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Part II: Three trees: and Israel's
The Vine and Israel's National History
EACH OF THESE
three trees has certain characteristics about it that make it
peculiarly apt as a symbol for an aspect of history. As we have
implied already, the life of an individual -- and of a nation
-- may be lived in two directions, horizontally and vertically.
The vine is a "horizontal" tree. It spreads along the
ground, requiring artificial support, constant pruning and restraint
(which is a function of government), and tending to expand at
the expense of others. It is truly a territorial plant.
There seems to be a kind of law
in Scripture that the first reference to any subject which thereafter
receives particular attention has special importance. As we shall
see, this is signally true of the other two trees, the fig and
the olive. I'm not certain whether this is so of the vine. The
first mention is found in Genesis 9:20, where Noah planted a
vineyard. It was his undoing: it led, in fact, to the only lapse
in what seems otherwise to have been a life of great piety. This
particular incident seems to throw little light on the symbolic
use of the vine. However, when Israel came out of Egypt at the
time of the Exodus, they were welded together in a unique way
under recognized leadership so that the event marked in the strictest
sense the Birth of a Nation. In Psalm 80:8-19 a summary history
of Israel is given which opens with the words, "Thou hast
brought a vine out of Egypt: Thou hast cast out the heathen,
and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause
it to take deep root, and it filled the land." The record
goes on to describe how this vine spread across the country from
Jordan to the Mediterranean. And then it was forsaken by the
husbandman who planted it, and it perished.
Yet how much this divine Husbandman
had done for His vineyard! Listen to what Isaiah said about it
1 of 6
Now will I sing to my well-beloved
a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath
a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:
fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it
with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it,
and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should
bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem,
and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more
to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I
looked that it should bring forth grapes, it brought forth wild
And now go to: I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof,
and it shall be eaten up, and break down the wall thereof, and
it shall be trodden down:
And I will lay it waste: it shall
not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and
thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain
For the vineyard of the Lord of
hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant
plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for
righteousness, but behold a cry.
shows very clearly how the way was prepared while Israel wandered
in the wilderness before their subsequent entry into the Promised
Land, their "planting." The Tell el Amarna Letters
reveal how little by little the Egyptian possessions in Palestine
were dis-united and whittled away so that when the time came
for the crossing of Jordan, the heathen were in a sense, as Psalm
80:8 put it, already "cast out." It may be not without
significance that while the spies brought back some other kinds
of testimony when they returned from their exploratory trip,
the prime witness they carried back with them was the fruit of
the vine ‹ a token, as it were ‹ of national possession
Israel verily prospered until,
under Solomon, the vine stretched from the Jordan to the sea
and was glorious indeed. But nationhood had been granted to Israel
for a purpose other than their own mere enjoyment of political
freedom. The land with its capital city and its single place
of worship was intended to stand as the centre of a circle of
testimony which was to swing in ever-widening arcs until the
knowledge of God should cover the earth as the waters cover the
sea. But what was a true vine -- that is, true because it was
of God's planting ‹ became a wild vine, a vine in short which
rejected its Husbandman. It ran wild and produced wild grapes,
or as Isaiah 5:7 put it, "God looked for judgment, but behold
oppression." It became just like the other nations around,
uncultivated from God's point of view and no longer fit to be
the special instrument of His self-revelation to the world.
I realize that it is customary
to interpret John 15:1 following, in a rather different way,
but if there is the kind of consistency in Scripture
which I am arguing for
here, I think the Lord referred to Himself as the True Vine because
He was in the strictest possible sense the true King of Israel
and their mainstem nationally. When they rejected Him, they committed
national suicide. Their ideas of what their nationhood really
meant, what the special favour they had enjoyed at God's hand
signified, were so far from the truth, so this-worldly, so unspiritual,
that they failed entirely to recognize who Jesus really was.
Yet they had been reminded about
this on many occasions. Time and again God had sent to them spiritually
minded men who sought to convey to their leaders what constituted
the grounds of their true nationhood. But it had all been to
no avail. As 2 Chronicles 36:15-21 records:
And the Lord God of their fathers
sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending;
because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling
But they mocked the messengers
of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until
the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was
Therefore he brought upon them
the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword
in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young
man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave
them all into his hand.
And all the vessels of the house
of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the
Lord, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all
these he brought to Babylon.
And they burnt the house of God,
and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces
thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof.
And them that had escaped from
the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants
to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia.
To fulfill the word of the Lord
by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths:
for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill
threescore and ten years.
The end result
was the temporary disappearance of Israel as a nation, though
not of Israel as a people. She was carried into exile, her capital
city destroyed and her king deposed. Ezekiel lamented her fate
Thy mother is like a vine in
thy blood, planted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of
branches by reason of many waters.
And she had strong rods for the
sceptres of them that bare rule, and her stature was exalted
among the thick branches, and she appeared in her height with
the multitude of her branches.
But she was plucked up in fury,
she was cast down to the ground, and the east wind dried up her
fruit: her strong rods were broken and withered; the
fire consumed them.
And now she is planted in the wilderness,
in a dry and thirsty ground
And fire is gone out of a rod of
her branches, which hath devoured her fruit, so that she hath
no strong rod to be a sceptre to rule. This is a lamentation,
and shall be for a lamentation.
is repeated again and again, using the same metaphor as in Hosea
9:10, where it will be noted that the fig tree is also introduced
metaphorically. Moreover, Hosea takes a longer view, for he says
(verse 17), "They shall be wanderers among the nations,"
a picture perhaps of the final dispersion which followed the
destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. In 10: l Hosea says, "Israel
is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself."
But it is not only in the Old Testament
that the vine is so used symbolically. Matthew 21:33-43 records
a familiar parable of the Lord's in which he said:
Hear another parable: There
was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged
it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower,
and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country.
And when the time of the fruit
drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen that they might
receive the fruits of it.
And the husbandmen took his servants,
and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.
Again, he sent other servants more
than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
But last of all he sent unto them
his son, saying, They will reverence my son.
But when the husbandmen saw the
son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let
us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.
And they caught him, and cast him
out of the vineyard, and slew him.
When the lord therefore of the
vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?
They say unto him, He will miserably
destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto
other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their
Jesus said unto them, Did ye never
read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected,
the same is become the head of the corner. this is the Lord's
doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?
Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom
of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing
forth the fruits thereof.
In this passage,
the servants were undoubtedly the prophets, for it was the prophets
who were beaten and killed and stoned. Finally, as verse 37 points
out, the Householder sent His Son. Verse 38 seems to indicate
that as a nation -- for this is a picture of the vineyard
-- they did indeed recognize the Son. This seems to be revealed
by a rather remarkable admission made subsequently and quoted
for us in
Matthew 27:64, where
the leaders of the nation went to Pilate and asked that special
precautions should be taken to make sure that the Lord's body
should not leave the tomb, in the event of which, they argued,
the disciples would say, "He is risen from the dead: so
that the last error shall be worse than the first." This
seems to me to be a clear indication that they realized only
too well they had made a "first error."
The parable, of course, depicts
the casting out of the Lord from the vineyard, that is, His national
rejection. In verse 41 the end result could only be as they themselves
were willing to admit: the transfer of national favour with its
attendant special responsibility to other husbandmen who would
bring forth the proper fruits in due time.
In verse 43 the Lord closes with
the words, "Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom of God
shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing
forth the fruits thereof." There is little doubt that this
is a prophetic statement foretelling how, if the Jewish people
rejected their King, they would themselves be rejected of God
as His channel of spiritual blessing to the nations, and how
He would turn to the Gentiles themselves to become the channel
in their place. Clearly this happened in due time when God turned
to the Gentiles and Israel was laid aside.
There is, however, a dual sense
in which this came about, for while God had a spiritual covenant
with Israel as a nation, He never had such a covenant with the
Gentiles in the same sense. Nevertheless it has remained true
that "righteousness exalteth a nation" (Proverbs 14:34)
so that when any Gentile society has genuinely turned to the
Lord and sought to order itself according to New Testament principles,
it has been prospered as a nation. Thus when any nation "brings
forth the fruits of the kingdom" (Matthew 21:43), it is
fulfilling the Lord's prediction, becoming thereby the "other
husbandmen" to whom He had let out His vineyard.
I believe that throughout the "times
of the Gentiles" since Israel was rejected for a season,
there has always been some nation, or some group of nations,
who singly or together could in a manner of speaking be termed
"Christian" through whom the world has been blessed.
From such societies people went forth to carry the light of the
gospel to the rest of the world, their freedom to travel and
their assurance of support resulting from a condition in their
homeland which seems once to have been God's intention for the
nation Israel. Such substitute nations, while they fulfilled
these conditions, have
brought forth the fruits
of the vineyard, and in return they have been prospered and blessed
by God nationally.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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It is difficult to state this clearly
without running the risk of being accused of blurring the lines
of distinction between that kind of spiritual life in Christ
which may be enjoyed by the child of God and that kind of condition
of prosperity which an aggregate of people may enjoy by reason
of their having a favourable disposition toward Christian standards
of conduct and public acknowledgment of God, even though a personal
experience of salvation is shared by only a small percentage
of the aggregate. Righteousness does exalt a nation: and although
"there is none righteous" in the strict theological
sense, there is a kind of national righteousness which is pleasing
to God and accepted of Him in the temporal order.
Any nation which patterns its way
of life and its value system in such a manner as to favour the
true Christian community which exists within it, will in turn
be favoured by God, protected in times of threat and prospered
in times of peace. It is a case of a cup of cold water given
to one of the least of God's children in no wise failing to bring
its reward, a reward which is "here and now." In Old
Testament times, the same was true of the nation Israel. When
that community favoured its "believing remnant," it
prospered. Outside the Land of Promise, the same principle applied
with respect to those who favoured Abraham's true children. We
tend to suppose that God has only one kind of reward ultimately
-- a "reward in heaven." But as such passages show,
there are real rewards which properly belong within the temporal
In short, my point is that God
was with Israel as a nation and protected them and prospered
them that they in turn might be a blessing to other nations;
yet He revealed Himself intimately in what must surely be called
"Christian experience" to only a comparatively small
segment of the people. Israel as a nation has now lost this special
relationship, so that in this sense they have ceased to be the
bearers of blessing to the world. Their vineyard has been taken
from them for a season and has in the meantime been entrusted
to other nations successively who have for a season brought forth
the fruits thereof and been blessed in the doing of it.