Ezekiel 31 – Egypt Will Fall as Assyria Did Before
A. The glory of the mighty tree.
1. (1-2a) Introduction to the prophecy regarding Egypt.
Now it came to pass in the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, that the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude:
a. In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day: This fifth prophecy of Ezekiel against Egypt was also given on a specific date. As the prophecy starting in Ezekiel 30:20, this one came in the eleventh year, about two months after that one. This was only about one month before the final, catastrophic fall of Jerusalem.
i. “In just a matter of a few weeks, Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians. In the allegory of the tree, Ezekiel helps Judah to see its fate from a more universal perspective. Judah is not the only nation that stands under divine judgment. No king and no nation can escape that judgment—not even Egypt.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
b. Say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude: This word was given to Egypt, both her ruler and her people. As the prophecy develops, it will focus on Assyria, but as an example of, and warning to, Egypt.
2. (2b-6) The strength and the greatness of the tree of Assyria.
‘Whom are you like in your greatness?
Indeed Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
With fine branches that shaded the forest,
And of high stature;
And its top was among the thick boughs.
The waters made it grow;
Underground waters gave it height,
With their rivers running around the place where it was planted,
And sent out rivulets to all the trees of the field.
‘Therefore its height was exalted above all the trees of the field;
Its boughs were multiplied,
And its branches became long because of the abundance of water,
As it sent them out.
All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs;
Under its branches all the beasts of the field brought forth their young;
And in its shadow all great nations made their home.
a. Whom are you like in your greatness? The history and stature of Egypt gave clear evidence of their greatness. In Ezekiel’s day, Egypt had stood as a mighty kingdom for thousands of years. Yet God found an example to teach Egypt, described in the following lines.
b. Indeed Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon: Using the figure of a great tree (as also in Ezekiel 17), God here used the empire of Assyria to teach Egypt how He could establish a great power, and then bring it down in judgment. Assyria was, in the recent past, a great empire.
i. A few commentators (such as Poole, Trapp, Clarke, and Taylor) believe that Ezekiel actually had in mind Assyria of the distant past – in the days of Nimrod and the tower of Babel (Genesis 11). This is unlikely, yet the sins of that early kingdom were the same sins that God judged later Assyria for and would soon judge Egypt for.
ii. Some others (such as Morgan) believe that the word we translate Assyria in Ezekiel 31:3 is better translated as “a tree,” and the entire reference is to Egypt and the recently passed empire of Assyria is not in view at all. This is a remote possibility.
iii. Therefore it is best to regard this as a description of Assyria, which also spoke directly to Egypt. God spoke about Assyria and to Egypt, and did so in ideas that were true of them both. Egypt should learn from Assyria.
iv. “The context requires a symbol of imperial greatness with which Egypt could be compared. No standard would have been more suitable than Assyria, whose memory would surely still have been alive in the minds of Ezekiel and his hearers. After all, this great cedar had been felled within their lifetime.” (Block)
v. “The argument the prophet presented was simple. Egypt boasted in its greatness, yet Egypt wasn’t as great as Assyria, and Assyria was conquered by Babylon. Conclusion: if Babylon can conquer Assyria, Babylon can conquer Egypt.” (Wiersbe)
c. The waters made it grow: Ezekiel described a tree watered from many sources, so it never lacked for nourishment. Its branches became long because of the abundance of water. Assyria was watered by mighty rivers (such as the Tigris and Euphrates) and watered by many tributary nations. The description also fits Nile-sustained Egypt.
i. “The great cedar, Assyria (v.3), was well-watered, perhaps an indirect reference to her great water sources in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (v.4). Egypt, of course, equally prided herself in her unending supply of Nile water.” (Alexander)
d. In its shadow all great nations made their home: The greatness of Assyria made them a place of shelter for other nations; something true of Egypt also. Before the final fall of the city, many in Jerusalem hoped that they would find protection under Egypt’s power.
i. What Adam Clarke wrote of the Egyptians was also true of the Assyrians: “By means of the different nations under the Egyptians, that government became very opulent. These nations are represented as fowls and beasts, taking shelter under the protection of this great political Egyptian tree.”
3. (7-9) The incomparable greatness of the mighty tree of Assyria.
‘Thus it was beautiful in greatness and in the length of its branches,
Because its roots reached to abundant waters.
The cedars in the garden of God could not hide it;
The fir trees were not like its boughs,
And the chestnut trees were not like its branches;
No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty.
I made it beautiful with a multitude of branches,
So that all the trees of Eden envied it,
That were in the garden of God.’
a. Thus it was beautiful in greatness and in the length of its branches: Assyria was noted not only for its power but also for its beauty and the broad reach of its influence. What was true of the already fallen empire of Assyria was also true of the soon to be judged Egypt.
b. No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty: God represented the other nations of the world as other trees, such as cedars, or the fir, or the chestnut. None of them compared to Assyria in its day. Yet even this was the work of God; Yahweh said, “I made it beautiful.”
i. I made it beautiful: “Reminds the hearer that, like the trees in the garden, the great cedar’s glory is not of its own making; Yahweh has endowed it with the kind of superlative beauty that would evoke jealousy among all the other trees in the garden.” (Block)
B. The ruin of the mighty tree.
1. (10-12) Directed by God, foreigners cut down the mighty tree of Assyria.
“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because you have increased in height, and it set its top among the thick boughs, and its heart was lifted up in its height, therefore I will deliver it into the hand of the mighty one of the nations, and he shall surely deal with it; I have driven it out for its wickedness. And aliens, the most terrible of the nations, have cut it down and left it; its branches have fallen on the mountains and in all the valleys; its boughs lie broken by all the rivers of the land; and all the peoples of the earth have gone from under its shadow and left it.
a. Because you have increased in height….and its heart was lifted up in its height: The mighty “tree” of Assyria became proud and arrogant. God would judge and humble them through the hand of the mighty one of the nations (Nebuchadnezzar). God would use that same mighty one to bring judgment to Egypt.
i. “But in verse 10 we detect once more the Satanic impulse to pride (28.17), and so Egypt in her turn has to be brought low.” (Wright)
ii. “Now you shall hear the sin and the fall of this great kingdom of Assyria. His mind could not longer bear so great prosperity, he lifts up himself, and in his pride forgets God who lifted him up and will cast him down.” (Poole)
b. Aliens, the most terrible of the nations, have cut it down: God brought a foreign army as His lumberjack against Assyria and they cut down its greatness. He would do the same to Egypt. Each would no longer be a shadow of refuge for all the peoples of the earth.
i. “They are portrayed as rough lumberjacks, who chop the tree down and leave it lying on the mountains, its broken branches strewn up and down the mountains, valleys, and ravines of the land.” (Block)
ii. “It is worthy of notice, that Nebuchadnezzar, in the first year of his reign, rendered himself master of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire…. This happened about twenty years before Ezekiel delivered this prophecy; on this account.” (Clarke)
iii. The association of Egypt with Assyria can also be seen in light of the timing of this prophecy, just before the final fall of Jerusalem, when some in Jerusalem still looked to Egypt for help. Assyria was a great power, but an enemy to Judah and no friend. Egypt would also be of no help at all to Judah, especially in the last days before the Babylonian conquest.
2. (13-14) The ruin of the unmatched glory of the fallen tree.
‘On its ruin will remain all the birds of the heavens,
And all the beasts of the field will come to its branches—
‘So that no trees by the waters may ever again exalt themselves for their height, nor set their tops among the thick boughs, that no tree which drinks water may ever be high enough to reach up to them.
‘For they have all been delivered to death,
To the depths of the earth,
Among the children of men who go down to the Pit.’
a. On its ruin will remain all the birds of the heavens: Fallen Assyria was still noted for its glorious past, for its ruin. Many would still come to its branches, but not to find shelter there (as before).
i. “His dead body shall want decent burial, as afterward did great Alexander’s, great Pompey’s, our William the Conqueror’s, Richard III’s, &c.” (Trapp)
b. So that no trees by the waters may ever again exalt themselves: God would use His dealings with the Assyrians to be a lesson to all the nations of the world – if they would listen. They would see what happens to a great power when it becomes proud and arrogant.
i. “Let this ruin, fallen upon Egypt, teach all the nations that shall hear of it to be humble, because, however elevated, God can soon bring them down; and pride and arrogance, either in states or individuals, have the peculiar abhorrence of God. Pride does not suit the sons of men; it made devils of angels, and makes fiends of men.” (Clarke)
c. They have all been delivered to death: God would teach the nations that they were all under the power of death, that each of them was mortal and would have a day of reckoning before the God of all creation.
i. “Sennacherib had a statue set up in Egypt, saith Herodotus, with this inscription, Let him that looketh upon my misery learn to be modest and to fear God.” (Trapp)
ii. “God had an educative purpose in the fall of Assyria: to teach the nations the folly of striving for earthly might. The ultimate objective of the judgment was to deter others from the same disastrous course.” (Feinberg)
iii. Down to the pit: “That place is the great leveler. All are equal in Sheol. When it reaches the abode of the dead, Egypt must accept its solidarity with other, less important nations.” (Vawter and Hoppe)
iv. “Death is the great equalizer and the surest antidote to an excess of ambition.” (Taylor)
3. (15-17) Mourning and fear because of the fall of the mighty tree of Assyria.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘In the day when it went down to hell, I caused mourning. I covered the deep because of it. I restrained its rivers, and the great waters were held back. I caused Lebanon to mourn for it, and all the trees of the field wilted because of it. I made the nations shake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to hell together with those who descend into the Pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the depths of the earth. They also went down to hell with it, with those slain by the sword; and those who were its strong arm dwelt in its shadows among the nations.
a. In the day when it went down to hell, I caused mourning: When God brought judgment upon Assyria, the other nations noticed and mourned. They grieved because they knew that they also could and would be targets of God’s judgment.
i. “The proud king is seen passing to Sheol, the underworld of the dead, and commotion is caused there by his coming, and the other fallen ones find satisfaction in that he too is brought low.” (Morgan)
ii. “No matter how high and mighty a tree may have been during its earthly existence, in death all are equal. The glorious cedar may have evoked jealousy in its earthly life (v. 9), but in Sheol it has nothing to be envied; all are on the same level.” (Block)
b. I restrained its rivers: Using the symbol of the tree and the reason for its great size and strength, God cut off the supply of water to the tree.
i. In reference to Egypt, I restrained her rivers probably has reference to the many canals and waterworks the Egyptians made to feed from the Nile. When the Nile was low with water, not rising and flooding as normal, these canals were restrained, the great waters were held back, and agriculture greatly suffered in Egypt. This was a demonstration of God’s judgment on Egypt (as in Ezekiel 29:10 and 30:12).
c. I caused Lebanon to mourn: This follows the image of the mighty tree from Ezekiel 31:1-14. Since Lebanon was famous for its mighty cedar trees, it mourned over Assyria’s fall, even as all the trees of the field wilted because of it.
i. I caused Lebanon to mourn: “There is a subtle play on words in making Lebanon, which is literally the white mountain, to mourn or to be made black, for such is the meaning of the Hebrew original for the verb ‘mourn.’” (Feinberg)
4. (18) A curse against Pharaoh and the kingdom of Egypt.
‘To which of the trees in Eden will you then be likened in glory and greatness? Yet you shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the depths of the earth; you shall lie in the midst of the uncircumcised, with those slain by the sword. This is Pharaoh and all his multitude,’ says the Lord GOD.”
a. You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the depths of the earth: If mighty Assyria and Egypt were exalted as high as the trees of Eden, they still were not beyond God’s judgment. They could still be brought down.
i. “The mightiest, richest, and longest-lived kingdom I have represented, saith God, overthrown and destroyed; a kingdom thou canst not pretend to equal; and if not like this, what king or kingdom art thou like, that thou shouldst be invincible? Whoever thou art like in height and power, thou shalt be like them in thy fall and ruin.” (Poole)
b. You shall lie in the midst of the uncircumcised, with those slain by the sword: The main instrument of God’s judgment upon Egypt would be war (by the sword), and it would come through another people.
i. “Since the Egyptians practiced circumcision, to spend eternity with those who were uncircumcised would be the ultimate humiliation.” (Smith)
ii. “The reference to the uncircumcised is especially forceful because the Egyptians did practice circumcision and were amazingly meticulous, as the pyramids show, about proper burial, so this placing of them on the level of those mentioned was the deepest disgrace possible to them. To the Egyptians those in this condition were outside the range of the civilized world.” (Feinberg)
c. This is Pharaoh and all his multitude: The final verse of the prophecy again makes it clear that this is really a word against Egypt. In speaking of Assyria, God spoke to Egypt.
i. “If he perceives himself as the heir of the Assyrians’ imperial might, then let him also share in their fate and the fate of all other glorious trees, including those of Eden. As the Assyrians had experienced, so the netherworld will reduce him to the lowest common denominator.” (Block)