This chapter consists of three distinct but closely-connected prophecies, which together may be called the prophecy of the sword. The first, Ezekiel 21:2-7, re-states, in comparatively plain language, the enigmatical denunciation of the last verses of Ezekiel 20; the second, Ezekiel 21:8-17, substantially repeats and emphasises the first; while the third, Ezekiel 21:18-27, goes again over the same ground, with more of circumstance and detail, closing (Ezekiel 21:28-32) with a prophecy against the Ammonites.
Contemneth the rod of my son.—This refers to Genesis 49:9-10, in which Jacob addresses Judah as “my son,” and foretells that “the sceptre shall not depart from” him until Shiloh come. There is another allusion to the same passage in Ezekiel 21:27. Comp, also Ezekiel 17:22-23. There is, however, serious difficulty as to the construction and meaning of the clause. The ancient versions and many commentators have more or less changed the text without improvement. The original is obscure in its extreme brevity, and allows “the rod of my son” to be either the object (as it is taken in the text) or the subject (as in the margin). The true sense is probably that which makes the clause into an objection offered by the Jew to the prophet’s denunciation: “But ‘the rod of my son’ despiseth every tree;” i.e., the Divine promise of old to Judah is sure, and his sceptre must remain whatever power arises against it. The objection was in a certain sense true, but the objectors had little idea of the means by which its truth should be established, and vainly imagined that it gave a temporal security to the kingdom of Judah, whatever might be its sins. The prophet does not notice the objection further than to go on with his prediction of the approaching desolation.
Let the sword be doubled the third time.—The exact translation is here also obscure and difficult, but the meaning is plain that the activity of the sword is to be intensified to the utmost.
The sword of the slain: it is the sword of the great men that are slain.—Literally, the sword of the overthrown (plural), it is the sword of the overthrown (sing.), of the great one. The word translated slain does not necessarily mean actually killed, but is used in a moral as well as physical sense; and in Ezekiel 20:16; Ezekiel 20:21; Ezekiel 20:24, as often, the verb from which this adjective is formed is translated polluted. The sword is called “the sword of the overthrown” because it is the means of their overthrow, and “the sword of the great one overthrown,” with especial reference to the king.
Which entereth into their privy chambers.—Rather, which begirts them round about, so that none can escape.
Their ruins be multiplied.—Literally, their stumbling blocks be multiplied. The thought is that in the coming desolation trouble shall be on every side and, in their perplexity, occasions for ill-advised action shall arise all around. “Bright” means “glittering.” (Comp. Deuteronomy 32:41; Job 20:25; Nahum 3:3.)
It is wrapped.—The margin has sharpened, but the exact sense is drawn, “drawn out for the slaughter.”
At Ezekiel 21:18 the third and final prophecy of the chapter begins, and, besides being much more explicit than the others, includes also a new subject (Ezekiel 21:28-32), a prophecy against Ammon. Hitherto it has only been foretold that Judah shall be desolated, now it is added that this shall be effected by the king of Babylon, and that he shall also extend his conquests to the Ammonites.
Choose thou a place.—Literally, make a hand or, as we say, a finger-post. The verb here used never means “choose,” nor does the noun ever mean “place” but the verb is often used both in the sense of to make and to engrave, and “hand” frequently occurs in the sense of a pillar, and occasionally in that of a guide post. (See 1 Samuel 15:12; 2 Samuel 18:18; Isaiah 56:5.) The prophet in vision sets up this guide-post to direct the king on his march. The roads to Rabbah and to Jerusalem from Babylon would be the same for many hundred miles. It is impossible, therefore, to suppose that Ezekiel actually stood at their parting.
Head of the way, called more poetically in Ezekiel 21:21 “mother of the way,” is the point where the road forks. From this point the road to Jerusalem would lie on the right, that to Rabbah, the capital of the Ammonites, on the left.
Made his arrows bright.—Rather, shook his arrows. This was a mode of divination in use among the ancient Arabs, as well as in Mesopotamia, and something very similar is mentioned by Homer as practised among the ancient Greeks (II., iii. 316). It continued to be used among the Arabs until the time of Mohammed, who strictly torbade it in the Koran (3:39, 5:4, 94). Several arrows, properly marked, were shaken together in a quiver or other vessel, and one drawn out. The mark upon the one drawn was supposed to indicate the will of the gods. It was thus simply one form of casting lots.
Consulted with images.—The particular images here mentioned were “teraphim,” small idols, which are often spoken of in Scripture as used in divination by the Israelites themselves, and common also among the heathen. (See 1 Samuel 15:23, where the word “idolatry” is in the original “teraphim.”) Nothing is known of the way in which these were used in divination.
Looked in the liver.—The inspection of the entrails of sacrificial victims, and especially of the liver, as a means of ascertaining the will of the gods, is familiar to every reader of classical literature. There is evidence that the same custom prevailed also in Babylonia. The king is represented as employing all these different kinds of divination to make sure of the proper path.
To them that have sworn oaths.—These words have been very variously interpreted, but the simplest meaning seems the best; the resolution of Nebuchadnezzar to attack Jerusalem seemed impossible to the Jews, because they were his vassals, and under oaths of fidelity to him. They must have been conscious of their own violation of those oaths, and yet have persuaded themselves that their intrigues with Egypt were not known to Nebuchadnezzar, and that therefore he would not attack them.
But he will call to remembrance the iniquity.—The pronoun is here understood by many as referring to the Lord, and “iniquity” as expressing the general sinfulness of the people. It is better to refer the pronoun to Nebuchadnezzar, who will call to remembrance and punish the violation of their oaths to him. It is constantly to be remembered that Zedekiah was placed upon the throne by him under a solemn oath of fidelity to himself (2 Chronicles 36:10; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 52:3; Ezekiel 17:15; Ezekiel 17:18, &c).
When iniquity shall have an end.—Literally, at the time of the iniquity of the end. The same expression is repeated in Ezekiel 21:29, and the meaning is plainly, at the time of that final transgression which shall be closed by the immediate manifestation of the Divine judgment. The representation of iniquity as being allowed to run a certain course through the Divine forbearance, and arrested and punished when it has reached its culmination, is a common one in Scripture. (See Genesis 15:16; Daniel 8:23; Matthew 23:34-36, &c.)
This shall not be the same.—Literally, this not this, or, supplying the verb, as is often required, this shall not be this—i.e., as the following clauses express, there shall be an utter change and overturning of the whole existing state of things. For the abasement of the high and exaltation of the low, as an expression of the Divine interposition at the introduction of a new order of things, comp. 1 Samuel 2:6-8; Luke 1:51-53.
Until he come whose right it is.—This is generally acknowledged as a reference to Genesis 49:10, “until Shiloh come” even by those who reject the interpretation of Shiloh as meaning “he to whom it belongs.” The promise here made refers plainly both to the priestly and to the royal prerogatives, and a still more distinct foretelling of the union of both in the Messiah may be found in Zechariah 6:12-13. In Him, and in Him alone, will all this confusion and uncertainty come to an end; for, as Ezekiel’s contemporary declared, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14).
Their reproach—i.e., their exultation in the desolation of Israel. (See Ezekiel 25:3; Zephaniah 2:8.)
Thee upon the necks of them that are slain.—Judah is to fall first, then Ammon immediately after, as it were, upon the necks of those already slain. The figure is taken from the battle, in which one warrior falls upon the body of him who fell before him.
When their iniquity shall have an end.—Not through repentance, but because it ceases of necessity with the death of the sinner.