This chapter is closely connected with the preceding, forming part of the same denunciation of judgment upon the Jews, although this is here set forth in Ezekiel 5:1-4 by a fresh symbolism, and in the rest of the chapter by plain declarations.
Upon thine head, and upon thy beard.—The cutting off the hair was a common mark of mourning (see Job 1:20; Isaiah 22:12; Jeremiah 7:29); but the allusion here seems to be rather to Isaiah 7:20, in which God describes his coming judgments upon Israel as a shaving, “with a razor that is hired . . . by the king of Assyria,” of the head and the beard. The symbolism was the more marked because Ezekiel was a priest, and the priests were expressly forbidden in the law to shave either the head or the beard (Leviticus 21:5). The shaving, therefore, of a priest’s head and beard with a sword betokened a most desolating judgment.
Then take thee balances to weigh is not a mere detail introduced to give vividness to the symbolism, but seems designed to show the absolute certainty of the impending judgment.
At this point the use of symbolism ceases for a while, and the prophet now, for the first time, begins to utter his prophecies in plain language. Accordingly, he changes his style from prose to the more ordinary form of prophetic utterance in parallelisms, which constitute the distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry, and this continues until another vision begins with Ezekiel 8.
More than the nations.—Not, of course, absolutely, but in proportion to the knowledge and the privileges given them. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Israelites were actually more evil in their life than the surrounding heathen; for they were, no doubt, far better. Even of those cities which our Lord, at a later day, so strongly upbraided, it would be absurd to suppose that they equalled Sodom and Gomorrah in their iniquity. God’s judgments are always relative and proportioned to the opportunities He has granted to men. The point is that the Israelites had resisted His judgments more than the heathen; they had sinned against greater light. The pronoun they in the last clause refers, of course, to the Israelites, not to the heathen.
Neither have done according to the judgments of the nations.—These words admit of either of two senses: “neither have kept those natural laws observed by the heathen,” and in this case the Israelites would have been represented as worse in their actual conduct than the surrounding heathen; or, “neither have kept your Divine laws as the heathen have observed those laws which they know by the light of nature and tradition.” The latter we conceive to be the true sense here. If Israel did precisely what the heathen did, they would be far more unfaithful (See Ezekiel 11:12.) In Ezekiel 16:47, also, they are distinctly charged with being even more corrupt than the heathen; and there, too, the thought is plainly that they had sinned against more grace. (See Excursus III.)
EXCURSUS C: ON CHAPTER 5:7.
The expression in this verse, and also that in Ezekiel 16:47, are explained in the commentary as meaning that the Israelites were not absolutely worse than the heathen, but only relatively, in view of their opportunities and privileges; yet the language in both places, as well as in many other passages of the prophets, seems on its face to be absolute. The question may, therefore, be naturally asked whether it is justifiable to interpret it in a relative sense, and if so, on what grounds? The answer to these questions must be sought in a consideration of the whole character and history of Israel, which will show that what might be only a relatively greater wickedness in them according to a human standard, becomes, under the circumstances, an absolutely greater sin against God.
It certainly is not true that the Israelites as a nation habitually committed sins which were, in themselves considered, of greater enormity than the abominations of the heathen; nor is it to be supposed that they were originally chosen of God because they had a worse disposition than any other people. How, then, did they come to be regarded by Him as worse, and how did they come to have a greater proclivity to evil? The law of the moral government of the world, that responsibility is proportioned to privilege, is much insisted upon in Scripture; and hence the neglect or misuse of privilege leads to a severer condemnation than if the privilege had never been given. This law is in accordance with the fact of universal experience that grace, when resisted, hardens the heart and alienates it further from God. It is only in view of this fact that we can account for the rejection of our Lord by those among whom His mighty works were done. The same fact explains the strong terms in which the prophets continually reproach their people. The Gentiles, with less of grace and of religious privilege, could not fall into the same extreme hardness of heart by their rejection.
But this suggests the still more radical question, Why should the Israelites have been more prone to abuse their greater privileges than the Gentiles to slight those which were far inferior? The reason lies in the very nature of the privileges themselves; for the opposition of the natural heart was far more roused by the one than by the other. The various religions of the heathen were alike in imposing little check on the passions and selfishness and self-will of man; in fact, they often not only encouraged but deified the worst traits of human nature. The law of God, on the contrary, set before men as the object of their worship a Being of absolute purity and holiness, and made the devotion to Him of heart and soul and strength its first and most absolute command. If the privilege of the Israelite was far greater, it yet required of him a harder struggle against the evil of his nature to avail himself of its benefits; and the failure in this, as it led him away from a higher standard of holiness, necessarily precipitated him into a greater depth of sin. Hence arose the striking contrasts in Israel’s history between the saintliness of an Elijah, an Isaiah, or a Daniel, and the extreme wickedness of the people whom the prophet was now sent to rebuke. There is nothing therefore strange or abnormal in the history of Israel as compared with that of the Gentiles. The same old story is constantly repeated in the vices of Christian lands, and is seen everywhere in the greater faithfulness to their standards of the devotees of every false or corrupted religion. In passing, one cannot but remark upon that merciful providence of Almighty God by which His revelation has been ever progressive, rising only as men were in some degree prepared by the lower revelation to bear the higher.
Yet, while these results may thus be traced to the working of providential laws, the fault is without excuse, whether in ourselves or in the Israelites of old. Neither they nor we would willingly forego the privilege, and with this the responsibility for its improvement is inseparably joined. God gave then, as He gives now, sufficient grace to those that seek it; and freely pardons the sin of all that strive against its power.
Also diminish thee.—The word diminish is hardly an adequate translation of the original, and the pronoun thee is not in the Hebrew. The word properly means to withdraw, and is to be taken either as reflective, “withdraw myself,” or as having for its object “mine eye” of the following clause, the sense being the same in either case: the Lord will withdraw from them His presence and His compassion.
Ezekiel 5:12-17 follow in plain language the symbolical prophecies of Ezekiel 5:1-4, and give the inspired interpretation of their meaning. They bring out very distinctly the fact that the judgments should not end with the destruction of Jerusalem.