1 “And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. 2 And 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. 3 And 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. 5 For 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. 6 And 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. 7 And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. 8 And 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 4:1-8 ESV
Ezekiel was a priest who had been commissioned by God to be His prophet, but then God made him a prisoner in his own home. And with the opening verses of chapter four, Ezekiel receives yet one more role – that of a performance artist. Not only would he be required to speak on God’s behalf, delivering His messages of judgment to the people, but he was going to have to act out those messages in a series of strange one-man plays.
Evidently, Ezekiel was given a reprieve from his God-ordained house arrest, long enough to carry out the first of God’s bizarre parables in 3-D. These performances were intended to visually demonstrate God’s pending judgment upon the nation of Judah. Without speaking a word, Ezekiel was to stage a one-act, outdoor theater production complete with props and a plot line.
“…son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. And 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. And 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.” – Ezekiel 4:1-3 NLT
One can only imagine the look on Ezekiel’s face when he received this command from the Almighty. There is no way of knowing whether Ezekiel was an introvert or an extrovert, but it is safe to say that neither temperament would have made this command easy to obey. After all, God was asking His prophet to make a fool of himself – in public. Ezekiel was going to have to put on a performance as “a sign for the house of Israel.” He couldn’t do it in the privacy of his own home but would be forced to take his show on the road, acting it out in the streets for all to see.
The thought must have run through Ezekiel’s head that this little parable in a play was going to get less-than-stellar reviews. He must have considered the stinging ridicule he would have to endure as he carried out God’s command. But the text contains no record of Ezekiel’s thoughts. We are provided with no insights into his state of mind as he received the divine script for his first performance. Like a mime, Ezekiel was to act out this drama without any words. God provided him with a detailed list of the props he was to use along with the state directions he was to follow.
God commanded him to take a common clay brick and draw on it the image of the city of Jerusalem. He was to place the brick outside his house, in full view of the people, then build siege walls, ramps, and an enemy camp around it. Like a little boy playing with toy soldiers, Ezekiel was to construct a model of the siege of Jerusalem. But that’s not all. It gets worse. God commanded Ezekiel to erect an iron plate, then to lie down on his left side for a period of 390 days with the iron plate between himself and the “city” of Jerusalem. When the 390 days were up, he was to turn over and lie on his right side for another 40 days.
There has been much debate over the years as to what all this was intended to mean. It seems obvious that God was commanding Ezekiel to act out the siege and eventual fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. But why would God have Ezekiel act out an event that had already occurred? After all, the people of Judah to whom Ezekiel was prophesying were in Babylon because of the fall of Jerusalem. They have lived through these events. But there is some speculation that Ezekiel was acting out two different sieges of Jerusalem. The first took place in 597 BC and is recorded in 2 Kings 24:10-17. At that time, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops entered Jerusalem and “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold” (2 Kings 24:13 ESV). The Babylonians took 10,000 people captive and it is likely that Ezekiel was among them.
But 11 years later, the Babylonians would return and lay siege to the city again. This time, they bring about its complete destruction.
…Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. – 2 Kings 25:8-10 ESV
It seems likely that Ezekiel was acting out the second siege of Jerusalem which had not yet taken place. While his audience would have experienced the terrors associated with the first siege of 597 BC, God was letting them know that there was more judgment to come.
There were those among the exiles who were declaring that their stay in Babylon was coming to an end and God was going to return them to Judah. The rumors had been circulating that their predicament was temporary in nature. God was going to spare them and allow them to return home. But they were not living in obedience to God’s law and had never repented of the sins that had led to their captivity in the first place.
Hundreds of years earlier, God had warned the people of Israel what would happen if they failed to remain faithful to Him. Through His prophet, Moses, God had conveyed the curses that would come upon them if they refused to keep His commands.
“They will attack your cities until all the fortified walls in your land—the walls you trusted to protect you—are knocked down. They will attack all the towns in the land the Lord your God has given you.
“The siege and terrible distress of the enemy’s attack will be so severe that you will eat the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you.” – Deuteronomy 28:52-53 NLT
Now, centuries later, God was having Ezekiel act out the ramifications of their continued rebellion. Even though they had personally endured the first siege and ended up as captives in the land of Babylon, they had never repented of their sins. Some commentators believe the iron plate was represent the barrier between God and His chosen people. Because of their ongoing stubbornness and continuing unfaithfulness, the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem would find their prayers unanswered and God’s help unavailable. He would not rescue them from their coming trial.
And the exiles watching Ezekiel’s performance would discover that any hopes they had of returning to Jerusalem were nothing but wishful thinking. God gave Ezekiel firm instructions that were to communicate a clear message.
“…set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city.” – Ezekiel 4:7 ESV
Ezekiel was to play that part of God in this divine drama. His bare arm was a symbol of God’s all-powerful and inescapable judgment. The Almighty would be behind the second siege of Jerusalem and would bring about its utter destruction.
There has been much debate regarding the meaning behind the length of days that Ezekiel was required to lie on his side. God makes it clear that the days represent years.
“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.” – Ezekiel 4:5 ESV
And if you add the 40 days to the 390, you get 430 total days or years. But what do they represent? It is interesting to note that this was the same number of years the Israelites were captives in the land of Egypt before God delivered them through Moses. Perhaps there was a not-so-subtle message concerning God’s future deliverance of His rebellious people when He eventually allowed a remnant of them to return to the land of Judah under Nehemiah.
But while we cannot ascertain the exact meaning behind the 430 years, God wanted Ezekiel to spend more than a year of his life acting out this drama. And to help him do so, God divinely restrained him with ropes.
“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 4:8 ESV
God knew this was going to be a difficult assignment and, along the way, Ezekiel would face plenty of temptations to quit. God had already told him his audience would prove disinterested and unwilling to hear what he had to say. So, day after day, month after month, Ezekiel would act out his drama to an unresponsive and unappreciative audience. But he was to complete the task assigned to him, and God made sure that he did so.
Yet, as distasteful as this assignment was, God was going to make it even more difficult, all in order to dramatize the devastation awaiting His rebellious and unrepentant people.
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.