Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7
The lectionary text found in Isaiah 5:1-7 presents the preacher with an opportunity to preach a dramatic sermon in a natural way. Such an approach is natural because it emerges naturally from the text. The text’s presentation builds dramatically from stage to stage. The text begins with what appears to be a celebratory song, continues with an unexpected interruption, and concludes with a ringing indictment.
An apparently celebratory song (verses 1-2)
Interpreters usually call Isaiah 5:1-7 the “Song of the Vineyard”. That is because the passage begins with “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” Scholars debate the nature of the song that the singer sings. On one hand, the introduction to the song makes it seem as if a wife is singing about her husband. But since it later becomes clear that the singer is Isaiah and the beloved is God, this is unlikely, even allowing for the elasticity of the prophetic imagination. The word translated “beloved” in the NRSV (“the one I love” in the NIV; “my loved one” in the CEB) can mean “friend,” and that is probably the best way to take it here.
Strictly speaking, the song is limited to verses 1-2 because those are the only lines in which the singer sings on behalf of his friend. That the singer is singing a love song for his friend creates the expectation of a positive declaration. We expect the love song to celebrate something positive about or relating to the prophet’s friend, and the song initially seems to confirm that expectation. The prophet sings about his friend having a vineyard. He sings about the vineyard being in a prime location where productivity would be expected. He furthermore sings about the vineyard owner taking necessary and positive steps to make it possible and likely—and maybe even probable, bordering on a sure thing—that the vineyard would produce good fruit.
So, at this point in the singer’s song about his friend, we expect a positive outcome. We expect the vineyard owner’s efforts on behalf of the vineyard to result in a good and healthy crop of grapes. That is what the singer says his friend expects too.
But the vineyard does not meet the vineyard owner’s expectations. At the end, the singer’s song about his friend’s vineyard takes a surprisingly negative and dramatic turn. The owner expects his vineyard to produce grapes, but instead it produces “bad fruit” (NIV) or “rotten fruit” (CEB) (NRSV has “wild grapes,” but the other translations get at the sense better). Not only has the vineyard failed to meet the friend’s expectations—it has produced the opposite of the expected results.
At this point, the singer stops singing and another voice is heard,
An unexpected interruption (verses 3-6)
The singer has been singing a song about his friend’s vineyard. But now that the singer’s song has concluded with the disappointing news that the vineyard has produced bad fruit, the friend speaks for himself. He calls on the “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah” to judge between him and his vineyard (verse 3). This puts the people in the position of having to decide whether the vineyard owner or the vineyard is at fault for how things have turned out. The owner summarizes his case by asking what more he could have done for the vineyard than he has done. (The singer had in his song detailed the owner’s actions on the vineyard’s behalf). The owner questions why, after all he has done for the vineyard, it has produced bad grapes.
The vineyard owner then pronounces judgment on the vineyard. He says that he will remove its protection so that it will be overcome and overgrown.
To this point, we have had no indication that the passage is about anything other than a vineyard owner and his vineyard. It started with someone singing about his friend’s vineyard. It continues with the friend speaking about his own vineyard. The friend has passed judgment on the vineyard for its production of bad grapes rather than good fruit. In so doing, the vineyard owner has said he will do things to the vineyard that any vineyard owner could do. We may suspect that the passage is about more than just a vineyard owner and a vineyard, but if that is the case, it has not yet been made explicit.
But now the vineyard owner says, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon [the vineyard]” (verse 6b). No human vineyard owner could do this, so the statement dramatically announces that God is the vineyard owner. This announcement segues into the next and final verse of our passage, which lets us know what all the words concerning a vineyard have really been about.
A ringing indictment
We have been dealing with a parable. The parable in our text functions much like the story that Nathan tells David following the king’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). In that case, Nathan’s story maneuvers David into pronouncing judgment on himself. In the case in our text, the parable of the vineyard is designed to lead the people to recognize their guilt and responsibility.
We can imagine the people of Jerusalem and Judah (see verse 3) hearing the singer’s song about the vineyard and hearing the vineyard owner’s judgment of it and nodding their heads in agreement that the owner’s verdict is justified. But now they hear the prophet declare that they are possibly facing the same fate as does the vineyard in the parable. That is because as the vineyard had every opportunity to produce good fruit and instead yielded bad fruit, the people have every opportunity to practice justice and righteousness, but instead practice the opposite of them. The rest of Isaiah 5 details the kinds of injustice and unrighteousness the people practice.
The preacher and the congregation may be well served by an approach to the sermon that follows the dramatic flow of the text. As the sermon develops, hopefully a growing realization of our ethical responsibilities to God and to each other will emerge.