Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
This week’s texts (Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-9) provide a glimpse of God at work in God’s garden.
The metaphor, God as Gardener, in fact is quite common in Isaiah: Isaiah 5:1-7; 9:14; 10:33-34; 18:4-7; 27:2-6, 12-13; 37:30-32; 41:14-16, 17-20; 42:8-9; 43:19-20; 44:1-5; 51:1-3; 53:2; 58:11; 60:21-22; 61:1-3; 63:1-6. God carefully, passionately, and lovingly, tends to Israel, God’s plant, to ensure that the garden flourishes and grows delicious fruit. All gardeners know, however, that gardens progress through seasons, and Isaiah 5:1-7 and Isaiah 11:1-9 display God at work in the garden in two ways: uprooting and growing.
God’s people are here described as a lovely vineyard of choice stock, situated atop a fertile hill (v. 1). The gardener works diligently to ensure that the garden will flourish, clearing the field and taking measures to protect it (vv. 2, 5). With such care, this should have been paradise.
But if the biblical narrative teaches us anything it is that paradises are short-lived. What is planted by God’s hands is so often wrecked by human sin. Not unlike God’s first horticultural experiment (Genesis 2-3), this new planting was also ruined, resulting in sorrow, suffering, and even bloodshed (Isaiah 5:7).
The poem speaks in dramatic terms about a God whose hopes and expectations are disappointed (v. 2). So deep is this disappointment that God breaks into sorrowful outcries: “What else could I do for my vineyard that I haven’t already tried?” (v. 4, my translation). Like a wounded and exasperated parent, God throws up God’s hands in the air, frustrated by the vineyard’s lack of response to God’s tender care. The God of Isaiah 5:1-7 is a God who suffers because of a people who produce bad fruit.
God determines that the way forward is through judgment. The results would be devastating: The protection God previously gave to the vineyard will be removed, the vineyard will be given over to destruction, God will refuse to work the vineyard and will even command the clouds to cease providing rain (vv. 5-6). The sin of God’s people turned God from a gardener into an enemy.
The text ends with God’s commitment to destroy the vineyard. No promises for the future are given, no explicit hope in a new beginning is offered. God promises only an end. Israel’s only hope, at this point, is the fact that this vineyard is “his pleasant planting” (v. 7). The vineyard belongs to a God whose own history is inextricably linked to the history of this peculiar people called Israel, a history that contains powerful promises about God’s commitment to this people’s future (Genesis 12, 15, 17; 2 Samuel 7, etc.).
Isaiah 5:1-7 leaves us with the image of a devastated vineyard, deprived of protection, cultivation, and hydration. Isaiah 11 also begins with the image of a damaged plant, the “stump of Jesse.” The reference, of course, is to the line of David, whose father is Jesse (1 Samuel 16:1). It is difficult to say what historical event, if any, lies behind the image of the “stump.” Is this a reference to the exile, in which the Davidic monarchy certainly was cut down, the downfall of the proud Assyrian empire (cf. Isaiah 10:33-34) or is it perhaps a reference to the young Josiah, whose father Amon was assassinated (2 Kings 21:19-26)?1] What seems likely is that this image would have been relevant at numerous points in Israel’s history. Whatever the case may be, the text imagines a new beginning for Judah’s monarchy. In this hopeful future Yhwh’s spirit will alight upon the ruler, resulting in justice for the poor and lowly of the land (v. 4) and a fundamental reordering of creation’s priorities (vv. 6-9). Life emerges from death. This is the way of Israel’s God.
The concrete expression of this new future is a ruler on whom the spirit will rest (v. 2). Promise comes to Israel in the form of a person — a human king who embodies the best of Israel’s traditions: He is wise and understanding (v. 2), powerful in war (vv. 2, 4), able to judge for the benefit of the poor (v. 3-4), and obedient to God (v. 2, 5).
This has always been God’s way in the world: election. God works for the whole through the agency of the one, or the few: Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, Joshua, Jael, the nation of Israel itself, David, Mary, Jesus, etc. In the case of Isaiah 11, hope comes in an embodied form, in the form of a king whose reign will so fundamentally change the world that predator and prey will no longer obey their deepest instincts (vv. 6-9), Jerusalem/Zion, that most contentious of cities, will be a place of peace (v. 9), and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
Given these amazing promises, it is difficult for Christians to avoid connecting this text to the ministry of Christ. But a close comparison of Jesus’ ministry with the “ministry” of the king in Isaiah 11:1-9 reveals some striking differences. Jesus certainly had a powerful earthly ministry, and continues to minister graciously in the present through Word, sacrament, etc. But evil still flourishes, the poor and meek remain afflicted, predators continue to kill their prey, violence is still done on God’s holy mountain (v. 9), and the earth is far from being “full of the knowledge of the Lord” (v. 9). If Isaiah 11:1-9 were the criteria by which Jesus’ ministry was judged, then one would have to conclude that, on the whole, it falls far short. Christ’s victory remains a hidden victory, or even an unaccomplished one.
Are we forced to conclude then that Jesus was a failed messiah? No, but we may have to concede that his ministry is fundamentally incomplete. A truly Jewish messiah could not leave the world as it is, with evil still on the throne and the poor still in the dust. Isaiah 11:1-9 reminds us that Christians, who still long for the messianic completion of creation (i.e., the Second Coming or Parousia), have a great deal in common with Jews, who have historically struggled to see Jesus’ ministry as messianic. At the end of the day, Isaiah 11:1-9 does allow us to celebrate Jesus’ ministry in the past and especially in the present, but the text also urges us to the place of intercession, where we long for creation’s promised destiny, as a place where peace, justice, and grace have the final word.
1 The latter suggestion has been made by Marvin Sweeney in his, Isaiah 1-39 (FOTL; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 204.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Loving Lord, you have searched your people for evidence of goodness, the way fruit is sought in a vineyard. Send your righteous judge and find goodness in your faithful children. Amen.
I am the true vine, Peter Aston