Fire and Sword Against the South
As noted in the previous reading, the authoritative Hebrew text of the Old Testament has a chapter break after Ezekiel 20:44, making verses 45-49 part of the next chapter. This makes sense, as there is a clear thematic break from the previous section. God goes from the promise of future national restoration to the call again for judgment. Verses 45-49 contain a parable in this regard that is interpreted in the first seven verses of chapter 21.
The message of this section is for the "south." In fact, Ezekiel 20:46 uses three different Hebrew terms translated "south." "The three words used for 'south' in this verse are (1) temanah which basically means 'right,' so that when facing east in the normal orientation of that day, the 'right' would be 'south'; (2) darom is Ezekiel's normal designation for 'south,' used only for geographical directions in all O[ld] T[estament] occurrences; and (3) neghebh [or Negev], a term that denotes a 'dried-up land,' normally the region south of the Judean hill country from Beersheba south, though it is also used for geographical direction (especially here combined with the word 'forest')" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 46). "The southern forest referred to the southern kingdom of Judah, a forested area in biblical times, even into the upper Negev" (note on verses 45-49). The point is to emphasize whom the prophecy concerns—the Jews of the land of Judah in Ezekiel's own day.
The "forest" is also a figurative reference to Jerusalem and its royalty, the royal buildings having been built from Lebanon cedars—the national armory even named the "House of the Forest of Lebanon" (see 1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:17). Through Jeremiah God had foretold the fall of Judah's royal family this way: "They shall cut down your choice cedars and cast them into the fire" (Jeremiah 22:6-7).
Ezekiel complains to God that those hearing his message dismiss his words as too mysterious to understand (Ezekiel 20:49). So God directs him to explain matters more clearly.
The message is for Jerusalem, the holy places of the land and all those in "the land of Israel," which, in context, meant Judah of that time (Ezekiel 21:2). The "fire" that would spread "from the south to the north" (Ezekiel 20:47-48) represented a "sword" of warfare "against all flesh from south to north" (Ezekiel 21:3-4). "From the south to the north" may simply mean everywhere throughout the country. But it could also indicate the direction of destruction. Later in the chapter, the sword is referred to as "the sword of the king of Babylon" (verse 19). While the Babylonian invasion of Judah would initially come from the north, it is interesting to note that the Babylonians would withdraw from their siege of Jerusalem to march south to face oncoming Egyptian forces—and then turn around, wreaking devastation from south to north, in a final onslaught against Jerusalem.
God says to the land, "I will draw my sword...and cut off both righteous and wicked from you" (verse 3). "This pairing shows that God was going to allow the dreadful temporal consequences of sin to affect everyone in the land, both faithful and unfaithful" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 3-5). Yet it should be pointed out that if the faithful are allowed to die, that does not mean they are being punished as the wicked. Indeed, since they will be resurrected later, this could well be a way to spare them further suffering (compare Isaiah 57:1-2). There are many examples in Scripture of God allowing His true servants to be killed. However, the cutting off of the righteous from the land by the sword does not necessarily mean their death. This could also mean that they are deported—physically taken away from the land—as a result of military invasion. Indeed, this must at least be included in the meaning, as verse 4 says the sword is against "all flesh" in the land, and yet we know that many people were not killed. In any case, the removal of the righteous, through either death or deportation, removes the possibility of God preserving the nation for their sake (compare Genesis 18:16-33).
God tells Ezekiel to make a big display of emotion, sighing in great agony and distress, to illustrate what the reaction of the people will be when they receive news that their country is invaded and being destroyed. The phrase "breaking heart...translates words that literally mean, 'breaking loins,' suggesting great emotional upheaval" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 6). The feeble hands and weak knees of the people (verse 7) are also foretold in Ezekiel 7:17—in a passage representing ancient Judah's destruction as typical of end-time destruction (which may be a hint of some duality in Ezekiel 21 even though the message was primarily for Ezekiel's own day).
There are five sword oracles in chapter 21: verses 3-7, 8-17, 18-24, 25-27, 28-32. Again, the sword signifies the military power to make war. God says the sword belongs to Him (verse 3) but He gives it "into the hand of the slayer" (verse 11)—revealed in verse 19 to be the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. God says this sword is set against "the scepter of My son" just as it is set against "all wood" in the country (verse 10) or, put better, "every tree" (KJV), bringing in again the figure of the forest that was to be cut down and burned. God had earlier explained that the nation of Israel was His "son" (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1). And the "scepter" was the symbol of the nation's rulers. "The sword has no more respect to the trivial 'rod' or scepter of Judah (Genesis. 49:10) than if it were any common 'tree.' 'Tree' is the image retained from Ezekiel 20:47" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on Ezekiel 21:10).
Indeed, verse 12 explains that the sword will be against the people and princes of the nation. For this reason, Ezekiel is told to "cry and wail"—either as a lament or, perhaps more likely, as a further demonstration of the future reaction of the people to "terrors." He is to "strike his thigh," a sign of deep anguish and grief, "because it is a testing" (verse 13)—that is, a "trial," as the word has been alternatively rendered. And if the trial of this invasion is directed against the scepter, would the scepter survive? This is a crucial question, as God had promised in Genesis 49:10 that the scepter would remain with Judah until the time of the coming of the Messiah to claim it. He had promised King David an unbreakable dynasty that would rule from a throne in all generations (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:4). The Davidic throne's survival is addressed later in the chapter.
In Ezekiel 21:14, God tells Ezekiel to strike his hands together, perhaps clapping to gain attention or making a gesture of anger or readiness to fight similar to the modern fist punched into an open palm (compare Numbers 24:10). "Let the sword strike twice, even three times" (Ezekiel 21:14, NIV) may be idiomatic for the intensity of punishment (compare Proverbs 6:16). Yet it could signify an actual number of strikes. Ezekiel 21:12 had stated that the sword would strike the people and the princes (two strikes), and many who went into captivity would be struck later (a third strike to finish the job). It is also conceivable that the three strikes meant the three periods of destruction against the Jews in the Holy Land—the Babylonian invasion of Ezekiel's day, the Roman destruction in apostolic times and the end-time destruction the Bible foretells. Of course, it may be that something else is intended. Commentators have offered a number of possibilities.
In verses 18-19, God tells Ezekiel to represent two possible routes of Babylonian conquest. This probably means he "drew a map, perhaps in the dirt or on a brick, on which he made a road from Babylonia toward Canaan. He placed a signpost in the road where it forked, one branch leading toward Rabbath-Ammon, the capital of Ammon [known today as Amman, Jordan], and the other branch descending to Jerusalem (vv. 18-20). Damascus was the normal junction where the road divided. The king of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar, was shown standing at the fork in the road, using all manner of magic and divination in order to determine which nation he should attack first (v. 21). The combined conspiracy of Judah and Ammon against Babylonia in 589 B.C. undoubtedly precipitated this coming of the Babylonian army. Shaking arrows inscribed with personal or place names (belomancy) was a form of casting lots. Each arrow was marked with a name, the arrows placed in the quiver, the quiver whirled about, and the first arrow to fall out was the gods' decision. Household idols were intimately related to ancestral inheritance. Perhaps also they were consulted as mediums, representatives for their forefathers, who were supposed to give guidance (necromancy). The liver, being the seat of the life, was commonly examined with a decision of divination being determined from its color or markings (hepatoscopy). Nebuchadnezzar used all three means of divination with the same result. Though God did not condone divination in any form, he was the sovereign God who controlled all things. He could control these pagan practices to accomplish his will (cf. Jeremiah 27:6)" (Expositor's, note on verses 18-21).
God says the signs will point to Jerusalem, so Nebuchadnezzar will give the order to besiege the Jewish capital (verse 22). Verse 23 in the New Living Translation reads: "The people of Jerusalem will think it is a mistake, because of their treaty with the Babylonians. But the king of Babylon will remind the people of their rebellion. Then he will attack and capture them."
Verses 25-32 are written against Zedekiah. He is to "remove the diadem and take off the crown" (verse 26, KJV). Some see diadem here as a reference to the miter of the priesthood, but that would not apply to Zedekiah. Rather, the imagery here is of stripping Zedekiah of the Israelite crown—of the kingship. Yet what of God's scepter promise?
God continues in verse 26, "This shall not be the same" (KJV). There was a change occurring in regard to the national crown. Then notice: "Exalt him that is low and abase him that is high" (KJV). The abasement of the high is easy to understand: Zedekiah being brought down. But what is meant by the exaltation of him that is low in the same context? It must refer to crowning someone else with Davidic kingship. As explained in our online publication The Throne of Britain: Its Biblical Origin and Future, the Jewish monarchy continued through a daughter of Zedekiah who married into Israelite royalty, transplanting the Davidic scepter from Judah to Israel in ancient Ireland. As was noted in Ezekiel 17:22-24, the abasement of the high and the exaltation of the low concerned not just the rulers themselves but their nations—Judah, losing the Davidic monarchy, was brought low and Israel was raised up.
Where the New King James version repeats the word "overthrown" three times in Ezekiel 21:27, other versions repeat the word "ruined." The King James Version has "overturn"—a toppling or pulling down to be sure but allowing for a shift and replanting elsewhere. Jeremiah's commission was to pull down but also to plant and rebuild (Jeremiah 1:9-10)—and he was the key figure in transferring the throne.
Verse 27 then seems to say that the throne would "be no more" (KJV)—i.e., cease to exist—until centuries later with the coming of Him to whom it belongs, Jesus Christ. But remember that God had promised that David would have a descendant reigning on his throne in every generation. So it seems that a better translation of the verse would be: "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it; and it shall be no more [overturned] until He come whose right it is." The mentioning of overturn three times would seem to imply that the throne would be pulled down and moved three times. As our online publication explains, the first transfer was from Judah to Ireland. The second was from Ireland to Scotland. And the third was from Scotland to England. The monarchy of Great Britain is the chief monarchy of David.
Finally we see that Nebuchadnezzar's decision to destroy Jerusalem had not gotten the Ammonites off the hook. They were still slated for punishment by the sword of invasion and slaughter. The first part of Ezekiel 21:30 is clearer in the King James Version: "Shall I cause it to return to its sheath?" The answer is no—not without first destroying Ammon.
A number years prior, "while Jehoiakim was king (608-598 B.C.; 2 Kings 24:2), the Ammonites joined other nations east of the Jordan in raiding Judean territory, in return for protection from Nebuchadnezzar. Later, during the reign of Zedekiah (c. 593 B.C.), Ammon, Moab, Edom, and others conspired against Babylon, but with false hopes of help from Egypt (Jeremiah 27:3-11)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezekiel 21:28). The people of Ammon mocked the Jews, delighting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—happy that they were not the subject of Babylon's conquest. Yet "the fall of Jerusalem meant only that Judah would be judged first. Some Judeans took refuge in Ammon (see Jeremiah 41:1-3). God remembered Ammon's animosity and foretold its future as a place that shall not be remembered. The events of Jeremiah 41 led to a Babylonian expedition against Ammon in which the capital city Rabbah was sacked and many inhabitants deported (see Ezekiel 25:1-7). Ammon was later invaded by Arabs and its autonomy ceased. Eventually it was absorbed into the Persian Empire" (note on Ezekiel 21:31-32).
Again, it is possible that there is some duality here regarding the end time, when Ammon will initially escape devastation at the hand of the future Roman/Babylonian dictator (see Daniel 11:41) but will later suffer judgment (see Amos 1:13-15; Jeremiah 49:1-6). Another prophecy against Ammon is given in Ezekiel 25:1-7.