“Take Care of This Vine”!
THE 12 spies walked the length and breadth of the Promised Land. Moses had told them to observe the inhabitants and to bring back samples of the land’s produce. Which product particularly attracted their attention? Not far from Hebron, they found a vineyard where the grapes were so large that it took two of the spies to carry just one cluster. So impressive was the crop that the spies named the fertile area “the torrent valley of Eshcol,” or “Cluster of Grapes.”—Numbers 13:21-24; footnote.
During the 19th century, a visitor to Palestine reported: “Eshcol, or Grape valley, . . . is still clad with vines, and the grapes are the finest and largest in Palestine.” Although the vines of Eshcol excelled, much of Palestine produced fine grapes in Bible times. Egyptian records indicate that the Pharaohs imported wine from Canaan.
“The rocky hill-sides [of Palestine], with their light gravelly soil and sunny exposures, the heat of summer, and the rapid drainage of the winter rains, all combine to render it peculiarly a land of vines,” explains the book The Natural History of the Bible. Isaiah indicated that some select areas had as many as a thousand vines.—Isaiah 7:23.
“A Land of Vines”
Moses told the nation of Israel that they would inhabit a land of “vines and figs and pomegranates.” (Deuteronomy 8:8) According to the Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants, “vines were so abundant in ancient Palestine that grape seeds have been found in most, if not all, of the excavated sites.” The vines of the Promised Land proved so productive that even during the year 607 B.C.E. when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies devastated Judah, the people remaining in the land “went gathering wine and summer fruits in very great quantity.”—Jeremiah 40:12; 52:16.
To produce wine in quantity, Israelite farmers had to take good care of their vines. The book of Isaiah describes how a typical Israelite vinedresser would dig up a hillside plot of land and remove any large stones before planting his “choice red vine.” He then might erect a stone wall, using the stones he had cleared from the soil. This wall would help protect his vineyard from being trampled by cattle as well as offer some protection from foxes, wild boars, and thieves. He might also hew out a winepress and build a small tower that could serve as a cool dwelling place during the harvest period when the vines needed extra protection. After all this preliminary work, he could expect a good harvest of grapes.—Isaiah 5:1, 2.*
To ensure a good harvest, the farmer regularly pruned the vine to enhance productivity and hoed the soil to keep weeds, briars, and thorns at bay. He might water the vineyard during the summer months if the spring rains had not provided enough moisture.—Isaiah 5:6; 18:5; 27:2-4.
The time of the grape harvest at the end of summer was a time of great rejoicing. (Isaiah 16:10) Three of the psalms have a superscription that includes the phrase “upon the Gittith.” (Psalms 8, 81, and Ps 84) This uncertain musical expression is rendered “winepresses” in the Septuagint version and may indicate that the Israelites sang these psalms at the time of the grape harvest. Although the grapes served mainly for making wine, the Israelites also ate fresh grapes or dried them as raisins, which they might make into cakes.—2 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 16:3.
The Vine of Israel
The Bible several times describes God’s people as a vine—an appropriate metaphor in view of the importance of the vine to Israelites. In Psalm 80, Asaph compared the nation of Israel to a vine that Jehovah had planted in Canaan. The land was cleared so that the vine of Israel could take root and grow strong. But as the years went by, its protective walls fell down. The nation no longer trusted in Jehovah, and he withdrew his protection. Like a wild boar that plunders a vineyard, enemy nations kept devouring Israel’s wealth. Asaph prayed that Jehovah would help the nation so that its former glory could be restored. “Take care of this vine,” he implored.—Psalm 80:8-15.
Isaiah likened “the house of Israel” to a vineyard that gradually produced “wild grapes,” or “putrid (rotten) berries.” (Isaiah 5:2, 7; footnote) Wild grapes are much smaller than cultivated grapes and have very little flesh, the seeds occupying practically the entire grape. Wild grapes are worthless for making wine and for eating—an apt symbol of the apostate nation whose fruitage was lawbreaking rather than righteousness. This worthless fruitage was not the fault of the vine’s Cultivator. Jehovah had done everything he could to make the nation fruitful. “What is there yet to do for my vineyard that I have not already done in it?” he asked.—Isaiah 5:4.
Since the vine of Israel had proved unproductive, Jehovah warned them that he would break down the protective wall he had built around his people. He would no longer prune his figurative vine or hoe its soil. The spring rains on which the crop depended would not come, and thorns and weeds would overrun the vineyard.—Isaiah 5:5, 6.
Moses prophesied that Israel’s apostasy would cause even their literal vineyards to wither. “Vineyards you will plant and certainly cultivate, but you will drink no wine and gather nothing in, because the worm will eat it up.” (Deuteronomy 28:39) A vine can wither in a couple of days if a worm gets into the main trunk and eats away the inside.—Isaiah 24:7.
“The True Vine”
Just as Jehovah likened literal Israel to a vine, Jesus used a similar metaphor. During what many call the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the cultivator.” (John 15:1) Jesus compared his disciples to branches of the vine. As the branches of a literal vine derive their strength from the main trunk, so Christ’s disciples must remain in union with him. “Apart from me you can do nothing at all,” Jesus said. (John 15:5) Farmers cultivate a vine for its fruit, and Jehovah expects his people to bring forth spiritual fruitage. This brings satisfaction and glory to God, the vine’s Cultivator.—John 15:8.
In the case of a literal vine, fruitfulness depends on pruning and cleaning, and Jesus refers to both of such operations. A vinedresser may prune the vine twice each year in order to obtain the maximum fruitage. During the winter months, the vine may be cut back quite severely. The cultivator removes most of the growth of the preceding year. He will likely leave three or four main branches on the trunk, with one or two shoots on each of these branches. These young shoots, which correspond to the growth of the preceding year, will become the fruit-bearing branches during the following summer. Finally, when he completes the pruning, the vinedresser burns the pruned branches.
Jesus describes this severe pruning: “If anyone does not remain in union with me, he is cast out as a branch and is dried up; and men gather those branches up and pitch them into the fire and they are burned.” (John 15:6) Although the vine at this stage may appear bereft of branches, another selective pruning occurs in the spring.
“Every branch in me not bearing fruit he takes away,” Jesus said. (John 15:2) This may refer to a later pruning, after the vine has produced a substantial amount of new growth and the small clusters of grapes can be clearly identified. The vinedresser carefully examines each new branch to identify which ones bear fruit and which ones are barren. If left on the vine, those that have no fruit will still draw nutrients and water from the trunk. Thus, the cultivator prunes these fruitless branches so that the nourishment of the vine will go only to the fruit-bearing branches.
Finally, Jesus refers to the cleaning process. “Every one bearing fruit he cleans, that it may bear more fruit,” he explains. (John 15:2) Once the fruitless branches are removed, the vinedresser carefully examines each branch bearing fruit. Near the base of the fruitful branch, he invariably finds small new sprouts that also need to be removed. If left to grow, they will draw sap from the vine that could otherwise provide vital moisture for the grapes. Some of the large leaves may likewise be removed to allow the young grapes better access to the sunlight. These are all helpful steps for the fruitful branches to produce fruit in abundance.
“Keep Bearing Much Fruit”
The figurative branches of “the true vine” represent anointed Christians. Yet, the “other sheep” must also prove themselves to be Christ’s productive disciples. (John 10:16) They too can bear “much fruit” and bring glory to their heavenly Father. (John 15:5, 8) Jesus’ illustration of the true vine reminds us that salvation depends on our remaining in union with Christ and producing good spiritual fruitage. Jesus said: “If you observe my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have observed the commandments of the Father and remain in his love.”—John 15:10.
In the days of Zechariah, God promised a faithful remnant of Israelites that the land would once more enjoy ‘the seed of peace; the vine itself would give its fruitage, and the earth itself would give its yield.’ (Zechariah 8:12) The vine is also used in describing the peace God’s people will enjoy during Christ’s Millennial Reign. Micah prophesied: “They will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble; for the very mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken it.”—Micah 4:4.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Israelite cultivators preferred vines that produced red-black grapes known as sorek, the type of vine apparently referred to at Isaiah 5:2. These grapes produced a sweet red wine.
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A recently withered vine
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Burning discarded branches