Ezekiel's Puzzling Prophecy
The most mysterious of all of Ezekiel's predictive prophecies!
The solution to the prophet's riddleThe prophecies in the Book of Ezekiel (Ch. 4 & 5) consist of four "symbolic acts" that the prophet called "signs." "This is a sign for the House of Israel." (Ezekiel 4:3) The word "sign" is translated from the Hebrew word, "'ot," which linguists believe is the origin of our English word "oath" with much the same meaning. It is a visible demonstration of intent.
Thus Ezekiel's prophecy begins with Elohim's oath, which many consider to be the most mysterious, confusing, inexplicable and puzzling prediction of all given through Ezekiel! We read, "Lie also upon your left side and lay the iniquity of the House of Israel upon it. According to the number of the days that you shall lie upon it, you shall bear their iniquity. For I have lain upon you the years of their iniquity according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shall you bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when you have accomplished them, lie again on your right side, and you shall bear the iniquity of the House of Judah forty days. I have appointed you each day for a year. Therefore you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, and your arm shall be uncovered, and you shall prophesy against it. And, behold, I will lay bands upon you, and you shall not turn yourself from one side to another, until you end the days of your siege." (Ezekiel 4:4-8)
Several leading Biblical commentaries express their great confusion about the meaning of this prophecy: "This is the most difficult sign in the book to interpret..." (Bible Knowledge Commentary) "The days... stand for years... How we are to explain the precise number chosen is a problem which has much exercised the minds of interpreters." (Pulpit Commentary) "Each day represented a year, but no explanation of the totals is completely satisfactory." (Believer's Bible Commentary)
Despite the puzzling mystery surrounding the fulfillment of this prophecy, several Biblical commentators agree that the prostrate Ezekiel lying on his right and left side was symbolic of the two Israelite Houses (two tribe Judah and ten tribe Israel, also known as Ephraim). According to Hebrew tradition, directions are given with the feet pointed east toward the rising sun (like the tradition of burial in Judaism). So, when Ezekiel lay on his left side, his face looked north toward the Kingdom of Israel. When he rolled over, his face pointed south toward the Kingdom of Judah. Bible scholar Walter Zimmerli writes, "Another key issue here is the meaning of 'Israel' in v.4. The parallel between Israel (vv. 4-5) and Judah (v.6)... suggest that the reference is to the two kingdoms, northern and southern... according to ancient Israelite geographical perceptions, 'left' can represent 'north' as right can represent 'south'." (p.85, Ezekiel: A Commentary)
Scripture also gives a specific time-horizon that commentators agree interprets the days of the prophecy as symbolizing years. "I have appointed you each day for a year." (Ezekiel 4:6) The prostrate Ezekiel was demonstrating the duration of punishment with a distinction made between the guilt of the House of Israel and that of the House of Judah. Their different punishments define different destinies for the two Israelite Houses!
Furthermore, the Pulpit Commentary points out that, "The meaning of the expression "bear their iniquity" (Eze. 4:4) determines the interpretation as referring to the duration of the punishment, and not to the period of the iniquity which brought it down." Therefore, Elohim's oath is that the House of Judah was to be punished 40 years for their sins and the House of Israel was to be punished for 390 years.
Part 1: The 40 YearsJudah's guilt matches the time period that post-Exodus Israel wandered in the wilderness to "bear their guilt" as punishment for their disobedience. "After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise." (Numbers 14:34) This prophecy is therefore a parallel between Israel's punishment of 40 years in the wilderness and Judah's punishment of 40 years in Babylon.
However, Jeremiah spoke of the Babylonian exile period as being 70 years. "And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation for their iniquity, says YAHUAH, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations." (Jer. 25:12) Again, we read, "For thus says YAHUAH, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon, I will visit you and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place." (Jer. 29:10)
Critics ask, "Was the exile 40, or 70 years?" Some suggest the prophecies are contradictory. But consider this difference: Ezekiel said Judah would be PUNISHED ("bear their iniquity") 40 years, while Jeremiah said that the entire exile from the land would be 70 years before they could return!
However, Preacher's Commentary believes that 40 years were not really 40 years. "The Judean punishment was to last (by the minimum reckoning) literally 47 years (586 to 539 B.C.), but this number was rounded off in the present prophecy to 40...." Believers in Biblical prophecy look for Divine exactness, not wildly off the mark estimates. For example, another of our studies posted on our website shows that Daniel's "Seventy Weeks" prophecy was completed on the very year of the Crucifixion.
So, if Yah speaks of an exact 40 year period, when did the time period of Ezekiel's prophecy begin? Pulpit Commentary states "the time at which Ezekiel received the commands with which we are now dealing [was] B.C. 595." Therefore, 40 years later is 555 B.C., which is the year Nabonidus became king of Babylon. Is there a connection?
The Story of NabonidusHaydock's Commentary is mystified about Ezekiel's prophecy. "It is very hard to explain how the ten tribes were 390 and the two tribes 40 years in captivity, as it is certain that the latter were seventy year banished from their own country. Perhaps during the last thirty their condition was greatly ameliorated." This comment is on the right track, but did not pursue a complete solution to the parable. The House of Judah was indeed exiled from the land for 70 years, but their severe bondage and oppression at Babylonian hands only lasted for 40 years, the time period that parallels Israel's 40 year wilderness sentence.
Did the House of Judah's severe bondage period, in which they were held as captives and slaves, end with the accession of the Aramaic King of Babylon, Nabonidus? Consider the historical record. Nabonidus' mother, Addagoppe, was an Aramaean from Harran, which was the hometown of Abraham and his family! The maternal side of the Babylonian king's family was therefore practically neighbors of Abraham's relatives. Nabonidus' mother was also the high priestess of the moon god at the temple in Harran, and many Israelites still professed a worship of the Moon God due to syncretism in worship. Was there a familial and religious bond between the exiles of Judah and Nabonidus?
The Encyclopedia Britannica writes about the Babylonian king. "Nabonidus, also spelled Nabu-Naid ("Reverer of Nabu"), king of Babylonia from 555/6 until 539 bc, when Babylon fell to Cyrus, king of Persia. After a popular rising led by the priests of Marduk, chief god of the city, Nabonidus, who favored the moon god Sin, made his son Belshazzar coregent and spent much of his reign in Arabia."
Nabonidus was greatly influenced by his mother and sought to remove, or demote the Babylonian gods, and replace them with the Aramaic moon god. This angered the Babylonian priests, whose assassination attempts Nabonidus thwarted by appointing his son Belshazzar as co-regent. Nabonidus also moved his entourage to Taima in Arabia, a small trading village alongside a wadi, a spring-fed watering hole in the desert. Furthermore, Nabonidus' private guard were Hebrews, not Babylonians!
"Because of the alienation between Nabonidus and the people of Babylon that is reflected in the anti-Nabonidus texts that we have, [Dr. C.J.] Gadd considers it 'unlikely that the army of Nabonidus ... could be composed mainly of native Babylonians..." Gadd further notes that the list of places occupied by Nabonidus (namely Taima, Dedan-al-'ula, Fadak, Khaybar, Yadi', Yathrib-Medina) coincides, with one exception, to the lists of oases where Jewish communities prospered at the time of the rise of Islam. Gadd believes that 'short of actually naming the Jews ... [the implication of his using Hebrews in his militia] could scarcely be stronger'." (Prof. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile, 2002, p.71. Ref: C.J. Gadd, "The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus," Anatolian Studies 8 (1958) 85-144) Nabonidus feared entrusting his safety to Babylonian soldiers, and instead appointed a personal guard composed of Hebrews, who traditionally originated in his home town in the region of Aram.
This Babylonian king appears to have been favorable to the Israelites, considering that Nabonidus' mother was Aramaic, and his maternal relatives came from the very region that the Israelites called their homeland. Did their persecution end with his accession (555 B.C.) 40 years after Ezekiel's prophecy? Was the House of Judah's condition in exile "greatly ameliorated" (lessened in its oppression) as suggested? When the exile began they were practically slaves. But with the accession of Nabonidus they became his trusted personal guard. Let us witness the transformation that occurred in their exile and the change in Judah's attitude in only one generation of 40 years!
Early in their exile, the deportees longed for home. "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down. Yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they who carried us away captive required of us a song. They who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How shall we sing YAHUAH's song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy...O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, who rewards you as you served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against stones." (Psalm 137:1-9)
The end of this psalm seems violent and cruel, yet understandable considering that the Babylonians wrought death and destruction in their brutal conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., destroying its homes and temple. Apparently the actual punishment of Judah was ameliorated with the accession of Nabonidus, even while the exile itself continued for the full 70 prophetic years until Cyrus the Persian overthrew Babylon in 539 B.C.
Few Return from ExileWe will now address an additional issue of Messianic importance. There is no historical evidence of any Jewish large-scale desire to return en masse to Canaan, except early in their exile. Many Messianic believers incorrectly suppose that the exiles all came back from Babylon. Instead, the Bible and history record that Judah's exiles became acclimated in their new homeland. The vast majority had little desire to return to Canaan.
This is found in several of the Books written during the exilic era:
Tobit: "In the introduction to the apocryphal book of Tobit... Tobit is represented as belonging to Naphtali... undoubtedly still recognized in the seventh generation following the destruction of Samaria." (Wm. Rosenthal, "What Happened to the Ten Tribes?" Hebrew Union College Jubilee Volume, p.84) Tobit travelled from Nineveh to Elam rather freely but he, his family, and Jewish friends seemed to have no desire to return to Canaan.
Esther: The Book of Esther gives an insider's look at the life of the exiles in the king's court at the city of Susa in Persia. Queen Esther, Mordecai, and their fellow Judeans never indicate any desire to return to Canaan. There are no cries of "next year in Jerusalem," or anything of the sort.
Daniel: The prophet Daniel gives several wonderful prophecies about the future. Yet, interestingly, not a single prophecy of the Judeans returning to Canaan, or any soliloquy about how much he would like to be back home in Canaan.
Dr. Robert P. Carroll writes, "biblical books that depict Jewish life in the Diaspora... gave no impression of being in a state of constant frenzy about returning to the so-called holy land or holy city." ("Exile! What Exile?" p.69, in "Leading Captivity Captive," JSOT Supp.278)
Ezra and Nehemiah speak about a return from Babylonian captivity, but record that only 42,360 came back, a small dribble out of the hundreds of thousands that left for exile. "The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore." (Ezra 2:64)
Professor Carroll also speaks of the myth "of the glorious march or the long trek back to Jerusalem by the Babylonian aliyya [exiles]..." He asks, "did the exile ever end? ...No, it is still going on." He speaks of "what I would want to call, permanent exile or exile without return... When did it end? If so many people remained in a state of deportedness, can the exile be said to have ended? What kind of exile is it where the bulk of the people never did return to their own land, but only a token number went back as if those who were left behind did not count at all?" (JSOT Supp.278. p.60, 66, 70, 77)
Indeed, in much of modern theology, those "lost tribes" remaining in exile are either ignored or considered unimportant in Yah's plans and purposes, even though they were by far the majority.
Theologian R.A. Torrey of Princeton University writes, "We have no trustworthy evidence that any numerous company returned from Babylonia, nor is it intrinsically likely that such a return took place." ("Ezra Studies", p.288) Prof. Mark Elliot writes, "Excavations in Judah...have proved that many of the towns of the land were completely destroyed about 600 B.C. or a little later, and never re-occupied." ("Studies In Bible and Early Christianity," vol. 51, 2002, p.101) British theologian Lester Grabbe writes, "Only members of the Southern Kingdom return, not those from the Northern Kingdom. It is also clear that only a small portion of those in captivity return." ('The Exile' Under the Theodolite, p.96, in "Leading Captivity Captive")
Note that there was no return of the ten-tribe House of Israel from the Assyrian captivity. Critics claim there are no lost tribes because there was no significant exile. To that Prof. Thomas L. Thompson says, "No, the problem is not whether there was ever a historical exile...There was exile...often." (The Exile in History & Myth, p.110)
After the Assyrian conquest of Judah in 701 B.C., the "Annals of Esarhaddon" (Nin. V:55ff) refers to the Judean king as "sar uru Ia'udi," or "King of the city of Judah." Dr. G.W. Ahlstrom remarks, "this shows that at this time Judah was still a city-state." The Assyrians exiled virtually all of the land including all of the fenced cities of Judah except Jerusalem in 701 B.C.
Mideast scholar, Dr. Rainer Albertz writes, "The Chronicler maintains that Nebuchadnezzar took into exile the entire surviving population of Judah and Benjamin (2 Chronicles 36:20) and that the land lay empty of inhabitants until the return of the exiles (36:21) ... We know ... that the majority of the Judean exiles stayed in Babylonia." (Israel In Exile:The History and Literature of the Sixth Century C.E., Brill 2004, p.81, 127)
Thus the Bible confirms that all, or nearly all, went into exile, and most never returned. Dr. Melody D. Knowles writes, "Only a small minority of the descendants of these deportees migrated from Babylonia to Yehud... The population of Jerusalem and its environs in the Persian period was much smaller... perhaps a few thousand." ("Approaching Yehud" p. 3) "Yehud" was the name of Persian-era Judah. Hundreds of thousands were deported from Canaan and only a few thousand returned. The remaining Hebrew exiles remained in exile.
Part 2: The 390 YearsThis time-period represented a time of punishment for the ten tribe House of Israel, also called "Ephraim" by the prophets. Prof. B.E. Thiering in the American Journal of Biblical Archaeology refers to the prophetic 390 years as a "period of wrath." (Qumran Interpretation of Ezk. 4:5-6, AJBA-1, 1969, p.30-34) Dr. Daniel I. Block comments that two things were accomplished by the exile. "Like the original 40-year period in the wilderness, the purpose of the [Judean] exile is to eliminate a generation of Israelites that has provoked his wrath and to set the stage for a new beginning." ("Ezekiel" pp.179-180)
There is a parallel here. The prophet Hosea speaks of exiled Israel in the wilderness. What then is the purpose of the 390 year punishment in the wilderness? It would cause a forgetfulness of prior homeland, history, pagan rites and rituals; a veritable loss of identity in order to set the stage for a new beginning for the House of Israel. It was a period of cleansing to be purified of their pagan rites and false religion.
Daniel Block confirms this: "But the persistent and pervasive nature of Israel's apostasy required that before Yahweh could effect the new community of faith, the evils of the past must be purged." (ibid. p.470) This purging involved memory of land and heritage! They became lost tribes.
The Varied Views of Ezekiel's Prophecy1. Some commentators believe the 390 years do not represent an exact period of Ephraim's punishment. Prof. Walter Eichrodt writes, "The number of years this punishment is said to have lasted need not, of course, be taken as chronologically exact." ("Ezekiel: A Commentary", p.84) If this is so, then why give a number? Why does Scripture use numbers at all if they don't fit the facts? Ezekiel could have simply stated that the period of wrath and punishment would be a very long time! In Scripture, Yah gives numbers for a reason!
2. Some date the prophecy from the dedication of Solomon's temple or from the division of the kingdom in about 925 B.C. Yet these dates do not fit the prophecy. These were Israel's glory years, not the beginning of punishment!
3. Some combine the 40 years of the House of Judah's punishment and 390 years of the House of Israel's punishment, as if their history and prophecies were inseparable. The Keil & Delitzsch Commentary disagrees. "We must therefore, as the literal meaning of the words primarily indicates, regard the specified periods of time as periods of punishment for Israel and Judah. Since Ezekiel ... after the completion of the 390 days for Israel must lie a second time (Ezek.4:6) 40 days for Judah, he had to recline in all 430 (390 + 40) days. To include the forty days in the three hundred and ninety is contrary to the statements in the text."
4. The Pulpit Commentary claims that Ezekiel was only using plug figures in his prophecy. "The conclusion, to which I am led, after examining the several hypotheses, is... the fact that the ten tribes had not returned as a body, and that there was no sign of their return, when Judah returned in B.C. 536, and therefore a larger number was inserted to allow time for a more adequate interval." This view implies that the 390 years is a meaningless large number inserted to allow time for the exiled tribes to make their way back to Palestine. However, this argument does reveal the historical fact that the House of Israel did not return at the end of the Babylonian captivity, and that there was no sign of their return at that time.
5. Pulpit Commentary also suggests, "The traditional Jewish interpretation, on the other hand (Rabbi Kimchi), sees in the number of the years the measure, not of the punishment, but of the guilt of Israel and Judah respectively." (ibid.) However, 390 is nearly 10 times the number 40, but Ephraim (House of Israel) wasn't 10 times guiltier than Judah! "And YAHUAH said to me, The backsliding Israel has justified herself more than treacherous Judah." (Jeremiah 3:11) Similarly, "Neither has Samaria committed half of your [Judah's] sins; but you multiplied your abominations more than they..." (Ezekiel 16:51)
6. The Keil & Delitzsch Commentary opines, "All these hypotheses, however, are shattered by the impossibility of pointing out the specified periods of time, so as to harmonize with the chronology... Still less can the 40 years of Judah be calculated, as all the determinations of the beginning and the end are mere phantoms of the air." To the contrary, it is not the fault of the prophet if a commentator has trouble understanding the prophecy!
7. Again, Keil & Delitzsch Commentary claims, "If the days, reckoned as years, correspond to the duration of their sinning, then, in the case of the house of Israel, only the duration of this kingdom could come into consideration, as the period of punishment began with the captivity of the ten tribes. But this kingdom lasted only 253 years." (ibid.) This argument is baseless because there is no reason why Israel's punishment should be limited to the duration of the kingdom, and not entail their conquest and captivity.
8. Finally, the most significant misguided view says that the Persians were friends and benevolent rescuers of the Jewish people. Historians record that the Persians were not liberators and that the Jews remained in bondage during the Persian era. Prof. Lester Grabbe states, "... there is no reason to believe that their [Persian] rule was significantly more benign than that of their Semitic predecessors. The allusion to military conscription, forced labor, and the requisitioning of livestock, recalls ... the heavy burden of taxation during the early Persian period." ("Leading Captivity Captive," p.44)
Judeans were subject to a high and burdensome taxation system under Persia with a series of many high tributes to pay. "Be it known now to the king that, if this city be built and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so you shall endamage the revenue of the kings." (Ezra 4:13)
The Persian burden was so high that Judeans mortgaged their lands and homes, and were forced to sell their children into slavery. "Some also there were who said, 'We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards and houses, that we might buy corn because of the dearth.' There were also who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants. Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already. Neither is it in our power to redeem them for other men have our lands and vineyards.'" (Nehemiah 5:3-5) An alternate translation for "bondage" is "slavery."
This is repeated in Nehemiah 9:36-37, "So here we are today, slaves. Yes, in the land you gave our ancestors, so that they could eat what it produces and enjoy its good — here we are in it, slaves! Its rich yield now goes to the kings you have set over us because of our sins. They have power over our bodies. They can do what they please to our livestock. We are in great distress!" The Israelite exiles were not free citizens under Persian rule, and only a small representative number returned to Canaan.
The Answer to Ezekiel's puzzle? Elohim's oath as given through Ezekiel was fulfilled exactly to the year specified in prophecy! The fall of the House of Israel and its capital, Samaria, was in 721 BC, a well-attested date. Adding 390 years brings us to 331 BC. What happened in that very year?
Actually, something very significant! One of the most important events in the history of the ancient world occurred on October 1, 331 B.C., with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great at the battle of Arbela, also known as Gaugamela.
King Darius III of Persia offered Alexander half the Persian kingdom if he would sign a peace agreement, but the offer was refused. Alexander's general, Parmenion, told him "If I were you, I would accept Darius' very generous offer." Alexander replied, "I would too if I were Parmenion!" Nothing would stand in the way of the complete and total conquest of Persia.
Alexander overslept on the morning of battle, and was awakened by his concerned generals. He told them not to worry because the battle was already won! Alexander was inspired with the belief that he had a Divinely-ordained mission to overthrow Persia. He was correct! This conquest was indeed the event behind the Divine prophecy in Ezekiel Chapter 4 long before.
Heaven's favor was clearly with Alexander, giving him a complete victory over a large Persian army of over 250,000 soldiers. This large Persian force was defeated by only 47,000 Greeks, who were outnumbered over 5 to 1.
The House of Israel's Divine time of punishment therefore ended with the conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. (exactly 390 years after their kingdom collapsed). This time-period marks the entry into the era of recorded history. Although the tribes formerly under Persian domination were now free to migrate elsewhere, there is no record of any migration of Israel tribes into Palestine!
So where did these exiled tribes go? The Abrahamic covenant answers this. "Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth. You shall spread abroad to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. In you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." (Genesis 28:14) Israel in exile was dispersed to all points of the compass, following which, in their new homelands they would become a blessing to all the nations among whom they dwelled. However, this dispersion would be somewhat haphazard and unplanned, for the exile of Israel is compared by the prophets to a "wandering". Webster's Dictionary appropriately describes this as "to move about without a definite destination or purpose; roam, rove, or stray: to wander over the earth." Another definition is "to ramble without a definite purpose or objective."
"Israel wandered like a flock." (Zechariah 10:2) The English word, "wandered" is translated from the Hebrew word, "Haggolah," which literally means, "the wandering into exile." A related Hebrew word, "Golah" means "exiles." The theme of "wandering" indicates that these exiled tribes did not retrace their path to Canaan, as Scripture foretold: "Therefore, behold, I will hedge up your way with thorns, and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths." (Hosea 2:6) True to prophecy, a majority of the Israel exiles did not find their pathway back to Palestine. Where then did they go?
"Thus shall the Israelites eat their bread unclean among the nations whither I will drive them." (Ezekiel 4:13) The Israelites deported from their homeland in Canaan were to spread throughout the nations, fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant promise that they would be a blessing to all families of the earth. That they would "eat their bread unclean" indicates that over time most would lose their Israelite religious distinctiveness and become a part of the nations wherever they dwelled. Allegorically, paralleling their physical spread, the Abrahamic Covenant was being extended throughout the earth.
The Apostle Paul ratified this allegorical-physical theme under the New (Renewed) Covenant, "Know you therefore that they who are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham... And if you be Yahshuah's, then are you Abraham's seed and heirs according to the [Abrahamic] promise." (Galatians 3:7, 29)
What is our obligation as heirs of the covenant promises? "Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if you do these things, you shall never fall." (2 Peter 1:10) May we all be blessed in so doing! Amen.