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THE BROAD CONTEXT:
Ezekiel saw a vision in “the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity” (1:2), the young king of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) who was taken into exile in Babylonia in 597 B.C. The time, then, would be 593 or 592 B.C.
A bit of background would be useful. After King Solomon died, Israel split into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). More than a century prior to Ezekiel’s time, Assyria defeated the Northern Kingdom and took its people into exile in Assyria, bringing an end to the Northern Kingdom. Later, Babylonia surpassed Assyria to become the dominant power, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled supreme.
Jehoiachin’s father, King Jehoiakim, vacillated in his allegiance between Babylon and Egypt. In December 598 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched on Jerusalem in response to Jehoiakim’s flirtation with Egypt. Jehoiakim died, possibly by assassination, and young Jehoiachin assumed the throne at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:8). Jehoiachin reigned for only three months before King Nebuchadnezzar took him into exile in Babylonia and installed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah as a puppet king (expected to do Nebuchadnezzar’s will). Nebuchadnezzar forced Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carried off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:13).
Zedekiah ruled Judah (under Nebuchadnezzar’s thumb) for 11 years. However, he refused to heed the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, and “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh his God; he didn’t humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of Yahweh. He also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart against turning to Yahweh, the God of Israel” (2 Chronicles 36:12-13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to Zedekiah’s rebellion by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for her sins.
The events of this chapter take place between the first and second deportations (597-587 B.C.). Ezekiel’s prophecies speak to the unfaithfulness of Zedekiah and the consequences of his ruinous reign. He also brings a word of hope to the exiles, who will one day be restored to the Promised Land.
EZEKIEL 17:1-21. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but serve as essential background for it. At Yahweh’s command, Ezekiel speaks a parable (Hebrew: mashal) to the house of Israel. Keep in mind that Israel (the Northern Kingdom) no longer exists, so Ezekiel is speaking to the people of Judah (the Southern Kingdom).
The parable itself is found in Ezekiel 17:1-10, and the interpretation is found in verses 11-21. To follow the parable requires the key. In the parable:
• The first eagle (v. 3a) = King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia.
• The top of the cedar (v. 3b-4a) = Judah’s exiled King Jehoiachin.
• The “land of traffic” and “city of merchants” (v. 4bc) = Babylon.
• The seed (vv. 5-6) = Judah.
• The second eagle, impressive, but less so than the first eagle (v. 7) = Egypt.
The parable, then, tells of King Jehoiachin being deposed from his throne in Jerusalem and taken to Babylon (vv. 3-4, 12b). Judah, however, was planted in fertile soil and abundantly watered—nurtured in accord with a treaty with Nebuchadnezzar (vv. 5-6; 13-14 see also Psalm 80:8-11). However, under Zedekiah, Judah will reach out to Egypt, against the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah (and therefore against the counsel of Yahweh) (vv. 7-8, 15). Thus, the vine will rot, wither, and fade (vv. 9-10, 16ff.).
Yahweh pronounces this judgment: “Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh: As I live, surely my oath that he has despised, and my covenant that he has broken, I will even bring it on his own head. I will spread my net on him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon, and will enter into judgment with him there for his trespass that he has trespassed against me. All his fugitives in all his bands shall fall by the sword, and those who remain shall be scattered toward every wind: and you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken it” (vv. 19-21).
EZEKIEL 17:22-24. I WILL PLANT A SPRIG ON A HIGH AND LOFTY MOUNTAIN
22Thus says the Lord Yahweh: (Hebrew: adonai Yahweh) I will also take of the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, (Hebrew: rak) and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain: 23in 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 birds of every wing; in the shade of its branches shall they dwell. 24All the trees of the field shall 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.
These verses reverse the tone of verses 1-21. The earlier verses were an account of judgment. Verses 22-24 are an account of redemption—of salvation.
“Thus says the Lord Yahweh: (adonai Yahweh) I will also take of the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, (rak) and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain” (v. 22). This verse stands in dramatic contrast to verses 3-4, which tell of a great eagle (King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon) taking the topmost shoot of a cedar and setting it in a city of merchants (Babylon). Now Yahweh promises to take a sprig from the top of a cedar and plant it “on a high and lofty mountain.”
The tender quality of the cedar shoot suggests a life force within seeking to break out and grow. Yahweh has carefully selected this cedar spring to insure that it will root and grow tall and straight.
“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“ (v. 23a). The land of Israel has many mountains. The one that comes to mind here is Mount Zion, the site of Jerusalem and the temple. Yahweh “dwells in Zion” (Psalm 9:11; 76:2; Joel 3:21), which is Yahweh’s “holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 43:3; 78:54). It is in this holy place that Yahweh will one day restore Judah.
When Ezekiel writes these words, the Jerusalem Temple is still standing, but its days are numbered. Ezekiel, in fact, is prophesying its demise. However, if a grand tree falls, Yahweh has the power to cause a new tree to grow. That is what Yahweh is promising to do with Judah. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar will raze the temple to the ground, but that will not be the end. Yahweh will see to it that the temple is established once again on the holy mountain. The people of God will worship Yahweh there once again.
“and under it shall dwell all birds of every wing; in the shade of its branches shall they dwell“ (v. 23b). These would be surprising words to the people of Judah—surprising and, perhaps, not very welcome. Keep the metaphor clearly in mind. When Yahweh talks about planting the sprig of a cedar so that “it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar” (v. 23a), he is really promising to restore the people of Israel on their holy mountain, Mount Zion. He is promising to re-establish the temple there so that the people of Israel might once again worship Yahweh there.
But this reference to “all birds of every wing” clearly refers to people outside the Jewish community—Gentiles. Allusions to the salvation of the Gentiles occur as far back as Abram’s time. God said to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. ALL OF THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU” (Genesis 12:3).
While the Jewish people tended not to understand that God’s mercy could include Gentiles, clues to that effect are scattered throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 22:18; Psalm 22:27; 46:10; 65:2, 5; 66:4; 72:11, 17, 19; 86:9; 102:15; Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:1; 11:9-10; 24:16; 40:5; 42:1, 6; 45:22-24; 49:1, 6, 22; 55:5; 56:3-8; 60:3; 65:1; 66:18-23; Jeremiah 3:17; 4:2; 16:19-21; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:28-32; Zechariah 2:11; 8:22-23; Malachi 1:11).
“All the trees of the field shall 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“ (v. 24a). “All the trees of the field” is a metaphor for all the people of the world. Yahweh will restore his people to their homeland, which will bear testimony to his power as well as to his love.
From the beginning, Yahweh chose unlikely candidates to carry out his work. Jacob was a “loose cannon.” Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s sons, became Pharaoh’s right-hand man—can you imagine that! David was such an unlikely candidate for the throne that his father forgot all about him when Samuel told him to show Samuel his sons. Then there was the story of David, the boy who couldn’t even carry the weapons of a certified warrior—and Goliath, the giant. And, of course, there was Gideon and his little band of 300 warriors taking on an army. The stories go on and on. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30; see also Mark 9:35).
Now Yahweh promises these Judean exiles that he has “exalted the low tree” and has “dried up the green tree, and (has) made the dry tree to flourish.” At the moment, the Jews are the “low tree” and the “dry tree.” Part of them are living in exile in Babylon, and the rest are being ruled by Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet king. They have fallen far—and, as Ezekiel’s prophecies make clear, they can expect to fall further still—much further.
But that will not be the end. They are low now, but they will be high once again. They are dry now, but they will be green and productive once again.
“I, Yahweh, have spoken and have done it“ (v. 24c). The Jewish people can count on these promises of restoration, because it is Yahweh who has made the promises.
Yahweh’s word is powerful. In the creation, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters….’ …and it was so” (Genesis 1:6-7). God’s word gathered the waters together in one place (Genesis 1:9). God’s word brought forth vegetation (Genesis 1:11-13). God’s word put the lights in the sky (Genesis 1:14-19). God’s word created animals (Genesis 1:20-25) and humans (Genesis 1:26-27).
Yahweh’s word is bound up in the covenant that he has established with the Jewish people. The covenant that Yahweh established with Israel began with Abram, long before there was an Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-20). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17). Covenants between Yahweh and Israel were routinely ratified by blood sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-11; Exodus 24:5-8; 29:38-46; see also Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15-22). The covenant between Yahweh and Israel was many-faceted, but Yahweh summarized its essential provisions in his promise to Abram:
“Get out of your country,
and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you”
The covenant between Yahweh and Israel is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; 2 Samuel 23:5, etc.). The people of Israel, by their sins, have given Yahweh every right to cancel the covenant, but Yahweh is “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
That is a good description of what these people can expect. They and their children will pay for their sins. Generations will pass before the Jewish people return to Jerusalem. Sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters will grow up in captivity. But their time will come—they will return to Jerusalem—they will rebuild the temple. They can be sure of that because Yahweh has spoken it—Yahweh will accomplish it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World EnglishBible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica StutgartensaOld Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Block, Daniel I., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24 (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Block, Daniel I., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48 (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
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Clements, Ronald E., Westminster Bible Companion: Ezekiel, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Cooper, Lamar Eugene, Sr., New American Commentary: Ezekiel, Vol. 17 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994)
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Stuart, Douglas, The Preacher’s Commentary: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Taylor, John B., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan