Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7
This intricate poem expresses the divine pain at the people’s failure to live out the relationship with their God.
The failure to create justice and righteousness has broken the divine heart. The poem expresses that heartbreak in song.
In the first two verses, the reader encounters a creative vignette. In contemporary terms, one can imagine a stage with a balladeer, speaking into the microphone, saying, “This one goes out to all of you who have ever had your heart broken. It was inspired by my friend, who lost what seemed like a true love.” The NRSV refers to the friend, to whom the singer dedicates the song, as “my beloved.” The singer considers God a beloved friend and dedicates this song about unrequited love to that friend.
One might think of the song “Lemon Tree,” written by Will Holt and recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, and Trini Lopez, among others. In that song, the flowers of the lemon tree look attractive, but the fruit tastes too bitter to consume. In Isaiah’s tearjerker, the beloved friend has worked carefully in the hopes of enjoying sweet grapes only to harvest small, hard, barely edible grapes.
Describing carefully all of the work of the beloved friend, the singer prepares the listener for the crushing shock that comes at harvest time. The friend selects fertile soil, painstakingly removes the stones, and then plants the highest grade of vine. The friend works in expectation of a long-term relationship, building a watchtower and a wine vat, both of which would serve over time. All of the work produces nothing but fruit that would have grown without cultivation.
Certainly, the metaphor breaks down. Where does the fault lie: with the soil, or the planted vines? A planted vine cannot choose to produce the wrong kind of fruit. Does the song compare the people of God to fruit that one consumes? The emphasis in the song lies in the disappointment of the friend. What should have created a delight came up empty.
At verse 3, the point of view changes when God speaks out directly, addressing Jerusalem. This part of the passage asks the people point blank if they think they have treated God fairly. God seeks vindication for the divine feelings of anger and hurt. In a sense, God wants the people to understand that anyone would feel the same way. God has done all anyone could expect. As suggested in the previous paragraph, the vineyard itself exercised no action in the event. Nevertheless, the passage insists that no one can blame God for the sense of disappointment in working hard for good grapes, only to harvest inferior grapes.
The punishment phase begins in verse 5. God will cause three kinds of consequences for the vineyard. The protective hedge will come down. This removal of the hedge will allow animals to wander into the vineyard, causing extensive damage and leaving the vineyard unusable. Within the vineyard, God will neglect care so that other unproductive plants will grow. Finally, God will withhold rain, so that the vineyard will lack the nourishment it needs to flourish.
In verse 7, the passage finally clearly identifies the vineyard as Israel and Judah. In verse 3, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had the task of judging whether God had the right to feel angry. Now the prophet points the finger at the people. The passage identifies the “wild grapes” as injustice and violence. In the prophetic literature of the Bible, justice refers to basic fairness within society. Justice demands economic and legal fairness. All people should have access to goods and enough to live on. Just after our pericope ends, verse 8 names some of the injustices that God’s people have allowed. The rich have seized property, leaving the poor vulnerable.
Verses 11-12 indict those who live indulgent lives while others do not have enough to survive. Righteousness connotes right relationships. God’s people should see the connections among all of the people in the community. God has heard the cry of those who suffer these injustices, who have been victimized by violence. God feels disappointed, sad, and angry because God cares about those who have been neglected, hurt, and pushed aside by the powerful. The wild grapes are the injustices that have oppressed the poor and marginalized.
In using this text for preaching, one might notice the connections between this passage and some other expressions of prophecy in the Old Testament. The prophet Hosea also writes of God’s hurt as well as anger at the people. Hosea, of course, writes in chapters 1-3 of God’s hurt over a betrayal by a spouse. Hosea 11 especially expresses God’s hurt as the pain of a parent rejected by a child. Isaiah writes of a disappointed farmer whose crops do not measure up, and turn out inexplicably wrong.
Isaiah 5 sings a song of a person who experiences great frustration before identifying the culprit. The prophet Nathan seems to take a similar strategy in approaching David about his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah: Nathan takes an indirect approach, setting David up to see himself as the culprit (2 Samuel 12).
Perhaps the contemporary preacher can begin with describing the injustices and the pain of victims before identifying the causes. God clearly feels anger in this passage, and threatens punishment. The preacher may wish to focus on God’s hurt, and the reasons for that divine pain caused by injustice. Such a strategy may prepare the people to hear God’s “side” of the story, that God’s people have neglected justice.