‘Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering-rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face towards it. It will be under siege and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the people of Israel.
‘Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the people of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the people of Israel.
‘After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the people of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face towards the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.’
We have already seen that Ezekiel was shocked and not exactly happy to have received his calling, and to have felt the sadness, disappointment, and frustration of the Lord for his people. This task he was given was not exactly going to improve any mood! But there are some different ideas among expositors as to how to interpret these verses.
Some point out how the Israelites make more of a distinction between the time of night and the time of day, and so say that the lying down on one side was only happening during the hours of daylight, and that night was the time Ezekiel was able to get up and walk around, to relieve his stiff muscles. In this way his body would have relief from the sores that would naturally come to him and to avoid the wasting of his muscles also. It was argued that Ezekiel would not be able to walk at the end of the 430 days total of lying down if he had not been upright at all during this time. We are not given the account of the actual events of Ezekiel’s obedience to this, and so we do not know for sure, but things seem to move on quickly to his next task in the following year. So, for certain something was happening to maintain Ezekiel’s health.
Others argue that, because Ezekiel was going to be supernaturally bound to lie on one side or the other, that this meant there would be many supernatural things involved in his obedience to the Lord over this first task. And so it is also argued that Ezekiel was lying on his side without turning day and night without end. It is argued that this was a better representation of the sin and rebellion of Israel because, for sure, they were rebelling continuously day and night. And so, it is argued, the health and strength of Ezekiel was protected supernaturally, and that when the 430 days were completed he was able to continue almost as if nothing had happened.
Even others argue that he was lying day and night and so also suffered badly with the condition we know today as bed sores. That his skin wasted away where it was in contact with the ground and that his blood was soaking into the soil around him. That, in this way, he also demonstrated how sin affects health – spiritual health in addition to physical health – and that this is also a sign against the people.
My personal feeling is that, despite the sin and the rebellion of his people, the Lord is as a Father to his people and reluctant to bring judgement against them. He is patient beyond the ability of humans to be patient. Indeed, which of us can be patient for 390 years despite the annoying behaviour of someone close to us?
Considering the patience of our Lord, the way he is also a Father to his people, then I am reluctant to think that He is asking a cruel thing of Ezekiel. The task he is given is symbolic and a witness against his people, and the main purpose is for them to see it and to think about why he is doing it. That he would be able to answer questions if asked, and to be able to say that he is doing this to represent the many years of the sin and the rebellion of his people.
And so I am in favour of thinking that Ezekiel was lying on his side, with the supernatural restrictions on the ability to turn, only during the hours of daylight. During the time when everyone could see it as they passed him. And that at night, Ezekiel could rise from his position and walk and maintain his strength. Even so, there was certainly the problem of sores to deal with, but not as bad as they would have been if laying day and night. Maybe it could even be that Ezekiel was living a nocturnal existence for the 430 days.
I also tend to think that, if the Lord was supernaturally preventing Ezekiel from turning, then he was also supernaturally hardening his skin from suffering too much the kinds of sores that would threaten him while performing this task. Of course I have no scriptural justification for saying this, but there are certain traditions that help to inform us. And, as a note to those who are very literal in their interpretations of scripture, that to be literal would indeed suggest a daytime only performance of this task. And that, in any case, what it means to be literal about such things is affected itself by the differences of time and culture.
Two things caught my attention when reading this passage. The first was just how long the Lord had been patient. When you read of the increasing scale of judgements that would be brought against Israel in the event of rebellion in Deuteronomy, there is the impression that these things could be rather quick. But 390 years is a long time for the patience of the Lord to be tested! So this stands against those who preach an angry God who is watching everything we do and ready to heap judgement and condemnation on us at the slightest act of straying from the path. He clearly was not like that in the Old Testament, even during the covenant of Law. So why should people think that He is like that during the New Testament covenant of grace?
And so, how much does this show us how we need to be patient with each other? Doesn’t this help to explain Jesus’ answer when he was asked how many times we should be prepared to forgive a brother? Jesus was showing that we need to be patient and to hold back from anger and judgement, just as his Father had held back from these things for the sake of his people. And how much this shows how wrong it is when people, called and anointed to ministry, are held back from fulfilling this calling because of one or two sins in their life, and not restored once they have put things right in their lives. The church is weakened and suffering from poor leadership and poor ministry as a result of this!
The other thing that struck me was how the Lord included both the nations of Israel and Judah in this sign that Ezekiel was to perform. To me, this represents the divisions in the church today. The Lord was seeing Israel and Judah in the same way – because they are all together His chosen people.
In the same way, the Lord does not see Baptists, Anglicans, Free Evangelicals, Methodists, Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Armenian, and so on. The Lord only sees the people who are His, who are His Children. It does not matter what label you wish to choose, the Lord is only interested in whether you are His child or not. And so we are not to judge a person simply because they say that they are a member of any denomination.
Of course, if it is obvious that they do not know the gospel message it is important to gently (and without judgemental attitude) share this message of love. And I have discovered in life that this can just as easily be true of someone who calls themselves a fundamentalist evangelical and of someone who calls themselves catholic, or of any other label you can think of.
So if the Lord does not distinguish and differentiate this way between his people, why do we? I have seen too often the accusations of heresy and the judgemental attitudes condemning one another to hell. The Lord is not this way, and that is clear.
So, for all of us, there is a lesson of love, patience, and unity. We have a God who is more ready to bless and to prosper us than to bring judgement and suffering.
This is our God, and He is worthy of praise!