The man who loves God,
and is not yet pure,
courts the burning of God.
— George MacDonald (Unspoken Sermons)
There is nothing quite as effective as a perfect analogy to drive a point home. C. S. Lewis was the master of this. In his religious writings, he would often find the most ordinary and mundane illustration to illuminate a deeper principle. One of my favourite analogies from Lewis is in the fifth chapter of book 2 of Mere Christianity:
When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else . . . comes crashing in?
There are a number of analogies in scripture also—sometimes called parables. For example, after David sleeps with Bathsheba and kills her husband, Nathan the prophet comes to him to tell him a story:
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare fore the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4, NRSV)
When David heard this account (which he probably assumed was a literal case), he flew into a rage and condemned the man who did this to death. He was the man.
. . .
In order for God to reach the heart of the Israelite remnant, he used the same illustrative technique in Ezekiel 15 to make his point. He compared the people living in Jerusalem to a grapevine. Grapevines are not really useful for anything except bearing fruit. For example, you cannot make a peg out of it to hang something on in your house. In reality, the only thing a grapevine can be used for (aside from supporting grapes) is firewood.
The people living in Jerusalem are like fruitless grape vines.
. . .
The effectiveness of the illustration lies in its misleading context. If you were listening to Ezekiel telling this story, you would probably assume that he was talking about Babylon—the country who destroyed and deported them. “Amen,” the people would say, “this useless country is good for nothing except burning!”
The tables would quickly be turned quickly in their minds. Not Babylon, Jerusalem. As wicked as they were, Babylon fulfilled God’s purpose in judging Jerusalem. They were fashioned into something, like good wood can be carved. Jerusalem was thoroughly useless.
. . .
At first reading, verse 7 seems a little strange: “I will set my face against them; although they escape from the fire, the fire shall still consume them” (NRSV). It soon becomes clear that the first fire God was referring to was the physical burning of Jerusalem. To be sure, some would escape the physical judgment there—but God’s wrath would pursue them. They may outwit an earthly fire, but they can never run from God’s flames.
The question I am left with is this: “Am I being useful in seeing God’s kingdom come, or am I letting good wood go to waste.” This is not a question of salvation for us. Trusting in Jesus for your security (that is: faith) makes you good wood. Still, even a perfectly milled piece of oak with the proper moisture content can rot if left outside and unused.
. . .
Lord, please continue to use me in heralding and extending your Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.