Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 17

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


8. The riddle and parable of the two eagles ch. 17

This message addressed another objection to the destruction of Jerusalem that the exiles entertained. The preceding parable placed much emphasis on Jerusalem’s long history of unfaithfulness to the Lord’s marriage covenant with her. Was the Lord fair in destroying Jerusalem now since former generations of Judahites had been unfaithful? The present fable clarified that Judah’s recent leaders were also unfaithful and worthy of divine judgment. See 2 Kings 24:6-20; 2 Chronicles 36:8-16; and Jeremiah 37 and Jeremiah 52:1-7 for the historical background of the events described in this riddle.

". . . what Ezekiel’s pantomime [the sign of the departing deportee, Ezekiel 12:1-16] was to drama, this figure is to rhetoric. Both involve caricature-the first in the form of a dramatic presentation, the second as a literary cartoon-and both require interpretation." [Note: Block, The Book . . ., p. 523.]

"There is obvious logic in the movement of the theme through four distinct stages, each involving a new plane of action: (1) an imaginative fabulous image [Ezekiel 17:1-10]; (2) a historical interpretation of the fable (Ezekiel 17:11-18); (3) a theological interpretation of the historical events (Ezekiel 17:19-21); (4) a theological portrayal of the future (Ezekiel 17:22-24)." [Note: Ibid., p. 526.]

Verses 1-2

The Lord directed Ezekiel to present a riddle (Heb. hidah, allegory, enigmatic saying) and a parable (Heb. mashal, proverb, comparison) to his audience of Jewish exiles. This is the longest mashal in the Old Testament and quite a detailed one.

"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." [Note: Feinberg, p. 94.]

"Riddles excite the curiosity and leave the baffled listeners keen for an answer. What follows is not a true riddle but a fable or theological cartoon that is equally intended to whet the hearers’ appetites for the plain oracle that follows." [Note: Allen, p. 256.]

"A ’riddle’ . . . was commonly used in international politics between kings . . . If one failed to answer the riddle of the other, he might be called on to submit to him as a vassal. In some cases he might even be put to death." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 820. See Harry Torczyner, "The Riddle in the Bible," Hebrew Union College Annual 1 (1924):125-49.]

The purpose for using riddles was apparently to test the intelligence or cleverness of the hearer (cf. Judges 14:12-19; 1 Kings 10:1; 2 Chronicles 9:1; Matthew 13). [Note: See C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, p. 22; and T. Polk, "Paradigms, Parables, and Meshalim: On Reading the Mashal in Scripture," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983):578.]

"This allegory differs from others Ezekiel was commanded to tell his audience because of its opaqueness, so he was to tell it as a riddle (Ezekiel 17:2)." [Note: Stuart, p. 148.]

Verses 1-10

The riddle 17:1-10

Verses 3-6

In this riddle, a powerful and impressive eagle came to Lebanon, cropped off the top of one of its famous cedar trees, and carried these twigs to a land of merchants and a city of traders. This eagle also took some of the seed from Lebanon and planted it in fertile soil near a body of water so it would flourish, like a willow tree (cf. Isaiah 44:4). This seed sprouted and became a low, spreading vine (cf. Ezekiel 15:1-8) that sent out branches upward toward the eagle and roots downward.

Lebanon was an alternative name for the land of Canaan that emphasized its great beauty and fruitfulness (cf. Joshua 1:4; 2 Kings 14:9). The Lord evidently used it here because He wanted to develop the idea of a bird plucking the top off a tree, and this was more typical in Lebanon than in Israel because of Lebanon’s many cedar trees.

Verses 7-8

Another large eagle, not quite as glorious as the first, came along. The vine reached out with its branches and roots toward it so this eagle might water it. The vine did this even though it was growing in good soil with abundant water nearby, enough to make it a luxuriant and fruitful plant.

Verses 9-10

The Lord rhetorically asked if the owner of such a vine would not pull it out of its soil and cause it to wither and become unfruitful. Nothing that anyone could do could cause such a vine to recover its original health and fruitfulness after such treatment (cf. Ezekiel 17:22-24). Even though its roots were still in the ground it would not thrive. The hot east wind would easily wither it where it grew (cf. Ezekiel 19:12; Job 27:21; Isaiah 27:8; Hosea 13:15).

Verses 11-12

Ezekiel was now to tell his rebellious hearers what this story represented. This interpretation is a typical example of a prophetic judgment speech to an individual, many of which appear in the prophetical books of the Old Testament. It contains a summons to listen (Ezekiel 17:11-12 a), charges (Ezekiel 17:12-18), and assurance of judgment (Ezekiel 17:19-21). [Note: See Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, pp. 169-94.]

The first eagle stood for the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Jeremiah 48:40; Jeremiah 49:22; Daniel 7:4). His invasion of Jerusalem (the specific identity of the Lebanon in the riddle, Ezekiel 17:3) devastated the land like a hot east wind (Ezekiel 17:10).

In Scripture the eagle is often a figure used to describe God as a powerful being that comes swiftly to judge, as an eagle swoops down quickly to snatch in flight an unsuspecting mouse or fish (cf. Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 46:11; Jeremiah 48:40; Jeremiah 49:22). In this case the eagle represented God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar, who had invaded Jerusalem, cropped off the Judean king, Jehoiachin (the top of the cedar tree, Ezekiel 17:3), and his advisers (the topmost of its young twigs, Ezekiel 17:4) and carried them off to Babylon in 597 B.C. (cf. Daniel 7:4). Babylon was a city of traders in a land of merchants (Ezekiel 17:4; cf. Ezekiel 16:29; 1 Kings 10:27; 2 Kings 24:10-12; Jeremiah 22:15; Jeremiah 22:23). Elsewhere in Scripture the cedar tree (Ezekiel 17:3) is a figure used to describe the Davidic line of kings culminating in Messiah (Isaiah 10:33 to Isaiah 11:1). Cedar trees were beautiful and very hardy, an appropriate figure of the Davidic dynasty.

Verses 11-18

The historical interpretation of the riddle 17:11-18

Verses 11-21

The explanation of the riddle 17:11-21

Ezekiel first interpreted his fable historically, and then he interpreted the historical events theologically for his audience.

Verses 13-14

Nebuchadnezzar set up another king as his vassal, Zedekiah, one of the royal seed whom he planted in the fertile soil of Canaan (cf. Ezekiel 17:5). He deported the leaders of Judah to Babylon so Judah would be a docile servant and continue to exist with a measure of independence under his control (cf. 2 Kings 24:17; Jeremiah 37:1). Nebuchadnezzar made a binding covenant with Zedekiah obligating him to serve Babylon, and Zedekiah flourished for a time. The vine’s roots remained under it, but it grew low and spreading rather than upward and fruitful, and it extended its branches toward the eagle, Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Ezekiel 17:6).

Verses 15-16

However, the vine rebelled against the eagle. Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and sent to Egypt for arms and troops to resist the Babylonians. Pharaoh Hophra (Gr. Apries, 589-570 B.C.) is the second strong eagle in the riddle to which the vine sent out its roots and branches for sustenance, probably in 588 B.C. (Ezekiel 17:7). If this prophecy is in chronological order, as seems likely, Ezekiel gave it between 592 (Ezekiel 8:1) and 591 B.C. (Ezekiel 20:1). This means that he predicted Zedekiah’s revolt about three years before it happened. For years the pro-Egyptian faction in Jerusalem had advocated seeking help from that direction. Obviously Zedekiah could not escape Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath since he had broken the covenant under which he served him, a covenant that he had sworn in God’s name (cf. Ezekiel 5:7; 2 Chronicles 36:13).

"When Zedekiah made his oath of allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord’s name was invoked as a guarantor of the treaty (see 2 Chronicles 36:13). Consequently when Zedekiah broke his oath to Nebuchadnezzar, he in effect broke a treaty with God." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 253.]

An oath was a sacred thing in the ancient Near East, and even oaths made by fraud were normally honored (cf. Joshua 9; 2 Samuel 21:1-2). The Lord swore that Zedekiah would die in Babylon for breaking his covenant with Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Ezekiel 17:19).

"After judgment became inevitable, God’s will for Judah was submission to their foreign conquerors as a sign of their submission to him (Jeremiah 38:17-23)." [Note: Cooper, p. 182.]

Verses 17-18

Pharaoh would not come to Zedekiah’s aid when Nebuchadnezzar invaded and besieged Jerusalem and slew many of the people. There was no way that Zedekiah could escape Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath since he had broken the covenant in which he had pledged his allegiance to the Babylonian king.

Verses 19-21

The Lord also promised that because Zedekiah had broken Israel’s covenant with Yahweh he would pay the penalty. The Lord would capture him like an animal in a net, bring him to Babylon, and judge him there for his covenant unfaithfulness to Yahweh. His best soldiers would die, and the survivors of the siege would scatter. When this happened everyone would know that Yahweh had ordained Jerusalem’s destruction.

Verses 22-23

The Lord Himself would also snip a tender twig from the top of the tall cedar tree that represented the Davidic line of kings. (The eagle is no longer Nebuchadnezzar but Yahweh in this parable.) Yahweh would plant this twig on a high mountain in Israel so that it would grow there, produce sheltering boughs, and bear fruit. Birds of every kind would come and take refuge in its shady branches. People would dwell securely under the protection of this great kingdom (cf. Hosea 14:5-7; Daniel 4:12; Daniel 4:21; Matthew 13:32; Mark 4:32). [Note: For discussion of the ancient mythological "cosmic tree," of which Ezekiel’s tree is a variation, see Block, The Book . . ., p. 551.]

"Israel will protect surrounding nations rather than being their pawn. . . .

"Ezekiel compared God’s future actions to those of the two eagles (Babylon and Egypt) already mentioned. Neither of those eagles had been able to provide the security and prosperity Israel desperately longed for, but God would succeed where they had failed." [Note: Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1259.]

The tender twig seems clearly to be a messianic reference (cf. Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Jeremiah 33:14-16; Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12-13). The high mountain is probably Mount Zion, the place where Messiah will set up His throne in the Millennium (cf. Psalms 2:6). Then the cedar tree (messianic kingdom) will be very stately and fruitful.

Verses 22-24

The theological epilogue to the riddle 17:22-24

Like the preceding parable, this one also ends with a promise of hope (cf. Ezekiel 16:60-63).

Verse 24

At that time the other nations (trees) would know that the one who had done this was Israel’s God. He would cut down the high tree (Babylon?) and exalt the low tree (Israel). He would dry up the presently green tree (Egypt?) and make the presently dry tree (Israel) flourish. The one who promised this was Yahweh, and He would also perform it.

"Although some have understood it to have been fulfilled in the restoration of Judah under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the language goes beyond such limited scope (cf. Ezra 9:8-9) to a time yet future when Israel will have its perfect King, the Messiah, reigning on the earth in righteousness." [Note: Cooper, p. 184. See also Merrill, p. 381.]

"These concluding verses without question introduce a Messianic prophecy (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-4)." [Note: Feinberg, p. 97.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezekiel 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.