IF THE POWERFUL NATION OF ASSYRIA CAN SUFFER SUCH A HUMILIATING DEMISE, HOW MUCH MORE THE ARROGANT NATION OF EGYPT
This allegory of the felling of the mighty tree recounts the demise of powerful Assyria in order to apply its message to arrogant Egypt. What a majestic cedar tree was Assyria in its prime! Her beauty was unprecedented and her influence was far reaching. Despite her prideful boasting, she actually owed her beauty and power to the design and direction of her Creator God. But her humiliating demise left her rotting in Sheol alongside the lowest and most disgraced nations. Death has a sobering leveling effect. As God used Babylon to humble Assyria, so He would use King Nebuchadnezzar to bring down Egypt from her lofty heights.
Leslie Allen: The oracle is explicitly directed against Pharaoh and his army. Accordingly, the poem of vv 2b–9 has the role of an implicit accusation, which becomes explicit in the rephrasing of v 10. After the direct rhetorical question of v 2b, the story is told of a magnificent tree, a mythological cosmic tree. From v 10 the story takes a sinister turn as the tree is accused of pride and wickedness, and Yahweh describes how he had it cut down and humiliated. In vv 15–17 the ritual mourning for the tree and its descent to Sheol are related, while v 18 returns to the present and to direct address in a threat of future punishment that echoes the language of Sheol used earlier. V 18 has a summarizing role, presenting the chapter in a nutshell and with greater clarity. . .
Outright denial does not necessarily change an opponent’s mind. Here Ezekiel was faced with the task of persuading his fellow exiles to forget their optimistic hopes that Hophra’s military forces would be a match for the Babylonians besieging Jerusalem. He shrewdly begins by sharing their positive assessment of Egypt. Pharaoh was indeed the embodiment of a world power, magnificent in its impression of permanence. As such, he corresponded to the cosmic tree of ancient lore, filling his observers’ horizon with his fascinating prestige. Essentially, however, his continued vitality was derived from a source outside himself, like the subterranean water supply of the cosmic tree. This element of contingency struck a warning note for those with ears to hear. The virtual hymn to Pharaoh suddenly turns into an oracular pronouncement of punishment for his lofty pride. The scenario changes into woodcutters at work, leaving a fallen giant of a tree, like some California redwood, lying inert and powerless over an enormous expanse of ground.
Douglas Stuart: The purpose of the allegory is to reassure the faithful among the exiles and all subsequent readers that God does not judge His own covenant people without also having a plan to punish the rest of the world, and nations who oppose His will surely get their deserved fate.
To the Judeans of Ezekiel’s day Egypt was a giant and they were a dwarf. They needed encouragement, especially at a time when their little capital city—all that remained of their nation—was surrounded by enemy troops while huge, prosperous Egypt enjoyed respect among the nations of the world. But Egypt’s time would come. It was big, and it would fall hard.
Iain Duguid: Pride once again precedes a fall from grace. In all the vivid word pictures used by Ezekiel in the oracles against the foreign nations, the nature of the glorious object described contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Tyre was a majestic ship, but is now sunk (ch. 27). Her king was as glorious as the first man, a semi-divine being in the Garden of Eden, but like Adam he was driven out (28:1–19). Pharaoh is a crocodile of mythical proportions, but will be hunted down like an ordinary reptile (29:1–16). Here now, Egypt is a great world tree, but it will be felled by the cosmic lumberjack.
John Taylor: This chapter has a clear unity, indicated both by its subject-matter, the allegory of the cedar tree and its fall, and by the introductory and closing phrases in verses 2a and 18d. It is in three sections: the poem of the magnificent tree to which Pharaoh is likened (2–9), and two prose oracles describing its downfall at the hand of foreigners (10–14) and its descent into Sheol (15–18). The date given in verse 1 is a further two months on from that of the previous oracle (30:20) and is June 587 b.c.
Wiersbe: The argument the prophet presented was simple. Egypt boasted in its greatness, yet Egypt wasn’t as great as Assyria, and Assyria was conquered by Babylon. Conclusion: if Babylon can conquer Assyria, Babylon can conquer Egypt.
I. (:1-9) MAGNIFICENT COSMIC TREE — GREATNESS AND POWER OF ASSYRIA TO BE COMPARED TO ARROGANT EGYPT
(:1-2a) Introduction to the Prophecy
1. Dating of the Prophecy
“And it came about in the eleventh year, in the third month,
on the first of the month,”
2. Authoritative Word of the Lord
“that the word of the LORD came to me saying, 2 ‘Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and to his multitude,’”
Daniel Block: The prophecy is prefaced with a command to Ezekiel to speak to Pharaoh and his hubris. In the oracles against Egypt, hămônô is usually interpreted as “his people,” that is, the military forces, or the wealth of Pharaoh. While both will undoubtedly be implicated in the king’s demise, in contexts like this, with the attention focused on the persona of the pharaoh, and the central issue being his pride, the term refers primarily to his “pomp, arrogance, insolence.” This prophetic agenda is suggested by the opening rhetorical question, “To whom do you [sg.] compare in your greatness?” but overtly expressed in the charges in v. 10.
A. (:2b) Challenge to Egypt’s Arrogance –
Key Rhetorical Question Setting up the Comparison to the Fall of Assyria
“Whom are you like in your greatness?”
Lamar Cooper: This poem begins with recounting the fall of the king of Assyria, who is compared to a cedar of Lebanon. The cedars of Lebanon were known for their height and durability. These trees grew taller than all other trees (vv. 3, 5), a symbolic reference to Assyria’s former position of world dominance. All the birds nested in the cedar (v. 6), a reference to the small nations that became dependent on Assyria. This “tree” was a model of beauty and majesty for all to see (v. 7). None of the cedars in the garden of God could rival it (v. 8). “Garden of God” is a reference to Eden (v. 9) but also represents the whole world order as initially created by God. Assyria was the greatest nation in world history up to the point of its rise as a dominant world power. The point of the image of the tree in vv. 3–9 is to present the matchless splendor and power of Egypt.
B. (:3-4) Testimony to Assyria’s Greatness
1. (:3) Compared to a Majestic Cedar Tree in Lebanon
“Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon
With beautiful branches and forest shade,
And very high; And its top was among the clouds.”
Daniel Block: the reference to Assyria is not as out of place as is often imagined. The context requires a symbol of imperial greatness with which Egypt could be compared. No standard would have been more suitable than Assyria, whose memory would surely still have been alive in the minds of Ezekiel and his hearers. After all, this great cedar had been felled within their lifetime. That Ezekiel viewed Assyria as the imperial power par excellence is confirmed in the next oracle, which places Assyria at the head of the list of those who welcome the pharaoh to Sheol (32:22–32).
2. (:4) Cultivated by Extensive Water Channels Impacting Surrounding Nations
“The waters made it grow, the deep made it high.
With its rivers it continually extended all around its planting place,
And it sent out its channels to all the trees of the field.”
Leslie Allen: After the initial question the poem of vv 3–9 divides into three strophes, vv 3–4, 5–6 and 7–9, each of which begins with the size of the tree and moves to the supply of water (cf. Parunak, Structural Studies 401–2). The rhetorical question concerning Pharaoh in his military might gives way to an allegory of a cosmic tree. The parallel is a flattering one, and by it Ezekiel is empathizing with the dreams of his compatriots. The beauty and height of the tree and its unfailing water supply (cf. Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13) are admiringly described.
C. (:5-6) Testimony to Assyria’s Impact on Other Nations
1. (:5) Spread of its Empire
“Therefore its height was loftier than all the trees of the field
And its boughs became many and its branches long
Because of many waters as it spread them out.”
2. (:6) Security Provided to Other Nations
“All the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs,
And under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth,
And all great nations lived under its shade.”
Leslie Allen: The second strophe develops like the first, but moves to the tree’s cosmic dimensions, alluding to the political power wielded by its Egyptian representative. The royal application of the tree imagery is evident in the reference to “nations.”
Daniel Block: But these branches have more than aesthetic significance; like the cedar of 17:23, this tree offers shelter for animals. All kinds of birds nest in its boughs, and all the land creatures bear their young beneath it. The last line of v. 6 betrays the political agenda of the allegory. All the great nations also congregate in its shadow. The picture of the tree is obviously being drawn from the idealized perspective of the Assyrian emperors themselves. In reality the nations incorporated into the Assyrian empire were annexed by force. Those who had experienced the brutality of the Assyrian hordes would scarcely have portrayed them this way. But anything is possible in art, particularly in self-description. In this imaginative literary cartoon, Assyria (Egypt) may view itself as the benevolent patron of the entire world.
D. (:7-9) Summary of Assyria’s Majestic Beauty
1. (:7) Beauty without Boundaries
“So it was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches;
For its roots extended to many waters.”
2. (:8) Beauty Unrivaled
“The cedars in God’s garden could not match it;
The cypresses could not compare with its boughs,
And the plane trees could not match its branches.
No tree in God’s garden could compare with it in its beauty.”
Douglas Stuart: in verses 8–9, the tree is praised as more impressive even than the trees of the Garden of Eden. It is important to understand that this is hyperbole—purposeful exaggeration to make a point. In the lament-style allegories found so frequently in Ezekiel, the greatness of a nation (whether real or merely selfishly imagined) is portrayed in high tones as a prelude to the description of the tragic fall. Here the poetic tone is ironic. What verses 3–8 describe is not reality as God sees it, but reality as Egypt sees it. It thinks itself the greatest of God’s creations (v. 9). We know from Egyptian religious texts that the Egyptians did indeed think exactly that of themselves.
3. (:9) Beauty Derived from God
a. Created Beautiful by God’s Design
“I made it beautiful with the multitude of its branches,”
b. Cause for Jealousy among the Nations
“And all the trees of Eden, which were in the garden of God,
were jealous of it.”
Daniel Block: V. 9 reminds the hearer that, like the trees in the garden, the great cedar’s glory is not of its own making; Yahweh has endowed it with the kind of superlative beauty that would evoke jealousy (qinnēʾ) among all the other trees in the garden. This theological comment is often considered intrusive, but it serves an important rhetorical function in assuring the hearer of the divine imprimatur on the cedar’s grandeur and eliminating any hint of wrongdoing on the part of the tree. Assyria (Egypt) draws its vitality and glory immediately from the subterranean waters, but they derive ultimately from God.
II. (:10-14) REVERSAL OF FORTUNES DUE TO PRIDE – TREE CUT DOWN BY KING NEBUCHADNEZZAR
“Therefore, thus says the Lord God,”
John Taylor: This oracle gives the reasons for the cedar’s downfall (10), describes its ruin (11, 12) and adds the intention that motivated God in effecting such a catastrophe (14). The all-too-familiar pattern of pride preceding downfall comes out in verse 10 (cf. Tyre, 28:2; Babel, Gen. 11:4), and this is described as wickedness (11), a positive wrongdoing which incurs guilt, not simply a human failing to which all are excusably prone. The result is that God casts it out, just as he expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. So, deprived of God’s favour and protection, the cedar is a prey to the most terrible of the nations (12; cf. 28:7; 30:11; 32:12) and is cut down and scattered all over the land. The birds and beasts which once sheltered under its branches will prey on its remains (13), and the event will prove an object lesson to all other nations not to aspire to such heights, because nations are human and human beings have no end but that which is common to all, the nether parts of the earth and the pit (14). Death is the great equalizer and the surest antidote to an excess of ambition. Even the Egypts of this world, who have success stories despite their godlessness, need to be taught the lesson that may be hidden in verse 9 that I (Yahweh) made it beautiful. The prosperity of the wicked is, in the last analysis, all due to the mercy and goodness of God.
A. (:10b) Problem = Pride
“Because it is high in stature,
and it has set its top among the clouds,
and its heart is haughty in its loftiness,”
Daniel Block: Ezekiel’s literary portrait of the cedar was painted with totally positive strokes. The great tree Assyria was impressive in its height, magnificent in its beauty, and beneficent in the protection it offered to the creatures and the nations. In fact it had been planted in the garden by Yahweh himself. If the allegory contained any negative hint at all, it was the jealousy of the rest of the trees in the garden over this cedar’s grandeur. But this was their problem, not the cedar’s. Thus Ezekiel has toyed with his audience, drawing them into the mind of the rhetorical addressee and impressing them with his virtues. Suddenly, without warning, he jolts them with a radical reinterpretation of the scene. This cedar is not to be admired but condemned. The purpose of the hymn of praise was not to entertain but to prepare the stage for the divine woodcutter.
B. (:11-13) Retribution = Rejection
1. (:11) Agent of Judgment
“therefore, I will give it into the hand of a despot of the nations;
he will thoroughly deal with it.
According to its wickedness I have driven it away.”
Daniel Block: The divine response to this hubris is announced. . . Yahweh declares that Pharaoh will be handed over to a chief [ʾêl, lit. “ram”] of nations. In Ezekiel’s mind the “ram” is undoubtedly Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor over many nations. As the agent of divine justice, he will punish Egypt in a manner commensurate with its arrogance. The last verb of v. 11, banished, returns the prophet’s gaze to the paradigmatic tree, Assyria, whom Yahweh has already driven away. If Pharaoh wants to compare his greatness with that of Assyria, let him do the same with his demise.
2. (:12) Abandoned as Worthless
“And alien tyrants of the nations have cut it down and left it;
on the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen,
and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land.
And all the peoples of the earth have gone down from its shade and left it.”
C. (:13-14a) Lesson = Lowliness
1. (:13) Reality of Ruin
“On its ruin all the birds of the heavens will dwell.
And all the beasts of the field will be on its fallen branches”
Feinberg: There is something sad about the felling of a stately and majestic tree; how much more is this true when the reality represented is a mighty nation with its many people. Those nations that had formerly looked to her or sustenance, encouragement and protection realized soon enough the futility of expecting any help from that quarter. In spite of their previous dependence upon Assyria, the nations that viewed her fall were ready to take advantage of her ruin. Like vultures upon carrion they were prepared to make the most of the downfall of that very power which had so recently been their mainstay and reliance.
2. (:14a) Prevention of Pride
“in order that all the trees by the waters may not be exalted in their stature,
nor set their top among the clouds,
nor their well-watered mighty ones stand erect in their height.”
Daniel Block: vv. 12-14 — The divine action recedes into the background while the actions of third parties against the tree take center stage. The agents of divine punishment are identified as Foreigners (zārîm), and described as “the most barbarous of nations.” They are portrayed as rough lumberjacks, who chop the tree down and leave it lying on the mountains, its broken branches strewn up and down the mountains, valleys, and ravines of the land. The fall of the cedar also means the end of its beneficent protective role. “All the peoples of the earth” abandon it. Instead of building their nests in its branches and bearing their young under its boughs, the birds and the animals sit exposed on its fallen remains.
D. (:14b) Destiny = Death
“For they have all been given over to death, to the earth beneath,
among the sons of men, with those who go down to the pit.”
Leslie Allen: V 14 stands aside from the narrative as an interlude. It extends the horizon of the judgment into a warning to all other nations who are tempted ambitiously to follow Egypt’s lead and soar away from their roots. In so doing, they virtually forget their grounding in a source of life not inherently their own (“watered trees,” “irrigated trees”), and so forget too that creaturely mortality is their lot (cf. v 17).
Daniel Block: The last line of v. 14 functions rhetorically to correct all who are tempted in their greatness to forget their mortal humanity. In consigning (nātan) them to death and the netherworld Yahweh reaffirms that he always has the last word. The sentence for the proud is simple: death. Far from symbolizing life and offering shelter to living creatures, such trees go down to the netherworld, where they will join the bĕnê ʾādām (lit. “sons of man”) and all those who descend to the Pit. In other words, the depths to which the arrogant are cast will be commensurate with the heights to which they have aspired.
III. (:15-18) FINAL RESTING SPOT IN SHEOL – NO BETTER OFF THAN THE DREGS OF SOCIETY
“Thus says the Lord God,”
John Taylor: The concluding oracle deals with the reactions of her contemporaries to Egypt’s demise. As with the sinking of the Tyrian merchant ship, there is general consternation that a nation so mighty could be so humbled. What chance had lesser nations like themselves? The world of nature will mourn for her: the deep (Heb. tĕhôm) grieves and the many waters are stopped; Lebanon is clothed in mourning and the trees wither away as in a drought (15). The nations, too, shake with the reverberation of its fall; all the noblest kingdoms, typified by the phrase, the trees of Eden (16), take comfort from the realization that just as they have flourished and died, so the great cedar-tree of Egypt has come to a similar end.
Feinberg: The Prophet Ezekiel not only described the condition and activities of Assyria during its power and earthly existence, but he also followed the ruined power after death. The aim of the writer was to present the effect of the judgment of Assyria and, through it, the more immediate subject of the impending judgment on Egypt and the rest of the nations. Just as mourners cover their heads when they are in mourning, so the Lord Himself inaugurated the mourning over the fall of great Assyria.
A. (:15-17) Reaction of the Nations
1. (:15) Mourning over Assyria’s (Egypt’s) Descent into Sheol
“On the day when it went down to Sheol I caused lamentations;
I closed the deep over it and held back its rivers.
And its many waters were stopped up, and I made Lebanon mourn for it, and all the trees of the field wilted away on account of it.”
Daniel Block: The emphasis in the present text is on Yahweh’s total control, not only over the fate of the cedar (Assyria, and secondarily Egypt), but also on the reactions of the nations.
2. (:16) Momentary Comfort over the Removal of Such a Powerful Adversary
“I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall when I made it go down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit; and all the well-watered trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, were comforted in the earth beneath.”
3. (:17) Matching Fate
“They also went down with it to Sheol to those who were slain by the sword; and those who were its strength lived under its shade among the nations.”
Douglas Stuart: In verses 15–18 the allegory moves on to imagine Egypt in hell (Hebrew, s̆e˒ōl) with other nations or groups who died for their sins against God. This is not a literal picture of hell, but a figurative one, as an appreciation of the allegory requires. The first result of Egypt’s death as a great nation, symbolized by the tree’s fall, is worldwide mourning (v. 15). The nations would feel the loss of their counter part—and would also fear lest the same thing happened to them. In the language of the allegory the worldwide mourning is indicated by a stoppage of the flow of the world’s waters and a sympathetic wilting of the world’s trees. Other “trees,” already in hell, take some comfort in the fall of the “tree” of Egypt (v. 15), a tree whose fall scares and affects other nations on the earth (v. 16). Egypt’s allies are in hell, too (v. 17, “those who were its strong arm”), in the allegory—they would not escape while Egypt suffered at the hand of the Babylonians just as Egypt would not escape while Palestine likewise suffered. Egypt’s fall will be like that of the Garden of Eden (which is imagined as being destroyed here after Adam and Eve will join the “uncircumcised” (a way of referring to all those who have rejected God) and “those slain by the sword” (those punished by God through the intermediation of the Babylonians and others He unleashed on evil nations, v. 18).
B. (:18) Application of the Parable to Egypt
1. Comparison to Trees in Garden of Eden
“To which among the trees of Eden are you thus equal
in glory and greatness?”
2. Condition in Death = No Better than the Lowest Elements of Society
a. Leveled in Death
“Yet you will be brought down with the trees of Eden
to the earth beneath;”
b. Legacy of the Disgraced
“you will lie in the midst of the uncircumcised,
with those who were slain by the sword.”
Derek Thomas: Uncircumcision is a word used in the prophets to depict uncleanness, defilement and unworthiness (cf. Jer. 9:25, 26).
3. Condemnation of Pharaoh and the People of Egypt
“’So is Pharaoh and all his multitude!’ declares the Lord God.”
Lamar Cooper: All that was said to this point has laid the foundation for the conclusion in v. 18. If Assyria, with its splendor, power, and majesty, could not escape the judgment of God, neither would Egypt. The same fate that befell Assyria would befall Pharaoh, who would be Egypt’s fallen “cedar” (v. 18). The story of the cedar revisits several familiar themes that occurred in the prophecies against foreign nations.
– First, God hates pride because it leads people and nations to ruin (Ezek 27:3; 28:1–2; Prov 16:18).
– Second, the mighty fall as do the weak (cf. 27:27–36). When the mighty fall, it is also a loss for the weak and dependent.
– Third, the fall of the tree was a reminder of the mortality of human beings and individual accountability to God (cf. 3:16–21; 18:1–32).
Daniel Block: With the direct address of the pharaoh and the restatement of the opening question here, Ezekiel jolts his hearers back to reality. He has not been simply presenting a satirical allegory of the Assyrians whose might had once terrorized the world. Pharaoh is the problem. If he perceives himself as the heir of the Assyrians’ imperial might, then let him also share in their fate and the fate of all other glorious trees, including those of Eden. As the Assyrians had experienced, so the netherworld will reduce him to the lowest common denominator—rather, the lowest uncommon level. Pharaoh will be consigned a place to lie (šākab) in Sheol among the uncircumcised and the criminal victims of the sword. The final statement declares unequivocally the prophet’s intent in this oracle. While the satirical tale may have described the fate of the Assyrians, it is directed at Pharaoh and his hubris. Yahweh’s concluding signature seals not only the oracle but also the pharaoh’s fate. In so doing Ezekiel seeks to undermine his fellow exiles’ hopes in all Egyptian enterprises against the Babylonians in Judah.