Ezekiel 17 begins with two cryptic parables about Israel, King Zedekiah, and Babylon. In each the figure of a great eagle figures prominently. In the first the eagle represents Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon and overlord of Judah; in the second, the eagle represents … well, I’m not sure—perhaps Psamtik II, pharoah of Egypt. It doesn’t particularly matter, as my concern in this article is Robert W. Jenson’s christological interpretation of the prophecy that follows the two parables.
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 upon a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar; and under it will dwell all kinds of beasts; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezek 17:22-24)
The Lord God now puts himself forth as the great eagle. He foretells the restoration and refounding of Israel. He will plant a sprig on a high mountain, and it will become a great cedar tree. Under its limbs the animals will flourish and on its branches the birds will nest.
“Every theology,” Jenson comments, “must devise some construal of the relation between God himself and created carriers and representatives of God’s action, like the eagle/Nebuchadnezzar in the initial riddle” (Ezekiel, p. 141). Martin Luther described the historical agents of the divine providence as “masks” under which the Lord remains hidden. But in Ezekiel’s prophecy, God unmasks, and masks, himself as the direct agent of Israel’s restoration. He puts aside created intermediaries—yet even still he remains hidden under the figure of the eagle. He does not reveal himself in his naked divinity, for human beings cannot see his face and live (Ex 33:20). (To express the matter in post-biblical terms, in our finitude we cannot comprehend the divine essence.) The God of the Scriptures manifests himself as other than himself yet not other:
If in this new masking he is nevertheless to act as himself, it must be that he and his mask will now be one, that he will himself be the eagle as which he masks himself. Within Christian theology, it is the doctrine of the Trinity that asserts and accounts for this.
The second person of God is another than the Father, indeed he is the man Jesus, who looks not at all like God; thus according to Luther, the incarnation does not unmask God, rather it reveals him precisely by masking him absolutely. Yet this suffering servant—Isa. 52!—is the same God as the Father, is “of one being with” him (ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρί), as the Nicene Creed has it. If the Lord can indeed appear as in this way himself-as-other-than-himself, the eternal difference and identity between Father and Son in God is the possibility. (p. 142 )
The relation between the Father and his Son Jesus is eternal. There is no time when this relation does not obtain. God is eternally the Father of Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus is eternally the Son of the Lord of Israel. Classical theology distinguishes between the immanent and economic Trinities—God’s inner trinitarian identity apart from the world and his trinitarian identity as revealed in the world—which then allows theologians to speak of an unfleshed eternal Word (logos asarkos). Jenson provocatively refuses to take this route. He focuses his attention exclusively upon the Nazarene. It is this man Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, who is the eternal Son of the Father and Creator of the cosmos. He certainly does not look like God. He looks just like any other human being—finite, material, vulnerable, mortal. We can date his birth (within a decade or two) and we can date his death (within a year or two). He is other than the God he and his fellow Jews worship and serve, yet ineffably—and astoundingly—identical to him. His divinity is hidden in his humanity. “For in him,” the Apostle Paul writes, “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9).
Which brings us back to Ezekiel’s prophecy. When will this happen? Jenson’s answer might surprise: “looking forward from Ezekiel’s time, it is Mary’s conception of the man who is the Lord that is the future moment denoted by the repeated ‘will’ in our passage. In this direction, it is when Jesus is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’ that the Lord puts on his eagle self” (p. 142). God’s salvific embodiment in history is the event to which all Old Testament prophecy ultimately points. In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the promises spoken by the prophets have been fulfilled; yet still the end has not occurred. History seemingly continues as it always has. Nebuchadnezzars come and go. Kingdoms rise and fall. The Ezekelian prophecy speaks of an event that cannot occur within our fallen historical time: “an Israel on a high mountain, whose fruit nourishes all nations and shelters all creation, is not a possible phenomenon of this age, also not in the time of the church” (p. 142). Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father and is now hidden from our sight. His presence with us is veiled under, in, with, as the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist. But there will be a “time” when he will finally unveil himself, the Church confesses, to usher in the great transformation of the cosmos. We will see him in the fullness of his glory. He will be the same Jesus, the same God-Man, but finally manifest in his transfigured humanity:
But yet again, in our time after the Lord’s ascension, he is indeed incarnate but nevertheless the end is not yet; we must still await the eagle’s coming at the end. Then Jesus the Christ will not be another than Mary’s child, but we will see him differently. As the English collect for the first Sunday of Advent has it, the Son came once “in great humility,” but on “the last day … he shall come again in his glorious majesty.” (p. 142)
As Ezekiel awaited the eschatological restoration of Israel, we too await. And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”