The opening and closing verse of chapter 19 announce that this word from the Lord is a “lamentation” (1, 14). Specifically, the Lord provides his people a lamentation “for the princes [kings] of Israel” (1). The lament divides into two halves: verses 1-9 picture Jerusalem as a lion with cubs, two of which are captured and caged; verses 10-14 see the city and its ruler as a grapevine that is uprooted and burned.
The opening section focuses on two of Jerusalem’s “princes”, the first of which is captured and exiled to Egypt (4). Most biblical scholars see this lion cub as symbolic of Jehoahaz, who ruled only three months before being exiled to Egypt (2 Kings 23). Ezekiel’s lamentation hints that he was a violent, ruthless ruler when it says he “learned to catch prey; he devoured men” (3). We are not told whether this refers to his actions with other nations or his own people. However, given the fact, he only reigned three months, and based on the parallel to the next lion cub in verses 6-7, it likely refers to his internal oppression and misuse of power.
Along with many biblical interpreters, I see this lion cub (young prince) as referring to Jehoiachin [though Dan Block identifies this prince with Jehoiakim], who like Jehoahaz reigned only three months. Following the eleven-year reign of his father, Jehoiakim, and following in his wicked footsteps (2 Kings 24:9), Jehoiachin also is known for his brutality against his own people (note the allusion to violence against widows—verse 7). He, too, is captured and carried off to exile—this time in Babylon (9).
In verse 10, the lament changes imagery from lions/cubs to vine/stems. Jerusalem (“your mother”—10) is now compared to a lush grape vine (“fruitful and full of branches”). This vine, planted by “abundant water” (10), produces branches strong enough to be “rulers’ scepters” (11). The reference to rulers’ scepters continues the theme of kingly rulers begun in the previous analogy. Once again, things turn dark as the vine is “plucked up in fury” and “cast down to the ground” (12). An “east wind” (Babylon) dries it up and fire consumes its stems—no more rulers’ scepters. The vine winds up “planted in the wilderness, in a dry and thirsty land” (13). In its charred condition, it can produce “no strong stem, no scepter for ruling” (14). Here is a dismissive reference to the current ruler, Zedekiah, a weak, waffling man who would wind up bringing final ruin to the city.
The chapter closes with a curious, repetitive statement: “This is a lamentation and has become a lamentation” (14). The Lord’s lament, which becomes the people’s lament, grieves over the sorry state of His people and their rulers. By highlighting the brief, three-month reigns of Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim and by calling the current prince, Zedekiah, a “weak stem”, the Lord laments the lack of strong, godly leaders for His people. No longer is the nation led by wise and faithful leaders (David, Josiah) but by inexperienced (cubs), ungodly men. The results of poor leadership contribute to the nation becoming stripped, burned, uprooted and exiled to a dry wilderness (literally and figuratively). This is reason for lament!
Visions of God
The Lord laments the sorry condition of His people. God gives this lament to Ezekiel for the people of Israel. He is the author of the lament; it captures His heart. He sees what the nation was and what it has become (fruitful vine to withered vine). He sees the Davidic line reduced to “princes” who are prisoners and poseurs. God is not dispassionate about the condition of His people, even though He brings righteous judgment upon them.
The Lord calls His people to join the lament. Verse 14 concludes by saying this God-given lamentation is to be used for lamenting by others (Ezekiel, the exiles). Lamentation is a fitting response to devastating situations, even when those situations are self-inflicted.
The Lord sees weak, wicked leadership as a reason for lamentation. Much of this lamentation focuses on the leaders of the nation. The lion cubs (Jehoahaz, Jehoiachin) both have brief reigns after inflicting much pain—primarily, it would seem, upon their own people (widows—7). The current ruler (Zedekiah) is pictured as weak and withered, a fragile scepter contrasted with much stronger predecessors (11, 14). While the Lord is the true Leader of His people, He wants human leaders who lead with wisdom and righteousness. When that does not happen, it’s time to lament.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen deliver the message God gives them. Once again, Ezekiel doesn’t determine his message but delivers what he is given by God. His role is not to innovate but to communicate—though the message he is given is both engaging and creatively crafted. So, present day watchmen must faithfully deliver the message given in God’s revelation, the Bible. Our goal is not to be entertaining or innovative, though an accurate presentation of God’s Word will be both. The text and tone of our sermons will be determined by the passages we preach. This will sometimes mean our sermons have a celebratory feel, and sometimes will contain lament.
Note: Expository preaching through books or sections of Scripture help guard against the tendency to preach our own favourite themes or those most in step with cultural sensibilities.
Watchmen lament the evil they denounce. Like the Lord they serve, true watchmen don’t dispassionately denounce evil, despising the ones they rebuke for doing evil. In their condemnation they still are moved with compassion. They are for the people they speak against. In delivering a confrontational or convicting message, the goal of a faithful watchman is to deliver a message that can save the lives of hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).