He was like those sent by the householder to receive the fruits of the vineyard from the husbandmen; for he exhorted all men to render a return. But Israel despised and would not render, for their will was not right, nay moreover they killed those that were sent, and not even before the Lord of the vineyard were they ashamed, but even He was slain by them. Verily, when He came and found no fruit in them, He cursed them through the fig-tree, saying, “Let there be henceforth no fruit from thee” [Matt. 21:19]; and the fig-tree was dead and fruitless, so that even the disciples wondered when it withered away.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet: “I will take away from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the scent of myrrh, and the light of a lamp, and the whole land shall be destroyed” [Jer. 25:10]. For the whole service of the law has been abolished from them, and henceforth and forever they remain without a feast.
–St. Athanasius, Letters [vi]
THE REJECTION OF ISRAEL
Reading the Bible in terms of the Paradise theme can deepen our understanding of even the most familiar passages of Scripture. Suddenly we can understand why Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5, for example, describe the covenant people as “the Lord’s vineyard.” As we have seen, this was a reminder of man’s original state of communion with God in the Garden. It was also a reminder that when God saves His people, He constitutes them a renewed Garden (or Vineyard), and thus the Biblical writers used the imagery of planting, trees, vines, and fruit again and again to describe salvation in its various aspects (John 15 is a well-known example). It is important to recognize also, however, that Garden-imagery can be used to describe apostasy and the Curse, for the very first breaking of the covenant took place in the Garden. God had given Adam a commission to cultivate and guard His “vineyard”; instead, Adam had rebelled against the Landowner, and was cursed and cast out, forfeiting his inheritance. This twin image of the vineyard, as the place of both blessing and cursing, is an important concept in the Bible, and became the setting for one of Jesus’ most striking parables, the story of the Wicked Vinegrowers (Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5 should be read along with this).
There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. He then leased it to vinegrowers and went into a far country. Now when harvest time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinegrowers, that they might receive its fruit. But the vinegrowers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did the same thing to them. The last of all he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the vinegrowers saw the son, they said among themselves, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
In His grace, God had sent prophets to Israel throughout her history, and always the men of God had been treated viciously. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (Heb. 11:37-38). The fact is that Israel had consistently rejected God’s word and mistreated the prophets, right from the beginning. As Stephen accused them Gust before he was murdered by Jewish leaders): “You men who are stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:51-52).
Israel’s wicked treatment of the prophets reached its zenith in the murder of God’s Son, as Jesus foretold in His parable. He then asked his hearers, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinegrowers?”
They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and will lease his vineyard to other vinegrowers, who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore, 1 say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”
The Jews had spoken their own sentence of condemnation. Indeed, the vineyard would be taken from them; the Lord would come and destroy them, and give the vineyard to obedient workmen who would render to Him the fruit He desired. The Kingdom was to be taken from the Jews and given to a new “nation.” Who would this nation be? The Apostle Peter (after citing the same Old Testament text Jesus used) gave the definitive answer, writing to the Church: “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who were once not a people, but are now the people of God; who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The clincher is that God had used this identical language in speaking to the covenant people of Israel at Mount Sinai: “You shall be My own possession among all the peoples… and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). What once had been true of Israel, Peter says, is now and forever true of the Church.
The Barren Fig-Tree
Israel was a garden, a vineyard, in rebellion against its owner; or, to change the metaphor, it was a tree without fruit, as Jesus said in another parable:
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” But he answered and said to him, “Lord, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it; and if it bears fruit, fine. But if not, after that you can cut it down.”
Jesus, the Lord of the Vineyard, spent the three years of His ministry traveling through Israel seeking fruit. Now it was time to “cut it down.” John the Baptist had warned the Jews, even before Jesus began His office, that the vineyard of Israel was running out of time:
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance. And do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
This was the problem with Israel. Even though the Jews welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem waving palm branches in recognition of His coming restoration of Eden (Matt. 21:8-9), the branches had no fruit. Interestingly, the same passage goes on to show what happened after Jesus left Jerusalem. As He walked, He came upon a fig tree and looked for fruit, but found none. So He cursed the fig tree, saying, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” And immediately the fig tree withered away (Matt. 21:18-19). The same would be true of barren, unrepentant Israel.
The Terminal Generation
Primarily, of course, the fault lay with the leaders of Israel, the blind leaders of the blind, who were leading the entire nation into the ditch (Matt. 15:14). Thus Jesus particularly directed His wrathful denunciations toward them (cf. Matt. 23). Yet He included the people as a whole in His condemnation as well, as we can see from the closing words of His last public message:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.–
The sins of Israel, its rebellions and apostasies, had been accumulating for centuries, filling up to overflowing. The point of crisis was reached when the Son came. Their rejection of Him sealed their fate, and they were in turn rejected by God. The generation that crucified the Lord and persecuted His apostles was the true “terminal generation.” Israel, as the Covenant People, was to be destroyed, finally and irrevocably. They had received the final warning. Years later, shortly before the holocaust of A.D. 70 descended upon Israel, the Apostle Paul wrote that “the Jews .. killed both the Lord and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:14-16).
As a nation, Israel had become apostate, a spiritual harlot in rebellion against her Husband (cf. Ezek. 16). The fearful words of Hebrews 6:4-8 were literally applicable to the covenant nation, which had forfeited its birthright:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briars, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
The same multitude which welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with hosannas was screaming for His blood in less than a week. Like all slaves, their attitude was fickle; but ultimately, their attitude was summed up in another of Jesus’ parables: “We will not have this Man to reign over us!” (Luke 19:14). The chief priests revealed the faith of the nation when they vehemently denied the lordship of Christ and affirmed, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15).
So the covenant people inherited the Curse. They had waved their branches toward the Owner’s Son when he entered their vineyard, seeming to welcome Him to His rightful property; but when He came closer and inspected the branches, He found no fruit – just leaves. In keeping with the pattern we have seen in our study of the Garden of Eden, Israel was ripe for becoming judged, disinherited, and cast out of the Vineyard.
But they had not only the examples of Eden, the Flood, Babel, and other historical judgments as warnings. God had specifically stated, through Moses, that the Curse would fall upon them if they apostatized from the true faith. We would do well to remind ourselves of the warnings of Deuteronomy 28, where God threatens the loss of family and possessions, becoming ravaged by numerous diseases, suffering from warfare and the oppression of a victorious pagan nation, turning to cannibalism on account of famine, being sold into slavery and scattered over the face of the earth:
And it shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you shall be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it.
Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul.
So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, “Would that it were evening!” And at evening you shall say, “Would that it were morning!” because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see.
Because Israel committed the supreme act of covenant-breaking when she rejected Christ, Israel herself was rejected by God. The awesome curses pronounced by Jesus, Moses, and the prophets were fulfilled in the terrible destruction of Jerusalem, with the desolation of the Temple and the obliteration of the covenant nation in A.D. 70. (See Appendix B for Josephus’ description of this event, and compare the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28.) As God had promised, the Kingdom was indeed established when Christ came. But instead of embracing and assimilating old Israel into its structure, the Kingdom came and ground Israel to powder. God’s new Temple, the Church, was established as the old Temple was torn down and reduced to rubble.