Main Street Community Church

Fruitfulness: Vineyards

Isaiah 5 and 27; Psalm 80

Before the talk, Paul Horton read Psalm 80:7-19.

This talk was given by Martin Ansdell-Smith on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The Bible reading and talk are long.

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A transcript is not available but the speaker's script and notes are below:

This morning, the promise of fruitfulness looking at vineyards in the Bible.

Vines, vineyards, and grapes are throughout the Bible. First, some Bible passages and the place of vineyards in the Ancient Near East.

Vineyards feature in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. There are about ninety references in the Old Testament, starting inauspiciously at

Gen 9:20–21 “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.”

Grapes come in many colours, sizes, and flavours. The different varieties and impart an array of aromas and flavours to the produce.

Grapes were eaten fresh

Deut 23:24 “If you go into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.”

Grapes were dried into raisin clusters

1 Sam. 25:18 “Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys”

or the juice was reduced to a syrup or honey.

Making wine from grapes was, and remains, a major use of grapes.

Isa. 65:8a “Thus says the Lord: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,” …”

Wine was not just for celebrations, as in the wedding at Cana, it has value when safe drinking water is unavailable and when food must be local and seasonal.

However, unlike many trees, its wood was considered unfit for anything but burning, Ezek. 15:2–8 “O mortal, /how does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood— the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest? Is wood taken from it to make anything? Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object? It is put in the fire for fuel; …” Nowadays, some use is made of vine wood for decorative items and in fiction, as some of you may know, by Hermione Granger.

The land of Canaan was ideal for vineyards: loamy soil, good drainage, warm in summer, cool in winter, ample water. The region’s wines were widely sought, for example in Egypt, not a grape-growing region.

Grapes were part of the proof of the productivity of the land. After the Exodus, when spies were sent into the land, Num 13:23 “And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.”

There were vineyards in Canaan before Israel arrived after the Exodus. Those vineyards were taken from the Canaanites and handed to the Israelites:

Deut 6:11–12 “houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Many vineyards were small and near a family home, sometimes grouped together, perhaps like modern allotments.

› [[Pliny the elder decries the practice of vineyard aggregation for profit as it put the art of viticulture into general disuse. Nat Hist XIV ch 3]]

A household should invest in a vineyard Prov 31:16 “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.”

It was a sign of laziness or sloth to neglect the family vineyard Prov 24:30–31 “I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.”

Walls, watchtowers, and hedges were used to keep out animals and deter people.

Without effort: careful selection, pruning, and management, inedible grapes and useless wood were all you got. Few people want sour grapes. I like tart, acidic, even bitter flavours, but sour is different. The phrase ‘sour grapes’ implies “an attitude in which someone adopts a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.” (OED) It came from Æsop’s fable, ‘The Fox and the Grapes.’

Jer. 31:29 “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’”

A vineyard would have a wine press, a tank of rock or stone, in which grapes could be trodden by foot or squeezed by an implement. There might be an arrangement of tanks for collection of the juice. There are a couple of pictures of these in the lounge, and sample washed grapes for you to help yourself to.

Military duty was excused if the planter of a vineyard had not yet enjoyed the fruit:

Deut 20:6 “Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit.”

The first fruits of the vineyard were to be offered to God:

Deut 18:4 “The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him.”

When gathering the grape crop, the vineyard was not to be stripped bare:

Lev 19:10 “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

The Torah contains provisions for restitution for damaged or destroyed vineyards, and instruction on keeping the crop undefiled (e.g. Exod 22:5 ; 23:11 ; Deut 22:9 ; Lev 25:4 ).

For each family to have its own vineyard was the sign of peace, prosperity, wholeness:

1Ki4:25 “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.”

Mic4:4 “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”

The well-tended, productive vineyard was a source and sign of joy and abundance in the Ancient Near East.

Yet even if times were hard, this was not to diminish their trust and joy in their relationship with God. For example, at the end of the book of the prophet Habakkuk:

Hab. 3:17–18 “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

Because the vineyard, along with the grain field and olive grove, dominated Israel’s agricultural concerns it became a symbol for blessing, wealth, joy, and prosperity, both now, in the present age, and in the age to come.

In the Old Testament, vineyards provide imagery for poetry and love songs (Job 24:6, 18; Psa. 107:37; Song 1:14; 2:13 “The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”; 2:15 ; 7:12 ),

Vineyards and their produce were part of the language of the prophets. They used the image of God as the vine-dresser or vineyard owner and Israel as the vine or vineyard.

Ezek 19:10–11 “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water. Its strongest stem became a ruler’s scepter; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it stood out in its height with its mass of branches.”

And we reach the first of the passages set for this morning: Is 5:1–7.

The passage begins with a love story. Isaiah’s hearers would prefer the sound of this to his usual messages of doom and gloom.

“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;”

This has echoes of Song of Songs but then it goes horribly wrong. Isaiah continues,

“ he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 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 it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

Then suddenly the story is revealed as a parable, Is 5:7 “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

The parable describes Israel and her story up to Isaiah’s time using the metaphor of a vineyard. The judgements on Israel will include the loss or failure of all the vineyards, Zeph1:13 “Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.”

› Amos 5:11 “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”

Isaiah then describes the wild grapes and the judgement: a judgement so severe that a large vineyard expected to produce ten thousand gallons of wine a year would produce six.

Jesus continued the tradition, using vineyards in several parables (Matt 20:1–8; 21:28–41; Mark 12:1–9; Luke 13:6–7; 20:9–16). We will hear about one next week.

The symbolism of the vineyard is used in the Bible because it was common, familiar, to its hearers. But we can use the vineyard and grape metaphors to look at our own lives. Do we produce wood of no use? What sort of fruit do we produce? Are we, as individuals, as a gathering of God’s people, a church, as a community, as families, as a nation, producing fruit that is sour, or looks good but tastes bad, or is it abundant, attractive, tasty, useful, and healthy?

We know how to produce good fruit: follow God’s will consistently, seek His glory, abide in Christ. We will hear more about abiding from John 15 in a couple of weeks.

John 15:1–2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

Meantime, do read John 15 for yourself, meditate on it, chew it over, pray, and obey.

Vineyards, vines, and grapes not only appear in judgement, they also illustrate restoration and abundance.

The vine was noted for its luxuriant foliage, intertwining branches, and trailing or climbing shoots.

Ps. 80:11 “it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.”

Isa 65:21 “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”

Amos 9:13 “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”

In the second of our passages today, Isaiah 27:1–6 the warnings against bad fruit and the hope of abundance are linked to the promise of God that, when they cling to him and make peace with him, he can bless them:

“On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it; I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up. Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me, let it make peace with me. In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.”

Psalm 80, read earlier by Paul, summarises this vineyard metaphor, tracing it from God’s care, through his people’s failures, to restoration. Its beautiful refrain can be our prayer, too, as we answer God’s call to make peace with Him and play our part, individually and corporately, in taking root, blossoming, putting forth shoots, and filling the whole earth with fruit:

Psa 80:7 “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

[[Ps 80 also famous for containing the middle letter of the Hebrew psalter ]]


Scripture references from NRSV

Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper \& Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper \& Row, 1985), 1112.

R. Laird Harris, “1040 כָרַם,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 455.

(kerem I), nom. vineyard(s) (#4142); כֹּרֵם (kōrēm), vinedresser (#4144). Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology \& Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 723–724.

References and sources


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Scripture quotations marked NRSVA on this page and in the audio are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked NRSV on this page and in the audio are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.