1 “And you, O son of man, take a sharp sword. Use it as a barber’s razor and pass it over your head and your beard. Then take balances for weighing and divide the hair. 2 A third part you shall burn in the fire in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are completed. And a third part you shall take and strike with the sword all around the city. And a third part you shall scatter to the wind, and I will unsheathe the sword after them. 3 And you shall take from these a small number and bind them in the skirts of your robe. 4 And of these again you shall take some and cast them into the midst of the fire and burn them in the fire. From there a fire will come out into all the house of Israel.
5 “Thus says the Lord God: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. 6 And she has rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries all around her; for they have rejected my rules and have not walked in my statutes.” – Ezekiel 5:1-6 ESV
Can Ezekiel’s assignment get any stranger? He has already been commanded to spend the next 430 days lying in the street next to a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem. Each of those days, he has to act out the siege of Jerusalem while subsisting on a diet of nothing but bread and water. As the months go by, his body will begin to waste away from lack of food, and he will endure the ridicule and rejection of the very people for whom his message was intended.
But God was not done. He added another bizarre twist to this parable-in-a-play, commanding Ezekiel to remove his hair and beard using a sword. God’s choice of a sharp sword as Ezekiel’s shaving instrument was intentional and designed to illustrate the military nature of the siege. The residents of Jerusalem would be armed for battle because their city was under attack by the Babylonians. But the long duration of the siege and the resulting famine inside the city walls would leave its inhabitants hungry and demoralized. And the imagery of Ezekiel’s shaved head and beard was intended to reflect the severe state of mourning that will take place within the walls of Jerusalem.
The Mosaic Law prohibited God’s people from practicing the mourning rituals of the pagan nations around them.
“Since you are the people of the Lord your God, never cut yourselves or shave the hair above your foreheads in mourning for the dead. You have been set apart as holy to the Lord your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 14:1-2 NLT
The Torah interpreted these verses to be a prohibition on tonsuring, the pulling out or cutting of hair to express sorrow. This was a common practice among the pagan nations living in the land of Canaan. But God commanded His chosen people to abstain from such practices.
Yet, God commanded His prophet, Ezekiel, to shave his head and beard in order to demonstrate the severity of the siege and the humiliation the people would suffer for their rebellion against him. What made this command even more difficult for Ezekiel to obey was that it violated God’s laws concerning the priesthood of Israel.
“The priests must not shave their heads or trim their beards or cut their bodies. They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God.” – Leviticus 21:5-6 NLT
The people who witnessed this shocking display of self-degradation by Ezekiel would have understood its significance. By shaving his head and beard, this young priest would have willingly violated God’s law, rendering himself defiled and unholy. But what they might not have understood was that his action was a demonstration of their own spiritual state before God. They were defiled and unholy as well. Because of their stubborn refusal to repent, they were no longer considered holy or set apart as God’s chosen people.
And God had another bizarre element to add to Ezekiel’s performance. He was to take the hair and weigh it on a scale, dividing it into three equal parts.
“Place a third of it at the center of your map of Jerusalem. After acting out the siege, burn it there. Scatter another third across your map and chop it with a sword. Scatter the last third to the wind, for I will scatter my people with the sword.” – Ezekiel 5:2 NLT
It is important to remember that every phase of God’s instructions to Ezekiel was to be acted out in public. He was required to carry out God’s commands so that his fellow exiles could witness it with their own eyes. This message was for them.
So, God commanded that upon completion of his 430-day demonstration, Ezekiel was to burn one-third of the hair in the center of the model he had built. This was intended to represent all those who would be slaughtered within the city when the Babylonians broke through the walls.
Then God commanded Ezekiel to take another third of the hair and use his sword to chop it up outside the walls of his miniature model of Jerusalem. This action was intended to represent the wholesale massacre of all those who attempted to flee the city. And Ezekiel was commanded to take the final third of the hair and scatter it to the wind, illustrating all those who would end up “blown” by God’s will to the four corners of the earth. Some would escape and relocate to foreign lands, while a large number of the people would end up as captives in Babylon just like Ezekiel and his fellow exiles.
The book of 2 Chronicles records the devastating details surrounding the eventual siege and destruction of Jerusalem.
So the Lord brought the king of Babylon against them. The Babylonians killed Judah’s young men, even chasing after them into the Temple. They had no pity on the people, killing both young men and young women, the old and the infirm. God handed all of them over to Nebuchadnezzar. The king took home to Babylon all the articles, large and small, used in the Temple of God, and the treasures from both the Lord’s Temple and from the palace of the king and his officials. Then his army burned the Temple of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, burned all the palaces, and completely destroyed everything of value. The few who survived were taken as exiles to Babylon, and they became servants to the king and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. – 2 Chronicles 36:17-20 NLT
Everything that God commanded Ezekiel to act out would eventually become a painful reality for those still living within the walls of Jerusalem. God was using His young prophet to provide an eerily accurate portrayal of the fall of Jerusalem. He wanted the Jews living as exiles in Babylon to understand that His anger was not yet assuaged. There were some among them in Babylon who were suggesting that their days of suffering were almost over and they would soon be returning home. Others had become comfortable in their new surroundings in Babylon and had long ago given up hope or interest in returning to their homeland.
Even back in Jerusalem, there were those who were propagating the idea that the Babylonian siege would be shortlived and unsuccessful. The civil and religious leaders were trying to convince the people that God was going to rescue them from their predicament. But God had given His prophet, Jeremiah, a dramatically different message to deliver to the people.
“From the least to the greatest,
their lives are ruled by greed.
From prophets to priests,
they are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 6:13-14 NLT
Rather than confess their sins and return to the Lord in humility, these people were declaring themselves to be innocent and worthy of God’s rescue. Even Jeremiah would attempt to inform God about the deceptive rhetoric of the other self-appointed prophets of Judah.
Then I said, “O Sovereign Lord, their prophets are telling them, ‘All is well—no war or famine will come. The Lord will surely send you peace.’” – Ezekiel 14:13 NLT
He was fighting a one-man battle against disinformation and false news. But Jeremiah wasn’t telling God anything He didn’t already know. In fact, God assured Jeremiah that these false prophets would pay dearly for their lies.
Then the Lord said, “These prophets are telling lies in my name. I did not send them or tell them to speak. I did not give them any messages. They prophesy of visions and revelations they have never seen or heard. They speak foolishness made up in their own lying hearts. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I will punish these lying prophets, for they have spoken in my name even though I never sent them. They say that no war or famine will come, but they themselves will die by war and famine!” – Ezekiel 14:14-15 NLT
Meanwhile, back in Babylon, Ezekiel was putting on a show for the exiles, attempting to drive home the severity of God’s anger with His people. Their very presence in Babylon was proof that God was serious about sin and was more than willing to punish it severely. And He was far from done. Their fellow Jews back in Jerusalem were continuing to live in disobedience to God’s will and refusing to answer His call to repentance, and their actions had not escaped the eyes of the Almighty.
“…she has rebelled against my regulations and decrees and has been even more wicked than the surrounding nations. She has refused to obey the regulations and decrees I gave her to follow.” – Ezekiel 5:6 NLT
Ezekiel’s lengthy dramatic performance was meant to remind the unrepentant Jews in Babylon that God expects obedience from His chosen people, no matter where they live. And their failure to live holy lives and reflect the glory of God would eventually have devastating consequences.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.