[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given at the Feast of Tabernacles in Suriname, given on September 27, 2018.]
The area that now includes Suriname was originally explored and settled by the English of the sixteenth and seventeenth century under the name of Willoughbyland , named after the seventeenth-century royalist English aristocrat who had been given the right to settle and rule the colony for the benefit of England. After the Second Anglo-Dutch War, settled by the doctrine of uti posseditis at the Treaty of Breda in 1667, the two sides kept the territories they had won in the war. We in the United States think of this war as an English victory because by it New Netherlands became the colony and future Empire State of New York, and New Amsterdam became the glorious New York City. Yet the Dutch got the better end of the deal by far. After all, the English only had control of New York City for a bit more of a century before New York and its wealth and population were lost to imperial rule during the American Revolution. On the other hand, the Dutch stayed in Suriname and profited from its sugar plantations for another two centuries before Suriname got its independence only a few years before my own birth.
What does this bit of ancient history have to do with the Feast of Tabernacles? More than you might think at first. After all, when the area between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers was first explored by Sir Walter Raleigh in the sixteenth century, it was considered a paradise. So too the English of Willougbyland considered the land a paradise, and they put sugar plantations on the land, whose remnants can still be seen in the countryside here near the capital. Jews escaping from the persecution they found in other places settled in the savanna of this country and they too considered this land a paradise where they were able to enjoy religious freedom, a rarity for Jews in all places and ages. Yet while the land allowed Jews religious freedom and allowed the owners of plantations to make a good living, this paradise was not paradise for everyone. Those who were brought over to work the sugar plantations as slaves certainly would not have considered this land a paradise at all. The horrors of the sugar plantations for slaves who were worked to death and often lost limbs in the process by which westerners enjoyed their favorite sweetener for tea and basked goods make for reading that is not polite for family audiences such as this one. When it comes to the melancholy course of human history, human efforts at creating a heaven on earth for some have made hell on earth for others.
This is not the picture we see when we view the sort of paradise that the Bible pictures for the millennium. Let us look at Micah 4:1-8. The first part of this passage is very familiar to us, but I wish to read these eight version and put it in a context that contrasts with the view of paradise that human regimes have promoted. Micah 4:1-8 reads: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all people walk each in the name of his god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. “In that day,” says the Lord, “I will assemble the lame, I will gather the outcast and those whom I have afflicted; I will make the lame a remnant, and the outcast a strong nation; so the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from now on, even forever. And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.””
This passage is a direct repudiation of the sorts of ersatz paradises that mankind has created throughout history, both here in Suriname and all around the world. Here, paradises were for the wealthy and influential and powerful, and those who were outcasts were to be expelled or exploited by others. Paradise has always been limited to some people and denied to others. Those who wanted to make a worker’s paradise stole the property of the wealthier and have consistently brought their countries to ruin and misery–look at Venezuela or Cambodia or any other number of similar country. Others have openly sought to make their countries a paradise for powerful landowners, like Suriname with its sugar plantations which profited off of the blood, sweat, and tears of other men and women. And so it goes. The paradise pictured in the millennium is a paradise where all can enjoy their vine and fig tree. Rather than a land full of plantations, it is a vision of small family farmers ruled over by God as a strong nation at peace with others, and not at war with other nations or with other parts of its own nation.
We should note that the vine and fig tree are consistently viewed in scripture as being places that provide for the well-being of ordinary people. Since this is not generally understood or recognized, I think it is worthwhile for us to examine some of the ways in which vines and fig trees are promised to ordinary people of Israel, and how they match with the way paradise is viewed by human regimes. Over and over again in the Bible the vine and fig tree are associated with judgment on the ordinary people of Judah and Israel. Rather than have you all engage in a game of scripture hide and seek while I rapidly speak, I am going to read the verses myself, and you can mark them down for reading later on. I would like a show of hands. How many of you would prefer to go to each verse I discuss individually? How many of you would prefer I read through it more quickly? [based on show of hands, either proceed quickly or slowly.] In Isaiah 36:16, we have a vision of millennial blessings being provided by a general in the Assyrian army, who says: “Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern.” Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 5:17 about the Babylonians: “And they shall eat up your harvest and your bread, Which your sons and daughters should eat. They shall eat up your flocks and your herds; They shall eat up your vines and your fig trees; They shall destroy your fortified cities, In which you trust, with the sword.” Hosea 2:12 speaks of God’s judgment on disobedient Israel as follows: ““And I will destroy her vines and her trees, Of which she has said, ‘These are my wages that my lovers have given me.’ So I will make them a forest, And the beasts of the field shall eat them” Joel 1:7 tells us: “He has laid waste My vine, and ruined My fig tree; He has stripped it bare and thrown it away; Its branches are made white.” Amos 4:9 tells us: ““I blasted you with blight and mildew. When your gardens increased, Your vineyards, Your fig trees, And your olive trees, The locust devoured them; yet you have not returned to Me,” Says the Lord.” Habakkuk 3:17-18 ends that book of prophecy referring to the vine and fig tree as follows: “Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stall— Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” Haggai 2:19 tells us: “Is the seed still in the barn? As yet the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have not yielded fruit. But from this day I will bless you.’ “
Over and over and over again the Bible reminds us that vines and fig trees are symbolic of the life lived by ordinary people. When Zechariah 3:10 gives us the millennial blessing that: “In that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘Everyone will invite his neighbor Under his vine and under his fig tree,’ ”” he is telling us that the loving community of the millennial world is one that will be filled with people showing hospitality to their neighbors instead of being isolated and alone as we often are in our present evil world. Vines and fig trees are also deeply symbolic of our own spiritual lives here and now. Let us turn to Luke 13:6-9. Luke 13:6-9 is the parable of the barren fig tree, and it says: “He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”” This passage reminds us that while those in the world to come will have their own vine and fig tree, that here and now we who are believers are fig trees in vineyards, and our Lord and Savior is a landowner deeply concerned that we bear fruit, for if we do not, we will be cut down and others will be placed in the vineyard instead of us, so that our Lord and God may receive the spiritual fruit he wants from us. That ought to be a sobering reminder to us that the judgment involving vines and fig trees is not only general and collective but also deeply personal and individual as well.
When we look at the paradise promised in the millennium, we are reminded as well of the bountiful harvest that is promised to those who live under the rule of Jesus Christ and the resurrected saints. But this bountiful harvest does not mean that everyone will be farmers. Amos 9:13-15, which close the book, give us a vision of the world to come that involves both town and country. Amos 9:13-15 reads: ““Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.” Here we have a vision of the returned people of Israel having a never-ending bounty of filling and beneficial crops. Here we see the rebuilding of ruined and deserted cities instead of the proliferation of destruction as we often see on this earth. And here too, just as in Luke 13, we see the people of Israel compared to the plants on their fields. Just as Israel will enjoy the fruit of their gardens, so too God will plant them in the land like the trees where the fruit comes, and instead of rootless vagabonds wandering the face of the earth, like tumbleweed drifting through a ghost town in the American West, they will be placed securely and deeply rooted in the land that God will provide for them.
And it is worth noting as well that the land God plants Israel in will be healed itself as well. Let us turn to Ezekiel 47:7-12 to read a familiar picture of the healing waters that will turn the dead sea into one that is full of life. Ezekiel 47:7-12 says: “When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. 8 Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the [b]valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many. But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt. Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine.”” All too often in our contemporary world, we kill seas that are alive by dumping chemicals in them and chocking rivers with kudzu and drying up lakes and rivers by diverting their waters to slake the thirst of our farms and plantations, returning water filed with pesticides that kill the fish and that harm us. Instead, in the millennial world the waters of the Dead Sea, so symbolic of the barrenness of so much of our world, will be made alive to support fisherman like the Sea of Galilee, and the trees that grow along the banks of that river from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea will have fruit trees whose leaves will help heal the nations just as the river itself heals the dry wilderness where it travels to the sea.
It is not only the land and its waters that will be healed, but also the relationships of the people within it. Let us turn to our final scripture, to Zechariah 8:4-5, and read what is prophesied about the Jerusalem (and other cities) in the world to come. Zechariah 8:4-5 tells us: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’” No longer will the generations of the people be hostile or distant from each other. No longer will children hide in fear because of the abuse suffered at the hands of parents, and no longer will elders be treated with dishonor and disrespect. Instead, while the children happily play, the elders will happily sit, youth and old age enjoying the same places and the mutual respect and enjoyment that comes from families and neighbors of several generations sharing together in the happiness of a city that is safe and secure and blessed by God. All too often in our cities, the streets are places of violence and of danger, but there will be no speeding car to mow down children, no gangs to sell drugs or to shoot each other and innocent bystanders. Instead there will be streets calm enough for children to play on them and for old people to sit down and talk together openly, face to face, while enjoying security in that most insecure city of our present world.
We currently are enjoying a foretaste of the millennial Kingdom of God here in Suriname. When he explored the river valleys near here, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote two books about the area where he claimed that there was a paradise including a city of gold. These claims encouraged many people to hack and slash their way through the jungle in search of material goods. Later settlers cut down the jungle and turned the land into large plantations where hundreds or thousands of slaves worked and died to keep the sugar mills going to feed the still-insatiable desire of the Western world for sugarcane to sweeten food and drink. The experience of Suriname in this regard is far from an isolated one. Many areas of the world have seen the same phenomenon. In our world, paradise has always been something that has been enjoyed, at best, by a few, while the many suffered so that some might benefit. The ancient Greeks rhapsodized about the joys of leisure culture in which they could drink wine and sit at symposiums and watch the pretty dancing girls as they drank and philosophized. Yet that great democracy of Athens at its peak had ten times as many slaves as citizens. Thomas Jefferson, that great hero of liberty to so many people in my country, wrote eloquently about the equality of all people under heaven to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet these rights were denied to the dozens of slaves that ran his plantation of Monticello while he ran up debts building a mansion on a small mountain and imported French wine and thousands of European-printed books, while making sure that his mansion had a private staircase so that he could go downstairs from his master suite and enjoy the company of his slave mistress.
Examples of this human hypocrisy could be multiplied. Indeed our own times are not immune from this same tendency. Where I live near the city of Portland, Oregon, a famous shoe company urges its customers to just do it, while their shoes and apparel are made in Asian sweatshops by people who are not able to do much of anything in their lives except make shoes and clothing and other athletic goods for privileged customers. No doubt you could all think of many related examples like these. Even in those societies and places where some people were able to enjoy some of the blessings of paradise at the expense of others who slaved on their behalf and enjoyed little or none of the joys of leisure or prosperity or the acquisition and use of private property of their own, they did not enjoy such pleasures in peace and safety. Injustice brings with it a certain sense of fear. Those who seek to make a paradise for themselves which depends on the suffering of others can never sleep easily knowing that someone who has nothing to lose can take what they own by running away to a maroon settlement in the jungle or to freedom in places where slavery is forbidden, or can make a plantation less profitable by shirking labor or fomenting discontent in the slave cabins. The paradise that God offers us is free from these curses. It gives blessings to the common people, not merely privileged elites. It provides healing for the land and for relationships, blessings to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Today I have sought to contrast the paradise that we celebrate here from the phony attempts at paradise that humanity has perpetuated here in Suriname and throughout the course of human history. Let us all hope that we may be fig trees in vineyards, as Luke put it so eloquently, that may bear much fruit for our Lord and Master, so that we may enjoy the glorious world tomorrow that is being prepared for a world that desperately needs the paradise that has long been promised upon the return of Jesus Christ to our broken and troubled world.
 See, for example: