Viticulture or vine cultivation has been practised for many thousands of years. The Greeks were the leading exponents of this science, and it was extended by them throughout the Mediterranean world where the climatic conditions were found to be particularly conducive to the propagation of vines. Later, the process spread throughout the Roman Empire, so that the financial economies of Southern Europe became highly dependent on the grapes harvested from vineyards. So, for the people of the Mediterranean, the vine was a source of economic fruitfulness, as well as being integral to their cultural heritage.1 But, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun for vine, gephen, is used mainly in a symbolic way to describe Israel’s election, and its ultimate failure to produce spiritual fruit for God. In Psalm 80 verse 8, the drama of Israel’s history unfolds when she is figuratively identified as a ‘vine’ that God plucked up out of Egypt and then planted in the Promised Land by the expulsion of the native nations. It was here that Israel took root and flourished under the hand of God, Ps. 80. 9-11. William Brown describes God’s planting of Israel as His ‘hands on’ activity. He writes that ‘the hand is not only God’s victorious weapon against Israel’s enemies. It is also the instrument that ‘plants’ a people on fertile soil. God can, as it were, wield a garden spade as effectively as a sword, for both modes of horticultural activity – clearing and cultivating – are deemed necessary for establishing Israel in the land’, 2 see also Ps. 80. 14-15.
Isaiah continues Israel’s story in a poem/parable of love and rebuke in chapter 5 of his prophecy. Although the imagery is changed here from a vine to a vineyard, the context is still the same. God is seen as a loving farmer who plants a vineyard, and who looked for the right harvest. Though the identity of the characters is not immediately clear, as the parable develops the reader is left in no doubt that Israel is the intended target audience for God’s rebuke, v. 7f. The harvest that Israel produced from this vineyard left a bitter taste in the mouth and, despite the care that God showed towards His people, the grapes were wild and sour, cp. Hos. 10. 1; Jer. 2. 21. God’s rage against Israel is reflected in bitter irony as He uses His hand, this time not to plant, but to uproot Israel in judgement for her unfaithfulness, vv. 25-30. As Alec Motyer writes, ‘According to Ezekiel 15:2-5 a vine is either good for fruit or good for nothing. Since the Lord’s people are his vine, the same truth applies’.3 God’s love for Israel, however, means that He will eventually restore them to the land, and an indication of one of the blessings that He has in store for them will be literally seen in the replanting of vines, Zech. 8. 12. This will be to reverse God’s previous judgement on His people when the agrarian peace of the land was shattered because Israel’s vines were laid waste in the destruction of the land, see Hos. 2. 12; Joel 1. 7, 11.
Occasionally, the noun gephen can refer to an individual, as in Psalm 128, where the simple piety of a man of God is enhanced by a faithful wife who produces many children and who is compared to a fruitful vine, v. 3. In its wider context, gephen is used by the writer of Deuteronomy to describe the vine of apostasy characterized by the corruption and wickedness of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, 32. 32, cp. Rev. 14. 19. As McConville points out, ‘The depiction of the enemies concludes with a reflection on the false basis of the plenty they enjoy; their wine does not represent the blessing that comes from knowing the true God, but is the bitter fruit of falsehood and cruelty’.4
The equivalent Greek word used in the Septuagint (LXX) for the Hebrew noun gephen is ampelos. It is this Greek word that is also used in the New Testament to refer to literal vines, and, metaphorically, as a title of the Lord. In James chapter 3 verse 12 the word is included in the writer’s argument to highlight the incongruity of the tongue compared to the constancy of nature. It is used in the expression, ‘the fruit of the vine’ that forms part of an prophetical statement made by our Lord at the end of the Passover meal and prior to Him going to the Mount of Olives, Matt. 26. 29 and parallels. But it is the self-disclosure of the title ‘I am the true vine’ in John chapter 15 verse 1 that makes this word so important. It identifies our Lord with Israel, and is a title firmly rooted in Old Testament theology. At the same time, it demonstrates a significant contrast with Israel. Hence the inclusion of the word ‘true’ in this Christological title. As Vincent Taylor explains, ‘The Johannine use of the name is, however, in an important sense new, since in the Old Testament the metaphor is always used of degenerate Israel’.5 Some think that as our Lord and His disciples made their way into the garden of Gethsemane, they would have seen gates with the depiction of a vine representing Israel. It is at this point that His disciples may well have fully appreciated our Lord’s earlier declaration. Here was truly the noble vine, Jer. 2. 21a, the true ‘son of man’, Ps. 80. 15(LXX), who would incorporate others within Himself and produce in them fruit for God’s glory, John. 15. 2-8. Our Lord is the very life of His people and without Him we cannot produce fruit. What a challenge for us today to heed the Saviour’s words and abide in Him, ‘for without me ye can do nothing’, John 15. 5.
The Greek historian Thucydides once stated that ‘the people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine’.
Seeing the Psalms – A Theology of Metaphor, pp. 176-177.
The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 68.
Deuteronomy, pg. 458.
The Names of Jesus, pp. 104-105.
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