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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Ezekiel 15

 

 

Verses 1-8

Fruitless and Useless

Ezekiel 15

The single idea of this brief chapter is that if the vine should fail in grapes it fails altogether. There is a whole philosophy of life in that single and simple fact. The argument of the Lord is founded upon that one circumstance. The vine is good for nothing for timber. With the vine, it is grapes, or nothing. Some trees might be made use of even if they did not grow the fruit whose name they bear: they might be cut down and used for fencing, for carpentry, for purposes of art; some good might be made of the wood even if there were no fruit. With the vine it is not so. Say that upon the vine there is no fruit, and you can say the vine may be burned at one end, and burned at the other end, and burned in the midst; having failed in the one thing, it has failed totally and absolutely. "Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?... Behold, when it was whole, it was meet for no work: how much less shall it be meet yet for any work, when the fire hath devoured it, and it is burned?" It is grapes, or ashes; it is fruit, or nuisance: "Behold, it is cast into the fire for fuel; the fire devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burned." You cannot get a peg out of the vine to hang anything upon that is of the least weight. You cannot use the vine-wood for timber. Then what is the vine for? For grapes, for grapes only: no grapes would mean no use; without the grapes the vine is to be burned. There is no middle course; there is no refuge in the old word, "We must make the best of it." There is no best to be made of it, unless we include the word burning and the word destruction in that miserable best.

On this law of the vine and fruit, or the vine and uselessness, we may build all our life. The great and solemn doctrine is this, that everything is to be judged by the purpose for which it was created. We cannot have side-issues, we cannot have humanly invented alternatives. A man goes up, or he goes down; there is no middle zone where he can live long: he blooms into a beautiful son of God, or he withers away and is lost in regions unknown. There is a right hand, there is also a left hand; I have not heard of any middle position. What is the purpose of our creation? Why were we made? Why are we here? If any revelation has been declared in reply to these questions, let us judge ourselves by the purpose of the Creator. This would make swift and clear and righteous judgment of the whole mystery of human life. Here is a school: what ideas do we associate with the word school? Reading, study, letters, arts, instruction, mental illumination, intellectual development and progress: these ideas are right, they are cognate, they are just. Does this school produce that result? No. What then? Then it is not a school: it is a place of darkness, or an asylum of ignorance; it is a corner of imprisonment, or a place of mental degradation. The school is but a poor building, you may say, a little wayside edifice covered with thatch, without palatial lines or classic form, or aught that can be described as expressive of culture and dignity: all that may be true; but inside the boys and girls do read, they are quickened intellectually, they are highly informed; ask them questions in letters, in history, in philosophy, in art, and how readily, how copiously and accurately they will reply! Who now talks about the poor-looking building? It serves its purpose well. On that vine find luscious grapes, then care nothing for the trellis on which it grows; thank God for the unshed wine with which that vine abounds. What do you think of this painting? It is a likeness of your dearest friend. Having given you this introduction to the painting, what will be your standard of judgment? You will at once seek your friend in it; it will not do for you to say that the drapery is beautifully painted, the foreground is excellent, and the background is superb, and everything about it of the nature of technique would please an artist of the highest degree: you are not looking in that direction, because in that direction you have no vision; the gate of that outlook is locked against you: but you know your friend, and your friend is not there. Will you purchase that picture? No. If it had been a picture only you might have bought it; but it professed to be a friend. It lies. That which, introduced to me as a work of art, might have charmed me, shocks me when it comes under false pretences. Where the fire, the strength, the playfulness, the music? It is not there; then there can be no masonry between me and that picture. You rightly judge the picture by what it professes to be. Here is a beautiful lamp painted by hand—a great recommendation to those who know nothing about it; it will hang well anywhere. Will it light the place it hangs in? No. Why not? Because it is opaque. Then why do you call it a lamp? A lamp must not be opaque, it must allow the light to come through: a lamp is for the sake of the light; it is no lamp if the light be imprisoned. So you have this law of judgment in your own life. If you admit it in full you are simply building a judgment bar by which your soul will presently be tried. First feel how just the law Isaiah , and how commonly accepted amongst men, and how without it society could make no progress in civilisation. Why do you despise the lamp? Because it conceals the light. But it is hand-painted! You properly reply that you do not care about its being hand-painted because what you want is light, and light out of that lamp you cannot have; and therefore you, not as a theologian, but as a man who knows the value of money, very properly decline to purchase a lamp that conceals the light within itself. Would it not be so with an organ? What a noble-looking organ it is! It has innumerable pipes; as for manuals, nothing was ever seen like it in the history of organ-building: now play it. The keys will not move. What a beautiful outline it presents to the eye! What we require from an organ is music; this organ has everything but music: then let some fool buy it, we will not have any responsible relation to it. So then you have this same law of the fifteenth chapter of Ezekiel operating through and through your life; you keep your shop upon it, you conduct your whole business upon it: why do you shrink from applying it to yourself, your character, the result of your training? Oh that men were wise, that they were fearless enough to apply their own common-sense to their own moral condition!

It is worth while to spend time upon the thorough elucidation of the law and fact in order that we may bring up the slower-minded students to the full recognition of the central thought of the chapter. We may proceed to say that the purpose of piety, or religion, is character. Here, for example, is a very able dialectician; he can split a hair in two; he is not only a member of the church, he is a preacher. Is that all you can say about him, that he can split a hair in two? Yes, that exhausts the certificate. Here is a most orthodox man; he would give up his seat in church if the preacher said one word he did not believe; and yet he is the man who rails against the Pope of Rome: thus consistent are we! He will have a full body of theology in every discourse. A man may preach upon the tenth chapter of Nehemiah , containing all the Jewish polysyllables that ever could be collected into one view; and yet if he does not find in these polysyllables the fall of Prayer of Manasseh , and every other doctrine, either invented or elucidated by theologians, he will abandon the church. Is that all you can say about him? No, we could say a little more about him. What? He is hand-painted, like the lamp and like the organ. Who painted him? Artist not known, probably himself. Some men do write their own books and paint their own pictures; why may he not have taken up with a little self-decoration? Will he lie? Not frankly, not bluntly. Will he steal? Not with his hands; he can put his hands behind him, and rob you all the day long; but he is extremely orthodox. Does this vine bear grapes? Not one. What is it good for? For burning. Can wood be taken from him to do any work? No. Will men take a peg of him to hang any vessel thereon? They would not hang a dog on his word. But he is extremely "clear in his views." So I should imagine! In the matter of piety, if character fails all fails. Away with your theology and church-going and hymn-singing and canting. What is character? It is described at length by the Apostle Paul: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." A man may bear all these fruits and know nothing about scholastic or formal theology.

Do not believe the little technicalist, the ill-grown pope, who tells you that he knows more about the Cross than you do. Poorest woman, poorest Prayer of Manasseh , heartbroken because of sin, thou knowest all that is in the Cross, for in the Cross you will find love, and righteousness, and law, and tenderness, and pardon, and hope, redemption, salvation. When a man begins to explain these words he begins a work he has no right to undertake. Explanation has rent the Church in twain. Are not some things to be felt? Is it not profanity to attempt to analyse certain thing"s? Who would analyse the love which inspires a mother? Who would take to pieces the sympathy which heals the heart that is sore? To analyse the Cross, to dissect the dead Christ, to show some cleverness in the analysis of divine affection—this it is that has made infidels by the thousand. We want tenderness, love, sympathy, pity; we need to incarnate the Spirit of Christ in actual beneficence; then shall we bring men to our Lord, and find heaven in the bringing of them. By "character" do not understand outward decorum. There is no man who has so base a character as the man who selfishly and boastingly thinks he has a good one.

Never trust a self-idolater. Jesus Christ would have no connection with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were all respectable men. If there is a worse character than the respectable man it is the man who boasts of his wickedness. The true character feels its unworthiness in the sight of God, which judges itself not by human standards but by divine requirements, and that says, when it has uttered its best prayer and done its best deed, Unprofitable! unclean! We are not bearing fruit to God until we have subordinated the whole soul to his will. That is piety. The one thing we have not given up is the thing we will not surrender, and that is our will. We have marked the will as private property. We are quite prepared to adopt any number of views: but who can give up his own way? It is difficult to do so at home on a small scale; and there are parents who would never break a child"s will: I have seen them when their child has broken their heart. The human will must be broken at some point. We do not give up our will to God, and therefore we are not Christians. No matter what else we are, until our will has gone out of us and has been taken into God"s keeping we are not Christians. "Not my will, but thine, be done"—that is the issue and the glory of the Cross. Have you any will regarding yourself? If you can say, "None: let God"s will be done," you have been with Jesus, and have learned of him. What about your views? You cannot have any views. What have you seen of the universe? What other worlds have you been in? You are the tenant of one of the smallest worlds that has any name. For you and me, therefore, to talk about views is monstrous. Where did we come from? We do not know. How long shall we be here? We cannot tell. What will happen tomorrow? Nobody can predict. But what "views" we have! Poor blind moles! Better have clean hearts, better yield ourselves to our Father"s keeping, let our whole life go up in continual incense to him who gave it us; and as for views, intellectual conceptions, these may come as the ages roll over us; in a thousand millenniums from this moment we may possibly have seen something; up to the present time it will be enough if we have seen our sin and seen Christ"s Cross.

This standard of judgment will keep us right in estimating everything. Do you seek grapes on thorns? You are operating in the wrong direction. Do you seek figs on thistles? You will never find them. You must judge everything by its purpose, and according as a thing serves its purpose is it really good and really valuable. That standard would keep us right in all judgment if we would abide by it. It would keep us right in judging sermons. What is the object of a sermon? The object of a sermon is multifold, and yet one, and may be thus stated: Stimulus, encouragement; instruction, sympathy; all resulting in edification, upbuilding. Sometimes the purpose of the preacher is to stimulate: judge him by his purpose. You have no right to set up a false standard of judgment. Sometimes the preacher"s purpose is to wrestle with a human soul, and say, "I will not let thee go to hell": judge him by his burning object. Do not judge him by some cold standard, or apply some little critical foot-rule you may happen to have borrowed from some better Prayer of Manasseh , but judge him by his evangelistic zeal, by his apostolic fervour; say, To-day he wanted to save a soul, and everything gives way before that mighty, beneficent, holy purpose. Sometimes his object is to instruct; then see how careful he is in the analysis of words, in the tracing of histories, in the correction of mistakes, in the collection and right presentation of intelligence of every kind: by his purpose he must be judged. Even the poet has given this canon of criticism. Says Pope:—

The same judgment ought to be applied to the Bible. What is the purpose of the Bible? To reveal God. We have laid the emphasis, as we have often said, upon the wrong words; we have gone to the Bible for things it does not grow. What does the Bible profess to be? A revelation of God, of God"s personality, of God"s method of governing the world, of God"s purpose in the education of human nature. Then the man who is puzzling himself over the authorship of the books and the dates of the various treatises is on the wrong track? Entirely. For what should a man go to the Bible? For God. Will he find God there? On every page. You are now in the right direction, you have gone upon the proper quest; you will receive answers along that line, and doors will fly back along the whole circle of the horizon to admit you into larger liberty. Some men are always on the wrong quest; intellectually they are fearfully and wonderfully made. They want to know what people did in the early centuries. Those centuries will be the death of them. What heaps of slain will be found on the field of the first centuries! It would occasion me no surprise to find that clubs had been organised for the solitary purpose of finding out what men did in them. We are living in the nineteenth century, and we have around us ignorance, and oppression, and wrong, evil of every form, weakness, poverty, and our business is to address ourselves to the immediate time: whilst we are mooning about the early ages a woman or a child may be dying of cold on the threshold of our houses consecrated to the study of antiquity.

In all things judge by the purpose. The Bible is a vine that grows, so to say, revelations of God. And judge men by the same standard. What is the great purpose of man? To represent God. When he fulfils that purpose he fulfils his election and calling; when he fails of that purpose, no matter what he Isaiah , he has failed to bring forth fruit unto God. How all things would be harmonised and adjusted righteously if we could receive this rule! One star differeth from another star in glory: judge each star by its weight, distance, magnitude, and relation to the whole solar system as known to us. Do not find fault with one man because he is not another. How is it that we cannot praise one man without dispraising some other man? How difficult it is for the critic to fix his attention upon one solitary worker! He will describe a preacher as having certain faculty and ability, but he has not the polish of A, or the culture of B, or the massive dignity of C, or the almost superhuman glory of D. What a marvellous monster he would be if he combined all these people, and almost laid hold of E! Let us ascertain what the purpose of the Prayer of Manasseh , the book, the institution Isaiah , and be just to it in proportion as it realises that purpose. Jesus Christ said: "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit." Do you blame the violet because it is not the vine? Do you blame the little, weak, limpid vine because it is not the sturdy and umbrageous oak? Do you denounce the oak because it does not bear figs? Or do you denounce the fig tree because it does not grow bread-corn? Every man in his own order; every institution in its own place. The law is one: judge everything by the purpose for which it was created; and judging man by this purpose we expect of man character. Without that character, such as the Apostle has described, no matter what else man has, he is fit only to be burned. Let the word of the Lord prevail.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 15:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/ezekiel-15.html. 1885-95.

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