Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The division between this and the preceding chapter is unfortunate; both should be read as one continuous passage. What is symbolically described in the last verses of Ezekiel 2 and the first of Ezekiel 3 is expressed plainly in Ezekiel 3:10-11.
EXCURSUS A (at end of Ezekiel 3): ON THE FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE AND SYMBOLICAL ACTIONS OF EZEKIEL.
At this point, when the prophet has been fully commissioned for his work, and his actual prophecies begin, it may be well to consider their general character, especially as the very next chapter brings us at once into the midst of symbolical action. That much of Ezekiel’s language is figurative, and that some of the actions he records were done in vision only, it is impossible to doubt. Thus, for example, in Ezekiel 24:6 the prophet is told to “bring it (the city) out piece by piece,” and then to set it upon the coals (Ezekiel 3:11), which of course could only have been done mentally or symbolically, and that it was the former is plain from Ezekiel 3:3. In Ezekiel 21:19, the appointing of two ways, from which the king of Babylon was to choose, could not have been literally done; and there are many like passages, in which it is plain that the prophet has merely expressed in concrete figures (thus giving them vividness and force) the ideas he wished to convey. On the other hand, there are passages in which a symbolical use is made of events and acts which are evidently to be taken in a literal sense. Thus in Ezekiel 24:16-24, it would be impossible to understand the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife and the prohibition of mourning for her as otherwise than strictly literal, and yet he is directed to make important symbolical use of them. What has been said of actions applies equally to prophecies. There is in them also the same mingling of the literal and the symbolical, the same intense disposition to embody every thought in some concrete form.
How then, it may be asked, is the literal to be distinguished from the figurative, whether in language or in act? It may not always be possible to do so in regard to every detail; to be absolutely certain whether the binding of Ezekiel 3:25, for instance, was only a figurative expression or a symbolical act, although, in this case, we believe the former to be the true explanation. But the details of the application are comparatively unimportant; and sometimes there may well be a difference of opinion in regard to them. The literal and the figurative blend together, and pass the one into the other, in the prophet’s teaching of these spiritual infants, as children often carry on their tales partly by sensible images and partly by pure imagination. In fact, this is often a necessity in the teaching of things which lie partly above human comprehension, as may be seen, for instance, in our Lord’s description of the end of the world, and in many other passages. No serious harm can come of occasionally understanding literally that which was meant figuratively, provided it contains no internal marks of its figurative character. In the chapter which immediately follows there has always been a difference of opinion whether the prophet actually performed the symbolic actions recorded, or whether they were only mentally done, and then related. The latter seems almost the necessary interpretation, for several reasons: the mere lying upon one side for 390 days, so bound that he could not move, if not an impossibility, is extremely unlikely; it is also inconsistent with the command for the preparation of his food during the same time; the amount of food allowed, though sufficient to sustain life, would have led to great emaciation; the preparation of the food itself would have been, in the eyes of the law, abominable; and although this is very effective as a vision, it would have been exceedingly strange as a reality; the tile seems quite insufficient in size for all the uses to which it is put; and, finally, the time of 430 days in all is scarcely possible. From the fifth day of the fourth month in the fifth year (Ezekiel 1:1-2), to the fifth day of the sixth month of the sixth year (Ezekiel 8:1), according to the length of either the Jewish or Chaldean year, would have been 420 days only, and at least eight days of this had already passed. There is, then, too little time by eighteen days, and even if we were to suppose that this was the year for an intercalary month (of which there is no evidence), it would yet leave but twelve intervening days for the two important prophecies of Ezekiel 6, 7. Still there has been a difference of opinion here, and it is not of much consequence in itself. The important point is to recognise the general habit of the prophet’s mind; for there can be no satisfactory interpretation of his writings without a full appreciation of his readiness to clothe his thoughts in concrete forms, whether those forms were sensible realities or only the creations of his own mind.
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel.
And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.(3) It was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.—That is, the first impression made upon him by his prophetic call was one of delight. Such it must always be to those whose high privilege it is to bear God’s message to their fellows. He does not expressly add, as St. John does (Revelation 10:10) after a similar first sensation, “as soon as I had eaten it my belly was “bitter;” but it may easily be inferred from Ezekiel 3:14 that such was his experience also, when he went with his heavy message to a people indisposed to give ear. (Comp. Jeremiah 15:16; Jeremiah 20:7-18.)
For thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech and of an hard language, but to the house of Israel;(5) To a people of a strange speech.—In Ezekiel 3:4-7 it is emphasised that Ezekiel’s immediate mission is to be, like that of his great Antitype, to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel; “and yet that they would not give the heed to him which men far below them in spiritual privilege would have gladly yielded. Similar facts are continually encountered in the Scriptures, whether in its histories, as in those of Naaman the Syrian, of the faith of the Syro-Phœnician woman (Matthew 15:21-28), and of the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10-12), or in the express declarations of our Lord that the teaching and signs given to Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum in vain would have been more than sufficient for the conversion of Tyre, or Sidon, or even of Sodom (Matthew 11:21; Matthew 11:23; Matthew 12:41-42). If it be asked, Why then should so much of the Divine compassion be expended upon a nation which so generally refused to avail itself of its blessings? the answer must be that only thus could even a few be raised at all above the very lowest spiritual plane, and that the raising of these few leads ultimately to the elevation of many. As an accountable being, man must be left free to neglect the proffered grace; and, as in the case of the Israelites to whom Ezekiel was sent, there would always be many who choose to do so. The consequence of this neglect must be such a hardening of the heart as was now shown by these people, and every man is warned by their example of the responsibility attached to the enjoyment of religious privilege. But the same thing would have happened with any other nation; and that God’s faithfulness should not fail, and that His purposes for man’s salvation should be accomplished, more grace must yet be given and His people must still be pleaded with, that at least a remnant of them might be led to repentance and be saved from the impending ruin. Theodoret calls attention to the contrast between the restriction of the grace of the Old Dispensation to a single people, and the universal diffusion of the preaching of the Gospel.
But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted.(7) All the house of Israel—Means, of course, the people generally, as the word all is often used in Scripture and elsewhere. There were even then among them such saints as Jeremiah and Daniel.
Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads.(8) Thy face strong against their faces.—The word strong is the same here as that rendered impudent (marg. stiff) in Ezekiel 3:7. Of course it must have a different shade of meaning in its application to the rebellious people and to the prophet; but the main thought is taken from the figure of horned animals in their contests, and God promises Ezekiel to make him in the struggle stronger than those who oppose him. The same thing is expressed by another figure in Ezekiel 3:9.
As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.(9) An adamant harder than flint.—Adamant is the diamond, as it is translated (Jeremiah 17:1). The people were as hard as flint, but as the diamond cuts flint, so Ezekiel’s words should be made by the Divine power to cut through all their resistance. Armed with this strength, he need not fear their obduracy, however great.
And go, get thee to them of the captivity, unto the children of thy people, and speak unto them, and tell them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear.(11) Get thee to them of the captivity.—Ezekiel’s mission is now made more definite. In Ezekiel 3:10 he has been told in plain terms what had already been symbolically conveyed under the figure of the roll, and now he is further informed that his immediate mission to the house of Israel is limited to that part of it which, like himself, was already in captivity. At this time, and for several years to come, this was a comparatively small part of the whole nation; but before Ezekiel’s ministrations were finished it embraced the mass of them. (See Introd., III.) It is noticeable that God directs him to go, not to My, but to thy people; just as in Ezekiel 2:3 He speaks of them as heathen, so here He refuses to recognise them in their present state as really His people. (Comp. Exodus 32:7; Ezekiel 33:2; Ezekiel 33:12; Ezekiel 33:17; Daniel 9:24; Daniel 10:14.) At the same time, there is thus indirectly suggested to the prophet a reminder that he is himself one of the same people, and needs therefore to be on his guard against the sin and obduracy which characterise them.
Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the LORD from his place.(12) Then the spirit took me up.—This also is to be understood as done in vision, as in Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 11:1; Ezekiel 11:24. (Comp. Acts 8:39.) In the last case the “taking up” is expressly said to have been in vision. This closes one act, so to speak, of the prophet’s consecration, and now the vision which he has been seeing all along leaves him for a time. He hears the great voice of ascription of praise, without definite mention of its source, but doubtless, as in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, from all that surround the throne; and he hears the noise of the moving wings of the cherubim, and of the wheels. He has seen the representation of the glory of Him who sends him, and has heard the character of his message. He must now, in the light of this knowledge, see those to whom he is sent. The Hebrew for “wings that touched one another” is beautifully figurative: “wings that kissed each one its sister.”
So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the LORD was strong upon me.(14) I went in bitterness, in the heat of my prophet now begins to realise the sorrow and the trial of the task laid upon him. The command of the Lord was sweet (Ezekiel 3:3), its performance is bitter. “But the hand of the Lord was strong” upon him, and he could not forbear. Compare the similar experience of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:8-9; see also Amos 3:8), when in his discouragement he had almost resolved to refuse to declare God s message, but the word of the Lord was as a burning fire within, and he could not refrain—an experience which every faithful teacher in God’s name is obliged, more or less fully, to pass through.
Then I came to them of the captivity at Telabib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.(15) I came to them of the captivity at Telabib.—Ezekiel now leaves the place where he had been, and comes to Tel-abib, which is described as still by the same “river of Chebar,” and which signifies the “mound of ears (of grain),” and was probably a place of especial fruitfulness, but which cannot be further identified. It appears to have been the central place of the captivity.
I sat where they sat is an expression of so much difficulty in the Hebrew, that it has given rise to various readings in the manuscripts, and to a marginal correction which has been followed by the English. Probably the vowel-pointing of the first word should be changed, and it will then read, “and I saw where they sat.”
Remained there astonished among them seven days.—Comp. Daniel 4:19; Ezra 9:3-4. The word implies a fixed and determined silence. “To be silent was the characteristic of mourners (Lamentations 3:28); to sit, their proper attitude (Isaiah 3:26; Lamentations 1:1); seven days, the set time of mourning (Job 2:13).” By this act the prophet shows his deep sympathy with his people in their affliction. This week of silent meditation among those to whom he was commissioned to speak corresponds, as already said, to the week of the consecration of his fathers to their priestly office (Leviticus 8). Such a season of retirement and thought has been given to other great religious leaders—to Moses, in his forty years of exile; to Elijah, in his forty days in Mount Horeb (1Kings 19:4-8); to St. Paul, in his journey to Arabia (Galatians 1:17); and to our Lord Himself, when He went into the wilderness after His baptism.
And it came to pass at the end of seven days, that the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,(16) At the end of seven days.—A fresh Divine communication comes to the prophet, designed especially to impress upon him the responsibility of his office (Ezekiel 3:16-21). In Ezekiel 33:1-20 the same charge is repeated with some amplification, and there Ezekiel 3:2-6 are taken up with describing the duties of the military sentinel, upon which both these figurative addresses are founded. The language is there arranged in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, to which there is indeed an approach here, but too imperfect to be easily represented in English. What is said there, moreover, is expressly required to be spoken to the people (Ezekiel 3:1), while this seems to have been immediately for the prophet’s own ear.
The substance of the communication in either place is this: man must in all cases live or die according to his own personal righteousness or sinfulness; but such a responsibility rests upon the watchman, that if he die unwarned his blood will be required at the watchman’s hand. The responsibility extends only, however, to the giving of the warning, not to its results: when the warning is given the watchman has “delivered his soul,” whether it is heeded or not. The word soul in Ezekiel 3:19; Ezekiel 3:21, as also in Ezekiel 33:5; Ezekiel 33:9, is not to be understood distinctively of the immortal part of man, but is equivalent to life, and forms here, as often in Hebrew, little more than a form of the reflective, thy soul = thyself.
In this charge the individual and personal relation in which every Israelite stood to God is strongly emphasised, that they may neither feel themselves lost because their nation is undergoing punishment, nor, on the other hand, think that no repentance is required of them individually because they “had Abraham to their father.” The gradual bringing out more and more fully the individual relation of man to God, at the expense of the comparative sinking of the federal relation, is one of the most strongly marked features of the progress of revelation, and at no other time was this progress so great as under the stern discipline of the captivity. In Ezekiel’s office of “watchman,” there is even an approach to the pastoral “cure of souls” under the Christian dispensation. Such an office had almost no place under the Old Testament, and. Ezekiel is the only one of the prophets who is charged to exercise this office distinctly towards individuals. Habakkuk, indeed, speaks of standing upon his watch on the tower (Habakkuk 2:1); Jeremiah, of the watchmen whom the people would not hear (Jeremiah 6:17); and Isaiah, of the “blind watchmen” (Isaiah 56:10); but the duty of all these was far more collective and national.
Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.(20) When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness.—Quite independently of any theological question, it is undeniable that the Scripture here, as often elsewhere, represents the upright man as exposed to temptation, and in danger of falling into sin. The duty of the prophet, therefore, is not only to seek to turn the wicked from his evil way, but also to warn the righteous against falling into the same path. Both terms must necessarily be taken as comparative; but they show that there was even now a considerable difference in character among the captives.
I lay a stumblingblock before him.—A “stumbling-block” is anything at which people actually stumble, whether intended for that purpose or, on the contrary, designed for their highest good. Thus Christ is foretold as a stumbling-block to both the houses of Israel (Isaiah 8:14), and is several times spoken of as such by the apostles (1Corinthians 1:23; Romans 9:32-33; 1Peter 2:8). The word is used oftener by Ezekiel than by all the other Old Testament writers together; in Ezekiel 7:19 the riches of the people are spoken of as their stumbling-block, and in Ezekiel 44:12 (marg.) the sinful Levites are described as a stumbling-block. The meaning here is plainly, “when a man perverts any of God’s gifts or providences into an occasion of sin.”
And the hand of the LORD was there upon me; and he said unto me, Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee.(22) The hand of the Lord was there upon me.—The prophet’s week of silent meditation being past, and the charge of responsibility given, the constraining power of God again comes upon him, and sends him forth to the final act of preparation for his work.
Then I arose, and went forth into the plain: and, behold, the glory of the LORD stood there, as the glory which I saw by the river of Chebar: and I fell on my face.(23) Went forth into the plain.—As he was now again to see the same vision as at the first, it was fitting that he should leave the thickly-peopled Tel-abib and seek a place of solitude, and in that solitude God promises him, “I will there talk with thee.” The vision reappeared; again the prophet fell on his face, and again the Spirit set him upon his feet, and talked with him.
Then the spirit entered into me, and set me upon my feet, and spake with me, and said unto me, Go, shut thyself within thine house.(24) Go, shut thyself within thine house.—The prophet’s consecration being now complete, he is to enter upon his actual work; yet, in view of the disposition of the people, he is to begin his prophecies in a private way, shut up in his house. Or it may be that this should be understood of a period of absolute silence and meditation preparatory to entering upon his work. Moreover, fresh warning is given of the reception he must be prepared to meet.
But thou, O son of man, behold, they shall put bands upon thee, and shall bind thee with them, and thou shalt not go out among them:(25) They shall put bands upon thee.—Ezekiel’s contemporary prophet, Jeremiah, was actually thrown into prison in Judæa, and even into a foul dungeon (Jeremiah 37:21; Jeremiah 38:6); but nothing of this kind is to be understood here. There is no trace of such treatment throughout the book, nor is it likely that it would have been suffered by Nebuchadnezzar among his captives, or possible under the administration of Daniel. Besides, a similar laying of bands upon him (although for a different purpose) is mentioned in Ezekiel 4:8, which must necessarily be understood figuratively. The compulsion described in this and the following verse was a moral one. Ezekiel’s countrymen, especially during the period of his warnings until the destruction of Jerusalem, should so absolutely refuse to hear him, that it would become practically impossible for him to declare his prophecies; he would be as if he were bound.
And I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth, that thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be to them a reprover: for they are a rebellious house.(26) I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth.—Here, under another figure, this enforced silence is attributed, not to “the rebellious house,” by whom it was immediately brought about, but to God Himself, whose providence was the ultimate cause by which the prophet was placed in such circumstances. It is a way of expressing strongly the difficulties under which he was to exercise his ministry.
But when I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth, and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; He that heareth, let him hear; and he that forbeareth, let him forbear: for they are a rebellious house.(27) When I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth.—To this Ezekiel evidently refers in Ezekiel 24:27; Ezekiel 33:22, when, after the destruction of Jerusalem, his mouth should no longer be shut. But until then, although he should be greatly restrained in his ordinary utterances by the opposition of the people, yet there would be times when God would give him a message with such power that he would be constrained to declare it, whether the people would hear or whether they would forbear. Such messages are those contained in this book, which at this point begin to be recorded. By all this the difficulties and trials under which the prophet must exercise his office are clearly and strongly set before him. (See Excursus I., “On the Figurative and Symbolical Language of Ezekiel.”)