A Time to Cast Away Stones and a Time to Gather Stones
A Time to Cast Away Stones and a Time to Gather Stones
I enjoy gardens! When I had a pastorate in London, England, I never tired of walking through the botanical gardens at Kew in Surrey. This was only a few minutes walk from our home. The variety of trees and plants, the gorgeous display of flowers, and the peacefulness of the surroundings were a benediction to my soul. Time and time again I was "lost in wonder, love, and praise."
I can understand why the healthy Christian life is likened to a garden. Isaiah the prophet speaks of the child of God as "a watered garden, ... a spring of water, whose waters do not fail" (Isa 58:11). Do you identify with those words, or is your life cluttered up with stones and rubbish?
A careful study of our text in the light of related passages makes evident that the writer has in mind the operation of clearing a vineyard of stones and of collecting materials for making fences, winepresses, and towers. Isaiah has the same idea when, in the parable of Jehovah's vineyard, he writes: "My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes" (Isa 5:1-2).
Three times in the history of the world God has made a vineyard for Himself, with the expectation of receiving fruit for His glory. The first was the vineyard of a human paradise. Man was put in the Garden of Eden with the mandate to "tend and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). But we all know the story of his failure to produce the fruit that God expected. Through disobedience, sin not only affected every area of his own life, but also cursed the whole human race. The second was the vineyard of the Hebrew people. Isaiah tells us about this in the passage that we have already quoted. God did everything to ensure that this vineyard would produce the best of fruit for His honor—but, instead, "it brought forth wild grapes" (Isa 5:2). The third is the vineyard of the Christian church. Jesus Himself came to plant this garden and declared: "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:1-2). Once again, the church has, in generation after generation, failed to fulfill the ultimate purpose of God. But such is the sovereignty and persistence of our loving God that He will not let us go. And so he continues to speak to us, and strive with us, until the day when the church will be presented "before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24).
This, then, is the message of our text. It is the picture of a neglected and fruitless vineyard. In such a situation two major operations are called for, the first of which is:
The Cultivation of the Vineyard of Our Lives
In olden times it was not an uncommon thing to find a vineyard that had suffered through enemy attack or through willful neglect. And without doubt, Solomon had this in mind as he surveys a promising piece of land, strewn with stones and debris. In circumstances like this, there comes "a time to cast away stones" (Eccl. 3:5).
What is true in this physical sense is even more relevant when we think of the vineyard of our lives. We must admit the presence of stones in our lives. In this connection, there is a revealing passage in Proverbs 24:30-34, which reads:
I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.
Stones, in and of themselves, constitute valuable material, as we shall see later. But stones scattered in this fashion represent thoughtlessness, carelessness, and laziness.
There is first of all thoughtlessness. Solomon tells us that a yard in this state belongs, of necessity, to "the man devoid of understanding" (Prov. 24:30). A life that is not fulfilling the purpose of God is the life of a person who has ceased to use his intelligence. There is nothing clever or commendable about young people, or older ones, who through recklessness and rash decisions have allowed their lives to go to pieces. God gave us minds to think His thoughts after Him, and everything He has designed for us is summed up in the Supreme Thought, even Jesus Christ our Lord. This is why the Lord Jesus was forever inviting people to come to Him, learn of Him, and follow Him.
Also, there is carelessness—"And there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down" (Prov. 24:31). What a graphic picture this is of willful neglect. Think of the thorns, the nettles, and the stone wall broken down. Does this represent our hearts, our lives, our vineyards? Thorns and nettles are symbols of the curse, while the broken wall is the evidence of capitulation to enemy attack. "He who digs a pit will fall into it, and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a serpent" (Eccl. 10:8). When we allow the wall of our lives to be penetrated by the "subtle serpent," the inevitable results follow: thorns, nettles, and scattered stones.
Then, there is laziness—"When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man" (Prov. 24:32-34). It was D. L. Moody who used to say that no regenerate man should have a drop of lazy blood in his veins. Laziness is the result of the curse, and there is plenty of evidence of that curse in our modern life! This is why homes are divided, businesses are corrupted, and the world is in such a mess. People want their own easy way of self-seeking and sinfulness, and so the vineyard of the Lord is reduced to thorns, nettles, and rubble. The only way to reverse the situation is to admit the presence of these stones in our lives. Are we guilty of thoughtlessness, carelessness, and laziness? We must remember that this is nothing less than sin, and sin must be dealt with at the cross of Calvary. Is that garden life of yours a mess? Is it full of rubble and debris? Is it less than what God intended? Thank God, the stones can be cleared away—"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
But it is not sufficient to admit the presence of stones in our lives; we must permit the clearance of stones in our lives. When the condition of our lives is revealed to us through the preaching of the Word of God and the searching of the Spirit of God, we must be willing for these stones to be removed. This will call for humbleness, prayerfulness, and steadfastness. No one can pick up stones without bending down, and this is the only place where God meets us: at the cross of His blessed Son. This is humbleness. Then it is evident that no one can pick up stones without securely holding them in their hands, and the very action of lifting these stones is the posture of prayerfulness. We must ask God to deal with our sins, to cleanse our lives, and to renew our spirits. And then it goes without saying that picking up stones is an arduous task; it is heavy work. It calls for steadfastness. You have to be willing to drop on your knees, pick up those stones, present them, and say, "Here they are Lord. These are the sins that are spoiling my garden life." Then as you hold them before Him, confess those sins. As we have already remarked, "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Then follows steadfastness, for it is hard work. In presenting the gospel, our Lord Jesus and His apostles always insisted on this characteristic of obedience and steadfast continuance. Jesus said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). The apostles exhorted their converts "that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord" (Acts 11:23). And it is recorded that the early disciples "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). God will never take us seriously until we take Him seriously.
This, then, constitutes the cultivation of the vineyard of our lives. We must admit the presence of the stones, and then permit the clearance of those stones. Only thus will our lives become the fruitful land for God to work, by the power of His Spirit. What He is looking for in our lives is fruitfulness. Over fifty times in the New Testament the subject of fruitfulness is mentioned. And the Lord Jesus reminded His disciples before He went to heaven that "by this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8). Not just fruit, but "much fruit." It is the "much fruit" that glorifies our Father which is in heaven. Remember that "man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism). There is no other purpose for your creation, preservation, and redemption than that you should glorify the Father.
A missionary was visited by a Korean convert who had walked 100 miles to learn more about Jesus. After giving his testimony, the young man recited the entire Sermon on the Mount without making a mistake. The missionary was delighted, but felt he ought to warn him that memorizing the Bible is not enough. Its precepts must be put into practice. When he made this suggestion, the Korean's face lit up with a happy smile. "That's the way I learned it," he said. "When I first tried to master that long passage, it just wouldn't stick in my mind. So I decided to grasp just one verse at a time and then follow its instructions as I lived among my friends and neighbors. When I saw how well it worked, I had no difficulty remembering it, and I could go on to the next beatitude." The young believer had discovered a significant principle: the admonitions of God's Word become firmly embedded in our memory and character when we act upon them (Bosch 1976).
From the cultivation of the vineyard of our lives we then turn to:
The Conservation of the Vineyard in Our Lives
In the parable of Jehovah's vineyard, the prophet is made to say, "My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes" (Isa 5:2). Our Lord referred to this parable during His teaching here upon earth (Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-9; Luke 20:9-19). The details, both in Isaiah and in the gospel, are virtually identical. And what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in these words is that in order to conserve the vine and the fruit, the husbandman must gather the stones for a threefold purpose.
1. The stones must be gathered for the wall of protection. "My Well-beloved has a vineyard.... He dug it up and cleared out its stones" (Isa 5:1-2). As we have seen already, "Whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a serpent" (Eccl. 10:8). We are told that this stone wall of protection was usually surrounded by a fence, or hedge, of shrubs. This was to act as a kind of windbreaker against the storms that threatened the young vines. Stones out of place can represent thoughtlessness, carelessness, and laziness; but stones in their rightful place can symbolize the protection of our lives. Thank God for the teaching of His Word and the leading of His Spirit which enable us to protect our lives from the attacks of the world, the flesh, and the devil. I offer no hope whatsoever to anyone who imagines that he can survive the forces of evil in our day and generation without the divinely built wall of Protection. We cannot study the Bible without observing that God has placed sanctions upon our personal, social, and national life. But when we neglect the authority of God's Word and the sufficiency of God's Spirit, the serpent bites. Satan attacks. Outside of the protection of Jesus Christ you have no hope whatsoever. When Satan attacks, remember he is supernatural and you are only natural. You must know the mighty indwelling of the Son of God who was manifested to disintegrate the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
2. The stones must be gathered for the watchtower of perception. "[Clear] out its stones, and ... [build] a tower in its midst" (Isa 5:2). In order to spot unwelcome intruders, one or more towers were built in the vineyard. From these lookout points, vigilant eyes were ever surveying the landscape.
What a message this has for you and me! Jesus told His disciples that they were to "watch and pray" (Matt. 26:41). And Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, exhorts his readers to "[pray] always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints" (Eph. 6:18). Watching sights the enemy, whereas praying fights the enemy. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the instruction of the Holy Word, the Christian is given a kind of spiritual radar which senses the approach of evil. This is the value of the watchtower. Without it the vineyard can be ruined.
In the Song of Solomon there is a solemn word concerning the spoilers of the vineyard of our lives. The language is put in the form of this prayer, "Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes" (Song 2:15). Very often these little foxes find a crack in the wall, and unless spotted, can enter the vineyard under cover of darkness and nibble away at the tender vines. Such destructiveness quickly spoils the promised fruitage. This is why the watchtower is so important. You and I know that it is not so much the big sins that ruin our lives, but rather the subtle little foxes that slip in through unguarded defenses to spoil the tender grapes.
But the "little foxes" are not the only cause of intrusion and destruction. The passage in Proverbs 24:33-34 is explicit here, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man." The latter part of this verse is better rendered, "And poverty come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man." God knows how many armed robbers constantly seek to destroy the vineyard of our lives. How important it is, then, to gather up the stones for the building of the watchtower of perception! Thank God the Word tells us, "When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him" (Isa 59:19).
3. The stones must be gathered for the winepress of production. "My Well-beloved...cleared out its stones, and...made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes" (Isa 5:1-2). We are told that stones were utilized for the construction of winepresses. Here is where the grapes were crushed in order to secure the precious wine for home use and sale.
And I have no need to tell you that this is what God wants from our lives. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23), and nothing less will glorify the Father. There is only one whose life pleases God, and that is Jesus Christ, His Son. And this is the only one whose life He wants reproduced in us by the Holy Spirit. The winepress speaks of the pressures and measures that He exerts upon us in order that the life of Jesus might be seen in us and through us. Anything less than this is wasted living. As He comes to your vineyard and mine, what has He to say? Are we bringing forth "fruit," "more fruit," "much fruit"? Or is the Master displeased with the lack of productivity in our lives? The only purpose in the cultivation of our lives is that there should be the conservation of fruit for His glory. We can test the success or failure of our lives on this one issue of fruitfulness.
As we have pointed out before, God says more about this matter of fruit than is commonly believed. Indeed, Jesus uttered His last word on the subject when He declared, "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8). Anything less than this is falling short of the glory of God; and this by definition means a life of sin and shame.
So there is "a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones" (Eccl. 3:5). The one aspect concerns the cultivation of the vineyard of our lives, while the other aspect represents the conservation of the vineyard of our lives. In the light of this, ask yourself honestly and personally: Is my life a vineyard or a wilderness?
It is of striking significance that Jesus equated faith with fruit. When He saw a fig tree without the fruit He expected, He cursed it and said, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again" (Mark 11:14). Later, when Peter recognized that the cursed fig tree had "withered away" (Mark 11:21), Jesus said to him, "Have faith in God" (Mark 11:22). The fact is, faith without fruit is dead. Have you and I a living faith? If our answer is in the affirmative, then the fruit of the Spirit will be self-evident. Jesus said that fruit is the final test of reality. Speaking of false prophets, He declared, "By their fruits you will know them" (Matt. 7:20). And this same Master comes to you and me today and asks, "Show Me your vineyard, show Me your fruit; yes, show Me your faith," for "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" (Heb. 11:6).
I mentioned earlier that the only One who always pleased the Father was the Lord Jesus Christ. It follows, therefore, that if we would please God, we must allow the Lord Jesus to live out His life in us day by day. So I ask you, as I ask myself, Is Jesus revealed in you? Remember,
What the world needs is Jesus,
Just a glimpse of Him.
Think on These Things (Phil. 4:8)
In the early church, the followers of Jesus were conspicuous by their Christian boldness and likeness to the Christ they loved and served. It is recorded that when the rulers, elders, and scribes "saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they [Peter and John] had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13). There was an unmistakable Christ-like fragrance which exuded from the garden of their lives.
— Time for Truth, A