The book of Ezekiel is filled with many allegories. There is a story found in Ezekiel 17 about two eagles. Even though the chapter contains an interpretation, most modern readers would not know what the story means. The chapter starts out as God tells Ezekiel to articulate an allegory to the house of Israel. Then the story unfolds.
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. Ezekiel 17:3
This is the first eagle in the story, and later in the chapter Ezekiel does tell us that this is the king of Babylon (verse 12). But what does all the imagery mean? Merrill Unger in his commentary explains, “The great eagle . . . represents Nebuchadnezzar in his vast power and dominion over many subject nations and diverse nationalities.” He goes on to say, “The great conqueror came to Lebanon, standing for Palestine, particularly Jerusalem, because the royal place and Temple were built of cedars from Lebanon.” The top of the cedar refers to Jehoiachin – Nebuchadnezzar took King Jehoiachin into exile (II Kings 24). So, the allegory starts off talking about the great Babylonian king and how he has taken Judah’s king into exile. According to John MacArthur in his Bible commentary, Ezekiel 17 is dated about 588 B.C., which is approximately 2 years before the destruction of Jerusalem.
He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Ezekiel 17:4
The “he” refers back to the great eagle of the previous verse, which is Nebuchadnezzar. The verse says he broke off the top of its young twigs. In verse three it said he took the top of the cedar (or nation), now he breaks off the top young twigs. Whatever he is taking this time is on top and young. In II Kings 24 it tells us that Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he became king and only reigned in Jerusalem for three months. But if we keep reading the story, we find out who all the other top twigs are who were taken to Babylon.
He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon. The king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. II Kings 24:14-15
The top twigs include the young nobility or royal princes of Judah, but we see it also included chief men and fighting warriors. Nebuchadnezzar took the top of the nation to ensure he did not have to deal with rebellion. So, we are starting to get the picture of the allegory, but we haven’t found the centerpiece yet – what the story is really about.
Then 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, and 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. Ezekiel 17:5-6
This is an interesting twist in the story. After Nebuchadnezzar has taken off the top of the nation, he now takes the seed of the land and plants it. What does that mean? Well, if it is the seed of the land, we know that means he is taking someone from Judah. If you read the end of II Kings 24 you will see that Nebuchadnezzar places Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne. Back in verse 6 of Ezekiel 17 we see that the twig sprouts and becomes a low spreading vine, and the branches turn toward him (Nebuchadnezzar). This means that Zedekiah prospered under submission to Nebuchadnezzar. He became a low spreading vine because he was under the authority of the king of Babylon. According to John MacArthur, “The benevolent attitude of Nebuchadnezzar helped Zedekiah to prosper; and if he had remained faithful to his pledge to Nebuchadnezzar, Judah would have continued as a tributary kingdom.” Now we are getting somewhere. There was a pledge or oath between Nebuchadnezzar and Zedekiah. And now we have reached the meat of what the allegory is about. In the interpretation of the allegory a few verses down it says, “And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath . . . that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand.” (14-15) Nebuchadnezzar wanted to keep the kingdom of Judah intact, but he apparently required an oath from Zedekiah. We do not know the words of the oath, but in II Chronicles 36:13 it says of Zedekiah, “He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God. He stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Who can humble a king, but God. He lifts up and puts down. Zedekiah could have continued to be blessed under Nebuchadnezzar, but he refused to accept this and rebelled. Humility is a rare quality in kings, but it is one of the most important to God. The interesting thing about this “eagle” allegory is that neither of the eagles in the story represents Zedekiah. The refusal to accept God’s sovereign will had disasterous consequences. And as is always the case with kings, the consequences of the decisions you make (both good and bad) are held to a higher standard. The rewards of godliness are greater, and the costs of rebellion are much more devastating, because you are a king.