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In the eleventh year, etc. June, B.C. 586. Two months all but six days had passed since the utterance of Ezekiel 30:20-26, when Ezekiel was moved to expand his prediction of the downfall of Egypt into a parable which is partly a replica of these in Ezekiel 17:1-24. and Ezekiel 19:1-14, and which also finds a parallel in Daniel 4:10-14.
The parable is addressed, not to Pharaoh only, but to his multitude i.e; as in Ezekiel 30:4, for his auxiliary forces. It opens with one of the customary formulae of an Eastern apologue (Mark 4:30), intended to sharpen the curiosity and win the attention of the prophet's hearers or readers. It is significant that the question is repeated at the close of the parable, as if the prophet had left the interpretation to his readers, as our Lord does in saying, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon. The Hebrew text, as rendered in all versions and interpreted by most commentators, gives us, in the form of the parable of the cedar, the history of the Assyrian empire in its glory and its fall. That had passed away in spite of its greatness, and so should Egypt. The question in Ezekiel 31:18 takes the place of "Thou art the man!" in Nathan's interpretation of his parable (2 Samuel 12:7), or the mutato nominee de te fabula, narratur of the Roman satirist. Some recent commentaters, however, either like Ewald, taking the Hebrew word for, Assyrian" as describing a particular kind of cedar or fir tree, or, like Comill and amend, adopting a conjectural emendation of the text which actually gives that meaning (Tasshur for Asshur), refer the whole parable primarily to Egypt, and dwell on the fact that the words of Ezekiel 31:10, Ezekiel 31:18 are addressed to the living representative of a great monarchy, and not to a power that has already passed away into the Hades of departed glory. The former view seems to me the more tenable of the two, and I therefore adopt it throughout the chapter. It may be admitted, however, that the inner meaning of the parable at times breaks through the outward imagery, as was indeed to be expected, the prophet seeking to apply his apologue even before he had completed it. The "cedar in Lebanon" has already met us as the symbol of s kingdom, in Ezekiel 17:2. The shadowing shroud may be noted as a specially vivid picture of the peculiar foliage of the cedar rendered with singular felicity. His top was among the thick boughs; better, clouds, as in the margin of the Revised Version. So Keil, Smend, and others (comp. Ezekiel 17:10, Ezekiel 17:14).
The waters made him great. The scenery is hardly that of Lebanon, but finds its counterpart in that of the Nile, perhaps also of the Tigris, with the waters of the river diverted into streams and channels by a careful system of irrigation. The cedar grew close to the river itself; the other trees of the field were watered only by the smaller channels, and so were inferior to it in the fullness of their growth. (For the general imagery, comp. Ezekiel 17:5; Psalms 1:3; Jeremiah 17:8; Numbers 24:6.)
All the fowls of heaven as in Ezekiel 17:23; Daniel 4:9; Matthew 13:32, was the natural symbol of the fact that all the neighboring nations owned the sovereignty of Assyria and were sheltered by her protection. In the great nation we have the parable passing into its interpretation.
The cedars in the garden of God. As in Ezekiel 28:13, the thoughts of the prophet dwell on the picture of Eden in Genesis 2:8. Far above all other trees, the cedar of Assyria rose high in majesty. All the trees that were in the garden of God envied him. The trees specially chosen for comparison are
(1) the fir tress—probably, as in Ezekiel 27:5, the cypresses; and
(2) the chestnut trees, for which the Revised Version, following the Vulgate and the LXX. of Gen 30:1-43 :97, gives the "plane," which held a high place in the admiration of Greek and Roman writers. Of this we have a special instance in the story of Xerxes, who decorated a plane tree near the Meander with ornaments of gold (Herod; 7.31; 'AElicon,' 5.14; also comp. Ecclesiasticus 24:14; Virg; 'Georg.,' 4.146; Cicero, 'De Ont.,' 1.7, 28).
Ezekiel 31:10, Ezekiel 31:11
Because thou hast lifted up thyself. The second and third persons are curiously mixed; probably the former was in the nature of a warning addressed to the King of Egypt, while the latter continues the parable of the history of Assyria. For boughs read clouds, as in Ezekiel 31:3. Ezekiel writes as with the feeling which led Solon to note that the loftiest trees are those which are most exposed to the strokes of the thunderbolts of Zeus (Herod; Ezekiel 7:10). The Assyrian's heart was "lifted up with pride" (Isaiah 10:5), and therefore he was delivered to the mighty one of the nations; sc. to Nebuchadnezzar.
Strangers, the terrible of the nations. We note the recurrence of the phrase of Ezekiel 30:11, as pointing, here as there, to the Chaldean invaders. The branches of the tree were broken, the people of the earth no longer dwelt under its shadow (Daniel 4:11).
Upon his ruin. The prophet, as it were, corrects his imagery. The birds and beasts are still there, but instead of dwelling in the boughs, they (vultures and owls, jackals and hyenas) hover and creep as over the carcass of the dead, decaying trunk.
To the end that none, etc. With a characteristic amplitude of style, Ezekiel preaches the great lesson of the mutability of earthly greatness. This was the lesson that the history of Assyria ought to have taught the nations of the earth, and it was just that lesson that they refused to learn. They are all delivered to death. The scenery of the parable passes from Eden to Sheol, the Hades of the nations, and the prophet gives the first stroke of the imagery afterwards more fully developed in Ezekiel 32:17-32.
I covered the deep for him. The face of the whole world of nature is painted by the prophet as sharing in the awe and terror of that tremendous fail Lebanon was made to mourn (literally, to be black), the waters failed in their channels, the trees (all that drink water) shuddered. They formed part, as it were, of the pageantry of woe at the funeral of the fallen kingdom. It is as if the prophet felt, in all its intensity, what we have learnt to call the sympathy of nature with the sorrows of humanity. It would, perhaps, be over-literal to press details; but the picture, in one of its features at least, suggests a failure of the inundation of the Nile, like that indicated in Ezekiel 30:12.
Shall be comforted, etc. The Dante-like imagination of the prophet points the contrasts between the impression made by the fall of Assyria on the nations that yet survived, and on those that had already perished. The former mourn and shako with fear, for it is a warning to them that their turn also may come. On the other hand, the tress of Eden—the great monarchies that are already in Sheol—shall he "comforted" with the thought that yet another kingdom mightier than they has fallen as they fell (comp. Isaiah 14:4-20; Ezekiel 32:17-32, where the thought is elaborately expanded).
They that were his arm. The words point to the allies, in the first instance of Assyria, and secondly of Egypt. The last words of the verse present a striking parallel to Lamentations 4:20.
To whom art thou thus like, etc.? As in Ezekiel 31:10, the prophet passes from the past to the present, from the third person to the second, and as it were says to Hophra, "Thou art the man! all that I have said of Assyria is true of thee." This is Pharaoh and all his multitude. In the midst of thin uncircumcised (see note on Ezekiel 28:10). As a matter of fact, the Egyptians practiced circumcision, and Ezekiel must be thought of as using the term as simply an epithet of scorn.
The great cedar.
Assyria is compared to a cedar of Lebanon, which is an emblem of earthly magnificence.
I. THE CEDAR IS MAGNIFICENT. It is the favorite tree in biblical imagery to express splendor. In this respect it could be taken as a symbol of a great triumphant empire such as that of Assyria. Thus it is plainly declared that there is a splendor of this world. We are not to be surprised when we see the wicked flourishing like a green bay tree (Psalms 37:35). He may even attain to the proportions of the cedar of Lebanon. Note some of the characteristics of this magnificence.
1. Size. This is what first strikes one in viewing the cedar. Assyria was a big empire. Worldly success may be large.
2. Altitude. The cedar is not only broad-spreading. It towers high. There is an unchecked pride in worldly success.
3. Persistency. The cedar is green in winter. By clever devices unscrupulous people may escape many of the troubles of the true servants of God.
4. Fragrance. It cannot be denied that there is a certain fascination in worldly splendor.
II. THE CEDAR OF LEBANON EXCELS ALL THE TREES OF EDEN. There are points in which worldly magnificence surpasses the visible excellence of spiritual goodness. "Igor any tree in the garden of the Lord was like unto him in his beauty." The reasons for this should be considered, lest we be disappointed and confounded.
1. The impressiveness of the external. The cedar bulks largely before the eye of an observer, while the vine seems to creep feebly among the rocks or round its much-needed support. Yet it is the vine that fields refreshing fruit. There is a striking aspect in worldly success. Spiritual achievements do not arrest attention in the same way, because they are spiritual. Yet God looks not to worldly greatness, but to spiritual success.
2. Unscrupulousness. Men who trample on conscience take short cuts to success. It is not surprising that they outbid the conscientious in the market of the world's wares.
3. Want of restraint. The cedar is unpruned. It grows in wild, rank luxuriance on the unfrequented slopes of Lebanon. But the trees in the garden of the Lord are carefully pruned, Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth" (Hebrews 12:6).
III. THE CEDAR IS NOT INDEPENDENT OF SUPPLIES OUTSIDE ITSELF. "The waters made him great," If the waters were dried up, the proud tree would droop and die. Proud men glory in their own resources. But no one can be strong and continue in vigor without receiving supplies from without. The mind must be fed with fresh knowledge, as the body with fresh food. Moreover, the success that a man seems to create for himself is largely due to favorable circumstances. If the water did not run by the root of the tree, the tree would not flourish in its magnificent state. Therefore the pride of self-sufficiency is founded on an error; and he who ignores his dependence on help from without will one day find that that help is cut off and he left to wither in despair. Men who will not acknowledge God are yet daily recipients of his bounty. While they lift their heads in worldly self-satisfaction, he is still mercifully watering their roots and giving the good things on which they build their pride.
1. This fact should teach humility.
2. It should excite gratitude.
3. It should cause fear in negligent self-sufficiency.
4. It should lead to trust in God rather than in superficial worldly advantages.
The root and the waters.
I. THE TREE FLOURISHES THROUGH ITS ROOT.
1. The root supports the tree. It is the foundation. Unless the root is deep and strong the tree will fall, blown over by the hurricane or swept away by the flood. Our life needs a root, a foundation.
2. The root brings nourishment to the tree. It sucks in moisture from the earth and draws the rich juices of the soil up into the plant. When the roots are cut the tree must wither and die. The child's Christmas-tree looks green for the short season of festivities, but according to a common custom, being cut off without a proper root, it cannot live. There are souls that have no root in themselves (Matthew 13:21). They can only endure for a while. We must find supplies of spiritual nourishment if we are to persevere unto everlasting life.
3. The root lies low. The lordly branches of the cedar wave in the air and toss themselves proudly against the sky, but they could not thus thrive without the lowly root. Souls thrive on their humbler experiences. They grow strong in humility and trust.
4. The root is unseen. It lies in dark underground regions. He is but a shallow being whose every experience lies on the surface. "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him" (Psalms 25:14). The tree will die if the root be laid bare to the sun. Spiritual experience should be decently covered, not dragged to the light and made a matter of common talk. Let the leaves and fruit be seen; keep the root in the dark.
5. The root must press down to deep sources of supply. If the water be far from the surface, the root must go after it. "The well is deep" (John 4:11); then the water will be all the more cool and refreshing. It is good to press down to the deeper experiences of the Christian life.
II. THE ROOT NEEDS GOOD SUPPLIES OF WATER.
1. It needs water. Trees will not grow on the Sahara Desert. But a little moisture will bring vegetation. On the rare occasion of rain falling in the desert a sudden greenness appears on the sand; but the minute vegetable growth disappears as quickly as it comes, for the moisture rapidly evaporates in the heated air. Souls need the living waters. They need these waters because, like trees, they are alive. The statue does not droop in the noonday sun, because it is of stone, dead stone. There are statuesque souls that seem to thrive without any spiritual supplies, but they have no vitality in them. They are too stolid to faint. Fiery souls pine and wither when deprived of living water.
2. It must be within reach of water. It is nearly useless for the water to fall on the leaves if the root is not reached, but when the root is in moisture, though the leaves are covered with dust and sadly need cleansing showers, the tree will still live. We can bear heat and drought in the world if the soul's hidden roots are supplied by Divine grace. But we do not merely require superficial refreshment; we need such deep soul-supplies as shall penetrate to the roots of our being. For this purpose the roots must be near the water. Cattle can go down to the brooks and drink, but trees must be planted in moist soil. It is customary in the East to cut channels for water deflected from larger streams, that this may run among the roots of trees. The best trees grow by rivers of water (Psalms 1:3). Souls must be within reach of Divine supplies. It is not sufficient that God is gracious and that Christ can give of the water of life. We must be near the water ourselves. There must be personal appropriation. This is only possible by means of that spiritual neighborhood which is sympathy. The use of "means of grace"—prayers, Christian fellowship, meditation on Scripture, etc.—helps to rouse that sympathy, and so to bring the roots near to the great waters.
The proud cedar is laid low. Assyria falls. The fate of this great empire gives warning for all ages. Magnificence does not secure protection.
I. PRIDE IS THE BESETTING FAULT OF WORLDLY SUCCESS. Many things contribute to the excitement of this passion.
1. The perception of the success. No man can thrive in a worldly way without perceiving the fact.
2. The consciousness of power. The greatest success is that to which a person attains by his own efforts. When he puts forth energy and finds it fruitful, he is naturally tempted to think much of himself.
3. The attraction of the superficial. This worldly success is but a shallow growth. But lying all on the surface, it is very obvious to the eye and appears to be much more important than it really is.
4. The flattery of others. Directly a man is successful a host of flatterers arise about, him, some greedily expecting- crumbs from his table, others slavishly adoring his worldly greatness. Now, flattery accepted makes for pride.
II. THE PRIDE OF WORLDLY SUCCESS IS A GREAT SIN IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.
1. It is false. The success is not so glorious a thing as the proud man imagines it to be. Moreover, it is not purely created by the man who attains to it. He takes many advantages that are given to him by Providence, and claims them as of his own making.
2. It is ungrateful. The gifts of Heaven are held as though their owner were under no obligation to him who sent them.
3. It is impenitent. The proud man will not admit his faults. He attempts to hide his sin under his success.
4. It is selfish. Proud Assyria crushed her subject-nations. All pride is a glorification of self, too often at the expense of others. Pride excludes love.
5. It is worldly. This pride is simply concerned with earthly success. It shuts out all contemplation of the spiritual and the eternal Thus it beclouds the view of heaven and destroys the reverence that should be felt for God; it lowers the soul while it exalts self-esteem.
III. THIS PRIDE WILL BRING ITS OWN DOWNFALL. Because the cedar has lifted himself up in height, God has delivered him into the hands of the mighty one.
1. This is a Divine judgment. God is higher than the highest. He has power over the greatest. No pride can assert itself successfully in face of his wrath. At a touch from the hand of God the grandest pretensions crumble to dust. Empires topple to the earth at a glance from the Almighty.
2. This is brought about through the direct working of pride. It acts inwardly on the proud man and compasses his ruin. The height and breadth of the majestic cedar make it a prey to the whirlwind. The tall tree attracts the lightning. The rich man is waylaid by thieves, who neglect the poor man and so leave him in safety. The successful man is an object of envy. But pride increases the danger tenfold. It destroys sympathy and excites animosity. It also throws a man off his guard, making him think himself safe from attack or strong to defend himself. The false sense of security which it induces lays a snare for the man who harbors it. Our safety lies in the opposite direction—in humility, confession of sin, and trust in the pardoning, protecting grace of God.
The disappearance of Eden.
The downfall of Assyria is compared to the falling of a great cedar, and the shock that this event produces among the nations is likened to the shaking of neighboring trees when the cedar is laid low. The cedar disappears, as Eden has disappeared. The poetic image suggests more than that the tree lies prone on the ground. It pictures it sinking into the earth and passing out of sight, as it supposes the trees of Eden to have done before. This striking idea of the old Paradise going down into the depths of the earth—like an enchanted garden that sinks at the magician's wand, and leaves only a desolate wilderness on its site—seems to be referred to by Ezekiel as a prevalent popular notion.
I. EDEN HIS DISAPPEARED. According to the account in Genesis, man was expelled from the garden, but the garden itself was not laid waste or removed. On the contrary, flaming swords kept man from re-entering its coveted precincts. But we see no garden of Eden. Geographers search in vain for its situation on the map. The old Eden has vanished. This is not the only charm of the world's childhood that has passed away. Primitive innocence has disappeared. The unfading flowers and unblighted fruit of the Eden of soul-purity have vanished from off the earth. The fresh strong imagination of the world's childhood has passed away. Our later age produces no 'Iliad.'
II. EDEN CANNOT BE RECOVERED. The fair garden that has descended into the earth will never rise again. Beneath the ground the miner finds vast remains of primeval forests. These Edens of the past have become coal-fields. Never again can they be green and fruitful gardens. Primitive innocence can never be restored. The child-mind, once lost, cannot be had back again. There are irreparable losses.
III. THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS BETTER THAN THE GARDEN OF EDEN. The original Paradise cannot be regained. But a better Paradise is created by Christ. The earthly Paradise had its serpent lurking in the grass. The heavenly is more safe, more fruitful, more beautiful. Yet, though it is heavenly, i.e. in its origin and in its character, it is for the earth—it is planted in this world, and it is to be enjoyed in the present life. "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21).
IV. A STILL FAIRER EDEN IS RESERVED FOR THIS EARTH IN THE FUTURE. The New Testament promises a millennium. In our weary disappointments we are tempted to quench the hope of that glorious future. But if the rule and truth of Christ is to spread among all men, the blessed time must come. Then, indeed, the dead Eden itself will be forgotten and despised in the splendor of the reign of Christ.
V. THERE IS A PARADISE FOR THE BLESSED DEAD. Jesus promised it for the crucified robber. "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Old Eden goes down. The beauty and pomp of earth descend. But the spirits of Christ's people ascend. They do not go down to the grave with their bodies, and their Paradise is not beneath, but above. Heaven is the eternal Eden of souls.
"There everlasting spring abides,
And never-withering flowers."
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
The greatness of Assyria.
The Prophet Ezekiel, in witnessing against Pharaoh and Egypt, inculcated the lesson with all the more emphasis by the help of an historic parallel. He has to remind Egypt that, great as is her power, there have been powers as great as she that have been brought low. The consequences of national pride and self-confidence, the downfall and destruction of the mighty, may be learnt by considering the history and the fate of Assyria. References to the kingdom of which Nineveh was the magnificent capital are all the more interesting and intelligible to us because of the explorations which in our own time have brought to light so many monuments of Assyrian greatness, and so many illustrations of the social, religious, and military habits of the population of that long-vanished empire. The figure under which Ezekiel sets forth the grandeur and the fall of Assyria is one beautiful in itself, and peculiarly impressive to his own mind and to those who, like him, were acquainted with the scenery of Syria. Under the similitude of a lofty and spreading cedar of Lebanon, the prophet exhibits the dignity, the strength, the vastness and beauty of the kingdom which nevertheless perished, as the monarch of the forest is felled, cast to the earth, and delivered to destruction. The figure brings before us—
I. THE MAGNITUDE OF THE ASSYRIAN KINGDOM. The noble cedar of lofty stature and spreading boughs is a striking figure of the great world-empire of which colossal vastness is considered the most characteristic feature.
II. ITS PROSPERITY. The vigor and vitality of the proud cedar of Lebanon are artistically set forth by the poet-prophet. "The waters nourished him, the deep made him to grow; her rivers ran round about her plantation," etc. So the great state throve, all circumstances concurring to enhance its prosperity, all allies and tributaries furnishing material for its growth.
III. ITS STRENGTH. The exalted stature, the multiplied boughs, the long branches, are signs of the cedar's strength; the storms may beat upon its head, but it withstands the fiercest blast, and endures whilst generation after generation admire its grandeur, and come and go. The Assyrian empire seemed of unassailable power; the sovereigns arrogated to, themselves, an unquestionable authority; men thought of Nineveh—"that great city as of a city which could never be moved."
IV. ITS BEAUTY. Fair was the cedar in his greatness, in the length of his branches, nor was any tree in the garden of God like unto him in his beauty. Evidently to the mind of the prophet there was beauty in Assyria such as no choice similitude could exaggerate. This may not be so obvious to us as the assertion of Assyria's strength; but so it seemed to the mind of the world of old.
V. ITS INFLUENCE. This seems to be the idea conveyed by the sixth verse: "All the fowls of the heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations." A power so commanding, a position so authoritative, secured the homage of lesser states, which looked up to Nineveh for protection, and were ever ready, by flattery or by service, to minister to her greatness.
VI. ITS PRE-EMINENCE. The stature of the cedar of Lebanon was exalted above all the trees of the field. Even so, during its palmy days, Nineveh was the leader, the chief of the nations. It was long before that supremacy was questioned and disputed. Yet the day came, and Assyria fell.
(1) A great nation enjoying prosperity and wielding influence is especially bound to remember whence its power is derived; and
(2) to cultivate the conviction and sense of responsibility for the use made of gifts and influence entrusted to it. From God all comes, and to God the account must be rendered.—T.
The penalty of pride.
The description of Assyria's power and glory is introduced by the prophet in order to give point to the account now given of that nation's tragic fate. The more majestic the cedar, the more awful its downfall, and the more affecting the desolation thus wrought. For the warning of Egypt the prophet brings to memory the fate of one of the mightiest and most famous of the kingdoms of the East.
I. THE OFFENSE. This lay, not in the greatness and the might of the nation, which were appointed by Divine providence, but in the misuse of the position attained. The language used by Ezekiel concerning Assyria is very instructive as to Assyria's sin: "His heart is lifted up in his height." It is not the gifts bestowed in which the offence is to be sought, but it is in the erroneous view taken by the possessor, and in his abuse of those gifts. When we read of the heart being lifted up, we are led to understand that the nation took credit to itself for its position and acquirements, and for the influence thus enjoyed. In fact, as our Lord has expressly taught us, the heart is the seat and the source of all sin. Especially apparent is this in the case of the gifts of national exaltation, wealth, and military power; when the hearts of king and of people are filled with pride, self-confidence, and self-glorification.
II. THE CHASTISEMENT. The tree was smitten and felled by the hand of the stranger. A foreign foe, a rival nation, was employed to humble the pride of Assyria. The mighty one of the nations (by which we are to understand the King of the Babylonians) dealt with Assyria's pretensions to supremacy, and confounded them. "Strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off." No greater calamity could have befallen the proud and boastful nation; no more unexpected disaster!
III. THE RUIN. The figurative language used to describe this, though succinct, is conclusive and appalling: "Upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are fallen, and his boughs are broken by all the water-courses of the land," etc. The description affirms of the conquered Assyria:
1. Humiliation; for the lofty is laid low.
2. Desertion: "All the people of the earth have gone down from his shadow, and have left him." Those who praised and flattered Assyria in prosperity, in the time of adversity forsake and flout her.
3. The ruined nation becomes the prey of other peoples, who seek to profit by its fall.—T.
The lesson for all nations.
Doubtless the immediate aim of the downfall of such a nation as Assyria has respect to the people and their rulers, upon whom the judgment comes. But there is a universal lesson intended for the benefit of all peoples throughout all time.
I. GOD INCULCATES MORAL LESSONS BY THE WORDS UTTERED BY HIS SERVANTS. His law-givers, such as Moses; his prophets, such as Ezekiel; his priests and scribes, such as Ezra, have messages of instruction, encouragement, warning, for all mankind in every age. And God summons the children of men to give heed to his servants when they utter their messages, prefacing them with the assertion, "Thus saith the Lord."
II. GOD ENFORCES THESE VERBAL LESSONS BY FACTS, AND ESPECIALLY BY THE EVENTS OF HISTORY. In such catastrophes as the downfall of Assyria, as the siege of Jerusalem, as the destruction of Tyro, as the humiliation of Egypt, the eternal, righteous, and omnipotent Ruler of mankind speaks to his subjects with an authoritative and unmistakable voice. Facts embody principles. Historical incidents elucidate moral laws. Judgments enforce commands.
III. THE WONDER OF MEN'S INSENSIBILITY TO THESE LESSONS. It might be expected that those upon whom the message of the herald produces no impression would be roused from their apathy by the stirring incidents of political change and national disaster. But, as a matter of fact, multitudes are unaffected even by the downfall of a city, the revolution of a government, the displacement of a dynasty, the transference of the balance of power among the nations. Is not this in accordance with Christ's own words, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead?"
IV. THE FOLLY AND PENALTY OF INDIFFERENCE TO THESE LESSONS. They who give heed to Divine counsels, who profit by Divine admonitions, deliver their soul in the day of trouble and temptation. But they who hear unmoved, incredulous, unresponsive, the solemn and faithful appeals of God, uttered as with a voice of thunder in the events that befall the nations of mankind, by their conduct aggravate their guilt an& pen their own condemnation.
V. THE WISDOM OF IMMEDIATE ATTENTION TO THESE LESSONS, WITH THE PROPER FRUITS OF SUCH ATTENTION IN REPENTANCE AND OBEDIENCE. The parable was spoken, the providential interposition was recounted," To the end that none of all the trees by the waters exalt themselves." "He that hath an ear, let him hear."—T.
Mourning and lamentation.
The description here given of the distress and mourning which took place upon the occasion of the downfall of Assyria is very poetical, and might appear exaggerated were we not able, by the aid of imagination, to place ourselves in the position of an observer at that critical epoch in the history of the world. It was necessary that Pharaoh and his people should be enabled to enter into the fate of Assyria in order that they might learn the warning intended to be conveyed by that awful event. It was the aim of Ezekiel to portray Assyria in all her glory and in all her desolation, in order to impress upon the
Egyptians the lesson which at that conjuncture it was so important, for them to lay to heart. The mourning raised over the one kingdom might speedily be required by the condition of the other.
I. THE CAUSE OF MOURNING. The immediate cause was the disaster which befell Assyria and the allied and dependent nations. But to those who looked beneath the surface there was a deep-seated cause in the sin by which the mighty kingdom and its rulers brought upon themselves a fate so calamitous and irreversible. Wherever there is lamentation it may be suspected that the ultimate explanation of it is sin.
II. THE MOURNERS. The prophet speaks of the mighty rivers and the terrible ocean, of the majestic trees of the forest, as taking part in this lamentation. The nations shook at the Sound of Assyria's fall, when it went down to Hades. The literal fact is this—that all spectators with intelligence to understand what had occurred, and with a nature susceptible of feeling, viewed the calamity with appreciative pity. It was a catastrophe never to be forgotten, and the compassion of those who witnessed it rose to sublimity.
III. THE EXTENT AND VASTNESS OF THE MOURNING. This is evident from the fact of the Divine intervention. "Thus saith the Lord God, I caused a mourning." There could then be nothing petty or trivial in it. Originating in the counsels of the Eternal, and diffused throughout the earth, and reaching to the gates of Hades, this lamentation was worthy of the event. And it certainly justifies us in making our own the sorrows, not of individuals alone, but of nations and of mankind. It is a Divine exercise so to sympathize. "In all their afflictions he is afflicted."
IV. THE PROFIT OF MOURNING. We are assured upon high authority that "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting." It is a whole some and chastening discipline of the Soul. To mourn for our own faults is morally necessary. "They that lack time to mourn lack time to mend." But the case before the reader of this passage is that of mourning for the sins and the chastisement of humanity generally, and especially of the nations with whose experience we are personally conversant. A common sorrow binds hearts together, and enables men to realize their community. Grief over sin and its consequences is no inconsiderable protection against participation in the evil lamented.—T.
Greatness no exemption from retribution.
The argument of Ezekiel is clear. His appeal is to Egypt. Having related the fall of Assyria the great, he turns to Pharaoh and to his people, and reminds them that the fate which overtook Assyria is not impossible to them. Greatness is manifestly no security against judgment. It is no sure defense against the arms of men, and no defense at all against the judgments of the almighty Ruler of mankind.
I. GREATNESS MAY AND OFTEN DOES SECURE THE ADMIRATION AND EVEN THE ADULATION OF MEN.
II. BUT EARTHLY GREATNESS IS AS NOTHING IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.
III. IT IS NOT GREATNESS, BUT RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ACTION AND FAITHFULNESS TO ITS VOCATION, WHICH IS A NATION'S TRUE SECURITY.
IV. A TIME OF PRORATION COMES TO EVERY NATION, WHEN UNFAITHFULNESS AND SELF-CONFIDENCE MEET WITH THEIR DESERTS IN CHASTISEMENT AND HUMILIATION.
APPLICATION. Greatness is best shown in
(1) subjection to the King of all, and
(2) service and help rendered to the feebler and less favored.—T.
HOMILIES BY J.D. DAVIES
A terrible perdition.
Precious lemons can be learnt from God's treatment of others. As in others' conduct we may find a mirror of our own, so in others' chastisement we may find a reflected image of our own deserts. The principles on which God acts are these of eternal immutability. Therefore we may learn with certainty what will sooner or later happen. On the part of God, it is an act of genuine kindness that he holds up the perdition of one to deter others from sin. Thus he would turn the curse into a blessing—retribution into a Gospel.
I. WE HAVE HERE GREAT PRIVILEGE. The Assyrian monarch is compared to a "cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches, with shadowing foliage, and of high stature."
1. He enjoyed a position of superior elevation. What a cedar of Lebanon was, compared to other trees, the Assyrian king was in respect to other men. He possessed superior qualities. Possibly he had larger capacity of mind, and had larger opportunities of furnishing it. Certainly he had external advantages such as no others enjoyed. He enjoyed an eminence above other men, yea more, above other kings.
2. He received generous treatment from God. "The waters made him great." An unfailing stream from the heavenly fount irrigated his roots. Divested of poetical form, it means that God sustained body and soul by hourly supplies of good, though his hand was unseen. If his bodily strength did not languish, it was owing to a constant stream of vitality from God. If the capacity of his mind was maintained, it was due to the Divine succor. Substantial blessing, through invisible channels, was incessantly flowing into his roots. He was entirely dependent on the kindness of another.
3. He had a prosperous growth. As the result of so much blessing, he grew and prospered. In himself, in his kingdom, in his reputation, he flourished. His people were loyal; his army was valiant; his empire grew. Over every province, over every department of his government, the sunshine of Heaven rested. All that a king's heart could desire he had. He was the envied among contemporary kings: "the cynosure of neighboring eyes."
4. Large influence was within his reach. "All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs. Under his shadow dwelt all great nations." Such a tree was not simply an image of beauty, the delight of the human eye; it was useful to various forms of life. It was a source of blessing. So with the King of Assyria. His strong government was a protection to all classes of the people. It was a bulwark against invasion. It was a shield for industry, investigation, and commerce. The rich and the poor could dwell securely. All grades of his subjects could pursue their occupations without fear of molestation. Greater influence still he might have exerted. He could have fostered learning, encouraged many arts, established peace among surrounding nations, diffused joy in a myriad homes, lifted up the nation to a higher life. Such varied usefulness is a fountain of bliss.
II. GREAT FOLLY. "His heart is lifted up in his height."
1. Self-adulation. To admire one's self so as to forget our Divine Benefactor is both foolishness and sin. This is to cheat God of his due. If robbery is criminal anywhere, it is specially criminal when directed against God. To interpose ourselves between God and his proper worship is grievous sin.
2. False ground for admiration. To find satisfaction in external rank or elevation is a sore mistake. Neither wealth, nor station, nor anything outside ourselves is a proper ground for solid satisfaction. We should find our chief delight in real excellence—in likeness to God. Else we divert our minds from substantial good, and are taken up with gaud and tinsel.
3. Self-trust. Pride arrogates to itself qualities and possessions which do not belong to it. It is a condition of mind we may call "self-inflation." Self-trust is ruinous, because it is reliance upon a broken reed. Human strength, apart from God, is sheer frailty. No figure can exaggerate its feebleness. It is a vapor, a shadow, a mere cobweb. Man is strong only when affiliated to God. Therefore self-trust is self-deception, is suicide.
III. A GREAT DOWNFALL. Carrying out the harmony of the figure, there is:
1. Mutilation. "His boughs are broken." So pitiful is God, that he does not at once destroy. He visits with partial chastisement, in the hope that repentance and amendment may be the result. If he can spare from destruction, he will. This mutilation of his beauty was a lesson he ought to have taken to heart. If a higher being than he could, against his will, despoil him of some of his members, could he not despoil him of all? A wise man would have halted, reflected, turned over a new leaf. This mutilation represents dismemberment, loss of territory. This outward mutilation indicates diminution of vitality: "Grey hairs were here and there upon him, though he knew it not."
2. Scattering. "Upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are fallen." Memorials of this ruined cedar were distributed far and wide. Every stream bore them on. Every storm of wind scattered them. So in the time of a nation's misfortune, fair-weather allies easily desert. As prosperity brings many superficial friends, so adversity scatters them. At such a time a hundred foes will start out of ambush to annoy, if they cannot injure. When God becomes our foe, our resources speedily waste like snow at midday.
3. Degradation. "Upon his ruin shall all the fowls of heaven remain, and all the beasts of the field shall be upon his branches!" In other words, he shall be treated with contempt. Those before whom he has paraded his superiority shall, in turn, triumph over him. This conduct is to many a sweet revenge. It gives to them a conviction that they too have some hidden merit which now shall come to light. This degradation in the scale of being, in the scale of society, is a bitter element in God's penalty. "He that exalteth himself shall be abased." The pendulum that has swung too, far in one direction will presently swing to the other extreme.
4. Commiseration. I caused Lebanon to mourn for him, and all the trees of the field fainted for him." The fall of a flourishing king naturally causes consternation and concern in every palace. The self-security of others is rudely shaken. Every throne on earth seems to totter with the great vibration. Then, in noble minds, the sense of brotherhood appears. A tender tie, though often unseen, runs through the human race. The fall of one is a lesser fall to all. We all have a common interest in the fortune and destiny of humanity.
5. Diabolic triumph. "All the trees of Eden … shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth." This sense of exultation over the fall of another—whether it be latent or expressed—is base and devilish. Hence we learn that the feelings of men, in the state of Hades, is not improved by suffering: the exact reverse. Intelligent natures degenerate in hell. "Evil men wax worse and worse." Some, too, to whom the king, in prosperity, rendered signal service, will be disposed to taunt him in the day of his fall. An ingrate becomes the blackest of demons.
IV. A GREAT LESSON. "To the end that none of all the trees by the waters exalt themselves for their height." The terrible fall of the Assyrian king is used as a lesson and a warning to Pharaoh. God's judgments are stepping-stones to mercy. Over the most lurid cloud he flings the rainbow of his kindness. The darkest events may become to us fountains of blessing, if we are willing to gain the good. Thus God exhibits the strength and fullness of his love. If by any method, by any example, he can win us back from evil courses, he will. Marvelous is the obduracy of the human heart that will not yield to the charms of infinite love! The death of one may become life to many. God's aims are magnificent and far-reaching. By-and-by, he shall have the praise which is his rightful due. If with such displays of Divine kindness men are not ashamed of their sin, they must become more hardened and more depraved than ever. "My soul, come not thou into their secret!"—D.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The source of strength and beauty.
The "great power" of Assyria is likened in this parable to a noble cedar planted in (or transferred to) the garden of Eden, raising its head high above all the other trees in that "garden of God;" its eminence and its beauty being largely due to the fact that it was so well watered at its roots, that "the waters nourished him, the deep made him to grow; her rivers ran about her plantations" (Ezekiel 31:4, Revised Version); and that "his root was by many waters" (Revised Version). Here we have a picture of strength showing itself beautiful, extending its influence far and wide, owing everything to the hidden source below.
I. GREAT STRENGTH. The greatness of Assyria was the greatness of national power. We are accustomed to speak of the greater nations of the earth as the "great powers." As history has shown us, such "powers" have often proved to be little better than weakness when the hour of trial came; still, in appearance, in size, in equipment, in eminence, or in reputation, they have been comparatively great and strong. Greatness, as we recognize it, is seen in national position, in physical strength and skill, in mental grasp and literary accomplishment, in art and science, in social rank, in statesmanship, in character and moral weight. In any one of these spheres a community or a man may be "great" in the sight of its (his) contemporaries.
II. GREATNESS SHOWING ITSELF FAIN. "He was fair [or, 'beautiful'] in his greatness." Greatness may be either
(1) imposing, compelling the homage of all who behold it, instantly commanding their regard and their tribute; or it may be
(2) admirable, such that the longer it is watched by observant and critical eyes the more it is esteemed and the higher it is prized; or it may be
(3) attractive, of such gracious and winning mien that every one is drawn towards it and desires to come into closer association with it. There is much "greatness," or what commonly passes for such, that is distinctly unbeautiful. Possibly, indeed, it may be imposing or attractive to minds that are easily imposed upon or readily captivated; but it is devoid of all that is really excellent, and no true eye, that can distinguish the good from the pretentious, would call it fair. All beauty that is worthy of the name, and the only excellency that will last, is that which commends itself to the mind of the heart-searching Truth—beauty on which purity can look with pleasure, and which love can regard with genuine delight.
III. EXTENDING ITS INFLUENCE. One of its characteristics is "the length of its branches." It is the province of greatness to make itself felt on every hand, just as a noble tree throws out its branches far around its stem. This it may do deliberately and determinately; or it may do this unconsciously, as the simple and inevitable result of its own nature and life. The extension of our influence should be regarded by us, not as a right, but as a duty and a privilege. So far as we can make ourselves felt, and inasmuch as we believe ourselves to be the possessors and exponents of what is right and true, we should seek, even diligently, to "spread the branches" of our power as far as they will go. We should therefore shun all acts and extirpate all habits that tend to dwarf these branches, to diminish the influence we might be and should be exerting.
IV. THE SOURCE OF STRENGTH AND BEAUTY. This great cedar was what it was because "its root was by great [many] waters." It was always nourished from below. It drew its strength from its roots, and its roots found their resources in the abundant streams that never failed to water and to refresh them. Strength and beauty grow out of character, moral and spiritual, as the leaves and the branches and the stem grow out of the roots of the tree. And character must be fed by the living streams of truth that flow in the garden of God; not any one truth, nor yet one set or class of truths, but "all the truth" (John 16:13) which we are able to receive: our root is to be "by many waters." We must, if we would be the symmetrical and fruit-bearing tree we should aspire to become, take care that mind and heart are well nourished by all the truth we can gather from the great Teacher, or glean from those who spoke in his Name. Nor must we forget that, beside the root drinking in the moisture below, there are the myriad leaves drinking in the air and sunshine above. We must open all the leaves of our nature to receive the warm sunshine of the love of God, and to admit all the direct Divine influences which the Spirit of God will breathe upon us.—C.
Ezekiel 31:8, Ezekiel 31:9
The garden of God.
"The garden of God," standing, as it does, for the ideal region in which man in his perfection was placed when God was" well pleased with "him, may be taken as a picture of human society itself as it once was for however brief a period, and as it shall be again when the purposes of the Redeemer are fulfilled.
I. A REGION ABOUNDING IN FRUITFULNESS. In the first garden of God there grew every tree that was "good for food." The ideal state of human society is one in which all conceivable fruitfulness will be found; there will be ready for the hand of the Husbandman the fruits of faith, of devotion, of love, of sacred joy, of helpfulness, of calm contentment, of happy and unquestioning obedience. From all hearts and lives these fair fruits will spring.
II. A SCENE OF EXQUISITE BEAUTY. "The garden of God" must be, quite independently of all reference to Eden, a place of perfect beauty. Its trees and shrubs, its herbs and flowers, its lawns and paths must together present the appearance of perfect pleasantness to the eye. Such should, such (one day) shall our human societies, our communities, and our Churches be; they will be scenes where there is every form of human loveliness. There must be no unnatural monotony. As in our gardens we like to have vegetation of every possible variety of size and shape and hue, so in "the garden of God" shall there be every manifestation of moral worth, of spiritual beauty. One will not say to another, "There is no need of your particular excellence;" but each will rejoice in the manifold graces which are to be seen on every hand.
III. THE SPHERE OF HAPPY CULTURE. Our first parents were placed in Eden "to dress it and to keep it." Even "the garden of God" requires attention, planting, culture. So, certainly, does the most refined and Christianized human society. There may be much knowledge and there may be excellent habits within it, but it will always need careful and diligent culture—much seed-sowing; some weeding; some pruning and occasional transplanting. We may learn:
1. That it is better to be the humblest herb in the garden of God than the stateliest cedar outside it; better be utterly obscure in the right place than very prominent in the wrong one.
2. That each particular flower in the garden of God lends its own fragrance to the air; the garden would not be complete without it.
3. That not only does it behoove us to be as a flower in the garden of God, but it also befits us to be as a gardener extending the grounds, or planting or tending within its bounds.—C.
The spectacle of fallen greatness.
This very beautiful parable is suggestive of many things. The latter verses of the chapter bring the Divine meaning into full view. By the fact of the prophecy itself, we are reminded of—
I. THE DELUSION TO WHICH GREATNESS IS SUBJECT; Viz. that of imagining that it is invulnerable and irremovable. The strong kingdom says, "What power will touch me to hurt me? ' The strong man says, "What misfortune will overtake, what enemy will prevail against me?" (see Psalms 49:11). It is in the very nature of human exaltation to become foolishly assured of its own security, and to defy the assaults of time and change.
II. THE PREGNANT LESSON OF HISTORY. Egypt was now to learn of Assyria; to consider how surpassingly great she had been in her prime (Ezekiel 31:1-9), and to reflect upon the utter humiliation to which she had been condemned in the retributive providence of God. We may now learn of Egypt herself, to whom this lesson was addressed, and also of Macedonia, of Greece, of Rome, of Spain, etc; that a nation may tower high and far above the others, like this parabolic cedar (Ezekiel 31:5) above the trees of the garden, and yet be discrowned, be leveled to the very dust. And not only the lofty nation, but the ancient family, the proud dynasty, the titled and wealthy individual.
III. THE PENALTY OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. It is certain that no kingdom or "power" of any kind will very long outlive its purity, its virtue, its simplicity. Two things determine its doom.
1. God will punish its pride (see Ezekiel 31:10, Ezekiel 31:11, Ezekiel 31:18).
2. Iniquity begets strife, folly, inward corruption, weakness; and this must end, in time, in disaster and ruin. The seeds of death are already sown when power, either in the aggregate or in the individual man, gives way to iniquity. Without any extraordinary means, by God letting his righteous laws do their constant work, such a one is "driven away for his wickedness" (Ezekiel 31:11). And the end of evil is nakedness and desertion, emptiness and misery (Ezekiel 31:12). Incidental truths are here portrayed, viz.—
IV. THE UNRELIABLENESS OF HUMAN PROPS. Ezekiel 31:12, "All the people of the land have gone from his shade, and have left him." There are noble souls that will cleave to the sinking cause or to the failing man just because it is sinking, because he is failing. But their name is not legion; these are not the rule, but the exception. When the day of decadence comes, and the hour when the house is likely to fall, then expect those who have lived in the shadow of it to leave it to its fate. Nay, there will be found many of those who in the day of its strength enjoyed its hospitality that on the night of its adversity will find themselves comfortable seats upon its ruins (Ezekiel 31:13). We have another trace of—
V. THE DEPTH TO WHICH GREATNESS WILL DESCEND IN BECOMING THE OBJECT OF GENERAL COMPASSION. (Ezekiel 31:15.) Once it was the province of the great power to pity the necessitous and to stretch forth its strong hand of help and healing; now it lies prostrate and is itself the object of universal commiseration. "And none so poor to do it reverence."
1. Let human greatness beware. It is high and uplifted in the sight of men; but beware lest its heart be lifted up in arrogance and in self-confidence; for, if that be so, or if it be allowing evil to creep into any cracks of its walls, it will call down the condemnation of Heaven, and, in time, it will meet its doom. Where other prostrate powers lie, where the humblest and commonest are stretched, "in the midst of the children of men," "delivered to death" (Ezekiel 31:14), there shall it also be found, down and dishonored.
2. Let the holy humble-hearted be filled with a wise contentment. How much better than the greatness which is humiliated is the lowliness which is blessed and crowned!—blessed with the benediction of God and man, crowned with the glory to which righteousness conducts and in which it ends.—C.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34