THE SWORD UNSHEATHED
THE date at the beginning of chapter 20 introduces the fourth and last section of the prophecies delivered before the destruction of Jerusalem. It also divides the first period of Ezekiel’s ministry into two equal parts. The time is the month of August, 590 B.C., two years after his prophetic inauguration and two years before the investment of Jerusalem. It follows that if the Book of Ezekiel presents anything like a faithful picture of his actual work, by far his most productive year was that which had just closed. It embraces the long and varied series of discourses from chapter 8 to chapter 19; whereas five chapters are all that remain as a record of his activity during the next two years. This result is not so improbable as at first sight it might appear. From the character of Ezekiel’s prophecy, which consists largely of homiletic amplifications of one great theme, it is quite intelligible that the main lines of his teaching should have taken shape in his mind at an early period of his ministry. The discourses in the earlier part of the book may have been expanded in the act of committing them to writing; but there is no reason to doubt that the ideas they contain were present to the prophet’s mind and were actually delivered by him within the period to which they are assigned. We may therefore suppose that Ezekiel’s public exhortations became less frequent during the two years that preceded the siege, just as we know that for two years after that event they were altogether discontinued.
In this last division of the prophecies relating to the destruction of Jerusalem we can easily distinguish two different classes of oracles. On the one hand we have two chapters dealing with contemporary incidents-the march of Nebuchadnezzar’s army against Jerusalem (chapter 21), and the commencement of the siege of the city (chapter 24). In spite of the confident opinion of some critics that these prophecies could not have been composed till after the fall of Jerusalem, they seem to me to bear the marks of having been written under the immediate influence of the events they describe. It is difficult otherwise to account for the excitement under which the prophet labours, especially in chapter 21, which stands by the side of chapter 7 as the most agitated utterance in the whole book. On the other hand, we have three discourses of the nature of formal indictments-one directed against the exiles (chapter 20), one against Jerusalem (chapter 22), and one against the whole nation of Israel (chapter 23). It is impossible in these chapters to discover any advance in thought upon similar passages that have already been before us. Two of them (chapters 20 and 23) are historical retrospects after the manner of chapter 16, and there is no obvious reason why they should be placed in a different section of the book. The key to the unity of the section must therefore be sought in the two historical prophecies and in the situation created by the events they describe. It will therefore help to clear the ground if we commence with the oracle which throws most light on the historical background of this group of prophecies-the oracle of Jehovah’s sword against Jerusalem in chapter 21.
The long-projected rebellion has at length broken out. Zedekiah has renounced his allegiance to the king of Babylon, and the army of the Chaldeans is on its way to suppress the insurrection. The precise date of these events is not known. For some reason the conspiracy of the Palestinian states had hung fire; many years had been allowed to slip away since the time when their envoys had met in Jerusalem to concert measures of united resistance. [Jeremiah 27:1-22] This procrastination was, as usual, a sure presage of disaster. In the interval the league had dissolved. Some of its members had made terms with Nebuchadnezzar; and it would appear that only Tyre, Judah, and Ammon ventured on open defiance of his power. The hope was cherished in Jerusalem, and probably also among the Jews in Babylon, that the first assault of the Chaldeans would be directed against the Ammonites, and that time would thus be gained to complete the defences of Jerusalem. To dispel this illusion is one obvious purpose of the prophecy before us. The movements of Nebuchadnezzar’s army are directed by a wisdom higher than his own; he is the unconscious instrument by which Jehovah is executing His own purpose. The real object of his expedition is not to punish a few refractory tribes for an act of disloyalty, but to vindicate the righteousness of Jehovah in the destruction of the city which had profaned his holiness. No human calculations will be allowed even for a moment to turn aside the blow which is aimed directly at Jerusalem’s sins or to obscure the lesson taught by its sure and unerring aim.
We can imagine the restless suspense and anxiety with which the final struggle for the national cause was watched by the exiles in Babylon. In imagination they would follow the long march of the Chaldean hosts by the Euphrates and their descent by the valleys of the Orontes and Leontes upon the city. Eagerly would they wait for some tidings of a reverse which would revive their drooping hope of a speedy collapse of the great world-empire and a restoration of Israel to its ancient freedom. And when at length they heard that Jerusalem was enclosed in the iron grip of these victorious legions, from which no human deliverance was possible, their mood would harden into one in which fanatical hope and sullen despair contended for the mastery. Into an atmosphere charged with such excitement Ezekiel hurls the series of predictions comprised in chapters 21 and 24. With far other feelings than his fellows, but with as keen an interest as theirs, he follows the development of what he knows to be the last act in the long controversy between Jehovah and Israel. It is his duty to repeat once more the irrevocable decree-the Divine delenda est against the guilty Jerusalem. But he does so in this instance in language whose vehemence betrays the agitation of his mind, and perhaps also the restlessness of the society in which he lived. The twenty-first chapter is a series of rhapsodies, the product of a state bordering on ecstasy, where different aspects of the impending judgment are set forth by the help of vivid images which pass in quick succession through the prophet’s mind.
The first vision which the prophet sees of the approaching catastrophe (Ezekiel 21:1-4) is that of a forest conflagration, an occurrence which must have been as frequent in Palestine as a prairie fire in America. He sees a fire break out in the "forest of the south," and rage with such fierceness that "every green tree and every dry tree" is burned up; the faces of all who are near it are scorched, and all men are convinced that so terrible a calamity must be the work of Jehovah Himself. This we may suppose to have been the form in which the truth first laid hold of Ezekiel’s imagination; but he appears to have hesitated to proclaim his message in this form. His figurative manner of speech had become notorious among the exiles (Ezekiel 21:5), and he was conscious that a "parable" so vague and general as this would be dismissed as an ingenious riddle which might mean anything or nothing. What follows (Ezekiel 21:7-10) gives the key to the original vision. Although it is in form an independent oracle, it is closely parallel to the preceding and elucidates each feature in detail. The "forest of the south" is explained to mean the land of Israel, and the mention of the sword of Jehovah instead of the fire intimates less obscurely that the instrument of the threatened calamity is the Babylonian army. It is interesting to observe that Ezekiel expressly admits that there were righteous men even in the doomed Israel. Contrary to his conception of the normal methods of the Divine righteousness, he conceives of this judgment as one which involves righteous and wicked in a common ruin. Not that God is less than righteous in this crowning act of vengeance, but His justice is not brought to bear on the fate of individuals. He is dealing with the nation as a whole, and in the exterminating judgment of the nation good men will no more be spared than the green tree of the forest escapes the fate of the dry. It was the fact that righteous men perished in the fall of Jerusalem; and Ezekiel does not shut his eyes to it, firmly as he believed that the time was come when God would reward every man according to his own character. The indiscriminateness of the judgment in its bearing on different classes of persons is obviously a feature which Ezekiel here seeks to emphasise.
But the idea of the sword of Jehovah drawn from its scabbard, to return no more till it has accomplished its mission, is the one that has fixed itself most deeply in the prophet’s imagination, and forms the connecting link between this vision and the other amplifications of the same theme which follow.
Passing over the symbolic action of Ezekiel 21:11-13, representing the horror and astonishment with which the dire tidings of Jerusalem’s fall will be received, we come to the point where the prophet breaks into the wild strain of dithyrambic poetry, which has been called the "Song of the Sword" (Ezekiel 21:14-22). The following translation, although necessarily imperfect and in some places uncertain, may convey some idea both of the structure and the rugged vigour of the original. It will be seen that there is a clear division into four stanzas:-
(1) Ezekiel 21:14-16.
"A sword, a sword!
It is sharpened and burnished withal.
For a work of slaughter is it sharpened!
To gleam like lightning burnished!
And ‘twas given to be smoothed for the grip of the hand, -
Sharpened is it, and furbished-
To put in the hand of the slayer."
(2) Ezekiel 21:17-18.
"Cry and howl, son of man!
For it has come among my people;
Come among all the princes of Israel!
Victims of the sword are they, they and my people
Therefore smite upon thy thigh!
It shall not be, saith Jehovah the Lord."
(3) Ezekiel 21:19-20.
"But, thou son of man, prophesy, and smite hand on hand;
Let the sword he doubled and tripled(?).
A sword of the slain is it, the great sword of the slain whirling around them, -
That hearts may fail, and many be the fallen in all their gates.
It is made like lightning, furbished for slaughter!"
(4) Ezekiel 21:21-22.
"Gather thee together!
Smite to the right, to the left,
Whithersoever thine edge is appointed!
And I also will smite hand on hand,
And appease My wrath:
I Jehovah have spoken it."
In spite of its obscurity, its abrupt transitions, and its strange blending of the divine with the human personality, the ode exhibits a definite poetic form and a real progress of thought from the beginning to the close. Throughout the passage we observe that the prophet’s gaze is fascinated by the glittering sword which symbolised the instrument of Jehovah’s vengeance. In the opening stanza (1) he describes the preparation of the sword; he notes the keenness of its edge and its glittering sheen with an awful presentiment that an implement so elaborately fashioned is destined for some terrible day of slaughter. Then (2) he announces the purpose for which the sword is prepared, and breaks into loud lamentation as he realises that its doomed victims are his own people and the princes of Israel. In the next stanza (3) he sees the sword in action; wielded by an invisible hand, it flashes hither and thither, circling round its hapless victims as if two or three swords were at work instead of one. All hearts are paralysed with fear, but the sword does not cease its ravages until it has filled the ground with slain. Then at length the sword is at rest (4), having accomplished its work. The divine Speaker calls on it in a closing apostrophe "to gather itself together" as if for a final sweep to right and left, indicating the thoroughness with which the judgment has been executed. In the last verse the vision of the sword fades away, and the poem closes with an announcement, in the usual prophetic manner, of Jehovah’s fixed purpose to "assuage" His wrath against Israel by the crowning act of retribution.
If any doubt still remained as to what the sword of Jehovah meant, it is removed in the next section (Ezekiel 21:23-32), where the prophet indicates the way by which the sword is to come on the kingdom of Judah. The Chaldaean monarch is represented as pausing on his march, perhaps at Riblah or some place to the north of Palestine, and deliberating whether he shall advance first against Judah or the Ammonites. He stands at the parting of the ways-on the left hand is the road to Rabbath-ammon, on the right that to Jerusalem. In his perplexity he invokes supernatural guidance, resorting to various expedients then in use for ascertaining the will of the gods and the path of good fortune. He "rattles the arrows" (two of them in some kind of vessel, one for Jerusalem and the other for Riblah); he consults the teraphim and inspects the entrails of a sacrificial victim. This consulting of the omens was no doubt an invariable preliminary to every campaign, and was resorted to whenever an important military decision had to be made. It might seem a matter of indifference to a powerful monarch like Nebuchadnezzar which of two petty opponents he determined to crush first. But the kings of Babylon were religious men in their way, and never doubted that success depended on their following the indications that were given by the higher powers. In this case Nebuchadnezzar gets a true answer, but not from the deities whose aid ‘he had invoked. In his right hand he finds the arrow marked "Jerusalem." The die is cast, his resolution is taken, but it is Jehovah’s sentence sealing the fate of Jerusalem that has been uttered.
Such is the situation which Ezekiel in Babylon is directed to represent through a piece of obvious symbolism. A road diverging into two is drawn on the ground, and at the meeting-point a sign-post is erected, indicating that the one leads to Ammon and the other to Judah. It is of course not necessary to suppose that the incident so graphically described actually occurred. The divination scene may only be imaginary, although it is certainly a true reflection of Babylonian ideas and customs. The truth conveyed is that the Babylonian army is moving under the immediate guidance of Jehovah, and that not only the political projects of the king, but his secret thoughts and even his superstitious reliance on signs and omens, are all overruled for the furtherance of the one purpose for which Jehovah has raised him up.
Meanwhile Ezekiel is well aware that in Jerusalem a very different interpretation is put on the course of events. When the news of the great king’s decision reaches the men at the head of affairs they are not dismayed. They view the decision as the result of "false divination"; they laugh to scorn the superstitious rites which have determined the course of the campaign, not that they suppose the king will not act on his omens, but they do not believe they are an augury of success. They had hoped for a short breathing space while Nebuchadnezzar was engaged on the east of the Jordan, but they will not shrink from the conflict whether it be today or tomorrow. Addressing himself to this state of mind, Ezekiel once more (Cf. chapter 17) reminds those who hear him that these men are fighting against the moral laws of the universe. The existing kingdom of Judah occupies a false position before God and in the eyes of just men. It has no religious foundation; for the hope of the Messiah does not lie with that wearer of a dishonoured crown, the king Zedekiah, but with the legitimate heir of David now in exile. The state has no right to be except as part of the Chaldaean empire, and this right it has forfeited by renouncing its allegiance to its earthly superior. These men forget that in this quarrel the just cause is that of Nebuchadnezzar, whose enterprise only seems to "call to mind their iniquity" (Ezekiel 21:28)-i.e., their political crime. In provoking this conflict, therefore, they have put themselves in the wrong; they shall be caught in the toils of their own villainy.
The heaviest censure is reserved for Zedekiah, the "wicked one, the prince of Israel, whose day is coming in the time of final retribution." This part of the prophecy has a close resemblance to the latter part of chapter 17. The prophet’s sympathies are still with the exiled king, or at least with that branch of the royal family which he represents. And the sentence of rejection on Zedekiah is again accompanied by a promise of the restoration of the kingdom in the person of the Messiah. The crown which has been dishonoured by the last king of Judah shall be taken from his head; that which is low shall be exalted (the exiled branch of the Davidic house), and that which is high shall be abased (the reigning king); the whole existing order of things shall be overturned "until He comes who has the right."
The last oracle is directed against the children of Ammon. By Nebuchadnezzar’s decision to subdue Jerusalem first the Ammonites had gained a short respite. They even exulted in the humiliation of their former ally, and had apparently drawn the sword in order to seize part of the land of Judah. Misled by false diviners, they had dared to seek their own advantage in the calamities which Jehovah had brought on His own people.
The prophet threatens the complete annihilation of Ammon, even in its own land, and the blotting out of its remembrance among the nations. That is the substance of the prophecy; but its form presents several points of difficulty. It begins with what appears to be an echo of the "Song of the Sword" in the earlier part of the chapter:-
"A sword! a sword! It is drawn for slaughter; it is furbished to shine like lightning" (Ezekiel 21:28).
But as we proceed we find that it is the sword of the Ammonites that is meant, and they are ordered to return it to its sheath. If this be so, the tone of the passage must be ironical. It is in mockery that the prophet uses such magnificent language of the puny pretensions of Ammon to take a share in the work for which Jehovah has fashioned the mighty weapon of the Chaldaean army. There are other reminiscences of the earlier part of the chapter, such as the "lying divination" of ver. 34, and the "time of final retribution" in the same verse. The allusion to the "reproach" of Ammon and its aggressive attitude seems to point to the time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the withdrawal of the army of Nebuchadnezzar. Whether the Ammonites had previously made their submission or not we cannot tell; but the fortieth and forty-first chapters of Jeremiah show that Ammon was still a hotbed of conspiracy against the Babylonian interest in the days after the fall of Jerusalem. These appearances make it probable that this part of the chapter is an appendix, added at a later time, and dealing with a situation which was developed after the destruction of the city. Its insertion in its present place is easily accounted for by the circumstance that the fate of Ammon had been linked with that of Jerusalem in the previous part of the chapter. The vindictive little nationality had used its respite to gratify its hereditary hatred of Israel, and now the judgment, suspended for a time, shall return with redoubled fury and sweep it from the earth.
Looking back over this series of prophecies, there seems reason to believe that, with the exception of the last, they are really contemporaneous with the events they deal with. It is true that they do not illuminate the historical situation to the same degree as those in which Isaiah depicts the advance of another invader and the development of another crisis in the people’s history. This is due partly to the bent of Ezekiel’s genius, but partly also to the very peculiar circumstances in which he was placed. The events which form the theme of his prophecy were transacted on a distant stage; neither he nor his immediate hearers were actors in the drama. He addresses himself to an audience wrought to the highest pitch of excitement, but swayed by hopes and rumours and vague surmises as to the probable issue of events. It was inevitable in these circumstances that his prophecy, even in those passages which deal with contemporary facts, should present but a pale reflection of the actual situation. In the case before us the one historical event which stands out clearly is the departure of Nebuchadnezzar with his army to Jerusalem. But what we read is genuine prophecy; not the artifice of a man using prophetic speech as a literary form, but the utterance of one who discerns the finger of God in the present, and interprets His purpose beforehand to the men of his day.