Chapter 21 is structured around three prophetic words given to Ezekiel by the Lord, each beginning with the phrase, “The word of the Lord came to me” (1, 8, 18). Each of these prophecies is a message of lethal judgment, utilizing the imagery of an unsheathed, sharpened and polished sword that brings death and destruction to Jerusalem, Israel and Ammon. [Dan Block divides the chapter into four oracles by subdividing verses 18-32 into two related pronouncements: the Babylonian decision to attack Jerusalem (18-27); the Babylonian’s subsequent annihilation of Ammon (28-32).]
The first message (1-7) reveals that the coming sword of judgment belongs to the Lord. He is taking out his sword to cut off “both righteous and wicked” from the land of Israel (3-4). The Lord instructs Ezekiel to deliver this dire message and then to groan in the hearing of the exiles. When they inquire why he is groaning, Ezekiel is to explain that he is cut to the heart over the news of coming judgment (6-7). Dan Block points to the structural parallels between 20:45-49 and 21:1-5 as an indicator that the prophetic messages in chapter 21 are God’s clarifying answer to the “riddle” of 20:45-49. The exiles accused Ezekiel of spinning incomprehensible riddles (20:49), so the Lord has him give a series of unmistakably clear messages of judgment. The enigmatic reference to a fire burning the forests of the Negeb turns out to be a metaphorical picture of the Babylonian armies (sword) slaughtering the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah.
The second message (9-17) is similar to the first but it expands on key themes and adds more information on God’s coming sword. We learn that the sword is both “sharpened and also polished” (9). Sharpened, for slaughter; polished for speed. The judgment will be severe and swift. We also learn that the sword is coming because the Israelites would not respond to the rod of correction God had previously sent (10). Since they ignored the wooden rod, they now get the metal sword. Where Ezekiel groaned when giving the first message, he now is instructed by God to “cry out and wail” (12). He acts out this coming judgment, bringing down a sword three times—a way of emphasizing the completeness of the “great slaughter” (14). Ezekiel also swings a sword, cutting to the right and left, showing the wide swath of judgment that will decimate God’s wayward people. This second message ends with the Lord’s announcement that by sending the sword of death, He will “satisfy my fury” against the land of Israel (17).
The third sword message (18-32) is the longest pronouncement of the three. Now the Lord reveals His sword will be carried by the “king of Babylon” (19). Ezekiel is instructed to set up a “signpost” marking out a fork in the road. This is done to illustrate the sovereignty of God over the events of history, even over the workings of superstition and divination. The king of Babylon will come to a fork in the road on his journey west. He will have to choose between heading towards Jerusalem in Judah or Rabbah in Ammon (20). After consulting his gods and practicing divination, the king will decide to attack Judah (22). This decision spells the end for the city and it’s “profane, wicked” king (25). The Babylonian armies, carrying out the judgment of the Lord, will leave Judah in ruins (“A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make of it”—27). Initially, it seems the Ammonites rejoice that they have been spared the destructive power of the sword and join in the taunt against Jerusalem (28-30). However, later in the book we discover they do not escape devastation.
The chapter closes with a word to Bablyon, the nation wielding God’s sword. They will put their sword in its sheath and return home, only to face the judgment of God. One day, the Lord will bring the “fury” of His wrath on Babylon (31), bringing complete and lasting destruction (“You shall be no more remembered”—32).
Visions of God
When the Lord’s discipline is ignored, the pain only increases. Israel despised the Lord’s rod of correction and so got the sword of destruction. Instead of the wooden rod, they received a metal sword. Having failed to respond to God’s stinging rebuke, they now are about to experience a sword that brings slaughter. The lesson is that we should respond to God’s correction now; the pain only gets worse later. As the writer of Proverbs admonishes, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:11; see Hebrews 12:5-7).
The Lord is sovereign over “chance” events and demonic divination. In the third sword message, the king of Babylon is depicted as coming to a crossroads where he must decide between heading to Jerusalem or Rabbah. So he “shakes the arrows” (something like throwing dice) and practices divination—consulting the “teraphim” and looking at “the liver” (21). The consistent answer he receives points him towards Judah. The Lord is sending Babylon to punish Judah (and eventually to punish Ammon as well) and works through the Babylonian king’s methods of divination to point him towards the land of Israel. God is sovereign over all things—including the casting of the lot (Prov. 16:33) and consulting of false gods!
The Lord’s fury will be poured out. Throughout these three sword messages, the Lord makes it clear and certain that judgment is coming: “’Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’ declares the Lord” (7); “I will satisfy my fury; I the Lord have spoken” (17); “. . . for I the Lord have spoken” (32). Those who doubt God’s determination to judge need to read the book of Ezekiel. Then they should read the crucifixion accounts in the New Testament, where the righteous fury of God is poured out—but poured out on God’s Son who dies in our place. Finally, they should read the book of Revelation where the fury of God’s justice is finally unleashed on a world that would not respond to God’s “rod” of lesser discipline or take saving refuge in God’s Son.
The Lord can use wicked nations to accomplish His righteous will. The sword of judgment is pictured as the “sword of the Lord” in the opening message (“my sword”—6). In the second message, the Lord’s sword is “given into the hand of the slayer” (11). In the final sword message, we find that the slayer holding the Lord’s sword is the king of Babylon (19-20). So the Babylonians carry out the Lord’s furious judgment. Whether or not Ezekiel struggled with this idea, we know Habakkuk did (Hab. 1:12-13). He learned that the Holy One (1:12) can use evil ones do accomplish His righteous purposes. God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. He also learned that justice would come back on the heads of the Babylonians in God’s good time (3:16).
The Lord reigns as king and judge of the nations. The God of Israel is not a tribal deity who only concerns Himself with His people. He is sovereign and supreme over kings and countries. He controls the movements of the Babylonian armies and brings judgment on both Israel and Babylon. YHWH is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen confront warped and wayward worship. Ezekiel is commanded to “preach against the sanctuaries” (1). Some translators see the plural suffix as better translated “their sanctuary” (speaking of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah). Perhaps the ambiguity in the wording serves Ezekiel’s point: the Israelites had warped the true worship of God in His sanctuary by their syncretism and multiplication of high places (20:28). Worship is at the very heart of God’s demand of His people. When we get this wrong (idolatry!), we are headed for trouble with the God who alone is worthy of our worship. Watchmen go to the heart of the problem by speaking of problems in the heart in the area of genuine worship.
Watchmen groan and grieve over God’s coming judgment. Ezekiel is commanded by God to give a “non-verbal” message by groaning to get the attention of his audience (6-7). When asked about it, Ezekiel explains that groaning and grieving are the appropriate responses to the message he has been sent to deliver. Even if the exiles don’t respond this way (though they will once it happens!), Ezekiel evidences a broken-hearted concern for the coming judgment on Judah. Preachers today must show an emotional connection to the content of their message. We are not dispassionate dispensers of theological truth. We must preach with both a prophetic edge and with pastoral earnestness.
Watchmen don’t try to soften God’s image or sanitize His fury over sin. Ezekiel faithfully declares the message given Him by God, including the disturbing news that the Lord is furious with Israel (“I will satisfy my fury”—17) and Ammon (“I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath”—31). While this message may have been difficult for Ezekiel’s contemporaries to hear, it’s violently out of line with our culture’s sensibilities about God. Where God exists in public perception, he is seen as benign and unconditionally loving. The idea that He could be furious and wrath-filled is considered a relic from, well, Old Testament times. But faithful watchmen will remind people that God does not change (Malachi 3:6). What He was, He still is and always will be. As John White wrote in his book, Daring to Draw Near, “The God of Sinai is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is immutable. He does not mellow with the passage of time. . . . His self-appointed public-relations experts have done us and him a blasphemous disservice in toning down the harsh outlines of his image, making him more suitable to our preference in gods” (Daring to Draw Near, 53).