulsion that captures something of God’s feelings about the acts of sin which led to these terrible consequences. If you and I fail to be horrified at sin itself, and draw back, God will horrify us with the punishment our sins bring! “The mountains and hills” Ezek. 6:1–14. The mountains and hills are singled out in this prophecy because pagan worship sites were located in “high places.” These locations would be the scene of slaughter, and the worship centers constructed there would be demolished. The prophecy is not at all peculiar, in view of the fact that locations have always had symbolic significance to human beings. In our own nation we need only think of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg, to realize what great meaning is often attached to places. A place takes on an aura linked to the events that took place there. This is something to consider when we think about our own homes. The mountains of Judah were associated with paganism and immorality. Do we guard our activities at home—and control our TV sets—so that in the minds of family members the place we live is associated forever with love, caring, hospitality, ministry, and righteousness? “Violence has grown into a rod to punish wickedness” Ezek. 7:1–27. The symbolic messages acted out by Ezekiel now give way to an announcement in plain and terrible words. God was about to pour His wrath out on Judah. There would be no escape, for the sword would ravage outside, while plague and starvation stalked their victims within the Holy City. The warning Ezekiel gave is as valid for today as it was nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. God will certainly “judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices” (v. 8).
Symbolic Acts(Ezek. 4)
How in the world do we get through to people? It’s a question that’s plagued prophets and preachers as well as ordinary believers from the beginning. Adam couldn’t reach Cain—and Cain killed his brother Abel. Moses couldn’t turn the Exodus generation, and they perished in the desert for their persistent disobedience. Isaiah and Micah and Jeremiah all called on the people of Judah to repent and change their ways. But their exhortations were ignored, and God’s people skipped merrily along sin’s highway—only to die by sword and famine and plague. How do we get through? All too often words just aren’t enough. That’s why Ezekiel acted out God’s message to the exiles in Babylon. They wouldn’t listen to words? Well, they did come to gawk at the gaunt prophet, lying bound beside toy Jerusalem. And to watch him wordlessly grind grains and cook his tiny daily portion of rough bread. They may not have listened. They may not have repented. But at least Ezekiel got their attention. At last they heard what the earlier prophets had been shouting stridently for centuries. That’s why recently my wife and I signed a pledge card, and sent it to the offices of two large companies identified by an impressive coalition of Christian groups as sponsors of TV shows relying on excessive portrayals of sex and violence. That pledge card says that for the next year, we’ll buy no more of their products. And, hopefully, millions of other Christians will sign, and carry out, that same pledge. Oh, the boycott probably won’t win any converts. It may not even bring about any restraint in TV-land. But it is a symbolic act; an act that sends a message a little louder than words. At the very least this act, multiplied by millions, may get someone’s attention. It may say what desperately needs to be said. That the moral boundaries of our society have been shrinking. That sins once publicly decried are now portrayed as normal behavior. And that unless Christians take a stand, and unless our voice is heard, God will surely act against our country too, to “judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices.”
If Christians do not take a public stand for righteousness, who will?