The Vineyard of the Lord
Having just read John 15 (“I am the vine…”), and with the prayer of John 17 on the horizon, I want to consider a text where the prophet Isaiah uses the same vine imagery that Jesus used. Isaiah’s message will expand our understanding of what the Lord means when He says that we are branches created to bear fruit.
Isaiah tells a parable in Isaiah 5.1-7 that begins, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The vineyard represents the people of God, as the prophet reveals at the end of the parable: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.”
The story envisions the Lord as a vinedresser, just as Jesus said in the opening of John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” In the parable, the vinedresser has created ideal conditions for his vines. He plants them in fertile soil which he has tilled. He has removed the rocks from the soil. Later, we read that he has planted a hedge and built a wall around the vineyard. In other words, there is absolutely no reason why the vineyard should not produce good fruit.
So it is with us. When Jesus warns, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away,” we are to understand that the Father has given us the conditions that we need to bear fruit, so we are without excuse if we refuse to do it. Isaiah asks, “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” and so shall the Lord ask us on the last day if we are found fruitless.
And woe to us if our Lord does not find good fruit when He visits us! Thus says the Lord, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”
Last Sunday, we briefly considered what it means to bear fruit in the Lord. When John the Baptist refers to bearing fruit, he speaks of repentance (Matt 3.8). Likewise, Jesus speaks of bearing good fruit in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, suggesting that bearing fruit means living a righteous life and performing righteous deeds (Matt 7.15-20).
The word of the Lord to Isaiah is more specific when it talks about Israel’s fruit. In the parable, the vinedresser expects a good vintage, but his vineyard produces only wild grapes. Isaiah explains this element of the parable at the very end: “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” The Hebrew word for “bloodshed” sounds very much like the word for “justice,” and the word for “outcry” like the word for “righteousness”—just as a wild grape looks like a domesticated grape but is sour instead of sweet.
The Father has planted us to produce the fruits of justice and righteousness. “Justice” in the Old Testament always refers to the justice codes of the Law. These principles include “justice” in the modern, English sense—that wrongs should be avenged, that people should be treated fairly in disputes, and that accusations should only be considered if confirmed by two or three witnesses. They also include what we sometimes call “social justice.” The poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner must not be cheated. Far from it; they are to be provided for both publicly and privately.
The word “righteousness” also carries a sense of public obligation in Isaiah’s parable. Where the vinedresser expected to find righteousness, he didn’t find “unrighteousness,” which we would expect to be the opposite of righteousness. Instead, he finds an outcry. The word for “outcry” used here is a cry of distress, such as what the Lord heard against Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18.21). In the parable, the vinedresser finds the cries of those who have been wronged. Again, it is a matter of justice.
Life in the vine of Christ consists in more than just personal righteousness as conceived by modern, American evangelicalism. That false vision of righteousness is only a matter of keeping one’s nose clean. The Lord calls for our personal purity, yes, but the Scriptural fruits of righteousness are more than that. They are a matter of how we treat other people, especially the needy.
Notice that the Scriptures hedge us in on the matter of our fruit. We are to produce good fruit, and nothing else will suffice. If we produce bad fruit, the Lord will leave us to the beasts, the briers, and the thorns. If we produce no fruit at all, the Lord will lop us off from the vine, and we will be dried out and burned. If we spurn the needy and give ourselves over to our own passions, then we have no part in the Lord’s vineyard.