Background~In 603 BC the Kingdom of Judah came under the vassalage of the Babylonian empire. In 601 BC Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, met Pharaoh Neco of Egypt in battle; a battle in which both sides suffered heavy losses. Encouraged by this setback to Babylon’s military might, the reigning king of Judah, Jehoiakim, decided to rebel. Busy rebuilding his army after the devastating stalemate with Pharaoh Neco the king of Babylon was unable to campaign in 600-599 BC, and throughout much of 598 BC his revitalized forces were busy elsewhere. However, he was able to send small forces of his Babylonian regulars, along with mercenaries, into Judah to harass king and populous. In December 598 he was able to send his army. That same month the rebellious king of Judah, Jehoiakim, died, leaving his 18 year old son, Jehoiachin to deal with the problem. On March 16, 597 BC the young king surrendered and he, along with his family, government official, and leading citizens were taken into exile in Babylon. His uncle, Mattaniah, renamed Zedekiah, was place on the throne as the new vassal king to Babylon (see 1 Kings 23:36-24:17). It was in this deportation that Ezekiel was also taken into Babylon where, on July 31, 593 BC he received his call to prophecy (Ezek 1:1-2). In spite of prophecies to the contrary (i.e., by Jeremiah), the people in exile were under the delusion that Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah would continue in existence, and that their exile would soon end. It was one of Ezekiel’s primary prophetic duties to disabuse the people of this expectation. Jerusalem would fall; the exile would continue (see Ezek 4:1-11:13; 12:1-28; 15:1-8; 16:1-63, etc.).
On January 15, 587 BC Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege to Jerusalem (Ezek 24:1-2). On this very day God commanded Ezekiel to declare a parable about a cauldron unto the exiles (see Ezek 24:3-14). To understand the overall point of the passage one has to recall that in Ezek 11:3 the people of Jerusalem had compared their city to a cauldron, and themselves as the meat in it. The point of this comparison seems to be the following: just as a pot protects meat from the fire, so too Jerusalem–the Holy City where God manifested His presence in the Temple–would provide protection for the people. But because of the blood shed in the city it would not be a protective kettle for the arrogant who placed their hope in its protection (Ezek 11:7-11). The people were unaware that the Divine Presence had already left the Temple and the city, sealing their fate (Ezek 10:18-23).
In the parable of the cauldron (Jerusalem) the people are the choice meat which will be given out indiscriminately, an image of exile (Ezek 24:3-6). But blood has corrupted the cauldron (Jerusalem) and it must be purified. God will heap up a great fire to cook the meat (people) within the pot (Jerusalem), then, with the pot empty, (due to exile) He will heat the pot until its corrupting rust disappears (Ezek 24:9-11). The corrupting rust will not disappear, however (Ezek 24:12). It is implied that a greater cleansing must take place. So too with the people, their willful corruption makes an intense purification by God necessary (Ezek 24:13-14). It is at this point that today’s reading begins.
Ezek 24:15 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying:
Ezek 24:16 Son of man, behold I take from thee the desire of thy eyes with a sudden stroke, and thou shall not lament, nor weep; neither shall thy tears run down.
Ezek 24:17 Sigh in silence, make no mourning for the dead: let a fancy covering for thy head be upon thee, and thy shoes on thy feet, and cover not thy lip, nor eat the food of mourners.
On the same day on which Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, and Ezekiel was told to speak the parable of the cauldron, his wife died. Although she is the desire of his eyes he is not to engage in the usual physical mourning (lament, crying). He is to maintain silence. Then as now in the Middle East loud, public expressions of grief were the norm at the death of a loved one. He is not to divest himself of a head covering-a traditional mourning practice-but rather place an ornate covering upon it. He is not to go barefoot, as was the norm of people mourning. Neither shall he cover his lip (i.e., mustache and beard). He is to abstain from the food of mourners (i. e., food prepared by others since food could not be prepared in the house of a dead person.
Ezek 24:18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and my wife died in the evening: and I did in the morning as he had commanded me
“The prophet-any prophet-was never a person who could divorce himself from the people to whom the Lord sent him both as a messenger and a representative. Not even Amos (cf. Am 7:1-6) could do this. It was part of the prophetic vocation and its burden that it had to share in the destiny of its people…So as Ezekiel records, ‘I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died.’ Apparently he was simply a causality of divine providence, a sign, a symbol. Some faith is necessary. ‘And on the next morning I did as I was commanded'” (Father Bruce Vawter and Father Leslie J. Hoppe, A NEW HEART, page 115).
Ezek 24:19 And the people said to me: Why dost thou not tell us what these things mean that thou doest?
Ezek 24:20 And I said to them: The word of the Lord came to me, saying:
Ezek 24:21 Speak to the house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will profane my sanctuary, the glory of your realm, and the thing that your eyes desire, and for which your soul feareth: your sons, and your daughters, whom you have left, shall fall by the sword.
Ezek 24:22 And you shall do as I have done: you shall not cover your faces, nor shall you eat the meat of mourners.
Ezek 24:23 You shall have crowns on your heads, and shoes on your feet: you shall not lament nor weep, but you shall pine away for your iniquities, and every one shall sigh with his brother.
The question the people put to the prophet is answered by God through the prophet. Just as he lost the “desire of his eyes,” so too will they lose what their eyes desire, the sanctuary (Temple), along with their sons and their daughters. No reason is given as to why the people are forbidden to mourn. Some scholars speculate that the enormity of the event would make the normal rites of mourning inadequate. Other scholars think the fact that since it is the people’s corruption and sins that have brought such calamity, any kind of mourning would be out of place, hypocritical.