The Siege of Jerusalem—A Sign to Both Israel and Judah
In this second pantomime instructed by God, Ezekiel is directed to act out a mock siege against Jerusalem. Recall that he was to effectively be mute, so the prophet's strange actions would communicate God's message. This was to be a sign to the people of Judah living in captivity. No doubt word of what Ezekiel was doing spread throughout the colony and perhaps even to those in faraway Jerusalem.
The prophet is instructed to draw a diagram of the city on a clay tablet and then represent its siege by an attacking army through building miniature earthen siege works around it (Ezekiel 4:1-2). He is also to set up an iron pan between himself and the city as a wall (verse 3). Some commentators have viewed this as depicting a siege wall, but it is in addition to the miniature siege wall of verse 2. Other commentators understand it as a barrier signifying God separating Himself from Jerusalem and no longer protecting it—or even as His "iron-willed" determination to destroy the city. Indeed, Ezekiel is to have his arms uncovered—the image of a man with rolled up sleeves, ready to fight—as God is described in Isaiah 52:10.
The mock siege is given as a "sign to the house of Israel" (verse 3), which is rather interesting. The next verses clearly delineate between the house of Israel (the people of the northern kingdom) and the house of Judah (those of the southern kingdom). Jerusalem, as the ancient capital of all 12 tribes, is used here to represent the nations of both Israel and Judah. The sins of both are what bring about this siege.
As part of the symbolism, Ezekiel is told to lie on one side for 390 days, figuratively bearing the iniquity of the house of Israel, and then for 40 days on the other side, bearing Judah's iniquity (verses 4-6). Based on verse 9, which says that Ezekiel's time of lying on his side was 390 days, some construe the 40 days as being part of the 390. But this goes against the clear sense of verse 6. Verse 9 simply concerns the number of days of the mock siege in which he is required to eat certain food—the 390 and not the 40.
Each day of lying down is said to represent a year (verse 6). This brings to mind Numbers 14:34, where God imposed on Israel the punishment of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness for the 40 days of the mission of those who spied out the Promised Land and returned with an evil report. Interestingly, too, the figures of 390 and 40 add up to 430 years, a significant time span in Israel's history—this being the length of time from God's covenant with Abraham to the Exodus (see Exodus 12:41; Galatians 3:17).
The meaning of the 390 and 40 years is not entirely clear. There are numerous difficulties here. For instance, we aren't told when the count of years begins or ends in either case. And it is not clear whether we should count backwards or forwards. Notice verse 5 in the New King James Version: "For I have laid on you the years of their iniquity." This seems to imply a count backwards of 390 years of past sin, which strangely—if we started with the time this prophecy was given in 593 B.C.—would land us late in the reign of King David. Or, if we counted back from the northern kingdom's fall at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 B.C., this would place the start of the 390 years in the period of the judges.
But perhaps "years of their iniquity" is meant to imply years due to their iniquity—that is, years of consequences their iniquity has brought about. The Expositor's Bible Commentary states in a footnote on verse 4, "The term 'aon (awon, 'sin') has three basic meanings (I) 'iniquity,' (2) 'guilt of iniquity,' (3) 'the punishment for iniquity.' Here the context reflects the second meaning...though the third meaning can be equally argued." Indeed, in place of the word iniquity, the Tanakh and NRSV have "punishment." This changes the meaning entirely, as it would indicate that the 390 years are a period not of past sin but of coming judgment; the count would be forward and not backward.
Counting 390 years forward from the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. interestingly brings us to 332 B.C., the year that Alexander the Great defeated the Persian forces of Darius III at the Battle of Issus. It has been suggested the northern tribes were basically confined through the remainder of the Assyrian Empire, the entire Babylonian Empire and the duration of the Medo-Persian Empire, finally gaining their freedom with the overthrow of the Persians by Alexander. Perhaps that is so for any Israelites who had remained in the vicinity of northern Assyria. However, it should be mentioned that the Israelite Scythians helped to defeat Assyria and that many of them had migrated away to freedom even before. Certainly a great multitude became free with the onset of the Babylonian period, though a significant number of them were later made to submit to Persian rule. Still, it was the Scythian Massagetae (most likely Israelites), ranging free on the Asian steppes west of the Caspian Sea, who killed the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great when he tried to conquer them. It should also be mentioned that there were still Israelites dwelling under the dominion of Alexander and then of his successors, the Seleucids. These would gain their independence the next century as the Parthians.
As for the 40 years for Judah, this too is uncertain. Some scholars contend that it should be counted backwards, understanding the period to extend from the time of the renewal of the covenant by Josiah in 622 B.C. until the year 582 B.C., which was the time that the remainder of the Jews were transported to Babylon (see Jeremiah 52:30). But why would a period of sin be counted from the renewal of the covenant? Some view the 40 years as the period of terrible sin during the Jewish king Manasseh's reign prior to his repentance—the time of Judah's greatest evil, for which God proclaimed destruction on the nation and its capital (2 Kings 21:10-15; 2 Kings 23:26-27). On the other hand, counting forward—viewing the 40 years as a period of coming judgment—it is conceivable that the time intended is that from the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. to 546 B.C., the year Cyrus the Great secured the western Persian Empire through the conquest of Lydia, effectively making him more powerful than the Babylonians. He returned east the same year. Over the next seven years, he would encroach on Babylonian territory, finally invading Babylon in 539 B.C.
And there are yet other possibilities. A number of scholars point out that Ezekiel's prophecy is dated from the captivity of Jeconiah in 597 B.C. and argue that this should be the starting point for counting forward—noting also that the full 430 years should be counted, thus ending with 167 B.C., the time of the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. Counting from the time the prophetic message was portrayed, 593 B.C., would bring us to 164-163 B.C., when the Maccabean revolt had proven successful. Counting 390 years forward from 593 would bring us to 203-202, the time the Parthians were gaining independence from the Seleucids (and then it is 40 years beyond that that brings us to Judah's push for independence from the Seleucids). Consider, in this light, that the Seleucids were essentially the successors of Assyria and Babylon—and that the years would, in this case, signify the times of emergence from their oppression (as the 430 years in Exodus marked the end of oppression and slavery).
Of course, this is all assuming that the years in question refer to ancient history. Perhaps they have some end-time application. Consider the siege Ezekiel portrays. It is against Jerusalem, and yet it is a sign to both Israel and Judah. Surely this was not meant to be understood in Ezekiel's day, as the northern tribes did not then get the message. Moreover, the siege Ezekiel conducts lasts 430 days, about a year and two months. But the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in ancient times lasted for around two and a half years.
In Ezekiel 4:8, God says he would restrain (literally, "place ropes on") the prophet to make him unable to turn and switch sides during the acting out of the siege. How, then, was Ezekiel able to cook his food—as we next see him instructed—while lying down? The situation was the same as that with Ezekiel's muteness. He wasn't required to be on his side 24 hours a day. He prepared meals and, as we see in chapter 8, he was sitting in his house less than a year and two months later—apparently while the mock siege was still going on (compare Ezekiel 1:1-2; Ezekiel 3:15-16; Ezekiel 8:1). The wording in Ezekiel 4:8 simply means that whenever he lay down, God made sure he was only on the correct side for the specified group of days.
God then tells Ezekiel what he is to eat for the next 390 days—a mixed-grain bread (verse 9). God first told him to bake it in a defiled way, cooking it over dried human waste, in order to symbolize the defiled state of Israel and Judah (verses 12-14). But after Ezekiel expressed his revulsion at this, God allowed him to instead cook the food over cow manure, "a common fuel then as now" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 12-15). The issue of defilement, it should be noted, was strictly over the matter of using human waste (see Deuteronomy 23:12-14), not from mixing grains as some have supposed (as the proscription against mixing grains forbade the crossbreeding of plants, not the cooking of them together). Centuries later the apostle Peter felt the same revulsion toward eating unclean animals, refusing when he was told to kill and eat them in a vision (Acts 10:14).
Some have argued that Ezekiel 4:9 provides the recipe for bread that is ideal for sustaining us—as it sustained Ezekiel for more than a year. (You can even buy "Ezekiel 4:9 bread" in some health food stores.) But that is not the point of the verse in its context at all. What we see is that Ezekiel's food was to be "by weight" (verse 10), to symbolize rationing during the time of siege, as the explanation in verses 16-17 makes clear (compare Ezekiel 5:16-17; Leviticus 26:26). "The recipe of six mixed grains for the bread indicates the limited and unusual food supply while in bondage in a foreign land. The small amounts of these grains [evidenced by the fact that they had to be thrown together in a mixture to produce a sufficient quantity of meal] vividly picture the short supply of food in a city under siege. Because a city under siege was cut off from outside supplies, the people had to ration their food and water. If it ran out, they would be forced to surrender. In Jerusalem, the people would be allowed daily only a half pound of bread (twenty shekels) and less than a quart of water (one-sixth of a hin)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezekiel 4:4-11).
Certainly the mixed-grain bread had some sustaining value, but this was far from a balanced diet. If one is going to claim that this is meant to portray ideal food, the same would have to be said for cooking over dung—and that just does not follow. In fact, notice verses 16-17 in the NIV: "Son of man, I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin." They would be aghast at the gaunt, emaciated appearance of one another. It is likely that Ezekiel's diet produced the same effect in him: "The people watched and got the message. They watched with growing horror as Ezekiel weighed out his meagre measure of mixed grain and eked out his water ration. They saw the prophet wasting away, as the population of Jerusalem would do under siege" (Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible, note on chapters 4-5).
Again, however, it should be pointed out that this was a prophecy that concerned the future of both Judah and Israel. As such, it was evidently meant in a dual sense—applying in part to Jerusalem's fall to ancient Babylon but also the fall of Judah and Israel to end-time Babylon, as the next chapters make even clearer.