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The Christadelphian | July 2016

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Sunday Morning

A fruitful vineyard

We are given every opportunity to be fruitful in God’s service, following the example of our fruitful and fertile Lord.

The vineyard had been tended by tenant farmers for years. Successive generations of husbandmen had cared for the vines. The zealous and dedicated had washed the plants, fertilised the soil, and carefully pruned the new growth: the vineyard had brought forth a rich harvest. The apathetic and indolent, however, had neglected the soil, allowed the vines to ramble and weeds to grow – and nothing other than tiny, sour fruit had been produced.

The vineyard was well situated and resourced. The larger stones had been removed allowing the vines to root deeply in the rich soil. To keep animals from spoiling the fruit, it was surrounded by a strongly built wall. Some of its tenants had strengthened the wall, replacing crumbling sections with newly hewn stone. But some of its tenants had neglected the building work, allowing vermin to break through. In the worst cases, gaps in the stonework had grown large enough for thieves to steal the fruit itself. A tower had been provided too so that the tenant farmers could keep watch over the vineyard and the surrounding countryside. From here, if the need arose, the watchman could warn the workers to chase off a mischievous fox or, worse, prepare to defend the precious vineyard from raiding thieves. Of course, if the watchman dozed, the call could not be sounded. And if the structure of the tower itself was neglected then no clear view was possible.

There was even a winepress – two pits hewn from the rock itself. Here, if the harvest was abundant, the fruit of the husbandmen’s labours was pressed until the ripe grapes produced the rich juice needed for the finest wines. However, if the vines were neglected, grape-treading was futile producing only a thin, weak, bitter product, useless for wine making.

Husbandry and leprosy

So goes the parable of Isaiah 5. “The vineyard … is the house of Israel” (Isaiah 5:7). [1] It is fitting that Isaiah delivers the parable in the time of Uzziah (see Isaiah 1:1; 6:1). In 2 Chronicles 26 we learn that Uzziah had “vinedressers in the mountains and in Carmel: (the fruitful fields, RV) for he loved husbandry” (verse 10). Therefore, in the first five chapters of Isaiah, agricultural imagery is frequent: “the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard” (1:8); “ye shall be confounded for the gardens you have chosen” (1:29); “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4); and “in that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent” (4:2).

This, however, is not the only connection between the early chapters of Isaiah and the life of Uzziah. In 2 Chronicles 26 we also read that,

“When he was strong his heart was lifted up to his destruction for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense.” (verse 16)

The consequence of this sin of rebellion was that “leprosy … rose up in his forehead … and behold he was leprous in his forehead”. Recalling Uzziah’s leprosy Isaiah describes the nation as having “wounds and bruises, and putrifying sores” (Isaiah 1:6).

Isaiah appears to specifically reference Uzziah’s sin in chapter 1, “Bring me no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me” (verse 13), and then references the punishment in chapter 3, when he says of the daughters of Jerusalem, “Therefore the LORD will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion” (verse 17). Drawing together the two metaphors, Isaiah writes,

“The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgement but behold oppression.” (5:7)

The word translated “oppression” is connected to the word “scab” in chapter 3 (see the KJV margin). In other words, failing to bring forth the appropriate fruit will be as bad as a healthy body being overcome with leprosy, a disease often associated with the defilement of sin.

The connection with Uzziah’s proud heart and the repetition of “forehead” is significant: “the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint” and so “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it” (1:6).

Leadership

There is a theme of leadership here. If the head, the king, is corrupt then the whole body is unable to bring forth the fruit required of the nation. We are all leaders, of course. It is not just Arranging Brethren who guide their brothers and sisters. Sunday School teachers, mothers, fathers, spiritual aunts and uncles, anyone who has any kind of influence over others – everybody, therefore – exercises leadership. Therefore, the lessons of leadership from these chapters and from the parable are for all of us.

Significantly, it was to a group of leaders that Jesus reprised the Parable of the Vineyard. The Lord God asks the question in Isaiah 5, “What could have been done more to my vineyard?” In retelling the parable to the “chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 21:23), Jesus provided the answer to God’s anguished question. What more could be done? God could send His only Son: the best possible example of leadership. Yet still they rejected him, preferring their own corrupt leadership to that of the “head, even Christ”.

Comparing the leadership provided by Uzziah or the chief priests with the leadership of the Lord Jesus, brings into focus what fruit Uzziah failed to produce. It is humility that he so clearly lacked. His “lofty looks” (Isaiah 2:11) contrast sharply with the Lord Jesus who “made himself of no reputation” (Philippians 2:7). So, when we accept that we are all leaders, we do not mean that we can start lording it over our brothers and sisters: quite the opposite. True leadership begins with humility: “in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (verse 3). True leadership is not about getting people to do as they are told but about bringing out the best in people, producing those fruits of the spirit described in Galatians 5.

There are other fruits referred to by Isaiah: “learn to do well, seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). When we consider these we can see why Jesus brought the parable to the chief priests’ attention. But there is even more to be gleaned from the parable when we think about its three main elements: the wall, the tower, and the winepress. Each relates to a different aspect of discipleship.

The tower was for watching. Ezekiel 33 makes very clear the responsibilities of those who watch: if the watchman “blow not the trumpet and the people be not warned, if the sword come and take any person from among them … his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand”. So the tower was not just for watching. It was for calling out, for sounding the trumpet. Tellingly, the Hebrew word for “tower” is translated as “pulpit” in Nehemiah 8. One of the responsibilities placed upon us as we tend God’s vineyard is therefore to preach.

The wall is representative of protection and separation. The word is used, for example, in this figurative sense of David’s protection of Nabal’s men in 1 Samuel 25:16, “they were a wall unto us”. There is a need to separate ourselves from the world. We cannot hope to bring forth the fruits of the spirit if we are too closely associated with the works of the flesh. Like the mischievous fox or the marauding thieves, the world is only too willing to break in and steal away the fruit. The wall of separation must not be too high, however. If it is so tall that, even in our watchtower we cannot see over it, then there is no way we can preach.

The winepress is a more complex metaphor. Certainly it is representative of judgement but it is also a good reminder that to get the very best out of the fruit a certain amount of pressure has to be applied. If leadership is about helping others then these pressures are essential; indeed, they are almost built in to the life of discipleship. Ancient Israeli vineyards, as described above, had winepresses literally carved into the ground. Paul speaks of the “God of all comfort who comforteth us (that is, ‘makes us strong’) in all our tribulation that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). And, of course, the product of the winepress leads us back to a consideration of the Lord Jesus whose saving blood we will recall in the cup of wine.

True fruitfulness

It is the Lord Jesus who told the chief priests and elders where their unfruitfulness would lead:

“the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Matthew 21:43)

Just as in Uzziah’s time, Israel were expected to bring forth fruit. Later in this extended discourse, Jesus calls these the “weightier matter of the law, judgment, mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). We can see the parallels with Isaiah 1:17. However, Jesus says something else in Matthew 23: “these ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone” (verse 23). The “other” he is referring to are the tithes, or by extension, the Levitical law. They were to focus on the “weightier matters” but they were not to neglect the basics. Jesus was saying that you can’t have one without the other: if judgement, mercy and faith are the fruits then the plant was the law. For us, if judgement, mercy and faith are the fruits then the plant is prayer, readings and meeting together. You can no more have one without the other than you can have an apple without an apple tree – or, for that matter, a grape without a vine. Equally, a tree that does not bear fruit may look attractive but it is fruitless and thus useless.

We are all required to bear fruit and are all required to work to do so. Notice how Jesus tells us that the vineyard was “let out” or leased to Israel (Matthew 21:33) but in contrast it would be “given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”. Our work for the Lord is not a payment. Ours is a freewill offering given in response to the gracious gift of God. A Sunday morning is the ideal time to reflect in humility on that work and to consider the leadership of the Lord Jesus which was in such contrast to the pride of Uzziah. Israel looked to its head, Uzziah, and saw a leprous king unfit even to tend the vines of which he was so fond. We, however, strive to ‘hold fast the head’, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to consider the extent to which we are bearing fruit as we labour in his vineyard.

Steve Jefferies

[1] All quotations are from the KJV, unless otherwise noted.

 

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