Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
Partner with StudyLight.org as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 17

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-24


Ezekiel 12:1-15; Ezekiel 17:1-24; Ezekiel 19:1-14

IN spite of the interest excited by Ezekiel’s prophetic appearances, the exiles still received his prediction of the fall of Jerusalem with the most stolid incredulity. It proved to be an impossible task to disabuse their minds of the pre-possessions which made such an event absolutely incredible. True to their character as a disobedient house, they had "eyes to see, and saw not; and ears to hear, but heard not". {Ezekiel 12:2} They were intensely interested in the strange signs he performed, and listened with pleasure to his fervid oratory; but the inner meaning of it all never sank into their minds. Ezekiel was well aware that the cause of this obtuseness lay in the false ideals which nourished an overweening confidence in the destiny of their nation. And these ideals were the more difficult to destroy because they each contained an element of truth, so interwoven with the falsehood that to the mind of the people the true and the false stood and fell together. If the great vision of chapters 8-11 had accomplished its purpose, it would doubtless have taken away the main support of these delusive imaginations. But the belief in the indestructibility of the Temple was only one of a number of roots through which the vain confidence of the nation was fed; and so long as any of these remained the people’s sense of security was likely to remain. These spurious ideals, therefore, Ezekiel sets himself with characteristic thoroughness to demolish, one after another.

This appears to be in the main the purpose of the third subdivision of his prophecies on which we now enter. It extends from chapter 12 to chapter 19; and in so far as it can be taken to represent a phase of his actual spoken ministry, it must be assigned to the fifth year before the capture of Jerusalem (August, 591-August., 590 B.C.). But since the passage is an exposition of ideas more than a narrative of experiences, we may expect to find that chronological consistency has been even less observed than in the earlier part of the book. Each idea is presented in the completeness which it finally possessed in the prophet’s mind, and his allusions may anticipate a state of things which had not actually arisen till a somewhat later date. Beginning with a description and interpretation of two symbolic actions intended to impress more vividly on the people the certainty of the impending catastrophe, the prophet proceeds in a series of set discourses to expose the hollowness of the illusions which his fellow exiles cherished, such as disbelief in prophecies of evil, faith in the destiny of Israel, veneration for the Davidic kingdom, and reliance on the solidarity of the nation in sin and in judgment. These are the principal topics which the course of exposition will bring before us, and in dealing with them it will be convenient to depart from the order in which they stand in the book and adopt an arrangement according to subject. By so doing we run the risk of missing the order of the ideas as it presented itself to the prophet’s mind, and of ignoring the remarkable skill with which the transition from one theme to another is frequently effected. But if we have rightly understood the scope of the passage as a whole, this wilt not prevent us from grasping the substance of his teaching or its bearing on the final message which he had to deliver. In the present chapter we shall accordingly group together three passages which deal with the fate of the monarchy, and especially of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.

That reverence for the royal house would form an obstacle to the acceptance of such teaching as Ezekiel’s was to be expected from all we know of the popular feeling on this subject. The fact that a few royal assassinations which stain the annals of Judah were sooner or later avenged by the people shows that the monarchy was regarded as a pillar of the state, and that great importance was attached to the possession of a dynasty which perpetuated the glories of David’s reign. And there is one verse in the Book of Lamentations which expresses the anguish which the fall of the kingdom caused to godly men in Israel, although its representatives were so unworthy of his office as Zedekiah: "The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of Jehovah, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, Under his shadow shall we live among the nations". {Lamentations 4:20} So long therefore as a descendant of David sat on the throne of Jerusalem it would seem the duty of every patriotic Israelite to remain true to him. The continuance of the monarchy would seem to guarantee the existence of the state; the prestige of Zedekiah’s position as the anointed of Jehovah, and the heir of David’s covenant, would warrant the hope that even yet Jehovah would intervene to save an institution of His own creating. Indeed, we can see from Ezekiel’s own pages that the historic monarchy in Israel was to him an object of the highest veneration and regard. He speaks of its dignity in terms whose very exaggeration shows how largely the fact bulked in his imagination. He compares it to the noblest of the wild beasts of the earth and the most lordly tree of the forest. But his contention is that this monarchy no longer exists. Except in one doubtful passage, he never applies the title king (melek) to Zedekiah. The kingdom came to an end with the. deportation of Jehoiachin, the last king who ascended the throne in legitimate succession. The present holder of the office is in no sense king by Divine right; he is a creature and vassal of Nebuchadnezzar, and has no rights against his suzerain. His very name has been changed by the caprice of his master. As a religious symbol, therefore, the royal power is defunct; the glory has departed from it as surely as from the Temple. The makeshift administration organised under Zedekiah had a peaceful if inglorious future before it, if it were content to recognise facts and adapt itself to its humble position. But if it should attempt to raise its head and assert itself as an independent kingdom, it would only seal its own doom. And for men in Chaldea to transfer to this shadow of kingly dignity the allegiance due to the heir of David’s house was a waste of devotion as little demanded by patriotism as by prudence.


The first of the passages in which the fate of the monarchy is foretold requires little to be said by way of explanation. It is a symbolic action of the kind with which we are now familiar, exhibiting the certainty of the fate in store both for the people and the king. The prophet again becomes a "sign" or portent to the people-this time in a character which every one of his audience understood from recent experience. He is seen by daylight collecting "articles of captivity"-i.e., such necessary articles as a person going into exile would try to take with him-and bringing them out to the door of his house. Then at dusk he breaks through the wall with his goods on his shoulder; and, with face muffled he removes "to another place." In this sign we have again two different facts indicated by a series of not entirely congruous actions. The mere act of carrying out his most necessary furniture and removing from one place to another suggests quite unambiguously the captivity that awaits the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But the accessories of the action, such as breaking through the wall, the muffling of the face, and the doing of all this by night, point to quite a different event-viz., Zedekiah’s attempt to break through the Chaldaean lines by night, his capture, his blindness, and his imprisonment in Babylon. The most remarkable thing in the sign is the circumstantial manner in which the details of the king’s flight and capture are anticipated so long before the event. Zedekiah, as we read in the Second Book of Kings, as soon as a breach was made in the walls by the Chaldaeans, broke out with a small party of horsemen, and succeeded in reaching the plain of Jordan. There he was overtaken and caught, and sent before Nebuchadnezzar’s presence at Riblah. The Babylonian king punished his perfidy with a cruelty common enough amongst the Assyrian kings: he caused his eyes to be put out, and sent him thus to end his days in prison at Babylon. All this is so clearly hinted at in the signs that the whole representation is often set aside as a prophecy after the event. That is hardly probable, because the sign does not bear the marks of having been originally conceived with the view of exhibiting the details of Zedekiah’s punishment. But since we know that the book was written after the event, it is a perfectly fair question whether in the interpretation of the symbols Ezekiel may not have read into it a fuller meaning than was present to his own mind at the time. Thus the covering of his head does not necessarily suggest anything more than the king’s attempt to disguise his person. Possibly this was all that Ezekiel originally meant by it. When the event took place he perceived a further meaning in it as an allusion to the blindness inflicted on the king, and introduced this into the explanation given of the symbol. The point of it lies in the degradation of the king through his being reduced to such an ignominious method of securing his personal safety. "The prince that is among them shall bear upon his shoulder in the darkness, and shall go forth: they shall dig through the wall to carry out thereby: he shall cover his face, that he may not be seen by any eye, and he himself shall not see the earth". {Ezekiel 12:12}


In chapter 17 the fate of the monarchy is dealt with at greater length under the form of an allegory. The kingdom of Judah is represented as a cedar in Lebanon-a comparison which shows how exalted were Ezekiel’s conceptions of the dignity of the old regime which had now passed away. But the leading shoot of the tree has been cropped off by a great, broad-winged, speckled eagle, the king of Babylon, and carried away to a "land of traffic, a city of merchants." The insignificance of Zedekiah’s government is indicated by a harsh contrast which almost breaks the consistency of the figure. In place of the cedar which he has spoiled the eagle plants a low vine trailing on the ground, such as may be seen in Palestine at the present day. His intention was that "its branches should extend towards him and its roots be under him"-i.e., that the new principality should derive all its strength from Babylon and yield all its produce to the power which nourished it. For a time all went well. The vine answered the expectations of its owner, and prospered under the favourable conditions which he had provided for it. But another great eagle appeared on the scene, the king of Egypt, and the ungrateful vine began to send out its roots and turn its branches in his direction. The meaning is obvious: Zedekiah had sent presents to Egypt and sought its help, and by so doing had violated the conditions of his tenure of royal power. Such a policy could not prosper. "The bed where it was planted" was in possession of Nebuchadnezzar, and he could not tolerate there a state, however feeble, which employed the resources with which he had endowed it to further the interests of his rival, Hophra, the king of Egypt. Its destruction shall come from the quarter whence it derived its origin: "when the east wind smites it, it shall wither in the furrow where it grew."

Throughout this passage Ezekiel shows that he possessed in full measure that penetration and detachment from local prejudices which all the prophets exhibit when dealing with political affairs. The interpretation of the riddle contains a statement of Nebuchadnezzar’s policy in his dealings with Judah, whose impartial accuracy could not be improved on by the most disinterested historian. The carrying away of the Judaean king and aristocracy was a heavy blow to religious susceptibilities which Ezekiel fully shared, and its severity was not mitigated by the arrogant assumptions by which it was explained in Jerusalem. Yet here he shows himself capable of contemplating it as a measure of Babylonian statesmanship and of doing absolute justice to the motives by which it was dictated. Nebuchadnezzar’s purpose was to establish a petty state unable to raise itself to independence, and one on whose fidelity to his empire he could rely. Ezekiel lays great stress on the solemn formalities by which the great king had bound his vassal to his allegiance: "He took of the royal seed, and made a covenant with him, and brought him under a curse; and the strong ones of the land he took away: that it might be a lowly kingdom, not able to lift itself up, to keep his covenant that it might stand" (Ezekiel 17:13-14). In all this Nebuchadnezzar is conceived as acting within his rights; and here lay the difference between the clear vision of the prophet and the infatuated policy of his contemporaries. The politicians of Jerusalem were incapable of thus discerning the signs of the times. They fell back on the time-honoured plan of checkmating Babylon by means of an Egyptian alliance-a policy which had been disastrous when attempted against the ruthless tyrants of Assyria, and which was doubly imbecile when it brought down on them the wrath of a monarch who showed every desire to deal fairly with his subject provinces.

The period of intrigue with Egypt had already begun when this prophecy was written. We have no means of knowing how long the negotiations went on before the overt act of rebellion; and hence we cannot say with certainty that the appearance of the chapter in this part of the book is an anachronism. It is possible that Ezekiel may have known of a secret mission which was not discovered by the spies of the Babylonian court; and there is no difficulty in supposing that such a step may have been taken as early as two and a half years before the outbreak of hostilities. At whatever time it took place, Ezekiel saw that it sealed the doom of the nation. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar could not overlook such flagrant perfidy as Zedekiah and his councillors had been guilty of; he knew also that Egypt could render no effectual help to Jerusalem in her death-struggle. "Not with a strong army and a great host will Pharaoh act for him in the war, when mounds are thrown up, and the towers are built, to cut off many lives" (Ezekiel 17:17). The writer of the Lamentations again shows us how sadly the prophet’s anticipation was verified: "As for us, our eyes as yet failed for our vain help: in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save us". {Lamentations 4:17}

But Ezekiel will not allow it to be supposed that the fate of Jerusalem is merely the result of a mistaken forecast of political probabilities. Such a mistake had been made by Zedekiah’s advisers when they trusted to Egypt to deliver them from Babylon, and ordinary prudence might have warned them against it. But that was the most excusable part of their folly. The thing that branded their policy as infamous and put them absolutely in the wrong before God and man alike was their violation of the solemn oath by which they had bound themselves to serve the king of Babylon. The prophet seizes on this act of perjury as the determining fact of the situation, and charges it home on the king as the cause of the ruin that is to overtake him: "Thus saith Jehovah, As I live, surely My oath which he hath despised, and My covenant which he has broken, I will return on his head; and I will spread My net over him, and in My snare shall he be taken and ye shall know that I Jehovah have spoken it" (Ezekiel 17:19-21).

In the last three verses of the chapter the prophet returns to the allegory with which he commenced, and completes his oracle with a beautiful picture of the ideal monarchy of the future. The ideas on which the picture is framed are few and simple; but they are those which distinguished the Messianic hope as cherished by the prophets from the crude form which it assumed in the popular imagination. In contrast to Zedekiah’s kingdom, which was a human institution without ideal significance, that of the Messianic age will be a fresh creation of Jehovah’s power. A tender shoot shall be planted in the mountain land of Israel, where it shall flourish and increase until it overshadow the whole earth. Further, this shoot is taken from the "top of the cedar"-that is, the section of the royal house which had been carried away to Babylon-indicating that the hope of the future lay not with the king de facto Zedekiah, but with Jehoiachin and those who shared his banishment. The passage leaves no doubt that Ezekiel conceived the Israel of the future as a state with a monarch at its head, although it may be doubtful whether the shoot refers to a personal Messiah or to the aristocracy, who, along with the king, formed the governing body in an Eastern kingdom. This question, however, can be better considered when we have to deal with Ezekiel’s Messianic conceptions in their fully developed form in chapter 34.


Of the last four kings of Judah there were two whose melancholy fate seems to have excited a profound feeling of pity amongst their countrymen. Jehoahaz or Shallum, according to the Chronicler the youngest of Josiah’s sons, appears to have been even during his father’s lifetime a popular favourite. It was he who after the fatal day of Megiddo was raised to the throne by the "people of the land" at the age of twenty-three years. He is said by the historian of the books of Kings to have done "that which was evil in the sight of the Lord"; but he had hardly time to display his qualities as a ruler when he was deposed and carried to Egypt by Pharaoh Necho, having worn the crown for only three months (608 B.C.). The deep attachment felt for him seems to have given rise to an expectation that he would be restored to his kingdom, a delusion against which the prophet Jeremiah found it necessary to protest. {Jeremiah 22:10-12} He was succeeded by his elder brother, Eliakim, (Jehoiakim) the headstrong and selfish tyrant, whose character stands revealed in some passages of the books of Jeremiah and Habakkuk. His reign of nine years gave little occasion to his subjects to cherish a grateful memory of his administration. He died in the crisis of the conflict he had provoked with the king of Babylon, leaving his youthful son Jehoiachin to expiate the folly of his rebellion. Jehoiachin is the second idol of the populace to whom we have referred. He was only eighteen years old when he was called to the throne, and within three months he was doomed to exile in Babylon. In his room Nebuchadnezzar appointed a third son of Josiah-Mattaniah-whose name he changed to Zedekiah. He was apparently a man of weak and vacillating character; but he fell ultimately into the hands of the Egyptian and anti-prophetic party, and so was the means of involving his country in the hopeless struggle in which it perished.

The fact that two of their native princes were languishing, perhaps simultaneously, in foreign confinement, one in Egypt and the other in Babylon, was fitted to evoke in Judah a sympathy with the misfortunes of royalty something like the feeling embalmed in the Jacobite songs of Scotland. It seems to be an echo of this sentiment that we find in the first part of the lament with which Ezekiel closes his references to the fall of the monarchy (chapter 19). Many critics have indeed found it impossible to suppose that Ezekiel should in any sense have yielded to sympathy with the fate of two princes who are both branded in the historical books as idolaters, and whose calamities on Ezekiel’s own view of individual retribution proved them to be sinners against Jehovah. Yet it is certainly unnatural to read the dirge in any other sense than as an expression of genuine pity for the woes that the nation suffered in the fate of her two exiled kings. If Jeremiah, in pronouncing the doom of Shallum or Jehoahaz, could say, "Weep ye sore for him that goeth away; for he shall not return any more, nor see his native country," there is no reason why Ezekiel should not have given lyrical expression to the universal feeling of sadness which the blighted career of these two youths naturally produced. The whole passage is highly poetical, and represents a side of Ezekiel’s nature which we have not hitherto been led to study. But it is too much to expect of even the most logical of prophets that he should experience no personal emotion but what fitted into his system, or that his poetic gift should be chained to the wheels of his theological convictions. The dirge expresses no moral judgment on the character or deserts of the two kings to which it refers: it has but one theme-the sorrow and disappointment of the "mother" who nurtured and lost them, that is, the nation of Israel, personified according to a usual Hebrew figure of speech. All attempts to go beyond this and to find in the poem an allegorical portrait of Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin are irrelevant. The mother is a lioness, the princes are young lions and behave as stalwart young lions do, but whether their exploits are praiseworthy or the reverse is a question that was not present to the writer’s mind.

The chapter is entitled "A Dirge on the Princes of Israel," and embraces not only the fate of Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin, but also of Zedekiah, with whom the old monarchy expired. Strictly. speaking, however, the name qinah, or dirge, is applicable only to the first part of the chapter (Ezekiel 19:2-9), where the rhythm characteristic of the Hebrew elegy is clearly traceable. With a few slight changes of the text the passage may be translated thus:-

1. Jehoahaz.

"How was thy mother a lioness!-

Among the lions,

In the midst of young lions she couched-

She reared her cubs;

And she brought up one of her cubs-

A young lion he became,

And he learned to catch the prey-

He ate men."

"And nations raised a cry against him-

In their pit he was caught;

And they brought him with hooks-

To the land of Egypt" (Ezekiel 19:2-4).

2. Jehoiachin.

"And when she saw that she was disappointed-

Her hope was lost.

She took another of her cubs-

A young lion she made him;

And he walked in the midst of lions-

A young lion he became;

And he learned to catch prey-

He ate men".

"And he lurked in his lair-

The forests he ravaged:

Till the land was laid waste and its fulness-

With the noise of his roar".

"The nations arrayed themselves against him-

From the countries around;

And spread over him their net-

In their pit he was caught.

And they brought him with hooks-

To the king of Babylon;

And he put him in a cage,

That his voice might no more be heard-

On the mountains of Israel" (Ezekiel 19:5-9).

The poetry here is simple and sincere. The mournful cadence of the elegiac measure, which is maintained throughout, is adapted to the tone of melancholy which pervades the passage and culminates in the last beautiful line. The dirge is a form of composition often employed in songs of triumph over the calamities of enemies; but there is no reason to doubt that here it is true to its original purpose, and expresses genuine sorrow for the accumulated misfortunes of the royal house of Israel.

The closing part of the "dirge" dealing with Zedekiah is of a somewhat different character. The theme is similar, but the figure is abruptly changed, and the elegiac rhythm is abandoned. The nation, the mother of the monarchy, is here compared to a luxuriant vine planted beside great waters; and the royal house is likened to a branch towering above the rest and bearing rods which were kingly sceptres. But she has been plucked up by the roots, withered, scorched by the fire, and finally planted in an arid region where she cannot thrive. The application of the metaphor to the ruin of the nation is very obvious. Israel, once a prosperous nation, richly endowed with all the conditions of a vigorous national life, and glorying in her race of native kings, is now humbled to the dust. Misfortune after misfortune has destroyed her power and blighted her prospects, till at last she has been removed from her own land to a place where national life cannot be maintained. But the point of the passage lies in the closing words: fire went out from one of her twigs and consumed her branches, so that she has no longer a proud rod to be a ruler’s sceptre (Ezekiel 19:14). The monarchy, once the glory and strength of Israel, has in its last degenerate representative involved the nation in ruin.

Such is Ezekiel’s final answer to those of his hearers who clung to the old Davidic kingdom as their hope in the crisis of the people’s fate.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 17". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-17.html.
Ads FreeProfile