Ezekiel’s first assignment as a prophet involves more theatrics than talking. God calls him to act out a message of impending judgment on the city and people of Jerusalem.
There is no indication of a time lapse between the end of chapter 3 and beginning of 4, so it could be that the two are seamless and sequential—Ezekiel may have started his ministry immediately after hearing God’s calling.
Taking a brick, Ezekiel draws an outline of the city of Jerusalem upon it and then creates something of a diorama around it—siege wall, enemy camps, and battering rams (2). Then, he is told to place an iron griddle between himself and the model of the city, likely signifying a wall between God and His people (3). Ezekiel is commanded to lie on his left side, face towards the city, for 390 days. When completed, he shifts to his right side for another 40 days (4-8). During this time, he is to eat only “Ezekiel bread”—a fixed portion of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and emmer baked over an open fire into a cake. Each day he is only to drink a small portion of water (about 1/3 of a liter). The imagery speaks of privation and meager rations during a siege.
Apparently, Ezekiel was not completely silent as he acted out this coming siege; he is commanded to “prophesy against the city” while lying on his side (7). His words are directed to the model of the city (thus the inhabitants of Jerusalem) but were meant to convey a message of coming judgment to the exiles in Babylon who still held out hope that things would change for the better in the near future (somewhat based on false prophets speaking false hopes—see Jeremiah 29).
Ezekiel’s only stated reservation about this assignment is the fact that he was to cook his daily bread over a fire fueled by human dung (12), symbolizing the fact that the inhabitants of Jerusalem who survive the siege will “eat their bread unclean among the nations where I will drive them” (13). Ezekiel protests that he has never eaten unclean food. Accommodating his desire, the Lord changes the orders to allow him to cook over cow dung (15).
A number of questions arise as I read this chapter. What is the significance of the 390 days (representing 390 years) of judgment on Israel or the 40 days (40 years) of judgment on Judah? The days may have correlated to the length of the invasion and siege coming upon Israel and Judah (especially Jerusalem).
How long each day was Ezekiel expected to lie on his side? It would seem that he was not in a non-stop prone position for he apparently had to gather the ingredients for his daily meal, fuel for the fire and had to cook it. He may have been on his side each day for a certain duration (perhaps while people were going about their business) and then rise to cook and eat his rationed food and drink.
Certainly, this enacted prophecy would have attracted a fair amount of attention, even among the “rebellious” group of exiles in Babylon. In fact, perhaps the visual nature of the rather clear message of a coming siege on Jerusalem was more effective than a mere verbal pronouncement. Ezekiel and his antics would have been the talk of the town.
Vision of God
Several truths about God come out in the instructions and commentary He gives Ezekiel.
The Lord is long suffering but will bring suffering on those who stubbornly resist His will. The 390 + 40 represent a lengthy period—both for Ezekiel who must lie on his side for this duration and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem who will live in privation, anxiety and dismay (16-17) during the upcoming siege. God’s patience is long but not unending. Those who remain rebellious will wind up living in a parched land (Ps. 68:6). It’s clear from the message God delivers to Ezekiel that He is aware of the distress that will come through His judgment upon Israel and Judah.
The Lord doesn’t give his faithful servants easy assignments but does accommodate their concerns. Ezekiel is given a hard assignment—physically, emotionally and relationally. There is no discussion or deliberation about whether he wants to take on this task; he’s expected to obey. However, God listens to Ezekiel’s concern about eating defiled food and adjusts the assignment to accommodate his godly desire.
Words to Watchman
Watchmen are constrained to obey but also choose to follow God’s instructions. I sense divine/human interplay in this chapter related to Ezekiel’s ministry. God constrains him to carry out this difficult task: “I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege” (8). I would understand these words to speak of an internal, spiritual constraint that keeps Ezekiel following instructions. At the same time, Ezekiel is actively choosing to carry out this assignment, gathering the materials for the object lesson, getting the ingredients for his meager meals, cooking the food and positioning himself to carry out God’s commands. The same reality holds true for ministers today. God constrains us (internally and spiritually) to carry out His will; at the same time, we are actively choosing to follow His commands and do His will. As Philippians 2:13 teaches, God works in us to will and to do his good pleasure