Envision yourself at a wedding. Someone from the bridal party stands up to give a toast. It starts with beautiful sentiment. They are complimenting the bride and groom and reflecting on their love. You assume this admiration will continue in the speech. But suddenly things turn south. The speaker starts accusing the happy couple of cheating, lying, and whole list of moral failures. You are shocked. Everyone is blushing with shame and the awkwardness becomes too much to bare. Hopefully someone rips the mic from their hand. This would be wild.
Isaiah chapter 5 lives within this imaginative wedding. The opening words of this chapter start sweet and soothing. To the contemporary ear of Isaiah’s listeners, by his writing style and word usage here, this passage would sound like the start of a song dedicated for a wedding.
Now I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
Isaiah’s beloved seems to have it all and Isaiah appears to be in admiration for his beloved’s vineyard. His beloved has done everything right in building a nurturing area for the grapes. But the second half of the song tells a different story.
but the grapes that grew were bitter.
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
We now realize that this song is not about an arbitrary “beloved” of Isaiah, but about God’s relationship to Israel. In the first few chapters of Isaiah we have read wave after wave of crimes, failures, and accusations poured over God’s people. This might beg the question, “If the people God chose for the job representing Him failed, did God fail in choosing them?”. Isaiah 5 seems to address this legitimate wonder. Through the metaphor of a well-crafted vineyard, Isaiah shows that his beloved (God) created an environment for His people to thrive. He freed them from slavery, gave them wise instructions to order their lives around, provided an abundant land, and heeded to His covenantal promises for these people. Yet, His people (the grapes) turned bitter and despite their God-crafted system of life, they rejected Him and His wisdom.
This is the sad truth of the Old Testament. God provides a place for human thriving and we turn it into a monument of God-ignoring decisions. Think of the Garden of Eden. Think of Israel. God’s people continually disobeyed and rejected His path. Something is wrong with us no matter the external conditions. God, however expects, or better yet, He believes we are made for more than consistent failure. Genesis 1 tells us that we were made to be the Image of God, to take everything “good” in creation and make it great under God’s guidance. Israel was meant to be the soft-reboot of this project and they too failed.
He expected a crop of justice (mishpat),
but instead he found oppression (mispach).
He expected to find righteousness (zedakah),
but instead he heard cries of violence (z’acha).
(notice the wordplay of the last words in the original language)
Notice the stark contrast between what God expected from His people and the result they gave Him. Instead of a unique, holy family among the wicked nations, God sees the same conditions here as He finds in cities who have no concept of Yahweh.
Now as we proceed through Isaiah (and obviously as we think about Jesus’ role as true Israel), we will see God’s plan and how He will still use this family. Yet, as we sit here in chapter 5 amidst tragic songs and broken promises, let us reflect on the human condition.
What sorrow for those who say
that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
and think themselves so clever.
Isaiah’s words a tragic portrayal of a people who were given God’s direct wisdom to discern what was good and what was evil. We see a connection yet again to Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were not ready, not mature enough yet, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Relying on their own intuition and rejecting God’s guidance, they still failed to distinguish opposing realities apart from God even after eating a fruit meant to give them knowledge. Israel was given the tools to be different and they still became like Adam and Eve.
Chapter 5 will conclude the first major section of Isaiah. These first 5 chapters essentially give us the thesis of Isaiah’s work. We see judgment, accusation, and failure followed by hope and promises. The next few chapters will be a bit more narrative and we will get to understand the person of Isaiah a bit more here.
As we conclude this first section, chapter 5 gives us heavy words to contemplate as followers of Jesus. If it is true that God provided the way for Israel to succeed and they failed, then how much greater is the provision of God for those found in Christ? We have a new heart, been given God’s everlasting presence through the Spirit, we are new creation, new people, and have first-hand experience of God’s grace. This is not a guilt trip but a call to recognize the vineyard God has built for us to succeed in being image-bearers now through Christ. He has given us the right tools to be His people and transform the world by His work.
- Did God set Israel up for failure? How do we consider the reality that God set them up to succeed but also the reality that God would ultimately use their failure for His salvation plan?
- What do we learn about the human condition from Israel?
- How might this chapter influence the way we follow after Jesus?