The Pursuit of God

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Ezekiel 19: Yahweh Laments Two Lions & A Vine

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When people think of Old Testament prophecy, they often think of Yahweh predicting the coming of Christ.  And yet Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament are far outnumbered by political prophecies—ones in which Yahweh is predicting how individual nations and politicians will do in the future.  Will they thrive or tank?  Will they conquer or be conquered?  Will they be exalted among their fellow humans or utterly humiliated?

In this post, we’re going to check out Ezekiel 19—a chapter in which Yahweh prophesies some very bad news for the royal dynasty of Judah: all of those young bucks who were hoping to one day get a shot at the throne.  As was typical for countries in the Old Testament world, Judah was a monarchy.  She had one king who could pretty much do whatever he wanted.  Jewish kings didn’t have to answer to a congress or parliament.  They weren’t restrained by a democratic separation of powers.  What the king wanted, the king did—at least that was the dream.  But by the time of Ezekiel 19, being the king of Judah was far from glamorous or fun.  At this point in history, the mighty Babylonian Empire considered tiny Judah to be one of her possessions, and Jewish kings were expected to function like puppets of the Babylonian Empire.  Well, when you’re a fiercely patriotic Jew, you naturally resent this kind of arrangement.  So rather than agree to pay the heavy taxes to Babylon, Jewish kings searched for ways to try and revolt.  Of course it’s tricky business trying to break free from a tyrant when you are a much smaller, weaker country.  And when Yahweh is the national God of your country, yet you’re refusing to consult Him and you’re disobeying His clear instructions, well, then things go south really fast.

The royal throne in Jerusalem has been occupied by some real lemons ever since good King Josiah was killed in battle back in 609 BC.  It was Josiah’s son Jehoahaz [Jeh-HO-a-haz] who took his father’s place, but he only lasted three months before he was hauled off to Egypt as a prisoner.  And here Egypt was the country Judah was counting on to help her break free of Babylon.  Talk about awkward.

After Jehoahaz, it was eleven years with King Jehoiakim [jeh-HOY-uh-kim].  It was Pharaoh Neco [NEH-ko] of Egypt who put Jehoiakim on the throne after Neco deposed young Jehoahaz.  Jehoiakim was supposed to be Egypt’s puppet, but then he went and started trouble when he formally revolted against Babylon.  The revolt was supposed to be a team effort with Egypt providing the majority of the muscle.  But then Babylon spanked Egypt and Jehoiakim was murdered in Jerusalem.

The crown was supposed to pass from father to son in Judah.  So after Jehoiakim was killed, his 18 year old son Jehoiachin [jeh-HOY-uh-kin] (aka Jeconiah) took the throne.  Well, the son only lasted three months before the king of Babylon had him hauled away as a prisoner.

The king of Babylon then put Zedekiah on the throne.  Zedekiah was the uncle of young Jehoiachin.  He was only 21 when he started to rule, but he lasted eleven years until the king of Babylon finally got so fed up with Zedekiah’s attitude that he came and sacked Jerusalem.  Zedekiah was taken prisoner, forced to watch the execution of his sons, and then blinded so that the last thing he’d remember seeing would be something awful.  The Babylonians played hardball.

Now every time the throne in Judah changed hands, Yahweh gave the new ruler a chance to obey Him and prosper.  But of course none of them could be bothered.  Even though Yahweh kept warning them over and over again that He was the One controlling world politics, and that Jerusalem would never survive unless she repented out of her rebellion against Him, Jewish royalty and commoners alike kept blowing Yahweh off.  To appreciate why Yahweh took such offense at this, you have to understand how these people viewed wars.

In Old Testament times, there was no separation of church and state, and atheism was an inconceivable concept.  It was quite obvious to everyone that gods were controlling every aspect of human affairs, and every nation had national gods who they viewed as protecting them.  This meant that all wars were god wars, for when one nation attacked another, the human armies believed their gods were warring as well.  To win the battle was interpreted as proof that your gods had triumphed over the gods of your enemies.  But just because your gods won today didn’t mean they would win tomorrow.  Gods were viewed as having fickle natures, limited powers, and very large egos.  So if you worship Baal, and you get spanked on the battlefield, then there are many possible explanations.  Perhaps Baal intentionally abandoned you because you have been slacking in your sacrifices to him.  Perhaps Baal lost because he was fighting on foreign soil and the terrain slowed him down.  In 1 Kings 20, we find Aramean soldiers trying to understand why they lost in a battle against Israelites.  Their brilliant conclusion was this:

“Their God is a god of the hills. That is why they were stronger than we were. However, if we fight them on the plain, we will be stronger than they are. This is what we must do: Remove all of the kings from their positions, and substitute governors for them. Recruit an army with as many horses and chariots as the one which was defeated. Then, if we fight them on the plain, we will be stronger than they are.” (1 Kings 20:23-25)

This is what happens when you invent your own gods.  Humans are notorious for projecting their own limitations onto the gods they dream up, so in Bible times, gods were viewed as rather inept beings.

Now of course Yahweh is not just the figment of some deluded imagination.  He is a real God, and One with infinite capabilities.  So when the Arameans thought they could beat Him by simply moving the battle to flatter terrain, Yahweh sent this word to the king of Israel:

“This is what Yahweh says: ‘Because the Arameans think Yahweh is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am Yahweh.’” (1 Kings 20:28)

And of course when the next battle came, Yahweh wiped out the Arameans, thus proving how unhampered He was by earthly altitudes.  But when we see this kind of ridiculous logic being used by army officers who are very invested in winning, it tells us how much stock these people put in their superstitious beliefs.  To them, it wasn’t at all ridiculous to view a god as being hampered by an absence of hills.  With so many gods being worshiped, how could any single deity be supreme?  Clearly every god was limited, and every god had good and bad days.

Once you understand how the ancient peoples theologically interpreted wars, you can understand how the rise of an empire was considered evidence that the gods of that empire were super buff.  Where was Yahweh when Babylon was taking over Judah?  Why wasn’t Yahweh defending His turf and His people?  These are the questions we find Yahweh answering over and over again in the Old Testament prophetic books, and He really hammers the point that Israel’s downfall has nothing to do with Him being a limited Being.  On the contrary, Yahweh says that He is the One responsible for destroying His own land and people.  This was a very shocking idea.  Certainly people were used to their gods getting into sulky huffs—at least that’s what they told themselves was going on when their prayers weren’t being answered.  But the idea of a nation’s God turning against her to the point of totally annihilating her—this was quite a scary concept.

Over and over again, we find Yahweh telling the Jews that He is the One controlling the activity of the Babylonian Empire.  He says that empire is only growing because He is handing it victories.  This is the same as Yahweh claiming to have control over the Babylonian gods.  Now in real life, there were no Babylonian gods, but everyone thought that there was.  In the prophetic books, we find Yahweh alternating between scoffing at the whole notion of other gods and declaring that He is the God who rules over all other gods.  Sometimes God points out the error in our thinking—other times He works with us where we are at.  This principle is as true today as it was in Bible times—God doesn’t always bother with correcting our false beliefs.  Often He just leaves those beliefs unchallenged while He uses them to steer us towards other important truths.

So what are the Jews doing when they try to make a military alliance with Egypt?  They’re not just trying to hire more muscle for the battlefield—they’re also trying to tap into supernatural resources.  To form an alliance with Egypt was to call on the gods of Egypt for help, and here is where the Jews got into big trouble with Yahweh.

Yahweh never gets mad at people for not knowing something that He hasn’t taught them.  But after Yahweh had educated the Jews about who He was, then it was utterly obnoxious for the Jews to go running off to other gods instead.  This is why Yahweh destroyed Israel and Judah in the Old Testament: because those two Jewish nations were always running off to worship other gods.  And once we read about the great lengths the Jews went to in their efforts to appease those other gods, we realize that these people had no problems with sacrificial devotion.  Towards false gods, they were fiercely devoted—devotion which they expressed by investing a ton of time and money into their religious rituals, mutilating their own bodies, and offering their own children as sacrifices.  But when it came to worshiping Yahweh—a God who was adamantly against His followers abusing themselves or others in their worship of Him—well, then the Jews just couldn’t be bothered.

You have to understand how intense and personal the Jews’ hatred of Yahweh was in order to understand why Yahweh reacts to them the way that He does.  Yahweh is not being mean or short-tempered.  By the time He finally decides to destroy Judah, He has put up with centuries of hatred and betrayal from a people who He has done so much for.  Yet despite the fact that Judah was covered in shrines to false gods, and Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem had been converted into a center for idol worship, the Jews had the gall to pretend that they didn’t know what Yahweh’s problem was.  They accused Him of being cruel and unfair—a merciless Meanie.  Today, we still find a lot of Yahweh bashing going on among Christians as we refer to Him by the negative title of “the God of the Old Testament” and sing songs about how He’s a merciless Brooder who we need sweet Jesus to save us from (see Songs that God Hates: Before the Throne of God Above).  And yet is it really true that Jesus is nicer than Yahweh?  Not hardly.

EZEKIEL 19

So now that we understand how acrid things are between Yahweh and the Jews, let’s zoom in on Ezekiel 19.  This chapter is a funeral song which Yahweh has composed for the royal dynasty of Judah—all the guys who have any hope of thinking they might someday get a shot at either sitting on the throne, or of having powerful political careers in Jewish society.  In this historical context, funeral songs were a popular idea, but the idea was that you sang a song which glorified the dead guy.  You were supposed to sing about his virtues and focus on his good points.  And yet whenever Yahweh whips out a funeral song—which He does several times in the prophetic books—He doesn’t play by the rules.  His funeral songs are vicious little zingers that are usually laced with disdain and mockery towards whoever it is He’s singing about.  In the case of Ezekiel 19, Yahweh is going to bash on two specific Jewish monarchs before prophesying doom for the whole nation of Judah.  He addresses this poetic lament at the royal line of Judah, because with Judah slated to go down the tubes, Jewish princes are never going to have a chance at becoming political superstars.

“Sing this funeral song for the princes of Israel: What is your mother? A lioness among lions!” (Eze. 19:1-2)

In Bible times, confrontations with wild animals were an unavoidable part of life, so you’ll find that animal metaphors abound in the Bible.  People were both the hunters and the prey of wild animals like lions and bears, so there was a lot of fear associated with these creatures.  In this song, Yahweh describes Judah as a lioness among other lions, and those other lions refer to the nations around Israel.  Here the lion imagery symbolizes the power of a nation.  Lions can be formidable beasts—unless they’re caught in some kind of trap.

Remember that this funeral song is being directed at the princes of Judah.  After referring to Judah as a lioness, Yahweh refers to the princes as cubs of that lioness.  Then He describes momma Judah choosing out one cub to lead—and that cub represents King Jehoahaz.

“She lay down among the lions; she reared her cubs among the young lions. She brought up one of her cubs, and he became a young lion. After he learned to tear prey, he devoured people.” (Eze. 19:2-3)

Now wait a second—who wants a ruler who devours people?  Jehoahaz was a rebellious crumb who was a real let down after his long reigning father, good King Josiah.  After just three months, Yahweh ended Jehoahaz’s reign by having him hauled away to Egypt where he died as a prisoner.

“When the nations heard about him, he was caught in their pit. Then they led him away with hooks to the land of Egypt.” (Eze. 19:4)

It’s not every day that a Jewish king gets hauled off to Egypt.  Yahweh’s original audience of Jews all know that this lion who gets hauled away is a reference to nasty Jehoahaz.  Yahweh is reviewing events that have already happened—events that bring up some very humiliating memories for patriotic Jews.

So what is momma Judah going to do now that one of her cubs is gone?  She’ll choose another cub to groom into a king.

“When the lioness saw that her hopes for him were gone, she took another of her cubs and taught him to be a strong young lion. He prowled among the other lions and stood out among them in his strength. He learned to hunt and devour prey, and he, too, became a man-eater. He demolished fortresses and destroyed their towns and cities. Their farms were desolated, and their crops were destroyed. The land and its people trembled in fear when they heard him roar.

Then the armies of the nations attacked him, surrounding him from every direction. They threw a net over him and captured him in their pit. With hooks, they dragged him into a cage and brought him before the king of Babylon. They held him in captivity, so his voice could never again be heard on the mountains of Israel.” (Eze. 19:5-9)

The people who are doing the fearful trembling in this metaphor are Jews living in Judah—it’s their own king who they are afraid of.  The king being described here is even more violent than the first—likely because he had more time to do damage than three month Jehoahaz.  Yahweh says that this second king destroyed land in his own kingdom—this is probably referring to the king’s tyrannical use of power as well as his bad choices which brought in more persecution from outside of Judah.

This second lion probably refers to the last king of Judah: a real pill named Zedekiah who caused the prophet Jeremiah all kinds of grief.  Zedekiah’s predecessor, Jehoiachin, only reigned three months—not much time to do all of the damage Yahweh is describing here.  But Zedekiah reigned eleven tiresome years before being hauled away to Babylon.

Now Ezekiel’s book follows a pretty decent chronological order, and at the start of Chapter 20, he tells us that it’s the seventh year of King Jehoiachin’s imprisonment in Babylon.  Jehoiachin was another three month flash in the pan ruler who preceded Zedekiah.  So if Jehoiachin has been in jail for seven years at the start of Ezekiel 20, then nasty old Zedekiah is about seven years into his eleven year reign.  That means Yahweh is describing events that haven’t happened yet when He talks about this second lion being hauled off to Babylon.

Remember that in these times, the classy thing to do was to focus on a man’s virtues when you’re singing a lament about him.  Well, when Yahweh is mad, He doesn’t care about being classy.  So far He’s depicted two Jewish kings in a really derogatory light: describing them as brutal lions who turn and attack their own people before being publicly humiliated and hauled away as prisoners.  When you’re fiercely patriotic about your homeland, you don’t want to be reminded of times when your rulers were triumphed over.  Ezekiel and the Jews who he is singing this song at were all forcibly dragged out of Judah years ago by the invading Babylonian army.  Now they’re all living in a crummy section of Babylon, hating life, and clinging to the dream that somehow things will turn around and Judah will break free from her oppressor and all of Israel will be restored to her former glory.  No one wants to hear this downer song from some freak of a prophet who never has anything pleasant to say.  Ezekiel is a real thorn in his community, and yet once the man starts talking, it’s hard to get him to shut up.  Now as he starts singing the last verse of this unpatriotic song, everyone realizes that Israel is the “vine” who is in the process of getting thrashed by Yahweh.

“Your mother was like a vine planted by the water’s edge. It had lush, green foliage because of the abundant water. Its branches became strong— strong enough to be a ruler’s scepter. It grew very tall, towering above all others. It stood out because of its height and its many lush branches.

But the vine was uprooted in fury and thrown down to the ground. The desert wind dried up its fruit and tore off its strong branches, so that it withered and was destroyed by fire.

Now the vine is transplanted to the wilderness, where the ground is hard and dry. A fire has burst out from its branches and devoured its fruit. Its remaining limbs are not strong enough to be a ruler’s scepter.

This is a song of sadness, and it is to be used as a lament.” (Eze. 19:10-14)

First Yahweh likens Israel to a vine that is flourishing—this is a reference to that very brief period in Israel’s history many centuries ago when she was being abundantly blessed by Yahweh. That period was during the reign of King David.  Since David really cared about honoring Yahweh, he urged his citizens to honor God as well, and Yahweh greatly expanded David’s kingdom.  But those golden years happened a very long time ago.

When Yahweh talks about the vine being uprooted in fury, He’s referring to His own anger with Israel.  By Ezekiel’s time, Yahweh has already trashed the northern half of Israel, and that whole kingdom has been gone for well over a century.  Now Yahweh is about to level Judah—thus completing the total annihilation of His chosen nation. In this song, Yahweh uses a lot of violent imagery: the vine is violently uprooted and thrown to the ground.  Then a violent desert wind comes and tears off its strong branches—this is a reference to round after round of armies coming in, capturing a bunch of Jews as slaves, and exiling them to foreign lands.  By now thousands of Jews have been hauled away—so many that it’s like the whole “vine” of Israel has been transplanted elsewhere.  Yahweh describes the vine’s new location as a hard, dry wilderness—this refers to how ethnic Jews have been scattered throughout many nations who they consider to be hostile to Israel.  Then Yahweh speaks of a fire bursting out from within the vine itself—this is likely another reference to His wrath, which devours the “fruit” of the vine and leaves it in such a crippled state that there is nothing left for any king to rule over.  Such is the grim news that is being delivered to Jewish princes through this lament: “Give it up, guys. The Davidic dynasty has come to an end.”

CONCLUSION

So how can we apply this passage to our lives today?  Well, let’s step back and look at the big picture.  In this passage, Yahweh is predicting the future of a specific Jewish ruler, He’s describing what the fate of a nation will be, and He’s warning humans who are focused on dreams of worldly success that they are wasting their time hoping for things that will never be.  How can Yahweh say in advance what will happen to King Zedekiah unless He controls the future and the circumstances of every individual’s life?  How can He accurately predict Judah’s dismal fate unless He has the power to make His own prophecies come true?  You see, the absolute sovereignty of God is a major theme in the Bible.  All throughout the Old Testament Yahweh hammers the point that nothing happens in this world unless He wants it to happen.  We humans do not have free choice, we only have limited choice, and we can only ever choose between a limited set of options that God gives us.  The only options God ever gives us are options that will work for Him, so there’s no way that human beings can ever best God or surprise Him or throw Him off balance.

Today we’re not used to thinking of God as being intimately involved in world politics.  We get so distracted listening to the schemes of humans that we forget how in control of humans God is.  But when we read through the Old Testament books and hear Yahweh flaunting His mastery over and future plans for every nation in the biblical world, we are reminded that nothing ever spins out of control in God’s universe.  He is always in control.  He always gets His way.  If we follow the idiocy of the ancient Jews and try to rebel against a God who controls every aspect of our lives, we will end up in utter misery.  But if instead we fully submit ourselves into God’s hands and embrace our place as creatures who were designed to revolve around Him, then we will experience how kind, wonderful, and generous He can be.

FURTHER READING:
Ezekiel 20-21: The Sword of Yahweh
Parables of Yahweh: The Valley of Dry Bones
Parables of Yahweh: The Good Shepherd Rescues His Flock (Ezekiel 34)
Ezekiel 13-14: Yahweh Condemns False Prophets
Ezekiel 14: Yahweh Stands Alone
Isaiah 58-59: Rebellious Jews & Warrior Yahweh
Parables of Jesus: The Two Sons & The Evil Tenant Farmers
Know Your Bible Lesson 35: Three Parables of Yahweh
Isaiah 26:3 In Context: Does God really give us perfect peace?

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