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In our time in Ezekiel, we have seen the prophet minister God’s truth by means of strange object lessons. In chapters 15–19, he changes tactics. Rather than using object lessons, he employs a series of metaphors to describe Judah’s condition before the Lord and its subsequent judgement. He begins, in chapter 15—the text before us today—by speaking of Judah as a useless vine.

He begins by using an illustration whose truth simply could not be denied. Any farmer would agree that the offcuts of a vine post pruning are useless. They serve no purpose and are fit only for the fire. Furthermore, if the fire does not entirely consume the offcut the first time, the charred remains serve no other purpose but to be returned to the fire.

This is the way the Lord viewed Israel. Because the people had so miserably failed in their covenant obligations, they had become useless. The first two Babylonian attacks had served as the fire of judgement to consume the people, but the remaining people had proven as useless as those already judged. The only option remaining was for them to be returned to the fire for complete consumption, which would happen at Nebuchadnezzar’s third attack against Jerusalem. It is a stinging indictment against God’s people.

The imagery of fire is a frequent one in Scripture, which is used in at least two distinct ways—or, sometimes, a combination of two ways.

On the one hand, fire is sometimes seen to be a purifying force. The Egyptian experience was understood to be an “iron furnace” by which God purified and prepared his people for their eventual time in the Promised Land (1 Kings 8:51). Isaiah used the imagery of fire as a purifying agent in 1:25 and 48:10. Malachi spoke of the Lord as “a refiner’s fire,” which would “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (3:2–3).

On the other hand, fire is often—arguably more often—portrayed as a destroying force. God’s fire “consumes” his enemies “like stubble” (Exodus 15:7; cf. Isaiah 5:24). The fires of hell likewise serve as a destroying agent, in which people experience eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9). Fire is the means of God’s eternal punishment.

It is plausible that fire might serve both purposes: consuming the stubble as it purifies the gold (see 1 Corinthians 3:12–15). The same fire of judgement that consumed Judah’s rebels served, no doubt, a redemptive purpose in the lives of the faithful remnant.

The fiery trials that God sends may make us or break us. They might purify us or destroy us. The difference, I believe, is hinted at in Jesus’ parable of the true vine (John 15:1–11). In that parable, some branches were removed while others were pruned. Those that were removed were thrown into the fire to be consumed. Those that were pruned brought forth more fruit. The difference lay in the connection to the vine. Branches connected to the vine not only survived, but thrived, when pruned. Branches disconnected from the vine were consumed by the fire.

The difference between those who thrive and those who wither under trial is their connection to the vine. It is only as you are connected to Christ that the trials of life will serve a redemptive purpose. For non-Christians, suffering bears no fruit. Outside of Christ, suffering is bleak because it foreshadows the ultimate destruction that awaits useless branches. InChrist, suffering, while not pleasant, prunes us so that we can produce more fruit for God’s glory.

All of this reminds us, of course, that we have no promise of a suffering-free life. Indeed, pruning is to be expected from any branch that is connected to the vine. It also serves to remind us that the fiery trials that befall us in this life are not necessarily God’s chastening for our sin. They might be—or they might be God’s means of pruning us so that we might produce more fruit.

As you meditate on Ezekiel 15 this morning, examine your own heart to see whether you are truly connected to the vine. Then ask for grace to persevere through trials so that the fire might be a purifying, rather than destroying, force in your life.