Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
who, like him, were acquainted with the scenery of Syria. Under the similitude of a lofty and spreading cedar of Lebanon, the prophet exhibits the dignity, the strength, the vastness and beauty of the kingdom which nevertheless perished, as the monarch of the forest is felled, cast to the earth, and delivered to destruction. The figure brings before us -
I. THE MAGNITUDE OF THE ASSYRIAN KINGDOM. The noble cedar of lofty stature and spreading boughs is a striking figure of the great world-empire of which colossal vastness is considered the most characteristic feature.
II. ITS PROSPERITY. The vigor and vitality of the proud cedar of Lebanon are artistically set forth by the poet-prophet. "The waters nourished him, the deep made him to grow; her rivers ran round about her plantation," etc. So the great state throve, all circumstances concurring to enhance its prosperity, all allies and tributaries furnishing material for its growth.
III. ITS STRENGTH. The exalted stature, the multiplied boughs, the long branches, are signs of the cedar's strength; the storms may beat upon its head, but it withstands the fiercest blast, and endures whilst generation after generation admire its grandeur, and come and go. The Assyrian empire seemed of unassailable power; the sovereigns arrogated to, themselves, an unquestionable authority; men thought of Nineveh - "that great city as of a city which could never be moved."
IV. ITS BEAUTY. Fair was the cedar in his greatness, in the length of his branches, nor was any tree in the garden of God like unto him in his beauty. Evidently to the mind of the prophet there was beauty in Assyria such as no choice similitude could exaggerate. This may not be so obvious to us as the assertion of Assyria's strength; but so it seemed to the mind of the world of old.
V. ITS INFLUENCE. This seems to be the idea conveyed by the sixth verse: "All the fowls of the heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations." A power so commanding, a position so authoritative, secured the homage of lesser states, which looked up to Nineveh for protection, and were ever ready, by flattery or by service, to minister to her greatness.
VI. ITS PRE-EMINENCE. The stature of the cedar of Lebanon was exalted above all the trees of the field. Even so, during its palmy days, Nineveh was the leader, the chief of the nations. It was long before that supremacy was questioned and disputed. Yet the day came, and Assyria fell.
(1) A great nation enjoying prosperity and wielding influence is especially bound to remember whence its power is derived; and
(2) to cultivate the conviction and sense of responsibility for the use made of gifts and influence entrusted to it. From God all comes, and to God the account must be rendered. - T.
I. WE HAVE HERE GREAT PRIVILEGE. The Assyrian monarch is compared to a "cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches, with shadowing foliage, and of high stature."
1. He enjoyed a position of superior elevation. What a cedar of Lebanon was, compared to other trees, the Assyrian king was in respect to other men. He possessed superior qualities. Possibly he had larger capacity of mind, and had larger opportunities of furnishing it. Certainly he had external advantages such as no others enjoyed. He enjoyed an eminence above other men, yea more, above other kings.
2. He received generous treatment from God. "The waters made him great." An unfailing stream from the heavenly fount irrigated his roots. Divested of poetical form, it means that God sustained body and soul by hourly supplies of good, though his hand was unseen. If his bodily strength did not languish, it was owing to a constant stream of vitality from God. If the capacity of his mind was maintained, it was due to the Divine succor. Substantial blessing, through invisible channels, was incessantly flowing into his roots. He was entirely dependent on the kindness of another.
3. He had a prosperous growth. As the result of so much blessing, he grew and prospered. In himself, in his kingdom, in his reputation, he flourished. His people were loyal; his army was valiant; his empire grew. Over every province, over every department of his government, the sunshine of Heaven rested. All that a king's heart could desire he had. He was the envied among contemporary kings: "the cynosure of neighboring eyes."
4. Large influence was within his reach. "All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs. Under his shadow dwelt all great nations." Such a tree was not simply an image of beauty, the delight of the human eye; it was useful to various forms of life. It was a source of blessing. So with the King of Assyria. His strong government was a protection to all classes of the people. It was a bulwark against invasion. It was a shield for industry, investigation, and commerce. The rich and the poor could dwell securely. All grades of his subjects could pursue their occupations without fear of molestation. Greater influence still he might have exerted. He could have fostered learning, encouraged many arts, established peace among surrounding nations, diffused joy in a myriad homes, lifted up the nation to a higher life. Such varied usefulness is a fountain of bliss.
II. GREAT FOLLY. "His heart is lifted up in his height."
1. Self-adulation. To admire one's self so as to forget our Divine Benefactor is both foolishness and sin. This is to cheat God of his due. If robbery is criminal anywhere, it is specially criminal when directed against God. To interpose ourselves between God and his proper worship is grievous sin.
2. False ground for admiration. To find satisfaction in external rank or elevation is a sore mistake. Neither wealth, nor station, nor anything outside ourselves is a proper ground for solid satisfaction. We should find our chief delight in real excellence - in likeness to God. Else we divert our minds from substantial good, and are taken up with gaud and tinsel.
3. Self-trust. Pride arrogates to itself qualities and possessions which do not belong to it. It is a condition of mind we may call "self-inflation." Self-trust is ruinous, because it is reliance upon a broken reed. Human strength, apart from God, is sheer frailty. No figure can exaggerate its feebleness. It is a vapor, a shadow, a mere cobweb. Man is strong only when affiliated to God. Therefore self-trust is self-deception, is suicide.
III. A GREAT DOWNFALL. Carrying out the harmony of the figure, there is:
1. Mutilation. "His boughs are broken." So pitiful is God, that he does not at once destroy. He visits with partial chastisement, in the hope that repentance and amendment may be the result. If he can spare from destruction, he will. This mutilation of his beauty was a lesson he ought to have taken to heart. If a higher being than he could, against his will, despoil him of some of his members, could he not despoil him of all? A wise man would have halted, reflected, turned over a new leaf. This mutilation represents dismemberment, loss of territory. This outward mutilation indicates diminution of vitality: "Grey hairs were here and there upon him, though he knew it not."
2. Scattering. "Upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are fallen." Memorials of this ruined cedar were distributed far and wide. Every stream bore them on. Every storm of wind scattered them. So in the time of a nation's misfortune, fair-weather allies easily desert. As prosperity brings many superficial friends, so adversity scatters them. At such a time a hundred foes will start out of ambush to annoy, if they cannot injure. When God becomes our foe, our resources speedily waste like snow at midday.
3. Degradation. "Upon his ruin shall all the fowls of heaven remain, and all the beasts of the field shall be upon his branches!" In other words, he shall be treated with contempt. Those before whom he has paraded his superiority shall, in turn, triumph over him. This conduct is to many a sweet revenge. It gives to them a conviction that they too have some hidden merit which now shall come to light. This degradation in the scale of being, in the scale of society, is a bitter element in God's penalty. "He that exalteth himself shall be abased." The pendulum that has swung too, far in one direction will presently swing to the other extreme.
4. Commiseration. I caused Lebanon to mourn for him, and all the trees of the field fainted for him." The fall of a flourishing king naturally causes consternation and concern in every palace. The self-security of others is rudely shaken. Every throne on earth seems to totter with the great vibration. Then, in noble minds, the sense of brotherhood appears. A tender tie, though often unseen, runs through the human race. The fall of one is a lesser fall to all. We all have a common interest in the fortune and destiny of humanity.
5. Diabolic triumph. "All the trees of Eden... shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth." This sense of exultation over the fall of another - whether it be latent or expressed - is base and devilish. Hence we learn that the feelings of men, in the state of Hades, is not improved by suffering: the exact reverse. Intelligent natures degenerate in hell. "Evil men wax worse and worse." Some, too, to whom the king, in prosperity, rendered signal service, will be disposed to taunt him in the day of his fall. An ingrate becomes the blackest of demons.
IV. A GREAT LESSON. "To the end that none of all the trees by the waters exalt themselves for their height." The terrible fall of the Assyrian king is used as a lesson and a warning to Pharaoh. God's judgments are stepping-stones to mercy. Over the most lurid cloud he flings the rainbow of his kindness. The darkest events may become to us fountains of blessing, if we are willing to gain the good. Thus God exhibits the strength and fullness of his love. If by any method, by any example, he can win us back from evil courses, he will. Marvelous is the obduracy of the human heart that will not yield to the charms of infinite love! The death of one may become life to many. God's aims are magnificent and far-reaching. By-and-by, he shall have the praise which is his rightful due. If with such displays of Divine kindness men are not ashamed of their sin, they must become more hardened and more depraved than ever. "My soul, come not thou into their secret!" - D.
by many waters (Revised Version). Here we have a picture of strength showing itself beautiful, extending its influence far and wide, owing everything to the hidden source below.
I. GREAT STRENGTH. The greatness of Assyria was the greatness of national power. We are accustomed to speak of the greater nations of the earth as the great powers." As history has shown us, such "powers" have often proved to be little better than weakness when the hour of trial came; still, in appearance, in size, in equipment, in eminence, or in reputation, they have been comparatively great and strong. Greatness, as we recognize it, is seen in national position, in physical strength and skill, in mental grasp and literary accomplishment, in art and science, in social rank, in statesmanship, in character and moral weight. In any one of these spheres a community or a man may be "great" in the sight of its (his) contemporaries.
II. GREATNESS SHOWING ITSELF FAIN. "He was fair [or, 'beautiful'] in his greatness." Greatness may be either
(1) imposing, compelling the homage of all who behold it, instantly commanding their regard and their tribute; or it may be
(2) admirable, such that the longer it is watched by observant and critical eyes the more it is esteemed and the higher it is prized; or it may be
(3) attractive, of such gracious and winning mien that every one is drawn towards it and desires to come into closer association with it. There is much "greatness," or what commonly passes for such, that is distinctly unbeautiful. Possibly, indeed, it may be imposing or attractive to minds that are easily imposed upon or readily captivated; but it is devoid of all that is really excellent, and no true eye, that can distinguish the good from the pretentious, would call it fair. All beauty that is worthy of the name, and the only excellency that will last, is that which commends itself to the mind of the heart-searching Truth - beauty on which purity can look with pleasure, and which love can regard with genuine delight.
III. EXTENDING ITS INFLUENCE. One of its characteristics is "the length of its branches." It is the province of greatness to make itself felt on every hand, just as a noble tree throws out its branches far around its stem. This it may do deliberately and determinately; or it may do this unconsciously, as the simple and inevitable result of its own nature and life. The extension of our influence should be regarded by us, not as a right, but as a duty and a privilege. So far as we can make ourselves felt, and inasmuch as we believe ourselves to be the possessors and exponents of what is right and true, we should seek, even diligently, to "spread the branches" of our power as far as they will go. We should therefore shun all acts and extirpate all habits that tend to dwarf these branches, to diminish the influence we might be and should be exerting.
IV. THE SOURCE OF STRENGTH AND BEAUTY. This great cedar was what it was because "its root was by great [many] waters." It was always nourished from below. It drew its strength from its roots, and its roots found their resources in the abundant streams that never failed to water and to refresh them. Strength and beauty grow out of character, moral and spiritual, as the leaves and the branches and the stem grow out of the roots of the tree. And character must be fed by the living streams of truth that flow in the garden of God; not any one truth, nor yet one set or class of truths, but "all the truth" (John 16:13) which we are able to receive: our root is to be "by many waters." We must, if we would be the symmetrical and fruit-bearing tree we should aspire to become, take care that mind and heart are well nourished by all the truth we can gather from the great Teacher, or glean from those who spoke in his Name. Nor must we forget that, beside the root drinking in the moisture below, there are the myriad leaves drinking in the air and sunshine above. We must open all the leaves of our nature to receive the warm sunshine of the love of God, and to admit all the direct Divine influences which the Spirit of God will breathe upon us. - C.
I. A REGION ABOUNDING IN FRUITFULNESS. In the first garden of God there grew every tree that was "good for food." The ideal state of human society is one in which all conceivable fruitfulness will be found; there will be ready for the hand of the Husbandman the fruits of faith, of devotion, of love, of sacred joy, of helpfulness, of calm contentment, of happy and unquestioning obedience. From all hearts and lives these fair fruits will spring.
II. A SCENE OF EXQUISITE BEAUTY. "The garden of God" must be, quite independently of all reference to Eden, a place of perfect beauty. Its trees and shrubs, its herbs and flowers, its lawns and paths must together present the appearance of perfect pleasantness to the eye. Such should, such (one day) shall our human societies, our communities, and our Churches be; they will be scenes where there is every form of human loveliness. There must be no unnatural monotony. As in our gardens we like to have vegetation of every possible variety of size and shape and hue, so in "the garden of God" shall there be every manifestation of moral worth, of spiritual beauty. One will not say to another, "There is no need of your particular excellence;" but each will rejoice in the manifold graces which are to be seen on every hand.
III. THE SPHERE OF HAPPY CULTURE. Our first parents were placed in Eden "to dress it and to keep it." Even "the garden of God" requires attention, planting, culture. So, certainly, does the most refined and Christianized human society. There may be much knowledge and there may be excellent habits within it, but it will always need careful and diligent culture - much seed-sowing; some weeding; some pruning and occasional transplanting. We may learn:
1. That it is better to be the humblest herb in the garden of God than the stateliest cedar outside it; better be utterly obscure in the right place than very prominent in the wrong one.
2. That each particular flower in the garden of God lends its own fragrance to the air; the garden would not be complete without it.
3. That not only does it behoove us to be as a flower in the garden of God, but it also befits us to be as a gardener extending the grounds, or planting or tending within its bounds. - C.
I. THE OFFENSE. This lay, not in the greatness and the might of the nation, which were appointed by Divine providence, but in the misuse of the position attained. The language used by Ezekiel concerning Assyria is very instructive as to Assyria's sin: "His heart is lifted up in his height." It is not the gifts bestowed in which the offence is to be sought, but it is in the erroneous view taken by the possessor, and in his abuse of those gifts. When we read of the heart being lifted up, we are led to understand that the nation took credit to itself for its position and acquirements, and for the influence thus enjoyed. In fact, as our Lord has expressly taught us, the heart is the seat and the source of all sin. Especially apparent is this in the case of the gifts of national exaltation, wealth, and military power; when the hearts of king and of people are filled with pride, self-confidence, and self-glorification.
II. THE CHASTISEMENT. The tree was smitten and felled by the hand of the stranger. A foreign foe, a rival nation, was employed to humble the pride of Assyria. The mighty one of the nations (by which we are to understand the King of the Babylonians) dealt with Assyria's pretensions to supremacy, and confounded them. "Strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off." No greater calamity could have befallen the proud and boastful nation; no more unexpected disaster!
III. THE RUIN. The figurative language used to describe this, though succinct, is conclusive and appalling: "Upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are fallen, and his boughs are broken by all the water-courses of the land," etc. The description affirms of the conquered Assyria:
1. Humiliation; for the lofty is laid low.
2. Desertion: "All the people of the earth have gone down from his shadow, and have left him." Those who praised and flattered Assyria in prosperity, in the time of adversity forsake and flout her.
3. The ruined nation becomes the prey of other peoples, who seek to profit by its fall. - T.
I. THE DELUSION TO WHICH GREATNESS IS SUBJECT; Viz. that of imagining that it is invulnerable and irremovable. The strong kingdom says, "What power will touch me to hurt me? ' The strong man says, "What misfortune will overtake, what enemy will prevail against me?" (see Psalm 49:11). It is in the very nature of human exaltation to become foolishly assured of its own security, and to defy the assaults of time and change.
II. THE PREGNANT LESSON OF HISTORY. Egypt was now to learn of Assyria; to consider how surpassingly great she had been in her prime (Vers. 1-9), and to reflect upon the utter humiliation to which she had been condemned in the retributive providence of God. We may now learn of Egypt herself, to whom this lesson was addressed, and also of Macedonia, of Greece, of Rome, of Spain, etc., that a nation may tower high and far above the others, like this parabolic cedar (Ver. 5) above the trees of the garden, and yet be discrowned, be leveled to the very dust. And not only the lofty nation, but the ancient family, the proud dynasty, the titled and wealthy individual.
III. THE PENALTY OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. It is certain that no kingdom or "power" of any kind will very long outlive its purity, its virtue, its simplicity. Two things determine its doom.
1. God will punish its pride (see Vers. 10, 11, 18).
2. Iniquity begets strife, folly, inward corruption, weakness; and this must end, in time, in disaster and ruin. The seeds of death are already sown when power, either in the aggregate or in the individual man, gives way to iniquity. Without any extraordinary means, by God letting his righteous laws do their constant work, such a one is "driven away for his wickedness" (Ver. 11). And the end of evil is nakedness and desertion, emptiness and misery (Ver. 12). Incidental truths are here portrayed, viz. -
IV. THE UNRELIABLENESS OF HUMAN PROPS. Ver. 12, "All the people of the land have gone from his shade, and have left him." There are noble souls that will cleave to the sinking cause or to the failing man just because it is sinking, because he is failing. But their name is not legion; these are not the rule, but the exception. When the day of decadence comes, and the hour when the house is likely to fall, then expect those who have lived in the shadow of it to leave it to its fate. Nay, there will be found many of those who in the day of its strength enjoyed its hospitality that on the night of its adversity will find themselves comfortable seats upon its ruins (Ver. 13). We have another trace of -
V. THE DEPTH TO WHICH GREATNESS WILL DESCEND IN BECOMING THE OBJECT OF GENERAL COMPASSION. (Ver. 15.) Once it was the province of the great power to pity the necessitous and to stretch forth its strong hand of help and healing; now it lies prostrate and is itself the object of universal commiseration. "And none so poor to do it reverence."
1. Let human greatness beware. It is high and uplifted in the sight of men; but beware lest its heart be lifted up in arrogance and in self-confidence; for, if that be so, or if it be allowing evil to creep into any cracks of its walls, it will call down the condemnation of Heaven, and, in time, it will meet its doom. Where other prostrate powers lie, where the humblest and commonest are stretched, "in the midst of the children of men," "delivered to death" (Ver. 14), there shall it also be found, down and dishonored.
2. Let the holy humble-hearted be filled with a wise contentment. How much better than the greatness which is humiliated is the lowliness which is blessed and crowned! - blessed with the benediction of God and man, crowned with the glory to which righteousness conducts and in which it ends. - C.
I. GOD INCULCATES MORAL LESSONS BY THE WORDS UTTERED BY HIS SERVANTS. His law-givers, such as Moses; his prophets, such as Ezekiel; his priests and scribes, such as Ezra, have messages of instruction, encouragement, warning (as the case may be), for all mankind in every age. And God summons the children of men to give heed to his servants when they utter their messages, prefacing them with the assertion, "Thus saith the Lord."
II. GOD ENFORCES THESE VERBAL LESSONS BY FACTS, AND ESPECIALLY BY THE EVENTS OF HISTORY. In such catastrophes as the downfall of Assyria, as the siege of Jerusalem, as the destruction of Tyro, as the humiliation of Egypt, the eternal, righteous, and omnipotent Ruler of mankind speaks to his subjects with an authoritative and unmistakable voice. Facts embody principles. Historical incidents elucidate moral laws. Judgments enforce commands.
III. THE WONDER OF MEN'S INSENSIBILITY TO THESE LESSONS. It might be expected that those upon whom the message of the herald produces no impression would be roused from their apathy by the stirring incidents of political change and national disaster. But, as a matter of fact, multitudes are unaffected even by the downfall of a city, the revolution of a government, the displacement of a dynasty, the transference of the balance of power among the nations. Is not this in accordance with Christ's own words, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead?"
IV. THE FOLLY AND PENALTY OF INDIFFERENCE TO THESE LESSONS. They who give heed to Divine counsels, who profit by Divine admonitions, deliver their soul in the day of trouble and temptation. But they who hear unmoved, incredulous, unresponsive, the solemn and faithful appeals of God, uttered as with a voice of thunder in the events that befall the nations of mankind, by their conduct aggravate their guilt an& pen their own condemnation.
V. THE WISDOM OF IMMEDIATE ATTENTION TO THESE LESSONS, WITH THE PROPER FRUITS OF SUCH ATTENTION IN REPENTANCE AND OBEDIENCE. The parable was spoken, the providential interposition was recounted," To the end that none of all the trees by the waters exalt themselves." "He that hath an ear, let him hear." - T.
I. THE CAUSE OF MOURNING. The immediate cause was the disaster which befell Assyria and the allied and dependent nations. But to those who looked beneath the surface there was a deep-seated cause in the sin by which the mighty kingdom and its rulers brought upon themselves a fate so calamitous and irreversible. Wherever there is lamentation it may be suspected that the ultimate explanation of it is sin.
II. THE MOURNERS. The prophet speaks of the mighty rivers and the terrible ocean, of the majestic trees of the forest, as taking part in this lamentation. The nations shook at the Sound of Assyria's fall, when it went down to Hades. The literal fact is this - that all spectators with intelligence to understand what had occurred, and with a nature susceptible of feeling, viewed the calamity with appreciative pity. It was a catastrophe never to be forgotten, and the compassion of those who witnessed it rose to sublimity.
III. THE EXTENT AND VASTNESS OF THE MOURNING. This is evident from the fact of the Divine intervention. "Thus saith the Lord God, I caused a mourning." There could then be nothing petty or trivial in it. Originating in the counsels of the Eternal, and diffused throughout the earth, and reaching to the gates of Hades, this lamentation was worthy of the event. And it certainly justifies us in making our own the sorrows, not of individuals alone, but of nations and of mankind. It is a Divine exercise so to sympathize. "In all their afflictions he is afflicted."
IV. THE PROFIT OF MOURNING. We are assured upon high authority that "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting." It is a whole some and chastening discipline of the Soul. To mourn for our own faults is morally necessary. "They that lack time to mourn lack time to mend." But the case before the reader of this passage is that of mourning for the sins and the chastisement of humanity generally, and especially of the nations with whose experience we are personally conversant. A common sorrow binds hearts together, and enables men to realize their community. Grief over sin and its consequences is no inconsiderable protection against participation in the evil lamented. - T.
I. GREATNESS MAY AND OFTEN DOES SECURE THE ADMIRATION AND EVEN THE ADULATION OF MEN.
II. BUT EARTHLY GREATNESS IS AS NOTHING IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.
III. IT IS NOT GREATNESS, BUT RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ACTION AND FAITHFULNESS TO ITS VOCATION, WHICH IS A NATION'S TRUE SECURITY.
IV. A TIME OF PRORATION COMES TO EVERY NATION, WHEN UNFAITHFULNESS AND SELF-CONFIDENCE MEET WITH THEIR DESERTS IN CHASTISEMENT AND HUMILIATION.
APPLICATION. Greatness is best shown in
(1) subjection to the King of all, and
(2) service and help rendered to the feebler and less favored. - T.