Ezekiel builds a model of Jerusalem and acts out symbolic plays as a sign of doom from the Lord.
A prophet during the Babylonian exile who saw visions of God's throne-chariot, new life to dry bones, and a new Temple. More 4 contains three sign-acts: 1) the establishment of a model city under siege, 2) lying on each side of the body, and 3) the eating of certain foods. The imagery moves from siege to captivity and exile. While prophets perform sign-acts to symbolize their message, Ezekiel’s actions here also reveal his priestly identity and function. God instructs Ezekiel to depict the siege of Jerusalem. Most sign-acts in the book are given in the form of commands to the prophet, and the actual performance of the sign-act is not made explicit.
This is the first of a series of symbolic one-man dramas, in which Ezekiel acts out the future destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. His audience, the Jews in exile, was still tied by family and feelings to their home city. These enacted parables were arresting ways of communicating God’s word of doom and judgment upon Jerusalem. They function as “a sign for the house of Israel” (4:3). These enacted signs are not unique to Ezekiel; Isaiah walked naked and barefoot through Jerusalem for 3 years (Isaiah 20:3)!
In the first of these prophetic signs or acts, Ezekiel builds a model of the city from clay, a kind of toy Jerusalem, and lays siege to it. The actions portray a city-siege complete with ramps and battering rams. These are the instruments of Iron Age war: a wall prevents escapes; a ramp built against the city wall allows for access by the battering rams; camps of soldiers; and battering rams to damage the city walls.
In the second enacted sign-act, the prophet bears the guilty burden of Judah and Israel, one day for every year of their sin. For much of the day (but surely not all or he could not eat-see below) he lies only on his left side for 390 days (for Israel and Judah was the name of Jacob's fourth son and one of the 12 tribes. More, from David to the exile), and then only on his right side for 40 days (the years of the exile?). During the 40 days, Ezekiel also prophesied against the model of Jerusalem.
During the 390 days for Israel and Judah, Ezekiel eats a very limited diet (half a pound of food and two-thirds of a quart of water), symbolizing famine, destruction, and exile. This shows not only the destruction of the city and the Temple, but the exile as well: “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them” (4:13). God shows some pity for the prophet, however, allowing him to use cattle dung for fuel (a common practice even today in some places) instead of human excrement as originally commanded (4:15).