Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed. Jeremiah 48:11
The word of God has a fair amount to say about wine. We read throughout scripture warnings against consuming wine in excess. We are familiar with these passages concerning the danger of alcohol. However, we may be unfamiliar with the Bible’s teaching of the Lord’s making wine. I refer not to the first miracle our Lord Jesus performed here on this earth by turning water in wine (John 2:1–11). Instead, we will consider an Old Testament passage concerning the Lord’s work in making wine— good wine.
The prophet Jeremiah labored in the midst of Judah for forty years, from the time of King Josiah to the carrying away of Jerusalem into captivity (Jer. 1:2–4). The book of Jeremiah repeatedly proclaims God’s forthcoming judgment on his chosen people, calling them to turn from idol worship and repent. However, in the final chapters of the book, we read of the judgment of God reserved for the heathen nations that surrounded Judah. Specifically we consider the proclamation of God against Moab in Jeremiah 48.
Moab, as you remember, was one of the two sons born to Lot, the nephew of Abraham, when his daughters sinfully conspired to make Lot drunk with wine and then lie with him (Genesis 19:37). The resulting child gave rise to the nation of Moab who therefore had blood relations with the children of Israel. However, despite this common ancestry, these two nations stood at enmity with each other throughout their histories. Moab exerted great effort to plot against Israel. For example, recall the efforts of Balak, king of Moab, to summon Balaam in order to curse the Israelites as they journeyed to the doorstep of Canaan (Numbers 22:6).
In spite of their efforts to aggravate God’s people, Moab enjoyed peace and prosperity throughout most of its history. The prophet indicates this in Jeremiah 48:11: “Moab hath been at ease from his youth.” Evidently Moab did not experience times of great difficulty. All seemed well for this people despite their departure from serving the Lord. Thus Jeremiah can say they “have not been emptied from vessel to vessel.” What does the prophet mean by these words? In declaring God’s judgment on the nation of Moab, Jeremiah uses the illustration of making wine. In order to understand this text, we will need to explore this process.
To make wine, yeast is added to grape pulp to convert the sugars within the grapes to alcohol, a process known as fermentation. During the fermenting process, the yeast slowly collects along the sides of the barrel or vessel containing the wine. This yeast that collects on the side of the vessel is referred to as “lees.” If the wine remains in that same barrel or vessel for too long, the lees slowly begin to impart a bitter or sour taste to the wine. In addition, the lees hinder the wine from developing a sweet and pleasant aroma.
To prevent the wine from taking on these undesirable qualities, a skilled winemaker will pour the wine into a new barrel or vessel after a certain amount of time. This process serves to agitate the wine and unsettle the yeast. In addition, the wine no longer contacts any yeast that did collect on the side of the previous barrel. Therefore by emptying the wine from one vessel to another, a winemaker prevents the wine from becoming bitter or sour because it settled on the lees for too long. This process of emptying the wine from one vessel into another vessel must be repeated several times, until the wine has matured and can be placed in a glass bottle.
Now that we understand the process for making wine, we can return to God’s judgment on Moab. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed that Moab “hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel.” In this figure the skilled winemaker that we described depicts Jehovah, the vessels represent the different states or conditions of our lives, and the wine refers to the nation of Moab. We read that God did not go through the trouble of pouring the nation of Moab from one vessel and into another vessel. God did not utilize his might and skill to prevent Moab from becoming bitter or sour to the taste. Instead he sovereignly determined to let Moab “settle on his lees.”
What then do the lees refer to? The lees here refer to sins in general, but more specifically, to the sin of spiritual indifference and complacency. Therefore settling on one’s own lees represents our natural tendency to allow sin to remain undisturbed within our own hearts. This settling on the lees refers to times in our lives that we lose the sense of true sorrow for our sins that we ought to have, and instead become unconcerned about and even comfortable in our spiritual lethargy. This figure depicts the power of sin to cleave to the inner walls of our hearts, just as the lees to inner walls of the wine barrel, resulting in the whole of our life, as with the wine, becoming unpleasant both in taste and smell to God. This sin characterized the nation of Moab, which left off the service of the Lord because they grew comfortable in their spiritual indifference. God allowed this to happen; he allowed Moab to “settle on his lees.” Therefore Jeremiah brings a word of judgment against the nation in this chapter, for God will punish those who settle on their lees (Zephaniah 1:12).
In contrast to Moab, God did not allow his chosen people to settle on their lees. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God busy in the work of emptying his people from vessel to vessel. God used a famine to empty his people into Egypt; after delivering them from bondage, he poured them into the wilderness; once his people were brought safely into the promised land, God repeatedly emptied his people from vessel to vessel during the time of the judges. As the master winemaker, God did not allow Israel to be at ease for an extended period of time. In doing this, God prevented Israel from settling on the lees of spiritual apathy. God repeatedly emptied his people from a vessel that had become lined with the sins of idolatry and mixed marriages into a vessel that brought out the sweet scent of true repentance and faith in Jehovah.
That God dealt differently with Israel compared to Moab is brought out in the text when Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that Moab has not gone into captivity. Remember that Jeremiah lived and prophesied during the time of the captivity. No doubt, Jeremiah recognized the sovereign hand of the Lord in leading Judah into captivity as his handiwork in keeping his people from becoming bitter and distasteful. By leading Judah into the Babylonian captivity, God once again emptied his people from one vessel into another.
God continues his work as a master winemaker in the lives of all his elect children. He empties us by sending sickness and disease; he turns our plans for the future upside down through financial struggles; he upsets our way of life in the death of a loved one. When God sends trials, afflictions, or hardships, he is emptying his people from one vessel and into another. God does this repeatedly. Time after time the Lord disturbs our lives so that it seems to us that he will not let us catch a break. Therein lies the temptation to wish in our hearts that God would just leave us alone for a time. By nature we long for the ease and relaxation that Moab experienced. We say to God: do not upset my life; just leave it alone. However, we must recognize the purpose of God in all of this.
What then is God’s purpose in emptying his people from vessel to vessel? Negatively, he does not do this in his wrath and judgment upon us. This must be stated, because these massive upheavals that God sends upon us are very painful and unsettling. Thus, we are inclined to perceive this process as God’s disfavor toward us. However, in emptying us from vessel to vessel, God exhibits his grace. Remember, Jehovah does not do this for the Moabites, but only for his people. God displays his wrath and judgment by not performing this work. Therefore we must see that as God’s elect people, he desires to keep us from settling on the lees. God seeks to purify us from the sins of spiritual apathy and indifference. More clearly, in sending us trials Jehovah aims to sanctify his people. Figuratively, God desires that we taste and smell good to him.
The ultimate purpose of God in emptying his people from one vessel into another is to make us more Christ-like. All of our trials and afflictions serve this purpose: to make us more and more like God’s beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased. To use the figure of the text, Christ represents the finished and complete product of the winemaking process. The tribunal of God perceives the work of Christ on the cross as a sweet taste and a pleasant aroma. God desires that we also become desirable to the mouth and the nose. Therefore he faithfully prevents us from settling on the lees of spiritual complacency by emptying us from vessel to vessel through hardships of life.
The figure in this passage serves to remind us of God’s purpose in sending trials. Thus we are called to evaluate our lives in times when we recognize God’s sovereign and gracious hand emptying us from vessel to vessel. It may be that we have settled down onto certain sins. If so, this word calls us to repent and turn from them. This passage also provides great comfort to the believer. We know that the master winemaker, having begun a good work in us, will see through to our purification so we are made as good wine, pleasing to the Lord.