“And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein.” — Ezekiel 20:47
Smoke billowed across the swamp toward our house. Though I was just ten years old at the time, I remember wondering who could be burning on such a hot July day — the temperature had already hit 105 degrees. My dad saw the smoke too, and a worried look crossed his face as the wind picked up and the smell of burning wood hit our noses. We owned twenty aces of property across the swamp where the smoke was shooting up. Could there be a fire on our property?
Dad leaped into action. Dashing toward his pickup truck, he almost flew into the driver’s seat. I was right on his heels, and jumped into the back bed of the truck. As my dad raced along the back road that bordered our property, rocks and dust flew up behind us. I could tell from his driving that he was alarmed. Then we saw the flames. They were spreading rapidly from tree to tree, devouring the dry tinder before our eyes. Branches crackled and fell to the ground with a sound like fireworks, the sparks igniting the grass and brush. A dry wind was spreading the fire faster and faster. Without question, this was a massive, out-of-control fire.
For a moment, my dad and I gazed at the flaming inferno almost in shock. Then quickly, he turned the truck around and sped to the neighbors’ to call the fire department. Thirty-two fire stations sent trucks to fight that fire, and it seemed like an eternity before they were able to subdue the flames. Nine fire trucks stayed with the smoldering fire through the night to watch for hot spots. One even parked below our house to make sure the sparks did not start another fire if they blew across the swamp. Many years later, I can still see and hear those crackling flames as I think back to that day.
In today’s text, the prophet Ezekiel was told how God’s judgment would fall on the people of Judah like a blazing fire that would devour everyone in its path. When the Babylonian army descended on Jerusalem, no one would be spared suffering. While the fire I experienced as a child eventually was extinguished, the fire of God’s judgment would not be quenched because the Lord himself would kindle it. The Babylonian army would ultimately devour the city and its people because they had not listened to God nor kept His commandments.
The fire described in today’s text reminds us that the day is coming when the world will experience the fiery judgment of God. There is comfort in knowing that when judgment falls, the righteous will be spared and escape the wrath that is to come. May God help us all to learn from the consequences that befell Judah, and make preparation now to avoid that terrible time.
Today’s text continues God’s message recorded in chapters 20-23, which emphasized that His judgments against Israel were fair and righteous. In this portion, Ezekiel used two symbols to represent God’s soon-coming judgment and the destruction that would fall upon Jerusalem and Judah as a whole: a fire (Ezekiel 20:45-49) and a sword (Ezekiel 21:1-32).
Beginning with verse 45 of chapter 20, God told the prophet to “set thy face” — a charge to speak God’s message with bold authority. Judah and Jerusalem, located “toward the south” (verse 46), were represented as a forest ready to be burned; Jerusalem was as full of people as the forest is full of trees. The coming “fire” of judgment would be kindled by God himself. According to verse 47, it would move quickly and indiscriminately, and would burn both the “green tree” and the “dry tree,” indicating that everyone in the land would suffer from the devastation caused by the Chaldean invaders. In the final verse of chapter 20, Ezekiel expressed frustration that he was perceived as speaking in parables (or riddles), and as a result, the people refused to listen.
In chapter 21, God responded by giving a fuller explanation for the previous prophecy. Ezekiel was to address the people in Judah (called “land of Israel” in verse 3) and Jerusalem as if they were present before him; this clearly identifies the “south field” and “forest” mentioned in the previous chapter. “My sword” in verse 3 speaks of God turning His wrath upon Israel through Nebuchadnezzar’s army, dispelling the false security of those who presumed they would be safe because they lived in the land of promise.
Ezekiel was to depict the horrors of the coming judgment with deep sighing, in groans that would express bitter anguish coming from his innermost being (see verse 6). When the people heard that the armies of Babylon had arrived, they would be completely overwhelmed — their hearts would melt, hands would be feeble, spirits would faint, and knees would be weak as water.
Beginning with verse 8, the balance of the chapter has symmetry and cadence that would have carried emphasis and poignancy for the original hearers. Verses 8-13 give details of the coming sword, and its effect is described in verses 14-17. The Lord had given control of the sword of His judgment to Nebuchadnezzar, and both princes and common people would reap destruction. Verses 9-11 and 28 refer to the sword being “furbished” or polished, “that it may glitter.” This seems to indicate that the public nature of this destruction was to be a warning and a demonstration of God’s justice.
In verse 12, Ezekiel was instructed to strike his thigh; this was a cultural expression of grief, alarm, and horror. The striking of hands together in verse 14 was a signal for an action to commence. The strength of the sword was to be “doubled,” indicating that judgment would be expanded, causing those in the city to lose all courage to prepare a defense. The sword of Nebuchadnezzar (identified in verse 9) was given complete liberty to slay wherever he chose.
Nebuchadnezzar’s sword would destroy Jerusalem and then the Ammonites. Ezekiel was directed to prepare a sketch of two roads leading away from Babylon together. The roads were to diverge, and there he was to mark signs to Jerusalem and to Rabbath (representing Ammon). This illustrated that Nebuchadnezzar’s army would pause to decide which nation to attack first, and he would choose by using fortune-telling practices — selecting at random one arrow from two marked with the cities’ names, consulting a pagan image, and examining the health of a sacrificed animal’s liver. Verse 22 indicates the choice fell upon Jerusalem, and describes the methods of assault used against the city.
Verses 23-27 indicate that Nebuchadnezzar’s coming would remind Zedekiah and the leaders of their betrayal of their “sworn oaths” (see 2 Chronicles 36:13). Although they had pledged allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, they had then conspired with Egypt, making new and contradictory oaths. For that iniquity, they would be delivered into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, and all the emblems of the priesthood and royalty would be removed from Jerusalem.
Because of the Ammonites’ perpetual scorn of God’s chosen people, they would be punished with complete extermination (verses 28-32). No trace of them would be left behind and there would be no restoration.
II. The condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem
D. The revelation of God’s dealings with Israel
3. The summary of God’s present dealings
a. The symbols of Israel’s judgment (20:45 — 21:32)
(1) The symbol of the forest fire (20:45-49)
(2) The symbol of the sword (21:1-32)
(a) The sword drawn (21:1-5)
(b) The sword prepared (21:6-17)
(c) The sword used (21:18-32)
 Against Jerusalem (21:18-27)
 Against Ammon (21:28-32)
If we follow the Lord’s commandments, we will be able to escape the judgment that will come and destroy this world.