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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 31

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapter 31 The Fifth Oracle Against Egypt. The Great Cypress Tree.

This chapter is split into three sections, the parable of the great cypress tree which likens Pharaoh and his people to a great cypress (Ezekiel 31:2-9), its downfall at the hand of foreigners (Ezekiel 31:10-14) and its descent into Sheol (Ezekiel 31:15-18). The oracle is dated June 587/6 BC, two months after the previous oracle.

For the theme compare Ezekiel 17:1-10; Ezekiel 17:22-24. See also Ezekiel 19:10-14; Ezekiel 26:19-21; Ezekiel 28:11-19.

Verses 1-2

Pharaoh and His People Are Like a Great Cypress (Ezekiel 31:1-9 ).

‘And so it was in the eleventh year, in the third month on the first day of the month, that the word of Yahweh came to me saying, “Son of man, say to Pharaoh King of Egypt, and to his multiplicity of people, ‘Whom are you like in your greatness?’ ” ’

The new oracle from Yahweh challenges Ezekiel to ask what Pharaoh and his large population can be compared to in their greatness. Note that their greatness is emphasised. But that is only so that its destiny then reveals the greatness of Yahweh.

Verses 1-18

The Oracles Against Egypt (Ezekiel 29:1 to Ezekiel 32:32 ).

This section of the book is composed of seven oracles issued against Egypt. The fact that there are seven is probably deliberate in order to emphasise the divine completeness of the condemnation, for throughout the Near East seven was the number of divine perfection.

Egypt was the great power to the south, as Assyria, Babylon and Persia were successively to the north. Except in very weak times, she had always seen the land of Canaan as hers and under her administration, and had only reluctantly ceded ground when forced to do so for a time by those great powers from the north. Her influence had never been good and she was responsible for much of the idolatry in Israel. This was necessarily so because Pharaoh saw himself as the manifestation of the god Horus, becoming the great Osiris on his death. Thus the destruction of Egypt’s power was necessary if ever Israel was to be free.

This denunciation of Egypt is looking at more than the current situation, although having that in mind. For centuries Egypt had dominated Israel. Again and again she had crushed her and exacted tribute. Now she was to receiver retribution.

Furthermore at this time Egypt was seeking to rally the peoples in and around Canaan, encouraging them to rebel against Babylon with promises of aid. But because of her own comparative weakness this could only lead them into deep trouble. She was not strong enough to lean on. So if His people were to know peace Egypt had to be dealt with, and dealt with thoroughly.

From this time on Egypt would never again rise to be the great power that she had been. And Ezekiel reveals this as being due to the activity of Yahweh.

Verse 3

“Behold a cypress (‘assur’, probably a variant of te’assur, and not therefore Assyria which would be out of place here), a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches and with a woody shade and of great height, and his top was among the interwoven branches (LXX clouds).”

Pharaoh is likened to a large Cypress which could be compared with a cedar in Lebanon. It had powerful branches, gave good shade, and its top was among the topmost branches of the forest. Te’ assur for cypress is found in Isaiah 41:19; Isaiah 60:13. It was noted for its protection and shade and provided excellent timber.

Some cedars of Lebanon grew twenty five metres (80 feet) or more high, were beautifully symmetrical, and contained thickly interwoven branches.

However, some would translate assur here as ‘Assyrian’ and see Pharaoh and Egypt as being compared with what had happened to the Assyrians in their pride. In the end the ideas are the same.

Verse 4

“The waters nourished him, the deep made him grow, her rivers ran round her plantations and she sent out her streams to all the trees of the field.”

The tree was well watered by many streams, by the Nile and its tributaries and channels, so that all the trees and growing things around benefited from their nourishment, resulting in an abundant population. They were in a good place provided by God.

Verses 5-7

“Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the forest, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long by reason of many waters when he shot them forth. All the birds of the air made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches all the beasts of the field brought forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches. For his root was by many waters.”

The prosperity, greatness and power of Pharaoh and of Egypt in the past is exemplified by the great Cypress. It was great above all others in the area, many found shelter with them, others looked to them for protection, and thus they grew even stronger and more fruitful. And much of their prosperity depended on the blessings of plentiful water from the great Nile.

Verses 8-9

“The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him, the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the plane trees were not as his branches. Nor was any tree in the garden of God like him in his beauty. I made him fair by the multitude of his branches, so that all the trees of Eden that were in the garden of God envied him.”

This may be hyperbole based on ideas about the trees in Eden, to stress his supreme greatness, or it may be that Lebanon was popularly known as ‘the garden of the gods’ because of its splendid trees (and thus ‘the garden of Eden’ to Israel), and was therefore seen as the measure by which all trees should be measured. Either way Pharaoh and Egypt are seen as exalted above them all because of their great strength, fruitfulness and power, and it was by the hand of Yahweh (‘I made him fair’). As over everything else Yahweh was over this. But being so had given them a great responsibility and in this they had failed.

There may here be a comparison with Tyre. That too had claimed great beauty and to be connected to the garden of the gods (chapter 28). That too had many offshoots. But if so here God is declaring that even great Tyre could not compare with Egypt, none in Tyre could compare with the Egyptians.

Verses 10-12

The Downfall of Pharaoh and Egypt Because of Their Wickedness (Ezekiel 31:10-14 ).

‘Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh, “Because you are exalted in height, and he has set his top among the interweaving boughs, and his heart is lifted up because of his height, I will even deliver him into the hand of the mighty one of the nations. He will surely deal with him. I have driven him out for his wickedness. And strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off, and have left him. On the mountains and in all the valleys his branches have fallen, and his boughs are broken by all the watercourses of the land, and all the people of the earth have deserted his shadow and have left him.” ’

The passage begins by addressing Pharaoh and his great people and then immediately turns into the third person to speak to all. What was to happen was because in their uplifting and plenty they had been over-proud, had exalted themselves above others and had behaved wickedly. Thus they were to be delivered into the hands of ‘the mighty one of the nations’ and ‘the terrible of the nations’. This refers to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon (compare Ezekiel 28:7; Ezekiel 30:11).

Note that it is Yahweh Who will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, and it will be Yahweh Who has ‘driven him out’ for his wickedness. He is acting as Righteous Judge and Supreme Overlord, (as He will later against Babylon), and Nebuchadnezzar is at present His servant and His means of exacting justice.

The picture is a vivid one. The branches of the great Cypress would be cut off, falling in the mountains and valleys, and into the different rivers and channels, and the Cypress will no longer be great and impressive. Egypt which had for millenniums been great and exalted would be so no more. It would be stunted, and no longer provide shelter for others. Those who do not use what they have for good will eventually lose it.

Verses 13-14

“On his ruin all the birds of the air will dwell, and all the beasts of the field will be on his branches, to the end that none of all the trees by the waters exalt themselves in their height, nor set their top among the interweaving branches, nor that their mighty ones stand up in their height, even all who drink water. For they are all delivered to death, to the nether parts of the earth, in the midst of the children of men, with those who go down to the pit.”

The humiliation of Egypt has to be seen in the light of what it was and what it claimed to be. It claimed to be ruled by a god on earth, the Pharaoh, so that they were all the chosen of that god. It therefore claimed divine authority over its neighbours and looked down on them as inferior. And yet its behaviour came far short of its claims, and it overexalted itself and impoverished others. Thus it had to be brought low so that the falsehood of its claims would be obvious to all, and it was to be laid low because it deserved to be.

Those who once depended on it will instead be over it, and instead of sheltering under its branches will tread on them. This will be a lesson to all nations not to exalt themselves as Egypt had done. Indeed the humanness of Pharaoh and the Egyptians is stressed. They are of those who ‘drink water’, as are all others. They descend into the grave ‘in the midst of the children of men’. This is a direct denial of the divine destiny that Egypt claimed for Pharaoh. For all, including Pharaoh, have the same destiny, the world of the dead. For all die.

Verses 15-17

The Descent Into Sheol (Ezekiel 31:15-18 ).

“Thus says the Lord Yahweh, In the day when he went down to Sheol I caused a mourning. I covered the deep for him, and I restrained its rivers, and the great waters were stayed. And I caused Lebanon to be black for him and all the trees of the field fainted for him. I made the nations shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all who drink water, were comforted in the nether parts of the earth. They also went down to Sheol with him, to those who are slain by the sword, yes, those who were his arm, who dwelt under his shadow in the midst of the nations.”

The picture of Pharaoh and his people going down into Sheol is magnificent, and carries a salutary lesson, that Pharaoh and Egypt were like anyone else. But it is really a picture of the downfall of Egypt. (We can compare how elsewhere they are seen as scattered among the nations, another partly exaggerated picture). It was earth-shattering. It was as though a part of the world had died.

Of course all would in the end literally go down to Sheol, for that was the destiny of man, and in the destruction and desolation of the invasion many would immediately. Thus their downfall is depicted in terms of their final end.

It was such a great shock that the world as it were stood still. All the waters, the source of life, were restrained, beautiful Lebanon turned black, the trees collapsed, the nations shook. There was to be no doubt of the mightiness of the collapse of great Egypt. A mighty and seemingly permanent empire had unbelievably fallen. It shook the world. History would never be the same again.

‘And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all who drink water, were comforted in the nether parts of the earth.’ This probably refers to the downfall of Tyre, seen as the trees of Eden (compare Ezekiel 28:13; Ezekiel 31:8; Ezekiel 31:18), previously prophesied, for the great Cypress represented the people of Egypt, therefore these trees too represent a nation or nations. Tyre would be comforted in her own sinking into the sea because Egypt came to join them in Sheol. They too drank water and were no gods.

‘They also went down to Sheol with him, to those who are slain by the sword, yes, those who were his arm, who dwelt under his shadow in the midst of the nations.’ Tyre and Egypt joined all who had been slain by the sword, they who along with other nations had been his arm and had dwelt underneath his shadow. All finally went to the same end.

Short Note on Sheol.

In most of the Old Testament, where the thought of a ‘beyond’ arises at all it is in the ‘land of Sheol’ (sheol = the grave), the land of shadows, a land of no substance and no joy. It is a land of emptiness (see Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 38:18; Ezekiel 32:21; Psalms 6:5; Psalms 49:14; Psalms 88:5; Job 7:9; Job 17:13; Ecclesiastes 9:10). The eyes of the people of Israel were concentrated on their future in this life. They had no real understanding of any other future. And the other nations generally, with the exception of the chosen Egypt, looked forward without hope. Here all, including Egypt, are seen as coming to the same end.

End of Note.

Verse 18

“To whom are you thus like in glory and greatness among the trees of Eden? Yet you will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the nether parts of the earth. You will lie in the midst of the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. This is Pharaoh and his numerous people.”

A similar question is asked to that in Ezekiel 31:2. Who are Pharaoh and Egypt to compare themselves with? They had been compared with a great Cypress, more wonderful than the trees of Eden (Ezekiel 31:9). But comparison with the trees of Eden was meaningless. For they as well as Egypt will be brought down to the nether parts of the earth. This confirms that we are to see the trees of Eden as representing a nation or nations in their glory. And what more likely than that it should refer to the Tyre and her neighbours, so glorified in previous oracles, as we have suggested above?

And again it is emphasised that all come to the same end. In parts of the ancient Near East the ‘uncircumcised’ were frowned on. They were as it were outcasts. They had no part in the religions of those who were circumcised (the great majority). But in the world of the dead all are equal, and Pharaoh would be there with the uncircumcised, and with the slain, a far cry from the idea of his riding daily through the skies as Osiris/Ra.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/ezekiel-31.html. 2013.
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