“Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even Jerusalem: and lay siege against it, and build a fort against it, and cast a mount against it; set the camp also against it, and set battering rams against it round about.” — Ezekiel 4:1-2
Symbolic action is not a novel concept to us; it is both familiar and pervasive in our culture. We understand that when the referee at a football game throws down a yellow flag, he is indicating an infraction of the rules has occurred. When a military veteran places his hand over his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, we know he is proclaiming his commitment to flag and country. On a more juvenile level, when a seven-year-old girl scowls ferociously and sticks out her tongue at a bully on the playground, we have no problem grasping that she is expressing disgust. In each of these examples, the individual is communicating through symbolic actions rather than words.
In today’s text, the prophet Ezekiel’s actions were also symbolic in nature. These unique activities were not undertaken casually or impulsively. They were difficult steps of obedience to God, who commanded them as a message to His people.
First, Ezekiel was told to depict Jerusalem on a tile, showing it as though it were under siege by an enemy. He was to lie next to his object lesson in the sight of the people for a portion of 430 days to represent the number of years of God’s punishment on Israel and then Judah.
Next, God instructed Ezekiel to make bread from specific ingredients. Since bread was usually made from wheat alone, the use of coarser materials implied that grain of every kind would be extremely scarce during the coming siege, and people would use whatever materials were available to make their bread. The meager amount of daily food and water Ezekiel was to consume in sight of the people illustrated that the resulting famine would allow very limited portions of food and drink for each individual.
In verses 1-4 of chapter 5, the prophet was commanded to shave his head and beard and then dispose of the hair in a variety of specific ways. This was to illustrate how the people caught in the attack on Jerusalem would perish or be dispersed.
The purpose of all these symbolic acts was to impress upon the people that as a consequence of their continued disobedience, God’s judgment was certain and would be severe. God was showing them that their sins would bring them to the most extreme deprivation and shame.
Ezekiel’s symbolic actions were “pictures without words” for the instruction of the faithless and unbelieving people around him. In our world today, those around us are also predominantly unbelievers. What kind of pictures without words would God have us present to them? What are some ways we can demonstrate our commitment to God? While our actions likely will not be as dramatic or unique as those of Ezekiel, they can still have an impact on the unbelievers around us.
Today’s text describes God’s instructions to Ezekiel regarding a four-part action sermon he was to dramatize before the people. In verses 1-3, Ezekiel was told to act out the siege itself. He was to take a clay tablet and draw on it a likeness of Jerusalem. Around this, he was to build recognizable military apparatuses. The “iron pan” in verse 3 was a flat griddle that stood upright, creating a barrier between Ezekiel and the model, denoting the people’s separation from God. The phrase “set thy face against it” signified God’s wrath that was directed toward Jerusalem for the people’s disobedience, as had been forewarned in Leviticus 26:14-39.
With this model in front of him, Ezekiel was to lay on his side for a portion of 430 consecutive days as an illustration of God’s judgment. The time spent on his left side pertained to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. (Though previously taken into captivity by the Assyrians, Israel was included in this portrayal of judgment because God saw Israel and Judah as one nation.) Israel’s 390 days represented the years “of their iniquity” (verse 5) from Jeroboam’s establishing of idolatry in 975 B.C. to the soon-coming fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The 40 days Ezekiel was to spend on his right side represented the years of God’s warning to Judah, beginning with Jeremiah’s ministry. Ezekiel’s bare arm outstretched towards the model (verse 7) typified warriors’ arms being unencumbered by robes for ease of movement during battle.
Verses 9-17 describe Ezekiel’s portrayal of the famine that would overtake the city. He was instructed to eat only small amounts of coarse bread, baked in a very crude and disagreeable way. The strange mixture of fine and coarse grains and legumes stored in one vessel portrayed both scarcity and the indiscriminate nature of the coming disaster: all classes of people would suffer. During each of the first 390 days, the prophet was to measure out a portion of meal (about eleven ounces), form it into a disc, and cook it over a small fire for rationed eating throughout the day. He was also to limit himself to approximately twenty ounces of drinking water per day. Originally, his fire was to be fueled by human dung, but when Ezekiel was grieved by the ritual uncleanliness of this, God allowed him to use cow dung. His measuring, preparing, and eating was to be done in front of the people, so that they would see the prophecy. The “staff” in verse 16 refers to the supply of bread, which God would “break” or cut off.
In chapter 5, verses 1-4, Ezekiel’s hair represented the people of Judah; the knife represented Nebuchadnezzar; and the balances, God’s precise and exacting judgments. These verses relate that immediately following the 430 days spent on his sides, Ezekiel was to shave off and weigh his hair and beard and divide it into three portions. The first portion was to be burned on the clay tablet that served as a model of Jerusalem, representing those who would die during the siege. The second portion was to be chopped up around the model using the knife. This depicted the people who would be killed by the sword in and around the city during the attack. The third portion pointed to those who would be taken to foreign lands as captives. The few hairs tucked into Ezekiel’s garment symbolized the few Jews who would be left behind by Nebuchadnezzar; the hairs drawn from them and thrown into the fire indicated those who would again disobey God and flee to Egypt for security.
II. The condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem
A. The prediction of Jerusalem’s overthrow
1. The symbolic actions against Jerusalem
a. The symbols presented (4:1 — 5:4)
(1) The symbol of the brick tile (4:1-3)
(2) The symbol of the prophet’s position (4:4-8)
(3) The symbol of famine (4:9-17)
(4) The symbol of shaved head and divided hair (5:1-4)
Our actions as Christians may not get as much attention as those of Ezekiel, but they can still have an impact on the unbelievers around us.