Our reading today begins with a parable. Chapter 15 compares Judah to a vine. A vine is good for nothing but burning in a fire. So Judah, because of their lack of faith, is good for nothing. Judah was traditionally associated with a vine because of Jacob’s blessing on Judah (Gen 49:11-12). Isaiah compared Judah to a vineyard (Isa 5:1-7). Jeremiah called them a wild vine (Jer 2:21). Ezekiel calls them a good-for-nothing vine that will be burned.
Chapter 16 records another parable. Israel (Judah) was faithless from the very beginning (16:5). God compares Judah to a baby still attached to pagan nations by her umbilical cord (v. 4). And she was never cleaned properly. But God gave her life (v. 6). And He made her His bride (v. 8). Though His covenant she was cleaned (v. 9) and provided for (v. 10) in abundance (vv. 11-13). But she turned out to be a whore (v. 15) – the worst there ever was (v. 16)! She tried to give what was YHWH’s to other lovers (false gods) (vv. 16-19) including His children (vv. 20-21 – this is a reference to burning children in Molech worship). She forgot what she was before YHWH saved her (v. 22). And she became an even worse whore (vv. 23-29). Instead of receiving payment like a prostitute, Judah paid to be a whore (vv. 30-34).
God then pronounces judgment on Judah. Those she whored with will turn on her (vv. 37-41). This will be God’s judgment on her (v. 42) for forgetting Him (v. 43). Judah is like her “mother”, which are the nations she dispossessed (vv. 44-46). In fact, Judah is worse than the nations around her (v. 47); worse than Sodom (v. 48)! And God destroyed Sodom for her sin (v. 50). Judah is worse than Israel (v. 51).
And yet there is hope. The fortunes of all these nations – Sodom, Israel, and Judah – will yet be restored (v. 53) even though physical Judah is a disgraced nation before even the pagan nations (vv. 54-58). Those who break covenant with God will be forsaken by Him (v. 59), but those who keep covenant (the New Covenant! – see below) will repent of their sin (vv. 60-63) and God will atone for their sin (v. 63).
Chapter 17 contains yet another parable. Once again, Judah is the vine (17:6, 12). The great eagle (v. 3, 12) is Babylon. The planting in fertile soil is the captivity of Jehoiachin (v. 5, 13 – see 2 Kings 24:12). The other great eagle (v. 7) is Egypt (v. 15) whom Zedekiah sought help from in his rebellion against Babylon (v. 7, 15-16, 18 – see 2 Kings 24:20). In verse 19, God says that Zedekiah’s oath breaking with Nebuchadnezzar is really Judah’s covenant breaking with YHWH (see 2 Chr 36:13). So God will send Zedekiah and Jerusalem into captivity at the hands of Babylon (vv. 20-21).
But God is not done. After He removes the original sprig (the physical people He planted in the land) He will from the tip of it take a smaller sprig (the spiritual people) and plant it on a high and lofty mountain (the mountain of God – the place of His presence) (v. 22). This sprig will flourish and grow exponentially (v. 23). And all the trees of the field (nations of the earth) will know that He is God (v. 24) Who exalts the humble and humbles the proud (see Luke 18:14). This is the mission of the church!
In chapter 18, God continues His train of thought from the prophecy of chapter 14 (the parables being a parenthetical condemnation of the physical people). Every person will be judged for their own sin and spiritual state (18:1-4 – see Jer 31:29-30). Those who do not worship false gods, do not break God’s Law, show compassion, uphold justice, and act faithfully will live (vv. 5-9). Those that live contrary to this, will die (vv. 10-13). The son will die for his own sins even if the father lives. The father will die for his owns sins even if the son lives (vv. 14-18). Each one is responsible for himself (vv. 19-20).
And yet, even if someone does sin – if he repents and turns to God, he will live (v. 21)! God will forget his sin (v. 22)! God would rather forgive than judge (v. 23). Verse 24 is a solemn warning to the righteous (those in the church) that they must persevere in righteousness. Salvation cannot be lost. But true salvation leads to righteousness. If one turns to evil, he was never righteous to begin with.
Does this mean God is unfair (v. 25 – see Rom 9:14)? Should one who was “righteous” for a time be punished for proving himself unrighteous? Yes (v. 26). God is telling Judah that they are not righteous just because they are of the physical people (vv. 29-30 – see Rom 9:6). It is being part of the spiritual people of God that matters (vv. 27-28). Being righteous means repentance from sin (vv. 30-31). This is a spiritual matter! The new heart and new spirit is the promise of the New Covenant (see 11:19 and Jer 31:31-33). So God calls all to repentance (v. 32)!