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THE DESTRUCTION OF ASSYRIA A TYPE OF THE DESTRUCTION OF EGYPT. (Chap. 31)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 31:1. “In the eleventh year, in the third month.” Two months later than the prophecy delivered in chap. Ezekiel 30:20.
Ezekiel 31:2. “Whom art thou like in thy greatness?” The already accomplished fall of Assyria is held before the eyes of the king of Egypt as a mirror of his future. Twenty-four years before the delivery of this prophecy the Assyrian Empire was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, who twenty years later was to conquer Egypt. The practical purpose is the same as in previous prophecies, to quench any lingering hope in Judah of help from doomed Egypt.
Ezekiel 31:3. “Behold the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon.” Ewald translates the word Asshur as meaning the highest cedar; but Hitzig shows that this is a mistake, and that the prophet speaks of Assyria. Smend and M‘Farlan apply the passage to Egypt, but without sufficient grounds. The total destruction of Assyria depicted in this chapter was not true with regard to Egypt. The phrase is an answer to the question in Ezekiel 31:2, “Whom art thou like in thy greatness?” Thou art like the haughty king of Assyria. The cedar in Lebanon was often eighty feet high, and the diameter of the space covered by its boughs still greater, the symmetry perfect (cf. the similar image, chap. Ezekiel 17:3; Daniel 4:20-22). “His top was among the thick boughs”—“among the clouds” (Hengstenberg). “The top, or topmost shoot, represents the king; the thick boughs the large resources of the empire.”—Fausset.
Ezekiel 31:4.“The waters made him great”—the deep sent out her little rivers. “The Tigris, with its branches and rivulets, or conduits for irrigation, was the source of Assyria’s fertility. The deep is the overflowing water, never dry. Metaphorically, for Assyria’s resources, as the conduits are her colonies.”—Fausset.
Ezekiel 31:8. “The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him”—could not out-top him. “No other king eclipsed him. The total of the great men of the earth Ezekiel denotes as the garden of God, in which he regards them as the counterpart of the garden which God once planted in Eden—of Paradise with its glorious trees. The comparison is the more suitable because, as Paradise was planted by God, so all human greatness has its origin from God.”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 31:10. “Because thou hast lifted up thyself in height.” The greatness bestowed by God, being abused, is the cause of his fall.
Ezekiel 31:11. “He shall surely deal with him”—according to his own pleasure and according to the Assyrian’s desert. “The last Assyrian king has been ascertained by the inscriptions to have been Asshur-ebid-ilut, the second in succession from Sennacherib’s son Esar-haddon, who planted the settlement in Samaria from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24). The final destruction of Nineveh was by the Medo-BabyIonian army under Cyaxeres and Nabopolassar. To either of these the expression ‘the mighty one of the heathen’ refers. The destroyer of Nineveh is called ‘the mighty one’ (El, a name of God), because he was God’s representative and instrument of judgment.”—Fausset. “For his wickedness”—the pride and the conduct flowing from it. “Where pride has first occupied the heart, there all divine and human rights are trampled under foot.”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 31:12. “All the people are gone down under his shadow.” They had formerly, like birds, perched upon the branches of the tree in its shade (Ezekiel 31:5).
Ezekiel 31:13. “Upon his ruin.” “The ruin stands for the fallen tree, as if it were a living ruin. The fowls of heaven and the beasts of the field, the wild beasts that formerly sought protection under this tree, assemble now for another object—to peck and gnaw and take what they please of its fruits.”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 31:14. “That none of the trees exalt themselves”—that the nations should not proudly be elated because of their greatness and abundant resources. “Neither their trees stand up in their height, all that drink water”—“that no drinkers of water may stand upon their own greatness” (Fairbairn). “For they are all delivered unto death”—“those proud trees, the grandees of the earth, who were tempted to haughtiness by their greatness, go down into the kingdom of the dead, where they are nothing else than ordinary sons of men (cf. Job 3:9).”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 31:15. “I caused a mourning.” The deep was darkened, the babble of the streams was hushed, Lebanon was saddened, and the trees of the field were faintness itself. In the fall of Assyria the former grandees of the earth once more went through the sorrow of their own fall.
Ezekiel 31:16. “I cast him down to hell”—Sheol, or Hades, the unseen world. I cast him into oblivion (cf. Isaiah 14:9-11). “All the trees of Eden shall be comforted”—because so great a king as the Assyrian is brought down to a level with them. “It is a kind of consolation to the wretched to have companions in misery.”—Fausset.
Ezekiel 31:17. “They that were his arm”—his auxiliaries, the helpers or tools of his tyranny.
Ezekiel 31:18. “Thou shalt lie in the midst of the uncircumcised.” “As circumcision was an object of mocking to thee, thou shalt lie in the midst of the uncircumcised, slain by their sword.”—Grotius. “This is Pharaoh.” “Pharaoh’s end shall be the same humiliating one as I have depicted the Assyrian’s to have been. This is demonstrative, as if he were pointing with the finger to Pharaoh lying prostrate, a spectacle to all.”—Fausset. “And all his multitude.” His tumult—the noisy murmur of multitudinous life is for ever stilled.
NATIONAL GREATNESS NO GUARANTEE OF PERMANENCE
In this chapter we have an example of the dramatic genius of Ezekiel, the Æschylus of the Hebrews, and of the luxuriousness of his poetic fancy. Seizing upon the similitude of the cedar, in its stately magnificence, its many resources, its pre-eminence in stature and beauty over all other trees, and the calamity occasioned by its fall, the prophet describes the overshadowing greatness and ignominious downfall of Assyria, and with one vivid master-stroke applies the whole to the fate of Egypt. From the whole prophecy we learn—
I. The prominent features of national greatness (Ezekiel 31:1-9.)
1. Preeminence over all other nations. “Of an high stature—exalted above all the trees of the field” (Ezekiel 31:3; Ezekiel 31:5.) Assyria, though more recent in civilisation and more rapid in its growth, yet outstripped Egypt in extent of dominion and brilliance of career. Ninas, its most illustrious monarch, subdued Media, Babylonia, and several other kingdoms, and united them under one sceptre. Nineveh, its capital, built on the banks of the Tigris, was one of the most celebrated cities of antiquity. In the height of its prosperity Assyria overshadowed in greatness and power every other contemporary nation, as the cedar overtopped every other tree of the forest.
2. Enormous resources. “The waters made him great—his root was by great waters” (Ezekiel 31:4-5; Ezekiel 31:7). Its argosies and war-boats crowded the Tigris and Euphrates, wealth flowed into its coffers in a perpetual stream, trade and commerce assumed gigantic proportions, its mineral and agricultural products were illimitable, its public works were on a scale of unsurpassed grandeur, its arms were everywhere triumphant.
3. The strength and protection of other nations. “His top was among the thick boughs—all the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs—under his shadow dwelt all great nations” (Ezekiel 31:3-6.) The nations conquered by Assyria dreaded while they hated its power, and neighbouring kingdoms were proud to be its allies. They felt secure under the guardianship of its shield, and shone in the reflected splendour of its greatness and prestige.
4. The envy of less favoured nations. “The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him—all the trees envied him” (Ezekiel 31:8-9.) For warlike courage and prowess, for majesty of bearing, for vigour of government, for symmetry and beauty of national unity, for opulence and display, Assyria was the admiration and envy of all nationalities. It outdistanced all competitors; it stood alone in the shining brilliance of its own star-like splendour.
II. The unmistakable symptoms of national decay (Ezekiel 31:10-17).
1. Vaunting pride. “Because thou hast lifted up thyself” (Ezekiel 31:10). It is difficult to be at once great and humble, and yet greatness is stable only as it rests on a firm foundation of humility. “The greatest man,” says Seneca, “is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution, who resists the sorest temptations from within and without, who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully, who is calmest in storms and most fearless under menaces and frowns, whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on God is most unfaltering.” Prosperity breeds self-confidence, self-confidence pride, pride recklessness, and recklessness ruin. The greatest peril to the individual or the nation is found at the highest point in the delirium of success. When pride overleaps sound judgment just government receives its death-blow, decay sets in, and the end is not far off.
2. Prevailing vice. “I have driven him out for his wickedness” (Ezekiel 31:11). The ancient monarchies—Sodom, the Hittites, Canaanites, Amalekites, &c.—were ruined by their iniquities. So was it with Assyria. Amid the glitter of a refined civilisation we detect the dark destructive elements of immorality and vice. “Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). “The seeds of our own punishment,” says Hesiod, “are sown at the same time we commit sin.”
3. Loss of allegiance and territory. “Strangers have cut him off—upon the mountains and in the valleys his branches are fallen—the people have left him” (Ezekiel 31:12-13; Ezekiel 31:17). The break-up of a great empire may be gradual, but it is not less evident and certain. Distant dependencies are quick to discover the weakening of the power that so long overawed them, and eagerly watch for the opportunity to fling off their allegiance. The rebellion of one province is the signal for a general revolt, and the mighty empire that has filled so large a space in the history of the world crumbles into ruins.
4. Sorrow and consternation. “In the day he went down I caused a mourning—the nations shake at the sound of his fall” (Ezekiel 31:15-16). The struggle for freedom of revolted states and the desperate efforts of the ruling power to retain the broken remnants of authority is the occasion of wide suffering and misery. The fall of a throne that seemed impregnable fills neighbouring nations with grief and alarm. If the mighty Assyria is overthrown, what throne can be secure? The foundations of national life are upheaved, and the confidence of the most astute rulers is shaken.
III. That national greatness is no guarantee of permanence (Ezekiel 31:2; Ezekiel 31:14; Ezekiel 31:18). This was the solemn and emphatic lesson the prophet sought to enforce. If Assyria, the magnificent, was destroyed, there was no hope that Egypt would escape a similar fate. After having ruled for more than 600 years, with great tyranny and violence, from the Caucasus and the Caspian to the Persian Gulf, and from beyond the Tigris to Asia Minor and Egypt, the Assyrian Empire vanished like a dream, and the very site of its vast capital was a doubtful question for twenty-four centuries. There have been greater nations than Assyria, but their greatness did not save them from extinction. They have been overbalanced and crushed by the weight of their own immensity. Centuries slowly crept along, and it seemed as if they would endure for ever; but the catastrophe came, and filled the world with horrified wonder. The mightiest and proudest nation has no room to boast. The loftier its eminence the more ignominious its fall. The true greatness of a nation consists not in material prosperity, but in the virtue and uprightness of its people. Genuine religion alone can give permanence to a throne, and only so long as its genuineness is maintained.
1. The rise and fall of nations a suggestive study.
2. Moral greatness not always commensurate with material prosperity.
3. Kingly authority may be abused to a nation’s ruin.
GERM NOTES ON THE VERSES
Ezekiel 31:2. “Whom art thou like in thy greatness?” The Perils of Greatness.
1. Apt to breed a proud, self-sufficiency.
2. May use power tyrannically.
3. Under-estimates the significance of events which threaten to undermine the foundation on which it rests.
4. May grow beyond the control of the most successful.
Ezekiel 31:3; Ezekiel 31:6. “His top was among the thick boughs—the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs—under his shadow dwelt all great nations.” The Inter-dependence of Nations.
1. A great nation protects the lesser, and they in turn strengthen and increase their protector.
2. A strong nation is an amalgam of many nationalities.
3. Nations help each other, not by jealousies and strife, but by commerce and friendly intercourse.
4. No nation can long remain independent that does not cultivate the patriotic spirit.
Ezekiel 31:6. “How different the security afforded by the Gospel-tree! The Gospel-kingdom gathers all under its saving covert for their present and eternal good, and for the glory of God, and not for self-aggrandisement and to the hurt of men, as is the way of the kingdoms of this world. Therefore it shall never fall, nor shall those who trust in its shadow (chap. Ezekiel 17:23; Matthew 13:32) ever be confounded, for it is a kingdom that is established on the everlasting principles of the Divine truth, righteousness, and love.”—Fausset.
Ezekiel 31:4; Ezekiel 31:7. “The waters made him great—his root was by great waters.” The River the natural source of Empire.
1. Affording a bulwark of protection.
2. A necessary element of sustenance.
3. An important highway of commerce.
4. Giving fertility to the soil.
5. Favourable for the massing together of great populations.
Ezekiel 31:4. “Little rivers.” “Beneficence, justice, protection, encouragements that subjects need and good princes disperse among them. So the deep filled this king, and he sent out his streams to all his subjects in his kingdom.”—Pool.
Ezekiel 31:9. “Envy has an aspect in which it may be regarded as a good for him whom it affects. Let us only reflect on the proverb, ‘Better envied than pitied.’ ”—Hengstenberg.
—“The tallest trees are weakest in the tops, and envy always aimeth at the highest.”—Trapp.
Ezekiel 31:10-15. Fallen Greatness.
1. Occasioned by the indulgence of an arrogant spirit. “Because thou hast lifted up thyself in height” (Ezekiel 31:10).
2. The inevitable result of a life of iniquity. “I have driven him out for his wickedness” (Ezekiel 31:11).
3. The victim of forces whose growing power was unnoticed or despised. “I have delivered him into the hand of the mighty one of the heathen—strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off” (Ezekiel 31:11-12).
4. Abandoned alike by allies and dependents. “All the people of the earth are gone down from his shadow, and have left him” (Ezekiel 31:12).
5. An object of insulting ridicule by those who had been benefited in better days. “Upon his ruin shall all the fowls of the heaven remain, and all the beasts of the field shall be upon his branches” (Ezekiel 31:13, compared with Ezekiel 31:6; Ezekiel 31:18).
6. A suggestive warning to the proud of all nations. “To the end that none of all the trees exalt themselves for their height” (Ezekiel 31:14, comp. Ezekiel 31:16).
7. A subject for profound and widespread grief. “I caused a mourning—covered the deep—all the trees fainted for him” (Ezekiel 31:15.)
Ezekiel 31:11. “He shall surely deal with him.” “Heb., ‘In doing he shall do for him—he shall do what he list with him,’ as Tamerlane since did with Bajazet, whom he carried about in an iron cage, using him on festival days for a footstool, and feeding him like a dog with crumbs fallen from his table. All which Tamerlane did, not so much for hatred to the man, says the historian, as to manifest the just judgment of God against the arrogant folly of the proud.”—Trapp.
Ezekiel 31:14. “To the end that none of all the trees.” “This is the use men should make of God’s heavy judgments upon others. This man’s forefather, Sennacherib, had a statue set up in Egypt, says Herodotus, with this in-inscription, ‘Let him that looketh upon my misery learn to be modest and to fear God.’ ”—Trapp.
—“Genuine humility brings to elevation its only corrective. It fixes the eye on the lowliness which in all human greatness is present with the greatness.”—Hengstenberg.
Ezekiel 31:18. “Thou shalt lie in the midst of the uncircumcised.” Death—
1. Reduces all ranks to the same level.
2. Is indifferent to the contempt of fancied superiority.
3. Reveals the artificiality of social distinctions.
4. Its uncertainty should lead to a moral preparedness.
“Transferred to the king of Assyria, whom the cedar represented, this parabolical history tells us in the first instance of his unparalleled greatness. He was the head and centre of a vast monarchy which was fed by the tributary streams of surrounding nations, and gathered within its ample bosom the resources of the civilised world. But its peerless grandeur proved the occasion of its overthrow, for it only served to nurse into fatal maturity that pride which goeth before a fall. How thoroughly the loftiness of spirit in the head of that monarchy kept pace with the growth and magnitude of his dominion may be seen from the Heaven-daring language of Sennacherib to Hezekiah, when, before the gates of Jerusalem, his servants openly blasphemed and defied the God of Israel. Most truly was his heart lifted up in his greatness, and the hand of a righteous God must cast him down. In an amazingly brief period the mighty fabric of Assyrian glory fell, an irrevocable ruin. It was a lesson, on a gigantic scale, to the world that then was, how God in His providence abases the proud and scatters the mighty from their seats; how all power and glory that is of the world is destined to vanish away as a dream of the night. And connected as it here is with the guilt and the doom of Pharaoh, it was to him, and to those who knew the will of God concerning him, an instructive warning and example of that which certainly awaited him!”—Fairbairn.
“How dreadfully do the wicked scourge one another! Israel must be the first to fall; then Egypt, her ally; then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and lastly the iron power of Rome. These empires sank in succession, like the mighty swells of the ocean, and but faintly left their traces behind. They fell by the overflowing scourge which came suddenly upon them and involved the rich and the poor in one common ruin. But the poor who may survive have some resources in the labour of their hands. Lay not up, then, O my soul, thy treasures in earthly banks; build not thy mansion on the sand. Blessed is the man who has the Lord for his rock and trusts alone in His salvation.”—Sutcliffe.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany