Yehezkiel (Ezekiel) 17 opens with a parable. An eagle takes a cutting and the seeds of one of the cedars of Lebanon, and plants them carefully, in good soil, near good water. The seeds and cuttings grow into a vine and flourish, but they grow toward another eagle, hoping that the second eagle will care for it. So, says Yehezkiel, is Jerusalem.
The first eagle is Babylon, with whom Jerusalem had made a covenant (tributary alliance). But the king of Jerusalem (presumably Zedekiyahu) was treacherous, and sought out an alliance with Egypt against Babylon after the first alliance had been made (Jerusalem had actually gone back and forth with Babylon and Egypt several times in the period from Yosiyahu to Zedekiyahu). The king has been faithless to his oath, and so has offended Hashem. He will die in exile, and his alliance with Egypt will bear no fruit.
Oaths are important. They are not to be taken lightly (see Shoftim [Judges] 11 for an example), even when the other participant in the oath is your enemy or conqueror. Much like in the case of David’s murder of Uriah, Hashem’s wrath is not directed at the obvious misconduct (faithlessness to Hashem in this case, murder and adultery in the case of David), but at the abuse of power. In the case of David, the power of the crown was abused to satisfy base urges and to commit murder. In this case, the power of the king is being taken lightly and used to play both sides against the middle. The failure to take authority seriously is what led to Hashem favoring Yacov over Esav in the first place. Esav valued his birthright lightly.
Hashem’s judgment against the arrogant will be severe and public, but it will not be permanent, and Hashem will prevail over bickering eagles. All will know:
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. On 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. And all the trees of the field shall know that 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.”–Yehezkiel 17:22-24
Note Yehezkiel’s use of the words “dry tree.” The sons of Israel have become like the eunuch’s of Yesheyahu (Isaiah) 56:3-5–powerless and without heritage–but they will one day be favored again (emphasis mine):
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
In those days they shall no longer say:“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine; the soul that sinneth, it shall die. –Yehezkiel 18:4
Cast away from you all your transgressions, wherein ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD; wherefore turn yourselves, and live.–Yehezkiel 18:31-32
Chapter 18 also illustrates in brief the meaning of righteousness. We are not to worship idols, engage in sexual immorality, help the poor and not abuse them, nor engage in robbery or fraud or the perversion of justice (18:5-9). It’s doable, and repentance from wickedness counts for a lot, too (18:21-22).
Chapter 19 is a lament for Israel, Yehudah, and Zedekiyahu.
Chapter 20 reminds the people, specifically the elders who have sought out Yehezkiel for prophecy, of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the nature of Hashem’s Covenant with Yacov. Since the people are in rebellion against Hashem, they are subject to the punitive aspects of that Covenant. And chapters 21 and 22 are a prophecy (delivered from Yehezkiel’s refugee camp to the north) against Jerusalem.
Chapter 23 continues the prophecy and reiterates the comparison to an adulterous wife made in Yehezkiel 16. Note that the prophecy specifies the use of Hashem’s incense and oil in the use of seduction (23:41). When Hashem gave the Kohanim the instructions for making incense and oil, He warned against their use for profane purposes:
Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.–Shemot (Exodus) 30:38
Finally, in chapter 24, the siege against Jerusalem begins. Again, Yehezkiel demonstrates it–this time with a pot of boiling meat. But Yehezkiel himself is also an example: his wife dies, and Hashem instructs him not to mourn the loss, which Yehezkiel feels acutely. Between Yehezkiel not mourning his wife and discussing a boiled shoulder of meat (chapter 24–possibly part of the wave offering discussed in Bamidbar [Numbers] 6:19-20), his protestation that he has not defiled himself with unclean food (chapter 4), and his shaving both hair and beard (chapter 5), it is implied that Yehezkiel may have completed a Nazarite oath (Bamidbar 6). With reference to Yehezkiel’s shaving his head, note that the hair shaved from the head of a Nazarite who has completed his vow is burned under a burnt offering. Generally speaking, such a commitment was a way for laymen to make a spiritual commitment, but given the extremity of the times and the disgrace of the priests and prophets, and to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation to his fellow refugees, Yehezkiel may have assumed the ascetic, penitent posture of a Nazarite to make a statement. The chapters of Yehezkiel are not arranged in a chronological, narrative order, so it could be that 4, 5, and 24 were originally intended to appear in closer proximity to each other.
Yehezkiel’s response to his wife’s death (deliberate and public non-mourning) also draws a comparison to the story of David and Batsheva, in which their first son fell ill and died–the consequence of David’s indiscretion. David mourned and prayed and fasted so long as the child was ill, hoping that Hashem would change His mind. Once the child died, nothing more could be done, so David ceased to mourn (2 Shmuel [Samuel] 12:15-23). Much as David did, Yehezkiel is telling his people that the time for mourning, praying, and repenting has past, and the time to accept bravely the consequences of one’s actions has arrived.