Third Sunday after Pentecost

In this text, Ezekiel gives us yet another of the Bible’s many images of God: God as tree planter and tree tender.

June 17, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

In this text, Ezekiel gives us yet another of the Bible’s many images of God: God as tree planter and tree tender.

Even a cursory concordance search reveals that the Bible is rife with trees. In Genesis, we learn, intriguingly, that God made trees not first because of any utilitarian value, but simply because God likes trees. True, they are “good for food,” but before that they are “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). Those who trust in the Lord are “like a green olive tree” in God’s house (Psalm 52:8), and the beauty and wonder of trees makes them surprisingly erotic images in the Song of Songs (2:3; 7:7-8).

Anyone who has stood in a redwood grove can understand why the ancients regarded such places as sacred and gathered there to worship their fertility deities — a form of worship condemned, of course, by God (Deuteronomy 16:21), even though Abraham had “baptized” the practice in earlier days (Genesis 21:33).

Trees are sufficiently majestic and attractive that God can say, “I am like an evergreen cypress” (Hosea 14:8 — in case you ever need a proof text for Christmas trees!). Yet trees are sufficiently strong and wild that they can become instruments of idolatry (Isaiah 44:14-17) and death (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). The Bible’s poetry of trees will allow Jesus to speak of the kingdom as a great tree that grows from a tiny seed (Mark 4:16-34).

This excursus (which could be extended at length) reminds us that in the Bible trees evoke poetic wonder — as they do in our text. This will remind us that our text, too, is poetry and should not be overexegeted. In the earlier part of chapter 17, Ezekiel also speaks in poetic riddles about trees, eagles, and vines (17:2-10). The reader finds the poetry intriguing, but the riddle remains baffling — perhaps all the more so when the prophet tries to explain it! (17:10-21).

In those earlier verses, God’s riddle was about judgment (like almost all of this section of Ezekiel), but then, in our text, we find a ray of hope: a new sprig, planted by God on God’s mountain, and destined to become a place of rest and shade for “every kind of bird.” Now, “all the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.”

Happily, in my opinion, the prophet doesn’t try to explain this poem. Generally, to explain a poem is to kill it, and the preacher should not do that to this beautiful text — especially since the prophet did not. We must talk about the poem, no doubt, but we want to proclaim it rather than to explain it. The preacher will want to allow the congregation to bask in the beauty and wonder of the poem, perhaps even in its uncertainty, which more easily allows a present appropriation than the convoluted historical explanation of 17:11-21.

While the text’s poetry rightly allows a measure of imprecision, it is not merely a romantic idyll about lovely mountains and pretty trees — as lovely and as pretty as those divine creatures are. Those who have read the Bible will recognize God’s planting to be Israel and God’s “high and lofty mountain” to be Zion. They will recognize, in the poem’s invitation for all birds to nest here and for all trees to come to know God, Israel’s call to be a blessing to all peoples They will have confidence in the eventual certainty of this promise with the assurance that God has spoken: “I will accomplish it.”

The more careful reader will delight in the contrast between the “great eagle” working judgment in 17:2-6 by taking and transplanting a shoot and God’s comparable work in 17:22-23 that produces not judgment but life. Faithful readers will also realize they have heard before the great reversals of this text (bringing low the high, making high the low), knowing that kind of activity to be a fundamental and ongoing definition of God’s work in the Bible: freeing God’s people from the hands of oppressors and working in history from the bottom up.

The prophet’s lack of an application of our poem to a particular moment in Israel’s history will enable the preacher more freely to relate God’s work in the poem to God’s work praised by Mary in her Magnificat (“he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away”; Luke 1:46-55) and to Paul’s assertion that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The point is not that Ezekiel here offers a prophecy of coming New Testament events, but that he describes the nature of God and God’s work throughout Israel’s history, allowing New Testament Christians (and us) to recognize in Mary and in Christ the work of the God proclaimed by the prophets.

The openness of the poetry will also allow present hearers to find themselves in the poem in appropriate ways (perhaps with the gentle encouragement of the preacher). Will I see myself as a low tree to be made high or a high tree to be made low (that is, will I hear the text as promise or as judgment) — or will I find myself in both places? Will I hear myself invited, as one new to this biblical story, to be one of those trees that comes to know the Lord and to rejoice in God’s gracious beauty, or will I, as a long-time Bible reader, be surprised anew that God wants not only me but “all the trees of the field” to join in God’s praise? Who is included in the “every kind of bird” that is invited to nest in God’s noble cedar? With whom can I share this inspiring poem in a way that might make them think about this God thing in a different way? God as tree tender? God as one who invites all to nest in God’s tree?

That is quite a different image than the images of God as harsh judge and as one interested only in the “righteous” that we sometimes hear about these days. The poem invites folks into a place where they can be transformed into a different kind of righteousness — a stance of trust and wonder that opens me to all that God wants to give and that enables me to be the servant to others that God wants me to be and that was modeled in our Lord Jesus.