< August 18, 2019 >

Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

 

In the Bible’s most famous collection of love poems, an exuberant lover declares, “I have come to my garden, my sister, bride … I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, lovers!” (Song 5:1).

The sensuous delights of food and drink mirror and amplify the intimacies of love, even as they orient the lovers to a social landscape wider than the intimacy they guard. Flower, spice, and fruit provide visual, tactile, and aromatic pleasure as well as the raw ingredients for food and drink that unite lovers and companions alike.

Isaiah’s audience enjoyed feasting long into the night, mixing music and wine in their revels (Isaiah 5:11-12). But their feasting was disconnected from broader social realities, drawing them not outward but inward. Seduced by songs of self-indulgence, they did not “regard the deeds of the Lord” (5:12). What kind of song would focus their eyes on God’s deeds and remind them of their bonds to God and one another?

The preacher can delight in and even emulate Isaiah’s playfully transgressive use of genres. The poet turns an oaky chardonnay into a burning shot of vinegar. He uses half of it to clean the floor and the other half to tenderize the stew-meat. The love song is strange enough to begin with. The object of affection is not a person, but a vineyard. But soon the song shifts shape, becoming invitation, oracle, parable, and accusation. The poet is not shackled by the constraints of familiar genres, but uses them to create and subvert expectations and to elicit first participation (5:3), then frustration (5:4), and finally conviction (5:7).

“I will sing,” begins the poet, inviting himself into the banquet hall with a decisive and determined na’ (Isaiah 5:1).1 As he introduces his song, Isaiah sounds like he may have been enjoying some strong drink himself. Fuzzy repetitions summon intimacy but also confound it, as the listener struggles to identify the lover and the beloved in this song “for my yedid, a song of my dod, for his vineyard, a vineyard my yedid had.” Yedid and dod are terms of endearment, perhaps to be translated lover, beloved, darling, or dear friend. Immediately the hearer wonders what the relationship may be between the singer, the dear one, and the vineyard.

An arresting turn of phrase hints at a history between dear one and vineyard, mapping it onto a landscape of election and blessing well-known to Isaiah’s audience. The vineyard is “on a horn, a child of oil” (literal translation, 5:1). As translations go, NRSV’s less literal “fertile hill” is idiomatically correct: “horn” connotes vertical prominence, “child of” translates a Hebrew idiom that introduces a characteristic feature, and “oil” can function metonymically for the rich produce of the land. The phrase thus suggests that the vineyard is situated on a vertically prominent landform characterized by rich produce. But the poet’s vivid imagery and unusual phrasing also hint at a backstory.

Nowhere else does Isaiah use this word “horn,” though it is common enough elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures. A horn is a crowning adornment and a weapon. It evokes strength, victory, and bounty, but also pride and aggression. Isaiah’s word choice digs up a history of salvation and spills forth blessings of abundance. It may also sound an alarm, for arrogance has led Judah’s people to wreak violence upon one another.

“Oil,” too, is rich in symbolic meanings. The stereotyped triad of grain, wine, and oil functions as shorthand for the evidence of God’s blessing upon the land for the benefit of God’s people (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Jeremiah 31:12; Hosea 2:8; Joel 2:19, 24). It also designated the first fruits that should be tithed for the welfare of others, calling to mind mutual obligation (Leviticus 18:12).

“Horn” and “oil” occur together in four other verses of the Hebrew scriptures. In three instances, a “horn of oil” is the material means for anointing God’s chosen king, first David, then his son Solomon (1 Samuel 16:1, 13; 1 Kings 1:39). In a fourth passage, the psalmist testifies to God’s lavish care: “you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil” (Psalm 92:10 [MT 92:11]). In combining these words, Isaiah activates in the imagination of his audience a framing awareness of blessing and election, not only of king, but of people (Israel and Judah, 5:7) and place, especially Zion, the peak that crowns Jerusalem (see Isaiah 4:2-6).

The verse that follows hints that God’s choice was more than a momentary act of will. God did not choose a people and place and then withdraw. God chose them with a view to relationship between God and people and among the people. God anticipated that the fruits of that relationship would be justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7; see also 32:16; 33:5; Psalm 85:10-13). And to this end God invested God’s own labor. In a verse densely packed with strenuous activity, the dear one digs, clears away stones, plants, builds, and hews (Isaiah 5:2). The dear one plans ahead, from the soil structure that will allow roots to spread and take nourishment, to the machinery of wine production and storage. Determination, foresight, and solicitous care accompany an optimistic expectation of divine delight in the fruits of intimacy with God’s people (5:2, 4, 7).

Isaiah’s audience has known this intimacy but are so numb they “do not … see the work of [God’s] hands” (Isaiah 5:12). Now the prophet poses a rhetorical question: what did the dear one leave undone? (5:4). The implied answer is that there was nothing more God could have done to prepare the ground for justice and flourishing. God wasn’t the one who should have done more. A love story without mutual care and self-giving is bound for disaster (5:6).


Notes:

  1. H. G. M. Williamson, Isaiah 1–5, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1–27, vol. 1, International Critical Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 316.