Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7
Last week’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 1 highlighted the importance of justice and righteousness.
Both of these crucial words/concepts are featured again in Isaiah 5:1-7, another of the more memorable passages in all of the prophetic literature. What begins as if it will be a “love-song” quickly develops into an allegory; and lest there be any doubt about the message, verse 7 concludes the passage by offering an explicit interpretation. God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents God’s people. The coming destruction (verses 5-6) results from the people’s failure to do what God “expected,” and more literally and poignantly, what God “hoped for” (verses 2, 4, 7). That is, the failure to enact and embody justice and righteousness invites catastrophe.
Israel and Judah are imaged elsewhere as the vineyard or vine that God has planted. For instance, the psalm for the day, Psalm 80, contains a “plot” similar to the one found in Isaiah 5:2-6. Indeed, Psalm 80 assumes the destruction that is anticipated in Isaiah 5:5-6. The question asked by the psalmist in 80:12 — “Why have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” — is answered in Isaiah 5:1-7. In short, the people have invited their own destruction by the failure to do justice and righteousness. Psalm 80 pleads for the restoration of the vine/people. The Isaiah tradition itself also uses the vine imagery again in Isaiah 27:2-6, both to explain the consequences of disobedience ( verse 4), as well as to plead for the people’s obedience (verse 5) and to anticipate an eventual restoration (verse 6).
In Isaiah 5:1-7, however, the tone is judgment. The owner of the vineyard made every possible preparation for a fruitful harvest — picking a good site, preparing the land, choosing the best plants, arranging for protection and for processing the grapes. But what he got was “wild grapes,” or more literally, “stinking things” (verses 2, 4). The portrayal of God here is significant. In particular, what God “expected” or “hoped for” does not happen; in short, God does not guarantee the results.
We must assume that God’s people have been given the freedom to respond to God faithfully, or not. Such freedom is absolutely necessary for true relationality — that is, love (remember, the passage begins as a “love-song”) — to exist. But it is precisely the people’s freedom that means things can go wrong, and they do. All of this has important implications for understanding the tone of judgment in Isaiah 5:1-7 and the prophets in general — that is, judgment is not to be understood as God’s need to punish or to get even with the sinful people. Rather, judgment is the set of destructive consequences that result from the people’s own choices. God is essentially gracious (see commentary on Hosea 11:1-11, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost).
As for what the people have chosen, verse 7 gives us a general picture, further details of which can be found in the remainder of Isaiah 5. The good, fruitful harvest that God “expected” or “hoped for” is named with the two extraordinarily important words “justice” and “righteousness.” The structure and rhetoric of the passage add even further emphasis to these two crucial words. They occur in the climactic verse, and the alliterative word-play in Hebrew highlights them even further. Instead of the “justice” (mishpat) that God “expected,” God sees “bloodshed” (mispach). And instead of “righteousness” (tsedaqah), God hears “a cry” (tse’aqah). Instead of the goodness that God expects the people to enact and embody, there is violence that leads the victims to cry out for help.
The Hebrew word translated “cry” is particularly important and revealing. When God’s people were being victimized by Pharaoh in Egypt, their response was to cry to God for help (see Exodus 3:7). This word also occurs in 1 Samuel 8:18 in the culmination of Samuel’s warning to the people about the “justice” (see NRSV “ways” in 1 Samuel 8:9, 11) of the soon-to-be-established monarchy. As Samuel puts it, the “justice” of the kings will be nothing but oppression. The people “will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves.” In short, the warning is that the monarchy itself will re-create the oppressive conditions of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Isaiah 5:7 suggests that the worst has happened. God’s own people have chosen a system that creates victims and evokes their cries for help.
The details of the oppressive conditions are evident as chapter 5 unfolds — joining “house to house” and adding “field to field” (verse 8), thus displacing poor farmers from their land (and only source of livelihood), and resulting in both homelessness and hunger (verse 13). Excess, greed, and conspicuous consumption (see also verses 11-12, 22) are apparently supported by corruption and manipulation of the legal system (verse 23). The deplorable situation results, according to Isaiah 5, from the rejection of God’s “instruction” and “word” (verse 24; see 1:10 and last week’s essay). Although the poor are directly victimized, everyone eventually stands to lose (verse 15) when justice and righteousness (see verse 16) are not enacted and embodied.
Violence, victimization, hunger, homelessness, greed, conspicuous consumption, corruption — these realities sound all too familiar! Somewhere in our world, a child dies every four seconds from causes related to hunger and malnutrition. In the United States, 51% of our people will have lived in poverty at some point in their lives by the time they reach age 65.1 46 million people in the United States have no health insurance. All the while, corporate executives make 419 times more money than the average worker,2 and then there are the obscenely large bonuses that in recent months have even been funded by taxpayer money. As Mary Pipher concludes, “We have cared more about selling things to our neighbors than we’ve cared for our neighbors. The deck is stacked all wrong and ultimately we will all lose.”3
We can do better. We should do better. God expects us to do better. But tragically, instead of justice, God sees violence; and instead of righteousness, God hears the cries of victims.
1Bread for the World, 2010 Offering of Letters, p. 16.
2James M. Childs, Jr., Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 37.
3The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 94.