July 16, 2020 by Steven Lulich
Why then have you broken down its walls,
So that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
I grew up around fruit trees. The two I remember best were a plum tree in the back yard and an apple tree in the front yard. The plum tree was probably my favorite climbing tree, and it was also good for picking plums and eating them on the spot, right there in the tree. I didn’t climb the apple tree much, probably because it was closer to the road, but I have a vivid memory of one occasion. My brother and I both climbed up that tree when it was full of ripe apples, and we sat among the higher branches picking and eating apples. It was relaxing, idyllic, and delicious – and time seemed to almost stand still. Unfortunately, I ate so many apples that I ended up with a stomach ache afterward.
In general, a fruit tree is meant to serve as a blessing and a source of nourishment and joy for others – not only for the tree itself. But that blessing can turn sour in the stomach when used inappropriately. It is perhaps for exactly these reasons that the Bible frequently uses the metaphor of a fruitful tree or grape vine to refer to the people of God, whom He has blessed in order to be a blessing (Gen. 12:2). For example, when Jacob blesses his sons upon his deathbed, he says of Joseph that he “is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). Joseph was blessed by God not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the whole biblical world: “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gen. 50:20).
Psalm 80 is a meditation on Joseph’s blessing (compare with Gen. 49:22-26 for several parallels). The Psalmist tells us that God “brought a vine out of Egypt”, planted it and cared for it, so that “it took deep root and filled the land” (vss. 8-11). But God has “broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit” (vs. 12). This activity of those “who pass along the way” is usually (if not universally) described in negative terms by commentators. It represents the misuse and abuse of the blessing of the fruitful vine, and it results in the invocation of a curse (vs. 16).
But notice that the vine itself is at the same time fulfilling its mission to bless others with its fruit. Indeed, there is a sense in which the vine’s blessing is even more fully realized when it is not walled in. If Joseph is God’s fruitful vine and Israel is God’s vineyard within the walls (e.g. Is. 5), then the gentiles are on the other side of the wall and have no access to the blessing of the fruit. Centuries later, Paul would describe Jesus (the one to whom Joseph’s life pointed) as the one who “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace [and reconciling] us both to God in one body through the cross” (see Eph. 2:11-22). Through the breaking down of the wall, we all have access to the fruit, but we must accept and use that fruit appropriately, with thanksgiving and faithfulness in our hearts. The Israelites of the Psalmist’s day certainly experienced the mistreatment of the fruitful vine as a very painful thing, just as Jesus experienced the Cross and as the Early Church experienced persecutions. When we are mistreated and abused by the world, we should remember that there is a purpose in it, no matter how painful it might be. We should remember that this purpose includes an invitation to that very same world, to come and partake of the blessings of God’s fruitful vine. We can also take heart in the knowledge that God will “turn again [and] have regard for this vine … [and] give us life, and we will call upon [His] name!” (vs. 14-19).