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What is the vine tree, etc.? The prophet's mind had apparently been dwelling, after the close of his previous utterance, on the imagery of earlier writers, in which Israel had appeared as the vine of Jehovah (Genesis 49:22; Psalms 80:9; Hosea 10:1; Isaiah 5:1-30.; Deuteronomy 32:32; Jeremiah 2:21), and to which he himself refers again in Ezekiel 19:10. He saw how men might pervert that image to their own destruction. And he expands the parable, as our Lord does in John 15:1-27. Men might dwell, perhaps were actually dwelling, on the thought that they were branches of the true vine, and therefore could not perish. He exposes the groundlessness of that hope in tones of scornful sarcasm. If the vine did not bear fruit, or if it only brought forth wild grapes, then its special excellence was gone, and it challenged comparison with other trees only as a timber tree, and what was its worth as such? If Israel was not true to its vocation, it was poorer and weaker than the heathen nations round it. So far the general thought is clear. In dealing with details, we note that the words in italics, "or than," should disappear, and that the words should stand as in the Revised Version, What is the vine more than any tree, the vine branch which is among the trees of the forest?
Shall wood be taken thereof, etc.? As a timber tree, then, the vine was confessedly valueless. No carpenter would use it, even for the peg upon which men hang their cups, and which had become, as in Isaiah 22:23, the symbol of political stability (comp. also Zechariah 10:4). For the unfruitful vine branch these remained the doom of being cast into the fire (John 15:6). What was its worth when it was half burned at either end and in the middle? What would Israel be fit for when it had been laid low by the "fire" of God's judgment? Probably the vivid picture of the charred branch points to the successive judgments which had fallen first on the ten tribes, then on Judah, and lastly on Jerusalem itself. The word "trespass" may refer either to the general guilt of the people, or to the last crowning crime of Zedekiah's rebellion. I rather incline to the latter, the noun being in the singular.
The worthless vine.
The vine represents Israel, and in its degenerate state it stands for the fallen, corrupt nation. Our Lord has taken up the image already familiar to us from Psalms 80:1-19 and Isaiah 5:1-30, as well as from this passage in Ezekiel, so that his Church, now regarded as the spiritual Israel, may be typified in the old analogies of the vine (John 15:1-27).
I. WHEREIN THE WORTH OF THE VINE CONSISTS. "What is the vine tree more than any tree?" It is usually regarded as of supreme excellence. While fig trees grow by the wayside, vines are carefully walled in and the vineyard protected by watchmen (Isaiah 5:2). Much labour is spent upon the vine in tilling the soil, cleansing and pruning the branches, and so preparing for the vintage. All this points to a special value in the vine above ordinary plants. It is not difficult to see the ground of this valuation. The vine is prized simply for its grapes. The abundance and quality of the fruit give it its sole worth. "And he looked that it should bring forth grapes" (Isaiah 5:2). Christ values his people just according to their fruitfulness (John 15:8).
II. HOW THE VINE MAY BE WORTHLESS. If the vine be fruitless, it can no longer sustain its proud pre-eminence. On the contrary, regarded as a tree, it must he taken for one of the poorest of its class. The forester can set no price upon its limp and straggling boughs. If it bears no fruit, and is therefore to be considered on its own account and not for the sake of its product, it is of less value than other trees. Regarded as timber it is worthless. Degenerate Israel was less valuable than heathen nations. The Jews were then far inferior to the Greeks and Romans at the height of their greatness. The Church of Christ, when barren of spiritual fruitfulness, is a noxious institution; political clubs, scientific societies, chambers of commerce,—these so called secular institutions are superior to a degenerate Church. The fallen Christian is lower than the "man of the world," and of less use to society, as the fruitless vine is of less account than the forest tree.
III. WHAT IS TO BE DONE TO THE WORTHLESS VINE. It has failed in fruit bearing; it is useless as timber; there remains only one possible use for it. Flung into the oven it may serve as firewood. Indeed, this is necessary. Similarly, the fruitless fig tree cannot be allowed to stand, occupying space, absorbing nutriment from the soil, casting shade where healthy sunshine would develop more profitable vegetable growth. "Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" (Luke 13:7). A fruitless Church stands in the place of a useful one, and therefore it is positively injurious. There is but one good that can come of it. The very destruction of it may be a warning to others. Unfaithful souls are preparing for themselves a fate of destruction. Negative fruitlessness is enough to doom them (Matthew 25:30).
IV. HOW THE WORTHLESS VINE IS TO BE SUBSEQUENTLY REGARDED. It was of no use before it was burnt. What, then, will be its value afterwards (see verse 5)? Chastisement, which corresponds to pruning, is sent in order to improve its subject. But destruction cannot benefit the thing destroyed. If "the wages of sin is death," such wages cannot be turned to any good account. We may submit to wholesome correction, but we should "flee from the wrath to come" when that wrath is the consuming fire of destruction, the awful consequences of persistent sin.
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
The worthless vineyard.
The prophet was inspired to point the reproach of the Hebrew people, by reference to their ingratitude, their unfaithfulness, and their failure to fulfil the special purpose for which they were exalted to a position of peculiar privilege. In this passage, as in a similar passage in the fifth chapter of Isaiah's prophecies, the similitude of the vine is employed to set forth, on the one hand, Divine care, culture, and forbearance; and, on the other hand, national barrenness and uselessness. Plain truths are uttered which serve to justify before every rightly judging mind the action of the Lord in this time of Israel's calamities and distresses.
I. ISRAEL WAS SELECTED FROM AMONG THE NATIONS ON ACCOUNT OF NO EXCELLENCE OR MERIT OF HER OWN. So far as its wood is concerned, the vine has no advantage above other trees; in fact, it "is meet for no work," and compares unfavourably with other and serviceable timber. Similarly, although in the progenitors of the Hebrew race there were remarkable gifts and remarkable moral qualities, and although in the course of Jewish history many great men arose, still it is not to be denied that the nation, as such, was a rebellious, disobedient, stiff-necked people. God had a purpose in selecting Israel, but his selection was one to prove his independence of human agencies and instrumentalities. The people were wont to boast of their ancestors, but m themselves there was nothing of which to boast.
II. THE PURPOSE OF GOD IN SELECTING ISRAEL WAS THE PRODUCTION OF PRECIOUS AND ACCEPTABLE FRUIT. If the wood of the vine is of little use, its fruit is wholesome and delicious, and the juice of the grape, though too often, like other gifts of God, abused, "maketh glad the heart of man." But if the vine yields no clusters of grapes, what is its use? Israel was appointed to privilege in order that the Law given might be reverently obeyed, in order that Jehovah, revealed in temple worship, might be purely and devoutly worshipped. God looked that his vine should bring forth fruit, valuable, wholesome, and acceptable to himself.
III. ISRAEL FAILED TO FULFIL THIS PURPOSE. God came, year after year, seeking fruit, but found none. He looked for progress, and there was deterioration. He looked for obedience, and there was rebellion. He looked for spirituality, and there was formality and hypocrisy. He looked for sincere and cordial worship, and there was idolatry. Opportunities of devotion and of service were neglected and abused. Temptations, instead of being resisted, were succumbed to. The long suffering of God led not to repentance.
IV. ISRAEL THUS BECAME UTTERLY USELESS FOR ANY PROFITABLE AND DIVINE END. It was this which especially oppressed the mind of the prophet; it was this which aroused the displeasure of the great Lord and Judge. "They have committed a trespass" was the complaint and reproach of Jehovah against his people. Because they were barren, they were unprofitable.
V. DIVINE DISSATISFACTION WAS EXPRESSED AGAINST ISRAEL. There is something truly terrible in the declaration of Jehovah: "I will set nay face against them." Such expressions are objected against by some who are indignant at such anthropomorphic representations of the Eternal. But the acts of God, as recorded in history, support the representations of his feelings as thus expressed. Removing, as we should do, from our conceptions of Jehovah anything suggested by such language which is derogatory to his perfect character, we have still a view of the Divine justice and retributive government which it is most important that every reader of Scripture should take, and that habitually.
VI. DIVINE CHASTISEMENT IS APPARENT IN NATIONAL DISASTER. The worthless wood of the unfruitful vine was cast into the fire for fuel. And of the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Judge declared, "They shalt go out from one fire, and another fire shall devour them." The history of the nation informs us how exactly such predictions were fulfilled. The calamities which came in rapid succession upon Israel and. Judah were as repeated castings into the furnace of righteous retribution. The rebellious and idolatrous people were chastened, were humiliated, were decimated, exiled, despised, and all but consumed. Their land was made desolate, stud their national life seemed all but extinguished. But a remnant was spared. The fires through which they passed purified, but were not suffered to consume them. In the midst of wrath God remembered mercy. There was a witness for Israel to bear, and a work for Israel to do, among the nations; and he who first chose the nation did not now abandon it.—T.
HOMILIES BY J.D. DAVIES
Useless, if fruitless.
The nation of the Hebrews is often represented under the image of a vine. This, with the olive, was its staple production. It may be that ever since the visit of the spies, who brought back the gigantic cluster of grapes from Eshcol, the vine had served as a standing emblem of the empire. In the Psalms of David, and in the poetical utterances of Isaiah, frequent mention is made of Israel under the symbol of a vine. And amid the ruins of ancient buildings in Palestine, clusters of the vine, carved in stone upon lintel or architrave, may still be seen.
I. MOST TREES SERVE MANY USES. From root to topmost twig, every part of some trees is serviceable to man. The bark is used for cordage or for tanning. The root is often a valuable medicine. The juice which exudes is a precious gum. The fruit is wholesome food. And when cut down, the wood is devoted to house building or forms implements of husbandry. Which fact is a parable. For some nations serve many good purposes. A nation may produce a superior literature which shall serve for the education of other lands. It may bring to perfection the decorative arts—painting and architecture and sculpture. It may invent a useful system of jurisprudence. It may be famous for legislation, for commerce, for manufactures. If it should fail in one respect, it might yet excel in others. Egypt and Greece and Rome were justly celebrated for many of these things. These taught the world; they moulded humanity. By their literature and art and systems of government they are teaching mankind still. "Being dead, they yet speak."
II. THE VINE TREE HAS BUT ONE USE—ITS FRUIT. Of all trees it is the most prolific in bearing fruit. Under proper culture, its fruitfulness is certain, regular, copious. All the life and vigour of the tree are poured into its clusters. But failing this, it renders no other sin vice to man. Its cells are not stored with any known medicinal qualities. Its wood is too brittle to bear any strain or burden. Hence, unless fruitful, it is worthless. In this respect the vine is an apt figure of the Hebrew nation. It was raised up by God for a single purpose, viz. to exhibit to the world righteousness, loyalty to the will of the invisible God. Israel's message was to be addressed to the conscience of mankind. Israel was designed to be a lighthouse, to diffuse on every side the rays of moral and spiritual truth. If it failed in this, it failed altogether. It may as well not have been. For Israel to fail in exerting a moral influence upon the Gentile nations was a loss incalculable to humanity. It was a check upon the development of manhood.
III. A FRUITLESS VINE IS DESTINED FOR THE FLAME. Other trees, when felled, are yet valuable to man. They exude a fragrance. They possess qualities suited for dyeing or tanning. They are useful for edifices of all kinds. They afford timber for shipbuilding. But the vine has no such virtues. If fruitless, it is cut down and set apart for fuel. So was it with Israel's nationality. The picture sketched by the prophet is impressive. It is that of a vine branch severed from the tree and already burnt at both ends. The final doom of such a branch had already begun. Israel had committed a grievous trespass. The nation created to be a witness for God had become a witness against him. The medicine had become a poison. Hence the dunghill was its fittest place. The doom of Israel had already begun. Its glory was in part consumed. Fire should succeed to fire, calamity to calamity, until the lowest degradation should be reached, The decree of God is written in steel, and cannot in the nature of things be revoked. "My word shall not return unto me void."—D.
HOMILIES BY W. JONES
The true object of the life of man.
"And the word of the Lord came irate me, saying, Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree?" etc. Israel is here compared to a vine. The figure is frequently applied to her (cf Psalms 80:8-16; Isaiah 5:1-7). If a vine be fruitful, it is very highly valued. Its fruit is said to make "glad the heart of man," and to "cheer God and man." But if it be not fruitful, of what use is it? It is of no use as timber. If other trees fail to bring forth fruit, they may at least render good service as timber. Not so the vine. If it is not fruitful, it is fit only for burning. So Israel was "planted a noble vine, wholly a right seed," with the express purpose of bringing forth fruit, i.e. of continuing faithful to the one true God, and doing righteously amongst men. If they had fulfilled that design, they would have occupied a position of noble pre-eminence amongst the nations of the world. But failing in that, they failed totally, and were fit only for destruction. "In respect of those things which constitute the natural greatness of kingdoms—antiquity of origin, extent of territory, abundance of resources, attainments in arts and science—what could they boast of in comparison of Egypt, Ethiopia, Babylon, and the greater kingdoms of the earth?" Hence if they failed religiously, like a fruitless vine they were fit only for the fire. Their destruction was already in a great measure accomplished (Ezekiel 15:4, Ezekiel 15:5), and its further accomplishment was at hand (Ezekiel 15:6-8). The principles involved here apply to all men and to every man. We are designed and created by God to produce the fruits of holiness and usefulness. If we do so, we honour him, occupy an exalted moral position, and benefit society. If we fail to do so, we dishonor God, sink in moral character and condition, and are worthless or injurious to society. What is the fruit which God designs that we should bear? Personal holiness and social usefulness. "Ye have your fruit unto holiness." "Bearing fruit in every good work." These are the two great characteristics of the fruit which God requires of us. They should not be severed. The holy character must bring forth good works. The good works must ever be connected with, and the expression of, a holy character. This fruit will be produced in various degrees and in various terms, according to personal idiosyncrasies, abilities, and opportunities. God does not require that Christian character shall be rigidly uniform, or that Christian service shall all be of the same kind. What he demands is that every one shall be faithful in the pursuit of holiness and usefulness, and shall endeavour to realize these things in tile best manner in each individual case. Our text further suggests—
I. THAT THE TRUE OBJECT OF MAN'S LIFE IS THAT HE MAY THUS BEAR FRUIT.
1. He is formed by God for this object. Man is endowed with faculties fitting him for this. He has mind and soul by which he may perceive the revelation of God. He has a will which was designed to work in sweet harmony with that of God. He has a conscience which was constituted to accord with and respond to the eternal righteousness of God. tie has affections and aspirations which find their true object in God, and their highest exercise in his worship. Moreover, he has powers for expressing all these things in his life; for feeling and speaking and acting holily, and so honouring God by producing the fruit which he requires of us. We are also fitted by God for usefulness in various ways. We have the power of sympathy, of kind and earnest speech, of loving brotherly help, of tender and trusty support, by which to be useful to each other. There is no one but may help another in some form and to some extent.
2. Man is blessed by God with culturing agencies for this object. What agencies of help and culture God gave to his people Israel!—the moral Law, religious ordinances, sacred memorials, consecrated priests, inspired prophets. How many and influential are the means which we possess for promoting our mental and spiritual growth and usefulness!—an inspiring history, a glorious literature, the sacred Scriptures, opportunities of religious worship, divinely instituted sacraments, various Christian ministries, the influences of the Holy Spirit. Even the very trials under which we smart and bleed are but the prunings of the great Vine dresser, that we may bear more fruit. What does such a constitution as ours mean? What do all these agencies mean? What is their mission? That we may bring forth fruit, even holiness and usefulness.
"Heaven doth with us, as we with torches do;
Not light them for themselves: for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch'd,
But to fine issues: nor nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence,
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use."
(Shakespeare, 'Measure for Measure,' Acts 1:0. sc. 1.)
II. THIS IS THE ONLY TRUE OBJECT OF MAN'S LIFE. If the vine tree does not produce grapes, it fails of the one object of its existence, and is worthless. If man does not produce the fruit of excellence in himself and serviceableness to others, he misses the end of his being. Other objects for which men live are unsatisfactory. The pursuit of pleasure, the race for riches, the struggle for power, the toil for knowledge, or the possession of any of these things or all of them, cannot be the chief object of human life. I assign only one reason in proof of this assertion, but that is a sufficient one, viz. because they secure only a partial development of our nature. God has endowed us with no superfluous powers. He would have us exercise and develop every faculty of our being. He is ever opposed to waste. But any one of the objects mentioned, or all of them combined, involve the neglect of certain great faculties of our being, the wasting of important powers. He whose supreme aim is the attainment Of pleasure generally develops only his sensuous tastes and appetites, to the grave neglect or injury of his mental and moral powers. He who lives for riches develops his acquisitive faculties, to the detriment of his communicative powers; he grows in commercial sagacity and keenness, to the great risk of his tenderness, uprightness, and reverence; he becomes rich in his purse, but poor in his soul. He whose great object is to obtain power, if he pursue it wisely will develop several faculties of his nature; e.g. his powers of observation and analysis, of self-control and control of others; he will acquire knowledge of men and of times; but he is likely to lose conscience, to become unscrupulous, overbearing, tyrannical. And he whose chief purpose is to acquire knowledge will develop his mental faculties, become more clear in intellectual perception, more comprehensive in mental grasp; but he will lose sensitiveness and strength of sympathy, tenderness of feeling, reverence of spirit. We see, then, that, taken singly, these things are not satisfactory as the chief object of human life. But supposing one could, combine all four—knowledge, power, riches, pleasure—as his object in life, and attain them, what then? Still he has not the true object of life, and for the reason already assigned; for in all
(1) the acquisitive faculties are developed at the expense of the communicative;
(2) man's relationship to God is ignored;
(3) man's highest nature is neglected. Tenderness, sympathy, adoration, service, are overlooked.
Turn now to the object suggested by our text—holiness or heart and life, and usefulness of influence and action.
(1) It affords scope for the harmonious development of every faculty of our nature.
(2) That development is beneficial, not only to the individual, but to society also. This, indeed, is part of the object or purpose itself
(3) That development is acceptable to God. It includes reverent worship of him, loyal obedience to his will, etc. Hence we conclude that this, and this alone, is the true object, of the life of man.
III. IF A MAN'S LIFE UTTERLY FAIL OF THIS OBJECT, IT IS FIT ONLY FOR DESTRUCTION. Of what use is a hopelessly fruitless vine? "What is the vine tree more than any tree, the vine branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood be taken thereof to make any work?" etc. If the vine does not produce fruit, it is not fit for timber; it is fit only for fuel. The Jews at this time had signally and completely failed as to the end of their existence as a nation, and they were doomed to national destruction. So with the life of men. If we do not answer God's design we are doing harm rather than good, our life is a bane instead of a blessing; and if there be no hope of thorough change in this respect, we are fit only for destruction. Of the fruitless vineyard the Lord saith, "I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; I will break down the fence thereof, and it shall be trodden down; and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned nor hoed; but there shall come up briars and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." "The axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." "He said unto the vine dresser, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground?" Persistent fruitlessness means ruin, destruction.
APPLICATION. Have we our fruit unto holiness? Are we bearing fruit in good works? Then let us seek after increased fruitfulness. But if it be otherwise with us, let us penitently seek to amend our ways, lest our barrenness leads to our ruin.—W.J.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 15". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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