A majestic eagle with powerful wings and exotic plumage breaks off the top of a cedar tree and plants it in a city of merchants. He takes some of the seeds of the land and plants them beside abundant water. A vine grows up from the seeds and begins to take root and thrive. Its roots turn toward the eagle. But another stunning eagle comes along, and the vine stretches out its roots toward the second eagle, seeking water from him, abandoning the first eagle and the water he’s provided, Ez 17:1-8.
God’s been dealing with his people in the area of idolatry, using a whore-wife as his metaphor for them and the jealous husband who still wants her back for himself yesterday (for that story, see iwantmore.blog/2020/11/06). Their heart-bent in idolatry was to find satisfaction in life outside of the God who made satisfaction–and who made life.
As exiled captives, they haven’t learned anything. While God’s message to them through Ezekiel has consistently been, “Repent!” they’re still not listening. Yesterday’s reading was about how the leaders keep coming to Ezekiel for another word from the Lord, without hearing the one he’s already said (for that story, see November 5).
The metaphor in today’s passage of an eagle planting a vine points to this same issue of rejecting God and living life their own way, but this time it’s seen in their political lives as a nation. How we deal with God has ramifications for all of life.
Ezekiel asks, won’t the vine be pulled up by the eagle who’s been rejected, the one who’s provided its water? Even if it’s transplanted closer to the second eagle, he’s not the one who’s given it water. And the vine won’t have time to get established. When an east wind strikes, it will shrivel up and die, 17:9-10.
The prophet doesn’t leave the interpretation of this parable to his listeners to figure out. He tells them what it means: the king of Babylon is the first eagle who has come to Jerusalem and carried off its top people, represented by the cedar tree top, to Babylon. He’s set up a new king, Zedekiah, and “plants” him in Jerusalem. He makes a treaty with him that Babylon won’t completely overthrow Judah if Zedekiah and his people submit and pay Babylon tribute, 17:11-14.
The exiles aren’t anywhere close to Jerusalem. Warning them of an overthrow coming to God’s city would be of some interest since they likely have family left behind, but what’s the message in it for them?
Zedekiah has grown tired of serving Babylon and seeks help from Egypt, the second eagle. He breaks the treaty he made and tries to get men and horses from Egypt to help him throw off the rule of Babylon. But he can’t. Egypt doesn’t help, and Babylon is on the brink of coming back to finish what they started, 17:15-18.
God sent his prophet, Jeremiah, to tell Zedekiah that keeping his promise was the way to find God’s blessing, even as a vassal nation. And now Ezekiel has the same message for the exiles. God’s plan to prosper all of them, whether exiled or in Judah, would come through submission to Babylon, Jer 20:8-9; 27:12-13; 29:2. But the greater blessing would come by submission to the God behind Babylon.
God saw Zedekiah’s promise breaking to be as rebellious as if he’d broken a covenant with God himself, because Babylon is an extension of God’s sovereign rule. Even though it’s an enemy nation, it’s not outside of his control. God’s the one who directs the events of nations and history. “As surely as I live, I will bring down on his head my oath that he despised and my covenant that he broke. I will spread my net for him and he will be caught in my snare. I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment upon him there because he was unfaithful to me…Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken,” 17:19-21.
God says in effect to the exiles: this isn’t about Babylon and the rise and fall of nations. Do you see the outcome of Zedekiah’s rebellion? This is about being faithful to me.
The exiles would have triggered at the word “covenant” in verse 19. Oh, yeah. They would have been raised in Jewish school where they heard about the covenant that God made with his people at Mt. Sinai–he to be their loving God, and they, his loving people.
Their next thought might be, if God’s about to bring judgment on Zedekiah for breaking his covenant with the king of Babylon, what will he bring on us for breaking the covenant with him, the King of Kings? It’s not just been covenant breaking in their generation. There have been generations x generations of covenant breakers.
And while the generational sin is staggering, what’s even worse is their current condition. After all that’s happened and all that’s about to happen, they’re still deaf, dumb, and blind in Babylon–and blame shifting. The word on the street in Jerusalem before the exile was that God wasn’t fair: he punished the kids for the sins of their fathers, Jer 31:29-30. But here God shows them, nope. Not true. Case in point: Zedekiah sent envoys to Egypt all by himself. He can’t blame his daddy and granddaddy. Besides, didn’t Jeremiah and God warn him not to?
Ezekiel’s message is that the foolishness of Zedekiah is just like their own. They were carted off to Babylon because they rejected God and went their own way, just like Zedekiah. There are only two choices in life–our way or God’s way. Captured and exiled is where “our way” leads.
What will they do about it?
The story of the two eagles and the vine is the story of every person. It’s the story of God’s great goodness for us and our trying to find better life elsewhere, without him. It’s the story of Adam and Eve, of David and Bathsheba, of Jerusalem. Regardless of the twists and turns of our individual stories and the larger events of our nations, eventually, we all come right here where these people are, captured or exiled in one way or another: after all our wandering, will we see now? Will we repent now? Will we turn and follow God now?
The sins of nations begin with the ones in our own hearts. These are the ones God exposes and asks us to consider. Unrepentant hearts tore Jerusalem apart–first their families, then their communities, then their country. Hard hearts tear us apart today, too. What can be done? For all the effort to save-the-world and police-the-planet, we’ve neglected the only place we have any real impact–our very own hearts.
The Jews blamed the nations around them. They blamed their parents. They even blamed God. Blame-shifting is as much a part of our DNA as defensiveness and denial. Adam was the original blame-shifter, after all, “The woman you gave me, she….” And Eve piled in with, “The serpent, he….” Gen 3:12-13. There’s nothing new under the sun.
What can we do?
God answers that question with another parable, and here’s the happy ending I’ve been hanging around and hoping to find. He says he will take a tender shoot from the very top of that cedar tree and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. It will take root and thrive, grow branches and bear fruit that provides for birds of every kind. “…they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it,'” 17:22-24.
God will take Jesus, his tender shoot, his favorite Son from the tree of humanity, and break him on the cross and plant him in death to be raised up a tree of life with branches that nurture and shelter the weary world. His redeemed people, his church, is this tree of life that brings God’s message of hope and love to everyone.
It’s a magnificent word picture that says the same thing he said earlier in today’s passage: “‘I will establish an everlasting covenant with you…and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord,'” 16:60-63.
“When I make atonement for you for all you have done…'” God will make the atonement he requires. God as the third eagle will plant the Messiah. The Jews couldn’t repent because it would take a Savior’s death to make the way, the tender shoot had to be broken and planted. It takes the atonement that Jesus will have to make for them and for everyone else. Only God’s love in his Son is strong enough to break hard hearts. Only God’s love poured out by his Spirit can change anyone. It’s as true today as it was 2400 years ago.
The thing that was wrong with the old covenant, the one they kept breaking, is that it didn’t have any power to enable God’s people to keep it. The law it was based on–the 10 commandments and the rest of God’s recorded words–could only do two things: tell them what God wanted and show them they couldn’t do it–they needed a Savior.
God not only made the rules for how to please him, he came and lived on earth and kept the rules, and then he died to free us from the curse of them, so that by faith in what he did, we can live a new life of love with him and others. It’s a glorious plan, so glorious no person could have made it up. The best plans of man always make it about what we have to do. But God knew that if he left it up to us, we’d blow it every time.
We needed someone Divine.
God never leaves us without a “little good news.” It’s really the only story worth telling.
All roads lead to Jesus.
[I’ve said before that I think God might’ve been on the planning committee for the One Year Bible. Now I’m sure of it.]
God gives us the scoop on the new covenant:
it won’t be like the old one;
it came because we couldn’t keep the old one;
it will write God’s laws inside us;
it will connect us to God;
it will teach us who God is;
it’s for everyone, rich or poor, high or low;
it will bring us forgiveness and peace with God.
“If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
‘The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers…
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his bother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.'”
This psalm continues with the story that began yesterday of the Israelites after leaving Egypt. This part of it describes their sin against God in the desert–their not waiting for his words, their insistence on having the food they wanted, their jealousy of Moses and Aaron, their making and worshipping a bull, their forgetting God’s recent miracles for them, their despising the promised land once they got there, their unbelief along the way, their grumbling, and their worship of the Baal of Peor.
Twice when God’s had enough and is ready to destroy them, a man stands between the people and God to intervene so that God’s judgment is checked–Moses once and Phinehas later. It was a foreshadowing of the Savior they needed who would one day come so that God would “…forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more,” Heb 8:12.
Thank you, God, for Jesus, the Savior who has come. Thank you for getting to live on this side of the new covenant and for all of its perks, most especially, being freed because of forgiveness to walk with you.
My take away today is to remember you:
You made a plan for relationship with us,
and then you lived out that plan through your Son.
Jesus did what you required because
we couldn’t do it for ourselves.
And you give us a relationship with you
as immediate as yours is with him,
as if we actually succeeded in living the way you wanted us to,
because he did.
I can hardly believe all that I’m writing. The goodness of you never gets old.
Let me remember you, God. To not be the vine who grew away from her “abundant waters.” To not be the one who goes her own way. To not be the wanderer who exchanges your great glory for the glory of what you’ve made. These people were just people. And what they’re capable of, I’m capable of, too. Send up flares when I start to stray.
Thank you for being both the Designer of the new covenant and the One who kept it, so that I am free to praise.