11 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon. 13 And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath (the chief men of the land he had taken away), 14 that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand. 15 But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army. Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape?
16 “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant with him he broke, in Babylon he shall die. 17 Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, when mounds are cast up and siege walls built to cut off many lives. 18 He despised the oath in breaking the covenant, and behold, he gave his hand and did all these things; he shall not escape. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head. 20 I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there for the treachery he has committed against me. 21 And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken.”
22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And 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 17:11-24 ESV
I’m not particularly fond of riddles. I don’t like puzzles either, and guessing games drive me crazy. I prefer answers over questions and clarity over confusion. So, when God speaks in riddles and parables, I find myself getting a bit uncomfortable and, when this chapter started off with a riddle, I was less than excited. But fortunately, this is one of those cases where God doesn’t leave us guessing as to the meaning. He graciously provides an explanation so there’s absolutely no confusion as to what He is trying to say.
Yet God insinuates that the people of Judah should have been able to pick up on the meaning of the riddle. Why? Because they were living it out in real-time. As they listened to the words of the prophet, they were standing somewhere along the banks of the Kebar River deep in the heart of Babylon. They had actually experienced something very similar to what the prophet was describing.
In the first part of his message, God describes a giant eagle swooping down and plucking off the top of a cedar tree, which he carries to a distant city. The eagle also took a seedling and planted it by a river where it grew into a vine with deep roots and strong branches. Then this healthy, growing vine, turned its attention to another eagle. Despite its prosperous and fruitful condition, it looked to the second eagle as a source of sustenance. It had plenty of good soil and water right where it was, but was dissatisfied. So, God indicated this vine would be uprooted, its fruit cut off, and left it to wither and die in the very soil where it had experienced fruitfulness.
But Ezekiel’s audience must have missed the message. They were struggling with the meaning behind this bizarre-sounding story of the eagle and the vine. So, God carefully explains the point He is trying to make.
“The king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, took away her king and princes, and brought them to Babylon.” – Ezekiel 17:11 NLT
At this point, the light should have gone on. They would have immediately made the connection that their very presence in Babylon was the immediate result of that fateful historical event. They could recall the moment when the Babylonian forces invaded the city of Jerusalem and took their king captive.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and captured it, and he bound Jehoiakim in bronze chains and led him away to Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:6 NLT
The memory of the temple being ransacked by foreign soldiers was still fresh in their minds.
Nebuchadnezzar also took some of the treasures from the Temple of the Lord, and he placed them in his palace in Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:7 NLT
The Babylonians had allowed the people of Judah to keep their monarchy in place, but the kings served as pawns of King Nebuchadnezzar, paying him large annual fees as a form of tribute and a sign of Judah’s subservience to Babylon. Eventually, Jehoiakim was replaced by his son, Jehoiachin, but his reign lasted only three months before he too was deported to Babylon.
Many treasures from the Temple of the Lord were also taken to Babylon at that time. And Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as the next king in Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 36:10 NLT
The first eagle represents Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He “swooped” down with his troops, invaded Jerusalem, and took Jehoiachin, king of Judah as his prisoner back to Babylon. He then set up another puppet king named Zedekiah (the seedling) on the throne of Jerusalem.
This is where the story begins to take on a whole different meaning. Zedekiah was still on the throne when God delivered this riddle to the people of Judah living in Babylon. From their perspective, Zedekiah was firmly entrenched as the sovereign king over their homeland. He had actually made a covenant agreement with Nebuchadnezzar – an oath of loyalty. As long as he kept that oath, the nation prospered. But what the people didn’t know was that their king was wicked and rebellious. He never intended to keep his agreement with Nebuchadnezzar.
But 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. – 2 Chronicles 36:12-13 NLT
God was revealing the next phase of His judgment upon His unfaithful people. The day was fast approaching when Zedekiah would decide to rebel against the Babylonians by turning to Egypt for assistance.
What is interesting to note is that the prophet, Jeremiah, who was ministering to the people still living in Jerusalem, had been led by God to send a letter to the exiles living in Babylon. In it, he provided them with a word of encouragement regarding their less-than-appealing conditions.
“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7 NLT
And Jeremiah had also provided Zedekiah and the people living in Judah with a word of warning concerning their response to the Babylonian occupation of their land.
“So you must submit to Babylon’s king and serve him; put your neck under Babylon’s yoke! I will punish any nation that refuses to be his slave, says the Lord. I will send war, famine, and disease upon that nation until Babylon has conquered it. Do not listen to your false prophets, fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, mediums, and sorcerers who say, ‘The king of Babylon will not conquer you.’ They are all liars, and their lies will lead to your being driven out of your land. I will drive you out and send you far away to die. But the people of any nation that submits to the king of Babylon will be allowed to stay in their own country to farm the land as usual. I, the Lord, have spoken!’”– Jeremiah 27:8-11 NLT
But Zedekiah would end up violating his contract with Nebuchadnezzar. As a result, Jerusalem would be invaded again, the city would be leveled, and the temple destroyed. Zedekiah would be forced to witness the execution of all his sons, then have his eyes gouged out and be taken captive to Babylon. God made it painfully clear that “the king of Israel disregarded his treaty and broke it after swearing to obey; therefore, he will not escape” (Ezekiel 17:18 NLT). The entire Babylonian occupation had been God’s will and He expected His people to submit to it. They would not escape His divine judgment.
But God was not finished with His explanation. At the very end, He provides a glimmer of hope in the midst of all the gloom and doom. He reveals yet another “eagle” that will take another branch from the top of the cedar tree and plant it on Israel’s highest mountain.
“It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches.” – Ezekiel 17:33 NLT
God is predicting the future renewal and restoration of His chosen people. But the branch to which He refers is not just another human king who will help to reestablish the fortunes of Israel. This branch will be someone of great importance and renown. He will be a king like no other.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” – Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV
This branch is Jesus, the Messiah. God is predicting the day when He will send His Son back to earth to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will reign for 1,000 years. Israel will be restored to greatness. The throne of David, long-vacant because of the nation’s rebellion, will once again be occupied by a descendant of the great king. And God assures that all the other nations of the earth will recognize the greatness and glory of God when this happens.
“And all the trees will know that it is I, the Lord, who cuts the tall tree down and makes the short tree grow tall. It is I who makes the green tree wither and gives the dead tree new life. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I said!” – Ezekiel 17:24 NLT
Babylon, Egypt, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and all the other nations of the earth are no match for the plan of God. Babylon was a tool in the hands of God to accomplish His divine will, and He had a greater plan in place. He was out to accomplish His will in His way and according to His divine timetable. When God completes His plan all people will know that He has been in control all along, cutting down the tall trees and making the short tree grow, withering the green tree, and giving new life to the dead one.
God is sovereign and in complete control. In fact, that point is how He began the chapter.
“Son of man, give this riddle, and tell this story to the people of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord.“ – Ezekiel 17:2 NLT
He knows what He is doing and there is a method to His seeming madness. We may understand or even like His ways, but we can rest assured that He always does what is just and right. His plan is perfect and His timing is impeccable.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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