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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ezekiel 31

 

 


Verses 1-18

EGYPT

Ezekiel 29:1-21; Ezekiel 30:1-26; Ezekiel 31:1-18; Ezekiel 32:1-32

EGYPT figures in the prophecies of Ezekiel as a great world-power cherishing projects of universal dominion. Once more, as in the age of Isaiah, the ruling factor in Asiatic politics was the duel for the mastery of the world between the rival empires of the Nile and the Euphrates. The influence of Egypt was perhaps even greater in the beginning of the sixth century than it had been in the end of the eighth, although in the interval it had suffered a signal eclipse. Isaiah (chapter 19) had predicted a subjugation of Egypt by the Assyrians, and this prophecy had been fulfilled in the year 672, when Esarhaddon invaded the country and incorporated it in the Assyrian empire. He divided its territory into twenty petty principalities governed by Assyrian or native rulers, and this state of things had lasted with little change for a generation. During the reign of Asshurbanipal Egypt was frequently overrun by Assyrian armies, and the repeated attempts of the Ethiopian monarchs, aided by revolts among the native princes, to reassert their sovereignty over the Nile Valley were all foiled by the energy of the Assyrian king or the vigilance of his generals. At last, however, a new era of prosperity dawned for Egypt about the year 645. Psammetichus, the ruler of Sais, with the help of foreign mercenaries, succeeded in uniting the whole land under his sway; he expelled the Assyrian garrison, and became the founder of the brilliant twenty-sixth (Saite) dynasty. From this time Egypt possessed in a strong central administration the one indispensable condition of her material prosperity’. Her power was consolidated by a succession of vigorous rulers, and she immediately began to play a leading part in the affairs of Asia. The most distinguished king of the dynasty was Necho II, the son and successor of Psammetichus. Two striking facts mentioned by Herodotus are worthy of mention, as showing the originality and vigour with which the Egyptian administration was at this time conducted. One is the project of cutting a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, an undertaking which was abandoned by Necho in consequence of an oracle warning him that he was only working for the advantage of foreigners-meaning no doubt the Phoenicians. Necho, however, knew how to turn the Phoenician seamanship to good account, as is proved by the other great stroke of genius with which he is credited-the circumnavigation of Africa. It was a Phoenician fleet, despatched from Suez by his orders, which first rounded the Cape of Good Hope, returning to Egypt by the straits of Gibraltar after a three years’ voyage. And if Necho was less successful in war than in the arts of peace, it was not from want of activity. He was the Pharaoh who defeated Josiah in the plain of Megiddo, and afterwards contested the lordship of Syria with Nebuchadnezzar. His defeat at Carchemish in 604 compelled him to retire to his own land; but the power of Egypt was still unbroken, and the Chaldaean king knew that he would yet have to reckon with her in his schemes for the conquest of Palestine.

At the time to which these prophecies belong the king of Egypt was Pharaoh Hophra (in Greek, Apries), the grandson of Necho II Ascending the throne in 588 B.C., he found it necessary for the protection of his own interests to take an active part in the politics of Syria. He is said to have attacked Phoenicia by sea and land, capturing Sidon and defeating a Tyrian fleet in a naval engagement. His object must have been to secure the ascendency of the Egyptian party in the Phoenician cities; and the stubborn resistance which Nebuchadnezzar encountered from Tyre was no doubt the result of the political arrangements made by Hophra after his victory. No armed intervention was needed to ensure a spirited defence of Jerusalem; and it was only after the Babylonians were encamped around the city that Hophra sent an Egyptian army to its relief. He was unable, however, to effect more than a temporary suspension of the siege, and returned to Egypt, leaving Judah to its fate, apparently without venturing on a battle. [Jeremiah 37:5-7] No further hostilities between Egypt and Babylon are recorded during the lifetime of Hophra. He continued to reign with vigour and success till 571, when he was dethroned by Amasis, one of his own generals.

These circumstances show a remarkable parallel to the political situation with which Isaiah had to deal at the time of Sennacherib’s invasion. Judah was again in the position of the "earthen pipkin between two iron pots." It is certain that neither Jehoiakim nor Zedekiah, any more than the advisers of Hezekiah in the earlier period, would have embarked on a conflict with the Mesopotamian empire but for delusive promises of Egyptian support. There was the same vacillation and division of counsels in Jerusalem, the same dilatoriness on the part of Egypt, and the same futile effort to retrieve a desperate situation after the favourable moment had been allowed to slip. In both cases the conflict was precipitated by the triumph of an Egyptian party in the Judaean court; and it is probable that in both cases the king was coerced into a policy of which his judgment did not approve. And the prophets of the later period, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, adhere closely to the lines laid down by Isaiah in the time of Sennacherib, warning the people against putting their trust in the vain help of Egypt, and counselling passive submission to the course of events which expressed the unalterable judgment of the Almighty. Ezekiel indeed borrows an image that had been current in the days of Isaiah in order to set forth the utter untrustworthiness and dishonesty of Egypt towards the nations who were induced to rely on her power. He compares her to a staff of reed, which breaks when one grasps it, piercing the hand and making the loins to totter when it is leant upon. Such had Egypt been to Israel through all her history, and such she will again prove herself to be in her last attempt to use Israel as the tool of her selfish designs. The great difference between Ezekiel and Isaiah is that, whereas Isaiah had access to the councils of Hezekiah and could bring his influence to bear on the inception of schemes of state, not without hope of averting what he saw to be a disastrous decision, Ezekiel could only watch the development of events from afar, and throw his warnings into the form of predictions of the fate in store for Egypt.

The oracles against Egypt are seven in number:

(1) Ezekiel 29:1-16;

(2) Ezekiel 29:17-21;

(3) Ezekiel 30:1-19;

(4) Ezekiel 30:20-26;

(5) Ezekiel 31:1-18.;

(6) Ezekiel 32:1-16;

(7) Ezekiel 32:17-32.

They are all variations of one theme, the annihilation of the power of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar, and little progress of thought can be traced from the first to the last. Excluding the supplementary prophecy of Ezekiel 29:17-21, which is a later addition, the order appears to be strictly chronological. The series begins seven months before the capture of Jerusalem, [Ezekiel 29:1] and ends about eight months after that event. How far the dates refer to actual occurrences coming to the knowledge of the prophet it is impossible for us to say. It is clear that his interest is centred on the fate of Jerusalem then hanging in the balance; and it is possible that the first oracles [Ezekiel 29:1-16; Ezekiel 30:1-19] may be called forth by the appearance of Hophra’s army on the scene, while the [Ezekiel 30:20-26] plainly alludes to the repulse of the Egyptians by the Chaldaeans. But no attempt can be made to connect the prophecies with incidents of the campaign; the prophet’s thoughts are wholly occupied with the moral and religious issues involved in the contest, the vindication of Jehovah’s holiness in the overthrow of the great world-power which sought to thwart His purposes.

Ezekiel 29:1-16 is an introduction to all that follows, presenting a general outline of the prophet’s conceptions of the fate of Egypt. It describes the sin of which she has been guilty, and indicates the nature of the judgment that is to overtake her and her future place among the nations of the world. The Pharaoh is compared to a "great dragon," wallowing in his native waters, and deeming himself secure from molestation in his reedy haunts. The crocodile was a natural symbol of Egypt, and the image conveys accurately the impression of sluggish and unwieldy strength which Egypt in the days of Ezekiel had long produced on shrewd observers of her policy. Pharaoh is the incarnate genius of the country; and as the Nile was the strength and glory of Egypt, he is here represented as arrogating to himself the ownership and even the creation of the wonderful river. "My river is mine, and I have made it" is the proud and blasphemous thought which expresses his consciousness of a power that owns no superior in earth or heaven. That the Nile was worshipped by the Egyptians with divine honours did not alter the fact that beneath all their ostentatious religious observances there was an immoral sense of irresponsible power in the use of the natural resources to which the land owed its prosperity. For this spirit of ungodly self-exaltation the king and people of Egypt are to be visited with a signal judgment, from which they shall learn who it is that is God over all. The monster of the Nile shall be drawn from his waters with hooks, with all his fishes sticking to his scales, and left to perish ignominiously on the desert sands. The rest of the prophecy (Ezekiel 29:8-16) gives the explanation of the allegory in literal, though still general, terms. The meaning is that Egypt shall be laid waste by the sword, its teeming population led into captivity, and the land shall lie desolate, untrodden by the foot of man or beast for the space of forty years. "From Migdol to Syene"-the extreme limits of the country-the rich valley of the Nile shall be uncultivated and uninhabited for that period of time.

The most interesting feature of the prophecy is the view which is given of the final condition of the Egyptian empire (Ezekiel 29:13-16). In all cases the prophetic delineations of the future of different nations are coloured by the present circumstances of those nations as known to the writers. Ezekiel knew that the fertile soil of Egypt would always be capable of supporting an industrious peasantry, and that her existence did not depend on her continuing to play the role of a great power. Tyre depended on her commerce, and apart from that which was the root of her sin could never be anything but the resort of poor fishermen, who would not even make their dwelling on the barren rock in the midst of the sea. But Egypt could still be a country, though shorn of the glory and power which had made her a snare to the people of God. On the other hand the geographical isolation of the land made it impossible that she should lose her individuality amongst the nations of the world. Unlike the small states, such as Edom and Ammon, which were obviously doomed to be swallowed up by the surrounding population as soon as their power was broken, Egypt would retain her distinct and characteristic life as long as the physical condition of the world remained what it was. Accordingly the prophet does not contemplate an utter annihilation of Egypt, but only a temporary chastisement, succeeded by her permanent degradation to the lowest rank among the kingdoms. The forty years of her desolation represent in round numbers the period of Chaldean supremacy during which Jerusalem lies in ruins. Ezekiel at this time expected the invasion of Egypt to follow soon after the capture of Jerusalem, so that the restoration of the two peoples would be simultaneous. At the end of forty years the whole world will be reorganised on a new basis, Israel occupying the central position as the people of God, and in that new world Egypt shall have a separate but subordinate place. Jehovah will bring back the Egyptians from their captivity, and cause them to return to "Pathros, the land of their origin," and there make them a "lowly state," no longer an imperial power, but humbler than the surrounding kingdoms. The righteousness of Jehovah and the interest of Israel alike demand that Egypt should be thus reduced from her former greatness. In the old days her vast and imposing power had been a constant temptation to the Israelites, "a confidence, a reminder of iniquity," leading them to put their trust in human power and luring them into paths of danger by deceitful promises (Ezekiel 29:6-7). In the final dispensation of history this shall no longer be the case: Israel shall then know Jehovah, and no form of human power shall be suffered to lead their hearts astray from Him who is the rock of their salvation.

Ezekiel 30:1-19.-The judgment on Egypt spreads terror and dismay among all the neighbouring nations. It signalises the advent of the great day of Jehovah, the day of His final reckoning with the powers of evil everywhere. It is the "time of the heathen" that has come (Ezekiel 30:3). Egypt being the chief embodiment of secular power on the basis of pagan religion, the sudden collapse of her might is equivalent to a judgment on heathenism in general, and the moral effect of it conveys to the world a demonstration of the omnipotence of the one true God whom she had ignored and defied. The nations immediately involved in the fall of Egypt are the allies and mercenaries whom she has called to her aid in the time of her calamity. Ethiopians, and Lydians, and Libyans, and Arabs, and Cretans, the "helpers of Egypt," who have furnished contingents to her motley army, fall by the sword along with her, and their countries share the desolation that overtakes the land of Egypt. Swift messengers are then seen speeding up the Nile in ships to convey to the careless Ethiopians the alarming tidings of the overthrow of Egypt (Ezekiel 30:9). From this point the prophet confines his attention to the fate of Egypt, which he describes with a fulness of detail that implies a certain acquaintance both with the topography and the social circumstances of the country. In Ezekiel 30:10 Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldaeans are for the first time mentioned by name as the human instruments employed by Jehovah to execute His judgments on Egypt. After the slaughter of the inhabitants the next consequence of the invasion is the destruction of the canals and reservoirs and the decay of the system of irrigation on which the productiveness of the country depended. "The rivers" (canals) "are dried up, and the land is made waste, and the fulness thereof, by the hand of strangers" (Ezekiel 30:12). And with the material fabric of her prosperity the complicated system of religious and civil institutions which was entwined with the hoary civilisation of Egypt vanishes for ever. "The idols are destroyed; the potentates are made to cease from Memphis, and princes from the land of Egypt, so that they shall be no more" (Ezekiel 30:13). Faith in the native gods shall be extinguished, and a trembling fear of Jehovah shall fill the whole land. The passage ends with an enumeration of various centres of the national life, which formed, as it were, the sensitive ganglia where the universal calamity was most acutely felt. On these cities, each of which was identified with the worship of a particular deity, Jehovah executes the judgments, in which He makes known to the Egyptian His sole divinity and destroys their confidence in false gods. They also possessed some special military or political importance, so that with their destruction the sceptres of Egypt were broken and the pride of her strength was laid low (Ezekiel 30:18).

Ezekiel 30:20-26.-A new oracle dated three months later than the preceding. Pharaoh is represented as a combatant, already disabled in one arm and sore pressed by his powerful antagonist, the king of Babylon. Jehovah announces that the wounded arm cannot be healed, although Pharaoh has retired from the contest for that purpose. On the contrary, both his arms shall be broken and the sword struck from his grasp, while the arms of Nebuchadnezzar are strengthened by Jehovah, who puts His own sword into his hand. The land of Egypt, thus rendered defenceless, falls an easy prey to the Chaldaeans, and its people are dispersed among the nations. The occasion of the prophecy is the repulse of Hophra’s expedition for the relief of Jerusalem, which is referred to as a past event. The date may either mark the actual time of the occurrence, {as in Ezekiel 24:1} or the time when it came to the knowledge of Ezekiel. The prophet at all events accepts this reverse to the Egyptian arms as an earnest of the speedy realisation of his predictions in the total submission of the proud empire of the Nile.

Chapter 31 occupies the same position in the prophecies against Egypt as the allegory of the richly laden ship in those against Tyre (chapter 27). The incomparable majesty and overshadowing power of Egypt are set forth under the image of a lordly cedar in Lebanon, whose top reaches to the clouds and whose branches afford shelter to all the beasts of the earth. The exact force of the allegory is somewhat obscured by a slight error of the text, which must have crept in at a very early period. As it stands in the Hebrew and in all the ancient versions the whole chapter is a description of the greatness not of Egypt but of Assyria. "To whom art thou like in thy greatness?" asks the prophet (Ezekiel 31:2); and the answer is, "Assyria was great as thou art. yet Assyria fell and is no more." There is thus a double comparison: Assyria is compared to a cedar, and then Egypt is tacitly compared to Assyria. This interpretation may not be altogether indefensible. That the fate of Assyria contained a warning against the pride of Pharaoh is a thought in itself intelligible, and such as Ezekiel might very well have expressed. But if he had wished to express it he would not have done it so awkwardly as this interpretation supposes. When we follow the connection of ideas we cannot fail to see that Assyria is not in the prophet’s thoughts at all. The image is consistently pursued without a break to the end of the chapter, and then we learn that the subject of the description is "Pharaoh and all his multitude" (Ezekiel 31:18). But if the writer is thinking of Egypt at the end, he must have been thinking of it from the beginning, and the mention of Assyria is out of place and misleading. The confusion has been caused by the substitution of the word "Asshur" (in Ezekiel 31:3) for "T’asshur," the name of the sherbin tree, itself a species of cedar. We should therefore read, "Behold a T’asshur, a cedar in Lebanon," etc.; and the answer to the question of Ezekiel 31:2 is that the position of Egypt is as unrivalled among the kingdoms of the world as this stately tree among the trees of the forest.

With this alteration the course of thought is perfectly clear, although incongruous elements are combined in the representation. The towering height of the cedar with its top in the clouds symbolises the imposing might of Egypt and its ungodly pride (cf. Ezekiel 31:10, Ezekiel 31:14). The waters of the flood which nourish its roots are those of the Nile, the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness. The birds that build their nests in its branches and the beasts that bring forth their young under its shadow are the smaller nations that looked to Egypt for protection and support. Finally, the trees in the garden of God who envy the luxuriant pride of this monarch of the forest represent the other great empires of the earth who vainly aspired to emulate the prosperity and magnificence of Egypt (Ezekiel 31:3-9).

In the next strophe (Ezekiel 31:10-14) we see the great trunk lying prone across mountain and valley, while its branches lie broken in all the water-courses. A "mighty one of the nations" (Nebuchadnezzar) has gone up against it, and felled it to the earth. The nations have been scared from under its shadow; and the tree which "but yesterday might have stood against the world" now lies prostrate and dishonoured-"none so poor as do it reverence." And the fall of the cedar reveals a moral principle and conveys a moral lesson to all other proud and stately trees, its purpose is to remind the other great empires that they too are mortal, and to warn them against the soaring ambition and lifting up of the heart which had brought about the humiliation of Egypt: "that none of the trees by the water should exalt themselves in stature or shoot their tops between the clouds, and that their mighty ones should not stand proudly in their loftiness (all who are fed by water); for they are all delivered to death, to the underworld with the children of men, to those that go down to the pit." In reality there is no more impressive intimation of the vanity of earthly glory than the decay of those mighty empires and civilisations which once stood in the van of human progress; nor is there a fitter emblem of their fate than the sudden crash of some great forest tree before the woodman’s axe.

The development of the prophet’s thought, however, here reaches a point where it breaks through the allegory, which has been hitherto consistently maintained. All nature shudders in sympathy with the fallen cedar: the deep mourns and withholds her screams from the earth; Lebanon is clothed with blackness, and all the trees languish. Egypt was so much a part of the established order that the world does not know itself when she has vanished. While this takes place on earth, the cedar itself has gone down to Sheol, where the other shades of vanished dynasties are comforted because this mightiest of them all has become like to the rest. This is the answer to the question that introduced the allegory. To whom art thou like? None is fit to be compared to thee; yet "thou shalt be brought down with the trees of Eden to the lower parts of the earth, thou shalt lie in the midst of the uncircumcised, with them that are slain of the sword." It is needless to enlarge on this idea, which is out of keeping here, and is more adequately treated in the next chapter.

Chapter 32 consists of two lamentations to be chanted over the fall of Egypt by the prophet and the daughters of the nations (Ezekiel 32:16, Ezekiel 32:18). The first (Ezekiel 32:1-16) describes the destruction of Pharaoh, and the effect which is produced on earth; while the second (Ezekiel 32:17-32) follows his shade into the abode of the dead, and expatiates on the welcome that awaits him there. Both express the spirit of exultation over a fallen foe, which was one of the uses to which elegiac poetry was turned amongst the Hebrews. The first passage, however, can hardly be considered a dirge in any proper sense of the word. It is essential to a true elegy that the subject of it should be conceived as dead, and that whether serious or ironical it should celebrate a glory that has passed away. In this case the elegiac note (of the elegiac "measure" there is hardly a trace) is just struck in the opening line: "O young lion of the nations!" (How) "art thou undone!" But this is not sustained: the passage immediately falls into the style of direct prediction and threatening, and is indeed closely parallel to the opening prophecy of the series (chapter 29). The fundamental image is the same: that of a great Nile monster spouting from his nostrils and fouling the waters with his feet (Ezekiel 32:2). His capture by many nations and his lingering death on the open field are described with the realistic and ghastly details naturally suggested by the figure (Ezekiel 32:3-6). The image is then abruptly changed in order to set forth the effect of so great a calamity on the world of nature and of mankind. Pharaoh is compared to a brilliant luminary, whose sudden extinction is followed by a darkening of all the lights of heaven and by consternation amongst the nations and kings of earth (Ezekiel 32:7-10). It is thought by some that the violence of the transition is to be explained by the idea of the heavenly constellation of the dragon, answering to the dragon of the Nile, to which Egypt has just been likened. Finally all metaphors are abandoned, and the desolation of Egypt is announced in literal terms as accomplished by the sword of the king of Babylon and the "most terrible of the nations" (Ezekiel 32:11-16).

But all the foregoing oracles are surpassed in grandeur of conception by the remarkable Vision of Hades which concludes the series-"one of the most weird passages in literature" (Davidson). In form it is a dirge supposed to be sung at the burial of Pharaoh and his host by the prophet along with the daughters of famous nations (Ezekiel 32:18). But the theme, as has been already observed, is the entrance of the deceased warriors into the under-world, and their reception by the shades that have gone down thither before them. In order to understand it we must bear in mind some features of the conception of the underworld, which it is difficult for the modern mind to realise distinctly. First. of all, Sheol, or the "pit," the realm of the dead, is pictured to the imagination as an adumbration of the grave or sepulchre, in which the body finds its last resting-place; or rather it is the aggregate of all the burying-grounds scattered over the earth’s surface. There the shades are grouped according to their clans and nationalities, just as on earth the members of the same family would usually be interred in one burying-place. The grave of the chief or king, the representative of the nation, is surrounded by those of his vassals and subjects, earthly distinctions being thus far preserved. The condition of the dead appears to be one of rest or sleep; yet they retain some consciousness of their state, and are visited at least by transient gleams of human emotion, as when in this chapter the heroes rouse themselves to address the Pharaoh when he comes among them. The most material point is that the state of the soul in Hades reflects the fate of the body after death. Those who have received the honour of decent burial on earth enjoy a corresponding honour among the shades below. They have, as it were, a definite status and individuality in their eternal abode, whilst the spirits of the unburied slain are laid in the lowest recesses of the pit, in the limbo of the uncircumcised. On this distinction the whole significance of the passage before us seems to depend. The dead are divided into two great classes: on the one hand the "mighty ones," who lie in state with their weapons of war around them; and on the other hand the multitude of "the uncircumcised, slain by the sword"-i.e., those who have perished on the field of battle and been buried promiscuously without due funeral rites. There is, however, no moral distinction between the two classes. The heroes are not in a state of blessedness; nor is the condition of the uncircumcised one of acute suffering. The whole of existence in Sheol is essentially of one character; it is on the whole a pitiable existence, destitute of joy and of all that makes up the fulness of life on earth. Only there is "within that deep a lower deep," and it is reserved for those who in the manner of their death have experienced the penalty of great wickedness. The moral truth of Ezekiel’s representation lies here. The real judgment of Egypt was enacted in the historical scene of its final overthrow; and it is the consciousness of this tremendous visitation of divine justice, perpetuated amongst the shades to all eternity, that gives ethical significance to the lot assigned to the nation in the other world. At the same time it should not be overlooked that the passage is in the highest degree poetical, and cannot be taken as an exact statement of what was known or believed about the state after death in Old Testament times. It deals only with the fate of armies and nationalities and great warriors who filled the earth with their renown. These, having vanished from history, preserve through all, time in the underworld the memory of Jehovah’s mighty acts of judgment; but it is impossible to determine whether this sublime vision implies a real belief in the persistence of national identities in the region of the dead.

These, then, are the principal ideas on which the ode is based, and the course of thought is as follows. Ezekiel 32:18 briefly announces the occasion for which the dirge is composed; it is to celebrate the passage of Pharaoh and his host to the lower world, and consign him to his appointed place there. Then follows a scene which has a certain resemblance to a well-known representation in the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 14:9-11). The heroes who occupy the place of honour among the dead are supposed to rouse themselves at the approach of this great multitude, and hailing them from the midst of Sheol, direct them to their proper place amongst the dishonoured slain. "The mighty ones speak to him: ‘Be thou in the recesses of the pit: whom dost thou excel in beauty? Go down and be laid to rest with the uncircumcised, in the midst of them that are slain with the sword."’ Thither Pharaoh has been preceded by other great conquerors who once set their terror in the earth, but now bear their shame amongst those that go down to the pit. For there is Asshur and all his company; there too are Elam and Meshech and Tubal, each occupying its own allotment amongst nations that have perished by the sword (Ezekiel 32:22-26). Not theirs is the enviable lot of the heroes of old time who went down to Sheol in their panoply of war, and rest with their swords under their heads and their shields covering their bones. And so Egypt, which has perished like these other nations, must be banished with them to the bottom of the pit (Ezekiel 32:27-28). The enumeration of the nations of the uncircumcised is then resumed; Israel’s immediate neighbours are amongst them-Edom and the dynasties of the north (the Syrians), and the Phoenicians, inferior states which played no great part as conquerors, but nevertheless perished in battle and bear their humiliation along with the others (Ezekiel 32:29-30). These are to be Pharaoh’s companions in his last resting-place, and at the sight of them he will lay aside his presumptuous thoughts and comfort himself over the loss of his mighty army (Ezekiel 32:31 f.).

It is necessary to say a few words in conclusion about the historical evidence for the fulfilment of these prophecies on Egypt. The supplementary oracle of Ezekiel 29:17-21 shows us that the threatened invasion by Nebuchadnezzar had not taken place sixteen years after the fall of Jerusalem. Did it ever take place at all? Ezekiel was at that time confident that his words were on the point of being fulfilled, and indeed he seems to stake his credit with his hearers on their verification. Can we suppose that he was entirely mistaken? Is it likely that the remarkably definite predictions uttered both by him and Jeremiah [Jeremiah 43:8-13;, Jeremiah 44:12-14;, Jeremiah 44:27-30;, Jeremiah 46:13-26] failed of even the partial fulfilment which that on Tyre received? A number of critics have strongly maintained that we are shut up by the historical evidence to this conclusion, They rely chiefly on the silence of Herodotus, and on the unsatisfactory character of the statement of Josephus. The latter writer is indeed sufficiently explicit in his affirmations. He tells us that five years after the capture of Jerusalem Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, put to death the reigning king, appointed another in his stead, and carried the Jewish refugees in Egypt captive to Babylon. But it is pointed out that the date is impossible, being inconsistent with Ezekiel’s own testimony, that the account of the death of Hophra is contradicted by what we know of the matter from other sources (Herodotus and Diodorus), and that the whole passage bears the appearance of a translation into history of the prophecies of Jeremiah which it professes to substantiate. That is vigorous criticism, but the vigour is perhaps not altogether unwarrantable, especially as Josephus does not mention any authority. Other allusions by secular writers hardly count for much, and the state of the question is such that historians would probably have been content to confess their ignorance if the credit of a prophet had not been mixed up with it.

Within the last seventeen years, however, a new turn has been given to the discussion through the discovery of monumental evidence which was thought to have an important bearing on the point in dispute. In the same volume of an Egyptological magazine Wiedemann directed the attention of scholars to two inscriptions, one in the Louvre and the other in the British Museum, both of which he considered to furnish proof of an occupation of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar. The first was an Egyptian inscription of the reign of Hophra. It was written by an official of the highest rank, named "Nes-hor," to whom was entrusted the responsible task of defending Egypt on its southern or Ethiopian frontier. According to Wiedemann’s translation, it relates among other things an irruption of Asiatic bands (Syrians, people of the north, Asiatics), which penetrated as far as the first cataract, and did some damage to the temple of Chnum in Elephantine. There they were checked by Nes-hor, and afterwards they were crushed or repelled by Hophra himself. Now the most natural explanation of this incident, in connection with the circumstances of the time, would seem to be that Nebuchadnezzar, finding himself fully occupied for the present with the siege of Tyre, incited roving bands of Arabs and Syrians to plunder Egypt, and that they succeeded so far as to penetrate to the extreme south of the country. But a more recent examination of the text, by Maspero and Brugsch, reduces the incident to much smaller dimensions. They find that it refers to a mutiny of Egyptian mercenaries (Syrians, Ionians, and Bedouins) stationed on the southern frontier. The governor, Nes-hor, congratulates himself on a successful stratagem by which he got the rebels into a position where they were cut down by the king’s troops. In any case it is evident that it falls very far short of a confirmation of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Not only is there no mention of Nebuchadnezzar or a regular Babylonian army, but the invaders or mutineers are actually said to have been annihilated by Hophra. It may be said, no doubt, that an Egyptian governor was likely to be silent about an event which cast discredit on his country’s arms, and would be tempted to magnify some temporary success into a decisive victory. But still the inscription must be taken for what it is worth, and the story it tells is certainly not the story of a Chaldean supremacy in the valley of the Nile. The only thing that suggests a connection between the two is the general probability that a campaign against Egypt must have been contemplated by Nebuchadnezzar about that time.

The second and more important document is a cuneiform fragment of the annals of Nebuchadnezzar. It is unfortunately in a very mutilated condition, and all that the Assyriologists have made out is that in the thirty-seventh year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar fought a battle with the king of Egypt. As the words of the inscription are those of Nebuchadnezzar himself, we may presume that the battle ended in a victory for him, and a few disconnected words in the latter part are thought to refer to the tribute or booty which he acquired. The thirty-seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar is the year 568 B.C., about two years after the date of Ezekiel’s last utterance against Egypt. The Egyptian king at this time was Amasis, whose name (only the last syllable of which is legible) is supposed to be that mentioned in the inscription. What the ulterior consequences of this victory were on Egyptian history, or how long the Babylonian domination lasted, we cannot at present say. These are questions on which we may reasonably look for further light from the researches of Assyriology. In the meantime it appears to be established beyond reasonable doubt that Nebuchadnezzar did attack Egypt, and the probable issue of his expedition was in accordance with Ezekiel’s last prediction: "Behold, I give to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the land of Egypt; and he shall spoil her spoil, and plunder her plunder, and it shall be the wages for his army". [Ezekiel 29:19] There can of course be no question of a fulfilment of the earlier prophecies in their literal terms. History knows nothing of a total captivity of the population of Egypt, or a blank of forty years in her annals when her land was untrodden by the foot of man or of beast. These are details belonging to the dramatic form in which the prophet clothed the spiritual lesson which it was necessary to impress on his countrymen-the inherent weakness of the Egyptian empire as a power based on material resources and rearing itself in opposition to the great ends of God’s kingdom. And it may well have been that for the illustration of that truth the humiliation that Egypt endured at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar was as effective as her total destruction would have been.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezekiel-31.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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