Parable of the Eagles and God's Judgment on Oath Breaking
Chapter 17 is a message concerning Jewish royalty and the world powers of Ezekiel's time. It is first presented as a riddle or parable of two great eagles, a cedar tree and a vine (verses 1-10). The exiles with Ezekiel are evidently given some time to make sense of it, but they are unable to (compare verses 11-12). So God directs His prophet to make the meaning plain (verses 11-21). Jesus would later use this type of teaching technique.
The first eagle (verse 3) represented Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar (verse 12). The eagle was used to symbolize both the tool God used to punish as well as the speed at which the punishment was carried out (compare Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 46:11; Hosea 8:1). The large, powerful wings enabled the eagle to fly long distances and symbolized the extent of the territory under the eagle's power. "Full plumage" (verse 3, NIV) represented a populous empire. "Various colors" revealed the empire to be composed of different peoples from various nations.
"Lebanon" denoted the entire area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea (the Levant), the region of Israel and Syria. As God had told Israel in Joshua 1:4, "From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your territory" (see also 2 Kings 14:9). Jerusalem was the chief city of this region. Moreover, as noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Jeremiah 22, another passage in which Jerusalem is referred to as Lebanon, the Phoenician area of Tyre and Sidon commonly referred to as Lebanon was the source of the cedar wood used in the construction of the royal buildings of Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon. Thus the cedar of Lebanon in Ezekiel 16:3 symbolized Judah and the Davidic royal family. The cedar's "highest branch" (verse 3) and "topmost shoot" (verse 4, NIV), which the eagle broke off and carried away, were the king who was removed from the throne and his princes (verse 12). They were taken to a "city of merchants" in a "land of trade." Even without the explicit interpretation, this was clearly Babylon, as the previous chapter of Ezekiel referred to "the land of the trader, Chaldea" (16:29).
The riddle should not have been hard to unravel so far. This had already happened in 597 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar deported King Jehoiachin or Jeconiah to Babylon along with most of the nobility. Indeed, this is when Ezekiel himself and the exiles among whom he lived went into captivity. Continuing the parable, Nebuchadnezzar then "took also of the seed of the land" (Ezekiel 17:5, KJV) a particular seed and planted "it" in a fertile field, setting it up as a willow tree. (The New King James interpolation of "some of the seed of the land" is evidently incorrect.) The seed here was a reference to "a member of the royal family" (verse 13, NIV) who replaced the topmost shoot. The fertile field was simply the Promised Land. God had earlier described it as "a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs" (Deuteronomy 8:7).
The new king was set up as a "willow by abundant water" (Ezekiel 17:5, NIV), illustrating his prosperous life as king but also his total dependence on Babylon for his rule, just as a willow is dependent on water. This too had already happened when Jeconiah was removed. Nebuchadnezzar set up Jeconiah's uncle, Josiah's third son Mattaniah now renamed Zedekiah, as ruler over Judah. The "spreading vine of low stature," with its branches turned toward the Babylonian eagle and its roots firmly planted under it in the soil of the Promised Land, pictured Zedekiah and the people of Judah under him continuing to flourish—but only as a subject vassal kingdom under Babylon.
Another great eagle enters the scene in verse 7, which, as God explains, represented Egypt and its pharaoh (compare verse 15). Egypt was also a populous empire of "full plumage" (NIV). The roots and branches of the vine now stretch toward this eagle, seeking to be watered by it instead of Babylon, symbolizing the entire nation reaching out to Egypt for help to gain independence from Babylon. God explains, "But he [Zedekiah] rebelled against him [Nebuchadnezzar] by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and many people" (verse 15). Yet, as God proclaims, this effort would fail.
The Jewish ruler was a fool. His throne was safe and he was protected by Babylon. His kingdom would be strengthened and the throne passed to his children if he remained faithful to Babylon. But he would not. The vine, king and nation, would not survive because of his foolish actions. It would be uprooted to wither when touched by the "east wind"—symbolic of destruction from Babylon in the east (verses 8-10).
This mention of Zedekiah's rebellion was prophetic, as it had not yet happened. Ezekiel 17 falls within chapters 12-19, a section dated to 592-591 B.C. (compare Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 20:1). Yet it was not until 588 B.C., when Pharaoh Hophra came to the throne of Egypt, that Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. And this rebellion did indeed prove to be the historical impetus for the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:20-25:1). In response, Nebuchadnezzar sent an army and laid siege to the city. In the summer of 586, the food supply was gone in Jerusalem. The wall was breached and the city fell to the Babylonians, who destroyed it.
In verses 15-21, God decries Zedekiah's betrayal of his oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar (see verse 13). Psalm 15:4 gives God's standard for giving one's word: "he who swears to his own hurt and does not change"—i.e., does not go back on it. Why should there be different standards for nations or kings? In fact, this wouldn't even have been to Zedekiah's hurt. The relationship with Babylon guaranteed peace in the region due to Babylon's powerful army. The vine was "planted in fertile soil and placed ...beside abundant waters." Zedekiah ought to have realized that his position could not be improved by rebellion. But even if it could, he had sworn his loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar.
This covenant was not an international treaty freely entered into, but one imposed on him by a conquering king. Nevertheless, Zedekiah had publicly agreed to it. Most importantly, the oath was made in God's name (2 Chronicles 36:13), and God considered it binding. In fact, God considers breaking a vow made in His name to be treason against Him (Ezekiel 17:20). Ezekiel relays God's message that those who break their oaths and covenants will not be delivered. As a personal judgment against Zedekiah, God says, "Because he had given his hand in pledge and yet did all these things, he shall not escape" (verse 18, NIV). God was true to His own word. As already pictured in Ezekiel 12:12-14, Zedekiah would attempt an escape at the time the walls of Jerusalem fell, but would be caught, blinded and taken captive and his troops killed. And that's exactly what happened (Jeremiah 52:7-11).
Transplanting of the Davidic Throne
Continuing the imagery of the parable mentioned earlier in the chapter, the last three verses in Ezekiel 17 relay a remarkable prophecy. It begins with God stating, "I [not Babylon this time but God Himself] will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar..." (verse 22, KJV). The New King James Version says "one of the highest branches," but that is incorrect. God is taking of,something from, the highest branch. The highest branch is of course the king. And what does God take that is of this king? "A tender one from the topmost of its young twigs" (NRSV). The young twigs of the branch would be the king's children. A "tender" one would seem to signify a female, especially when we consider that Zedekiah's sons were all killed. This tender twig is then planted in "a high and prominent mountain." A mountain often signifies a great nation in Bible prophecy—this one being apparently one of the foremost nations in the world. God then specifies what he means: "On the mountain height [the very top of the nation, the throne] of Israel [not Judah!] I will plant it."
Most commentators misinterpret the meaning. Some see the prophecy as signifying Jeconiah's descendant Zerubbabel, who later returned to Judea from the Babylonian exile as a governor. Yet he was only a governor under the Persians, not ruling in majesty as a king over "birds of every sort"—many other peoples. Furthermore, he was not cut out from Judah when the nation and royal family stood as a tall Lebanon cedar, but long after the nation had been carried away into captivity. The planting of the twig in the high mountain of Israel in this interpretation is seen as the return of Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. But Judah was not then or anytime afterward a great nation that came to rule over many other peoples. In fact, the Jewish state remained mostly subjugated to foreign powers and eventually ceased to exist once again. The bringing down of the high, fruitful tree (verse 24) is said to be the fall of Zedekiah while the exaltation of the low, dry tree is claimed to be the restoration of the lineage of Jeconiah. But his lineage was never really restored, as none of his descendants were ever to occupy the throne (Jeremiah 22:30).
Recognizing the problems with Zerubbabel in the interpretation, many commentators see the prophecy as messianic, as the Messiah would come from the line of David. Yet there are problems with this too. When Jesus Christ lived, neither Judah nor its royal family could in any way be symbolized by a tall cedar, as the area was then occupied by the Romans and no Davidic king had ruled there for more than 500 years. And the bringing down of the high tree and exaltation of the low tree does not fit such an analogy. So the explanation is given this way: The cropped off young twig was a member of the Davidic family at the time of Ezekiel from whom Jesus descended, Himself a branch from the replanting in Jerusalem. Often this twig is understood to be the lineage of Jeconiah through Zerubbabel continuing on to Christ. But whereas Jesus' adoptive father Joseph came from this lineage, He Himself did not physically descend from Jeconiah and this Zerubbabel or else He would not be a legitimate heir to the throne. Jesus, through His mother Mary, sprang from the Davidic line of Nathan, which was nowhere near the "highest branches of the high cedar" at any time. And again, the high and low trees don't fit.
So what does the prophecy mean? As explained in our publication The Throne of Britain: Its Biblical Origin and Future, it concerns a transfer of the line of David in the days of Ezekiel and Jeremiah from Judah to Israel. The tender sprig of the highest branch taken by God and planted elsewhere represents one of the daughters of Zedekiah who was under the protection of Jeremiah (compare Jeremiah 43:5-6), God's instrument used for pulling down the throne and planting it elsewhere (compare Jeremiah 1:10)—moving the Davidic lineage from Judah to the British Isles. (See our publication, Seven Prophetic Signs Before Jesus Returns for a much more thorough and detailed explanation.)
All of northern and western Europe at this time was dominated by the northern tribes of Israel— taken into captivity by the Assyrians years before, but now a large, migratory nation long on the move after the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. Eventually, the leading tribe of Israel, Ephraim, would settle in the British Isles, come under the Davidic throne and expand to become the greatest empire in history, ruling many peoples over a vast portion of the earth (request or download our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy to learn more.)
"And," God says, "all the trees of the field [other nations of the earth] shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it" (Ezekiel 17:24). Judah was the "high tree" and Israel the "low tree" from the time the two kingdoms split in the days of Rehoboam, due to David's throne ruling over Judah and not Israel. Judah had been a "green tree," fruitful with Davidic royalty, and Israel a "dry tree" throughout that period. God would reverse the positions, resulting in a major mark on world history.