One Third by Pestilence and Famine, One Third by Sword and One Third Into Captivity
Chapter 5 continues with instructions about the mock siege. God tells Ezekiel to shave his head and beard. Shaving the head and beard was a sign of humiliation and disgrace (compare Ezekiel 7:18; 2 Samuel 10:4). For priests it was a mark of defilement, rendering them unfit for temple duties (Leviticus 21:5). Israel, God's priestly nation, was going to be humiliated and defiled.
The cut hair was to be divided into three equal piles (Ezekiel 5:1-2). At the end of the mock siege, which would not come until more than a year later, the piles of hair were to be dispensed with in different ways. Ezekiel was to place one pile in the middle of the clay diagram and burn them (verse 2), symbolizing the third of the people who would die in the siege by pestilence and famine (verse 12). The next pile of hair—another third—was to be placed outside the perimeter wall and struck with a sword (verse 2), symbolizing those who would suffer violent death at the hands of enemy military forces (verse 12). And the last third was to be tossed into the air for the wind to carry away (verse 2), signifying that one third of the people would be taken captive by military forces and scattered (verse 12).
When and to whom would all of this happen? The destruction is commonly assumed to apply to ancient Jerusalem's fall to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and that is likely on one level. But, as stated in the comments on chapter 4, Ezekiel is portraying punishment to befall not just Jerusalem but all of Israel—that is, all 12 tribes (symbolized by Jerusalem, it being the ancient capital of all Israel). Notice the end of Ezekiel 5:4: "From there a fire will go out into all the house of Israel." Indeed, this exactly parallels the next chapter, which is directed to "the mountains of Israel" (verse 3). Ezekiel is to proclaim: "Alas, for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel! For they shall fall by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence" (verse 11). Yet the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen—to the Assyrians 130 years earlier. So for this prophecy to make sense, it must refer to the future destruction of Israel—which, as other prophecies make clear, is to take place alongside Judah's destruction at the end of the age.
For another parallel passage, notice Zechariah 13:8-9: "And it shall come to pass in all the land...that two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, but one-third shall be left in it: I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested." Two thirds die, just as in Ezekiel's prophecy. And the last third, though initially brought through the fire, escaping death at first, is then sent through a great period of trial, which fits with the experience of national captivity and scattering. This prophecy of Zechariah was given long after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Indeed, it was given at the time of Judah's restoration after the Babylonian captivity. So it could not refer to that destruction. In fact, we know the time frame of the foretold destruction since, in the very next verse, the prophecy continues right into Zechariah 14, a message clearly concerning Christ's return at the end of the age. This destruction, then, happens just prior to that.
So again, this is something all Israel—Judah and Israel—will experience at the end of the age. The people of Judah today are the Jewish people. The descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, primarily make up the nations of Northwest Europe and other nations of Northwest European heritage, including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (request or download our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy to learn more). Imagine, then, the overwhelming magnitude of destruction that awaits these nations for their sins. If the Israelites today throughout these nations were estimated at around 300 million people, then 100 million would die through pestilence and famine—involving ghastly, desperate instances of cannibalism as the famine raged (Ezekiel 5:10; compare Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:52-57). Another 100 million would die at the hands of enemy military forces, and the remaining 100 million would go into captivity.
These tolls are staggering. To make matters worse, recall the prophetic indications that only a tenth of the Israelites who go into captivity in the end time will survive (see Amos 5:3; Isaiah 6:11-13, Living Bible). Using the above numbers, this would mean that only 10 million would remain at Christ's return. These figures should serve as a frightful and dire warning to the people of modern Israel. The horrible terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were as nothing when measured against to what is yet to come (compare Deuteronomy 28:58-68).
While these warnings are graphic and threatening, there is still hope for repentance. Indeed, God always gives a warning with the hope that the disaster He is about to bring may be averted (see Jeremiah 18:5-8; Jonah 4:2, Joel 2:12-14). God does not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked—no matter how deserved it is (Ezekiel 18:23; Ezekiel 33:11). He rejoices in repentance and obedience to the only way of life that is right and good—His way (Isaiah 48:17-18).
Interestingly, distinct from the three categories of national punishment, Ezekiel was to take a few strands of hair and tuck them safely away in the edge of his garment (Ezekiel 5:3). These hairs symbolized a special, select group. The Hebrew word translated "edge" is sometimes translated "wings," as a marginal reference in the King James Version notes. To understand the symbolism, compare Psalm 91:1, 4: "He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty...under His wings you shall take refuge." The meaning, then, is evidently one of divine protection. However, even some of those who are in this special group are to be burned up.
In Ezekiel's time, the protected group could perhaps indicate the initial captives who were resettled in Babylon—who experienced a measure of peace (compare Jeremiah 29:4-7). Indeed, these constituted Ezekiel's immediate audience. They did not have to experience the worst of the horrible destruction on Judah, in which Jerusalem and the temple were sacked and razed. Yet among these, some stubbornly persisted in wickedness and were killed as a result (compare verses 21-23). This, then, would have served as a stark warning to those who witnessed Ezekiel's prophetic actions.
What, then, of the end-time context? Regarding the last days, Jesus Christ gave His servants, true Christians, these instructions: "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36). He later gave this message to His faithful followers of the end time: "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world [the Great Tribulation], to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10).
Yet another message shows that even some Christians will have drifted far from God and will require severe circumstances to shake them up and cause them to repent: "So, then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth... I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire [evidently the fire of the Great Tribulation]... As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent" (verses 16-19).
In Revelation 12, a "woman," representing the Church of God, is taken to a place of protection from Satan the dragon (verses 13-16). But Satan then goes in pursuit of the "rest of her offspring" who, though they keep God's commandments and testimony, are evidently not as faithful as they need to be at that time and therefore are not with the others in the place of protection (verse 17). (Of course, this is a very general breakdown. There may well be some faithful individuals who don't go to a place of safety but are instead martyred, just as most of the original apostles and many Christians of later periods were.)
Thus it appears that those bound in the hem of the garment are meant, in an end-time context, to represent members of God's true Church. Yet there are at least two ways of understanding this. One is that the collection of hairs initially bound in the hem symbolizes all Church members alive at the end time. Of these, some remain protected (those taken to a place of safety) and some are cast into the fire of the Great Tribulation (never going to the place of safety). The other possible way of looking at it is that the hairs initially bound in the hem represent those Church members who are taken to a place of safety in the end time. Of these, some remain protected in the place of safety and some are cast into the fire—losing that protection for some reason. The former seems more likely as the latter does not take into account those true Christians who do not go to the place of safety at all.
Of course, the major focus of Ezekiel 5 is the terrible calamity that comes on Israel as a whole—each third experiencing a distinct punishment as we've seen. The ancient fall of Jerusalem would be a shocking lesson to all the nations—as the future fall of all Israel will be to a much greater degree (verse 15). Let it be a lesson to us before the fact. We must take warning now—for any one of us could yet be part of one of the three dreadful categories presented here. Let us be alert and pray regularly as Christ instructed in Luke 21:36, so that we may be counted worthy to escape what is coming—and to remain sheltered under the wings of the Almighty. Indeed, in our prayers we should specifically ask for His protection, as many biblical examples illustrate. Yet let us pray this for the right reasons. Jesus taught that preserving our physical lives should not be the reason for seeking protection. We must be willing to give up our lives for our convictions if need be (Matthew 16:25). We seek protection so that we may continue to serve God and care for others—and to continue growing in the kind of character God desires of us. Our ultimate goal is eternal life in His Kingdom. That is the only lasting and impregnable security.