THE DAVIDIC DYNASTY HAS GONE DOWN IN FLAMES DUE TO FAILED LEADERSHIP
Here we have the sad lament of Judah’s failed leadership and its impact on the nation. The common figures of a lioness and a vine are employed to picture the rapid decline and tragic conclusion. Despite the nation’s privileged position of prominence and productivity, her final kings ended up reigning in despotic fashion, ignoring God’s Word, and characterized by oppression. Their behavior was so offensive to the surrounding nations that they ended up being captured and brought into humiliating subjugation. The Davidic dynasty enters into a prolonged period of interruption where no kings are raised up to rule. Until Messiah takes up the scepter, the nation must suffer the consequences of its failed leadership.
Constable: This is the first of five laments in Ezekiel (cf. 26:17-18; 27; 28:12-19; 32:1-16). Laments usually utilize the qinah or limping form of rhythm in Hebrew, and this one does. The qinah form consists normally of three accented words followed by two accented words in a couplet. For example in verse 2 in the NASB this rhythm is discernible: “She lay down among young lions; she reared her cubs.” Usually translations cannot capture the rhythm of the Hebrew text.
This rhythm gives a sorrowful feeling to the composition when it is read in Hebrew. The form is quite common in the Old Testament, especially in Lamentations, Psalms, and some of the prophetical books.
Vawter and Hoppe: This pattern apparently attempted to imitate the drumbeat (or its equivalent) of a funeral dirge: BOOM BOOM BOOM-pause-BOOM BOOM.
Daniel Block: He has taken the form of a qînâ and infused it with alien content. The incongruity between form and substance produces a parody’s rhetorical force. By utilizing some of the features of a dirge, the prophet creates a somber and melancholic atmosphere, and raises a certain anticipation in his hearers. However, the tension between form and substance, qînâ and story, song and fable, challenges the hearers to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the poem. Contrary to the original hearers’ and many modern readers’ expectation, like ch. 17, this is a riddle, not a funeral song; it deals enigmatically with a living reality—the fate of the Davidic dynasty.
Like Isa. 14, which imitates the lament to mock and condemn the tyrannical king of Babylon, Ezekiel parodies the kings of Judah. In so doing he has two audiences in mind. On the one hand, he mocks Judah’s kings and announces the imminent judgment of the last member of the line. On the other hand, he deliberately undermines the false hopes and aspirations of his fellow exiles. So long as a descendant of David occupied the throne in Jerusalem, the Judeans could hope in divine protection. After all, Yahweh had made an eternal covenant with David (2 Sam. 7); he would surely not abandon his designated ruler or the people he represented. Ezekiel’s aim in this “dirge” is to demolish another false theological pillar on which the nation’s sense of security was based. Yahweh’s covenant with David is hereby suspended.
Iain Duguid: Ezekiel’s lament is made up of two distinct images: a lioness and her cubs, and a vine and its branches. At first sight, these images seem distinct and unconnected. However, both were familiar images for the royal tribe of Judah, and the images are brought together, albeit in a different way, in Jacob’s blessing of a ruler who would come from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:9–11). When the familiar imagery was combined with the familiar meter (and musical style?) of lament, it would have been immediately apparent to Ezekiel’s listeners that what they heard was “a lament concerning the princes of Israel” (Ezek. 19:1).
Peter Pett: Having faced all Israel up to their personal responsibility Ezekiel now brings the lesson home by writing a lament for the kings of Judah (called ‘the princes of Israel’), Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin. These were the men to whom Israel had looked but in each case they had failed. Israel is likened to a lioness producing cubs, and the cubs are the princes of Judah (Israel). Their fate is then lamented, a fate which was the result of the fact that they ‘did evil in the sight of Yahweh’. This is followed by a poem of the withering of the vine of Israel and the cessation of kingship.
Wiersbe: In this brief parable, the Lord made it clear that these two kings of Judah thought themselves to be great leaders, but they ignored the Word of God and He cut them down after their brief reigns.
Derek Thomas: The exiles blamed their situation on the sins of others rather than their own. They also sought for deliverance from the wrong source. Ezekiel has to correct both these errors, for both were fatally flawed. Before we can be made right with God we must learn and acknowledge that we are sinners and that we are morally culpable. It is equally essential to know that Christ alone is the source of our deliverance from sin’s curse and bondage.
Leslie Allen: Ezekiel tolls the bell for Zedekiah and for the Davidic dynasty. The last king would be captured and deported, while by implication the dynasty would perish. Jehoahaz’s deportation at the hands of a world power must be seen as an omen of a similar fate for Zedekiah, the cub from the same litter of the dynastic lioness. The shameless oppression that marked the royal house was to lead to the withdrawal of divine promise, not least that of Gen 49:9. The second lament reverses Gen 49:10–11 and stresses destructive wrath. The two laments with their different emphases are to be read together for the total message. An accusatory note of soaring pride has been skillfully woven into the latter lament, to reinforce the necessity of the divine verdict.
(:1) PROLOGUE – COMMAND TO LAMENT FAILED LEADERSHIP
“As for you, take up a lamentation for the princes of Israel, 2 and say,”
Daniel Block: This literary unit is framed by an introductory command to Ezekiel to take up a lamentation (qînâ, v. 1) and a concluding colophonic notice that this has been achieved (v. 14c).
MacArthur: This is an elegy in typical lamentation meter (v. 14b), dealing with the captivity of Kings Jehoahaz (609 B.C.) and Jehoiachin (597 B.C.), and the collapse of the Davidic dynasty under Zedekiah (586 B.C.).
David Thompson: When God gives a lamentation, it is serious business; it is sad business. God was very sad over the fact that the leadership of Israel had become so corrupt that it no longer led the people to be right with Him. . .
A lamentation or dirge is a mournful and very sad song or poem that typically was used at a funeral. It was something that usually was designed to honor a dead person. But the dirge in Ezekiel is not designed to honor a physically dead person, but to warn a spiritually dead nation.
I. (:1-9) INDICTMENT OF JUDAH’S FINAL KINGS
A. (:2) Leadership of Judah Should Rule Like a Lioness – with Power and Dominion
“What was your mother?
A lioness among lions!
She lay down among young lions,
She reared her cubs.”
MacArthur: Judah is the “lioness,” just as in v. 10 she is the “vine.” Her cubs symbolize kings who were descendants of David exposed to the corrupting influences of heathen kings (“young lions”).
Peter Pett: Lions were a familiar feature of life in Palestine throughout the Old Testament and beyond. They were seen as fierce and noble beasts and were used to symbolise powerful control and rule (Genesis 49:9; Micah 5:8; Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9 compare 1 Kings 10:19-20). A royal lion was found on the seal of Shema from Megiddo.
Leslie Allen: The young males are the individual kings whom the royal house produced, while the cubs are the princes being groomed for royal office or for civil and military leadership.
B. (:3-4) Lament for Failed Leadership of King Jehoahaz
1. (:3) Oppressive Ruler – Devouring Men
“When she brought up one of her cubs, He became a lion,
And he learned to tear his prey; He devoured men.”
MacArthur: This refers to Jehoahaz (Shallum), who ruled in 609 B.C. and was deposed by Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco after reigning only 3 months (v. 4; 2Ki 23:32-34; 2Ch 36:2).
2. (:4) Offensive Ruler – Captured and Subjugated by the Nations
“Then nations heard about him; He was captured in their pit,
And they brought him with hooks To the land of Egypt.”
C. (:5-9) Lament for Failed Leadership of King Jehoiachin
1. (:5) Opportunistic Leader
“When she saw, as she waited, That her hope was lost,
She took another of her cubs And made him a young lion.”
Feinberg: King Jehoiakim, who succeeded Jehoahaz, was passed over, and Jehoiachin is presented next. Jehoiakim was probably omitted because his judgment was not so conspicuous as that of the others (II Kings 24:6). His life ended peacefully.
MacArthur: This refers to Jehoiachin, who in 597 B..C. was carried to Babylon in a cage as in v. 9 (2Ki 24:6-15). Though he reigned only 3 months, he was oppressive and unjust. God used the pagan nations of Egypt and Babylon to judge these wicked kings. The Babylonians kept Jehoiachin imprisoned for 37 years, releasing him at the age of 55 (2Ki 25:27-30; Jer 52:31, 32).
[Other commentators think the reference is to Zedekiah]
Douglas Stuart: It is most likely, however, that Jehoiachin is not left out here in favor of Zedekiah, and that he is indeed the king whom Ezekiel in tends to be understood behind the images of verses 5–9. After all, it was Jehoiachin who was in power when Ezekiel and his audience were taken prisoner and brought into exile, and it was Jehoiachin who was considered by them the last legitimate king of Judah. Even 2 Kings ends by paying attention to Jehoiachin’s fate in exile (2 Kin. 25:27–30) since he was, in effect, the king of the exiles. Jehoiachin had great potential and was impressive (v. 7), but foreigners (Babylonians this time) captured him (v. 8) and brought him into exile, in Babylon (v. 9) so that “his voice should no longer be heard,” that is, he could no longer command his people as king.
Iain Duguid: The identity of the second lion has been the object of much debate. The primary choices are Jehoiachin, with whom Ezekiel was exiled, or Zedekiah, his successor, who was exiled in 586 b.c. If the lion metaphor is taken as a separate unit, then Zedekiah is probably the best choice. However, if the entire chapter is viewed as a two-image picture, with a change of metaphor between the first and second images, then Jehoiachin fits best as the second lion, while Zedekiah is then reserved for the second image, that of a vine and its branches. Although much attention has been devoted to the question, the meaning of the passage is not significantly altered by which identification is adopted; the point is that the current rulers of Judah are simply the latest outcroppings of the rock of oppression and pride from which they were hewn.
2. (:6-7) Oppressive Leader
a. (:6) Devoured Men
“And he walked about among the lions; He became a young lion, He learned to tear his prey; He devoured men.”
b. (:7a) Destroyed Their Fortified Towers and Cities
“And he destroyed their fortified towers
And laid waste their cities;”
c. (:7b) Despotic Approach to Governing
“And the land and its fulness were appalled
Because of the sound of his roaring.”
3. (:8-9) Offensive Leader – Captured and Subjugated by the Nations
a. (:8) Captured
“Then nations set against him On every side from their provinces, And they spread their net over him; He was captured in their pit.”
b. (:9) Subjugated by the Nations
“And they put him in a cage with hooks And brought him to the king of Babylon; They brought him in hunting nets So that his voice should be heard no more On the mountains of Israel.”
II. (:10-14a) INDICTMENT OF THE NATION ITSELF
A. (:10-11) Lofty Position of Privilege for the Nation of Judah
1. (:10a) Planted by the Waters
“Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters;”
Daniel Block: Like the leonine phase of Ezekiel’s riddle, these verses open with a reference to “your mother.” However, this is where the similarities end. The metaphor of v. 2 is now replaced with a simile: the mother is no longer a lion; she is like a vine. Furthermore, whereas vv. 2–9 had focused on the mother’s offspring, now more attention will be paid to her.
2. (:10b) Prosperous and Fruitful
“It was fruitful and full of branches Because of abundant waters.”
3. (:11a) Producing Strong Leaders
“And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers,”
4. (:11b) Prominent in Reputation among the Nations
“And its height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches.”
Constable: Ezekiel changed the figure of the Davidic dynasty to that of a fruitful vine in a vineyard. This vine was fruitful and it flourished because it enjoyed abundant resources. The Davidic dynasty was like a fruitful vine among the other nations because God blessed it (15:1-6; 17:1-10; Deut. 8:7-8; Ps. 80:8-16; Isa. 5:1- 7; 24:7; 27:2-6; Jer. 2:21; 6:9; cf. Matt. 21:33-41; John 15:1- 8). Its branches were so strong that they proved usable as scepters for rulers. The vine became exceedingly large in the season of its greatest glory, the days of David and Solomon.
Douglas Stuart: Now the focus of the allegorical lament is fixed not just on one of the kings, but also on the nation of Judah as a whole, with the role of its final puppet king, Zedekiah, being described as one of the factors in the whole nation’s exile. Here, then, the lament becomes definitely predictive. Ezekiel’s compatriots in exile in 592/91 may well have still hoped for some sort of rescue for their nation, a turn of events that might even provide a means for them to be brought back from Babylon and resettled in their homeland of Judah. The idea that Jerusalem would fall once for all to the Babylonians and that remaining Judeans would be exiled for many years was, however, what Ezekiel had been preaching right along, as the preceding chapters of the book display. This is also what the lament reiterates. Jehoiachin had surrendered in 598 b.c. after a brief Babylonian siege of the city so that the city and many of the population would be spared, even though Ezekiel and others had been deported along with the king. But now was coming a complete collapse and surrender, with the end of the nation as an independent member of the commonwealth of nations now in sight.
Daniel Block: In spite of the links with 17:1–10, an important shift in the symbolic significance of the vine is evident. Whereas the previous plant had represented an individual king, Zedekiah, in this instance, the vine (mother) is better interpreted as the tribe/nation of Judah, from which more than one ruler sprouts. She has abandoned her natural role as a producer of grapes, and assumed the posture of a huge tree, a symbol of the arrogance of nations. This self-aggrandizement has provoked the wrath of Yahweh, who punishes her by uprooting and humiliating her, subjecting her to the east wind (the Babylonians), and transplanting her in a foreign land. This interpretation recognizes an enhanced and democratized relevance of the story for Ezekiel’s audience. This is not only a critique of Judah’s kings but also an indictment of the nation. The exiles are hereby reminded that they, who now wallow in the misery of Babylonian exile, represent the pathetic remainder of this once proud plant.
B. (:12-14a) Lament for Failed Leadership of King Zedekiah
1. (:12) Devastated Nation and Defeated Rulers
“But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the ground;
And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off
So that it withered; The fire consumed it.”
Feinberg: But when God was ignored and forgotten in the counsels of the kings, the vine, that is, the nation, was plucked up in fury. While the kingdom declined gradually, its end came by a sudden stroke of God’s wrath. From great exaltation the Judean dynasty was abased to the ground. The Babylonian invaders from the east are represented by the east wind; they shriveled up the fruit of the land. The fire of judgment did its work of retribution. The result was that the vine was planted in a dry and thirsty wilderness. Such is the description of her condition in exile after 586 B.C. Transplantation of this kind meant complete loss of productiveness.
2. (:13) Doomed to Exile in Babylon
“And now it is planted in the wilderness, In a dry and thirsty land.”
John Taylor: Although the picture has changed, the mother is still to be taken as the nation Israel. The symbol of the vine and the vineyard was a favourite with Ezekiel (15:1–6; 17:1–10) as well as with other writers (Isa. 5:1–7; 27:2–6; Ps. 80:8–16; cf. Matt. 21:33–41; John 15:1–8). It had an honourable ancestry from Genesis 49:9–12, where can be found the same imagery of lions, sceptres and vines as Ezekiel uses here. In this allegory, the vine, planted in a well-watered land, flourishes and sends out sturdy shoots like so many royal sceptres, and these represented the nation’s succession of rulers. When the vine was pulled up by its roots, however, its strong stem withered away and was burnt. The vine was transplanted to a desert land and at the same time fire came out of its chief branch and destroyed all its fruit and the rest of its foliage. This is clearly a reference to Zedekiah, the last ruler of Israel, who was regarded as the cause of the nation’s ultimate collapse.
3. (:14a) Davidic Dynasty Extinguished for Now
“And fire has gone out from its branch; It has consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A scepter to rule.”
Peter Pett: Here is the depiction of the failure of the kingship, and of the people. The glory of Israel-Judah was plucked up and cast down, and her rulers (‘strong rods’) were broken off and withered, and consumed by fire. Israel-Judah was transplanted to an unfruitful desert place, and her misfortunes will have resulted from her king who had brought about her misery (fire has gone out from him), leaving her with no one to rule her. And the whole finally resulted from the failure of Zedekiah to obey God and remain in submission to Babylon (Jeremiah 27:12-13).
Douglas Stuart: What is the immediate cause for this disastrous end to a once great nation? Verse 14 points out, somewhat cryptically, that “fire” from “a rod of her branches” is what burned the vine so badly that it could no longer provide “a strong branch—a scepter for ruling.” The “branch” surely refers to any future king, and thus the point of the verse is that the “fire” brought an end to Israel’s monarchy. Verses 2–9 spoke of the end of the reigns of two kings; verses 10–14 speak of the end of the reigns of all the kings. If this is the case, it is almost certain that the “fire” of verse 14 is Zedekiah himself.
Fire in the ancient world was always viewed as destructive, which it surely is. The fact that fire can reduce wood to merely a bit of ash from which the wood can never again be reconstituted was rightly impressive to ancient people, and thus fire in the Bible is routinely a symbol of annihilation (e.g., Gen. 19:24; Jer. 50:32; Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2, 5; 7:4; Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:14; etc.). It was Zedekiah whose leadership as a rebellious and godless king ruined Judah at the end of its history (2 Kin. 24:18–25:7, esp. 24:20). This does not mean that Judah would not have been exiled without Zedekiah’s evil. It does mean, however, that without Zedekiah’s evil the inevitable destruction of the nation and deportation of its citizenry might have been delayed, as it was in days of the righteous Josiah (2 Kin. 22:19–20). Judah’s fate had long ago been decided (Deut. 4:21–31). The actions of its latter kings merely sped up the timing (2 Kin. 23:26–27).
Zedekiah’s rebellion against the Babylonians sometime in the late 590s (2 Kin. 24:20) was the immediate cause of the nation’s collapse. As a puppet king (2 Kin. 24:17) Zedekiah had brought a sort of temporary stability to things in Judah, though at the price of heavy taxes and tribute paid to the Babylonians year after year. Undoubtedly in part to get out from under this burden, the king must have foolishly listened to advisers of poor judgment, who read the signs of the times wrongly, for his attempt to rebel never had a chance, and his own life and that of the nation ended disastrously with the siege of Jerusalem, the defeat of the Judeans, large-scale death and destruction, and a massive exile of people (2 Kin. 25:1–21).
All happened just as Ezekiel predicted. For even though the verbs in Ezekiel 19:10–14 are in the past tense, the lament is still a prediction. The prophets were allowed to see the future and report back to the present on what they had seen in the future. Thus they often employ the past tense when describing what has not yet taken place. So Ezekiel’s final lament is futuristic, and his audience could only tremble at its implications for their own continuing miserable fate as captives in a hostile foreign land.
Galen Doughty: Judah is now bereft of power and is incapable of raising up leaders who will lead the country out of its disaster. This is a scathing critique of Zedekiah who is king in Jerusalem at the time Ezekiel writes this lament. In his lament Ezekiel sarcastically calls Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin lion cubs who were strong rulers. Zedekiah is “not fit for a ruler’s scepter!” Ezekiel’s point is Judah is doomed and her king will be judged and there is nothing he or anyone else can do about it. All they can do is lament Judah and Jerusalem’s fall.
John Taylor: The verse refers to Zedekiah’s rebellion which brought in its wake the punitive Babylonian measures which virtually ended Israel’s national identity, at least for many years, and certainly brought the Davidic line to an end. Thus the cause of its own destruction was found within itself, and it is worth noting that most institutions involving human beings end in much the same way.
Iain Duguid: Echoes of chapter 17 are evident throughout this second picture. Both describe a vine planted in conditions suitable for growth (17:5–6), then uprooted in wrath (17:9) and shriveled by the east wind (17:10). The tall tree is brought low (17:24). Though the focus is different, placed on divine action rather than human action, the conclusion for Zedekiah is the same: no escape.
(:14b) EPILOGUE – LAMENTATION CONCLUDED
“This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation.”
Constable: It is appropriate that this last section in the part of the book that consists of Yahweh’s reply to the invalid hopes of the Israelites (chs. 12—19) should be a lament. Judah’s doom was certain, so a funeral dirge was fitting. All the exiles could do was mourn the divine judgment on their nation that was to reach its climax very soon.
Feinberg: His message was a lamentation for the destruction already carried out; it would be a lamentation for the desolation yet to be accomplished.
Leslie Allen: V 14b is a hermeneutical key to the editorial significance of the chapter. History had overtaken prophecy. What has been predicated of the future in a prophetic lament was now verified as valid. Hindsight could now interpret its past tenses literally. From this perspective, chap. 19 serves to confirm what had been unambiguously future threats in chap. 17. Yahweh’s word had come true. By the eclipse of royal sovereignty, God’s moral sovereignty could be celebrated. Nor was that all. In the complex of chaps. 17 and 19, the central place is given to the salvation oracle of 17:22–24. Where there was a real and undeniable end, there was to be a new beginning. Where judgment had to do its deadly work, salvation was eventually to revive the ancient promises. Room is made for a new, positive version of the vine fable and the vine lament, promising new glory that would transcend the old. Readers who look back and around with despair are bidden to look forward with messianic hope. They—and we—are given “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns” (2 Pet 1:19).