Ezekiel 17
Pulpit Commentary
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;
Verse 2. - Put forth a riddle, etc. Again there is an interval of silence, till another theme is suggested to the prophet's mind and worked out elaborately. This he describes as a "riddle" (same word as the "dark speeches" of Numbers 12:8, the "hard questions" of 1 Kings 10:1). It will task the ingenuity of his hearers or readers to interpret it, and so he subjoins (vers. 12-24) the interpretation. That interpretation enables us to fix the occasion and the date of the prophecy. It was the time when Zedekiah was seeking to strengthen himself against Nebuchadnezzar by an Egyptian alliance.
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:
Verse 3. - The eagle with great wings and long pinions (Revised Version) probably the golden eagle, the largest species of the genus - stands for Nebuchadnezzar, as it does in Jeremiah 48:40; Jeremiah 49:22. In Isaiah 46:11 the "ravenous bird" represents Cyrus. Possibly the eagle head of the Assyrian god Nisroch (2 Kings 19:37; Isaiah 37:38) may have impressed the symbolism on Ezekiel's mind. A doubtful etymology gives "the great eagle" as the meaning of Nisroch. The divers colours indicate the variety of the nations under the king's sway (Daniel 3:4: 4:1). If the cedar was chosen to t,e the symbol of the monarchy of Judah, then it followed that Lebanon, as the special home of the cedar, should take its place in the parable. Possibly the fact that one of the stateliest palaces of Solomon was known as the "house of the forest of Lebanon" (1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:17, 21) may have made the symbolism specially suggestive. The word for highest branch is peculiar to Ezekiel (here and in ver. 22). The branch so carried off was carried into "a land of traffick" (Hebrew, LXX., and Vulgate, "a land of Canaan," the word being generalized in its meaning, as in Ezekiel 16:29), i.e. to Babylon, as pre-eminently the merchant city of the time. This, of course, refers to Nebuchadnezzar's deportation of Jeconiah and the more eminent citizens of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:8-15).
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.
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.
Verse 5. - The seed of the land is Zedekiah, who was made king by Nebuchadnezzar in Jeconiah's place. The imagery of the willow (the Hebrew word occurs here only) seems suggested by Ezekiel's surroundings. No tree could stand out in greater contrast to the cedar of Lebanon than the willows which he saw growing by the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137:2, though the word is different). The choice of the willow determined the rest of the imagery, and the fruitful field and the great or "many" (Revised Version) waters represent Judah, possibly with reference to its being in its measure a "land of brooks of waters," of "fountains and depths," of "wheat and barley and wine" (Deuteronomy 8:7-9; Deuteronomy 11:10-12). The kingdom of Zedekiah, i.e., was left with sufficient elements for material prosperity. That prosperity is indicated in ver. 6 by the fact that the willow became a vine. It was of "low stature," indeed, trailing on the ground. It could not claim the greatness of an independent kingdom. Its branches turned toward the planter (ver. 6); its roots were under him. It acknowledged, that is, Nebuchadnezzar's suzerainty, and so, had things continued as they were, it might have prospered.
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.
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.
Verse 7. - The other great eagle is, of course, Egypt, then under Apries, or Pharaoh-Hophra (Jeremiah 44:30). We note the absence of the "long pinions" and the "many colours" of the first eagle. Egypt was not so strong, nor did her sway extend over so great a variety of nations as Babylon. To that eagle the vine bent its roots, i.e., as in ver. 15, Zedekiah courted the alliance of Pharaoh (Apries), and trusted in his chariots, he was to water the vine, which so turned to him from the beds of her plantation (Revised Version).
It was planted in a good soil by great waters, that it might bring forth branches, and that it might bear fruit, that it might be a goodly vine.
Verse 8. - Ezekiel repeats, as justifying Nebuchadnezzar's action, that his first intention had been to leave Zedekiah under conditions which would have given his kingdom a fair measure of prosperity. The vine might have borne fruit.
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.
Verse 9. - The prophet, like his contemporary Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:7), like his predecessor Isaiah (Isaiah 30:1-7), is against this policy of an Egyptian alliance. The question which he asks, as the prophet of Jehovah, implies an answer in the negative. The doom of failure was written on all such projects. The he of the next question is not Nebuchadnezzar, but indefinite, like the French on. For leaves of her spring, read, with the Revised Version, fresh springing leaves; or, the leaves of her sprouting. The Authorized Version and the Revised Version of the last clause seems to assert that Nebuchadnezzar would have an easy victory. It would not take great power or much people to pluck up such a vine from its roots. I adopt, with Keil and Hitzig, the rendering, not with great power or much people will men be able to raise it up from its roots; i.e. no forces of Egypt or other allies should be able to restore Judah from its ruins. Its fall was, for the time, irretrievable (comp. ver. 17).
Yea, behold, being planted, shall it prosper? shall it not utterly wither, when the east wind toucheth it? it shall wither in the furrows where it grew.
Verse 10. - The question, Shall it prosper? comes with all the emphasis of iteration. The east wind is, as elsewhere, the symbol of scorching and devastating power (Ezekiel 19:12; Hosea 13:15; Jonah 4:8; Job 27:21). For furrows, read beds, with Revised Version. In the case of the Chaldeans, who came from the east, there was a special appropriateness in the symbolism.
Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Say now to the rebellious house, Know ye not what these things mean? tell them, Behold, the king of Babylon is come to Jerusalem, and hath taken the king thereof, and the princes thereof, and led them with him to Babylon;
Verses 12, 13. - The parable has been spoken. Ezekiel, after the pause implied in ver. 11, now becomes its interpreter. And that interpretation is to be addressed to the "rebellious house" (Ezekiel 2:3, 6) among whom he lived. Probably even among the exiles of Tel-Abib there were some who cherished hopes of the success of the Egyptian alliance, and of the downfall of the power of Babylon as its outcome. The tenses are better in the indefinite past - "came," "took," "brought," and so on in ver. 13. The history of Jeconiah's deportation and of Zedekiah's oath of fealty (2 Chronicles 36:13) is recapitulated. He dwells specially on the fact that the mighty of the land had been carried off with Jecoutah. It was Nebuchadnezzar's policy to deprive the kingdom of all its elements of strength - to leave it "bare." Even masons. smiths, and carpenters were carried off, lest they should be used for warlike preparations (2 Kings 24:16). It could not lift itself up. It was enough if "by keeping its covenant" it was allowed to stand.
And hath taken of the king's seed, and made a covenant with him, and hath taken an oath of him: he hath also taken the mighty of the land:
That the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his covenant it might stand.
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?
Verse 15. - That they might give him horses. The "chariots and horses" of Egypt seem, throughout its whole history, to have been its chief element of strength. See for the time of Moses (Exodus 14:7), of Solomon (1 Kings 10:28, 29), of Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 12:3), of Hezekiah (Isaiah 31:1: 36:9). Shall he prosper? What had been asked in the parable is asked also, in identical terms, in the interpretation. Ezekiel presses home the charge of perfidy as well as rebellion. Like Jeremiah, he looks on Nebuchadnezzar as reigning by a Divine right.
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.
Verse 16. - Ezekiel repeats the prediction of Ezekiel 12:13. The prison in Babylon, under the eye of the king against whom he had rebelled; this was to be the outcome-of the alliance with Egypt. The prophecy was probably written when the hopes of Zedekiah and his counsellors were at their highest point, when the Chaldeans had, in fact. raised the siege in anticipation of the arrival of the Egyptian army (Jeremiah 37:5-11). Ezekiel, like Jeremiah (loc. cit.), declared that the relief would be but temporary.
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:
Verse 17. - By casting up mounts, etc.; better, with the Revised Version, when they cast up mounts. The words describe the strategical operations, not of the Egyptians against the Chaldeans, but of the Chaldeans, when they recovered from their first alarm, against Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1; Jeremiah 39:1). The Egyptians, Ezekiel predicts, would be powerless to prevent that second and decisive siege. In vers. 18, 19 the prophet emphasizes the fact that this would be the just punishment of Zedekiah's perfidy.
Seeing he despised the oath by breaking the covenant, when, lo, he had given his hand, and hath done all these things, he shall not escape.
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.
And I will spread my net upon him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon, and will plead with him there for his trespass that he hath trespassed against me.
Verse 20. - The words receive a special significance as being identical with those which Ezekiel had uttered in Ezekiel 12:13, with the addition that the sin against Nebuchadnezzar as the vicegerent of Jehovah, was a sin against Jehovah himself as the God of faithfulness and truth. There, in Babylon, the real character of his sin should be brought home to the conscience of the blind and captive king. What follows in ver. 21, in like manner, reproduces Ezekiel 12:14, 15.
And all his fugitives with all his bands shall fall by the sword, and they that remain shall be scattered toward all winds: and ye shall know that I the LORD have spoken it.
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:
Verse 22. - From the message of deserved chastisement the prophet passes to the promise of restoration. The cedar of Israel is not dead. Jehovah would, in his own time, take the highest branch, tender and slender though it might be, the true heir of David's house, and deal with it far otherwise than the Chaldean conqueror had done. The latter had carried off the branch to the "land of traffick" - sc. had brought Jeconiah to Babylon. Jehovah would plant his branch upon the "mountain of the height of Israel" (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1). It was not to be as a willow in a low place, but to flourish, true to its origin as a cedar, so that "all fowl of every wing" should dwell in the shadow of its branches (comp. Ezekiel 31:3-9, where the same imagery is used of Assyria; and Matthew 13:32). As with like prophecies in Isaiah 11:1 and Isaiah 53:2 (where the "tender one" finds a parallel), the words paint an ideal never historically realized, but finding a partia1 fulfilment in Zerubbabel and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, merging in the still unfulfilled vision of the kingdom of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel. To Ezekiel, as to other prophets, it was not given to know the times and the seasons, or even the manner of the fulfilment of his hopes; and when he uttered the words, the vision may have seemed not tar off, but nigh at hand.
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.
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.
Verse 24. - All the trees of the field, etc. As the cedar of Lebanon stands here for the royal house of David, so the other "trees" represent the surrounding nations, who are thought of as witnessing, first the strange prostration, and then the yet stranger resurrection of the house and the might of Judah and Israel. The thought, which reproduces that of 1 Samuel 2:7, finds an echo in Luke 1:51, 52. Another echo of the words may, perhaps, be traced in the "green tree" and the "dry" of Luke 23:31. Here then, also, as in ch. 16, the utterance which begins with judgment, ends in mercy. Behind the picture of the blind, discrowned king the prophet sees that of the Divine ideal King in the fulness of his majesty and power.

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