Isaiah 5 begins with a very clear image. “I will sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill” (v. 1). Aside from singing to a beloved one, we definitely have a vineyard in view.
So guess what? I started thinking of vineyards!
Certainly, there are places in the world noted for their vineyards and the wine produced by them. Here are just a few: France, Spain, Italy, Germany (by the way, they’ve had a little success with beer), Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and others. Then there’s the United States. Of course, the most celebrated wines come from California. Other states make the list, including Tennessee. There’s a winery less than ten minutes from my Mom’s house.
When we moved to the Empire State, we discovered there’s more than a few vineyards here. Traveling on I-90 between Buffalo and Erie, PA, you will see some wine-producing country in Chautauqua County. And then, the Finger Lakes!
[back to nature and a little strand]
When we served churches near Keuka Lake, there were vineyards opposite two places where we lived. At one, the vineyard had gone back to nature, being overgrown. At the other, there was a vineyard in operation. We even had a strand of grapes behind the house!
So what does the prophet have to say about the vineyard and the expectation of fine wine? There are some sobering words.
It seems the beloved took all the proper steps in planting the vineyard. The beloved one “dug it and cleared it of stones… planted it with choice vines… built a watchtower… hewed out a wine vat” (v. 2). The preparations have been made. Well, grapes have indeed grown, but they’re rotten.
With a sense of extreme exasperation, questions are cried out. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield rotten grapes?” (v. 4).
I can imagine one lover saying to another, “After all I’ve done for you, and this is how you repay me?”
I want to change gears for a moment and point some other notable examples of vineyards in the Bible. In Psalm 80, we see a quick reference to Israel’s history. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (vv. 8-9). It was glorious. However, wickedness destroyed it. There follows a plea for restoration and new growth.
In the gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants. (I’m following Matthew’s version, 21:33-41.) A rich man leaves them in charge of his vineyard while he travels far away. When harvest time comes, he sends servants to collect the grapes. The tenants beat and kill them. They do the same when another group is sent. The landowner then sends his son, thinking they will respect him. They kill him, too! Finally, the tenants are put “to a miserable death” (v. 41).
A similar fate of destruction is pronounced on the vineyard we’ve been considering. Verses 5 and 6 contain some less than tasty consequences. “I will remove its hedge… I will make it a wasteland… it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns…” It sounds like the vineyard we lived near that had reverted back to nature. At least the birds and the deer enjoyed it.
Here’s a nice final touch. “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Now that’s harsh!
The passage on the vineyard ends with verse 7, and it has an exclamation of pain and perhaps missed opportunity. It is set up with this preface, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished garden.”
(Here’s an FYI. Judah was the southern kingdom, and Israel was the northern. They split apart after the death of Solomon, some two centuries earlier. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in the 730s and 720s BC. The prophet Isaiah, who lived in Judah, was active during this time.)
The people of Judah are his cherished garden, or his pleasant plant—his delectable plant.
As you might know, I love to use puns, plays on words. In that regard, I am following one of the finest and noblest scriptural traditions. The Hebrew scriptures are chock full of puns, especially in the writings of the prophets. The final line of verse 7 is a good, yet tragic, example.
He expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry! It doesn’t really carry over into English. It loses something in the translation. It loses a lot in the translation.
The Lord expected justice— מׅשְׁפָּט(mishpat). But the Lord saw bloodshed— מׅשְׁפָּח (mishpach). Expected mishpat. But saw mishpach.
The Lord expected righteousness— צְדָקָה(tsdedaqa). But the Lord heard a cry— צְעָקָה (tse`aqa). Expected tsdedaqa. But heard tse`aqa.
That is the power of the pun. At the same time, we have an example of the power of poetry. Poetry can express a nuance, a surprising discovery, a reimagining that a more prosaic approach fails to convey. It can express a wonderful and delightful turn of phrase, even a mind-expanding trip down the rabbit hole.
The rest of the chapter features a laundry list of social injustices, of ill-treatments of fellow human beings when fidelity to the Lord is cast aside.
It might be asked, considering the array of choices, why focus on just two verses? When we read the Bible with earnest intent, it is a common thing to have words jump out at you. Actually, it should be expected to happen on a not uncommon basis.
In this case, that applies to verses 18 and 19. Here’s how it appears in the New English Bible. “Shame on you! you who drag wickedness along like a tethered sheep and sin like a heifer on a rope, who say, ‘Let the Lord make haste, let him speed up his work for us to see it, let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel be soon fulfilled, so that we may know it.’”
Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message. “Doom to you who use lies to sell evil, who haul sin to market by the truckload, Who say, ‘What’s God waiting for? Let him get a move on so we can see it. Whatever The Holy of Israel has cooked up, we’d like to check it out.’”
If it hasn’t already become crystal clear, the folks hauling those carts are being chastised for their evil words and evil doings. Sentences beginning with “woe,” “shame,” and “doom” usually aren’t followed by words we want to hear. Dragging iniquity with cords of falsehood, dragging sin like one would do with a cart, can only be perceived as a failure of character—having a moral compass in need of repair, or at least a bit of tweaking.
However, is it possible to envision something a bit less dire? Could dragging along that cart suggest another type of fault?
At least one thing I would propose it shows is an inability, or unwillingness, to release the past. And that could comprise any number of things. Perhaps we have become comfortable with how things have “always” been done. I will definitely admit, change is not always easy.
Nonetheless, perhaps we become too comfortable. One of the crazy things about comfort is we can even get used to the boring and the bad. We can have a strange security in the insecure. For example, we can expect—we can become familiar with—abusive relationships. We might think we don’t deserve any better.
I want to use myself as a case study.
Our retirement from the Presbyterian Church (USA) presents a dramatic new chapter in our lives. For 26 years, I have been a pastor in a parish setting. It has provided me with a level of comfort. That will be changing.
Certainly, different churches have their own qualities, their own DNA. But my job description, for the most part, has remained the same. Now, I can’t rely on the security of how I did things before. Clearly, I have learned things along the way. I will use them in the future.
Still, I am being asked to take a leap of faith. It is both daunting and delightful.
I’ve been speaking of my own situation. However, all of us have stories that are analogous in one way or another. It might deal with family situations, career, moving to a different part of the country, a different part of the word, saying goodbye, saying hello.
It might deal with congregations. As just noted, change is not always easy. In fact, it can be scary or tedious or offensive—offensive in the sense of welcoming those we do not wish to welcome. It can be a choosing to survive, or even to thrive. Sometimes it might even call for dramatic decisions, a genuine leap of faith. Such is the power of change.
There can also be impatience. We might want God to hurry up, to speed up the process so we can see it. We might say along with those the prophet is admonishing, “Let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfillment, that we may know it!” God, get a move on! I want to jump to the conclusion. This in-between stuff is too messy. Here’s an idea, Lord. Why don’t you make the decision for me?
So we’re back to dragging that cart.
If we hang on to that cart, if we hang on to those ropes, it’s safe to say we haven’t been caring for the vineyard, which is the house of Israel. It’s safe to say we haven’t been tending God’s cherished garden, which are the people of Judah. To the extent we identify ourselves with the covenant of the Lord, that also includes us! We haven’t been caring for ourselves the way God intends.
To the extent we hang on to that cart, that we hang on to those ropes, to that same extent we sin. There’s something to understand about sin. In both the Hebrew ( חָטָא, chata) and Greek (άμαρτανω, hamartanō) words, sin means “missing the mark.” It means throwing the dart at the bullseye and winding up in the outer ring—maybe even missing the dartboard altogether. It doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of irredeemable reprobates.
If it seems like all of this is too heavy a burden to bear, here’s some good news. We have someone who will take the load. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, promises, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Jesus knew all about vineyards. Tending them is hard work. That’s true in the literal sense and in the symbolic, spiritual sense.
He continues, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv. 29-30). And this, coming from the one who turned water into wine, and it was fine wine at that.
That last line, in which the people want the Lord’s plan to hurry up so they can know it, “know” has a special meaning. It is “know,” in the sense of “experiencing.” It’s not just head knowledge; it is knowledge appealing to all we are. We must know God—we must know Jesus—so that we can more fully invite others to join the covenant family. We can lend a hand in tending the vineyard with heart and soul.