Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This chapter contains a “riddle” or “parable “(Ezekiel 17:3-10), with its explanation (Ezekiel 17:11-21), closing with a clear Messianic prophecy couched in language taken from the parable (Ezekiel 17:22-24). While it is a distinct communication, it belongs to the same series of prophecies which began with the vision of Ezekiel 8-11, and is continued through Ezekiel 19. The meaning of the parable is made entirely clear by the explanation the first eagle (Ezekiel 17:3-6) is Nebuchadnezzar; “the top of his young twigs” is Jehoiachin, carried to Babylon; the “vine of low stature” is Zedekiah; the second eagle is Pharaoh (Ezekiel 17:7). The historical facts on which the parable is based are recorded in 2Kings 24:8-20; 2Chronicles 36:9-13; Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 52:1-7.
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel;(2) A riddle . . . a parable.—What the prophet has to say is called a riddle as well as a parable, because there is something in it recondite and obscure—something which, until it is explained, should excite the minds of the people to guess its meaning.
And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; A great eagle with great wings, longwinged, full of feathers, which had divers colours, came unto Lebanon, and took the highest branch of the cedar:(3) A great eagle with great wings.—In the original “the great eagle.” This is explained in Ezekiel 17:12 of “the king of Babylon.” Nebuchadnezzar is compared to an eagle also in Jeremiah 48:40; Jeremiah 49:22; and Cyrus to a bird of prey in Isaiah 46:11. He has great and long wings, because he has already flown victoriously over wide-spread lands; and he is “full of feathers which had divers colours,” because he had embraced in his empire a variety of nations differing in languages, manners, and customs.
Came unto Lebanon.—Jerusalem is called Lebanon, as in Jeremiah 22:23; because Lebanon is the home of the cedar, and the royal palace in Jerusalem was so rich in cedar as to be called “the house of the forest of Lebanon” (1Kings 7:2).
The highest branch.—This is a word occurring only in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 17:22, and Ezekiel 31:3-4; Ezekiel 31:10). It is of uncertain etymology, but is explained in Ezekiel 17:4 as meaning “the top of his young twigs.” The English branch hardly conveys the exact idea, and it would be better to translate “topshoot.”
He cropped off the top of his young twigs, and carried it into a land of traffick; he set it in a city of merchants.(4) Into a land of traffick.—Literally, a land of Canaan, the word being sometimes used for merchant or merchandise, as in Hosea 12:8 (Engl. 7); Isaiah 23:8; Zephaniah 1:11. The parallelism of the next clause shows that this is its meaning here. Babylon has already been called Canaan in Ezekiel 16:29, probably from its commercial character.
He took also of the seed of the land, and planted it in a fruitful field; he placed it by great waters, and set it as a willow tree.(5) Of the seed of the land.—In place of the captive Jehoiachin Nebuchadnezzar did not set over the land an eastern satrap, but appointed a native prince, Zedekiah, the uncle of Jehoiachin. He was “planted,” not like the tall cedar on the mountain, but yet like “a willow tree by great waters” where it might flourish in its degree (see Ezekiel 17:14).
And it grew, and became a spreading vine of low stature, whose branches turned toward him, and the roots thereof were under him: so it became a vine, and brought forth branches, and shot forth sprigs.(6) A spreading vine of low stature.—Had Zedekiah been faithful to his oath and allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar and to his higher allegiance to God, Israel might have been fruitful and prosperous as a dependent kingdom.
Whose branches turned towards him.—Better, That its branches might turn towards him, and its roots might be under him. This was Nebuchadnezzar’s object—to make of Israel a flourishing kingdom, which should yet be entirely dependent upon himself and helpful to him in his great struggle with the power of Egypt; and hence his especial rage when his politic arrangements were frustrated by Zedekiah’s treachery and folly.
There was also another great eagle with great wings and many feathers: and, behold, this vine did bend her roots toward him, and shot forth her branches toward him, that he might water it by the furrows of her plantation.(7) Another great eagle.—This is explained in Ezekiel 17:15 of Pharaoh. He was also powerful, ruling a populous land, but is not described as with the variegated feathers of Ezekiel 17:3, because he did not rule over the same diversity of people with Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah, while owing his position to Nebuchadnezzar, treacherously sought the aid of Egypt, as mentioned in Ezekiel 17:15, and more fully in the historical passages referred to in the note at the beginning of this chapter. A chief task of the prophet Jeremiah was to endeavour to dissuade Zedekiah from this Egyptian alliance.
Say thou, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Shall it prosper? shall he not pull up the roots thereof, and cut off the fruit thereof, that it wither? it shall wither in all the leaves of her spring, even without great power or many people to pluck it up by the roots thereof.(9) Of her spring.—Our translators probably intended by this word, as they evidently did in Psalm 65:10, “her springing forth,” her growth; but it would be’ better now to substitute the word growth,
Pluck it up by the roots.—The word here is a different one from the “pull up “in the earlier part of the verse, and has rather the sense of raise up from the roots.” The whole clause would be better translated, “not even with great power and many people is it to be raised up from its roots again.” The meaning is explained in Ezekiel 17:17, that the strength of Pharaoh would be utterly insufficient to restore the people whom God had blighted.
Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,(11) Moreover the word of the Lord.—The form of expression leaves it uncertain whether the explanation of the parable was given at the same time with the parable itself, or whether, as is more probable, a little time was suffered to elapse, during which it should be “a riddle” to the people that they might be the more attentive to its meaning when given to them.
That the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his covenant it might stand.(14) That the kingdom might be base.—(See the Notes on Ezekiel 17:6.)
But he rebelled against him in sending his ambassadors into Egypt, that they might give him horses and much people. Shall he prosper? shall he escape that doeth such things? or shall he break the covenant, and be delivered?(15) Shall he escape that doeth such things?—The faithlessness of Zedekiah and his court to his own sworn covenant was an act, in addition to all his other wickedness, especially abominable to God. The sanctity of an oath had always been most strongly insisted upon in Israelitish history. It must be remembered that even when, as in the case of the Gibeonites (Joshua , 9), the oath had been obtained by fraud, and centuries had passed since it was given, God yet sorely punished the land for its violation (2Samuel 21:1-2); and in this case the king had been more than once Divinely warned through the prophet Jeremiah of the danger of his treachery. As Zedekiah’s intrigues with Egypt were just now going on, it was particularly important that they should be exposed, and their result foretold to the captives who were yet trusting in the safety of Jerusalem.
As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely in the place where the king dwelleth that made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant he brake, even with him in the midst of Babylon he shall die.(16) In the place . . . he shall die.—The distinct prophecy of the death of Zedekiah at Babylon is here given in a form to bring out in the strongest light the fitness and justice of his punishment. It was to be in the place of the king to whom he owed his crown, and to whom he had given his fealty, yet against whom he had rebelled. The tense here changes to the future, because the events of this and the following verse were yet to be fulfilled.
Neither shall Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company make for him in the war, by casting up mounts, and building forts, to cut off many persons:(17) By casting up mounts.—This translation implies that “the casting up mounts and building forts” were to be the act of Pharaoh; but such things are done not by the relieving, but by the besieging army. A better translation would be, “when they cast up mounts,” &c.—i.e., at the time of the siege. We learn from Jeremiah 44:30 that the particular Pharaoh here referred to was Hophra, the Apries of the Greeks. In Jeremiah 37:5-11, it is said that an Egyptian army did come up and temporarily raise the siege of Jerusalem; but it was of no avail. Pharaoh did him no good—did not “make for him in the war.” The Chaldæans speedily returned, drove away the Egyptians, and renewed the siege, finally capturing and burning the city.
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head.(19) Mine oath . . . my covenant.—Zedekiah’s oath and covenant to Nebuchadnezzar are called the Lord’s, because made in the Lord’s name, and also because He had commanded them. Rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar was, therefore, under the circumstances, apostasy from the Lord Himself.
With Ezekiel 17:21 the explanation of the parable ends. What follows is a distinct Messianic prophecy, which, although couched in the same figurative language, has nothing corresponding to it either in the parable or in its explanation.
Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent:(22) I will also take.—In what has passed all has been done according to God’s will, but yet through human instrumentality: Israel has been punished, Jehoiachin has been, and Zedekiah is about to be, carried into captivity, as God designed; yet Nebuchadnezzar has done it all for his own purposes. Now God Himself directly interposes, and takes a scion of the same “high cedar,” the royal house of David. In accordance with the allegory, this can only be an his tropical personage, and from the description which follows, this person can only be the Messiah. So it has been understood by nearly all interpreters, Jewish and Christian.
A tender one.—This epithet is used of the Messiah in reference to the lowliness of His immediate human origin and condition. (Comp. Isaiah 53:2.) David applies the same expression to himself (2Samuel 3:39), and to Solomon (1Chronicles 22:5; 1Chronicles 29:1), in reference to their want of strength for the work required of them as the heads of Israel. This figure of the Messiah as a scion of the royal tree of David, though naturally growing out of the allegory here, had been used by the prophets long before, as in Isaiah 11:1, and the name “the Branch” had almost become a distinctive title for Him (Isaiah 4:2; Jeremiah 23:5, &c).
In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell.(23) In the mountain of the height of Israel, i.e., Mount Zion, called in the parallel passage (Ezekiel 20:40) “mine holy mountain.” Similar prophecies are also to be found in Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3; Psalm 2:6. No point is made more clear in the prophecies of the Christian dispensation than that it is to have its roots in the Jewish, that the “law shall go forth from Zion,” and that the new covenant shall yet be a covenant with God’s people of old. This mountain is to be understood as the representative of the centre and seat of the kingdom of Israel, and not to be confined too literally to the actual hill of Zion itself.
Be a goodly cedar.—Not like the vine of low stature; this shall grow into a strong and great tree, under whose shadow all the inhabitants of the earth shall find sustenance and protection. A similar figure is used by the contemporary prophet Daniel (Daniel 4:20-21), and by our Lord Himself in the parable (Matthew 13:32). The universality of the blessings of the Christian dispensation, in contrast with the narrowness of the Jewish, is one of its features most frequently dwelt upon both in prophecy and in the New Testament, and shall still enter into the burden of the songs of the redeemed (Revelation 5:9). The last clause of the verse repeats and emphasises the permanence of the connection of the believer with Christ.
And all the trees of the field shall know that I the LORD have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the LORD have spoken and have done it.(24) All the trees of the field shall know.—As the cedar represents the kingdom of Israel, so the other trees represent all other earthly powers who shall ultimately acknowledge the work of the Lord in the redemption of mankind through His Son.
Have brought down the high tree.—Comp, the song of Hannah (1Samuel 2:1-10) and that of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:52-55). In all alike there is the acknowledgment that all power is from God, and that He, in the working out of His purposes, gives and takes away as to Him seems good. Very precious to His Church of old in its desolation and distress must have been the announcement of this truth, and very precious it is still to all who pray “Thy kingdom come.”