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The prophet may have sung this song at the weeklong harvest festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles, where his singing would have fit naturally into the festive atmosphere and would have caught the attention of the crowds. The song and its underlying story would draw the people in. The song then asks them to serve as judges, thereby drawing them in further (v. 3-4). The last verse, though, has a barbed hook. The listeners learn to their surprise that the song is not really about a vineyard but instead is about them—their sins—the judgment that has been pronounced on them.
In this, the song is like the story of the rich man and the poor man told by Nathan the prophet to King David (2 Samuel 12). When Nathan told that story, David didn’t realize that he was listening to a parable. He thought that Nathan was presenting an injustice which he, as king, had power to remedy. It was only after David rendered judgment on the rich man that Nathan said, “You are the man,” revealing that his story was really about David’s liaison with Bathsheba and his treachery at having Uriah killed. Isaiah’s song follows that same format —a story that draws the people in, invites them to pronounce judgment, and then reveals that the story is not about someone else, but is about them.
The mood of the song shifts by stages. It begins on a joyful note as it tells about the person who developed the vineyard (vv. 1-2). It darkens slightly as it asks listeners to judge whether the owner did all that needed to be done (vv. 3-4). It then takes on a threatening tone as the owner of the vineyard reveals his decision to destroy the vineyard (vv. 5-6). Finally, it reveals the listeners to be the vineyard (v. 7).
The poem, like a musical overture, introduces us to themes that the prophet will develop more fully as he shares his vision.
ISAIAH 5:1-2. IT YIELDED WILD GRAPES
1Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.
2He dug it up (Hebrew: way·az·zeqe·hu),
gathered out its stones (Hebrew: way·saq·qele·hu),
planted it (Hebrew: way·yit·ta·e·hu) with the choicest vine,
built (Hebrew: way·yi·ben) a tower in its midst,
and also cut out a winepress therein.
He looked for it (Hebrew: way·qaw – waited for it) to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
“Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard.“
(v. 1a). The song begins in the voice of the prophet, who speaks of Yahweh as his beloved or his friend. What could be mistaken for a love song at the beginning quickly becomes a song about a vineyard.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful (ben·sa·men – literally “son of oil”) hill” (v. 1b). The owner of the vineyard made an excellent start in the work of establishing the vineyard. He chose a site where the soil is fertile and where the sun will beam down on the hillside. It is an ideal location.
“He dug it up (way·az·zeqe·hu), gathered out its stones (way·saq·qele·hu), planted it(way·yit·ta·e·hu) with the choicest vine, built (way·yi·ben) a tower in its midst, and also cut out a winepress therein.“ (v. 2a). You don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to appreciate the poetic quality of these assonant (similar sounding) words. There is similar assonance throughout the poem—especially in verse 7. Only when we see the Hebrew words can we fully appreciate why this is called poetry.
Once he chose the place for the vineyard, the owner did everything necessary to develop it into a successful vineyard. He cleared the land of stones, no small task in that land of many stones. The stones that were removed from the land would be used to construct a wall around the vineyard, and excess stones could be used to build a watchtower to give the guard a place to watch for threats.
The owner planted choice grapes and even prepared the vat where the grapes would be processed during the harvest. The typical wine vat would have two pits that would be connected. People would crush the grapes in the upper pit, and the juice would flow into the lower pit to be collected. The pits were often carved into solid stone, a difficult and time-consuming task. The owner clearly sees the vineyard as a long-term, permanent investment
When establishing a vineyard, many people would do the work over time rather than completing everything before the first harvest. This owner does a first-class job and completes the work at the beginning. The point is that he did everything possible to insure a good vineyard and a good harvest.
“He looked for it (way·qaw – waited for it) to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” (v. 2b). Having taken so many pains to insure a good result, the owner anticipated a good harvest. There would be no harvest until the second year after planting, so a certain amount of patient waiting was involved. The owner waited expectantly. However, when the harvest came, the grapes were wild (bitter, unusable).
ISAIAH 5:3-4. WHAT MORE COULD HAVE BEEN DONE TO MY VINEYARD?
3Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
please judge between me and my vineyard.
4What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes, did it yield wild grapes?
“Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, please judge between me and my vineyard.”(v. 3). The prophet is no longer speaking in his own voice, but now speaks in Yahweh’s voice.
The owner of the vineyard, through the prophet’s song, invites the listeners to judge who is in the wrong—the owner or the vineyard. Many of those in the audience would have cared for vineyards and could render an expert opinion. The more experienced they are, the more they would sympathize with the owner, because they would have been frustrated by bad grapes at some time in their lives.
“What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes, did it yield wild grapes?” (v. 4). Through the prophet’s song, the owner asks what he could have done differently—what he has failed to do. The answer is that he did everything that anyone could have expected of him. The fault is not with the owner, but with the vineyard.
ISAIAH 5:5-6. I WILL TELL YOU WHAT I WILL DO
5Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up.
I will break down its wall of it, and it will be trampled down.
6I will lay it a wasteland.
It won’t be pruned nor hoed,
but it will grow briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.
“Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up. I will break down its wall of it, and it will be trampled down.”
(v. 5). The song darkens as the owner’s anger becomes apparent. By removing the hedge and breaking down the wall, the owner will make the vineyard accessible to anyone who wants to enter. Animals will wander through it and graze on the vines. Children will play hide-and-seek, trampling the vines in their childish enthusiasm. The vineyard will be totally defenseless.
“I will lay it a wasteland. It won’t be pruned nor hoed, but it will grow briers and thorns. ” (v. 6). The owner is not content to remove the vineyard’s defenses. He will take active steps to turn it into a wasteland. He will leave it untended so that briers and thorns overwhelm it.
“I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” (v. 6). This is the first hint that the voice of the song is Yahweh. The hint would probably fail to register with some of the listeners, who would think that the prophet was merely ranting and raving. The more perceptive listeners, however, would ask, “Who is it that can command the clouds not to rain on the vineyard?”
ISAIAH 5:7. HE LOOKED FOR JUSTICE
7For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah his pleasant plant:
and he looked for justice (Hebrew: mis∙paṭ),
but, behold, oppression (Hebrew: mis∙pah);
for righteousness (Hebrew: s·da·qah),
but, behold, a cry (Hebrew: sea·qah) of distress.
“For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah his pleasant plant:” (v. 7a).
Now the time has come to unveil the meaning of the song. Suddenly the point is piercingly clear. The owner of the vineyard is no mere mortal, but is “the Lord of hosts.” The vineyard is no mere plot of land, but is “the people of Judah.” Yahweh has formed this people—chosen them to be his people—given them every opportunity to understand what he expects—nourished and nurtured them through their wilderness journey—led them to the Promised Land—provided laws to guide them—sent prophets to lead them back when they went astray. They have witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and the demise of the Egyptian army. They have eaten manna in the wilderness. They have seen young David defeat a giant. Yahweh has demonstrated his power and his love again and again, and has given them every opportunity to do what was right.
“and he looked for justice (mis∙paṭ), but, behold, oppression (mis∙paḥ); for righteousness (s·da·qah), but, behold, a cry (sea·qah) of distress.” (v. 7b)
Note the rhyme in the Hebrew. After all the work Yahweh did to help Judah understand his will, he expected mis∙paṭ (justice) but saw only mis∙paḥ (oppression). He expected s·da·qah (righteousness), but heard only sea·qah (a cry of distress).
The owner (Yahweh) expected justice. What is justice? Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives. God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
The owner (Yahweh) expected righteousness. What is righteousness? In the Old Testament (especially Isaiah), righteousness has more to do with right relationships than with adherence to Torah law. Obedience to the law is important, but only as it reflects devotion to Yahweh. If one is in a right relationship to Yahweh, he/she will establish caring relationships to other people as well, in particular to vulnerable people such as widows, orphans, and the poor. The law makes special provisions for the care of such people (Leviticus 22:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 16:10-11, 14; 24:17-22; Isaiah 1:17), but those who follow the law by rote are apt to sidestep their obligations to those who are less fortunate (Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 22:7; Job 22:9; 24:21; Psalm 94:6).
The conclusion is plain to see. Yahweh has done everything possible for Judah, and expected a harvest of justice and righteousness. What he got was bloodshed and a cry of anguish. The fault is not Yahweh’s but Judah’s. Yahweh has done everything that could be expected and more, but Judah yielded only wild and sour grapes that are good for nothing. The people of Jerusalem have persisted in their rebellion and their worship of false gods. They have tolerated and even perpetrated injustice. The have trampled roughshod over widows and orphans. They have done what they should not have done, and have failed to do what they should have done.
In this last verse, Yahweh does not spell out what these people can expect. He did that in the metaphorical language of verses 5 and 6. The people can draw their own conclusions. It won’t require much sophistication to understand that they are in deep trouble—trouble of their own making. They can only speculate regarding the precise means by which Yahweh will carry out his judgment against them.
The judgment that Yahweh announces here will not be carried out in full measure for more than a century. Isaiah is writing this in the eighth century B.C., and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants will not take place until the sixth century—587 B.C. (Brueggemann, 51). The delay offers Judah and Jerusalem opportunity to repent—to renounce idol worship—to seek justice—to provide for widows and orphans—to add spiritual substance to their ritual observance. The song doesn’t call them to do these things, but simply pronounces judgment. It is difficult to imagine, however, that Yahweh would refuse to relent if the people would only repent.
ISAIAH 5:8-30. SOCIAL INJUSTICE DENOUNCED
While this passage is not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher will do well to be aware of it. It constitutes a series of indictments on people who acted unjustly. As an example, verse 8 speaks of “those who join house to house, who lay field to field, until there is no room.” Verse 9 adds Yahweh’s judgment on those who practice grasping behavior. While they have added many houses to their inventory, “Surely many houses will be desolate, even great and beautiful, unoccupied.” While they have added field to field, “ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath (about six gallons), and a homer (58 gallons) of seed shall yield an ephah” (about six gallons) (v. 10). The passage continues in that dark tone.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Limburg, James, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39); Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-18, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan