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Biblical Chronology
Vol. 8, No. 12
December, 1996
Copyright © James B. Jordan 1996

Countdown to Exile

IV: Ezekiel and the Structure of History

by James B. Jordan

Ezekiel’s 430 Years

In Ezekiel 4, the prophet is told to begin his ministry by setting up a model of Jerusalem and lying on his side and prophesying against it. He is to do this for 430 days, a day for a year. 390 days are against "Israel," and 40 days are against "Judah." Because of the chronological importance of this passage, and the many different interpretations of it, we must take it up in some detail.

First of all, we note that Ezekiel performs these symbolic acts in his capacity as "son of man," a phrase that means "second Adam," and refers to his messianic position as acting high priest of the exilic community. (Compare Leviticus 21:1-3, 10-15 and Ezekiel 24:16-18.) The holiness of the High Priest, and the requirement that he marry only a virgin, establishes him as a visible representative of the Angel of Yahweh. Such was Ezekiel.

Second, Ezekiel was to draw a symbolic representation of Jerusalem on a brick, and then set up a model of siegeworks against it. Then he was to set up an iron wall between himself and the city. Since Ezekiel represents Yahweh (the Angel of Yahweh), the iron wall represents the firmament as "heavens of brass," a barrier of judgment, but also of protection, between God and Jerusalem. When the iron firmament is removed, nothing will stand between God and the wicked harlot city.

Third, the iron wall is between Ezekiel, who besieges the city, and the city itself. Thus, Ezekiel is on the other side of the firmament-barrier, and represents God. God is the one who besieges the city. It is not Nebuchadnezzar but Yahweh who is angry with Jerusalem.

Fourth (continuing), we notice that for the whole period of 430 days, Ezekiel will have ropes upon him so that he cannot turn from side to side. He will not be able to stop his work of prophesying against Jerusalem. We can assume that his wife or an assistant tied him up each day for this purpose. We can also assume that he did not do this for 24-hours a day (as verse 9 makes clear), but for a set period each day.

Fifth, Ezekiel is to lie on his side with his face toward the iron plate, Jerusalem being on the other side of it, and with his arm bared. He is to prophesy against Jerusalem. All of this portrays God’s attitude. God’s face is against Jerusalem. He has closed up the heavens as iron. His arm is bared against Jerusalem. His words are against Jerusalem.

Sixth, we are told first in verse 4a that Ezekiel is to place or put the iniquity of the house of Israel on Jerusalem, and then later the iniquity of the house of Judah. Verses 4b and following speak of Ezekiel’s "lifting up" the iniquity of Israel and Judah. Because the Hebrew verb that means "lift up" can also mean "bear," some assume that Ezekiel was to bear the sins of Israel and Judah, but this cannot be correct. Ezekiel was not suffering for their sins, and Jerusalem was indeed destroyed for these sins. Thus, the proper translation is "lift up." Ezekiel was to call up the sins and lift them up to the ears of those listening, showing that their sins had gone up to God. He was to lift up their sins and place them on Jerusalem.

Before examining the days/years, we must complete the passage:

Seventh, these verses raise the question of whether the 430 days/years are years of iniquity or of punishment. Ezekiel is to eat defiled bread for 390 days, and this represents that the people will eat such bread in the nations they will be sent into. Thus, some commentators have posited that the 430 (or 390) years are years of judgment and extend from the destruction of Jerusalem to about the time of the Maccabees. The problem with this view is that the banishment of Israel only lasted until Cyrus let them go back to the land. Moreover, the "times of the gentiles" of Daniel do not stop with the Maccabees but go on to the Romans. Additionally, God goes on to say that the bread and water of scarcity pictures the conditions in Jerusalem during the coming siege.

Thus, it is clear that the 430/390/40 years are years of iniquity. These years come before the destruction of Jerusalem. The sins of these years accumulated judgments that are soon to be placed on the wicked city (compare Genesis 15:16 and Matthew 23:35). These judgments include the scarce food and drink during the siege, and the defiled food to be eaten in the exile. This food is not defiled by the gentiles, but is defiled by their own feces. Their own filth defiles their meals. Because Ezekiel is a holy priest, God lets him use ordinary fire-dung; but the point has been made that this ritual theater portrays defiled food.

Eighth, and finally, we can now turn to the question of the 430 years. Symbolically, of course, this number points back to the sojourn in Egypt that began with Abraham and ended with Moses. For this reason, and because they despair of finding a chronological explanation, many commentators say that the 430 years are only symbolic and not chronological.

The mistake made by the commentators (and from my reading, it is all of them) is this: They look at the political and not the religious history of Israel and Judah. They note that the kingdom of Israel did not last 390 years, and that of Judah lasted far longer than 40. Ingenious explanations have occasionally been offered to account for this, but none of them work, which is why modern commentators reject them.

This is not, however, a reference to political history. Ezekiel’s concern is religious. These are the sins of Jerusalem. For 390 years, Jerusalem was the religious capital of all Israel, even during the divided monarchy. The only time Jerusalem was the capital only of Judah is in the 40 years before Josiah recaptured the northern area. Thus, by the time of Ezekiel, the nation was once more "Israel," and in verse 3 she is referred to as such.

In other words, if the sins of the "house of Israel" referred only to the kingdom of Northern Israel, they were visited upon that nation by Assyria a century earlier. But that is not the meaning here. The sins have reference to Jerusalem, and are visited upon Jerusalem as religious capital of both Israel and Judah.

A second problem for recent commentators is that the older chronology of the Biblical kings has been rejected in favor of a condensed chronology designed to bring the Biblical timespan into line with what is assumed to be a perfect Assyrian chronology. As we have seen in earlier studies, however, this condensed chronology does not stand close inspection, and thus we use the Biblical chronology.

We have seen that Josiah reunited Judah and Israel in his 12th year of rule (628-627 BC). Judah as a separate nation only existed for a while, but how long? Israel had been taken into captivity by Assyria in 719 BC, about 91 years earlier. In the reign of Ahaz, however, God had said that the nation of Israel would exist as a culture (though not necessarily as a political entity) for 65 more years (Isaiah 7:9). There was a deportation of Israelites after the destruction of Samaria, described in 2 Kings 17:24-40 and mentioned in Ezra 4:2-10. It seems that this is the end of that 65 years. But when did it happen?

We can guess that it happened 40 years before Josiah reunited the nation, and thus in 667 BC. Isaiah 7:1, however, says that Pekah king of Israel attacked Ahaz of Judah in the year God gave Israel only 65 more years. In 732 BC, Pekah was already dead. If, however, we put Pekah’s attack against Ahaz in the last year of the former’s reign, in 736 BC, and then add 65 years, we come to 671 BC. If we add 40 years, we come to 631 BC, which is the 8th year of Josiah, the year he began to seek Yahweh’s face. My guess is that this is the 40 years of Judah. Josiah’s seeking of God’s face led directly to his reuniting Israel.

Now, if we count from the 8th year of Josiah to the 5th year of Zedekiah and Jehoiachin, we get 39 years, which would be subtracted from the 390 years of Israel. This leaves us 351 years to count backwards from the end of Northern Israel in 671, which brings us to 1022 BC, the end of David’s reign. If we assume that it was at this point that David sinfully numbered God’s people, presumptuously taking over Yahweh’s host, we have the beginning point of the 430 years of sin.

If, however, we count from the 8th year of Josiah to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, we get 45 years, to be subtracted from the total 390 years of Israel. This leaves 345 years to count backwards from 671 BC; which brings us to 1016 BC, the 5th year of Solomon’s reign. This is one year after Solomon began the building of the Temple, which completed the holy city of Jerusalem. This also might be the starting point of the count, especially if either (a) the number of years has been rounded off from 431 to 430, or (b) a more accurate chronological count would yield an exact 430 years. Or, we might count backwards from when the investiture of Jerusalem began, in 588 BC, which takes us to the third year of Solomon, when there were still people rebelling against his God-appointed rule.

When did David number the people? We can only get an approximate date, but it will suffice. David’s sons Amnon and Absalom were born after he became king in Hebron at the age of 30. Thus, when Amnon raped Tamar, and Absalom slew him, David must have been about 50. This was right after Solomon was born (2 Samuel 3:2-3; 12:24; 13:1ff.). Thus, when David died at the age of 70, Solomon was about 20. In 1 Chronicles 21 David numbered the people and received the site of the Temple, and in 1 Chronicles 22 he began instructing Solomon, who was "young and inexperienced," in the plan of the Temple. We are also told here that David "made ample preparations before his death" (1 Chronicles 22:5). Thus, the numbering of the people must have occurred toward the end of David’s reign, when Solomon was a teenager.

The history of Temple, the core of Jerusalem, is what is definitive here. Ezekiel’s count begins either with God’s identification of the Temple site after David’s great sin, or with Solomon’s beginning of the building of the Temple. Solomon’s building of the Temple is not, however, an act of iniquity, and so it seems best to begin with David’s sin.

Accordingly the 430 years of sin against God’s presence in Jerusalem begin with David’s numbering the people in 1022 BC, in the 38th year of his 40-year reign. We move 351 years to 671 BC, when Israel ceased to exist and only Judah remained. We move 40 years, for Judah, to 631 BC, the year Josiah set his heart to restore the Temple and reunite the land. Then we continue to 592 BC, 39 more years, the year of Ezekiel’s prophetic theater announcing Jerusalem’s doom.

There remains one curiousity in our passage: Ezekiel only eats and drinks the bread and water of scarcity and defilement for 390 days, not the full 430 days. One way to resolve this might be that Ezekiel lay on both his right and left sides for 40 days, thus collapsing the 40 days into the 390, but verse 6 says that the 40 days of Judah are to come only after the 390 days of Israel are completed.

I propose the following resolution of the difficulty, which takes account of two factors. First, the actual 40 years of Judah came, as we have seen, in the midst of the 390 years of Israel; but Ezekiel is told to put his 40 days of Judah after the full 390 days of Israel. Second, 40 years is the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness, and we have already seen that the total number of days is 430, the number of years Israel spent "in Egypt" (i.e., under Egyptian hegemony, from Abram forward).

The original period that is the foundation for this prophecy lasted, thus, 470 years (430 + 40). Here, the 40 has been placed within the 430, and is thus made to do double duty. First, it is the years of Judah’s sins, which are to be visited upon Jerusalem shortly. Second, however, it will be a new period of wilderness after the judgment, for those who are of Judah and not of Israel.

The name of God’s people throughout this history is "Israel." During and after the exile, however, they will be called "Jews" ("Judah-ites"). Those who cling to the old ways are of Israel; those who move to the new ways are Jews. Notice in verse 13 that the "sons of Israel" will eat unclean bread among the nations. The implication is that those who identify with the new people of God, "Judah," will eat manna for "40 years," and then re-enter the land of promise.

Thus, we can summarize the entire prophetic theater this way:

Ezekiel Continues to Prophesy

During the time that Ezekiel was acting out his daily drama, he received some other messages and visions from Yahweh. In Ezekiel 5, God continues his message to Ezekiel, telling him that after his theatrical siege of Jerusalem is ended, he is to act out the scattering of the people into the nations, and tell his hearers that God is going to do this.

Later he received another message from God, to the effect that those who worshipped on the high places in Israel were going to be destroyed (Ezekiel 6). Still later he received another message, that the entire land of Israel would be destroyed (Ezekiel 7).

Finally, in the 6th year of Zedekiah and Jehoiachin, in the sixth month, fifth day, Ezekiel was shown a vision of the abominations of Jerusalem, of God’s abandonment of the city and Temple, and of the destruction of the same (Ezekiel 8-11). All of these visions and events happened during the 430 days of simulated siege. After this come more visions, prophesies, and prophetic theater (Ezekiel 12-19), some of which may still have come during the 430 days. The message of chapter 12, at least, probably came right at the end of the simulated siege. Those that follow probably came after, over the next couple of years.

Ezekiel 8 is of interest because it shows that idolatry had returned in full force to Israel. Up to this point the prophets had denounced the sin of oppression and the idolatry of looking for an early return from exile. By this time, in 591 BC, Ezekiel is shown that in their hearts, the leaders of Israel were bowing down to all kinds of abominable things. Women were "weeping for Tammuz," and men were bowing to the sun in the east. They were using the Temple for these things, thus outwardly still associating their idolatry with Yahweh, which infuriated the Lord.

Moreover, in Ezekiel 13, which comes soon after, we find God denouncing the prophets for practicing divination, and the women of Israel for using magic charms. Idolatry of the heart is also denounced in Ezekiel 14. Ezekiel 16 is an allegory, and surveys the history of Israel’s idolatry, and certainly implies that the nation was once again returning more and more to the outward practice of idolatry. Ezekiel 18 denounces social sins and the use of the high places as shrines of Yahweh.

Ezekiel 14:14 is interesting because God mentions Daniel as one of the three most righteous men in history. We can imagine that most of the Israelites and exiles hated Daniel, because he was at Nebuchadnezzar’s right hand and supported his righteous judgments against God’s apostate people. We can be sure the Ezekiel and Daniel were good friends, and that both men had regular correspondence with Jeremiah in Jerusalem.

We now arrive at Ezekiel 20, a prophecy that comes in the 7th year, 5th month, 10th day, of Zedekiah-Jehoiachin’s dual rule. Here we have a word to the exiles. God denounces a whole series of sins, reviewing Israel’s history, and climaxing with an indictment against the exiles for practicing full-fledged idolatry on high places. Ezekiel says that eventually their sons will repent and return to the land, but that they will remain "in the wilderness" until that time.

The ensuing oracles, which follow this one in time, are against Jerusalem. Doubtless Ezekiel sent these as letters to Jeremiah and the other faithful in Israel, but they were mainly given to the exiles to destroy their false hopes in an early return. A long list of abominations is denounced by God in Ezekiel 22, and almost all of these are social crimes. Listed among them is the continuing evil of eating sacramental meals at shrines (v. 9). Though making idols is mentioned at the outset (v. 3), it is unclear whether the people in Jerusalem were really setting up false gods, or if their "idolatry" consisted of their horrible treatment of the image of God, other people. Chapter 23 denounces the idolatry of looking to other nations instead of God for protection.

In Ezekiel 24, the prophet is told that on that very day, the 10th of the 10th month of the kings’ ninth year (588 BC), Nebuchadnezzar had laid siege to Jerusalem, and would bring God’s judgment upon her. Ezekiel’s wife also was taken by God at this time, and the prophet was told not to mourn publicly for her. This is because he was acting high priest for the exiles, but also was a picture to them that God would not mourn the death of His bride, Jerusalem, because as Ezekiel 16 and 23 point out, she was notoriously adulterous.

(to be continued)