Ezekiel 17:1-24

Remember, we are in a section of three chapters, each containing an allegory. We considered the first two – Jerusalem as a useless vine and Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife – last time. This final allegory comes close to being a fable, a story in which animals and inanimate objects talk or act with human characteristics. [Stuart, 147] What we are about to read is a description of Judah’s diplomacy from the first exile in 598 B.C. to the second, in the not too distant future, in 586 B.C.

Text Comment

This third allegory differs from the first two in being less immediately obvious. The word the NIV translates “allegory” might just as well be translated “riddle.” This is why the allegory of vv. 1-10 is furnished with an explanation in vv. 11-18. In fact, the word used here is the same that Samson uses in Judges 14:12 when he poses his riddle to the Philistine men in Timnah. The rhetorical impact of the fable depends upon the fact that Ezekiel’s audience would not have been able to figure out what the riddle meant. It had to be explained to them. They would be caught up in the story but wonder what it meant. [Block, i, 525]
Babylon had long since gone to Lebanon for wood, there being almost no timber in Mesopotamia, so Ezekiel’s allegory likens Israel to a tree in Lebanon whose top (the leadership of the nation deported in 598 B.C.) was taken back to Babylon.
The seed is Zedekiah, the member of the royal family that the Babylonians placed on the throne in Jerusalem as Nebuchadrezzar’s puppet king. For a time Zedekiah was loyal to Babylon, hence the branches that turned toward the eagle.
Now the story is complicated by the appearance of another eagle. The Hebrew text suggests that this eagle is not as great as the first eagle. He is great but not the great. He has large wings, but not the largest of wings. Nor is there any mention of the color of his plumage. Moreover, this second eagle does not act; he is simply present. [Block] After a while, the galling yoke of subjection to Babylon – Judah’s conquered state, the draconian tribute she was required to send to Babylon – began to provoke thoughts of rebellion. Egypt was nearby, she was a longstanding enemy of Babylon, and, so it seemed to Zedekiah, Pharaoh would be glad to have an ally between himself and the Babylonians. This is the sense of the vine sending out its roots toward the other eagle. The hope of deliverance from Babylon and return to independent or at least semi-independent prosperity is expressed in v. 8.

So far as we know, Egypt never actually provided any assistance to Judah apart from selling warhorses to her (v. 15), which, in the event proved useless in the siege that the Babylonians mounted against Jerusalem. The horses certainly weren’t bought to be eaten, though many of them would have been during the long siege!

Without having yet interpreted the riddle, Ezekiel forces his audience to consider what will happen to the vine that has rejected the first eagle for the second. The audience is brought to consider the ingratitude and foolishness of the vine without knowing precisely what any of this means.

The east wind is the scorching sirocco winds that blow into Palestine from the desert leaving the vegetation wilted in their wake. [Block, i, 533]

The question is rhetorical: they would not have understood what the riddle meant. But the opening is ominous: “Say to this rebellious house…” Depending upon the date of this oracle, the Jews in Babylon may have already heard reports of Zedekiah’s overtures to the Egyptians and may have entertained the hope that he would succeed in delivering Judah from Babylonian control. We know from Jeremiah that Jews in Jerusalem thought such things.
Nebuchadrezzar took several steps typical of ANE international relations to secure Zedekiah’s loyalty. He imposed an oath of fealty to him – made him swear his loyalty in other words – and made a treaty spelling out his obligations. By the oath, Zedekiah would have invoked a curse upon himself should he betray the treaty.
The change in Zedekiah’s disposition toward Babylon seems to coincide with the accession of Pharaoh Psammetichus II (595-589). We don’t know if the Pharaoh encouraged Zedekiah to revolt.

Zedekiah violated his oath and broke the treaty. Yahweh regards these acts as the acts of a traitor even though we are talking about a treaty imposed upon Israel by Babylon. God’s people are to show integrity even to their enemies!

The prospect of Egyptian aid was, of course, the entire hope of Zedekiah’s strategy and, perhaps, the hope of the exiles in Babylon who had heard of Zedekiah’s demarche toward Egypt. As it happened, when Babylon came to reassert its control over Judah, the Jews appealed to Egypt in vain. Psammetichus II’s successor stood by and watched Jerusalem be destroyed.
Zedekiah’s enemy, the one that counted, was not Babylon. It was Yahweh himself. And Zedekiah’s monumental error was not that he violated the treaty he had signed with Nebuchadrezzar but that he had betrayed Yahweh’s covenant with Israel and with the house of David. The particular point of this verse may be clarified in 2 Chron. 36:13 where we read that Nebuchadrezzar had forced Zedekiah to swear loyalty to him in Yahweh’s name. So, his violation of his oath to Nebuchadrezzar amounted to a profaning of Yahweh’s name.
This is, of course, precisely what happened in 586. Zedekiah, after watching the execution of his sons, had his eyes put out and was taken captive to Babylon; his army, seeking to escape the besieged city, was caught and destroyed in the open field, and the rest of the population – apart from a few poor folk left to tend the fields – was sent into exile. All of that you can read in 2 Kings 25.
Staying with the allegory to the end, the Lord promises the eventual restoration of the remnant of Israel. He will give her a king – a shoot from the top of the cedar to be planted on the mountain of Israel – and his positive influence would be felt around the world.
This is one of the texts to which I referred when considering the Lord’s parable of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed and becoming a large plant, so large that the birds of the air can perch in its shade. I said then that commentators, noting the similarity in wording, suggest that the Lord is referring to the Gentile nations with his remark about the birds of the air perching in the branches of the mustard plant. The kingdom of God will eventually embrace the nations of the world.
It is the Lord who will make Babylon fall and who will give life again to the nation of Israel.

We have not considered yet in our examination of God’s judgment – the subject of the first twenty-four chapters of Ezekiel – that God often uses the wicked to judge his people. In this particular case it was the Babylonians who became Yahweh’s strong right arm against Judah and Jerusalem. Babylon was not a righteous nation. The Babylonians were as brutal and idolatrous as any other ANE people. Nebuchadrezzar was certainly not intending to serve Yahweh’s interests in the life of his chosen people. But that is what, in fact, he did. The greatest and most powerful king in the world of that day was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pawn of the King of Kings!

We know this use of heathen nations to judge Israel caused confusion in the hearts and minds of the righteous. This is the conundrum that vexed Habakkuk in the opening paragraphs of his prophecy. The Lord had told him that he was raising up the Babylonians, “that ruthless and impetuous people,” to punish his rebellious people. And Habakkuk recoils from this.

“O Lord, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, we will not die.
O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment;
O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more
righteous than themselves?

In other words, it is incomprehensible to Habakkuk that God should allow the Babylonians to devour Judah, a people more righteous than they. How can he use as his instrument a people more cruel and more inhumane than those he intends to punish? The Lord’s answer to Habakkuk, given in chapter 2 of that short book, is that he intends to judge Babylon as well in due time. He will ensure, in due time, that all the wicked get what they deserve. But he will use the Babylonians first to wreck his vengeance upon Israel for her betrayal of his covenant.

We have this thought frequently in the prophets that God makes use of a wicked people to punish another wicked people. In Isaiah 10:5-7 we read:

“Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets. But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations.”

Here is another of those many examples furnished in Holy Scripture of God using sin to accomplish righteousness. Remember Joseph’s famous statement to his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Well so here. The Babylonians had no righteous purpose in their subjugation and eventual destruction of Israel, but God used their rapacity to accomplish his perfect will, the necessary punishment and judgment of his faithless people.

It is this fact, that Babylon, like Assyria before it and Persia after it, was an instrument in God’s hand, that explains why a nation and a people so overweening in pride and so idolatrous should appear in such a positive light in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel and here in Ezekiel’s riddle. Whatever Babylon’s intention in invading Judah, God is using her for his own purposes.

And so in this chapter Babylon is not placed at all in a negative light. Nebuchadrezzar is a benevolent figure who has treated Jehoiachin, Judah’s exiled king, in a kindly way – as we read in v. 4 – establishing him in a nation of prosperity where he would profit from the bounty of the land. Here Babylon and its king act to secure the best interests of the seedlings they have planted both in Babylon and back in Judah. Zedekiah is represented as a traitorous fool because he rejected the security that Babylon offered him. Babylon is represented as the one betrayed and in its next foray into Judah – when Jerusalem would be razed to the ground – as acting entirely within her rights as a nation that had been betrayed by one of her vassals.

One of the things that infuriated their opponents during the course of both Ezekiel’s ministry and Jeremiah’s was that they both maintained a consistently pro-Babylonian stance. I realize, of course, that there is a very great difference between Israel or Judah and the United States. In the one case the nation was the church, in the other the nation is simply a political unit unrelated to the church of Jesus Christ. But it helps us to appreciate the impact of Ezekiel’s message to imagine ourselves as Americans conquered and made subject to some of the nations of our world. How would we feel as Americans, with our history, with our national pride, to find ourselves lying beneath the boot of Iran or an ascendant Middle Eastern coalition of nations, or Russia, or France? Well, we are likely to say, that will never happen. That’s what they said in Israel. That’s what they said in Rome until the hordes swept down upon them. The history of the world is the history of one people’s pride and confidence being overtaken by events!

And so is the history of the church. Over and over again, she has betrayed the Lord in the confidence of her rightness, certain that her special status as the chosen of the Lord rendered herself impervious to harm, only to find herself feeling the sting of Yahweh’s lash or worse. More than a few generations of God’s people have disappeared or gone into some form of exile. Christians, to be sure, sometimes are simply caught up in large political realities and it is impossible to say that God is judging his people. We certainly wouldn’t say, for example, that the Christians in Iraq are being judged because their life has become so much more difficult as the citizens of a country in the midst of war. But in some cases it is perfectly obvious that the Lord is acting in judgment. This is particularly so when the church, for want of loyalty to God and his Word, simply withers away to nothing – is scattered to the winds as Ezekiel puts it here – as has happened in many quarters of the Western world over the centuries. Surely that is divine judgment. When the hope of eternal life is withdrawn from a community of people who once knew the way of life but who repudiated that knowledge, what else would we call that but the judgment of the Lord? My point is: we should not suppose that the situation described in Ezekiel 17 is not happening today. It has happened many times and is happening today.

We may, from our vantage point, wonder how Zedekiah could have been so stupid, how he could have misread the situation so completely. He figured that Babylon couldn’t be the Lord at work. Babylon was not Israel; it was not the chosen people. He didn’t see the Lord hiding behind the Babylonian army. He was blind to the Lord at work because he had by his rebellion cut himself off from the truth. He had lost all insight into his situation. He couldn’t tell what everyone else in the ancient Near East knew perfectly well – including, apparently, Pharaoh! – that no one was a match for Babylon if push came to shove. Zedekiah was not the first and would not be the last to imagine that the way forward lay in some other path than simple faithfulness to the Word of God. And he would not be the last to discover how ferocious the divine vengeance can be when provoked.

And what is the application of this truth, once again so vividly set before us by Ezekiel in this next oracle of judgment? Well it is the consistently two-fold answer we have already been given many times in Ezekiel to this point.

The first application is the one most unwelcome to modern ears, but so often taught in the Bible and so dramatically confirmed in history that it is simply unbelief not to acknowledge the truth of it. Judah was lost. There was no saving her. She was so far gone spiritually that the genuinely ludicrous seemed entirely reasonable to her. The first strokes of the divine wrath had not led her to repentance and she continued to believe that she could manipulate her situation without regard to Yahweh or his covenant. Zedekiah is nothing more than the son of the fools before him and the father of all subsequent churchmen who were sure that there was a better way than fidelity to the Word of God and the life of faith in Jesus Christ. Those who preside over liberal Christian establishments today, still firmly convinced of the rightness, even the necessity, of their repudiation of virtually all of the central affirmations of the Bible, will continue to make their plans and hatch their schemes until there is literally no one left to listen to them and all the empty sanctuaries have been sold. Don’t count on them to say they are sorry for having broken the Lord’s covenant or for violating their oath.

At no point in this prophecy is any hope held out for Zedekiah or for Judah. They must suffer wrath. The die is cast. Now it is true that we don’t have a prophet today to tell us that this is so in the case of any particular community of Christians. That they will certainly face judgment because they have become inveterate apostates. But of the fact that there are large numbers of such people in this world who are in precisely that situation there can be no doubt. The Lord’s threat to “spit such people out of his mouth” is virtually his last word to his church in Holy Scripture and more than a few times in the New Testament we are warned of those in the church “who go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” It is an effete and sentimental Christianity that does not reckon with the reality of divine judgment already manifest in our world. That reality is to make us serious and careful and guarded people. We can look about and see death everywhere in the church of God. And God help us if that sight does not make us all the more interested in and enthusiastic about the second application of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

In vv. 22-23 we have, very clearly, a prophecy of the restoration of the people of God – not Zedekiah’s generation but one yet to come – under the gracious rule of Jesus Christ. Who else can this tender sprig planted on the mountain of Israel be but the long-promised descendant of David who would set up a kingdom that will never end? Compare this prophecy with that in Isaiah 11:1, 9:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”

“They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

The topmost shoot of the cedar in the riddle was first King Jehoiachin, in v. 4 – Israel’s king now exiled in Babylon. Zedekiah, who is represented in the riddle as the seed from the land planted in fertile soil, was placed on the throne by Nebuchadrezzar. Neither Ezekiel nor Jeremiah regarded him as a legitimate king. But this later one, of whom Yahweh is speaking in vv. 22-23, is also a king, a sprig from the topmost shoot, the very crown of the great tree. And from that sprig a great tree will come, a tree so large that birds of every kind can nest in it and shelter in its branches. In the language of OT prophecy this is the Messiah, the one of whom Jeremiah also spoke in similar imagery.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up to David a righteous branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord our Righteousness.” [23:5-6]

In these chapters in Ezekiel we are constantly being reminded and in the most solemn tones that there are two and finally only two ultimate realities: divine wrath for those who rebel against God and divine grace for those who follow Jesus Christ. It was so in Ezekiel’s day, but there were few then who trusted in the Lord and followed him. It is so in our day and there are still comparatively few who have faith in the living and true God and his Son the King. There are, God be praised, hundreds of millions of us, perhaps more – the great tree is growing all the while – but still divine wrath is a dark specter hanging over our world and over large sections of the church in our world. Everywhere we look we see multitudes of people who have no future other than the judgment of God.

Ezekiel himself is concerned particularly with unbelief in the church and God’s judgment falling upon the people of God. Most of the Bible’s depiction of divine judgment concerns the punishment of the church. As Luther put it, there is no sinner so great as the Christian church. [WA, 34/1, 276] But Ezekiel, as the other OT prophets, does not for that reason imagine that the wicked nations round about – even those God uses to punish his people – will be spared God’s judgment. The second section of the book in fact contains oracles of judgment against the other nations of Israel’s world. And even here the allegory concludes with the Lord promising to bring down the tall tree.

It is an index of our sinfulness and the dullness of our hearts that we can read through these chapters of Ezekiel and not shudder: not shudder for what happened to these people and for what might have just as well happened to us. We know very well how much unbelief there is in our hearts, how much of the world’s way of thinking. We know how naturally, how easily we find ourselves admiring the world and forgetting the kingdom of God. We know how easily we see an Egypt as the solution to our problem with Babylon rather than the Lord himself. How easily, how naturally we would have lived as these Jews did who thought themselves safe while piling up judgment for themselves. There but for the grace of God we too go! For that reason, all the more, with the reality of divine wrath is already with us in this world, we must be fools, ingrates, as worthless as Zedekiah if we fail to heed the solemn warnings so often, so emphatically, so relentlessly pressed upon us in Holy Scripture.

But, glory to God, here we sit on the branches of the great tree that God caused to grow in this world, the tree that grew up from the planting of a tender sprig upon the mountain of Israel.

Here then is once again the great alternative of human life. Here the two and only two destinies of every human being. In Newton’s verse:

As Jesus appears in your view,
As he is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you
And mercy or wrath is your lot.

And what should any Christian carry away with him or her from thinking again about wrath and salvation: about being caught in God’s snare and being scattered to the winds or taking shade in the branches of the great tree that is the kingdom of Jesus Christ?
Two things for tonight and coming days.

First, we ought to be a serious people. We, who know what is to come, where everyone must finally go, ought to be serious people, serious about life, and about the people around us. We should be constantly dealing with ourselves for caring so much about ourselves and our petty comforts and not much more than we do about the people around us.

God! Fight we not within a cursed world,
Whose very air teems thick with leagued fiends –
Each word we speak has infinite effects –
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –
And this our own chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the break….
Be earnest, earnest, earnest, mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.

And second we ought to be eagerly sharing the news of the great tree and its broad branches. The great early Christian preacher, John Chrysostom, once said in a sermon that “there is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.” [Hom. Acts. 20.4] These two looming realities ahead of us, ahead of every human being – the hot, withering east wind and the cool comfortable shade – ought to make evangelists of us all.

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart
And love that soul through me;
And may I nobly do my part
To win that soul for Thee.
And when I come to the Beautiful City,
And the saved all from around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me
‘It was you who invited me here.’