The Jewish exiles in Babylon held out hope that Jerusalem would survive. False prophets fed that hope with false messages. In this short passage, God dashes that hope. To do so, he used a metaphor concerning a grape vine.
The Jews were familiar with grape vines. They grew them, ate grapes, made raisins and made wine. Therefore, a metaphor about a grape vine would be understandable to them.
Most translations of verse one contain a question about how does the wood of the grape vine surpass other woods. But, this does not fit the context. The passage does not compare different kinds of wood. Rather, it discusses the fate of the wood of the grape vine. Most translations have a foot note saying the Hebrew is difficult. But some translate it, or foot note is, as “what happens to the wood of the grape vine”? That fits the context of the passage. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but it seems to be the better translation.
The fact is that grapevine wood is not good for anything. It is twisted and gnarled and brittle. The inside is soft and shreds. The Lord, through Ezekiel, expresses this in two rhetorical questions. (A rhetorical question is a figure of speech. It is a question asked to make a point.) These both appear in verse 3. First, he asked, is it used to make anything? Second, he asked if you could make a peg of the wood from which you can hang a pot? This would be the simplest and most basic use of a piece of wood.
The answer to both questions is “no”. The wood is too brittle and twisted to make anything. It is even useless for a peg, for the weight of the pot would break the weak and brittle wood. The audience of Jewish exiles would no this. The only use of grape vine wood is to burn it. it really is not very good for burning, if you want heat from it, because it burns quickly and leaves no coals. And, as verse 5 says, it is even more useless after it is burned or charred. So far, so good, as we say in America.
Once the exiles acknowledged the uselessness of grape vine wood, the Lord went on to compare that wood to Jerusalem. God has given it up to be burned. it will of course be physically burned. But, burning is also often used as a symbol in the Bible. Sometimes burning is a symbol of purification through suffering. Sometimes it is the symbol of destruction.
For example, in Zechariah 13:9, the Lord says “and I will put this third into the fire and refine them as one refines silver”. Fire melts silver so that you can remove all the impurities. The end result is a more pure silver. God may use difficulties and trials to refine you into a more holy and obedient person.
As an example of fire as a symbol of destruction, Moses praised the Lord, saying “you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble”. (Exodus 15:7) Certainly the New Testament pictures of the fires of hell are not to refine, but destroy (in the sense of eternal punishment).
The inference here is also that the people living in Jerusalem are as worthless as grape vine wood. Because of their idolatry and violence, they are good for nothing but destruction. The Lord made it clear in verses 7, saying that fire would consume them wherever they went, for he had set his face agains them. They may have escaped the first siege and deportation, but they will not escape the second siege.
And when that happened, when Jerusalem suffered the wrath and judgment of God, the exiles would know that he is the LORD, that he is Yahweh.
As a final judgment, the Lord said he not only would consume the people in judgment, he would make the land desolate. The terms of the covenant included blessings for obedience. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses said the would have many children, many crops and many cattle. But, if they disobeyed, God would curse the ground and they would have none of these blessings. In the words of Ezekiel, the land would be desolate.
The exiles may not have yet heard the metaphor of the vine enough to have seen where the Lord was heading with this message. So, the meaning sort of “snuck up” on them and surprised them. It had more impact.
The the use of the grape vine as a metaphor for Israel came to be used several times. Psalm 80:8-16 is a plea for God to restore Israel. The Psalmist wrote that God brought a vine out of Egypt, a clear reference to God redeeming Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jeremiah also used it, in 2:21. He asked how a vine of purse seed could become a wild vine. How did a nation redeemed by and given a covenant with God go on to idolatry? There are also several passages speaking of Israel as a vineyard to make the same points.
Jesus picked up the metaphor in John 15. But rather than say Israel is the vine, he said “I am the true vine”. This is the same as saying he is the true Israel. This would mean that ethnic Israel was the false Israel. They were false in that they continually disobeyed God. In the language of the metaphor, they did not produce fruit.
Jesus, on the other hand, produced the fruit of obedience and good works. And his followers will produce fruit also. We are empowered to do that by abiding in him and his abiding in us. He will prune us periodically. That is not punishment, but a tool to get us to produce more fruit. He may seek to increase your obedience or faithfulness, to get you to give up a sin or to rely on him more.
But there are those who hang with us for a while, but never bear fruit. They want to look like clean branches, but they are not. Those branches are cut out and thrown into the fire to be burned. Again we have the image of fire. It is not for refining, but for judgment and destruction.
It is important to be saved, to be in Christ. And it is important to know if you are in Christ or not. How do we do that?
First, note that the Old Testament Jews and New Testament Evangelicals both have their magic. The Jews believed that, if they were Jews, lived in Israel, especially Jerusalem, and observed the rituals whether they meant it or not, they would be saved. God said no. They had to love him with all their heart, with no other gods, and obey him.
Evangelicals, many of them, believe if you walk down an aisle, sign a card and repeat some magic words, you will be saved. When people doubt their salvation, ministers often question them diligently about what they said. Did they say the right words or not? You do not remember what you said? Uh oh.
But there is no magic. You must know the facts of the gospel and believe them. You must put your trust in Jesus.
How will you know that you are saved? You will know because you believe and because you bear fruit. Your fruit is a Godly life, good works and your witness for Christ. Jesus said it plainly and simply. Those who abide in him bear fruit. They are not perfect, but they bear fruit. Those who do not abide in Christ do not bear fruit. Paul broke it down for us further in Galatians 5:22. He said the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There are more things that count as fruit, but that is a pretty good start.