The prophet is here ordered to represent to himself and others by signs which would be proper and powerful to strike the fancy and to affect the mind, the siege of Jerusalem; and this amounted to a prediction.
I. He was ordered to engrave a draught of Jerusalem upon a tile, Ezek. 4:1. It was Jerusalem’s honour that while she kept her integrity God had graven her upon the palms of his hands (Isa. 49:16), and the names of the tribes were engraven in precious stones on the breast-plate of the high priest; but, now that the faithful city has become a harlot, a worthless brittle tile or brick is thought good enough to portray it upon. This the prophet must lay before him, that the eye may affect the heart.
II. He was ordered to build little forts against this portraiture of the city, resembling the batteries raised by the besiegers, Ezek. 4:2. Between the city that was besieged and himself that was the besieger he was to set up an iron pan, as an iron wall, Ezek. 4:3. This represented the inflexible resolution of both sides; the Chaldeans resolved, whatever it cost them, that they would make themselves masters of the city and would never quit it till they had conquered it; on the other side, the Jews resolved never to capitulate, but to hold out to the last extremity.
III. He was ordered to lie upon his side before it, as it were to surround it, representing the Chaldean army lying before it to block it up, to keep the meat from going in and the mouths from going out. He was to lie on his left side 390 days (Ezek. 4:5), about thirteen months; the siege of Jerusalem is computed to last eighteen months (Jer. 52:4-6), but if we deduct from that five months’ interval, when the besiegers withdrew upon the approach of Pharaoh’s army (Jer. 37:5-8), the number of the days of the close siege will be 390. Yet that also had another signification. The 390 days, according to the prophetic dialect, signified 390 years; and, when the prophet lies so many days on his side, he bears the guilt of that iniquity which the house of Israel, the ten tribes, had borne 390 years, reckoning from their first apostasy under Jeroboam to the destruction of Jerusalem, which completed the ruin of those small remains of them that had incorporated with Judah. He is then to lie forty days upon his right side, and so long to bear the iniquity of the house of Judah, the kingdom of the two tribes, because the measure-filling sins of that people were those which they were guilty of during the last forty years before their captivity, since the thirteenth year of Josiah, when Jeremiah began to prophesy (Jer. 1:1, 2), or, as some reckon it, since the eighteenth, when the book of the law was found and the people renewed their covenant with God. When they persisted in their impieties and idolatries, notwithstanding they had such a prophet and such a prince, and were brought into the bond of such a covenant, what could be expected but ruin without remedy? Judah, that had such helps and advantages for reformation, fills the measure of its iniquity in less time than Israel does. Now we are not to think that the prophet lay constantly night and day upon his side, but every day, for so many days together, at a certain time of the day, when he received visits, and company came in, he was found lying 390 days on his left side and forty days on his right side before his portraiture of Jerusalem, which all that saw might easily understand to mean the close besieging of that city, and people would be flocking in daily, some for curiosity and some for conscience, at the hour appointed, to see it and to take their different remarks upon it. His being found constantly on the same side, as if bands were laid upon him (as indeed they were by the divine command), so that he could not turn himself from one side to another till he had ended the days of the siege, did plainly represent the close and constant continuance of the besiegers about the city during that number of days, till they had gained their point.
IV. He was ordered to prosecute the siege with vigour (Ezek. 4:7): Thou shalt set thy face towards the siege of Jerusalem, as wholly intent upon it and resolved to carry it; so the Chaldeans would be, and neither bribed nor forced to withdraw from it. Nebuchadnezzar’s indignation at Zedekiah’s treachery in breaking his league with him made him very furious in pushing on this siege, that he might chastise the insolence of that faithless prince and people; and his army promised themselves a rich booty of that pompous city; so that both set their faces against it, for they were very resolute. Nor were they less active and industrious, exerting themselves to the utmost in all the operations of the siege, which the prophet was to represent by the uncovering of his arm, or, as some read it, the stretching out of his arm, as it were to deal blows about without mercy. When God is about to do some great work he is said to make bare his arm, Isa. 52:10. In short, The Chaldeans will go about their business, and go on in it, as men in earnest, who resolve to go through with it. Now, 1. This is intended to be a sign to the house of Israel (Ezek. 4:3), both to those in Babylon, who were eye-witnesses of what the prophet did, and to those also who remained in their own land, who would hear the report of it. The prophet was dumb and could not speak (Ezek. 3:26); but as his silence had a voice, and upbraided the people with their deafness, so even then God left not himself without witness, but ordered him to make signs, as dumb men are accustomed to do, and as Zacharias did when he was dumb, and by them to make known his mind (that is, the mind of God) to the people. And thus likewise the people were upbraided with their stupidity and dulness, that they were not capable of being taught as men of sense are, by words, but must be taught as children are, by pictures, or as deaf men are, by signs. Or, perhaps, they are hereby upbraided with their malice against the prophet. Had he spoken in words at length what was signified by these figures, they would have entangled him in his talk, would have indicted him for treasonable expressions, for they knew how to make a man an offender for a word (Isa. 29:21), to avoid which he is ordered to make use of signs. Or the prophet made use of signs for the same reason that Christ made use of parables, that hearing they might hear and not understand, and seeing they might see and not perceive, Matt. 13:14, 15. They would not understand what was plain, and therefore shall be taught by that which is difficult; and herein the Lord was righteous. 2. Thus the prophet prophesies against Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:7); and there were those who not only understood it so, but were the more affected with it by its being so represented, for images to the eye commonly make deeper impressions upon the mind than words can, and for this reason sacraments are instituted to represent divine things, that we might see and believe, might see and be affected with those things; and we may expect this benefit by them, and a blessing to go along with them, while (as the prophet here) we make use only of such signs as God himself has expressly appointed, which, we must conclude, are the fittest. Note, The power of imagination, if it be rightly used, and kept under the direction and correction of reason and faith, may be of good use to kindle and excite pious and devout affections, as it was here to Ezekiel and his attendants. “Methinks I see so and so, myself dying, time expiring, the world on fire, the dead rising, the great tribunal set, and the like, may have an exceedingly good influence upon us: for fancy is like fire, a good servant, but a bad master.” 3. This whole transaction has that in it which the prophet might, with a good colour of reason, have hesitated at and excepted against, and yet, in obedience to God’s command, and in execution of his office, he did it according to order. (1.) It seemed childish and ludicrous, and beneath his gravity, and there were those that would ridicule him for it; but he knew the divine appointment put honour enough upon that which otherwise seemed mean to save his reputation in the doing of it. (2.) It was toilsome and tiresome to do as he did; but our ease as well as our credit must be sacrificed to our duty, and we must never call God’s service in any instance of it a hard service. (3.) It could not but be very much against the grain with him to appear thus against Jerusalem, the city of God, the holy city, to act as an enemy against a place to which he was so good a friend; but he is a prophet, and must follow his instructions, not his affections, and must plainly preach the ruin of a sinful place, though its welfare is what he passionately desires and earnestly prays for. 4. All this that the prophet sets before the children of his people concerning the destruction of Jerusalem is designed to bring them to repentance, by showing them sin, the provoking cause of this destruction, sin the ruin of that once flourishing city, than which surely nothing could be more effectual to make them hate sin and turn from it; while he thus in lively colours describes the calamity with a great deal of pain and uneasiness to himself, he is bearing the iniquity of Israel and Judah. “Look here” (says he) “and see what work sin makes, what an evil and bitter thing it is to depart form God; this comes of sin, your sins and the sin of your fathers; let that therefore be the daily matter of your sorrow and shame now in your captivity, that you may make your peace with God and he may return in mercy to you.” But observe, It is a day of punishment for a year of sin: I have appointed thee each day for a year. The siege is a calamity of 390 days, in which God reckons for the iniquity of 390 years; justly therefore d they acknowledge that God had punished them less than their iniquity deserved, Ezra 9:13. But let impenitent sinners know that, though now God is long-suffering towards them, in the other world there is an everlasting punishment. When God laid bands upon the prophet, it was to show them how they were bound with the cords of their own transgression (Lam. 1:14), and therefore they were now holden in the cords of affliction. But we may well think of the prophet’s case with compassion, when God laid upon him the bands of duty, as he does on all his ministers (1 Cor. 9:16; Necessity is laid upon me, and woe unto me if I preach not the gospel); and yet men laid upon him bonds of restraint (Ezek. 3:25); but under both it is satisfaction enough that they are serving the interests of God’s kingdom among men.