A Perplexing Parable with a Happy Ending

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel; say, Thus says the Lord God: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs.

“And there was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage, and behold, this vine bent its roots toward him and shot forth its branches toward him from the bed where it was planted, that he might water it. It had been planted on good soil by abundant waters, that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine.

“Say, Thus says the Lord God: Will it thrive? Will he not pull up its roots and cut off its fruit, so that it withers, so that all its fresh sprouting leaves wither? It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it from its roots. 10 Behold, it is planted; will it thrive? Will it not utterly wither when the east wind strikes it—wither away on the bed where it sprouted?” Ezekiel 17:1-10 ESV

God has commanded Ezekiel to do some rather strange things, such as perform a one-man play dramatizing the siege and fall of Jerusalem. At one point, the prophet was told to pack all his belongings and then dig a hole in the wall of his home and crawl through it, all in order to illustrate how the citizens of Jerusalem would attempt to flee from the marauding Babylonians.

Now, God demands that His prophet “propound a riddle and speak a parable” to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. This two-punch combination of an enigmatic saying and a pithy maxim was intended to provide further illustration of and justification for Judah’s coming fall. God knew there were still those among the Jews in Jerusalem and those living as exiles in Babylon that didn’t think they deserved God’s judgment. They felt as if God was being unjust by holding them responsible for the sins of their forefathers. Yet, the Almighty took issue with their claims of innocence and He provided Ezekiel with a riddle and a parable to provide the proof.

Though God will provide the meaning behind these somewhat ambiguous illustrations, it is helpful to understand the historical context they entail. For the people of Judah to claim the moral high ground was ludicrous because they had no facts to support their claim. Judah’s track record of idolatry and apostasy was not a thing of the past but was recent as the reigns of their past few kings.

At one point, Josiah, one of their few good kings, had been replaced by his son, Jehoahaz. Only 23 years old when he ascended to the throne, Jehoahaz’s reign lasted a mere three months before he was deposed by King Neco of Egypt and replaced by his brother, Jehoiakim. This 25-year-old sovereign ruled for 11 years but as a puppet king to the Egyptians. And sadly, he proved to be a powerless and impotent king who was also godless.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God. – 2 Chronicles 36:5 NLT

When the Babylonians invaded the region and captured Jerusalem, Jehoiakim was taken captive and replaced by his brother, Jehoiachin. He too became a puppet king but to the Babylonians. And he also “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Chronicles 36:9 NLT). His reign lasted only three months before he too was deposed and replaced by his 21-one-year-old uncle, Zedekiah. And the book of 2 Chronicles provides a less-than-flattering assessment of his reign and the adverse impact he had on the nation.

Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God, and he refused to humble himself when the prophet Jeremiah spoke to him directly from the Lord. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, even though he had taken an oath of loyalty in God’s name. Zedekiah was a hard and stubborn man, refusing to turn to the Lord, the God of Israel.

Likewise, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful. They followed all the pagan practices of the surrounding nations, desecrating the Temple of the Lord that had been consecrated in Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 36:12-14 NLT

All of these events had taken place just before and immediately after Ezekiel and his fellow exiles had been taken to Babylon. They had lived through Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem and had experienced the terror of deportation to a foreign land. And all, the while they had been in Babylon, they had received regular reports of the royal game of musical chairs going on back home.

They had no support for their claims of innocence. The last four kings to reign over Judah had been abysmal spiritual failures. They had led the nation into increasing wickedness and rebellion, and both the riddle and parable Ezekiel was required to share would support that fact.

Verses 3-6 contain the riddle, so labeled because its meaning requires explanation. God describes a large, majestic eagle swooping down from the sky and plucking the top branch off of a cedar tree. The location of this tree is described as Lebanon, a common Old Testament metonym for the land of Canaan. Lebanon was known for its giant cedar trees and is used as a substitute for the land of Israel for this reason.

The eagle transported the branch “to a city filled with merchants” and “planted it in a city of traders” (Ezekiel 17:4 NLT). Then it “took a seedling from the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside a broad river, where it could grow like a willow tree” (Ezekiel 17:5 NLT). In this riddle, God is describing the uprooting of something of value and its relocation to a new and distant location.

God seems to mix up His metaphors, describing the seedling as sprouting like a willow tree but eventually taking root and producing “a low, spreading vine” (Ezekiel 17:6 NLT). Despite being transplanted, this vine grew and prospered, having been placed in fertile soil and provided with ample water. Yet, when another eagle shows up on the scene, “the vine now sent its roots and branches toward him for water” (Ezekiel 17:7 NLT). It displays dissatisfaction with its current circumstances and seeks the aid and support of another benefactor.

So, God ends His riddle with a series of rhetorical questions and answers:

“Will this vine grow and prosper?
    No! I will pull it up, roots and all!
I will cut off its fruit
    and let its leaves wither and die.
I will pull it up easily
    without a strong arm or a large army.” – Ezekiel 17:9 NLT

But when the vine is transplanted,
    will it thrive?
No, it will wither away
    when the east wind blows against it.
It will die in the same good soil
    where it had grown so well.” – Ezekiel 17:10 NLT

Before exploring God’s explanation for this confounding puzzle, it would pay to recall the historical context of Judah’s immediate past. After just three months on the throne, Jehoahaz had been taken to Egypt as a prisoner. His brother, Jehoiakim enjoyed a much longer reign, but it still ended with him being led away in chains to Babylon. His replacement, Jehoiachin, also served a 3-month-long reign and then ended up as a prisoner in Babylon. And his uncle who succeeded him would serve as a powerless puppet king under the iron-fisted rule of Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian empire. 

All of these facts would have been known to Ezekiel’s audience. They would have been well aware of all the soap opera-like events that had taken place back home in their absence. And they probably understood that they represented the seedling that had been transplanted by a broad river. The book of Ezekiel began with the following statement from the prophet Ezekiel:

“I was with the Judean exiles beside the Kebar River in Babylon.” – Ezekiel 1:1 NLT

While the riddle probably left them with more questions than answers, they were not so obtuse that they couldn’t understand it was all about them. After all, if God was delivering this message through His prophet, it must have application for them. And God ends His verbal conundrum with a jarring question concerning the transplanted vine: “Will it thrive?

And He answers that disconcerting question with unequivocal accuracy that must have left Ezekiel’s audience shaking in their sandals.

“Will he not pull up its roots and cut off its fruit, so that it withers, so that all its fresh sprouting leaves wither?” – Ezekiel 17:9 ESV

“Will it not utterly wither when the east wind strikes it—wither away on the bed where it sprouted?” – Ezekiel 17:10 ESV

But little do they know that this puzzling and perplexing parable has a happy ending. Despite Judah’s abysmal track record of apostasy and unfaithfulness, God has something truly incredible planned for them. He will punish them for their sins but there is also a day coming when he will restore them – all in keeping with His covenant promises.

“…all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” – Ezekiel 17:24 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.