“The Eagles, the Vine and the Cedar”
September 14, 2014
Why do God’s people constantly look for human solutions?
I. The Eagles and the Vine (Ezekiel 17:1-10)
II. The Parable Explained (Ezekiel 17:11-21)
III. The Image Re-applied to Restoration (Ezekiel 17:22-24)
God made an awful mistake when he allowed Jacob and his sons to go down to Egypt for rescue. At least it looks like an awful mistake. In Genesis 12 Abraham had gone down to Egypt and it was not good. In Genesis 26 Isaac wants to go to Egypt, and God says no. But in Genesis 37 God sends Joseph to Egypt by the treachery of his brothers, and God sends a famine which brings the rest of the family to Egypt for aid. They were protected and multiplied there for many years until a Pharaoh rose who did not know Joseph and who feared the strong and numerous Hebrew people. He made them slaves, and they were oppressed until finally God rescued them and brought them out with a mighty hand.
But, they kept wanting to return to Egypt, painting pictures of Egypt as Sara Groves said in our prelude. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Halitosis in Egypt was great, let’s go back. One of my favorite depictions of this is from the old Veggie Tales video, “Josh and the Big Wall:” “That’s a big wall. This time I really mean it. We should go back to Egypt. Huh? Don’t you remember? Snorkeling in the Nile. Three square meals a day. Plenty of exercise. . . Oh, It was paradise. We were in slavery. Nothing is perfect.”
And from then on when the going got tough, the wimpy got going, back to Egypt. Over and over, especially in the years of the divided kingdoms, one king or another would get the bright idea of calling on the Egyptians for help. Prophets like Jeremiah warned them, but Pharaoh was their go to guy. Even in Ezekiel’s day near the very end of the Northern Kingdom, there was this pull. The politics of the time pitted Egypt against Babylon, so if Babylon was attacking you, it seemed reasonable to turn to Egypt for help. But God condemned such an alliance, through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
So how does this apply to our lives today? I guess the question we need to ask is, what might be our Egypt? What do we look to for help if we’re not looking to God? Some look to government. A google search yielded impassioned voices saying that government has a responsibility to create jobs, to help farmers, to support the arts, to protect its citizens, to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Even those who would limit government tend to look to the government when the going gets tough, for food stamps or medical care or education. In the current environment there are not always alternatives. But history teaches that we can’t count on government to act in our best interests.
Others would turn to money, or financial security. I’m going to build such a huge nest egg, and invest it so wisely that no economic downturn, job loss or unexpected expense will ever touch me. Today in America if you listen to the investment gurus you definitely get the idea that money buys happiness. But there have been a lot of people who have tried this, and who have ended up in misery, from the Wall Street barons of the 1920’s to the bankers of 2008.
Others would turn in any distress to comfort. Comfort food, comfort sex, comfort stuff, comfort shopping, comfort in alcohol or drugs or pornography. ‘I’ve had a hard day. I deserve a little relief.’ We turn to these things instead of God. Do you ever come home and say ‘man, I need a little God. I need a little Jesus.’ You’d freely admit this is really what you need: to come to him and lay your burdens down and rest and receive strength. Why do God’s people constantly look for human solutions? Why are we always going back to Egypt?
In today’s text, Ezekiel 17, God tells the parable of the two eagles to show his people the folly of looking for human solutions. Ezekiel 17:1-10 The word of the Lord came to me:2Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel; 3say, Thus says the Lord God: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. 4He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. 5Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, 6and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs. 7And there was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage, and behold, this vine bent its roots toward him and shot forth its branches toward him from the bed where it was planted, that he might water it. 8It had been planted on good soil by abundant waters, that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine. 9Say, Thus says the Lord God: Will it thrive? Will he not pull up its roots and cut off its fruit, so that it withers, so that all its fresh sprouting leaves wither? It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it from its roots. 10Behold, it is planted; will it thrive? Will it not utterly wither when the east wind strikes it—wither away on the bed where it sprouted?
Ezekiel presents his readers with a riddle, a parable. It’s interesting how such riddles were used in the international politics of the day. A powerful king would riddle another, and if the weaker failed to answer the riddle he would have to submit as a vassal; in some circumstances he would even be put to death. Here God is giving the riddle, and if Israel failed to live out a correct understanding of it, they would suffer worse consequences than they had already incurred.
The riddle is set forth in two parts. Verses 1-6 describe an eagle that was extremely glorious and multicolored. This bird flew to Lebanon. This isn’t referring to the land surrounding Damascus, but to Jerusalem. When Solomon built his palace and called it ‘the House of the Cedars of Lebanon, this became a nickname for Israel itself. This great eagle takes the top branches and sprouting twigs from the top of the cedar and brings them to a land of merchants. Then the eagle took seeds and planted them in that land of fertile soil. The seeds grew to a low spreading vine that sent out shoots and branches. The second part of the riddle portrays another great eagle, not quite as glorious as the first, which caused the transplanted vine to turn its branches and roots toward it. Though the vine was initially planted in good soil so that it would yield abundant produce, it would no longer thrive; for it would be uprooted and its fruit cut off by the east wind. No man would be able to restore it.
The parable is probably understandable without the explanation. Frequently in the Bible an eagle stands for a nation, so we expect the two eagles to be two nations. The cedar of Lebanon stands for God’s people. The vine is also a common Biblical image for God’s people. So God’s people are planted by one nation but drawn to another. And when God interprets it, he names the nations.
Verses 11 to 21: Then the word of the Lord came to me: 12Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon. 13And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath (the chief men of the land he had taken away), 14that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand. 15But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army. Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape? 16As I live, declares the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant with him he broke, in Babylon he shall die. 17Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, when mounds are cast up and siege walls built to cut off many lives. 18He despised the oath in breaking the covenant, and behold, he gave his hand and did all these things; he shall not escape. 19Therefore thus says the Lord God: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head. 20I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there for the treachery he has committed against me. 21And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken.
The first eagle was Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, who took King Jehoiachin, the crest of the cedar, and his young princes and nobles, the topmost young twigs, into exile in Babylonia, a land of merchants. In addition to its association with God’s chosen people, the cedar has specific messianic overtones. It represents the line of David that culminates in the Messiah, Jesus. Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin was of the Davidic line. But after Jehoiachin was exiled, Nebuchadnezzar set up a regent in Israel, Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah. Zedekiah and the Hebrews remaining in the land were planted in a fertile soil, but they were not to become flourishing cedars, but rather a low and spreading vine, because they were in subjection, by God’s will, to Nebuchadnezzar.
The second eagle represented the king of Egypt to whom Zedekiah sent for military aid when he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar in 588 B.C. He stretched out his branches and turned his roots toward the second eagle. This turning to Egypt had been opposed vigorously by both Isaiah and Jeremiah. In light of this, God asks rhetorically ‘will Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape?’ The emphatic answer: no!
Because of his disobedience both to his covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, sworn in God's name, and to his covenant with God, Zedekiah received the judgments promised in the Mosaic covenant. God would spread a net and seize him with the Babylonian army and bring him to Babylon in exile. Egypt would be of no help when Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, for Zedekiah's army would fall by the sword, the remaining population would be scattered, and Zedekiah would ultimately die in Babylonia. Yet this was a manifestation of God's grace, for he faithfully executed his justice in order that Zedekiah might come to know that the only true God, had spoken in these judgments.
So that’s the explanation of the parable: if you look for human solutions, turning back to Egypt, you will find those solutions are poison and lead to more misery than you’re experiencing now. This is one of Ezekiel’s common themes. A few weeks ago I told a parable of my own about a father who had made a deal to keep his sons from suffering. But it turned out they needed the suffering before they would turn from their worldly desires and comforts. God is saying to Israel that she needs the exile in Babylon to break her of her worldly desires and idolatries. But she keeps looking for human solutions. Again, as I showed the kids in children’s corner, it’s like directing your roots into a pot of poison and expecting to grow, when there is a source of pure nourishment readily available to us no matter what we may be going through.
So can we examine ourselves? Are there ways you could push back on worldly comforts and resources in order to more fully experience God’s provision?
What do I turn to? What is my Egypt? Maybe I need to put down the digital device? Maybe forego that shopping trip? Maybe spend that money on the needs of others instead of putting away quite so much for a future that is ultimately in God’s hands anyway? Maybe get help with the addiction? Maybe focus on building positive relationships in the family and the church rather than quite so much on self-care? The best form of self-care may be an outward focus anyway. It’s different for all of us, but we all have the tendency to go first to a worldly solution of problems, and only second to God.
But God has the best long-term plan. Verses 22-24: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24And all the trees of the field shall know I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.
Wherever God pronounces judgment, he declares hope as well. Judah had failed to remain planted and fruitful. In the future, however, after God had cleansed Judah through his discipline, he would take a tender sprig from the topmost shoots of the cedar and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. This cutting of the cedar was not from the first cutting made by Nebuchadnezzar in verse 4, that is, Jehoiachin. Jeremiah said that the descendants of Jehoiachin would not sit on the Davidic throne. The line would continue through other descendants of David. This new cutting was, however, from the cedar, the messianic line.
It was a tender cutting, a concept that had messianic implications. Isaiah 11:1, for example says that “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jeremiah says ““Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This was the Messiah whom God would establish as King over Israel.
The high and lofty mountain then is Mount Zion and the temple complex, and possibly also the Mount of Olives, to which the Glory of God would return in the person of Jesus. This messianic kingdom would be great and fruitful as a stately cedar tree. All the birds would nest in its branches, and like the eagles earlier, these birds represent nations, the nations of the world. All would submit to the Messiah and his rule.
Verse 24 concludes by reminding us that God brings low the high tree, and makes high the low tree. He dries up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. Those who seek their comfort and security the world’s way will be brought low, but those who find their comfort and security in God will be exalted. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.
So when things get rough, do God’s people look for human solutions or God’s solutions. Since early summer the Ebola virus has been ravaging West Africa. The virus is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, tears, and discharges, so medical personnel are frequent victims. And the disease has a fatality rate much higher than fifty percent. So far more than 2300 people have died, and the World Health Organization warns that the total could reach 20000 even if comprehensive aid begins to flow immediately.
Among the victims of this worst-ever Ebola outbreak have been a number of medical missionaries. About half of these have died. Among those who have lived are Doctor Kent Brantly, nurse Nancy Writebol and Dr. Rick Sacra, all with the missions organization SIM. Writebol and Brantly have been released from a hospital in Atlanta where they received an experimental medication, which may have contributed to their recovery. But they give praise and glory to God.
And they have been criticized for glorifying God and not thanking man. But here are Kent Brantly’s actual words: "Through the care of the Samaritan's Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life — a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.” Yeah, God used human means, but he was also answering prayers. Why that kind of comment should be criticized by thousands I’m not sure.
They have also received intense criticism because of their decision to go to Africa and stay when the disease broke out. Conservative columnist and author Ann Coulter ranted against Brantly as a narcissist who went to West Africa for the glamour of high visibility service. He should have stayed home, she said, and taken care of some poor Texas town. Or gone to Los Angeles. If he had won a single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, she says, he would have done more good than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Apparently Hollywood lives are way more important than African lives.
But Kent Brantly is responding to God’s call on his life. It’s not the world’s way, it’s not Ann Coulter’s way. He was willing to sacrifice, not for glory, but to serve ‘the least of these.’ He says “I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I still remember every face and name.” Upon feeling symptoms on July 23rd, Brantly immediately isolated himself while waiting for tests. “When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace beyond all understanding,” he said. “God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.” Listen to what he says: “As I lay in my bed in Liberia for the following nine days, getting sicker and weaker each day, I prayed that God would help me to be faithful even in my illness, and I prayed that in my life or in my death, He would be glorified.”
Nancy Writebol had the same experiences. Her husband David says it’s astonishing that people criticize his wife and others who try to do a bit of good in the world. “I think it exposes the underlying philosophy and worldview of the age where … an individual is really of no account and when someone goes to extraordinary lengths to minister to and perhaps help an individual, then that's looked down upon.” Amazing. But Nancy Writebol wasn’t in this for the world’s approval. And there were many days she thought she would not survive, especially the day she was evacuated from Liberia, half-delirious and loaded onto the plane via a baggage conveyor belt. What she does remember, though, is her faith. “The Lord came near and said, ‘Am I enough?’” she recalled. “And my response was, ‘Yes, Lord, you are enough.’”
The third Doctor, Sacra, volunteered to return to Liberia from his He volunteered to return to Liberia from his Boston, Mass., home when his colleagues—Brantly and Writebol—fell ill while serving at ELWA. He had served there before, he knew the hospital, knew the risks, and chose to walk for Jesus into the heart of that. He actually went to work in an obstetrics ward, but he contracted the disease anyway. And when he came back to the U.S. Kent Brantly went and donate blood to Rick Sacra, so that he could have the use of Kent’s successful antibodies. I have no idea what Ann Coulter would say about that. But these are people, and there are so many like them, who were not looking for the human way of doing things, not looking for human solutions, or human approval. They could have gone back to Egypt, back to America and lived comfortable and safe lives serving here. But they would rather suffer to show God’s love than seek comfort the world’s way.