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Chapter 17 The Parable of the Great Eagles and Its Significance.
God likens Babylon and Egypt to two great eagles having dealings with Israel and declares what their fate will be.
The Parable of the Two Great Eagles.
‘And the word of Yahweh came to me saying.’
Ezekiel was still under his vow of silence apart from when the word of Yahweh came to him. The people were slowly beginning to appreciate more and more that here was one who spoke from God.
“Son of man, put forth a riddle and speak a parable to the house of Israel.”
What was to follow was a riddle to be solved and a parable, here a story with a hidden meaning (but which was to be explained), with an important message for the people of Israel.
“And say, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, ‘A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, full of feathers, which was many-coloured, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He cropped off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it into a land of trading (cana‘an). He took it into a city of merchandise. He took also of the seed of the land, and planted it in a field prepared for seed, he placed it beside many waters. He set it as a willow tree. And it grew and became a spreading vine of low stature, whose branches turned towards him, and its roots were under him. So it became a vine, and sprouted out its branches, and produced sprigs.”
The eagle is portrayed as powerful (a great eagle with great wings), ferocious and threatening (long of pinion), and splendid (a full array of many-coloured feathers). Compare for the eagle as such a harbinger of judgment Deuteronomy 28:49; Jeremiah 28:40; Jeremiah 49:22; Lamentations 4:19; Habakkuk 1:8. Ezekiel 17:12 tells us that it represented the king of Babylon.
The tall cedar represents the rebel confederacy against him in Syria and Palestine, in ‘Lebanon’, a term regularly used of the area (compare Jos 1:4 ; 2 Kings 14:9; 2 Kings 19:23; Isaiah 10:34; Isaiah 37:24; Zechariah 11:1-3), proud and upstanding. The cedars of Lebanon were famous as an example of what was tall and majestic (Isaiah 2:13; 1Ki 4:33 ; 2 Kings 14:9; Psalms 104:16; Ezekiel 31:3). Thus in Judges 9:15 to ‘devour the cedars of Lebanon’ was to wreak havoc on a variety of tall trees.
The top of the cedar represents their aristocracy. The ‘topmost of the young twigs’ is probably Jehoiachin, king of Judah, seen from a patriotic viewpoint. He may have been the leader of the confederacy that united to oppose Nebuchadnezzar.
Babylonia was at this time famous for its trade, Many imported goods came from Babylon (compare Joshua 7:21; Revelation 18:11-15) and so it is described as ‘the land of trade’, and Babylon itself as the city of merchants. They were seen by Israel at the time as the trade centre of their world. The word for ‘trade’ is cana‘an, but the land of Canaan would not be called by this name at that time, and the word can also mean ‘trade’, which it almost certainly indicates here.
The ‘seed of the land’ refers to Zedekiah (Ezekiel 17:13, compare 2 Kings 24:17), who replaced Jehoiachin as king when Jehoiachin was transported, planted in fertile ground as though in a land where water did not depend on the rain but came from its many rivers. Thus he was dependent for his growth on Babylon. The ‘many waters’ of the Euphrates and Tigris with their tributaries are compared later with the ‘many waters’ of Egypt and the Nile and thus refer to Babylon. He was set ‘like a willow twig’, one that delights in water, and grew into a luxuriant vine (Compare Isaiah 44:4). Nebuchadnezzar was concerned to gain his support and loyalty, and watered him. But it was a vine of low stature, completely subservient and of limited power. Its branches bent towards the king of Babylon and its roots were under him. But in this way Zedekiah prospered and was fruitful.
“There was also another great eagle with great wings and many feathers, and behold this vine bent its roots towards him, and shot forth its branches towards him from the beds of its plantation, that he might water it. It was planted in a good field by many waters that it might bring forth branches, and that it might bear fruit, and that it might be a goodly vine.”
The second great eagle is Egypt (Ezekiel 17:15). It too is mighty but it has no long pinions, nor is it as splendid. But Zedekiah was drawn from his loyalty and transferred his fealty to Egypt under Pharaoh Hophra (Jeremiah 44:30). His aim was that he might be watered by Egypt as he had been by Nebuchadnezzar and grow and be fruitful. Ezekiel 17:8 is almost a repetition of Ezekiel 17:6. What Nebuchadnezzar had done for him he also sought from Egypt, but he hoped it would be in much more freedom and with greater honour as a goodly vine rather than one of low stature. He was anticipating the same prosperity from his alliance with Egypt. But it was a hope and not a reality. And it never came to fruition. (Some see Ezekiel 17:8 as recapping what Nebuchadnezzar had done for him, but the sequence suggests it refers to Egypt).
In both cases the vine is planted in Palestine, but watered first from Babylon and then Egypt. Each is seen as the source of water from their great and famed resources.
“You must say, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, Will it prosper? Will he not pull up its roots, and cut off its fruit that it may wither, that all its fresh springing leaves may wither, even without great power and many people to pluck it up by its roots? Yes, behold, being planted will it prosper? Will it not utterly wither when the east wind touches it? It will wither in the beds where it grew.’ ”
Yahweh’s question is as to whether or not Nebuchadnezzar will prevent their hopes, and His answer is ‘yes’. He will pull up their roots (compare Ezekiel 17:7), and cut off their fruit so that its fresh springing leaves wither in the beds (of its plantation - Ezekiel 17:7) where it grew. And he will do it without needing great power or a large army. He will come like the hot east wind from the desert (compare Ezekiel 19:12; Job 27:21; Isaiah 27:8; Hosea 13:15) drying up all in front of him.
The Significance of the Parable.
‘Moreover the word of Yahweh came to me saying, “Say now to the rebellious house, Do you know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and took its king and its princes and brought them to him in Babylon.”
Once more the voluntarily dumb prophet speaks, for he has a word from Yahweh. And once again the exiles are called ‘the rebellious house’ (twelve times in all - compare Ezekiel 2:5-6; Ezekiel 2:8; Ezekiel 3:9; Ezekiel 3:26-27; Ezekiel 12:2-3; Ezekiel 12:9; Ezekiel 12:25; Ezekiel 24:3). This was how God saw His people, a people in rebellion against Him, with their idolatry and their disobedience to His covenant demands, as especially revealed in the ten commandments as expanded in the Law.
The parable is expounded for them. Jehoiachin, his princes and the cream of the people of Judah and Jerusalem were carried into exile in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar invaded and took the city of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:10-16). Jehoiachin’s presence in Babylon (as Ya’u-kinu) is testified to by Babylonian cuneiform tablets detailing his rations of oil and barley.
“And he took of the royal seed and made a treaty (covenant) with him. He also brought him under an oath and took away the mighty of the land, that the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his treaty (covenant) it might stand.”.
Nebuchadnezzar replaced Jehoiachin with his half-brother Mattaniah, and gave him a new name, Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17), a sign of allegiance and vassalhood. Then he bound him by a solemn treaty and an oath of loyalty, and removing to Babylon all ‘the mighty’ of the land (2 Kings 24:16), left him weak and totally dependent. It was his policy so to weaken his subjects that they could not rebel. Thus they would be loyal and would survive and prosper at their own level, and so be able to pay more tribute.
“But he rebelled against him in sending his ambassadors into Egypt, that they might give him horses and much people.”
This verse hides a huge amount of intrigue between Jerusalem and Egypt. Who made the first contact we do not know, probably Egypt, seeking to foment trouble among the smaller states for their own benefit, and seeking assistance in their own plans against Assyria. But Zedekiah, saw his chance to break for freedom and ‘rebelled against the king of Babylon’ (2 Kings 24:20). This was contrary to Yahweh’s words through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:12-15). He sent to Egypt for assistance in the form of soldiers and horses.
We have independent confirmation of such intrigues in the Lachish letters, a collection of twenty one ostraca found in the ruins of Lachish. ‘Konyahu, the son of Elnathan, commander of the army, has gone down on his way to Egypt’.
“Will he prosper? Will he escape who does such things? Will he break the covenant and yet escape? As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke, even with him in the midst of Babylon he will die.”
The rebellion, which was strictly against the revealed will of Yahweh through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:12-15), was doomed from the start. Egypt made a show of strength, and the siege on Jerusalem was lifted for a time (Jeremiah 37:5; Jeremiah 37:11), but they were no match for Nebuchadnezzar as Jeremiah had foretold. Here great emphasis is laid on Zedekiah’s failure to keep his oath and observe the terms of the treaty he had made with Nebuchadnezzar.
But the point is not so much that he broke the treaty, treaties made under duress were often being broken, but that he broke a treaty which had the approval of Yahweh. It was not only a covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, it was a covenant with Yahweh Himself (Ezekiel 17:19).
These words of Ezekiel would seem to have been given at the time when the rebellion was in process. And like Jeremiah he forecast only one end, defeat and humiliation, and resultant permanent exile in Babylon.
“Neither will Pharaoh and his mighty army and great company perform for him in the war, when they cast up mounds and build siege-walls to cut off many persons.”
God’s verdict on the Pharaoh and Egypt is that is that they will not be able to perform what they have promised when Jerusalem is besieged, and its inhabitants cut off by mounds and siege walls.
“For he has despised the oath by breaking the covenant, and behold, he has given his hand, and yet has he done all these things. He will not escape.”
The solemn nature of Zedekiah’s vows is brought out, made ‘an oath’ and ‘a treaty’ and ‘gave his hand’, all signs of fealty. There would seem to be implied that he did this willingly, probably to obtain the kingship. Such oaths and treaties were strange things, they were seen as sacredly binding, and yet it was generally recognised that an oath made under duress was only binding until you became strong enough to break it. Indeed had Jerusalem surrendered when Nebuchadnezzar approached Zedekiah might well have retained the kingship (Jeremiah 38:17-18). But the point was that such oaths and treaties justified strong reprisals.
‘He will not escape.’ He was doomed.
‘Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh, “As I live, surely my oath which he has despised, and my covenant which he has broken, will I even bring down on his own head.”
Behind all that has been said, however, is the fact that Zedekiah and Judah had not only broken faith with Nebuchadnezzar, they had broken faith with Yahweh. What they had done to Nebuchadnezzar they had already done to Yahweh. They had constantly broken their solemn oath and covenant with Yahweh made at Sinai and regularly renewed. The idea is also probably that because Yahweh had committed them to keep faith with their oath and treaty with Nebuchadnezzar that had become part of that covenant. In the end it was for rebellion against and disobedience to Yahweh that these things were happening to them.
“And I will spread my net on him, and he will be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon, and will plead with him there for his trespass that he has trespassed against me.”
Zedekiah’s problem was that, because he had flagrantly disobeyed Yahweh, it was Yahweh who was against him. Thus as a hunter spreads his net and snares his prey, so will Yahweh trap Zedekiah, with the result that he will be taken captive to Babylon. Note that it is Yahweh Who snares him and Yahweh Who takes him to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is but the instrument. And there Yahweh will have personal dealings with Zedekiah so as to win him over. The mercy of Yahweh never ceases.
“And all his fugitives in all his bands will fall by the sword, and those who remain will be scattered towards every wind, and you will know that I Yahweh have spoken it.”
Those who followed Zedekiah would suffer similar fates. They would be hunted down, they would be slain with the sword, and the remainder would be scattered in all directions. They would have lost homes, wealth and means of sustenance, becoming perpetual refugees. They would be dependent on the kindness of others for their lives, which would often not be forthcoming, for they were turbulent times.
‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, “I will also take of the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it. I will crop off from the topmost of his young twigs a tender one, and I will plant it on a high and eminent mountain. In the mountain of the house of Israel will I plant it, and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar. And under it will dwell all fowl of every wing. They will dwell in the shadow of its branches.” ’
In Ezekiel 17:4 the topmost of the young twigs represented Jehoiachin. Thus here we have a prophecy of the rise of the future expected Davidic king (Ezekiel 34:23; Ezekiel 37:24; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6), partially fulfilled in Zerubbabel, but only finding its final fulfilment in Jesus Christ. This young twig will be planted in the mountain of the house of Israel, thus he will grow from a nation of Israel again established in the land.
The fact that it comes from the top of a lofty cedar, and is planted on a high and eminent mountain stresses his greatness and pre-eminence. He will grow and prosper and achieve pre-eminence for he will bring forth boughs and bear fruit and be a goodly cedar. And all birds of every kind will dwell in his branches, a picture of all nations finding shelter in him. Compare Matthew 13:2 where this refers to the Kingly Rule of God introduced by Jesus.
It is significant that Ezekiel does not make the mountain of the house of Israel more specifically the mountain of Yahweh’s house as earlier prophets do (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1), as many commentators do here. But ‘the mountain’ regularly means the hill country stretching from Galilee in the north to Judah in the south. The idea of the temple being central is deliberately avoided. It is the king who is central.
“And all the trees of the field will know that I Yahweh 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 Yahweh have spoken and have done it.”
Some refer the high tree and the green tree to Assyria and Egypt, but in the parable the tree represented Israel. The point is that Israel who exalted themselves, and who claimed to be the living tree, will have been brought down, but the low and dry tree, which represents the despised remnant faithful to Yahweh (compare Isaiah 6:13), will flourish. Compare for the idea Isaiah 53:2.
‘I Yahweh have spoken and have done it.’ This crowns the chapter. All that will happen will result from the word of Yahweh (see Isaiah 55:11).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 17". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany