Zedekiah Rebels Against Babylon (2 Kings 24:20b; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 52:3b; Ezekiel 23) November 1-2
As God had foretold in Ezekiel 17, King Zedekiah of Judah finally rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 52:3b). As the rebellion is what provoked Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem (see verse 4), which began in January 588 B.C. (compare Ezekiel 24:1-2), the rebellion must have happened immediately beforehand. This makes sense in light of international affairs, for at this time a new pharaoh came to the throne of Egypt. "The king of Judah foolishly relied on the Egyptians under Pharaoh Apries (or Hophra, Jer. 44:30) for help (see Ezek. 17:15-18). Apries had recently succeeded Psamtik II (594-588 B.C.) on the throne. He had great plans for Egypt's renewed glory" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on 2 Kings 24:20). But it was not to be, as we will later see.
A Tragic Tale of Two Sister Cities (2 Kings 24:20b; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 52:3b; Ezekiel 23)
Judah's break from Babylon and its renewed affiliation with Egypt is mentioned in the allegorical story of Ezekiel 23, narrowing the time frame for this chapter. Since chapter 24 is set at the time Jerusalem's siege begins, chapter 23 apparently is set between Zedekiah's rebellion and the siege.
Recall from Ezekiel 16 the story of Jerusalem portrayed as a rescued child turned murderous harlot as representative of the history of the nation of Israel. In the latter part of the chapter, Jerusalem, symbolizing the Jewish remnant of Israel, was said to be sister to Samaria and Sodom in the sense that God viewed them all as the offspring or legacy of the Canaanites in a cultural sense due to their idolatry and degeneracy. Ezekiel 23 contains a similar portrayal, with Jerusalem and Samaria, symbolizing the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel respectively, represented as two harlot sisters sharing the same ethnic heritage—"daughters of one mother" (verse 2), the mother being the formerly unified nation.
That the cities are meant to represent the people of the nation is clear from verse 3, which states that "they committed harlotry in Egypt," reflecting on the Israelites' worship of the Egyptian gods before the nation was delivered under Moses from its enslavement there. Throughout the Bible, God inspires the metaphorical comparison between adultery and spiritual unfaithfulness to Him. "It was during their stay in Egypt as youths that they had learned the trade of prostitution (v. 3; cf. 16:26; 20:7-8; Num 25:3-9; Josh 24:14; 2 Kings 21:15; Hos 1:2). Though the straightforward language of Israel's perverted 'sexual relations' with other countries [in a figurative sense] may be morally and culturally offensive to many today, God did not hedge in clearly and concisely describing the crudeness and perversion of wickedness and sin" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Ezekiel 23:1-4). Where the King James Version says Israel's bosom was "bruised" (verses 3, 8, 21), the New King James Version has "pressed," and other translations say "handled" or "caressed," creating a graphic image of their disloyalty to God.
God refers to Samaria (Israel) and Jerusalem (Judah) as Oholah and Oholibah respectively (verse 4). (The King James spelling is Aholah and Aholibah.) The names are significant. Oholah means "Her Own Tabernacle," while Oholibah means "My Tabernacle Is in Her." God's temple—in essence a fixed tabernacle—was located in Jerusalem. Throughout the divided kingdom era, Judah, despite periods of apostasy, remained the center of true worship. In contrast, the northern kingdom, since the time of Jeroboam, set up centers of false worship.
God refers to both sisters as "Mine" (verse 4)—that is, He took the nation as His own in the Sinai marriage covenant. And they bore Him "sons and daughters," that is, the people of the nation. Yet despite the covenant relationship, both sisters committed spiritual harlotry with other nations and their gods.
Verses 5-8 describe the harlotry of Samaria—the "older" or, literally, "greater" sister (verse 4). The northern kingdom of Israel sought "relations" with the Assyrians as "her lovers." This involved not only political alliances but Israel's worship of Assyria's gods (verse 7). God's judgment was to allow the Assyrians to invade Israel and strip her bare, taking the people captive or killing them (verses 9-10). This happened in the first Assyrian invasion and deportation of Israel in 733-732 B.C. and the second invasion and deportation at the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. (more than 130 years before Ezekiel wrote).
Verses 11-21 describe the harlotry of the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital, Jerusalem. She saw what happened to the northern kingdom, but failed to learn from its experiences (verse 11). As Jeremiah had written regarding God having put away the northern kingdom, "Her treacherous sister Judah saw it... Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also" (Jeremiah 3:7-8). Indeed, Jerusalem was even "more corrupt" (Ezekiel 23:11). Judah defiled God's own temple with idolatry and immoral practices. And, as noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Ezekiel 16, there was also an important accountability factor. As the center of true worship, the responsibility for spiritual leadership and right conduct rested with Judah even more than with Israel.
Judah also pursued relations with the Assyrians (verse 12). And she, too, was left defiled by them (verse 13)—a reference to the spiritual defilement caused by idolatry and to the actual devastation caused by Sennacherib's invasion in 701 B.C., in which the Assyrians took a large number of Jewish captives. Unlike what happened to the northern kingdom, though, God left a remnant of Judah in the land at that time. "But she increased her harlotry" (verse 14). She failed to learn the lesson.
Judah "then extended her prostitution to the Babylonians. She had inordinate affections for the Babylonian [Chaldean] rulers (cf. Jer 22:21), seeing images of them on walls [Ezekiel 23:14]. Bas-reliefs were common decorations in Mesopotamian palaces and temples. Perhaps this statement was an allusion to some Judean envoys who were sent to Babylonia and saw the witness of her great power demonstrated on such walls. Judah did send messengers to woo Babylonia into 'relations' with her, and Babylonia complied by entering into such 'relations' with Jerusalem (vv. 14-16...)" (note on verses 11-21).
Verse 17 explains that Judah became defiled with Babylonian immorality and then states that "she was defiled by them." This latter phrase apparently referred to the Babylonians' past few military invasions. Fed up with national humiliation and eager to win independence, Judah "alienated herself from them." This is evidently a reference to Zedekiah's rebellion against Babylon. God responds by alienating Himself from Judah (verse 18). For on top of Judah's downward spiral into depravity, the nation's betrayal of its allegiance to Babylon is a violation of an oath to God (see Ezekiel 17:15-20).
"As if Jerusalem had not learned her lesson, she turned away from Babylonia only to turn to Egypt for aid through 'relations' with that nation ([Ezekiel 23] vv. 19-21; cf. Jer 2:18; 6:8; 37:5-7; Lam 4:17). It was like striking up an old relationship. Jerusalem failed to learn from the distasteful relationship with Babylonia that security lay, not in men, but in the Lord. Egypt, of course, was extremely anxious to enter into 'relations' with Judah; for the Pharaohs were planning intervention in Asia. Such desire on Egypt's part was portrayed by the figure of lustful donkeys and horses (cf. Jer 2:24; 5:8; 13:27), while Jerusalem equally desired to renew the sexual perversion of her youth with Egypt [with God likening this to the vileness of pursuing relations with animals]" (note on Ezekiel 23:11-21).
In verses 22-35, God pronounces judgment on Judah. He would bring the nation's former lovers against her: "The Babylonians, all the Chaldeans, Pekod, Shoa, Koa, all the Assyrians with them" (verse 23). According to Expositor's: "The names Pekod, Shea, and Koa are taken by most scholars to refer to tribes located on the eastern borders of the Babylonian Empire. peqodh ('Pekod') is believed to he equivalent to the Assyrian pukadu, the name of a tribe in southeastern Babylonia. sho`a ('Shoa') is equated with the Assyrian sutu or suti, a term used of nomads east of the Tigris River. Originally these nomads lived in the Syrian desert according to the Amarna letters, but in the eleventh century B.C. they entered the eastern territory of Babylonia. qo`a ('Koa') finds its parallel in the Assyrian term kutu, a tribal group east of the Tigris River on the border of Elam and Median appearing in Assyrian inscriptions during the eleventh century B.C. and mentioned as part of Babylonia when conquered by Cyrus" (footnote on verse 23).
However, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary says of these names: "Pekod...[is] not a geographical name, but descriptive of Babylon. [Meaning:] 'Visitation,' peculiarly the land of 'judgment'... Shoa...Koa—'rich...noble'; descriptive of Babylon in her prosperity, having all the world's wealth and dignity at her disposal" (note on verse 23).
The Assyrians, mentioned in the same context, are reckoned by most commentators to here be vassals of the Babylonians. However, most of the Assyrians had fled the region since their empire fell to the Babylonians. This may hint at some duality in the passage, as the final destruction of Judah and Israel at the end of the age will come at the hands of a power bloc comprising the modern descendants of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. The prophecy at the end of the chapter makes this even more likely, as we will see.
God tells Judah of the enemies He will bring against her: "They shall judge you according to their judgments... They shall remove your nose and your ears" (verses 24-25). This was evidently an ancient Middle Eastern punishment for adulteresses (Expositor's, note on verses 22-27; Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 22-27). Figuratively, Judah would no longer be beautiful and desirable—she would be disfigured and ugly. Because Judah has gone the way of Samaria, she will go the whole way of Samaria (verse 31)—being forced to drink from the same "cup of horror and desolation" (verse 33). God tells Judah, "Since you have forgotten me and thrust me behind your back, you must bear the consequences of your lewdness and prostitution" (verse 35, NIV).
In the final section of the chapter, verses 36-49, God tells Ezekiel to pronounce judgment on Oholah and Oholibah—Samaria and Judah. From the wording of verses 45-49, it is clear that the decreed punishment was yet to come when Ezekiel prophesied. This is rather intriguing, as Samaria, the northern kingdom, had gone into captivity more than 130 years before Ezekiel received this prophecy. Here, then, is compelling reason for viewing this section as referring to the end time, when the descendants of the northern tribes will suffer the severest judgment ever—along with the modern-day descendants of Judah.
As in Ezekiel 20 and 22, God again indicts Israel and Judah for idolatry and Sabbath-breaking (23:36-39)—sins that are still nearly universal among the modern Israelites. The child sacrifice mentioned here could, as pointed out in regards to similar passages, apply in principle to the modern practice of abortion and to giving children over to the evil values and practices of society. Verses 40-41 show Israel again playing the harlot, getting made up and dressed up to entice others. The word "Sabeans" in verse 42, while possibly a reference to surrounding nomadic peoples, could also be translated "drunkards"—perhaps symbolizing other nations given over to the world's false religious system (see Revelation 17:1-2) with whom Israel commits spiritual adultery.
In verse 45 of Ezekiel 23, God says that "righteous men" will judge Israel and Judah as adulteresses and murderesses. Some commentators equate these righteous judges with the enemy nations bringing the punishment in verses 46-47, as God said He would delegate punishment to such nations (see verse 24). In this sense, "righteous" is viewed not as characterizing the enemy nations as right before God but as carrying out His righteous judgment. The New Bible Commentary: Revised, however, states, "Righteous men can hardly be Babylonians (cf. 7:21, 24); they are [rather] the few men of Jerusalem who remain faithful to Yahweh and condemn the national policy" (note on 23:45). This does make sense as judgment was committed to Ezekiel in verse 36.
In the last two verses of the chapter, God gives "four purposes in judging His sinning people. To end wickedness in the land; to instruct other nations ['all women'] of the consequences of unrighteousness; to punish the two wicked cities [for the sake of justice]; to bring Israel and Judah to a saving knowledge of the Lord" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on verses 48-49). God's great plan and purpose is to have us all come to detest evil, to love good and, with His help, to live accordingly—for our own sake and that of everyone else.