Proper 6 • Ezekiel 17:22–24 •June 17, 2012
By Tim Saleska
Ezekiel 17:22–24 is an epilogue to the “Allegory of Two Eagles and the Vine” in 17:1–20. The allegory itself is described in 17:1–10. Then, in 17:11–17, the historical interpretation of the allegory is given. On the level of human history, the two eagles are Nebuchadnezzer and Egypt (Pharoah Psammetichus II and his successor Hophra). The top of the cedar, which is Jerusalem, is Jehoiachin and others of the royal family. And the royal seed (which grew into a low lying vine) was Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylon and looked to Egypt for help. The allegory tells the story of history.
But these are only the surface facts—that which is seen with the eyes. Beginning in 17:18 with the pronouncement that Zedekiah would not escape, and especially in 17:19–21, the focus shifts to the unseen author of all history, that is, to the theological interpretation of history. Behind the scenes, God is the subject of all history and is directing it to its final consummation at the end of time. Babylon, Egypt, and their rulers may think that they are operating freely, but it is actually Yahweh who is acting through them, and it is Yahweh’s oath and covenant that was broken (v. 19). No matter Zedekiah’s scheming, Yahweh’s word of judgment against his kingdom will prevail. The section ends with the chilling words “and then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken” (v. 21).
But that is not the last word Yahweh speaks to his people. “Thus says the Lord” (v. 22) introduces a new description of how Yahweh will rebuild the kingdom that he himself brought to judgment. Again, he is the Lord of history, and what he says will happen. He has the last word: “I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 24).
The context has taught us that the allegory in 17:22–24 describes (what will be) history and that what happens on the surface level in history must not be divorced from history’s “upper level,” from the working of Yahweh who controls it all. And so, in these verses, Yahweh remains the subject, as in 17:19–21. As he brought his kingdom low, so here he promises to raise it up. 17:22–24 describe the allegory. Yahweh (implicitly the Eagle) takes a sprig from the top of the cedar and plants it on a high mountain in Israel (v. 22). It will grow into a “noble cedar” which will produce fruit and provide protection for the birds (v. 23). All the other trees of the field will “know that I am the Lord” (v. 24). This line in the allegorical description looks back to 17:21, the historical/theological interpretation of Zedekiah’s defeat. It is as if the text invites us to perceive history behind the allegory and see a victorious counterpart to Zedekiah’s defeat.
But what history does the allegory describe? Unlike 17:1–21, Ezekiel doesn’t give us the interpretation. The context suggests the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, which has an immediate fulfillment in the survival of Jehoiachin in Babylon (2 Kgs 25:27–30), and also in Zerubbabel, his grandson (1 Chr 3:17), and God’s “signet ring” (Hag 2:20–23). But these are only shadows, hints that God had not forgotten his promise and that his word would not fail. The ultimate historical/theological interpretation is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of The Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth (perhaps a reference to the Messiah as a “branch” cf., Mt 2:23).
This little known messianic prophecy, is a lovely thread that joins with other passages describing the Messiah as a “branch,” “twig,” or “sprout” (Is 11:1–10; 53:2; Jer 23:5–6; 33:15; Zec 3:8; 6:12). These culminate in Jesus’s assertion: “I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser” (Jn 15:1).
In passages such as Isaiah 11:9; 25:6–8; 27:13; 56:7, Jerusalem is pictured as the highest mountain, which becomes the site of the reconciliation between God and sinners. That theme is taken up in Revelation 21, where the new Jerusalem is on a high mountain (v. 10), and in its midst is the Lord almighty and the Lamb (vs. 22–27). And in Matthew 13:31–32, like Ezekiel 17:22–24, the kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed which grows into a tree in which the birds make their nests.
The point must not be missed that the “reversal in fortune” described in 17:24 is controlled on both ends by God. That is to say, he kills and makes alive (cf. 1 Sm 2:6, Job 5:18, Hos 6:1). Nothing is beyond his control. What he says happens. This is Israel’s experience throughout her history, and this is what happened ultimately to Jesus, the Son of God, the heir of the covenant.
God is in control of ALL things. He is the Lord of death and life. And he promised that death would not have the last word. He promised that he would establish a kingdom without end. And this is what he did when he raised his Son from the dead. He conquered sin and death. He brought a kingdom of eternal life. God has made us a part of his kingdom, and he has given us his word in our baptism (a word that cannot be broken). He gives it again whenever we hear the gospel; in the Absolution and in the Lord’s Supper, the promise is repeated. “I have spoken and I will do it,” he says to us as well. And so we too look forward to this reversal of our fortunes on the Last Day when we will be raised from the dead. As the text describes it, that happened to Israel. It happened to the word made flesh and it will happen to us who in him are the heirs of Abraham’s promise.