Ezekiel 17:1-24: Elusive Allegory

Solidity, indeed, becomes the pen
Of him that writeth things divine to men:
But must I needs want solidness, because
By metaphors I speak?  Were not God’s laws,
His gospel laws, in olden time held forth
By types, shadows, and metaphors?
— John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)

Ezekiel 17 is difficult to understand—ironic really, since Ezekiel told the allegory to clarify the story rather than to hide it.

One of my favourite examples of Old Testament allegory is found when Nathan confronted David with the story of a rich and poor man (1 Samuel 12). After David was completely sucked into the injustice presented in the story, ready to make the rich man pay four times the value of his crime, Nathan spoke prophetically: You are the man.

Ezekiel wanted the same effect here. After the exiled Israelites had listened to and become engrossed with the story, Ezekiel hit them with the interpretation.

. . .

Let me list the story alongside its interpretation:

  • A great eagle took a crown of cedar from Lebanon and brought it to the land of commerce—the King of Babylon took the king of Jerusalem and brought him to Babylon.
  • This eagle took one of the seedlings and planted it in a fruitful location—the King of Babylon took a member of the royal line and made a covenant with him.
  • The seedling sprouted, became a vine, and spread its branches toward the eagle with its roots going down—the royal was humbled before the King of Babylon, and forced to remain faithful to the covenant.
  • A second eagle (that wasn’t as majestic as the first) appeared, and the vine turned its roots and branches upwards toward him so it would water him—The royal from Jerusalem rebelled by sending envoys to Egypt for help.

The point of the story is this: the royal from Jerusalem was unfaithful to his vow, and he can not expect help from Egypt for his treachery against Babylon.

At first glance, the allegory is very confusing. Why would Israel be judged for trying to escape their bondage to Babylon? What loyalty did Babylon have the right to claim when the vow was imposed on the royal from Jerusalem in the first place? The answer is two-fold.

. . .

The glib answer is as follows: Jerusalem should always keep their vows no matter how or why they were imposed.  It was an issue of integrity.

Somehow, that answer doesn’t seem satisfactory. There is something deeper here: Jerusalem was treating Babylon the same way they had treated Yahweh. They had turned away from their oaths, and sought solace in the arms of a foreign nation.

. . .

Interestingly, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the interpretation. In vv. 22-24, God said:

  • He will take a shoot from the top of a cedar.
  • He will plant the shoot on a high and lofty mountain in Israel.
  • He will ensure the shoot bears fruit
  • Birds of every kind will flock to it and nest in it, finding shade in its branches.
  • All the other trees will know that God brings down the high trees, and exalts the low ones—he dries up the green trees and makes the dry tree flourish.

Essentially: forget all this talk about the eagle of Babylon and of Egypt. God is the ultimate Eagle who will restore the fortunes of Israel. Once they’re humbled, they can be exalted.

The same goes for us. While we rely on our own means, all the while flocking to other sources of security, God will not help us. It’s only when we realize the depth of our depravity before God that we can truly call out to him for help. As Mary said, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52, NIV). As Jesus said, “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13:30, NIV).

. . .

Almighty God, remind us that earthly status has no bearing in your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

< Ezekiel 16:53-63 | Redemptive Shame

Ezekiel 18:1-20 | Personal Responsibility >

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One Response to Ezekiel 17:1-24: Elusive Allegory

  1. Robin September 9, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    Yet loth
    Will any sober man be to find fault
    With them, lest he be found for to assault
    The highest Wisdom. No, he rather stoops,
    And seeks to find out what by Pins and Loops,
    By Calves, and Sheep, by Heifers, and by Rams,
    By Birds, and Herbs, and by the blood of Lambs,
    God speaketh to him. And happy is he
    That finds the light and grace that in them be.
    — John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)

    There is none of man in God’s wisdom and there is no room in the wisdom of man to contain the breadth and depth of God’s wisdom. God’s “allegorical” Word bypasses our brains and cuts straight to our hearts. Like a secret code, it confuses the enemy, who may try to intercept it, but can make no sense of it because he does not have–no, he has utterly rejected–the decoder, the Lamb of God, who has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

    (Ha! How’s that for allegory? :D)

    Lord, thank you for wanting us to know your wisdom. Thank you for your patience. I want to know your wisdom and no one else’s, and I pray that your people hunger and thirst for your righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Please give us the staying power to remain stooped at your feet for as long as we need to, until your Word, your wisdom, has taken deep root within our spirits. And then, let us share the fruit of your Spirit with the world.

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