Did a Prophet Really Lay on His Side for More than a Year? (Ezekiel 4)

Did a Prophet Really Lay on His Side for More than a Year? (Ezekiel 4)

Written by Iain M. Duguid |
Friday, November 18, 2022

As a prophet, Ezekiel embodies in his actions both the Lord who has sent him and the people of Israel to whom he goes. In this dual representation Ezekiel foreshadows the ultimate sign-act, in which the Word becomes flesh and the Lord of Glory humbles himself to come and live among us, an act far more restrictive and humiliating for divine glory than anything Ezekiel undertakes. Jesus comes not merely to show us the enormous scale of our sin for which judgment could rightly befall us. He comes also to bear our punishment through the priestly act of atoning for us, offering his own body as a sacrifice on the cross to deal with our sin, once for all (Eph. 5:2). 

1“And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. 2And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around. 3And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. 4“Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. 5For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. 6And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year.7And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. 8And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege.

Ezekiel is commanded to begin his ministry immediately by performing a series of sign-acts, warning of the coming of judgment upon Jerusalem and Judah. Many of the prophets are instructed to carry out dramatic action to accompany their messages, ranging from simple sermon illustrations to complex acted-out parables. These signs are not merely visual aids; they are designed to reach people’s wills and hearts, enabling people not just to see the truth but to feel it.1 Ezekiel performs more sign-acts than most prophets, perhaps because his communicative task is harder than most. He must preach a message of Jerusalem’s inevitable downfall to a people convinced it could not be captured by the nations—and then, after the city’s fall, he must convey hope for the future to a people crushed by despair. Even those who are reluctant to stop and listen to Ezekiel’s words will be forced to recognize the import of his message through these dramatic signs. It will become clear even to a reluctant audience that a prophet has been in their midst when these signs begin to become reality.

The first of his sign-acts is in three related parts, depicting Jerusalem as a city besieged not merely by the Babylonians but by God as a result of the people’s long history of sin. Those who remain inside the city will be reduced to starvation rations and, worse, forced to eat defiled food. The exile in Babylon will not be a brief sojourn but a lifetime, akin to the forty-year wilderness wanderings. There is a glimmer of hope in that Ezekiel’s 430-day ordeal matches the nation’s 430-year stay in Egypt, suggesting the possibility of a new exodus at its conclusion. Yet the focus of the sign-acts is very much on the reality of the imminent judgment on Jerusalem from the Lord.

First Sign

Ezekiel’s first sign-act involves erecting an elaborate model depicting Jerusalem as a city under siege. He is to take a clay brick, perhaps 10 inches by 24 inches (25 cm by 61 cm), and draw a map or a picture of Jerusalem on it while it is still soft (v. 1). Such bricks were common building materials in Babylon, and city plans sketched out on bricks have been excavated at the site of Nippur, in the same region as Ezekiel’s exile.2 Then the prophet is to create a diorama of a besieged city around the brick, with siege ramps, army camps strategically located around the city, and battering rams to break through the walls (v. 2)—all the latest weaponry and the overwhelming force the Babylonians will bring to bear on Jerusalem. With the city surrounded by the Babylonians, there would be no way into or out of Jerusalem.

Yet the Babylonians are not Jerusalem’s biggest problem. The prophet himself is to take the Lord’s part in the drama, with his face fixed toward Jerusalem, representing a settled attitude toward the city, and an iron griddle, or pan, between him and the city, depicting the complete severing of relations between Israel and her God (v. 3). The use of an iron object highlights the impenetrability of the barrier. No communication between the people and the Lord will be possible, which means that their cries for mercy and relief will go unheeded. This griddle is thus the visual equivalent of the Lord’s forbidding Ezekiel in the previous chapter to act as an intercessor for the city (cf. comment on 3:24–27 [at v. 26]).

The dual agency of Jerusalem’s awful fate is prominent throughout these signs. The Babylonians may provide the army that is to besiege the city, but it is the Lord who has decreed the city’s inevitable destruction and has cut off any channels of communication. This must have seemed inconceivable to many of the prophet’s contemporaries, raised on the assurance of Psalm 46, that Zion could not fall so long as the Lord dwelt within her. Ezekiel will challenge head on this concept of Jerusalem’s inviolability in Ezekiel 8–11 (cf. the sermon of Ezekiel’s contemporary Jeremiah in Jeremiah 7).

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