“Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel.” So begins the vision recorded in chapter 17. As the Son of God would speak in parables during his earthly ministry, so the LORD has Ezekiel (“son of man”) speak a parable to the Jews (“house of Israel”—includes those in Judea and those in exile, as both groups are pictured in this parable).
The parable is of two great eagles, a cedar tree and a low vine. The first of the great eagles comes and snaps off the “topmost” branch of a cedar of Lebanon tree. The eagle carries it off to “a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants” (5). The eagle also takes “the seed of the land” and plants it by a river (picture of abundant supply). The seed grows into a low vine that turns towards the eagle (6).
In time, the low growing vine turns away from the first eagle to another “great eagle”, looking to the second eagle to water it (7). Understandably, the first eagle is not happy with this turning. The parable ends with a series of questions as to whether the vine will survive and thrive (9). The implication of the rhetorical questions is that the traitorous vine will be pulled up by its roots and wither when the east wind blows on it (10-11).
Immediately after finishing the parable, the LORD interprets it for Ezekiel and his audience. The first great eagle is Babylon (12), the second Egypt (17). The top of the cedar represents the kind and his princes who were carried into exile in Babylon (12). The books of Jeremiah, Kings and Chronicles fill in the names to this story: Jehoiachin was the king who was exiled along with young Jewish princes (including Daniel and his friends). The “seed” that the first eagle planted back in the land of Israel was Zedekiah, the puppet ruler appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. Israel is pictured as a low (humble) vine, but one that was abundantly supplied for under this covenant (Suzerain/vassal) arrangement.
However, Zedekiah would rebel and break this covenant with Babylon by looking to the pharaoh of Egypt to support the Jews against the Babylonians (15). This “turning” would prove tragic. Egypt would prove a vain hope (17). Zedekiah would be captured and brought to die in Babylon (16).
Interestingly, the LORD goes on to add His perspective on the situation in a surprising way. In verses 19-24, the Lord speaks of the covenant imposed by the Babylonians on Israel as “my oath” and “my covenant” (19). Zedekiah not only rebelled against the Babylonian king, he did something far worse: rebelled against the King of Kings: “the treachery he has committed against me” (20). So the Lord speaks of bringing the king of Babylon to execute His judgment on the Jews (20). The Jews defending Jerusalem will “fall by the sword” and the “survivors shall be scattered to every wind” (21). When this happens, the people “will know that I am the Lord, I have spoken” (21).
But the Lord isn’t finished. He, Himself, will take a spring from the top of the cedar, “a tender one” and “plant it on a high and lofty mountain” (22). This twig (small start) will become “a noble cedar” of Lebanon. In the shade of its branches “every kind of bird” shall nest (23). Here is a picture of future hope for Israel, a replanting that eventually will grow into a mighty tree that provides shades for all kinds of people (every kind of bird). I see here a picture of the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham that he would become a great nation and bring blessings to all the nations of the earth. God will preserve a remnant, replant them in the land and cause them to become a “majestic cedar”, giving shade to “every kind” of bird (23).
But there’s more going on here. As the biblical story unfolds over the coming years, we realize that the “tender” sprig that grew up out of dry ground (Isa. 53:23) would be the future Messianic king, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the true “majestic tree” that provides shade for “birds of every kind” (23)—people from every tribe, language, people and nation (Rev 5:9-10).
The final result will be that all the trees of the forest (nations) will know that who is the true Lord “(know that I am the LORD”). He is one the One who brings low the high trees and makes high the low tree; He dries up the green and makes the dry tree flourish. Again, the Lord says He does this so that all will know “that I am the LORD, I have spoken, and I will do it” (24).
Visions of God
The King of Kings accomplishes His will through human kings. There is an overlay in this parable between what the king of Babylon does and what the King of Kings does. On one level, the events surrounding Jerusalem’s capture and subjugation are simply the outworking of a mighty nation (Babylon) imposing its will on a smaller nation. However, on a deeper level, God is the One raising up Babylon and bringing down Israel. So when Israel rebels against Babylon, it rebels against God. There is a fascinating ambiguity in verse 9: “You are to say, ‘This is what the Lord God says: Will it flourish? Will he not tear out its roots and strip off its fruit so that it shrivels?’” The “he” referenced in this verse would seem to point to the king of Babylon who levels Jerusalem for turning to Egypt and breaking its covenant with him. However, verse 19 makes it clear that the Lord sees Israel as despising His covenant and breaking its oath against Him. So He is the One who brings devastation on Israel.
History must be viewed on two levels to be understood. God is working His will through political and military movements. We don’t always know the backstory for world events like we do in this case; therefore, we can’t always discern exactly what God is up to. However, we can be sure He is accomplishing His larger objectives through world events. This should help our hearts remain calm and steady when world events are in turmoil. We can “be still” and know He is God (Psalm 46:10).
The Lord brings down and raises up. This vision and message concludes with a powerful reminder from the Lord that He is the One who brings down tall trees (nations, kings) and raises up others (nations, kings). He can humble the lofty and raise up the lowly. He does this so that “all the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord” (24). He will be exalted in the earth and will be known as the world’s Lord and King. Knowing this should help His people rest in His power and sovereignty.
The Lord is a covenant keeper to covenant breakers. Once again the vision ends in a surprising way (by now it shouldn’t be surprising). After speaking of the devastating judgment He will bring on Israel through the Babylonians, the Lord promises a future and a hope of His people. He will replant a “tender sprig” on the mountains of Israel. This shoot out of dry ground will grow into a towering tree for the birds of the air. Though Israel broke covenant with Him (19), God will remain faithful to His covenant with them. He will re-gather and replant His people in their land. He will raise up from Abraham a sprig, a “seed” (Christ Jesus) who will bless the nations!
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen can use parable and story to communicate God’s message. The Lord explicitly commands Ezekiel to communicate this message in a riddle and parable. While He has Ezekiel immediately explain the parable, He still has Ezekiel begin with a memorable word picture. Though later in the book, the Lord will acknowledge the exiles found Ezekiel’s messages more entertaining than enlightening (33:30-33), He still wants His spokesmen to communicate in an engaging way. God is no fan of boring sermons. Creativity and colour are good as long as they don’t replace the clear communication of God’s truth.