RPM, Volume 15, Number 44, October 27 to November 2, 2013

The Song of the Vineyard

Isaiah 5:1-7

By D. Marion Clark


There have been some moving ballads of love gone bad in the annals of music. Here are just a few examples:

I Flushed You from the Toilets of My Heart.
I Would Have Wrote You A Letter, but I Couldn't Spell Yuck
I've Been Flushed from the Bathroom Of Your Heart
If I Can't Be Number One in Your Life, Then Number Two on You
My John Deere Was Breaking Your Field, While Your Dear John Was Breaking My Heart
My Wife Ran Off with My Best Friend, and I Sure Do Miss Him
Oh, I've Got Hair Oil On My Ears & My Glasses Are Slipping Down, but Baby I Can See through You
She Got the Gold Mine and I Got the Shaft
You Done Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat
You Were Only a Splinter As I Slid Down the Banister of Life

Classic songs, no doubt, but none still match Isaiah's original hit, "You Were a Bunch of Sour Grapes in My Vineyard of Love." Let's look at this great song of heartbreak.

Lov'n Care 1,2

The song begins wonderfully. It has all the makings of beautiful love song.

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.

Isaiah sings of the love his friend showed to his lover. The vineyard is a metaphor for the friend's true-love. His friend gives the best care possible for his loved one as expressed in the care for the vineyard. It is planted on a fertile hillside, i.e. planted in the best location possible on a hillside where it would receive plenty of sunlight and in fertile soil.

The friend digs up and clears the field of stones. His labor is both diligent and arduous. He carefully turns the soil over. Clearing the field of stones was no small work. E. J. Young refers to an Arab proverb about the rockiness of the Palestinian land. When God created the world an angel flew over it carrying a bag of stones under each arm. As he flew over Palestine, one bag broke so that half of all the stones in the world are in Palestine.

The vines that he plants are of the best variety. Having the best field and the best plants, he then builds a watchtower for watchmen to permanently oversee the well-being of the vineyard. Being confident then that he will have excellent fruit, he prepares a place to press the grapes and collect the juice. This also is arduous work, as the wine vat (what the Hebrew term actually denotes) was most likely carved out of stone.

Noth'n in Return

The friend spares nothing for his vineyard — neither money, nor attention, nor labor. But, unfortunately, he gets nothing in return.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

What a bummer! He gives to his sweetheart everything that would make her fulfilled and she rejects him and wastes all that he had labored for. You know the song is not going in a good direction now.

The friend speaks now and he calls on witnesses to hear his story and judge between him and his vineyard, i.e. his lover.
3 "Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.

He asks two questions:
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
The obvious answer is "nothing."

When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
There is no good reason.


The vineyard is clearly guilty of willful rebellion. It refuses to yield fruit. The next step is judgment.

5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it."

This is like listening to the embittered Survivor reject who spouted a venomous attack on one of the remaining Survivors. The friend — and it now clearly evident that he is God — will not simply sit at a bar and drown his sorrows in a beer. He will punish.

First, he will remove the double layer of protection that he build around the vineyard, so that animals may come in and trample it. Second, he will no longer cultivate and prune the land, but let briers and thorns infest the ground. Third, (and this is how we know he is God), he will command the clouds to withhold its rainfall on that spot.

That is a harsh, dreadful action to take. And it is this type of retribution that makes many people question the justness and mercy of the God of the Old Testament. He seems to be a God of vengeance. But we need to consider the last verse to understand God's harsh response.

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Verse 7 makes plain that the friend is Yahweh, the name most used for God to express the special relationship between him and his people. The vineyard is Israel, the covenant name for the people. It also reveals a setup. Back in 3, God has asked the men of Judah to decide the case, whose merits were so obvious. Now he declares, that they have pronounced judgment on themselves. It is the same thing Nathan did to David when pronouncing judgment on him for his adultery and murder of Uriah.

That first sentence of verse 7 is another example of Hebrew parallelism. One line acts as a synonym to the other. Men of Judah corresponds to house of Israel and the garden of his delight to the vineyard of the Lord Almighty. That phrase for the vineyard clarifies a bit more the sense of tragedy in the vineyard's failure to produce fruit. God delighted in his vineyard. Electing, forming and caring for Israel was not an activity to pass the time. It wasn't a side investment. He delighted in Israel as a man delights in his beloved.

It is here that the song reaches its climax of sadness. In his garden of delight, the Lord looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. This isn't a mere case of a man finding out that his lover has been untrue. It is discovering that the one whom he had believed to be good is wicked and cruel, not to him but to the weak and needy. Imagine a widower with three kids. He finds another woman with whom he has fallen madly in love. He goes out of his way to win her heart and make her feel special. Then one day he receives the news that she has been arrested and his kids found dead.

That is a horrible story, but it is God's story. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Again, God's judgment comes not merely because the people he loves don't love him in return, but because, as he once told Cain, the blood of their victims cry out to him. Wickedness is terrible, but it is all the more horrible when it is committed by the very people selected by God to model righteousness, by the very people selected by God to receive his love. The song is not fun anymore.

Jesus and Vineyards

Jesus must have meditated on this song and other biblical passages similar to it. He told a parable similar to it.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8 "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down'" (Luke 13:1-9).

In each case there is imminent judgment. In Isaiah judgment will come on the whole vineyard; in Jesus' story it is ready to come on a single vine. But the point is the same. Fruitlessness will bring judgment. And by fruitlessness, both mean not only that people have failed to produce good fruit, but that what they produce is sin.

Note the tenor of Jesus' comments. He is warning the people of judgment if they do not repent of sin. He does not say, "God knows you are doing the best you can. Just try to be good." He is responding to people who apparently are judging others (God must have judged those people who met a tragic end), and he is warning them of their own state of condemnation. "Repent, while you can," he is telling them.

The so-called lovers of Jesus who nevertheless reject his claims, like to regard him as one who demonstrated the love of God for man. Well, he did demonstrate God's love, but not by telling them God overlooks their sin. He did it by saving them from their sin. He did it by calling them to repentance and to casting their faith on him.

Which leads us to the "moral" of the vineyard song. Isaiah did not sing his song just to make his hearers feel despondent. He wanted them to understand their sin, the judgment that would come, and then to repent. And he will, as he already has, give them hope in God's redemption. He will come back to the vineyard theme in chapter 27, this time in the context of redemption.
But I want to close with another vineyard song, this time from the psalms. Turn to Psalm 80, beginning with verse 8.

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it,
and it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
11 It sent out its boughs to the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.

12 Why have you broken down its walls
so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
13 Boars from the forest ravage it
and the creatures of the field feed on it.
14 Return to us, O God Almighty!
Look down from heaven and see!
Watch over this vine,
15 the root your right hand has planted,
the son you have raised up for yourself.

16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
at your rebuke your people perish.
17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
18 Then we will not turn away from you;
revive us, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, O LORD God Almighty;
make your face shine upon us,
that we may be saved.

We can take comfort and joy in knowing that God did rest his hand on the man at [his] right hand. He did anoint the Son of Man and raise him to be our Redeemer, so that we might call on the Lord's name. In Christ he did restore us; he does make his face shine upon us. And we are saved. Thank God that the final verse of his song ends in joy.

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