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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Ezekiel 31

Chapters 29-32

The prophecies against Egypt now follow, in which the prophet turns from the members of the coalition to its head.

Of the prophecies against Egypt there are in all six, each with a date,—properly only five, as the second (ch. Ezekiel 29:17 to Ezekiel 30:19) proves itself to be an appendix to the first by this, that it departs from the otherwise so strictly observed chronological order: it does not lie, as most of the other prophecies against foreign nations, between the date given in ch. Ezekiel 24:1 and that in ch. Ezekiel 33:21; it departs from the chronological order even within the collection of prophecies against Egypt. Its object is to point out that the fulfilment of the first prophecy is fast approaching, to which it is in part verbally attached, to show most emphatically that it has no independent import, but is merely a supplement. Thus there remain only the prophecies, ch. Ezekiel 29:1-16, Ezekiel 30:20-26, Ezekiel 31, Ezekiel 32:1-16, and Ezekiel 32:17-32. The number seven can only be carried through by forcibly separating what is united. There is in the whole collection of Ezekiel no single independent discourse which is not dated.

Verses 1-10

Ezekiel 31. This prophecy belongs to the time shortly before the taking of Jerusalem, which was in the fourth month of the same year on the ninth day, and so about a month and eight days later. The practical point of view is the same as in the foregoing prophecies. That the hope in Egypt still continued even at this last moment, we see from this, that they still held out. With the full extinction of the hope in Egypt, the resolution to surrender must have gone hand in hand. The peculiarity here is, that the already accomplished fall of Assyria is held before the eyes of the king of Egypt as a mirror of his future, precisely as the prophet in ch. Ezekiel 19 had employed the history of Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin as a prophecy of the fate of the then reigning king Zedekiah. A future in a historical dress—this is the pervading character of the chapter. The imposing grandeur that still remained to Egypt exercised on the minds that sought a support on earth, a safe embankment against the overflow of the Asiatic empire, a magic influence.

This influence vanished when Egypt was chained to the already overwhelmed Assyria. The prophecy falls into three sections. First, Ezekiel 30:1-9. And it came to pass in the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first of the month, the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 2. Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and his tumult. Whom resemblest thou [197] in thy greatness? 3. Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon, fair in leaves, and shading the wood, and tall in growth; and its top was among the clouds. 4. The waters made him great, the flood raised him up, with its streams going round his plant-ground, and it sent its channels to all the trees of the field. 5. Therefore his growth was high above all the trees of the field, and his branches were great, and his boughs were long, from the many waters, when he shot forth. 6. In his branches all the fowls of heaven nested, and under his boughs all the beasts of the field brought forth, and in his shadow all the many nations. 7. And he was fair in his greatness, in the length of his shoots: for his root was by great waters. 8. The cedars in the garden of God darkened him not: cypresses resembled not his branches, and the plane-trees were not like his boughs; all the trees in the garden of God resembled him not in his beauty. [198] 9. I had made him fair in the multitude of his shoots; and all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him.

[197] Luther, “Whom thinkest thou, then, that thou art like?” But the question is not about an opinion, but about an actual likeness.

[198] Luther, “Yea, he was as fair as a tree in the garden of God.” He understood by the garden of God, Paradise, in the usual sense, and consequently changed the subordination into a mere comparison.

“Whom resemblest thou in thy greatness?” ( Ezekiel 31:2),—as much as to say, Shall I tell thee whom thou art like in thy greatness? Thou art like Assyria. The greatness of Egypt: this was the point by which the urgent warnings of the prophet against relying on it, the announcements of its downfall, were rebutted. The prophet shows, from the example of Assyria, that greatness does not secure from a fall—that no greatness on earth can withstand the strokes of God. The words, “Behold Assyria,” etc., in Ezekiel 31:3, are the answer to the question. Whom art thou like? that is, Thou art like Assyria, who was a cedar in Lebanon. This, the queen of trees, is a figurative designation of that which was prominent above all others in the human world. The flood in Ezekiel 31:4 denotes the subterranean waters coming up in springs ( Genesis 49:25; Deuteronomy 8:7). In reality, water and flood denote that which the world calls good fortune,—the divine blessing that accompanied the undertakings of Assyria, the flow of favour which gave it prosperity. [199] “Round his plant-ground:” it is properly her plant-ground, the feminine referring to Assyria as a tree. The trees of the field, to which the flood nourishing Assyria sends its channels, denote his subjects in contrast with the king of Assyria, the cedar on Lebanon. The limitation to the territory of Assyria is given by the foregoing. To name it expressly was not suitable, as Assyria is to be represented as the world-power. “From the many waters when he shot forth” ( Ezekiel 31:5); that is, because he had many waters in his time of shooting ( Ezekiel 17:6-7). To the fowls of heaven and the beasts of the field, the wild in contradistinction to the domestic animals, correspond in the spiritual tree of Assyria the nations; comp. Ezekiel 17:23. The last words give an explanation of the figurative expression, which includes in it a comparison. The grandees of the earth appear in Ezekiel 31:8 as stately trees, according to an oft-recurring figure; as for ex. in Isaiah 10:18-19, the trees of Assyria, in contrast with his underwood (ver. Isaiah 10:17), are his grandees. The chief seat of this figurative representation is in the Old Testament in Daniel and Ezekiel, in the New Testament in Revelation; comp. on Revelation 7:1. The total of the great men of the earth Ezekiel denotes as the garden of God, in which he regards them as the counterpart of the garden which God once planted in Eden—of Paradise with its glorious trees. The comparison is the more suitable, because, as Paradise was planted by God ( Genesis 2:8), so all human greatness has its origin from God. The envy of the remaining trees in the counterpart of the garden of God in Eden, and so of the remaining grandees on the earth ( Ezekiel 31:9), comes into view only so far as it places in a clear light the greatness of the gifts bestowed upon the king. Envy has an aspect in which it may be regarded as a good for him whom it affects. Let us only reflect on the proverb, Better envied than pitied.

[199] The masculine הלךְ? is the more suitable, as מים precedes.

In Ezekiel 31:3-9, the glory bestowed by God on Assyria; in Ezekiel 31:10-14, the judgment which for the warning of Pharaoh he brought on himself by its abuse. In the face of the judgment, the greatness of Pharaoh can no longer impose. Ezekiel 31:10. Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Because thou art high in growth, and he hath set his top among the clouds, and his heart was lofty in his height; 11. Therefore I give him into the hand of the mighty one of the heathen; he shall deal with him: for his wickedness I drove him out. 12. And strangers, the violent of the nations, cut him off, and left him: on the mountains and in all the valleys his shoots fell, and his boughs were broken in all the plains of the earth; and all the peoples of the earth went down from his shadow, and left him. 13. On his ruins shall all the fowls of heaven dwell, and all the beasts of the field shall be upon his boughs: 14. To the end that none of the trees by the waters exult in their growth, nor set their top among the clouds, nor any drinkers of water stand up by themselves in their height; for they are all delivered unto death in the nether earth, among the sons of men, to those who go down to the pit.

Verses 10-14

“Therefore” ( Ezekiel 31:10)—because I made him fair ( Ezekiel 31:9). The greatness bestowed by God, being abused, is the cause of his fall. The first two members come into their full light by the third. That the king of Assyria became high in growth in Ezekiel 31:5, and that his top shot up among the clouds in Ezekiel 31:3, were described as the gift of God. But greatness itself becomes a sin and a cause of the divine judgment, if it is not as it were expiated and sanctified by humble submission to God. Ezekiel 31:14 shows that the first two numbers denote an offence, that the expression of this does not appear first in the third, which rather affords the explanation of the others. “Therefore I give him” ( Ezekiel 31:11): the fact, already belonging to the past, is transferred to the present, that it may happen as it were before the eyes of the reader; which was the more suitable, as the like in Egypt was shortly to be repeated. At the close the discourse is calmer, and the past appears in the form of the past: “I drove him out.” “The mighty one of the heathen,” among the heathen, who in regard to him appear as powerless: so is Nebuchadnezzar, the world-conqueror, named. For this mighty one of the nations the lot of Assyria was no less an actual prophecy than for Pharaoh. Yet the question was not about him: not on him, but on Pharaoh, rested the foolish hopes which the prophet wishes to destroy; and he had also other grounds for leaving to his readers the application to him. “He shall deal with him:” properly, do to him. What he will do to him is not more particularly defined. It is enough that the action is on his side: to Pharaoh is left nothing but to suffer. Pharaoh had also a time of activity. Where this is abused, the period of pure passivity breaks forth with violence. In place of the hammer comes the anvil. “For his wickedness:” the wickedness denotes the pride, and the conduct flowing from it. Where pride has first occupied the heart, there all divine and human rights are trampled under foot. The tender respect for them roots in the consciousness of being under God. All righteousness and goodness flow from humble submission to God. “I drove him out:” this points to the driving of the first man out of Paradise, that was also a consequence of pride, with reference to Ezekiel 31:8-9, according to which the king of Assyria was also in a garden of God. The allusion is the less to be mistaken, because the driving out proper is less suitable to the tree. “All the peoples of the earth went down from his shadow:” they had formerly, like birds, perched upon the branches of the tree in its shade ( Ezekiel 31:5). The ruin in Ezekiel 31:13 ( Ezekiel 31:16 shows that it must be so translated) stands for the fallen tree, that is as it were a living ruin. The fowls of heaven and the beasts of the field, the wild beasts that formerly sought protection under this tree, assemble now for another object beside the fallen—to peck, and gnaw, and take what they please of its fruits. In great catastrophes every one seeks to draw advantage from the misfortune. In Ezekiel 31:14 the object of the catastrophe ordained for the king of Assyria: it is to be a lesson for all the high things of the earth, to place before their eyes the dangers of pride. High in his growth, in the sense here meant, is he only who gives himself over with all his heart to his height. Genuine humility brings to elevation its only corrective. It fixes the eye on the lowliness, which in all human greatness is present with the greatness. The trees of the water and the water-drinkers are the great of the earth, to whom God gives joyful prosperity. “Nor any drinkers of water stand up by themselves,” assuming to themselves what belongs to God. As water-drinkers, they have nothing but what they receive: to stand by themselves, is to steal what belongs to God; and to seize upon the property of God is a wholly wicked procedure. “For they are all delivered unto death,”—namely, those proud trees, the grandees of the earth, who were tempted to haughtiness by their greatness. Haughtiness comes before a fall, and in this fall they must learn humility; for they go down into the kingdom of the dead, where they are nothing else than ordinary sons of men: comp. Job 3:19, “Small and great are there.”

Verses 15-18

The third and last section of the discourse now follows. Ezekiel 31:15-18. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, In the day when he went down to the grave I caused a mourning; I spread over him the deep, and held back its rivers, and the many waters were stayed; and I made Lebanon black over him, and all the trees of the field sank in weakness over him. 16. At the sound of his fall I make the heathen quake, when I cast him down to the grave with those that go down to the pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, sighed in the nether earth. 17. They also went down to the grave with him, to those slain by the sword; and they who were his arm sat in his shadow among the heathen. 18. Whom dost thou thus resemble in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? and thou shalt be cast down with the trees of Eden unto the nether earth: thou shalt He among the uncircumcised, with those slain by the sword. This is Pharaoh and all his tumult, saith the LORD.

The flood ( Ezekiel 31:15), the subterranean store of water that supplies the springs (comp. Ezekiel 31:4, Genesis 7:11), mourns because it cannot flow farther into the wonted, well-loved paths. Lebanon, denoting the kingdom of the heathen (comp. Ezekiel 31:3, and on Ezekiel 17:3), mourns over the fall of its greatness, which forebodes evil to all other world-powers. In deep pain sink the trees of the field, the great ones of the earth ( Ezekiel 31:8). “I caused a mourning, I spread over;” that is, I spread over him for mourning. The king of Assyria is here also an ideal person, the Assyrian empire; and we are not to think of a reference to Sennacherib slain by his servants, nor even to the personal fate of the last Assyrian king. The trees of Eden in Ezekiel 31:16, and the water-drinkers, are parallel phrases. The trees of Eden are the former high ones of the earth, who resembled the trees of Paradise in glory, and in whom these were represented, as it were, anew; the water-drinkers are those who formerly enjoyed a glorious prosperity. In the fall of Assyria they went through their own sorrow, as it were, a second time. [200] The lamentation obeys the general law, which was fulfilled in the king of Assyria, as it had been exhibited before in them; sic transit gloria mundi. We have here a variation of Isaiah 14:9-10, where the king of Babylon is received in the kingdom of the dead by those who had gone down before him. “With him” ( Ezekiel 31:17), that is, no less than he, denotes not simultaneousness—for they are on his arrival already in Sheol—but similarity. The vassals of the king have gone before him in their fall. He comes to the close, and is received by his former associates in Sheol. Then at the close of the whole tragedy there is sung in chorus a lamentation over the vanity of worldly glory. “His arm”—his auxiliaries. “Whom dost thou thus resemble in glory and greatness?” ( Ezekiel 31:18): according to the foregoing, one in whom it was already obvious that glory and greatness cannot shield from a fall, but rather, if abused, involve in it. After removing the supposed hindrance, which consisted in the greatness of Pharaoh blinding the eyes, his downfall is announced to him. The uncircumcised stand here, as in Ezekiel 28:10, for the impure and ungodly. “This is Pharaoh”—namely, in regard to the issue. “His tumult;” comp. Ezekiel 31:2.

[200] נחם in the Niphal, sigh, be troubled, not be comforted. This meaning would be against Ezekiel 31:15, where Lebanon mourns, and also against Ezekiel 31:17, according to which those who received the king of Assyria in Sheol were those who had formerly been friendly to him.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/ezekiel-31.html.