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ISRAEL COMPARED TO THE USELESS WOOD OF A WILD VINE (Chap. 15)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—In the last chapter the prophet had announced that God would not spare Jerusalem for the sake of the few righteous therein. In this chapter he destroys another refuge in which they trusted. He shows how His people Israel have no native superiority over other nations, no such intrinsic value as would entitle them to be considered as a special case. They may have rested secure in the thought that Israel is compared to a vine (Psalms 80:0), that they could not be rejected and punished because of their election. The prophet’s answer to this false confidence is, that Israel is no longer a true vine, but mere wood, yea, even the most useless of all wood, and only fit to serve as fuel for the fire. In Ezekiel 15:1-5 the figure is worked out in the shape of a parable. In Ezekiel 15:6-8 we have the application of the parable. God will deal with Jerusalem as men deal with the wood of the forest vine, the worthless remains of a barren tree.
Ezekiel 15:1-2. “What is the vine tree more than any tree?” It was a standing figure with the prophets to compare Israel to a vine or vineyard (Isaiah 5:0; Hosea 10:0; Jeremiah 2:21), and always, with the exception of Psalms 80:0, to point out its degeneracy.
Ezekiel 15:3. Shall the wood be taken thereof to do any work? It is useless as a material for making any instrument. “For use its diameter even unfits it; while its appearance is too paltry for ornament, and it is too weak to bear anything except fruit” (Lange).
Ezekiel 15:4. “Behold, it is cast into the fire for fuel; the fire devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burned. Is it meet for any work?” The answer to this question is given in the next verse, the force of which is this,—If in its perfect state it cannot be put to any useful purpose, how much less when it is partially scorched and consumed!
Ezekiel 15:6. “So will I give the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” “The Jews having utterly failed to answer the divine purpose in selecting them to be witnesses for Jehovah in the midst of the heathen, they were to be completely broken up as a nation, and punished by severe and fiery trials in succession, till the dross of their idolatry was purged away. When a professing people act unworthily of their calling, they are only fit to be rejected” (Matthew 3:10; Matthew 5:13) (Henderson).
Ezekiel 15:7. “They shall go out from one fire, and another fire shall devour them.” “Out of a fire one must come either burned or scorched. Israel has been in the fire already. It resembles a wild vine which has been consumed at both ends by the fire, while the middle has been scorched, and which is now about to be given up altogether to the fire” (Keil).
Ezekiel 15:8. “And I will make the land desolate.” Repeating the threat of chap. Ezekiel 14:13; Ezekiel 14:15.
THE END OF MAN’S EXISTENCE (Ezekiel 15:2)
The vine-tree is weaker than most trees, so as to be unfit for any work, and would therefore be very contemptible but for that property it possesses of bringing forth a valuable and delicious fruit. On this account it is highly prized and diligently cultivated. But if it fail of producing fruit, the only purpose to which it can be applied is to turn it to fuel. Such is the figurative representation which the prophet gives us in this passage of man, considered especially as the object of divine care and culture. He is naturally capable of yielding a precious fruit; in this consists his sole excellency; this is the sole end of his existence; and if he fails in this he is of no use but to be destroyed.
I. Man is naturally capable of yielding a most precious fruit: this fruit consists in living to God.
1. He is possessed of all the natural powers which are requisite for that purpose. He is endowed with reason and understanding, enabling him to perceive the proofs of the being of God, and to entertain just, though inadequate, conceptions of the principal attributes of His nature: His self-existence, His absolute perfection, His power, His wisdom, His all-sufficiency, His omnipresence, His holiness, justice, and goodness. Inferior animals do not; on which account He is the vine-tree amongst the trees of the wood, inferior in many properties to some of them, but superior in those particulars which fit him for this end, and on that account incomparably more valuable.
2. As we are possessed of natural powers fitting us for the service of God, so He has bestowed upon us much care and culture, with an express view to this end. The religious instruction He gave to His ancient people is frequently compared in Scripture to the cultivation which men bestow upon vines. “My beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill” (Isaiah 5:1). “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5:7). He gave them His will, His ordinances, His prophets, and separated them from all nations by peculiar rites, that they might be to Him for a name and a praise and a peculiar treasure above all nations. He has done much more for us under the Gospel. None can be ignorant of the intention of God in all these provisions. “Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed; how, then, art thou now turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?” (Jeremiah 2:21).
II. This is the only end for which mankind are formed and preserved. This is the proper fruit of human nature, which admits of nothing being substituted in its room.
1. A mere selfish, voluptuous life, cannot be supposed to be the proper fruit of human nature. He who lives to himself is universally despised and condemned. “Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit to himself” (Hosea 10:1). “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter” (Deuteronomy 32:32).
2. A life of social benevolence, in which the public good is preserved, without a supreme regard to God, cannot be this fruit. Can such persons be said to neglect the end of their existence? Undoubtedly, for the following reasons:
(1.) To do good to our fellow-creatures, without regard to God, is to forget the principal relation in which we stand, and, consequently, to neglect the principal duty. A right behaviour to each other is no proper compensation for the want of obedient regards to God (instanced in pirates and rebels). A regard to God is the root and origin of all real virtue.
(2.) The end of man’s existence cannot, with any propriety, be considered as confined to this world. But the proper end accomplished by mere social virtues is entirely confined to the present state.
(3.) No collective number of men can be independent of God, more than a single individual; therefore no such collective body has a right to consult their common interest, to the neglect of God, any more than a single individual to pursue his individual interest. The aggregate of mankind appears something great and imposing in the eyes of men, in consequence of which a peculiar importance is attached to those actions which tend to the public good. The magnitude of the general interest imposes a value on those actions which are adapted to advance so great an object. But, in the sight of God, all nations are as the “drop of a bucket;” “He taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” Suppose all the subjects of a lawful prince were to agree to stand by each other, and to promote each other’s interests to the utmost, would this be allowed by the prince as any atonement for a great and persevering rebellion? Or suppose a single individual so disposed, would not the result be the same? No other can be substituted for this.
III. He who answers not the end of his existence is only fit to be destroyed. He is like a vessel marred in the hands of the potter, proper only to be broken. The barren vine may be useful as fuel, and to this purpose it is much applied in eastern countries. Thus wicked men may be useful with a subordinate kind of usefulness, by their destruction.
1. They may thereby become edifying examples of the just vengeance of God, in order to deter others. That this will be one of the ends answered by the punishment of the wicked seems intimated in several passages of Scripture, as well as is supported by its analogy to human government. “And they shall go forth and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24).
2. They will serve to manifest those attributes of the great Supreme which their conduct disowned, and which it seemed virtually to call in question. “What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?” (Romans 9:22). This is a subordinate use, not a primary end. It is that for which men fit themselves by their presumptuous and impenitent neglect of God.
(1.) What total blindness attaches to those who live in the total neglect of God and religion!
(2.) What little room is there for that confidence which many place in correctness of deportment towards their fellow-creatures, while religion is not even pretended to be the governing principle of their lives!
(3.) What need have we all to examine ourselves, and seriously to inquire whether we are yielding that fruit unto God on which we have been insisting!
(4.) How ought those to be alarmed when the result of such examination is that they have been hitherto utterly without fruit! How strong the obligations on such, after considering their ways, to turn unto the Lord. And thankful should they be that space is afforded them for repentance and salvation.—R. Hall.
The Church is not to be a wilderness, but a vineyard; it is not to bear flowers only, or leaves and twigs merely, but fruit. She is not an apple-tree or fig-tree, but a vine. Wine cheers, inspirits, enlivens. Outwardly insignificant, there is the noblest power within. The grace of Christ working through poor apostles.—A Lapide.
The Jews, who were the Church of God, resembled the vine.
1. Vines are few in respect of other trees, so were the Jews in respect of other people (Deuteronomy 7:7). They were the “fewest of all people.”
2. Vines are planted by hillsides, by houses, in gardens, orchards, &c., and the Jews were planted in the choicest land; “in a pleasant place” (Hosea 9:13), “in a very fruitful hill” (Isaiah 5:1). The vine was brought out of Egypt; it was a chosen vine, and it was planted (Psalms 80:8), but where? in “a good land,” even a land of brooks, fountains, springs, valleys, hills; in a land flowing with milk and honey, the glory of all lands (Deuteronomy 8:7; Ezekiel 20:6). Therefore called a branch of His own planting, planted with His right hand (Isaiah 60:21; Psalms 80:15).
3. Vines are weak, must have props and supports to uphold them. God dealt so by the Jews. “In the wilderness the Lord thy God bare thee as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went” (Deuteronomy 1:31). Children are weak, and must be carried in the arms; and so God did carry them (Deuteronomy 33:27).
4. Fruitful; no tree so fruitful as the vine. It is called the “fruitful vine,” it is fruitful in branches, and fruitful in clusters. The Jews were a fruitful nation. “Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons, and now the Lord thy God hath made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deuteronomy 10:22).
5. It spreads much; so the Jews, who were God’s vine (Psalms 80:9-11). The psalmist saith there of this vine, that it filled the land, covered the hills with its shadow, sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river, and they spread far.
6. It is pleasant and delightful; such were the Jews (Isaiah 5:7).
7. Most pains required about vines of any plants or trees; much digging, dressing, pruning, supporting, fencing is needful. The Jews had much pains or cost bestowed upon them (Isaiah 5:4). Other trees are little looked after, but the vine must have special care (John 15:2). The husbandman observes every branch, the fruitful and unfruitful (Amos 3:2).—Greenhill.
THE REAL SECURITY OF CHRISTIANS
God’s Church is still the same though the outward form of it be changed. It is governed by the same principles, exposed to the same sources of danger, and only safe in the same refuge. The Christian Church is God’s Vine, and the reason of its existence, of its continuance, is exactly the same as in the case of His Church of old. What is the real security of Christians? Consider—
I. What it is not.
1. Not in their high calling, God called the Jews of old from amongst the heathen to be a separate people, a holy nation. He calls His Church now out of the world. Yet this is only means to an end, and not the end itself. He has called His people for a purpose, and if they fail to answer it they only fall from a higher elevation, and therefore into a worse destruction than others.
2. Not in their great gifts and endowments. They have the gifts of the Spirit, the means of grace, prophets and teachers, the written Word. With them lies the sacred deposit of God’s truth. But these are only the means and appliances of spiritual education. They are not in themselves knowledge, for in spiritual things knowledge comes of doing the will of God. Unless God is seen by the eye of the soul, and enjoyed as a real possession within, the doctrines and ordinances of religion become to us but barren traditions, and outward privileges only a temptation for resting in false security.
3. Not in what God has already done. God has cultivated His vine, the Church, with great care. But if any of her members stop short, and so fail to reach the end of God’s gracious design, the good which He hath wrought for them will be forfeited and will only increase their judgment. From each who hath not any solid results to show shall be taken away what has already been given, “even that which he hath.”
II. What it is. The real security of the Christian Church is its fruitfulness. God planted it for this very purpose.
1. God’s honour is concerned in the Church’s fruitfulness. The husbandman likes to see and to show the fruit of his labours. They are his reward, and they commend to others his diligence and care (St. John 15:8; St. Matthew 5:16).
2. It is not what we receive, but what springs up from us into the fruit of good living, that determines our spiritual condition. God’s gifts are a power entrusted to us to be used for His glory. They are the seed which is sown in our hearts; but they are entirely wasted if the fruit does not appear.
3. The end decides the matter. It is in vain to rejoice at beginning well, and then imagine that all is done. The end alone determines our state before God. We were made for God’s glory, and if we have not reached that we have failed.
4. We must not boast of God’s gifts of grace as if they were products of our own nature. No ground for boasting at all, for we have literally nothing which we have not received. How much more is this true of God’s gifts of grace!
5. We must not turn God’s benefits into an excuse for sin. Our true security lies not in our privileges, but in the good use which we make of them.
The sins of the inhabitants bring desolation upon a land. Canaan was a pleasant and fruitful land, a very paradise, but because they committed a trespass, corrupted God’s worship and oppressed the people, therefore God laid waste the land, even His own vineyard; He plucked away the fence, broke down the wall, and let in those wild beasts, bears, boars, and foxes, the Babylonians, who tore the vine in pieces, and rooted it wholly up, and laid all desolate. Before they came, the land was as the garden of Eden, but they left it a desolate wilderness; and where the vines grew, there were briars and thorns (Isaiah 7:23-24; Psalms 107:3-4). If we would therefore prevent this, let us hearken to what is said, Jeremiah 5:7.—Greenhill.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezekiel 15". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany