There are many ways to share a story. You can simply tell it, or you can also act it out. When it comes to telling stories to ancient Israel, Yahweh is a big fan of acting things out. He calls upon His prophets to take the starring roles in His little dramas, and often there are plenty of shocking surprises included in the script. The prophet Ezekiel went through all kinds of crazy stunts at Yahweh’s command—they ranged from bizarre to torturous to downright gross. In this post, we’ll look at a time when Ezekiel is recruited by God to put on a one man show that is scheduled to last well over a year.
The passage we’re going to look at is found in Ezekiel 4-5. Ezekiel is a Jewish priest who was hauled off to exile in Babylon with 10,000 other Jews during one of several attacks on the city of Jerusalem. The Jews in exile have no idea what’s happening to their home capital of Jerusalem. Yahweh does, and He wants them to stay informed. It is His intention to annihilate Jerusalem for her sins, and by now He’s been warning the people for many years that one day Jerusalem would fall. “Yeah right,” has been the common response. The Jews have decided that Yahweh is all bark and no bite. Even after being dragged off by their enemies and held hostage in a foreign land, the Jews that Ezekiel is living with are full of attitude. Since words alone aren’t getting through to them, Yahweh decides it’s time for a visual. He works out a dramatic one man play which will demonstrate just how scary the fall of Jerusalem will be to the Jews who are living there. Then He assigns Ezekiel to play the starring role.
Yahweh’s play is complex in that He’s making several points at once. First, He wants to show how the siege of Jerusalem will look from the viewpoint of the invading army. Now the steps in taking down a fortressed city are very basic. First, the invading army surrounds the fortress walls of the city and cuts off the flow of human traffic. This prevents any new food from entering the city. The invading army then camps out for months in comfortable tents, biding their time until the people who are trapped inside the city walls are too desperate and starving to put up much of a fight. Then the army suddenly attacks, breaks through the walls, and trashes the place. Yahweh wants to show all of this happening on a miniature scale, much like a boy who is acting out a war with miniature toy soldiers. But rather than let Ezekiel ad lib, Yahweh is a very particular Director who spells out every move He wants the prophet to make.
“And now, son of man, take a large clay brick and set it down in front of you. Then draw a map of the city of Jerusalem on it. Show the city under siege. Build a wall around it so no one can escape. Set up the enemy camp, and surround the city with siege ramps and battering rams.” (Eze. 4:1-2)
“Son of man” was Yahweh’s personal nickname for Ezekiel. It was a synonym for “human.” The first step is for Ezekiel to get a brick that will represent the city of Jerusalem. He will then set to work building miniature representatives of an invading army camped all around it. There will be miniature tents, miniature battering rams and a little ramp. These things represent the equipment that the invading army will use to break through the gates of the city, and climb over the walls, after the people inside have been starved out a good long while.
“Take an iron plate and set it up as an iron wall between yourself and the city. Turn your face toward it so that it is under siege, and besiege it. This will be a sign for the house of Israel.” (Eze. 4:3)
Ezekiel needs to find an iron plate and hold it up like a shield between himself and the city. He is to face the city and then act out besieging it. Sieging a city is just a matter of forming a military blockade around it. It isn’t time to use the little battering rams or ramps yet. By staring at the city with his iron shield raised, Ezekiel symbolizes the impassable blockade of Babylonian soldiers which will soon be surrounding all of Jerusalem.
Well, so far so good. Ezekiel can handle playing toy soldiers. He’ll just stare at his brick city for a little while, then people will notice and ask what he’s doing. He’ll deliver a few prophetic words, and it will be a wrap. Sounds simple, right? Well, it could have been. But it turns out that Yahweh is really into this particular charade.
“Now lie on your left side and place the sins of Israel on yourself. You are to bear their sins for the number of days you lie there on your side. I am requiring you to bear Israel’s sins for 390 days—one day for each year of their sin.” (Eze. 4:4-5)
Now wait just a minute! Yahweh can’t be serious, can He? Ezekiel has to lie in the dirt on his left side for 390 days? All to make some simple point about Jerusalem being attacked? This is ridiculous! Three hundred and ninety days is a whole year plus twenty-five more days! Can’t we just go back to verbal stories?
“When you finish that, turn over and lie on your right side for 40 days—one day for each year of Judah’s sin. Meanwhile, keep staring at the siege of Jerusalem. Lie there with your arm bared and prophesy her destruction.” (Eze. 4:6-7)
Just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, they do. Now Yahweh says that after Ezekiel is done lying on his left side staring at that stupid brick for over a year, he then has to roll over and lie on his right side for another forty days. Then he has to prophesy to the brick. Terrific. This whole thing is ridiculous. What will people say when they see Ezekiel with his silly war toys? What if they come along and kick the whole set up to pieces? What if they kick Ezekiel? Yahweh is asking too much. No one can possibly lie in the same position for so long. There are human realities: grinding bones, pressure sores, stiff joints, muscle pains. Doesn’t Yahweh care about these things?
“I will tie you up with ropes so you won’t be able to turn from side to side until the days of your siege have been completed.” (Eze. 4:8)
Wow. Yahweh is actually going to tie Ezekiel up so that the prophet will be forced to stay in one position. This is going to be one very long, painful year. And Yahweh still isn’t done.
Setting up the miniature war scene and counting off symbolic periods of time isn’t enough. Now Yahweh introduces the second part of His play: the part where Ezekiel demonstrates how hellish life inside the city will be during the siege. With their food supply cut off, the people inside Jerusalem will have to ration whatever they have, and try to get by on as little as possible, while they pray that the invading army gives up and leaves for some reason. While he’s lying on his side in the dirt, Ezekiel will have to eat carefully rationed food, as a symbol of how the Jews trapped in Jerusalem will be on tight rations. He’ll also need to show the terrified emotion that the people trapped inside Jerusalem will feel as they wait to die some horrible death.
Alright then, Ezekiel will eat. He has to anyway, since he’ll be bonding with the ground for over a year. But what will he eat? Yahweh has a very specific recipe in mind.
“Now go and get some wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer wheat, and mix them together in a storage jar. Use them to make bread for yourself during the 390 days you will be lying on your side.” (Eze. 4:9)
Ah, multigrain cakes. Sounds very…dry. And Ezekiel gets to eat the same thing for 390 days. Joy.
“Ration this out to yourself, eight ounces of food for each day, and eat it at set times. Then measure out a jar of water for each day, and drink it at set times.” (Eze. 4:10-11)
Having to measure everything is a real pain in the neck, but it’s an important part of the act to Yahweh. So then, it’s dry grain cakes and little gulps of water for 390 days. Just when things sound as miserable as they can be, Yahweh still isn’t done.
“Prepare and eat this food as you would barley cakes. While all the people are watching, bake it over a fire using dried human dung as fuel and then eat the bread.” Then Yahweh said, “This is how Israel will eat defiled bread in the Gentile lands to which I will banish them!” (Eze. 4:12-13)
What?! Cook the grain cakes over a fire that is fueled by human poop?! This is across the line! Yahweh is asking too much. Ezekiel protests.
Then I said, “O Sovereign Yahweh, must I be defiled by using human dung? For I have never been defiled before. From the time I was a child until now I have never eaten any animal that died of sickness or was killed by other animals. I have never eaten any meat forbidden by the law.” (Eze. 4:14)
Ezekiel has been careful to obey God’s strict dietary laws his whole life. He has never let anything unclean enter his mouth. Nothing is more unclean than human poop. He just can’t handle this part of the assignment. He’ll lie on the dirt, he’ll eat the dry cakes, he’ll talk to the brick and look like an absolute lunatic, but please, God, no poop.
Well, Yahweh understands that this is all too much for is little man, so He is willing to make a minor adjustment to the script.
“All right,” Yahweh said. “You may bake your bread with cow dung instead of human dung.” (Eze. 4:15)
Is this Yahweh’s idea of helping—changing to animal poop instead? Double yuck! Burning poop is going to create a very foul stench which will be transferred onto anything it touches. So now Ezekiel won’t just be eating dry grain cakes, they will be dry grain cakes with a poopy after taste. This is utterly revolting, especially for a priest. But what choice does he have? Yahweh is done compromising. The poop is a critical part of the play for Him. He wants to use it to shock people and drive home the point about just how wretched life is going to be for the Jews in Jerusalem, both before their city falls, and afterwards when they are living in foreign lands. The pagan Babylonians didn’t fuss around with a bunch of clean and unclean dietary laws. They ate all kinds of things that the Jews found totally repulsive, and that is what the Jews would be forced to eat as well once they were the Babylonians’ prisoners. If they didn’t want to spend their lives eating foul bread, they should have returned to Yahweh when they still had the chance. But since they just couldn’t be bothered to repent, Yahweh is now going to make their lives hellish.
Then He told me, “Son of man, I will make food very scarce in Jerusalem. It will be weighed out with great care and eaten fearfully. The water will be rationed out drop by drop, and the people will drink it with dismay. Lacking food and water, people will look at one another in terror, and they will waste away under their punishment.” (Eze. 4:16-17)
Yahweh plans to make the conditions inside Jerusalem very horrible during its final siege. In real life, the siege lasted about two and a half years. By the end, there was no food left in the city at all.
Yahweh still isn’t done instructing His prophet. After he completes all the time of lying on his side eating poopy cakes and holding up that heavy iron plate between him and the miniature war scene, Ezekiel is then to go through a series of strange actions which will symbolize the fate of the Jews living in Jerusalem once the Babylonians finally break through the city wall.
Hair is going to be a central theme in the second act of this play. Jewish men liked to be nice and hairy. To have your head and face shaved by your captors was quite humiliating. Yahweh now instructs Ezekiel to shave his own head and beard with a sharp sword. This is not an easy thing to do. A sword is too big and too awkward. Cuts are bound to happen. That is what Yahweh wants, for when the Jews are roughly shaved by their captors, they’ll end up as bloody messes. Ezekiel is being an example of things to come.
“Son of man, take a sharp sword and use it as a razor to shave your head and beard. Use a scale to weigh the hair into three equal parts. Place a third of it at the center of your map of Jerusalem. After acting out the siege, burn it there. Scatter another third across your map and chop it with a sword. Scatter the last third to the wind, for I will scatter My people with the sword. Keep just a bit of the hair and tie it up in your robe. Then take some of these hairs out and throw them into the fire, burning them up. A fire will then spread from this remnant and destroy all of Israel.” (Eze. 5:1-4)
Imagine seeing a priest burning handfuls of his own hair on top of a brick that he says represents Jerusalem. This is very bizarre behavior, but not quite as bizarre as him then chopping up other pieces of his hair on top of the brick. Then as the grand finale, he tosses a last handful of hair into the wind. What is the point of all this? Yahweh is demonstrating what He will do to the people of Jerusalem.
“This is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: This is an illustration of what will happen to Jerusalem. I placed her at the center of the nations, but she has rebelled against My regulations and decrees and has been even more wicked than the surrounding nations. She has refused to obey the regulations and decrees I gave her to follow.
Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: You people have behaved worse than your neighbors and have refused to obey My decrees and regulations. You have not even lived up to the standards of the nations around you.” (Eze. 5:5-7)
As Yahweh’s chosen nation, Israel had received special revelations and insights about who Yahweh was. So when she turned away from Him, her rebellion was ten times that of the pagan nations around her. Yahweh knows the difference between unintentional blundering and willful rebellion. He responds to each one in kind.
“Therefore, I Myself, the Sovereign Yahweh, am now your Enemy. I will punish you publicly while all the nations watch. Because of your detestable practices, I will punish you like I have never punished anyone before or ever will again.” (Eze. 5:8-9)
When God wants to underscore the severity of His discipline, He describes it as a shocking, one time event in human history. He used this same language when He described how much wailing there would be in Egypt during the last of the ten plagues. Such language shouldn’t be taken literally, for Yahweh has done plenty of things which many would consider more shocking than the downfall of one city. For example, He completely obliterated the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But that was a very long time ago, and we humans quickly lose our awe of events which God did in the past. Yahweh is talking to the Jews who are living before the fall of Jerusalem, and for these folks, the coming siege really will be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. These people have done such a foolish thing by rebelling against their own Creator. Now they’re going to have to deal with His wrath.
“Parents will eat their own children, and children will eat their parents. I will punish you and scatter to the winds the few who survive. As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Yahweh, I will cut you off completely. I will show you no pity at all because you have defiled My Temple with your vile images and detestable sins.” (Eze. 5:10-11)
Cannibalism was a common practice inside a starving city. In the Bible there are multiple accounts of parents eating their children in order to avoid dying of starvation. Very gruesome.
The reference to the Jews desecrating Yahweh’s Temple is very important. At this point, the Temple in Jerusalem is being used as a shrine to many demonic idols. The Jews had turned God’s sacred House into a place where they could worship any god but Him. Clearly Yahweh’s rage is justified, and He is now going to explain the symbolism of Ezekiel’s hair games.
“A third of your people will die in the city from disease and famine. A third of them will be slaughtered by the enemy outside the city walls. And I will scatter a third to the winds, chasing them with My sword. Then at last My anger will be spent, and I will be satisfied. And when My fury against them has subsided, all Israel will know that I, Yahweh, have spoken to them in My jealous anger.” (Eze. 5:12-13)
Yahweh wants His people to understand why He is so furious with them. He is still telling us about His fury today through the records He has preserved for us. Are we listening? Are we soaking in the lessons? Are we fully acknowledging just how real and intense God’s wrath can be? Many Christians try to downplay the idea of God’s wrath—insisting that it is irrelevant to them or pretending that Yahweh morphed into someone else once Jesus came. No, He didn’t. The God we know today is the same God who wanted the whole world to understand how furious He was at His chosen people. We need to not miss this.
“So I will turn you into a ruin, a mockery in the eyes of the surrounding nations and to all who pass by. You will become an object of mockery and taunting and horror. You will be a warning to all the nations around you. They will see what happens when Yahweh punishes a nation in anger and rebukes it, says Yahweh.
I will shower you with the deadly arrows of famine to destroy you. The famine will become more and more severe until every crumb of food is gone. And along with the famine, wild animals will attack you and rob you of your children. Disease and war will stalk your land, and I will bring the sword of the enemy against you. I, Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 5:14-17)
Wow. What an intense ending to our long passage. Ezekiel has his instructions about what to do. Yahweh has given everyone a detailed explanation of why He is going to utterly destroy the nation that He once chose out to be His in a special way. What can we learn from all of this today? Well, what about your nation?
Ancient Israel isn’t the only nation who has pushed God too far in human history. Yahweh is quite clear that He is the One who causes empires and governments to rise and fall. He’s the reason that the great kingdom of Babylon no longer exists today. He’s the One who caused the Roman empire to fall. Foolish historians try to chalk up every event in history to some aspect of human nature: greed, military power, or wealth. But God is clear that He controls the lifespan of every nation on this earth. Nations who squander the blessings He gives them and delight in defying Him are eventually destroyed. We learn from studying ancient Israel that even God’s most favored people can become His targeted enemies if they keep taxing His patience.
What if God came to you tomorrow and ordered you to act out some crazy charade in public? Would you try to obey or would you blow Him off? We are so quick to forget that these lives are not our own. As creations of God, we are literally His property. If God wants us to lie in the dirt and eat foul food and totally humiliate ourselves in public, what right do we have to refuse? Of course our pride will recoil at the thought—we can’t help that. Our egos will suffer, our emotions will balk. But in our souls, we must not refuse God. We must choose obedience and depend on His to give us the empowerment we need in the moment. Ezekiel’s assignment was so physically painful that there was no way he could carry it out in his own strength. Plus, lying on the ground all tied up in ropes makes you pretty vulnerable. If God hadn’t given His man the protection, strength, and courage he needed to carry out his difficult assignment, Ezekiel would have never lived long enough to record forty-eight chapters of prophecy.
When’s the last time you heard about Ezekiel’s poop cakes at church? We tend to avoid passages like these because we don’t want to face just how crude, gross, and extreme God can be. We like to pretend that He is some straight arrow who is easy to predict because He always plays by the rules. Not hardly. It was Yahweh who commanded His people not to eat unclean food. Then He turns around and commands an obedient priest to violate His own Laws. Today we Christians like to say that “God will never go against His own Word.” Oh really? Which part of the Word are we referring to—the part where God says not to eat unclean food or the part where He says to eat poop cakes? The Bible is filled with examples of God contradicting Himself, changing His mind, breaking His rules, and starting new patterns. The only reason this bothers us is because we’ve decided that God is predictable. No, He’s not. One minute His behavior seems quite rational to us, the next minute we are completely confused. Our God is wild. He hands out very strange instructions. He likes to be dramatic and extreme.
Ezekiel could have just stood in the city square speaking for God, but instead he had to run around with a really bad shave chopping up pieces of his hair. God’s prophets act weird. They say upsetting things. The so-called prophets you see today strutting about in stylish clothes and spouting visions of blessings onto everyone’s heads are just a bunch of posers. If you want to find a real prophet of God, look for someone who is blunt, crisp, and lacking in diplomacy. Look for someone who is terribly jealous for God to be exalted. Look for someone who is constantly promoting God’s feelings as far more important than the feelings of mere mortals. God does not raise up prophets just to stroke human egos. He raises up prophets because His people have stopped listening to His internal convictions. A prophet’s function is to get in people’s faces, expose the ugliness of rebellion, and point the way back to alignment with God. Real prophets are not the kind of people you want to invite over for dinner with your friends, because you never know when they might make an embarrassing scene. Ezekiel acted like a freak. So did Jeremiah and Isaiah. But while they were making everyone uncomfortable with their strange charades, they were also giving people a glimpse into the heart of God.
Today we can learn a lot by listening to Yahweh speak through the mouths of His ancient prophets. By now Ezekiel has been dead for thousands of years, but Yahweh hasn’t changed a bit. He is still calling His wayward chosen people to return to Him in their hearts. His wrath is still building against false teachers and shepherds who are leading His flock astray for their own personal gain. Think about your church. Would God approve of what goes on inside of it? Is He really the focus of the worship time or is it the performers on stage? Is He really speaking through your pastor, or do you just hear other men’s popular programs and books being regurgitated from the pulpit? Is your church focused on statistical growth or spiritual depth? When we avoid the topics of God’s wrath and passages like Ezekiel being commanded to eat poop cakes, when we promote Israel like some blessed child, and deny her entire history with Yahweh, we demonstrate our unwillingness to face who God really is. God is wild. He demands our reverence and our complete devotion. If we claim to be serious Christians, then He must be first in our lives and hearts. If He makes obedience a matter of eating poop cakes and lying in the dirt, then so be it. We cannot—we must not—follow the horrendous example of ancient Israel.