JUDGMENT ON JERUSALEM JUSTIFIED IN LIGHT OF THE TREACHERY OF ZEDEKIAH BUT ULTIMATELY SUPERSEDED BY MESSIANIC RESTORATION
This parable (or allegory or fable) once again reinforces the certainty of coming judgment against Jerusalem. This time the focus is on the treachery of Zedekiah in turning away from the livable conditions of exile in Babylon to foolishly look to Egypt for military and political aid. Still God in His sovereignty will ultimately raise up the righteous Branch of David to establish the Messianic Kingdom which will enjoy dominion over the nations and vindicate the divine reputation.
John Taylor: The theme of this chapter is the treachery of Zedekiah, the puppet-king appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to replace the captive Jehoiachin. It was as a result of this treachery that Nebuchadnezzar eventually marched on Jerusalem to besiege and destroy it (587 bc), but as this is foretold by Ezekiel in verse 20 it is clear that the utterance of this parable is to be dated a year or two before then, say about 590 bc. This accords well with the position of this oracle in the book, because the last preceding date (8:1) was 592 B.C. and the following date (20:1) is eleven months later.
Morgan: In the allegory of a foundling in the previous chapter Ezekiel was dealing with the spiritual and moral malady of Israel. In this message he was concerned with her political folly and wickedness.
Peter Pett: God likens Babylon and Egypt to two great eagles having dealings with Israel and declares what their fate will be.
Constable: This message addressed another objection to the destruction of Jerusalem that the exiles entertained. The preceding parable placed much emphasis on Jerusalem’s long history of unfaithfulness to the Lord’s marriage covenant with her. Was the Lord fair in destroying Jerusalem now, since former generations of Judahites had been unfaithful? The present fable clarified that Judah’s recent leaders were also unfaithful and worthy of divine judgment. See 2 Kings 24:6-20; 2 Chronicles 36:8-16; and Jeremiah 37 and 52:1-7 for the historical background of the events described in this riddle.
Adam Clarke: From the beauty of its images, the elegance of its composition, the perspicuity of its language, the rich variety of its matter, and the easy transition from one part of the subject to another, this chapter forms one of the most beautiful and perfect pieces of its kind that can possibly be conceived in so small a compass.
Douglas Stuart: This allegory, like the one in chapter 16, ends on a positive note of hope and forgiveness for the nation. The “cedar” (Israel, or more specifically its remainder state of Judah) will be revisited, rescued from exile, and resettled in the land of Judah to dwell there in safety. In spite of its terrible leadership (the vine) and failed history of diplomacy, the nation has going for it the most important asset it could ever possess: God’s loyalty. He has established for Himself a people and will never let them disappear from the earth, neither be assimilated into the land of their captors nor be annihilated by conquest or oppression. Though the generation in power in Ezekiel’s day has done great wrongs, the nation as an entity may look forward to future deliverance and return from exile.
I. (:1-10) THE EXPOUNDING OF THE PARABLE – WHAT’S THE STORY?
FOOLISHNESS OF TURNING AWAY FROM BABYLON TOWARDS EGYPT
“Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,”
MacArthur: This chapter is dated about 588 B.C. (two years before the destruction of Jerusalem). The history of the period is in 2KI 24; 2Ch 36; Jer 36, 37, 52.
A. (:2-6) Dominion of King Nebuchadnezzar in Deporting Jews to Babylon –
Captivity but not Catastrophe
1. (:2) Medium of Communication
“Son of man, propound a riddle,
and speak a parable to the house of Israel,”
Feinberg: It is a riddle in that its meaning needs to be explained; there is a deeper meaning which underlies the figurative form, for something in its presentation is obscure. It is a parable in that it is an allegory.
2. (:3) Majestic Domination of Judah by the Powerful Eagle of Babylon
“saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God, A great eagle with great wings,
long pinions and a full plumage of many colors,
came to Lebanon and took away the top of the cedar.’”
David Thompson: Characteristics:
Great wings — This eagle will be able to move fast. He will sweep in with great speed and conquer.
Long pinions — enable the flight of the bird to be silent and fast. They enable a bird to thrust and lift with great speed, making the bird ideal for hunting and fighting and conquering its prey. He has long feathers that are able to cover a lot of territory.
Full plumage of many colors — A bird of many colors can have a different look. He can look one way to one nation and another way to another nation. He has royalty, power, speed and protection.
3. (:4) Major Leaders of Judah Relocated to Commercial Center of Babylon
“He plucked off the topmost of its young twigs and brought it to a land of merchants; he set it in a city of traders.”
MacArthur: This is Jehoiachin, the king, exiled in 597 B.C. (2Ki 24:11-16). Babylon is the “land of merchants” (16:29).
Peter Pett: The tall cedar represents the rebel confederacy against him in Syria and Palestine, in ‘Lebanon’, a term regularly used of the area (compare Joshua 1:4; 2 Kings 14:9; 2 Kings 19:23; Isaiah 10:34; Isaiah 37:24; Zechariah 11:1-3), proud and upstanding. The cedars of Lebanon were famous as an example of what was tall and majestic (Isaiah 2:13; 1 Kings 4:33; 2 Kings 14:9; Psalms 104:16; Ezekiel 31:3). Thus in Judges 9:15 to ‘devour the cedars of Lebanon’ was to wreak havoc on a variety of tall trees.
The top of the cedar represents their aristocracy. The ‘topmost of the young twigs’ is probably Jehoiachin, king of Judah, seen from a patriotic viewpoint. He may have been the leader of the confederacy that united to oppose Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel Block: The description highlights the magnificence of this particular bird: he is great; he has large wings and long pinions; his plumage is full; he is brilliantly colored. This bird is not only magnificent but also energetic. He comes to Lebanon, a place renowned for its cedars, snips off the fresh crown of one of the cedars, and carries the shoot off to a foreign land, identified enigmatically as a commercial territory and a city of merchants. The description offers no motivation for his actions; nor does it suggest that any of these actions is to be interpreted negatively.
4. (:5) Meticulous Planting and Nurturing of the Exiles in Babylon
“He also took some of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil.
He placed it beside abundant waters;
he set it like a willow.”
5. (:6) Maturing of the Exiles Under Favorable Circumstances in Babylon
“Then it sprouted and became a low, spreading vine with its branches turned toward him, but its roots remained under it. So it became a vine, and yielded shoots and sent out branches.”
MacArthur: “spreading vine” – Refers to Zedekiah (ca. 597-586 B.C.), the youngest son of Josiah whom Nebuchadnezzar appointed king in Judah. The benevolent attitude of Nebuchadnezzar helped Zedekiah to prosper, and if he had remained faithful to his pledge to Nebuchadnezzar, Judah would have continued as a tributary kingdom. Instead, he began courting help form Egypt (2Ch 36:13), which Jeremiah protested (Jer 37:5-7).
Leslie Allen: The role of Judah as a vassal kingdom thus comes to the fore; mention of the binding covenant also recalls the assets accruing to Judah as a vassal state of the Babylonian empire. Why is Zedekiah, as representative of the kingdom, described as a grapevine, while his predecessor was a cedar shoot? It possibly reflects Zedekiah’s subordinate status, over against Jehoiachin’s initial independence. Zedekiah, though son of Josiah, was Nebuchadnezzar’s nominee; the natural royal descent flowed through Josiah’s firstborn Jehoiakim to his son Jehoiachin.
B. (7-10) Foolishness of King Zedekiah in Turning towards Egypt –
Exchanging Flourishing for Withering
1. (:7-8) Redirection towards Egypt Totally Unnecessary
a. (:7) Alternative Source of Power
“But there was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage; and behold, this vine bent its roots toward him and sent out its branches toward him from the beds where it was planted, that he might water it.”
MacArthur: “another great eagle” – Egypt is meant (v. 15), specifically Pharaoh Apries, a.k.a. Hophra (588-586 B.C.). Zedekiah turned to him to help revolt against Babylon.
Peter Pett: In both cases the vine is planted in Palestine, but watered first from Babylon and then Egypt. Each is seen as the source of water from their great and famed resources.
b. (:8) Unnecessary Redirection
“It was planted in good soil beside abundant waters, that it might yield branches and bear fruit, and become a splendid vine.”
Constable: Another large eagle, not quite as glorious as the first, came along. The vine reached out with its branches and roots toward it so this eagle might water it. The vine did this even though it was growing in good soil with abundant water nearby, enough to make it a luxuriant and fruitful plant.
Feinberg: The seed of the land had good soil, many waters and every opportunity to sprout branches, bear fruit and be a luxuriant vine. There was no valid reason for Zedekiah’s revolt; he was neither oppressed nor deprived. Perfidy, ambition and ingratitude led to insubordination. But his treacherous scheme would not prosper, as the rest of the chapter predicts.
Iain Duguid: The fate of the vine is predictable. In seeking to gain something more, it will instead throw away everything it has been given. Turning its branches toward the second eagle is already a repudiation of its purpose as a fruitful, splendid vine (17:8). The second eagle will do nothing for it; all the vine will succeed in doing is arousing the anger of the first eagle, who will come and tear off its fruit and uproot it from its place. It will not be a difficult task for this powerful eagle to accomplish, whose activity throughout the parable contrasts with the passivity of the second eagle (17:9). The vine’s chosen course of action is worse than foolish, it is suicidal.
2. (:9-10) Rhetorical Questions Highlighting the Folly of Redirection
“Say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, Will it thrive?
Will he not pull up its roots and cut off its fruit, so that it withers– so that all its sprouting leaves wither?
And neither by great strength nor by many people can it be raised from its roots again.’
Behold, though it is planted, will it thrive?
Will it not completely wither as soon as the east wind strikes it– wither on the beds where it grew?’”
Daniel Block: The redirection of the vine’s branches toward the second eagle (instead of having them spread out low on the ground) and its roots upward (instead of going deeper into the fertile and well-watered soil) had rendered the plant extremely vulnerable to the wind’s withering force. . .
Adopting the Socratic rhetorical style, Ezekiel poses a series of questions to his audience. These questions are grouped into two parts, separated by a parenthetical declarative comment in v. 9b. The first group contains a quartet of questions arranged chiastically so that the first and last involve the vine as the subject, and the middle two focus on the eagle’s reaction. The critical issue is, Will the vine survive after it has turned away from the first eagle and oriented itself toward the second? Will it flourish (ṣālaḥ), presumably according to the definition provided in vv. 6 and 8? The anticipated response is obviously negative. The next three questions are cast in negative form and anticipate a positive response. By the time Ezekiel had finished telling the story, the sympathies of his hearers would undoubtedly have been on the side of the first eagle. One can imagine them responding in unison as each question is put to them: Will the eagle not tear the vine out (nittēq) by the roots? Yes! Will he not strip off its fruit and cause all of its leaves to dry up? Yes! Will not all of its fresh leaves shrivel up? Yes!
MacArthur: Zedekiah’s treachery would not prosper. The king was captured in the plains of Jericho (Jer 52:8). The dependence on Egypt would fail, and Judah would wither as the E wind (a picture of Babylon, cf. 13:11-13) blasted her.
Constable: The Lord rhetorically asked if the owner of such a vine would not pull it out of its soil and cause it to wither and become unfruitful. Nothing that anyone could do could cause such a vine to recover its original health and fruitfulness after such treatment (cf. vv. 22-24). Even though its roots were still in the ground, it would not thrive. The hot east wind would easily wither it where it grew (cf. 19:12; Job 27:21; Isa. 27:8; Hos. 13:15).
II. (:11-21) THE EXPLANATION OF THE PARABLE – WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
TREACHERY LEADS TO CATASTROPHIC JUDGMENT
“Moreover, the word of the LORD came to me saying,”
A. (:12-18) Historical Interpretation of the Events of the Fable
1. (:12a) Rebels Need Instruction
“Say now to the rebellious house,
‘Do you not know what these things mean?’”
MacArthur: The parable is explained in detail. Babylon (v. 12) made Zedekiah a vassal subject to her, took captives, and left Judah weak (vv. 13, 14). Zedekiah broke the agreement (v. 15) in which he swore by the Lord to submit to Babylon (2Ch 36:13), and sought Egypt’s help, thus he was taken to Babylon to live out his life (v. 16, 19; Jer 39:4-7). Egypt was to be no help to him (v. 17) or any protector of his army (v. 21).
Daniel Block: This riddle seems to have been provoked by developments within the exilic community. Perhaps reports of Zedekiah’s overtures with the Egyptians were being greeted as an opportunity to throw off the Babylonian yoke, which in turn would enable them to return home. Like his contemporary Jeremiah, however, Ezekiel maintains a consistently pro-Babylonian stance. For him the future of the nation rests not with the remnant huddled in Jerusalem but with the exiles. Accordingly, his present aim is to expose Zedekiah’s treacherous policies and his compatriots’ support of them as rebellion against Yahweh.
2. (:12b-14) Resistance Will Undermine Covenant Security
“Say, ‘Behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, took its king and princes, and brought them to him in Babylon. 13 And he took one of the royal family and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath. He also took away the mighty of the land, 14 that the kingdom might be in subjection, not exalting itself, but keeping his covenant, that it might continue.’”
Constable: In Scripture, the eagle is often a figure used to describe God as a powerful being that comes swiftly to judge, just as an eagle swoops down quickly to snatch in flight an unsuspecting mouse or fish (cf. Deut. 28:49; Isa. 46:11; Jer. 48:40; 49:22). In this case, the eagle represented God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar, who had invaded Jerusalem, cropped off the Judean king, Jehoiachin (the “top of the cedar” tree, v. 3), and his advisers (the “topmost of its young twigs,” v. 4), and carried them off to Babylon in 597 B.C. (cf. Dan. 7:4).
3. (:15-18) Redirection of Loyalties to Egypt Has No Chance of Success
a. (:15) Treacherous Miscalculation
“But he rebelled against him by sending his envoys to Egypt that they might give him horses and many troops.
Will he succeed?
Will he who does such things escape?
Can he indeed break the covenant and escape?”
David Guzik: When the vine in the parable turned to the second eagle, it had great hope of life and vitality (Ezekiel 17:8). These rhetorical questions reminded everyone that the vine would find no help from the second eagle, and Zedekiah would find no help from Egypt.
b. (:16-18) Troubling Pronouncements of Doom
1) (:16) Certain Death for Zedekiah in Babylon
“’As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘Surely in the country of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant he broke, in Babylon he shall die.’”
Peter Pett: The rebellion, which was strictly against the revealed will of Yahweh through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:12-15), was doomed from the start. Egypt made a show of strength, and the siege on Jerusalem was lifted for a time (Jeremiah 37:5; Jeremiah 37:11), but they were no match for Nebuchadnezzar as Jeremiah had foretold. Here great emphasis is laid on Zedekiah’s failure to keep his oath and observe the terms of the treaty he had made with Nebuchadnezzar.
But the point is not so much that he broke the treaty, treaties made under duress were often being broken, but that he broke a treaty which had the approval of Yahweh. It was not only a covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, it was a covenant with Yahweh Himself (Ezekiel 17:19).
2) (:17) Counting on Egypt Proves Futile
“And Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in the war, when they cast up mounds and build siege walls to cut off many lives.”
3) (:18) Covenant Breaking Inexcusable / Doom Inescapable
“Now he despised the oath by breaking the covenant, and behold, he pledged his allegiance, yet did all these things; he shall not escape.”
Constable: Pharaoh would not come to Zedekiah’s aid, when Nebuchadnezzar invaded and besieged Jerusalem, and slew many of the people. There was no way that Zedekiah could escape Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath, since he had broken the covenant in which he had pledged his allegiance to the Babylonian king.
B. (:19-21) Theological Implications of the Fable
“Therefore, thus says the Lord God,”
1. (:19b-21a) Judgment Against Treacherous Zedekiah Comes from the Lord
a. (:19b) Covenant Breaking Brings Severe Consequences
“As I live, surely My oath which he despised
and My covenant which he broke, I will inflict on his head.”
Daniel Block: The focus shifts from the plane of earthly events to the divine sphere, as Ezekiel explores the theological implications of the fable and of Zedekiah’s political decisions. According to v. 19, Zedekiah’s guilt involved more than treachery against a human overlord—the offended party was Yahweh himself. Zedekiah had despised Yahweh’s oath and broken Yahweh’s covenant; therefore, Yahweh would take the appropriate action to carry out a punishment suitable for the crime. The meaning of this verse is clarified by 2 Chr. 36:13, according to which, when Nebuchadnezzar had imposed his vassal covenant on Zedekiah, he had forced him to swear by God (hišbîʿô bēʾlōhîm), that is, by Yahweh, the God of Israel. As if legal authorization is required, this oath offered Yahweh the grounds for intervening against the king because of his rebellion against the Babylonian. To violate a political covenant is to challenge the divine Guarantor.
b. (:20) Capture and Execution of Zedekiah for His Treachery
“And I will spread My net over him,
and he will be caught in My snare.
Then I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there regarding the unfaithful act which he has committed against Me.”
Alexander: Why were they being judged for all the past sins of their nation? It was not fair! Ezekiel would respond, declaring that they would be judged for the contemporary lack of trust in the Lord, which they had shown by their tendency to rely on Egypt for security and by the corruption of their regent, Zedekiah.
c. (:21a) Complete Devastation of His Followers
“And all the choice men in all his troops will fall by the sword, and the survivors will be scattered to every wind;”
2. (:21b) Vindication of the Lord’s Words of Judgment
“and you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken.”
III. (:22-24) MESSIANIC EPILOGUE OF KINGDOM RESTORATION AND DOMINION – WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR ISRAEL?
“Thus says the Lord God,”
David Thompson: – God will one day provide security and prosperity for His people.
Daniel Block: The story of the eagles, the cedar, and the vine climaxes with a masterful crescendo in the final coda, as the prophet looks beyond the planes of fable, history, and theology to a new and glorious future for the dynasty. The presence of Yahweh as the subject of all the action links this panel with the preceding, especially vv. 19–21, but the repetition of the citation formula in v. 22 signals the beginning of a new movement in the presentation. . . Ezekiel had opened his riddle with a description of the great eagle taking a sprig of a cedar of Lebanon and transporting it to some enigmatic merchant city (vv. 3–4). But then he had abruptly dropped the story, turning his attention to an entirely different and apparently unrelated sequence of events. As the prophet expounded on the meaning of the riddle, his listeners must have wondered what had become of the cedar sprig. The opening scene had to have some function in the fable. Ezekiel finally answers that question. The interpretation offered divides into two parts:
– Yahweh’s own planting of the sprig (vv. 22–23),
– and the impact of this action on his reputation (v. 24).
A. (:22-23) Messianic Restoration in Final Kingdom Dominion
1. (:22) Kingdom Derivation from the Messianic Davidic Branch
“I shall also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out;
I shall pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one,
and I shall plant it on a high and lofty mountain.”
Iain Duguid: However, it is not simply a matter of rescuing the cedar sprig that has been carried off to Babylon and restoring Jehoiachin to the throne. The problem lies deeper than that, for the whole history of the monarchy is, from Ezekiel’s perspective, one of failure. Yahweh will go back to the source, as it were, for a new shoot, though still from the same cedar tree.9 Though no hope is held out for the present cedar sprig (Jehoiachin) or the vine (Zedekiah), yet the death of the contemporary Davidides does not mean the end of the road for the Davidic monarchy. The failure of all past Davidic kings to usher in God’s kingdom does not mean an abandonment of God’s promises to David of an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7:16). A new sprig from that same tree will be planted and will flourish under the blessing of Yahweh’s protection. Indeed, his future greatness will far surpass that of the past monarchs of Israel, having a worldwide impact as the nations see God visibly at work establishing his kingdom. . .
The good news, however, is that in spite of our weakness and folly, Christ’s kingdom continues to grow and develop, based on his goodness and covenant faithfulness, not ours. Our rebellion and failure may have negative consequences in our own lives, but it cannot prevent God from achieving his purposes in the world. He may work slowly, from our perspective, through imperceptible growth from small beginnings rather than radical revolution, but his work is nonetheless effective. His tree provides perfect shelter and security for all of his own people. As he has planned, he will bring men and women from every tribe and nation to know himself, justified in the perfect obedience of their true king, the shoot of David, Jesus Christ.
MacArthur: “a sprig from the lofty top” – This is messianic prophecy stating that God will provide the Messiah from the royal line of David (“the cedar”) and establish Him in His kingdom (like a “mountain,” cf. Da 2:35, 44, 45). He will be “a sprig” reigning in the height of success. “Sprig,” or “branch,” is a name for Messiah (cf. 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25; Is 4:2; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zec 3:8; 6:12). Messiah will be “a tender one” (v. 22) growing into a “stately cedar” (v. 23). Under His kingdom rule, all nations will be blessed and Israel restored.
2. (:23) Kingdom Dominion over All the Nations
“On the high mountain of Israel I shall plant it,
that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit,
and become a stately cedar.
And birds of every kind will nest under it;
they will nest in the shade of its branches.”
Poole: All nations, the Gentiles as well as the Jews, shall build, breed, and multiply under the kingdom of Christ; it shall be no more confined to the Jews, but extend to the Gentiles also. There they shall find peace and safety; and this repeated confirms the certainty of the promise.
B. (:24) Majestic Reputation of Divine Sovereignty Vindicated
1. Recognition Refrain
“And all the trees of the field will know that I am the LORD;”
Douglas Stuart: The allegory concludes with yet another statement from God about the importance of people knowing that He was in control of human events and history. Most of these statements have taken the form “you shall know that I am the Lord” (e.g., 16:62). Here, however, the allegory keeps its free imagery right to the end, expressing the certainty that “all the trees” (all nations) would know that God can cause nations to rise and fall at His pleasure. This theme gave condolence to the Israelites in exile who knew the stories of Daniel (e.g., Dan. 2:21; 4:17) and Ezekiel’s preaching: even as awesome an empire as the Babylonians controlled could fall if God willed it. And even as puny a people as the defeated Judeans in exile could be reestablished if God chose to make it happen.
Christopher Wright: The final section, verses 22–24, makes the point that ultimately the security and fruitfulness of Israel will come, not from either of the two great eagles—human empires which are intrinsically fickle and transient—but from God himself. And when God intervenes to reverse the fortunes of his people, then the world (All the trees of the field) will know who has done it. In comparison with the truly great eagle, Yahweh himself, Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh are very small birds indeed. And in comparison with all the other trees, the redemptive work of God for his people will result in a tree of truly cosmic dimensions.
2. Reversal Images of Ultimate Restoration Following Certain Judgment
a. First Reversal Image
“I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree,”
b. Second Reversal Image
“dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.”
Constable: At that time the other nations (trees) would know that the one who had done this was Israel’s God. He would cut down the high tree (Babylon?) and exalt the low tree (Israel). He would dry up the presently green tree (Egypt?) and make the presently dry tree (Israel) flourish. The one who promised this was Yahweh, and He would also perform it.
3. Reinforcement of Divine Sovereignty in Accomplishing Kingdom Agenda
“I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it.”
Lamar Cooper: The concluding statement of the chapter affirms the certainty of the Lord’s promised restoration. Although some have understood it to have been fulfilled in the restoration of Judah under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the language goes beyond such limited scope (cf. Ezra 9:8–9) to a time yet future when Israel will have its perfect King, the Messiah, reigning on the earth in righteousness.