The Scepter and the Sword

And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord, say:

“A sword, a sword is sharpened
    and also polished,
10 sharpened for slaughter,
    polished to flash like lightning!

(Or shall we rejoice? You have despised the rod, my son, with everything of wood.) 11 So the sword is given to be polished, that it may be grasped in the hand. It is sharpened and polished to be given into the hand of the slayer. 12 Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people. It is against all the princes of Israel. They are delivered over to the sword with my people. Strike therefore upon your thigh. 13 For it will not be a testing—what could it do if you despise the rod?” declares the Lord God.

14 “As for you, son of man, prophesy. Clap your hands and let the sword come down twice, yes, three times, the sword for those to be slain. It is the sword for the great slaughter, which surrounds them, 15 that their hearts may melt, and many stumble. At all their gates I have given the glittering sword. Ah, it is made like lightning; it is taken up for slaughter. 16 Cut sharply to the right; set yourself to the left, wherever your face is directed. 17 I also will clap my hands, and I will satisfy my fury; I the Lord have spoken.” – Ezekiel 21:8-17 NLT

In this rather poetic-sounding passage, God refers to the rod and the sword, two symbols of kingly authority. The rod (šēḇeṭ) refers to the royal scepter of the king. It is the same word used in Jacob’s death-bed blessing of his son, Judah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
the one whom all nations will honor.– Genesis 49:10 NLT

Ezekiel’s audience would have been familiar with this passage and would have understood it as a guarantee of the unbroken line of kings to rule over the tribe of Judah. They couldn’t fathom the idea of an end to the royal lineage of King David.

The other imagery used in this passage is that of the sword, another symbol of kingly authority and power. With his sword, the king ruled over the people, providing them with peace and security as he defended them against all those who would bring them harm. The psalmist records the words of a song that celebrates the king and his sword of righteousness and justice.

I will recite a lovely poem about the king,
for my tongue is like the pen of a skillful poet.

You are the most handsome of all.
Gracious words stream from your lips.
God himself has blessed you forever.
Put on your sword, O mighty warrior!
You are so glorious, so majestic!
In your majesty, ride out to victory,
defending truth, humility, and justice.
Go forth to perform awe-inspiring deeds!– Psalm 45:1-4 NLT

The scepter and the sword. These two symbols of royal power and authority would have conjured up images of hope in the minds of the exiled Jews to whom Ezekiel was speaking. They longed for the day when King Zedekiah of Judah would put on his sword and ride out to victory against the Babylonians. They desperately longed for a king who would defend truth, humility, and justice. But from their vantage point in Babylon, they had yet to see anyone step up and wield the sword and the scepter in defense of Judah.

But God wanted them to know that the sword they longed for would not come in the hand of their kingly deliverer, but it would be clutched by their enemy and used to wreak havoc and destruction on His rebellious people.

“Son of man, give the people this message from the Lord:

“A sword, a sword
is being sharpened and polished.
It is sharpened for terrible slaughter
and polished to flash like lightning! – Ezekiel 21:9-10 NLT

God will leave no doubt as to who will be bringing this sword of destruction against the people of Judah. In verse 19, He refers to it as “the sword of the king of Babylon to come” (Ezekiel 21:19 ESV). This sword will be wielded by a king but not a king from the line of David. No, this king will be a foreigner whom God has chosen to be His royal executioner.

“Now will you laugh?
Those far stronger than you have fallen beneath its power!
Yes, the sword is now being sharpened and polished;
it is being prepared for the executioner.” – Ezekiel 21:10-11 NLT

God wanted His people to understand that this coming destruction was His doing. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians were His chosen instruments to carry out His just and righteous judgment upon His unrepentant people. In Jeremiah 45:10, God refers to Nebuchadnezzar as “my servant.”

Later in the book of Ezekiel, God will refer to Nebuchadnezzar as His employee.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

God was going to use this pagan king and his seemingly invincible army to carry out divine justice upon the recalcitrant people of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar and his forces would serve as God’s instruments of wrath, and He flatly states, “that sword will slaughter my people and their leaders—everyone will die!” (Ezekiel 21:12 NLT).

God is emphatic that this destruction will be all-encompassing and indiscriminate. All will die, including the king. And the historical record asserts that King Zedekiah was not spared the wrath of God. His royal position did not immunize him from God’s righteous reckoning.

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:8-11 NLT

God wanted His people to know that the royal scepter, while a symbol of kingly authority, would not provide Zedekiah with any protection. The sword of Nebuchadnezzar would show no favorites and extend no courtesies.

“For testing will come, and what will happen when the scepter, which the sword despises, is no more? declares the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 21:14 NET

God was going to remove Zedekiah from the throne, in keeping with the prophecy He earlier gave to Ezekiel.

“…he will die in Babylon, in the land of the king who enthroned him, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke.” – Ezekiel 17:16 NLT

Zedekiah would be the last king to sit on the throne of David. According to the book of 2 Kings, “Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam and grandson of Shaphan as governor over the people he had left in Judah” (2 Kings 25:22 NLT). This abrupt end to the Davidic line left the people in a state of despair, prompting many of them to flee to Egypt for protection from the Babylonian occupiers.

It seems that a vital part of Ezekiel’s delivery of this less-than-pleasant message was his acting out of the coming destruction. God instructs his prophet to take an actual sword and swing it before the faces of his stunned audience.

“…take the sword and brandish it twice,
even three times,
to symbolize the great massacre,
the great massacre facing them on every side. – Ezekiel 21:14 NLT

The sight of this prophet wildly swinging an unsheathed sword while describing the wholesale slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants would have been unsettling. He was to accompany this disturbing display with loud shouts and the clapping of hands, all intended to create an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.

“Let their hearts melt with terror,
for the sword glitters at every gate.
It flashes like lightning
and is polished for slaughter!” – Ezekiel 21:15 NLT

God declares His intentions to guide the hands of His “servant” Nebuchadnezzar as he delivers each deadly blow with the sword of His fury.

“O sword, slash to the right,
then slash to the left,
wherever you will,
wherever you want.
I, too, will clap my hands,
and I will satisfy my fury.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”– Ezekiel 21:16-17 NLT

All of this disturbing imagery would have left Ezekiel’s audience confused and clamoring for answers. How could a good God pour out such devastating judgment upon His chosen people? For centuries, they had relied upon the enduring patience of God. In fact, they had grown accustomed to abusing His patience, assuring themselves that He would always forgive them of any indiscretions they may have committed.

“At least some of the problem that Ezekiel’s audience had in accepting such a gloomy picture of the future can be traced to the natural religious tendency to think of God as kindly and thus not really capable of punishing people decisively. Why would God destroy His own beloved people in whom He had invested such time and effort since He brought them out of Egypt centuries before? Some of the problem lay also in people’s natural, routine optimism. It is hard to imagine the country in which one grew up and enjoyed life in the past actually coming to an end, never again to be an independent nation, never again to have its own government and laws and economy and stable traditions.” – Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel

But they were in for a rude awakening. The patience of God had finally expired and the sword was coming. There would be no escape and no second chances. While they had long relished the idea of an all-loving, all-forgiving God, they had long ago abandoned any concept of His holiness and righteousness. And their actions had proven that they had no intentions of keeping His command:

You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 NLT

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.

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