Grapevines are a plant well suited to the climate of Palestine. Grapes were cultivated as far back as Noah’s day (Gen 9:20) and were eaten fresh, dried, or crushed to make juice, vinegar, or wine. In an area where water was often in short supply, the juice from grapes became crucial for life. Clusters of grapes as large as five kilograms (twelve pounds) have been reported in Palestine, giving validity to the spies’ account of the grapes in Canaan in
Numbers 13. The importance of grapes in the Middle Eastern climate and culture made vineyards a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Grapes and the wine they produce were a crucial part of celebrations (Deut 11:14; Jude 9:27; Esther 1:7-8). This role of grapes is underscored by the fact that Nazirites refused grapes as part of their lifestyle of self-denial (Num 6:3). Grapes were symbolic of all the best this world has to offer.
SIN AND JUDGMENT
The failure of a grape crop was evidence of God’s judgment (Isa 18:5). Planting a vineyard and then not being able to enjoy it was a portrait of ultimate futility and frustration, but that was the fate promised to sinful Israel (Deut 28:39; Mic 6:15; Zeph 1:13). The sinful life results in poverty and futility, while the righteous life produces abundant harvest and celebration. Sour grapes are an image of sin in an ancient proverb quoted in Ezekiel 18:2: “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and their children’s teeth are set on edge.” One of the most notable aspects of sin is that something that promises pleasure turns out to be distasteful and unpleasant, like the experience of biting into sour grape when we expect something sweet. Sin appears good but leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, children can’t literally taste the grapes their parents eat, but metaphorically they suffer for the sins of their parents. One way this happens is when the sins of the fathers are repeated in subsequent generations as children imitate their parents’ behavior.
THE TRUE VINE
Faithful Israel is portrayed as a vine that is lovingly tended by God, the vinedresser, and produces a bountiful crop (Isa 5). The vine is a symbol for God’s providential care and steadfast love toward his people. Yet despite all his loving care, Israel fails to produce a crop (v 2,4). They refuse to act in justice and righteousness (v 7), and so the vineyard is left unprotected to make way for a more productive crop (v 5-6). This is a fitting metaphor for the destruction Israel would suffer at the hands of her enemies as a result of her sin. In the New Testament this image is fleshed out in John 15, where Jesus himself is the vine, and Christians who abide in him are fruitful branches. In both uses of the image, grapes not being produced is considered unnatural and the branch is pruned until it bears fruit. Just as a grapevine should produce grapes, Christians should produce sweet spiritual fruit. The presence of spiritual fruit is evidence of God’s blessing and work in the life of a believer, and the absence of fruit brings judgment and suffering with the end goal of bringing forth a harvest.
In the final judgment, God’s wrath against sin is portrayed as a winepress, squeezing those who have been thrown into hell. This judgment was first fulfilled in the Old Testament by invading armies (Lam 1:15) and will be fulfilled once for all in the end times (Isa 63:3; Rev 14). True believers need not fear falling into the winepress of God’s wrath, but the severity of this image should drive us to warn others so they do not suffer that fate.