Deportation and Devastation—Soon (Ezekiel 12) September 3-4
Chapter 12 begins a new section in the book of Ezekiel. This new series of messages, extending to the end of Ezekiel 19, apparently follows soon after the vision of chapters 8-11: "Ezekiel always gave specific dates for new visions or oracles. Since no new chronological notice was given, and since the speeches of chapters 12-19 were closely related thematically to the foregoing vision, it can be assumed that these messages were uttered shortly after Ezekiel's explanation of the vision in chapters 8-11" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 1-2).
Thus, the exiles had watched Ezekiel's symbolic acts and heard the rarely spoken prophecies of this normally mute man of God for more than a year. They had seen his acts with their eyes and heard his words with their ears, but it had no impact on them; in fact, they rejected God's message (12:2). Other prophets experienced the same reaction (see Isaiah 6:9-10; Jeremiah 5:21).
The exiles did not grasp the seriousness of Ezekiel's messages. They still believed they would be allowed to return to their land in the near future because Jerusalem still stood and most of the Jewish people continued in the land. Surely, it was only a matter of a little more time before they would be permitted to go back home. Throughout chapters 12-19, several reasons are presented as to why they believe this way. In chapter 12, it is apparent that the people either don't believe prophecy or reason that even if judgment really is going to come on their homeland, it won't happen in their lifetime. It just doesn't seem possible to them—but, of course, it should have.
"Ezekiel's next visual demonstration [of the process of deportation] warned the captives already in Babylon that they should not expect a quick return to Jerusalem. He had already shown that the city would soon fall ([chapters] 4; 5); those not killed would be led into exile. These exiles should have understood Ezekiel's meaning, for they had done what he was displaying only six years before, when they had been brought into exile" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on 12:3-7).
After pantomiming Jerusalem's siege, lying on one side and then the other over the course of 430 days, and shaving all his hair, Ezekiel was no doubt drawing larger numbers of onlookers. For this next demonstration he probably packed a bedroll, water container, staff and a few clothes. He was to pack them outside his dwelling during the day with people watching him. "In the evening he would dig a hole through the mud-brick wall of his house. Leaving through the hole, Ezekiel carried his bag like an exile (vv. 4b-6a). Next he would cover his face [essentially blindfolded so he couldn't see where he was going] (v. 6b) and go to another place while all the people watched. Ezekiel's act was a sign that God would bring additional exiles to Babylon (v. 6c)" (Expositor's, note on verses 3-7).
The onlookers asked what this meant, and God told Ezekiel to respond that besides the rest of the nation, it particularly concerned the "prince," the ruler, in Jerusalem (verses 8-14). Indeed, leaving through a hole in the wall by night indicated a secret escape. This is exactly what the nobles and political leaders of Jerusalem tried to do six years later during the siege of 586 B.C. They attempted to escape and run but were caught by the Babylonians. King Zedekiah was blinded and carried off to Babylon where he would die (see 2 Kings 25:1-7; Jeremiah 52:1-11). The rest of the nation was also carried away captive, just as God foretold through Ezekiel.
God is clear as to the reason for allowing many of them to go on living. Despite the judgment He is bringing, this is another example of His great mercy. While enslaved, they will come to acknowledge their sinful ways and come to better understand Him (Ezekiel 12:15-16). "They will know that I am the LORD," He states repeatedly. This will also serve as a powerful witness to all mankind. God wants to emphasize that no one should think He wasn't strong enough to prevent the calamity that came upon His nation. Rather, their downfall was due to His power, a fulfillment of the curse He promised. God understands human nature and the depth of evil to which people can sink. People need to know who God is—including what He stands for, His likes and dislikes, His expectations—before they can learn to properly worship Him. And for those who refuse to heed Him initially, they will ultimately come to know Him in a more ominous way—through judgment.
Using the family analogy He inspires in the New Testament, God has expectations for His household, like any wise father does. Even a physical family fairs poorly without mature household rules. On the other hand, proper parental guidance helps children succeed in life. Said succinctly, fatherly love includes laws—not harsh, not without mercy, but rather rules that protect his children from harming themselves and others. How does a wise father ensure that his children respect his rules for their good? He disciplines them. So it is with our heavenly Father's approach to His children (see Hebrews 12:5-11).
In verses 17-18 of Ezekiel 12, God gives the prophet another pantomime to perform. Ezekiel is instructed to tremble and shake as he ate his food and shudder in fear as he drank water. This would test his acting ability, but the message from God is clear: This is what the nation is going to experience. He then explains that this is to serve as punishment for the incessant violence between people (verse 19)—which probably includes not just physical but emotional violence as well (compare Malachi 2:16).
In verse 20, the chilling warning of Ezekiel 6:6 is reiterated: The inhabited cities are to be laid waste. Many elements in chapters 12-19 hearken back to points made in the earlier chapters of Ezekiel. Recall that in those earlier chapters, Jerusalem was often used to represent the whole house of Israel in the end time. The same can be said of this section. While the message is obviously directed to Ezekiel's immediate audience, there are, as we will see, indications throughout the section that the message is for all of Israel—and more specifically, since the northern tribes did not receive Ezekiel's message in ancient times, for Israel's descendants in the last days.
In verse 6 of chapter 12, Ezekiel was to be a sign to the "house of Israel." Yet in verses 8-9, this could conceivably be limited to the Jews in captivity, as God asks, "Has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, 'What are you doing?'" However, we could perhaps imagine people of the modern nations descended from Israel reading Ezekiel's prophecy and also wondering the same thing—and Ezekiel answering them through this preserved written record rather than his ancient utterances. In verse 10, God says, "This burden concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the house of Israel who are among them." This verse might seem limited to the Jews of ancient Judah. But, while it clearly does apply to them, it may also have a broader meaning. Again, we have clear precedent in the preceding chapters of Ezekiel for understanding the ancient destruction and captivity of Jerusalem and Judah as typical of punishment that is to befall all of Israel in the end time. The end-time Jewish monarch resides among the Israelites (as we will see more about in Ezekiel 17).
It only makes sense to see Ezekiel's warning of deportation as applying to not only the Jews still in Judah when he spoke, but also to all Israel and Judah at the end of this present evil age. As other prophecies also show, the cities of the modern Israelite nations are going to be destroyed and the survivors will be marched off into foreign slavery. And again, violence among the people is part of the reason for this punishment. God must be grieved continually at the terrible murders and violent crime that are so common in the lands of modern-day Israel. How we are repeating the experience of our ancestors! At times it seems that the only lesson we learn from history is that men do not learn lessons from history.
In verse 22, God quotes a proverb of the people: "The days are prolonged, and every vision fails." A "proverb" is a popular saying summing up some common wisdom. But this wasn't wise at all. Such statements are still common today: "People have been saying that for centuries and it hasn't happened yet." And the Bible warned of the pervasiveness of such sentiments in the end time: "Scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts [physical wants], and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation'" (2 Peter 3:3-4).
"The belief the proverb [in Ezekiel] expresses is, simply, that the message of judgment delivered by Ezekiel and other prophets like Isaiah simply was not true. The argument underlying it is basically, 'It hasn't happened yet—so it can't happen!' That notion is foolish, whether it's held by a Californian living in an earthquake zone, or a non-Christian hearing about Christ's Second Coming! God's patience in delaying judgment is evidence of grace, not evidence no judgment lies ahead!" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on 12:22).
Others accepted that Ezekiel's warning was true and inspired, but believed it concerned the distant future and not the here and now (verse 27). This is also true of many believers in the end time. Jesus warned of Christians who would adopt the attitude of "My master is delaying his coming" (Matthew 24:48). Even many who believe Christ's coming is relatively soon lose any sense of urgency regarding it—seeing it as still far enough off not to concern them. "Maybe someday. But not now. Maybe someone. But not us. God's response through Ezekiel was, 'Not someone...you!' And, 'Not someday...soon!' The attitude of the people of Ezekiel's day is still pervasive in the church. Only if we truly believed judgment was coming to us and soon would we break the bondage of our materialism, and live completely for the Lord" (note on Ezekiel 12:26-28).
Once God accomplishes His proclaimed punishment, no one will be able to contradict it! There were false prophets in Jerusalem with whom Jeremiah was contending at this time (Jeremiah 28:1-5). There will also be false teachers and prophets in the end time. Even though they persuade many people with their words, God's Word stands sure and will pass the test of time. The chapter ends with this message: "Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "None of My words will be postponed any more, but the word which I speak will be done.'" In less than six years from this prophecy Jerusalem would fall to Nebuchadnezzar and be destroyed.
Similarly, the judgments of the end time are coming swiftly. We don't know how long. But we know they are coming soon. At some point in the not-too-distant future, what the apostle John foresaw will come to pass: "The angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised up his hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives forever...that there should be delay no longer" (Revelation 10:5-6). Until then, the end for each of us could be minutes or even seconds away, as we are all mortal and subject to death. So we should live each day with that reality in mind—and direct our lives accordingly.