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The Useless Vine


The word of the Lord came to me:


O mortal, how does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood—

the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest?


Is wood taken from it to make anything?

Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?


It is put in the fire for fuel;

when the fire has consumed both ends of it

and the middle of it is charred,

is it useful for anything?


When it was whole it was used for nothing;

how much less—when the fire has consumed it,

and it is charred—

can it ever be used for anything!

6 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 7I will set my face against them; although they escape from the fire, the fire shall still consume them; and you shall know that I am the Lord, when I set my face against them. 8And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord God.

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The Prophet’s intention is to humble the foolish confidence of the people, who boasted of the gratuitous kindness of God, as if they were naturally excellent: hence, also, their obstinacy against his threats was so great. For when the prophets reprove them sharply, they boasted against them the remarkable gifts by which they were divinely adorned: as if they had been so armed by God’s benefits to resist his power, for we know that they were so blinded. Since, then, that disease had attacked the people, it is not surprising that the prophets in many places refute such folly. But the Prophet here uses a simile to show the Jews that they were not intrinsically but only accidentally excellent, since God had treated them as worthy of remarkable benefits. Since it is so, their arrogance is easily refuted, when they oppose their superiority to God, as if it were peculiar to them, and not God’s special gift. But we must understand the simile which Ezekiel uses: what is the vine more than other trees of the woods? It is certain that the vine produces very good fruit, and therefore is preferred to other trees: the very flower of the vine has a most, delicious scent; but the fruit which it produces proves its excellence. For the wood of the vine is without elegance and shapeless: it does not attain to any thickness; it is slender, pliable, and twisted. In looking at a vine, it. seems scarcely worth numbering among shrubs: if compared with trees, it clearly has no value; but in the excellency of trees something is easily acknowledged which surpasses all vines. For when we cast our eyes upon a branching tree, we are struck with admiration, while the vine lies at, our feet. If, therefore, a tree is compared with the wood of the vine, it will be praised for its beauty, while the vine will be despised as a low and insignificant wood. Hence God collects that the Jews were in no respect more excellent than others, unless because they are planted by himself, as he says in many places in Isaiah, O my vine, I have planted thee. (Isaiah 5.) Then in the 80th Psalm: he brought his vine out of Egypt, and planted and propagated it even to the sea, (Psalm 80:9-12; Jeremiah 2:21.)

Now we understand the Prophet’s meaning, namely, that the Jews excelled, indeed, in privileges, but not in nature, nor yet by themselves, but by the gratuitous kindness of God: and if other nations were compared with them, they had greater dignity than the Jews. And we know that other nations flourished in arts and wealth, in population, in warlike valor, and in other respects: the profane nations were like lofty trees which grow up and attract all eyes to themselves. But the Jews were like a vine which, being planted by God’s hand, deserved more praise than the trees of the wood which were fruitless. Ezekiel now carries on the comparison at, greater length: if the vine is torn up, can its wood, says he, be fitted to any use? it will not make beams or tables, or any vessels; it will not make a peg or a hook on which to hang a hat or cloak, or anything of the kind. Since, then, the wood of the vine is useless when torn from the soil, and is of no use but for burning, hence the Jews are made acquainted with their condition since their excellence and worthiness depend on the mere good pleasure of God: since, as he planted them, he can pluck them up in a moment; and when they have been torn up, they will be altogether useless, and will be cast into the fire, while trees are of some use. But, the Prophet proceeds another step: if a bundle of twigs were cast into the fire, and the two extreme parts were burnt up, and the middle made dry, that scorched part would be much less useful. For since fire penetrates to the very marrow, wood, which is half consumed, is reduced to powder by the touch alone: He afterwards accommodates what he had said about the vine to the city of Jerusalem; therefore let us go on to the rest of the context.

Ezekiel 15:6

6. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD; As the vine-tree among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so will I give the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

6. Propterea sic dicit Dominator Iehovah, Quemadmodum lignum vitis in ligno sylvae, quod posuli 6060     “I have lost.” — Calvin. in ignem ad consumptionem, sic dedi habitatores Hierusalem.


Here the Prophet shows that the citizens of Jerusalem were cast into a fire, by which they suffered various kinds of death: for although they were not immediately and entirely consumed, yet the extremities were burnt off. For the whole region was laid waste all around, and the kingdom of Israel was entirely cut off: Jerusalem remained like the middle portion of the bundle. But the inhabitants of Jerusalem were so worn down by adversity, that they were like a stick burnt at both ends. Since this was so, we here perceive their great stupidity in persisting in contumacy, although God had humbled them so in various ways. Now, therefore, we understand the meaning of this point. But the words of the Prophet must be explained, what shall be, or what is the wood of the vine compared with other wood? Some translate, with the palm branch; others, with the wild vine; but both of these are foreign to the mind of the Prophet: especially the wild vine cannot have any place here. As far as the palm is concerned, what reference is there to the palm branch in the midst of a wood? for palms are not planted in woods amidst lofty trees. But since the wood, זמורה, zemoreh, signifies boughs as well as palms, it agrees best with the sense to speak of every tree as branching. What, therefore, is the vine in comparison with every branching tree which is among the trees of the forest? Here the Prophet brings before us fruitless trees, but yet those which attract our notice by their beauty: and so he implies, if the Jews wish to compare themselves with the profane nations, they are not superior in any worthiness or elegance which they have naturally and of themselves. This must be diligently noticed; although God sometimes adopts those who excel in ability and learning, in warlike prowess, in riches, and in power, yet he gathers his Church as much as possible from lowly-born men, in whom no great splendor is refulgent, that they may be objects of wonder to the world. For what end, then, does God do this? for he could fashion his own elect, that they may be completely perfect in every way. But since we are too inclined to pride, it is necessary that our infirmity should always be set before our eyes to teach us modesty. For if nothing in us reminded us of our weakness, our worthiness would blind us, or turn away our eyes from ourselves, or intoxicate us with false glory. Hence God wishes us to be inferior to the profane, that we may learn always to acknowledge as received from him whatever he has gratuitously conferred upon us, and not to arrogate anything to ourselves when our humility is so plainly set before our eyes. But as far as concerns the Jews, they were, as we have said, like a vine, because their excellence was not natural, but external. God had fashioned them, as it were, from nothing; and although they were adorned with many remarkable gifts, yet they could claim nothing from themselves.

Shall there be taken, says he, any wood from it to fashion it for any work? God here shows that the Jews were deservedly preferred to others, because he had planted them with his hand; for if they had been pulled out of the earth, he shows that the wood would be useless, since it could not be used for any purpose. And Christ uses the same simile (John 15:1-7), when he shows that we have no root in us by nature, nor yet sap or moisture or rigor, since we are a vine planted by our heavenly Father. But if he roots us up, nothing remains for us but to be cast into the fire and utterly burnt. Lastly, God shows that the Jews should be viler than the nations, if he took away from them whatever he gave them; and he admonishes them that their state has no firmness unless through his goodwill towards them. For if the Prophet had only said, that whatever the Jews had they owed to God, and for this reason were bound to his liberality, yet they might still exalt themselves. But it is added in the second place, that they remained safe day by day, as far as God spares them, cherishes, defends, and sustains them. Therefore the Prophet means this when he says, Shall it be taken to form any work from it, or will they take it for a peg to hang any vessels upon it. Behold, says he, it was given for consumption, and its two ends were burnt up. Here, as I said, he points out various calamities by which the Jews were almost struck down, though not subdued. For they were hardened in their obstinacy; and although they were like burnt and rotten wood, yet they boasted themselves to be perfect through their adoption, and through the covenant which God had made with Abraham: they boasted themselves to be a holy race, and a royal priesthood. Yet God reproves their sloth when he says theirs was like burnt wood, when a bundle of twigs has been cast into the fire, and there is some remnant so injured by the smoke as to be deprived of its strength.

Behold, says he, when it was whole could it be formed into any work! How much less after the fire has consumed it. Here we pursues the same sentiment. If any one should take any part of the bundle after the fire had dried it, could he fit it for any work? If he should take the twig when whole, it would not be fit to receive any shaping: how much less could the burnt wood be used for a peg or anything else. If, then, not even a peg can be found in the entire bundle, when the stem is like an ember through being parched by fire, how can it be turned to any use? Now follows the application: as I have given the wood of the vine among woods, says he: verbally, in the wood of the forest. Hence gather we what I formerly said about the branch, that it agrees with trees and is not put for the wild vine or the palm branch: for he now says, simply, amidst all the wood of the forest. But he says that the wood of the vine was among the wood of the forest — not because vines are merely planted there, but this comparison is used: that is, among woods, or even among all the woods of the forest, because these trees are felled, and destined for buildings, or vessels are made from them, and all kinds of wooden furniture, as well as the materials of houses, are taken from trees. He says, therefore, that the wood of the vine is given among the wood, of the forest, that is, among the woods of the forest, since the twigs are burnt, as they cannot be rendered useful to men: so have I given, says he, the citizens of Jerusalem

Now after we understand the Prophet’s meaning, let us learn that the Holy Spirit so addressed the Jews formerly, that this discourse might profit us in these days. We must perceive, in the first place, that we are superior to the whole world, through God’s gratuitous pity: but naturally we have nothing of our own in which to boast. But if we carry ourselves haughtily, through reliance on God’s gifts, this arrogance would be sacrilege: for we snatch away from God his own praise, and clothe ourselves, as it were, in his spoils. But Paul, when he speaks of the Jews, shortly, but clearly, defines both sides: Do we excel? says he — (for he there makes himself one with the people) — Do we excel the Gentiles? says he, (Romans 3:1); by no means: for Scripture denounces us all to be sinners — all to be, accursed. Since, therefore, we are children of wrath, he says, there is nothing which we can claim to ourselves over the profane Gentiles. After he has so prostrated all the pride of his own nation, he repeats again — What? Are we not superior to others? Yea, we excel in every way. For the adoption, and the worship, and the law of God, and the covenant, confer upon us remarkable superiority, and such as we find nothing like it in the whole world. How do those things agree? That the Jews excel, and are to be preferred to others, and yet that they excel in nothing! namely, since they have nothing in themselves to cause them to despise the Gentiles, or boast themselves superior; hence their excellence is not in themselves but in God. And so, Paul here does not commend their virtues, but says that they excel by gratuitous adoption, because God made his covenant with Abraham, and they were to arise from the holy nations, because he instituted a fixed line of piety among them, in promising himself to be a Father to them; nay, he determined that Christ should spring from them, who is the life and light of the world. We see, then, the former privileges of the Jews: ours is the same in these days. As often as we are favored with God’s gifts, by which we approach near him and overcome the world, we ought also to remember what we were before God took us up. Then our origin will prostrate all arrogance, and prevent us from being ungrateful to God. But that is not yet sufficient; but we must come to the second clause, that not only has God’s free grace raised us to such a height, but also sustains us; so that our standing is not founded in ourselves, but depends only on his will. Hence not only the remembrance of our origin ought to humble us, but the sense of our infirmity. Whence we gather that we have no perseverance in ourselves unless God daily, nay, momentarily strengthen us, and follow us up with his favor. This is the second point: the third is, if God afflicts or chastises us with his rods, we should know that the foolish confidence by which we deceive ourselves is by this means beaten out of us. Here we ought diligently to weigh the meaning of the phrase — the wood of the vine is useless when it is torn up, and especially when dry. For although the profane nations perish, yet it is not surprising if God’s judgments are more severe towards the reprobate, who had obtained a place in his Church, and who had been enriched with his spiritual gifts. This ingratitude requires us to become an example to others, so that the whole world may be astonished at beholding in us such dreadful signs of God’s anger. Hence the Jews were for a hissing and an abhorrence, an astonishment and a curse to the profane nations. Why so? They had more grievously exasperated God who had acted so liberally towards them, and were not only ungrateful and perfidious, but had purposely provoked him. Thus also it happens to other reprobates. So this clause is to be diligently noticed, when the Prophet says that the wood of the vine is cast into the fire, although trees, when cut down, are still useful either for building or for furniture. Now it follows —

He confirms what had been said in the last verse, and at the same time explains it: as if the citizens of Jerusalem retained some form, because they were not reduced to dust; but the fire had burnt all round them, as if the flame was licking a bundle of twigs. While the royal seat remained to them, the name of a people remained, and hence an opportunity for their obstinacy. For they were not to be subdued, since they were not entirely consumed: and now another madness is added; for as soon as they had escaped from any misfortune, they thought themselves quite safe, — “O now we shall rest,” said they; if the enemy had departed from the city, or if new forces had not arrived against them, or if provisions failed the enemy’s troops, they immediately regained their courage, and not only breathed again, but proudly laughed at God and his prophets, as if they were beyond all danger. For this reason he now says, I have set my face against them. To set, or, if any one prefers it, to establish one’s face, is to persist constantly, so as not only to do anything on passing, but to remain there until we have accomplished our intention; so that those are not bad expounders of the Prophet who say, “I have set my face firmly:” they do not translate verbally, but according to God’s meaning. For he often chastises a whole nation or city, and yet he does not set his face, that is, he does not stay there, but chastises them lightly, and but for a short time, as if passing in another direction. But he means something else here — that he would set his face; that is, never desist until the people’s name, as well as their city, was utterly abolished. For we have said that the prophets speak of the present state of the people when they threaten such destruction. I will set my face, therefore, against them: they shall escape from one fire, and another shall devour them. Here the Prophet strikes down that foolish opinion by which the Jews deceived themselves. For if they escaped from one danger, they thought it the last, and hence their security, and even obstinacy. But the Prophet says here, after they had escaped from one fire, that a new fire to consume them was lighted up: he means, that there were different means in God’s hand by which he destroys and extinguishes a people: as he had previously said, that he was armed with pestilence and the sword, and famine and wild beasts; so now under the name of fire he comprehends various scourges. If, therefore, men have escaped the sword, a new attack shall inter them, since God will press them with famine, or urge them with pestilence, or in other ways: and then, they shall know, says he, that I am Jehovah, when I shall set my face against it. By these words he signifies that his glory could not otherwise remain safe, since impunity blinded the Jews — nay, hardened them till they became like the brutes. If, therefore, God had spared them, his glory would have been as it were buried, and through so long a connivance he had been no longer acknowledged as God. There was a real necessity for so much rigor: since he would never show himself to be God otherwise than by destroying the impious who were so stupefied by their sins as long as he bore with them. At length he adds, I will lay the land waste since they have prevaricated by prevarication. Here, also, God expresses how terrible, yet just, was that judgment, because the Jews were no trifling offenders, but perfidiously departed from his worship, and from the whole teaching of the law, and were obstinate in their ingratitude. Since they were so abandoned, we gather that God was not too severe when he put forth his hand to destroy them utterly.