Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Grape Expectations: Our experience with Isaiah 5:1-7 can be strangely similar to that of the characters in the passage itself.

October 5, 2008

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Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

Grape Expectations: Our experience with Isaiah 5:1-7 can be strangely similar to that of the characters in the passage itself.

The “vineyard” owner (vv. 1-2) and the “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah” addressed by the song/parable (v. 3) have their expectations dashed by reality. Likewise, this deceptively attractive text leads preachers to expect a smoother interpretive journey than those we have had with other, more dense prophetic oracles. After all, it’s a relatively short passage, one that begins as a song and goes on to tell a story. We enjoy songs and stories.

But like the vineyard owner who did not receive his expected grapes, preachers will find that this text does not easily yield its homiletical fruit; and like the people of Jerusalem and Judah, preachers may experience the unexpected judgment of this passage falling on them before they have a chance to share it with others. In spite of these challenges, however, the theological content and literary features of Isaiah 5:1-7 offer us significant resources to prepare and deliver a pertinent and powerful message for God’s people.

We begin by expecting a clear word from God, for Isaiah explicitly identifies his purpose (to “sing . . . my love-song,” v. 1) and meaning (“the vineyard . . . is the house of Israel,” v. 7).  And even though the Hebrew text contains some unfamiliar agricultural vocabulary, the general point of the vineyard analogy still seems clear: God, the vineyard owner, has declared judgment on Israel, the vineyard, for failing to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice.

However, when we explore the variety and complexity of scholarship on the text’s original historical setting and literary form, we are tempted to lose our focus on the main point of the passage. Part of the problem is the indeterminacy of the text’s own imagery. For example, language in vv. 1-2 about a “love-song,” a “beloved,” and a “vineyard” might direct us toward the Song of Songs and the cultural role of the bridegroom’s friend or “best man.” The ensuing judicial language in vv. 3-6 then evokes legal charges brought against a spouse for adultery. All of this possibly formed some of the background for the prophet’s speech, but he doesn’t fully develop this connection in the passage itself.

One helpful approach is to work with the indeterminacy and accept that the text’s masterful poetical features and profound literary imagery will frustrate our interpretive expectations. This may be the prophet’s way of revealing the Lord’s own frustrated expectations concerning his people.1  To be sure, the preacher should probably avoid getting bogged down in the complexities of the poetry, lest that frustrate the congregation’s expectations! In the end, our journey should lead us and our hearers to the destination at which the prophet arrives in v. 7:  “[The Lord] expected justice (mišpāṭ), but saw bloodshed (miśpāḥ); righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ), but heard a cry (ṣĕ’āqâ)!” Like all effective word plays, this one points to the similar sound and appearance between one idea and another. The people may beautifully imitate righteousness and justice, but the divine judge can and will determine whether they have borne authentic fruit.

The passage also highlights God’s absolute claim upon his people. Consider the way the parable forces Isaiah’s hearers to draw the unavoidable conclusion that the vineyard, not its owner, is responsible for the poor harvest. In much of the book of Isaiah, responsibility for the nation’s demise is laid at the feet of the leaders (kings, priests, prophets, etc). One scholar has thus suggested that phrases such as “house of Israel” and “man (NRSV ‘people’) of Judah” refer exclusively to leaders.2  But even if we do not go that far, preachers know that the word they declare from the pulpit is empty if it is not first heard by the one in the pulpit. Those of us whose calling it is to care for the vineyard of God should be stung by the intensity of the vineyard owner’s personal care, as evidenced by the succession of six verbs in v. 2. The seventh verb in the verse (“yielded”) refers to the vineyard’s failed production. God’s outpouring of a variety of gifts upon preachers, teachers, and pastors leaves us without excuse as we exercise our ministry.

The issue that may cause us the greatest consternation in this passage is Israel’s election.  That nation had a strong and theologically sound doctrine of their election by Yahweh.  What was missing with them — and often with us — is the fruit God expects from his irrevocable calling. The exile did not mean Israel lost its elect status; it did mean that for several generations the people lost the blessings of that election. I cannot help but think how the North American church has lost what it means to live into the gracious expectations God has for us, to continue to bear fruit for the kingdom. Jesus’ words in the gospel lection for today are ominous: “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).

There is hope! This Old Testament reading falls on October 5, 2008, creating a providential connection with many churches’ celebration of World Communion Sunday.  Beyond the obvious imagery of grapes and wine, there is — regardless of different ecclesiastical and theological traditions — an expectation that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, a blessing from the One who supplies every good and perfect gift.  Christ is the vine; we are the branches (John 15); and each church is part of God’s vineyard. Today we may come to His table, humbly expecting the fruitful harvest God has graciously enabled us to bring forth. We will need the worldwide church to realize that goal.

1Gary R. Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah V 1-7: A Literary Interpretation,” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 459-465.
2Marvin L. Chaney, “Whose Sour Grapes? The Addressees of Isaiah 5:1-7 in the Light of Political Economy,” Semeia 87 (1999): 105-122.