Ezekiel 17 – The Parable of the Two Eagles and the Vine
“From the beauty of its images, the elegance of its composition, the perspicuity of its language, the rich variety of its matter, and the easy transition from one part of the subject to another, this chapter forms one of the most beautiful and perfect pieces of its kind that can possibly be conceived in so small a compass.” (Adam Clarke)
A. The parable of the two eagles and the vine.
1. (1-2) A riddle and a parable.
And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, pose a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel,
a. Son of man, pose a riddle, and speak a parable: Ezekiel the prophet was told to speak a saying that would be something of a riddle and something of a parable. It was a riddle in that the meaning was a bit of a puzzle to understanding; it was a parable in that it told a story illustrating spiritual and material truth.
i. “It is a riddle in that its meaning needs to be explained; there is a deeper meaning which underlies the figurative form, for something in its presentation is obscure. It is a parable in that it is an allegory.” (Feinberg)
ii. “Riddles exercise the wit, and parables help the memory, and excite both attention and affection.” (Trapp)
iii. “The manner in which plants and animals relate in the story, carrying on as if they were humans, would have amused any audience, and undoubtedly contributed to the prophet’s reputation as a ‘spinner of riddles’ (Ezekiel 20:49).” (Block)
b. To the house of Israel: Once again God referred to what was primarily the kingdom and tribe of Judah as the house of Israel as a whole. The parable describes the events between the time of King Jehoiachin’s exile (597 BC, when also Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah) and the year Zedekiah revolted against Babylon because he trusted in the promise of Egypt’s help (588 BC).
i. “In the allegory of a foundling in the previous chapter Ezekiel was dealing with the spiritual and moral malady of Israel. In this message he was concerned with her political folly and wickedness.” (Morgan)
2. (3-6) The first eagle of the parable.
And say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD:
“A great eagle with large wings and long pinions,
Full of feathers of various colors,
Came to Lebanon
And took from the cedar the highest branch.
He cropped off its topmost young twig
And carried it to a land of trade;
He set it in a city of merchants.
Then he took some of the seed of the land
And planted it in a fertile field;
He placed it by abundant waters
And set it like a willow tree.
And it grew and became a spreading vine of low stature;
Its branches turned toward him,
But its roots were under it.
So it became a vine,
Brought forth branches,
And put forth shoots.
a. A great eagle: The parable concerns a large and majestic eagle that came to Lebanon and took the highest branch from a cedar tree. The eagle then carried it to a land of trade.
i. “It is interesting to note that often the eagle was used symbolically in the OT to represent God’s punitive power (Deuteronomy 28:49) and the speed with which a conqueror advanced (Isaiah 46:11; Jeremiah 48:40; 49:22).” (Alexander)
b. He took some of the seed of the land: Then the eagle used some of the seed from the land of the cedar tree, and he planted it in a fertile field, where it became a spreading vine, spreading forth branches.
3. (7-8) The second eagle of the parable.
“But there was another great eagle with large wings and many feathers;
And behold, this vine bent its roots toward him,
And stretched its branches toward him,
From the garden terrace where it had been planted,
That he might water it.
It was planted in good soil by many waters,
To bring forth branches, bear fruit,
And become a majestic vine.”’
a. There was another great eagle: The second eagle appears suddenly, and the vine previously mentioned bent its roots and stretched its branches toward the second eagle.
i. “What strikes the listener/reader is this bird’s passivity. In contrast to the first eagle, this bird takes no actions; he is simply there.” (Block)
b. That he might water it: The vine did this in the hope that the second eagle would care for the vine, protect it, and give it the right conditions for growth and prosperity – which it already had under the first eagle. The hoped-for result was that it would become a majestic vine.
i. “In the absence of any explanation for the vine’s action, the audience is left to reflect on the vine’s ingratitude and stupidity.” (Block)
4. (9-10) God’s observations upon this vine.
“Say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD:
“Will it thrive?
Will he not pull up its roots,
Cut off its fruit,
And leave it to wither?
All of its spring leaves will wither,
And no great power or many people
Will be needed to pluck it up by its roots.
Behold, it is planted,
Will it thrive?
Will it not utterly wither when the east wind touches it?
It will wither in the garden terrace where it grew.”’”
a. Will it thrive? God asked the question, revealing the fate of the vine. The rhetorical questions show that it would not thrive; that the first eagle would pull up its roots, cut off its fruit, and leave it to wither.
i. “The critical issue is, Will the vine survive after it has turned away from the first eagle and oriented itself toward the second?” (Block)
b. Will it not utterly wither when the east wind touches it? Though the vine stretched out roots and branches to the second eagle, the second eagle would not be able to shelter it against the coming storm. The vine would perish.
i. “The redirection of the vine’s branches toward the second eagle (instead of having them spread out low on the ground) and its roots upward (instead of going deeper into the fertile and well-watered soil) had rendered the plant extremely vulnerable to the wind’s withering force.” (Block)
ii. “The vine was still Jehovah’s, and the eagles were also within His power…. Therefore the transplanting of the vine was of no avail.” (Morgan)
B. The meaning and application of the parable.
1. (11-15) The meaning of the parable of the two eagles.
Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Say now to the rebellious house: ‘Do you not know what these things mean?’ Tell them, ‘Indeed the king of Babylon went to Jerusalem and took its king and princes, and led them with him to Babylon. And he took the king’s offspring, made a covenant with him, and put him under oath. He also took away the mighty of the land, that the kingdom might be brought low and not lift itself up, but that by keeping his covenant it might stand. But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and many people. Will he prosper? Will he who does such things escape? Can he break a covenant and still be delivered?
a. Do you not know what these things mean? Ezekiel explained the meaning of his riddle/parable, so his listeners could not claim the excuse that they did not understand.
· The first, great eagle represented the king of Babylon.
· Lebanon represented Jerusalem.
· The highest branch of the cedar represented Judah’s king (Jehoiachin) and princes.
· The seeds and the vine represented the king’s offspring (Zedekiah).
· The first eagle made a covenant with Zedekiah and put him under oath.
· The first eagle took away the mighty of the land, not only King Jehoiachin, but also other notable men such as Daniel and his companions. He did this to keep Zedekiah low, and so that Zedekiah would keep his covenant.
· The king of Babylon took them with him to Babylon, which was called the city of merchants.
· Just as the vine stretched out its roots and branches toward the second eagle, so Zedekiah rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, which represented the second eagle. Zedekiah hoped for horses and many people from Egypt.
i. Do you not know: “Are ye so blockish that you do not know what is meant? or are you so secure that you will not consider it, but run on your own ruin?” (Poole)
ii. The Bible uses an eagle as a symbol of Babylon in some other places (Jeremiah 48:40, 49:22, and Daniel 7:4).
iii. Adam Clarke on the use of a city of merchants in Ezekiel 17:4: “Babylon; for which this city was the most celebrated of all the cities of the east. Its situation procured it innumerable advantages; its two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Persian Gulf, gave it communication with the richest and the most distant nations.”
iv. Regarding the second eagle of Ezekiel 17:7: “This was Egypt, specifically Pharaoh Hophra who came to the throne of Egypt in 588 B.C. To him Zedekiah foolishly looked for help to throw off the Babylonian yoke after he had been befriended by Nebuchadnezzar.” (Feinberg)
b. Will he prosper? Will he who does such things escape? When the vine in the parable turned to the second eagle, it had great hope of life and vitality (Ezekiel 17:8). These rhetorical questions reminded everyone that the vine would find no help from the second eagle, and Zedekiah would find no help from Egypt.
c. Can he break a covenant and still be delivered? Fundamentally, Zedekiah was a covenant breaker, who ignored the promises of loyalty and submission he made to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:20). God expected Zedekiah to be loyal to the covenant he made to Nebuchadnezzar and would punish him for breaking the covenant.
i. “Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel accused him of disloyalty, and urged submission to Babylon again (Jeremiah 37:6-10; 38:17-23).” (Wright)
ii. “Zedekiah was surrounded by favorable conditions for his reign, represented in the parable by the fruitful soil, the many waters and the planting as a willow tree (Isaiah 44:4). The benevolent attitude of Nebuchadnezzar helped Zedekiah to prosper in his rule. If he had remained faithful to his oath of fealty to Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of Judah could have continued to prosper as a tributary kingdom.” (Feinberg)
2. (16-18) God’s estimation of Zedekiah.
‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke—with him in the midst of Babylon he shall die. Nor will Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company do anything in the war, when they heap up a siege mound and build a wall to cut off many persons. Since he despised the oath by breaking the covenant, and in fact gave his hand and still did all these things, he shall not escape.’”
a. In the midst of Babylon he shall die: Zedekiah did indeed die in Babylon, and in the most terrible of circumstances. 2 Kings 25:7 describes the terrible judgment on Zedekiah: they killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon. Jeremiah 52:11 says that Zedekiah remained in Babylon until his death.
b. Nor will Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company do anything in the war: Despite whatever promises or assurances Pharaoh gave to Zedekiah, he and the Egyptians were of no help at all against the Babylonians. It was a foolish alliance.
c. Since he despised the oath by breaking the covenant: God promised severe judgment on Zedekiah because he did not keep his word and honor the covenant he made with Nebuchadnezzar. His fate was sealed; he shall not escape.
i. Since he despised the oath: “This God particularly resents. He had bound himself by oath, in the presence of Jehovah, to be faithful to the covenant that he made with Nebuchadnezzar, and he took the first opportunity to break it; therefore he shall not escape.” (Clarke)
ii. “The sanctity of an oath was ingrained in Israel. Even an oath made by fraud was to be honored; for example, that with the Gibeonites (cf. Joshua 9 with II Samuel 21:1-2). Jeremiah had warned Zedekiah against treachery and duplicity.” (Feinberg)
iii. “Violation of a sacred oath was an offense against Yahweh. God would bring down on Zedekiah’s head all the stipulations of self-malediction which he pronounced upon himself in his oath to Nebuchadnezzar.” (Alexander)
3. (19-21) God’s promise to capture Zedekiah.
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: “As I live, surely My oath which he despised, and My covenant which he broke, I will recompense on his own head. I will spread My net over him, and he shall be taken in My snare. I will bring him to Babylon and try him there for the treason which he committed against Me. All his fugitives with all his troops shall fall by the sword, and those who remain shall be scattered to every wind; and you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken.”
a. I will spread My net over him: Jeremiah 52:6-9 tells the story of how Zedekiah and some other high-ranking men of the government tried to escape when the Babylonians came against Jerusalem. They did not succeed, because God had spread His net over him.
b. I will bring him to Babylon and try him there for the treason which he committed against Me: When Zedekiah broke his covenant with the king of Babylon, he also committed treason against Yahweh Himself. As Jeremiah repeatedly counseled, Zedekiah and the other Judeans should have surrendered themselves to the Babylonians and the judgment God ordained to bring through them.
i. God prophetically said of Zedekiah, My oath which he despised. God regarded it not only as an oath to Nebuchadnezzar, but to Him also. “The implications of this attitude are far-reaching. It indicates that agreements entered into and obligations incurred by worshippers of God are as binding as if they had been made with God in person.” (Taylor)
ii. “Why were they being judged for all the past sins of their nation? It was not fair! Ezekiel would respond, declaring that they would be judged for the contemporary lack of trust in the Lord, which they had shown by their tendency to rely on Egypt for security and by the corruption of their regent, Zedekiah.” (Alexander)
c. All his troops shall fall by the sword, and those who remain shall be scattered: There would be no recovery from the fall of Zedekiah’s reign. Judea would be conquered completely.
i. “As plainly as he could declare it, Ezekiel showed that Judah’s political disaster was traceable to moral weakness and deceit. When once the hand was given in token of agreement, that word should have been all the bond needed.” (Feinberg)
4. (22-24) The hope and promise of restoration.
Thus says the Lord GOD: “I will take also one of the highest branches of the high cedar and set it out. I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and will plant it on a high and prominent mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell. And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it.”
a. I will also take one of the highest branches of the high cedar and set it out: Returning to the images of the parable, God promised that He was not finished with Israel and her kings. He would take the highest of the branches, would crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and replant it on a high and prominent mountain.
i. A tender one: “The ‘tender one’ is the Messiah, the Son of David (see Isaiah 11:1; 53:2; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15; Zechariah 6:12; Revelation 22:16).” (Feinberg)
ii. “The word ‘sprig’ links on to the Messianic title of ‘branch’ in Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12. Three Hebrew words are used. Ezekiel’s word is the feathery top of a tree; the other words describe the shoot coming from the stump of the line of David.” (Wright)
iii. “I will raise up another monarchy, which shall come in the line of David, namely, the Messiah; who shall appear as a tender plant, as to his incarnation; but he shall be high and eminent; his Church, the royal city, the highest and purest ever seen on the face of the earth.” (Clarke)
iv. “Ezekiel believed—but only in his fashion—in a restoration of the Davidic dynasty. The prophet hoped that the dynasty would rule over a new and renewed Israel in the times to come.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
v. “The ‘high mountain’ Ezekiel wrote about is probably Mount Zion, where Messiah will reign over His people.” (Wiersbe)
b. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar: This is Ezekiel’s version of the great prophecy of Isaiah 11:1: There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. Out of what was thought to be dead, God promised to bring wonderful and productive growth.
i. I will plant it: “After the failure of the two great eagles to make a success of establishing the state of Israel under their extensive and powerful patronage, God says, I myself (emphatic) will plant it upon a high mountain where it will grow and be conspicuous and attract the birds of the air to shelter under its protection.” (Taylor)
ii. Under it will dwell birds of every sort: “All nations, the Gentiles as well as the Jews, shall build, breed, and multiply under the kingdom of Christ; it shall be no more confined to the Jews, but extend to the Gentiles also. There they shall find peace and safety; and this repeated confirms the certainty of the promise.” (Poole)
c. All the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree: Through God’s dealing with kings such as Zedekiah, and His future work through the Messiah, God would exalt Himself among all the nations.
i. “God is governing, and there is no escape from Him. Eagles, and vines, are under His control. Happy are they who frame their policies by consulting Him, and order their ways in fear.” (Morgan)
ii. Brought the high tree down: “Look over history, and you will see that everything gigantic in stature and colossal in dimensions, whatsoever has been great to human apprehension, grasping at earthly fame, has become an object for God’s penetrating arrows, and a subject for his withering blight.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Exalted the low tree: “You remember Joseph in the dungeon, Israel in Egypt, Hannah in the family of Elkanah, David when Samuel would have passed him by, Hezekiah when Sennacherib rebuked him. Are not all these instances of God exalting the low tree?” (Spurgeon)
iv. “Yahweh remains sovereign over history. When his people experience calamity, his hand is in it. When foreign nations sweep down on them, they come as his agents. No nation has ever become so powerful that he cannot bring it down in a moment; and no people is so low that he cannot exalt it.” (Block)
v. “The chapter began with judgment and punishment; it ends with mercy and grace. The dethroned and blind Zedekiah is overshadowed by God’s King who is full of power and glory. Kingdoms are but the lengthened shadows of kings.” (Feinberg)