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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

     

Part II: Three trees: and Israel's History

Chapter 2

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 (5:1-7):

     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:

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     And he 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 grapes?
     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 upon it.
     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.

     Archaeology 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 (Numbers 13:23,24).
     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

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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 place;
     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 no remedy.
     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 (19:10-14):

     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

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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.

     This picture 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 seasons.
     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

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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

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brought forth the fruits of the vineyard, and in return they have been prospered and blessed by God nationally.
     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 order also.
     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.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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