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What did your report card look like in high school? Were you one of those hardworking and diligent students posting mostly A’s and only the occasional disappointing B? Or was your report card more like mine—good grades in the classes you liked, and not so good grades in the ones you didn’t?
Did you ever utter these words: “Why do I have to learn this stuff? It’s not like I’m ever going to use this.”
History is one class that produces this attitude in students. Why do we have to learn about what some guy did 900 years ago? How is that ever going to help me today?
But history IS very important. When we study the struggles, and failures of the people who came before us, we can learn how to avoid the suffering they experienced.
The Bible reading that we’re going to meditate on today is a bit of a history lesson from the book of Isaiah. But before we read that, and consider what it has to teach us, I’d like to set the stage for Isaiah.
Our Sunday morning Bible study group recently began a survey of the Old Testament. The plan is to move quickly, to get a “big-picture” view.
When you step back and see the history as a whole, you see a clear pattern developing. Mankind does wicked things, and God rebukes their wickedness, but he also responds with compassion.
For example, in the beginning of the Old Testament, God places the first two human beings in a gorgeous garden where everything is good, and it’s all for them. But Adam and Eve do the one thing that God tells them not to. By rebelling against God Adam and Eve bring sin and death into the world. As a result God kicks them out of the garden and curses the creation, BUT he also promises that one day a Savior will be born to rescue sinners from sin, death, and hell.
There’s the pattern. Man sins, and God rebukes, but with that rebuke comes compassion and love.
As the Old Testament moves on, the history zooms in to view one family. The family of Abraham is chosen to be God’s special people. From this family the promised Savior was to be born. Judging from the stories that are recorded about Abraham’s family, God didn’t choose them because they were better than everyone else. Over and over Abraham and his family do foolish and wicked things. But God graciously continues to rebuke them, rescue them, bless them, and remind them that through their family every nation would one day be blessed.
The pattern continues.
Eventually the descendants of Abraham find themselves enslaved in Egypt. When they cry out for help, God hears them and sends Moses to lead them out of Egyptian slavery, and into a good land that will become their own possession.
But on the way to this land, the Israelites show themselves to be rebellious sinners once again. When God has them on the edge of the promised land, they balk. When God says, “Go up and take the land, I’ll be with you.” But they say, “Not so fast. There’s big people there, and fortified cities. We’d better not.”
Through their disobedience, the Israelites show that they don’t really trust Yahweh to take care of them. As a result, God sentences them to wander around in the desert for forty years until the faithless generation is all dead. But still, God doesn’t abandon his promises. In due time, the descendants of Abraham move into the promised land and settle down.
But there they show their rebellious hearts once again. On the way into the promised land God had told them to destroy the pagan nations that were living there. These nations had turned their backs on the living God and had begun to worship idols in all sorts of disgusting and evil ways. They bowed down to wood and stone. They sacrificed their children to false gods. They took part in all sorts of superstitious and immoral practices.
Instead of rooting these nations out like God had told them to, the Israelites allowed some to remain. Before long, their pagan neighbors were teaching the Israelites how to worship their gods right alongside Yahweh.
And so God again rebukes their sin. He sends foreign nations to raid the land of Israel and to oppress the people. But each time that happens, the people come back to their senses and called out to God for help. In response, God would send a hero to beat back the oppressors and restore peace to the land. But after each rescue, the people fell back into their old ways of wickedness and idolatry—and the pattern repeated itself.
In time, the Israelite nation was split in two, a Northern kingdom called “Israel” and a Southern kingdom called “Judah.” Of the forty or so kings that rule over the God’s chosen nation during this period, only eight of them followed Yahweh. The rest of the kings sought to establish their own rule with murder and intrigue. They also led the people to abandon the true God and indulge in wicked idolatry once again.
It was an ugly time in the history of Israel. False gods were worshipped by the people. Kings set up pagan shrines in the temple of Yahweh. And Israel became just like any other nation: a place stained with murder, thievery, and injustice.
At this time, God used his prophets to reveal that judgment was coming for Israel. A harsh rebuke would fall on the people for their evil behavior. The nation of Syria would sweep in and completely destroy the Northern Kingdom. Then Babylon would enslave and deport the Southern Kingdom.
Yet God’s compassion would remain. Yahweh would not abandon his promises to Abraham. From Abraham’s family the Savior would still come. After 70 years of exile, a remnant of the Southern Kingdom would return from Babylon to settle in the promised land once more. And from that remnant, the Messiah would one day be born.
The Old Testament can be summed up in this way: mankind is wicked, but God is good. Mankind is constantly rebelling against it’s Creator, but Yahweh is ever faithful, rebuking man’s wickedness and holding out the promise of forgiveness and redemption through the Savior to come.
As I said earlier, our sermon reading for today comes from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah the prophet lived in the time of Israel’s kings, just previous to the exile to Babylon. As God’s prophet, it was Isaiah’s job to rebuke the people for their rebellion against God—but also to comfort those who still trusted in Yahweh.
In our reading for today, Isaiah uses a parable to warn the nation that God’s judgment was coming soon.
Isaiah 5:1-7 (NASB)
1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved
A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
2 He dug it all around, removed its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it
And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
But it produced only worthless ones.
3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard.
4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?
5 “So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:
I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;
I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.
6 “I will lay it waste;
It will not be pruned or hoed,
But briars and thorns will come up.
I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.”
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah His delightful plant.
Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
Isaiah’s song is a parable designed to turn one’s thoughts inward. A parable to encourage self-evaluation and introspection.
The people of Israel knew all about vineyards. They would hear Isaiah’s description and agree. Wow, this man did everything right. And yet his vineyard failed. He was right to give up on the vineyard. If after all this work it only produced bad grapes, there really wasn’t anything left to do but give up.
But the parable was about them.
Yahweh had brought the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt. Israel was his precious vine (Psalm 80:8). He dug out the stones of the pagan nations and planted Israel in the promised land—a fertile hill (Psalm 80:9). Yahweh himself had been it’s mighty tower. Standing there in the middle of Israel was the Temple of the LORD. There his Word could be heard. There his promises could be praised. In Yahweh there was protection that no nation could penetrate.
Yahweh had every reason to expect this chosen nation to produce good fruit—good words and actions. Kindness. Compassion. Love. Faithfulness. Diligence. Peace. Justice. Righteousness.
But instead, Israel produced fruits like “bloodshed” and “cries of distress.” What more could have been done by the LORD? Nothing. Why did it produce worthless fruit? They had no satisfactory excuse.
And so judgment would fall on Israel.
Syria would sweep into the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC. They would enslave the people, and the tribes of that kingdom would disappear forever. Those not killed would be absorbed into the nations where they were deported, never to return.
And then the Babylonian nation would flood into the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem would fall in 522 BC. In successive waves of deportation nearly all the people would be removed from the land. Only a tiny population of farmers and tenants would tend the land.
They would look on actual vineyards abandoned and overgrown with briars and thorns. And each overgrown vineyard would serve as a reminder of God’s judgment on faithless Israel.
And yet, Yahweh had not abandoned his promise to Adam and Eve. Nor had he abandoned his promise to Abraham. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the LORD proclaimed…
“15 Then it shall be, after I have plucked them out, that I will return and have compassion on them and bring them back, everyone to his heritage and everyone to his land” (Jeremiah 12:15 NKJV).
The pattern would continue.
After seventy years of exile in Babylon, Yahweh, the God who always keeps his promises, brought a remnant back to the land. They settled in the desolate and overgrown country once again. And in time they rebuilt the temple of the LORD—though it was only a shadow of the glorious temple it had once been.
And in time, a young virgin by the name of Mary made her way to Bethlehem to take part in a census. And the long promised Savior of sinners was born. The descendant of Abraham came, at long last, to bless all the nations of the world—through the forgiveness and salvation won for them through his cross.
Though man is wicked, the LORD remains good. And he has kept his promise to bring us forgiveness and salvation. In Christ Jesus that is what we have, forgiveness and salvation for all our rebellious sins.
A philosopher and author by the name of George Santayana once said…
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).
The Bible says something very similar in the book of Romans. In Romans it says…
“4 For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4 NKJV).
History is important, but Bible history is crucial. For it is in the Scriptures that we learn about sin, and what our great God has done about it. When we are weighed down with sin and guilt, it is the history of the Bible that brings us comfort. Even though mankind is totally sinful, and untrustworthy, our Creator is holy, and faithful, and through his compassion he has provided forgiveness and eternal life through the cross of Christ.
People, we are not ancient Israel. But we can take warning from their history. We are not ancient Israel. But we have been planted on a fertile hill. We are not ancient Israel. But the God of the Bible stands as our mighty tower, our only refuge and protection from the world around us, and from ourselves. We are not ancient Israel. But the Master of the vineyard has hewn out a wine press here at Redemption. He expects good fruit.
If we are to produce that fruit, we cannot rely on our own vine—that is destined to fail. If we learn anything from the history of ancient Israel, we must not fail to learn that. If we depend on our own vine, and follow our own hearts, we will stray from the true God. We must be grafted into a better vine—through faith.
Jesus once told his disciples,
“15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5 ESV).
Let us learn from the history of Israel. It was preserved for our learning, that through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope.
The Gospel of Christ is ours, people. We know what he did for us on that cross 2,000 years ago. We believe in him. He suffered our hell. He took our sins away. In Christ all our rebellious sins stand forgiven. Connected to him we can produce good fruit in the Father’s vineyard. Fruit like a humble attitude of repentance. Fruit like a strong faith in his sure promises. Fruit like justice, and righteous lives. But only if we remain in the vine. Apart from Christ, we can only fail.
The lessons we learn from history are sometimes sobering ones. Like the lesson we’ve pondered today. let us take warning from Israel’s history so that we don’t face the same fate. Let us forever cling to the cross of Christ, the source of our cleansing. The beginning and end of our faith. And may the Holy Spirit cause good fruits to grow in our lives, to the praise of our gracious and powerful God.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts, and your minds, in Christ Jesus.