Ezekiel lived during a dark period in Israel’s history. In the course of his career, the Babylonian invasion escalated from an imminent danger to a present reality. As such, the prophet was the bearer of bad news. After receiving his calling (Ezekiel 2:1-8), Ezekiel repeatedly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:1-7:27).
Ezekiel’s first prophetic statements were not made with words. His first public act was just that, an act. The prophet inscribed a brick with the name “Jerusalem” and simulated divine rejection and the pending siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God asked Ezekiel to lay on his side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4:4)!
“As for you, lie down on your left side and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel on it; you shall bear their iniquity for the number of days that you lie on it. For I have assigned you a number of days corresponding to the years of their iniquity, three hundred and ninety days; thus you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:4-5 NASB)Ezekiel sprawled on his left side for over a year. The prophet’s next assignment (naturally) was to do the same on his right side...but for only forty days (Ezekiel 4:6). (His tan must have been terribly uneven...)
Out of context, this behavior appears psychotic and as is typical of the book, Ezekiel’s initial reaction is not described. In his psychological study of the prophet, David J. Halperin (b. 1947) writes, “When, without any obvious compulsion, a man is reported to have lain on his left side for 390 days...and on his right side for 40, it is hardly farfetched to suppose that psychic disturbance may have been involved (Halperin, Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology, 12).”
In context, there is a method to the madness. Ezekiel is creating a visual representation of Israel’s plight that accentuates the burden of bearing God’s weight. Joseph Blenkinsopp (b. 1927) explains, “The lying bound on the side is a proleptic enactment of captivity and exile. By performing this act, Ezekiel both prefigures the punishment which is the result of Judah’s infidelity and, at the same time, identifies himself with the suffering of his people brought on by sin (Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 35).”
Bruce Vawter (1921-1986) and Leslie J. Hoppe (b. 1944) relay another common explanation:
This episode represents Ezekiel as playing in part the role of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:21-22. Symbolically God lays the guilt...of Israel...upon Ezekiel while he rests on his left side for 390 days. After that (or concurrently with that?) he bears the guilt of the house of Judah while lying on his right side for 40 days. (Vawter and Hoppe, Ezekiel: A New Heart (International Theological Commentary), 42)The ratio is clear, the number of days correlates to the years of national sin. It is like cheerleaders enacting their team’s points by performing the same amount of pushups as their team has scored points, only with an incredibly negative twist. Three hundred ninety corresponded to the years that Israel had sinned against God and the ensuing 40 symbolized the years of iniquity of their sister, Judah (Ezekiel 4:4-8).
While the ratio of days lying to years sinning is clearly stated, interpreters have not conclusively determined which years are being represented. There does not appear to be a dramatic event that occurred 390 years before Ezekiel’s career. It has been proposed that 390 is some sort of rounded number that correlates to the time between the building of the first temple and Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE. (If Ezekiel were picking a round number, why not select 400?)
This hardly represents the only theory. Paul M. Joyce (b. 1954) expounds on the “problematic question”:
What could be meant by the punishment of Israel for as long as 390 years. (If the northern exile of 721 were the starting point, taking 390 off 721 gives 331 B.C.E., prompting the intriguing if implausible thought of an allusion to the conquests of Alexander as in some sense signalling the end of the punishment of Israel!) The Greek text offers a rationalization, involving changing 390 to 190, a number that accommodates an interpretation of the punishment of the northern kingdom in the period between the Assyrian conquest and Ezekiel’s day...The number 390 is best understood to refer to the period of national sin from the united monarchy down to Ezekiel’s time (not covering, it must be conceded, Israel’s sin in Egypt, reported in Ezekiel 20:8). The number “forty” refers to the current punishment of the nation, that is, the Babylonian exile. (Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) , 85-86)Others have found significance in the number itself. Adrianus van den Born (1904-1978) noted that the numeric value (via gematria) of the Hebrew for “days of siege” (Ezekiel 4:8) yields 390 (van den Born, Ezechiël). Others have proposed that the sum of the two tasks is significance (390+40=430) as it corresponds to the length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).
Regardless of what years are being referenced, the prostrate prophet served as a constant reminder that Jerusalem was falling and that the people had only themselves to blame. Their sins had caught up with them.
Have you ever felt God calling you to do something that without God’s involvement would be deemed psychotic? What is the craziest thing you have felt God leading you to do? Who tended to Ezekiel while he laid upon his side? Why would God make this action Ezekiel’s first prophetic task? What is gained by choosing this method of communication over speaking?
Ezekiel’s extended lying is a quintessential “sign-act” or symbolic act. Sign-acts are a prophet’s embodiment and dramatization of a given message. Ezekiel was hardly the first prophet to perform sign-acts (Isaiah 8:18, 20:3; Jeremiah 13:1-11, 16:1-9, 19:1-13, 27-28, 35:1-19) but he did use them prodigiously (Ezekiel 4:1-3, 4-8, 9-15, 5:1-4, 12:1-7, 24:15-27).
Sign-acts might equate to modern street theater. Like producing a mimed parable, the prophet speaks without words. When David Blaine (b. 1973) incased himself in a block of ice in Times Square on November 27, 2000, it was not about a feat of endurance as much as a platform for marketing his brand. While sign-acts have similar benefits they are more than mere publicity stunts as the prophet acts at the request of God.
Walter Eichrodt (1890-1978) philosophizes:
We are inclined to regard actions as mere ornaments to a prophetic discourse, which do no more than illustrate and drive home its meaning. So we feel some surprise to see Ezekiel begin his work with them. But in actual fact a symbolic action on the part of a prophet is more than a mere accompaniment to his discourse. It is an independent means of preaching, which can on occasion take the place of the word, and its presence first makes possible the effective delivery of the message...The basis for that consists in the close connection between word and action in Hebrew thought. The word dābār means not only ‘word’ but also ‘deed’...Seeing that word and deed form a unity, a prophetic action is not just an appendage, but a powerful means of proclamation of God’s will. (Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81)What is the closest modern equivalent to the sign-act? What would you think if your pastor did something like Ezekiel? Is there a place for this behavior in modern Christianity?
“Action is eloquence.” - William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Coriolanus (Act 3, Scene II)