This parable is intended to enforce that word of warning immediately going before, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish; except you be reformed, you will be ruined, as the barren tree, except it bring forth fruit, will be cut down.”
I. This parable primarily refers to the nation and people of the Jews. God chose them for his own, made them a people near to him, gave them advantages for knowing and serving him above any other people, and expected answerable returns of duty and obedience from them, which, turning to his praise and honour, he would have accounted fruit; but they disappointed his expectations: they did not do their duty; they were a reproach instead of being a credit to their profession. Upon this, he justly determined to abandon them, and cut them off, to deprive them of their privileges, to unchurch and unpeople them; but, upon Christ’s intercession, as of old upon that of Moses, he graciously gave them further time and further mercy; tried them, as it were, another year, by sending his apostles among them, to call them to repentance, and in Christ’s name to offer them pardon, upon repentance. Some of them were wrought upon to repent, and bring forth fruit, and with them all was well; but the body of the nation continued impenitent and unfruitful, and ruin without remedy came upon them; about forty years after they were cut down, and cast into the fire, as John Baptist had told them (Matt. 3:10), which saying of his this parable enlarges upon.
II. Yet it has, without doubt, a further reference, and is designed for the awakening of all that enjoy the means of grace, and the privileges of the visible church, to see to it that the temper of their minds and the tenour of their lives be answerable to their professions and opportunities, for that is the fruit required. Now observe here,
1. The advantages which this fig-tree had. It was planted in a vineyard, in better soil, and where it had more care taken of it and more pains taken with it, than other fig-trees had, that commonly grew, not in vineyards (Those are for vines), but by the way-side, Matt. 21:19. This fig-tree belonged to a certain man, that owned it, and was at expense upon it. Note, The church of God is his vineyard, distinguished from the common, and fenced about, Isa. 5:1, 2. We are fig-trees planted in this vineyard by our baptism; we have a place and a name in the visible church, and this is our privilege and happiness. It is a distinguishing favour: he has not dealt so with other nations.
2. The owner’s expectation from it: He came, and sought fruit thereon, and he had reason to expect it. He did not send, but came himself, intimating his desire to find fruit. Christ came into this world, came to his own, to the Jews, seeking fruit. Note, The God of heaven requires and expects fruit from those that have a place in his vineyard. He has his eye upon those that enjoy the gospel, to see whether they live up to it; he seeks evidences of their getting good by the means of grace they enjoy. Leaves will not serve, crying, Lord, Lord; blossoms will not serve, beginning well and promising fair; there must be fruit. Our thoughts, words, and actions must be according to the gospel, light and love.
3. The disappointment of his expectation: He found none, none at all, not one fig. Note, It is sad to think how many enjoy the privileges of the gospel, and yet do nothing at all to the honour of God, nor to answer the end of his entrusting them with those privileges; and it is a disappointment to him and a grief to the Spirit of his grace.
(1.) He here complains of it to the dresser of the vineyard: I come, seeking fruit, but am disappointed—I find none, looking for grapes, but behold wild grapes. He is grieved with such a generation.
(2.) He aggravates it, with two considerations:—[1.] That he had waited long, and yet was disappointed. As he was not high in his expectations, he only expected fruit, not much fruit, so he was not hasty, he came three years, year after year: applying it to the Jews, he came one space of time before the captivity, another after that, and another in the preaching of John Baptist and of Christ himself; or it may allude to the three years of Christ’s public ministry, which were now expiring. In general, it teaches us that the patience of God is stretched out to long-suffering with many that enjoy the gospel, and do not bring forth the fruits of it; and this patience is wretchedly abused, which provokes God to so much the greater severity. How many times three years has God come to many of us, seeking fruit, but has found none, or next to none, or worse than none! [2.] That this fig-tree did not only not bring forth fruit, but did hurt; it cumbered the ground; it took up the room of a fruitful tree, and was injurious to all about it. Note, Those who do not do good commonly do hurt by the influence of their bad example; they grieve and discourage those that are good; they harden and encourage those that are bad. And the mischief is the greater, and the ground the more cumbered, if it be a high, large, spreading tree, and if it be an old tree of long standing.
4. The doom passed upon it; Cut it down. He saith this to the dresser of the vineyard, to Christ, to whom all judgment is committed, to the ministers who are in his name to declare this doom. Note, No other can be expected concerning barren trees than that they should be cut down. As the unfruitful vineyard is dismantled, and thrown open to the common (Isa. 5:5, 6), so the unfruitful trees in the vineyard are cast out of it, and wither, John 15:6. It is cut down by the judgments of God, especially spiritual judgments, such as those on the Jews that believed not, Isa. 6:9, 10. It is cut down by death, and cast into the fire of hell; and with good reason, for why cumbers it the ground? What reason is there why it should have a place in the vineyard to no purpose?
5. The dresser’s intercession for it. Christ is the great Intercessor; he ever lives, interceding. Ministers are intercessors; they that dress the vineyard should intercede for it; those we preach to we should pray for, for we must give ourselves to the word of God and to prayer. Now observe,
(1.) What it is he prays for, and that is a reprieve: Lord, let it alone this year also. He doth not pray, “Lord, let it never be cut down,” but, “Lord, not now. Lord, do not remove the dresser, do not withhold the dews, do not pluck up the tree.” Note, [1.] It is desirable to have a barren tree reprieved. Some have not yet grace to repent, yet it is a mercy to them to have space to repent, as it was to the old world to have 120 years allowed them to make their peace with God. [2.] We owe it to Christ, the great Intercessor, that barren trees are not cut down immediately: had it not been for his interposition, the whole world had been cut down, upon the sin of Adam; but he said, Lord, let it alone; and it is he that upholds all things. [3.] We are encouraged to pray to God for the merciful reprieve of barren fig-trees: “Lord, let them alone; continue them yet awhile in their probation; bear with them a little longer, and wait to be gracious.” Thus must we stand in the gap, to turn away wrath. [4.] Reprieves of mercy are but for a time; Let it alone this year also, a short time, but a sufficient time to make trial. When God has borne long, we may hope he will bear yet a little longer, but we cannot expect he should bear always. [5.] Reprieves may be obtained by the prayers of others for us, but not pardons; there must be our own faith, and repentance, and prayers, else no pardon.
(2.) How he promises to improve this reprieve, if it be obtained: Till I shall dig about it, and dung it, Note, [1.] In general, our prayers must always be seconded with our endeavours. The dresser seems to say, “Lord, it may be I have been wanting in that which is my part; but let it alone this year, and I will do more than I have done towards its fruitfulness.” Thus in all our prayers we must request God’s grace, with a humble resolution to do our duty, else we mock God, and show that we do not rightly value the mercies we pray for. [2.] In particular, when we pray to God for grace for ourselves or others, we must follow our prayers with diligence in the use of the means of grace. The dresser of the vineyard engages to do his part, and therein teaches ministers to do theirs. He will dig about the tree and will dung it. Unfruitful Christians must be awakened by the terrors of the law, which break up the fallow ground, and then encouraged by the promises of the gospel, which are warming and fattening, as manure to the tree. Both methods must be tried; the one prepares for the other, and all little enough.
(3.) Upon what foot he leaves the matter: “Let us try it, and try what we can do with it one year more, and, if it bear fruit, well, Luke 13:9. It is possible, nay, there is hope, that yet it may be fruitful.” In this hope the owner will have patience with it, and the dresser will take pains with it, and, if it should have the desired success, both will be pleased that it was not cut down. The word well is not in the original, but the expression is abrupt: If it bear fruit!--supply it how you please, so as to express how wonderfully well-pleased both the owner and dresser will be. If it bear fruit, there will be cause of rejoicing; we have what we would have. But it cannot be better expressed than as we do: well. Note, Unfruitful professors of religion, if after long unfruitfulness they will repent, and amend, and bring forth fruit, shall find all is well. God will be pleased, for he will be praised; ministers’ hands will be strengthened, and such penitents will be their joy now and their crown shortly. Nay, there will be joy in heaven for it; the ground will be no longer cumbered, but bettered, the vineyard beautified, and the good trees in it made better. As for the tree itself, it is well for it; it shall not only not be cut down, but it shall receive blessing from God (Heb. 6:7); it shall be purged, and shall bring forth more fruit, for the Father is its husbandman (John 15:2); and it shall at last be transplanted from the vineyard on earth to the paradise above.
But he adds, If not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. Observe here, [1.] That, though God bear long, he will not bear always with unfruitful professors; his patience will have an end, and, if it be abused, will give way to that wrath which will have no end. Barren trees will certainly be cut down at last, and cast into the fire. [2.] The longer God has waited, and the more cost he has been at upon them, the greater will their destruction be: to be cut down after that, after all these expectations from it, these debates concerning it, this concern for it, will be sad indeed, and will aggravate the condemnation. [3.] Cutting down, though it is work that shall be done, is work that God does not take pleasure in: for observe here, the owner said to the dresser, “Do thou cut it down, for it cumbereth the ground.” “Nay,” said the dresser, “if it must be done at last, thou shalt cut it down; let not my hand be upon it.” [4.] Those that now intercede for barren trees, and take pains with them, if they persist in their unfruitfulness will be even content to see them cut down, and will not have one word more to say for them. Their best friends will acquiesce in, nay, they will approve and applaud, the righteous judgment of God, in the day of the manifestation of it, Rev. 15:3, 4.