The book of Ezekiel is famous for the strange things God had His prophet do. He was required to show no signs of grief at his wife’s death, to conduct a mock siege against a map on a clay tablet, and to cut off his hair and beard with a sword and divide up the hairs by weight. But nothing was stranger than when he was told (in chapter 4) to lie on his left side, tied with ropes so he couldn’t change position, for three hundred and ninety days for the sins of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That’s over a year of lying only on his left side! Then he was to be tied up again, this time lying on his right side, another forty days for the sins of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This was one of several “sign-acts” or “acted parables” God designed to be visual object lessons for the captives in Babylon. (Perhaps Ezekiel was allowed some “time off” from this at night—we don’t know.)
According to the Yechezkel (Ezekiel) commentary in the ArtScroll Tanach Series, this most uncomfortable display was meant to “atone” (Rashi) for the sins of God’s people. The Talmud (BT Sanh. 39a) says God chastised Ezekiel “to wipe out the sins of Israel.” The idea seems to have been that the sight of Ezekiel suffering so miserably should have awakened penitent thoughts in the guilty onlookers that might “attain a degree of atonement” for their sins, in the commentary’s words.
An appendix to the ArtScroll commentary is entitled “Suffering of the Zaddik.” A Zaddik (or Tzadik) is, according to Maimonides (Rambam), one whose “merit surpasses his iniquity.” Hasidic Jews believe there are 36 unheralded tzadikim alive at any point in history, one of whom could be the Messiah if Israel merited His appearance. The ArtScroll commentary suggests that Ezekiel was a Tzadik in his day. It quotes a passage from the 12th-13th century Sefer Chassidim saying that God’s justice called for all Israel to be punished for the idolatrous abominations that brought them into captivity, “but is satisfied when it is meted out only to the Zaddik” (emphasis in original.)
For more about this, see Part 2 (“Jesus in the Temple”) of my four-part “Christian midrash” articles on the Free Articles page, especially pp. 13-14.
Ezekiel’s uncomfortable exploit did not atone for Israel, but it’s an amazing fact that the Temple Vision he later went on to record paints a strikingly detailed Scriptural picture of how Jesus did precisely that. Jesus was Israel’s true atoning Tzadik, as the High Priest Caiaphas testified in saying that it was needful that “one man should die for the people,” rather than “the whole nation perish” (John 11:50) at the hands of Rome. Ezekiel was bound with ropes to suffer, but not to die. But on the cross, Jesus was bound there both to suffer and to die.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark record that the evening before, at the close of His “last supper” Passover Seder with His disciples, they “sang a hymn” before He retired to Gethsemane to pray about what the morning would bring. By custom, Jesus would have led them in singing the Hallel, ending with Psalm 118, with its verse 27 just before the end: “Bind the festal offering to the horns of the altar with cords” (NJPS). The next morning Jesus’ four extremities were bound with Roman nails to the points of the four-horned sacrificial altar of His cross.
Unlike Ezekiel, Jesus’ sacrificial death was an offering that fully atoned for the sins of every Jew and gentile who receives Him simply by faith, totally apart from the quantity or quality of their good works or mitvot. “For there is no distinction” between Jews and gentiles—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25 ESV). “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31).