By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry through twelve Minor Prophets, two reformers, and one exile. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

In last week’s episode, Ezekiel offered encouragement and comfort to the exiles, who worried that they were excluded from God’s plans for the nation of Israel. Surprisingly, Ezekiel identified them as the prophesied remnant. To help them chart a fresh course, God promised to gift them a new heart made of flesh (11:19). Instead of rejoicing over the good news, Chapter 12 reveals that a contingent of exiles rejected Ezekiel as a divine messenger. His oracles and sign-acts, no matter how forceful and dramatic, were unsuccessful in getting through. Despite Ezekiel’s best efforts, they remained stonyhearted. God warned Ezekiel, “Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear” (12:2).

Other prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, used this same terminology to describe the epidemic of spiritual indifference in their time (Isa. 26:11; Jer. 5:21). Jesus, six hundred years later, also described how his teaching failed to affect those with deadened senses. Jesus used parables to reveal the purpose of his mission, recognizing that only those with perceptive eyes and attentive ears would understand his teachings (Matt. 13:13-15). For those listeners who were spiritually awake, the parables revealed “the secrets of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:10). Like Jesus, Ezekiel hoped his message broke through to the seeing and hearing remnant, even if the spiritually blind and deaf rejected it.

To get the attention of his fellow exiles, Ezekiel once again performed divinely scripted theatrics. Why did God command Ezekiel to conduct so many sign-acts? Despite the prophet’s eccentricity, there is solid scientific support for his teaching methods. This semester, I am taking a graduate course on expository teaching, and I have learned a lot about appealing to both sides of the student’s brain. Ezekiel’s oracles and disputation speeches appealed to the left hemisphere of the brain, where we process reason and logic. Ezekiel’s sign-acts reinforced the message by appealing to the right hemisphere, the one associated with emotions and creativity. Like Ezekiel, trained preachers try to appeal to the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain at different points in their sermons. Preachers might not lay siege to a miniature Jerusalem, but they have their own versions of visual aids with videos and dramas. The hope of anyone teaching God’s word is that at least one teaching method will strike the right chord to trigger conviction and prompt action.

God commanded Ezekiel to pack a knapsack and “go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight” (12:3). To all those encamped in Tel Abib, the exile’s knapsack was a familiar sight. Five years prior, they hastily packed their own knapsacks with the bare necessities like bread, water, a bowl, and a sleep mat. At first, Ezekiel’s spectators likely assumed he was reenacting their own thousand-mile journey from Jerusalem to Babylon. The optimists in the group may have misread the context clues and even thought he was imitating the exiles’ return to Jerusalem. Only through his later interpretation did they learn he was imitating the departure of Jerusalem’s remaining inhabitants. In previous sign-acts, he had portrayed Jerusalem’s siege and the Babylonian attack, but this time he mimicked their deportation.

After making a show of walking around with his knapsack prop, God instructed Ezekiel to wait until the evening for the next scene. The dramatic pause increased the suspense and allowed time for a larger crowd to gather around Ezekiel’s home. Seven times within seven verses, God emphasized the need for the dramatization to be conducted “in their sight.” Ezekiel was not miming the deportation for his own benefit!

Once it was dark, God told the prophet, “Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry the baggage through it” (12:5). The Hebrew word used for wall shows Ezekiel burrowed through the mud-brick wall in his own home and not a large protective wall. Ezekiel had to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to make a hole big enough for him to crawl through it. Once he crawled through the hole, God told him to hoist the knapsack over his shoulder and walk into the darkness. Curiously, God also instructed Ezekiel to cover his face so that he would not see the land as he exited (12:6). Darkness was not enough; the prophet needed to be blind.

If Ezekiel’s sign-act was a Broadway play, God was the director, orchestrating the stage lighting and the audience cues. Ezekiel was the method actor going for the Tony Award. After the curtain closed, Ezekiel let the meaning of his charade simmer overnight in the minds of his spectators. The next morning, the exiles came to him with their questions and only then did God allow the often-mute prophet to verbalize his actions (12:9).

Ezekiel explained, “This oracle concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the house of Israel in it” (12:10). Until now, Ezekiel has not mentioned King Zedekiah, the current occupant of the throne in Jerusalem. He only hinted at his lack of respect for Zedekiah by not using his regnal year as the reference point for his dating. Ezekiel purposefully referred to Zedekiah as a prince, instead of a king, as a sign of his disapproval. To Ezekiel, Zedekiah’s brother King Jehoiachin, who was living in exile, was the last legitimate king on Jerusalem’s throne. The Babylonians appointed Zedekiah as Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet king. Besides being a Babylonian plant, Zedekiah also did evil in the sight of the Lord. By the Chronicler’s assessment, Zedekiah had “stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord” (2 Chron. 36:12). In Chapter 17 and 19, the prophet explains with more granularity all of Zedekiah’s wrongdoing, but in Chapter 12, he focuses on Zedekiah’s punishment.

Ezekiel prophesied, “And the prince who is among them shall lift his baggage on his shoulder in the dark and shall go out; he shall dig through the wall and carry it through; he shall cover his face so that he may not see the land with his eyes” (12:12). Within five years, Ezekiel’s oracle was fulfilled exactly as he had described. Jeremiah and 2 Kings both relay the story of Zedekiah’s attempt to escape Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege (Jer. 39:1-7; 2 Kings 25:1-7). Under the cover of darkness, Zedekiah and his attendants snuck out of Jerusalem through a breach in the city wall. Before they even got to Jericho, the Babylonian army captured them. The army brought Zedekiah before Nebuchadnezzar in Riblah, a military center in modern-day Lebanon. As punishment for Zedekiah’s betrayal, the Babylonians executed his two sons in front of him. Then they gouged out the king’s eyes and brought him to Babylon in bronze chains. Blinding captives was a relatively common practice in the ancient Near East, especially one as high profile as Zedekiah.

Ezekiel made interpreting his sign-act much easier on future Bible scholars because he identified Zedekiah as his subject. Burrowing through the wall and escaping through a hole into the darkness, all foreshadowed Zedekiah’s botched escape plan. The only area of debate is whether Ezekiel portended the blinding of the king when he said, “he shall cover his face so that he may not see the land with his eyes” (12:12). The ambiguous statement might describe Zedekiah’s shame as he cowardly abandoned his people to suffer through the siege on their own. However, if Ezekiel’s prophecy was a prediction of Zedekiah’s blinding, it is a remarkably precise detail to know in advance, even for a credentialed prophet.

God clarified that despite the awfulness of Zedekiah’s fate, he allowed for the king’s punishment at the hands of the Babylonians. It was the Lord who caught Zedekiah in his snare and chased him out of the land with a sword. He said, “I will spread my net over him, and he shall be caught in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it, and he shall die there” (12:13). Zedekiah paid a heavy price for his wickedness. During his reign, he asked Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord on behalf of the kingdom but never once heeded the prophet’s advice (Jer. 27:1-22; 38:14-28). When Ezekiel said the prince would be deported but would not actually see the land of the Chaldeans, he might have been alluding a second time to Zedekiah’s blinding. Zedekiah never saw again, period, and he did not survive the exile.

After Ezekiel’s first one-man drama, God told the prophet to perform a shorter sign-act. His earlier sign-act represented the royal household’s fate and the next pointed to the destiny of all Jerusalem’s inhabitants. He commanded the prophet, “Mortal, eat your bread with quaking and drink your water with trembling and with fearfulness” (12:18). Although he addressed the exiles in his midst, his performance represented the events that would soon enough take place in Jerusalem. The short vignette seems better situated as part of Ezekiel’s enactment of the siege of Jerusalem when he laid on his side eating unsavory bread and limited water intake (4:9-17). God expected Ezekiel to endure a siege diet and mimic a hand tremor while consuming his small portion of food and water. The point of Ezekiel’s charade was to exhibit how basic actions, like eating and drinking, would be impossible as the Babylonian army closed in, and panic overtook the city. The people’s anxiety level would be so high that they could not stop their hands from shaking.

Why did God allow for such terrible and brutal punishment? Ezekiel’s answer was always the same: “they shall know that I am the Lord” (12:15). Because generations of Israelites had laid aside the covenant and ignored the prophets, they had no choice but to recognize God’s sovereignty in his ultimate act of judgment. God awaited a truly humble remnant to repent, confess their sins among the nations, and return to him (12:16). That was the goal. After facing God’s wrath head-on, they would finally accept his rescue.

Ezekiel rarely gave the reaction of his audience after an oracle or sign-act. However, after these two performances, Ezekiel described the problematic mood that took over the encampment. Their cynicism was best reflected in a pithy saying that circulated like a viral meme. The proverb said, “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing” (12:22). For years, God’s prophets warned the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Ezekiel beat the drum of impending doom, but to their hearers, their threat was empty. The Israelites were sick of their negativity. As time passed and Jerusalem still stood, the doubters claimed, “every vision comes to nothing.” Why should they believe in unvalidated prophecies?

Not all the exiles resisted Ezekiel or questioned his trustworthiness. Plenty of exiles believed Ezekiel had a direct encounter with God and spoke the truth, but they did not see his warnings as applying to them. They declared, “the vision that he sees is for many years ahead; he prophesies for distant times” (12:26). The viewpoint that gained traction in their community was that Ezekiel’s prophecies applied to the distant future, not the immediate. Therefore, they were safe to ignore his oracles.

God had an answer for the naysayers. He will put an end to the cynicism. Not only will Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s prophecies come true, but God promised that “the days are near and the fulfillment of every vision” (12:23). The delay of judgment had passed. The punishment would happen in their days, in fact, within five years (12:25). This very generation would witness the fulfillment of every prophetic utterance.

False prophecy versus authentic prophecy is a theme that will continue throughout the next two chapters (12:21-14:11). The true prophets were on the cusp of being vindicated, and the false prophets were going to be cut off forever. But in the days of Ezekiel, imposters came out of the woodwork. Next week, we will learn all about the false prophets.