The Orchard of the Lord

Icon of the Nativity of Christ, Novgorod, 16th century

Friday of the First Week of Advent

Isaiah 29:17-24; Matthew 9:27-31

A drunk and rebellious world spins recklessly out of control (Isaiah 24:20; 28:1; 28:7; 29:9), but sober intoxication from the springs of divine grace is promised from on high, declares the prophet Isaiah.

Thus says the Lord God: But a very little while, and Lebanon shall be changed into an orchard, and the orchard be regarded as a forest! (Isaiah 29:17)

The deserted forests of Mount Lebanon is a figure for the parched and desolate world turned away from the face of God, while the orchard is a fruitful garden, literally Carmel (karmel), overflowing with lush and abundant growth. The Hebrew word karmel comes from kerem (vineyard), an overarching symbol in the Old and New Testaments for the kingdom of God and his people (Isaiah 5:1; 5;7; Jeremiah 2:7; Matthew 20:1).

Many commentators interpret the prophetic statement as the rejection of Christ by the Jews (orchard) and the bestowal of blessings to the Gentiles (Lebanon). However, an alternative interpretation finds a parallel in Isaiah 32:15 which puts the accent on the superabundance of divine grace such that the orchard, prior to its anointing, seems barren as a forest.1

Until the spirit from on high
is poured out on us.
And the wilderness becomes a garden land
and the garden land seems as common as forest (Isaiah 32:15).

St. Paul’s statement that he “considers everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus” conveys the sense of that interpretation (Philippians 3:8). Prosperity in this life, compared with the imperishable riches of the kingdom of God, fades into insignificance (Matthew 6:19-21).

Figurative language often contains multiple layers of meaning, so a combination of the two interpretations is possible. The first reading appears in both patristic and classic commentaries, for Christ did mourn his rejection by his own brethren: Have you not read this scripture passage: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’—a statement made in the context of a vineyard parable (Mark 12:10 and other NT passages). The “cornerstone” was prophesied in both the Psalms and Isaiah (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16).

The gate of Christ is open to all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, as long as it is “today.” Prophetic, apocalyptic language has no other motive than divine love. Pride winces before the knife, but as St. John Chrysostom writes: “Suppose anyone has a wound; which should we most deservedly fear, gangrene or the surgeon’s knife? The steel or the devouring progress of the ulcer? Sin is a gangrene; punishment is the surgeon’s knife. If someone has gangrene and does not have surgery, he does not merely remain ill, he gets worse.”2

Gentiles have not been favored over the Jews, but as St. Paul writes, they are a wild olive shoot grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11:11-24). Grace does not discriminate among peoples and nations, but receptivity to Christ is a gift. The return of both Jews and Gentiles to the crib of the Infant Christ, in the footsteps of the shepherds and Magi, is possible.

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 29:18-19).

The two blind men in Matthew’s Gospel who receive healing from the “Son of David” are among the first to emerge out of the darkness prophesied by Isaiah (Matthew 9:27-31). The spiritually deaf, blind, lowly, and poor have been responding to the voice of the Shepherd ever since Pentecost. The ever growing calendar of Saints is evidence of the compelling light of Christ in a darkened world.

Speaking of “that day,” the Venerable Bede and Doctor of the Church (673-735) is the voice of reason and sobriety when he writes:

Neither was heaven created in any six-day period and the stars illuminated and the dry land separated from the water and the trees and vegetation planted. Rather, Scripture customarily uses “day” to denote an unspecified period of time, as the apostle did when he said, “Behold, this is the day of salvation.” He was not referring to a particular day but to the entirety of the time of the present life in which we labor for eternal salvation. The prophet also spoke not of one specific day but of numerous moments of divine grace, saying, “In that day, the deaf will hear the words of this book.”3

Patristic exegesis of apocalyptic literature is neither literalist nor millenarian. By the Spirit-filled teachings of the Fathers of the Church, Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, and those who find fault shall receive instruction (Isaiah 29:24). 

-GMC

1 See Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, Isaiah 29:17 and New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 651. 

2 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies Concerning the Statues 6.14. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Isaiah 1-39, Steven A. McKinion, editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor, Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2004, p. 177. 

3 The Venerable Bede, On Genesis 1.2.4-5. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Isaiah 1-39, p. 211.

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