By Rev. David Moffat
In my personal Bible reading, I have been reading the book of Isaiah. It has been a surprise to see so many references to wine – both positive and negative – occurring within a few chapters in the early part of the prophecy. They have an important lesson to teach us.
Firstly, let’s remind ourselves of the references in today’s lesson:
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valleys, to those who are overcome with wine! … The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, will be trampled underfoot; … But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment. (Isaiah 28: 1,3,7)
Similar words in the following chapter help us to understand something of the significance of “wine”:
Pause and wonder! Blind yourselves and be blind! They are drunk, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with intoxicating drink. For the LORD has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, And has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, namely, the seers. (Isaiah 29:9-10)
This is in contrast to its more positive use in the preceding chapter:
In that day sing to her, “A vineyard of red wine! I, the LORD, keep it, I water it every moment; lest any hurt it, I keep it night and day.” (Isaiah 27:2-3)
Of course, these are not the only uses of the image of wine in the Bible. The Holy Supper, is one of the more well known examples, but there are others. In the first book of Samuel, we read of Hannah’s prayer to the Lord, when she longed to bare a child:
Now Hannah spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli thought she was drunk. (1 Samuel 1:13)
A similar event occurred in the book of Acts, when the disciples gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. … So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”
Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.” (Acts 2:4, 12 & 13)
Even our Lord himself was falsely accused of drunkenness:
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:33-34)
Do you see the connection between all these passages? Wine is representative of religious expression and fervour – religion in the sense of being a “reconnecting” (the three letters “-lig-” also occur in the word “ligament”, a tissue in the body which connects muscle and bone). In its best sense, this is a living connection with the Lord, which flows into our life bring blessing, joy and insight. In its worst sense, it represents a connection with something other than Him, which can only cloud our view of reality. Religion can do all the things too much wine can do – it can give us a false sense of security, make us belligerent and angry, even kill us spiritually. We only need to look at events which have taken place on the world stage in the last few years to see that.
If we return to chapters 28 and 29 of Isaiah we can see what it is that is getting in the way of our relationship with the Lord, and its effect.
For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest,” and “This is the refreshing”; Yet they would not hear. But the Word of the Lord was to them, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little there a little.” That they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught. (Isaiah 28:11-13)
Hundreds of years before the Lord’s advent and ministry upon earth, we read one of his major criticisms of the Jewish religious establishment – that of neglecting the spirit of the law in favour of a merely external adherence to its letter. The Word had become a means of control and a stumbling block to the people instead of the help and guide it was intended to be (compare Matthew 23:1-33, Mark 7:5-13 and Luke 11:37-54). Mark’s gospel even quotes Isaiah 29:13:
… these people draw near with their mouths and honour Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.
External, natural aspects of religion had become all important. The Jews of Isaiah’s time had placed this empty external on a pedestal and begun to worship it, as though it was God Himself. How did it affect the people? The following verses are from Isaiah 29:
… Add year to year; let feasts come around. Yet I will distress Ariel; there shall be heaviness and sorrow… (vv, 1-2)
It shall even be as when a hungry man dreams, And look–he eats; But he awakes, and his soul is still empty; Or as when a thirsty man dreams, And look–he drinks; But he awakes, and indeed he is faint, And his soul still craves: So the multitude of all the nations shall be, Who fight against Mount Zion. (v. 8)
For the LORD has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, namely, the prophets; and He has covered your heads, namely, the seers. The whole vision has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one who is literate, saying, “Read this, please.” And he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” (v. 10-11)
Religion no longer brings us peace and joy, but frustration; it no longer brings satisfaction, but emptiness; it no longer brings enlightenment from the Lord, but spiritual darkness and a distorted perception of reality; and significantly, for a church which cherishes a deeper meaning to the Word, that meaning becomes sealed, inaccessible. Why? Because we only focus upon the outward aspects of our faith, we have stifled our living connection with the Lord.
This is an important lesson for us to learn – it is all too easy to get confused between true spirituality and what is false and misleading. We do this in two ways.
Firstly, it is easy to think we’re doing religion when we are in fact merely intoxicated with natural things. It might be numerical success (“Aren’t there a lot of people in church today! We must be doing something right!”). We might begin to believe that our material success is a result of the Lord’s “blessing” – a reward for our righteousness. We might get carried away with the lyrics of a song. Or we might pride ourselves on the paragraph numbers or Biblical references we can quote in every sentence we utter. But not one of these things is true religion. Not one of these things brings us the peace, joy, inner satisfaction and enlightenment which a living relationship with our Lord does.
Secondly, it is easy to misjudge another’s religious experience, just as our Lord was misjudged (see Luke 7:33-34 above). What we must realise, however, is that when we misjudge another, it is indicative of OUR spiritual state, not theirs – OUR dependance upon natural things of religion, OUR failure to see the reality of the situation. The pot is calling the kettle black! Take numerical success as an example. As members of a smaller congregation it is easy to look at other, larger churches with envious eyes. But when we do so, we often justify ourselves by muttering about their “obvious” dependance upon numbers – “it’s all about bums of seats – that’s all that matters to them!” This is an accusation of spiritual drunkenness. It may be true, but it also may not. We ought to look at people in the way the angels do, looking for the good, and excusing or placing a good interpretation upon evil when we see it. When we fail to do this, we only demonstrate our own dependence upon the very thing we claim to despise, our own drunkenness. Psychologists call this “projection.”
Now, as we receive wine as part of the Holy Supper, we should consider what all this means for our participation in this most holy sacrament. I believe it is making a commitment to Divine Truth, to seeing reality as it truly is, as the Lord shows us, not as we want it to be. In taking wine from the Lord’s table, we should examine that commitment within ourselves. Do I listen the voice of the Lord as He speaks to my life? Or do I spend my time justifying my own mistakes, and pointing out apparent faults in others? These are crucial questions, which we all do well to ask from time to time.