Responding to God’s Provision (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Introduction

The book of Isaiah is often mentioned for its magnanimous significance. Perhaps one of the best references to its importance was penned by Barry G. Webb, who commented, “In terms of theological significance, the book of Isaiah is the ‘Romans’ of the Old Testament.”[1] Nonetheless, it does not require the testimony of scholarship for the reader to realize that the book of Isaiah is a powerfully significant piece of literature. The prophet’s words present theological truths with moving poetry, hyperbolic extremes, and vivid imagery. Isaiah 5:1-7 is an exemplar passage that beautifully demonstrates those literary devices; and it is on that passage where the remainder of this lesson will focus.

The majority of the lesson will deal directly with the text of Isaiah 5:1-7, attempting to focus and understand the passage with profound simplicity for the purpose of relevant application. [2] As one will see, Isaiah 5:1-7 primarily communicates the Lord’s judgment against his people – those who have not honorably produced ‘fruit’ according to God’s provision and favor.

Preliminary Thoughts: Progression and Context

Before leaping into the passage, following the progression of the text, the reader will encounter a parable (Isaiah 5:1-2) that is then provided with referential meanings (5:7). Importantly, one should read the passage according to the prophet’s intended flavor, forgoing referential understanding until it is provided. Similar to 2 Samuel 12 and Luke 20:9-19, the passage functions as a juridical parable to stir an accusation that in turn acts as a self-accusation.[3] If one initially reads the passage with the provided referential meaning already in place, the reader loses the dynamic power of the prophet’s climactic revelation.[4] Therefore, the ensuing examination will attempt to read and understand the passage within its own progression.

Nonetheless, one should not read the passage out of context; and given the content of Isaiah’s book directly preceding Isaiah 5:1-7, the symbolic identifications are hardly unexpected for the modern reader. Isaiah 1-4 is full of texts noting the disobedience of Israel and the Lord’s judgment upon them. Moreover, this contextual perspective supplies some important insights into the interpretation of Isaiah 5:1-7. The full scope and details of the contextual insights are not necessary to note here, but the general placement of Isaiah 5:1-7 is apparent. The passage is situated after continual indictments against the people of Israel and their disobedience, but there are also several reaffirmations of the Lord’s eventual restoration of his people. The prophet repeatedly moves back and forth, noting the Lord’s judgment in light of Israel’s disobedience on the one hand, but turning and noting the Lord’s future restoration on the other. Isaiah 5 is immediately preceded by an affirmation of future restoration, where after the Lord’s cleansing, he will make a new glorious community (Isaiah 4:2-6). Therefore, as Isaiah 5:1-7 again marks Israel’s sin and the Lord’s judgment, the pendulum swings backs again. It is beneficial to linger in the pronouncement a while, existentially engaging in the depth of the Lord’s described judgment; but it would be unwarranted to understand that pronouncement to be the end of the story – i.e. the gained insights from the previous four chapters of Isaiah leads the reader to look forward to the restoration (Isaiah 1:18-19, 26-27; 2:1-5; 4:2-6). However, restoration must be understood from the initial perspective of degradation, and Isaiah 5:1-7 unfolds it beautifully.

(1) I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. (2) He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (3) “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. (4) What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? (5) Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. (6) I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” (7) The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Exegesis

The passage is introduced as a song. It is a song for the prophet’s ‘beloved,’ and it is ‘about his vineyard’ (5:1).[5] The beloved’s vineyard was planted on a ‘fertile hillside,’ which certainly marks a placement of prosperity. A vineyard planted on a fertile hillside has every reason to flourish and grow in its environment.

Having planted the vineyard on fertile ground, the beloved continued by making the ground even more prosperous for the vineyard’s growth and success. 5:2a described four actions that would best cater to the vineyard’s fruitfulness: the beloved (1) ‘cleared it of stones,’ (2) ‘planted it with the choicest vines,’ (3) ‘built a watchtower in it,’ and (4) ‘cut out a winepress.’[6] All four actions primarily function to lead to the sweeping expectation noted by the beloved, ‘he looked for a crop of good grapes.’ However, despite all of the beloved’s tedious and prevenient care for the vineyard, 5:2b delivers an unfortunate and unexpected occurrence: ‘but it yielded only bad fruit (stinking grapes).’[7]

The beloved’s own words are now inserted into the passage, asking for the ‘dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah’ to ‘judge between me and my vineyard’ (5:3). The readers are asked to judge who is to blame, the beloved or the vineyard.

The specific question of judgment is then provided, essentially asking ‘why did it yield only bad grapes’ rather than ‘good grapes’ (5:4b). The beloved first frames that question, however, with another question, ‘What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?’ (5:4a). The answer points the reader back to 5:1b-2a, where the beloved was described as having performed more than enough prevenient care to expect a crop of good grapes. Therefore, in route to answering the essential question – ‘why did it yield only bad grapes’ – the beloved’s first question anticipates an answer that reinforces the fact that the beloved himself is not at fault.[8] The essential question is never explicitly answered; but given the expectation that is noted in 5:1b-2a and implicitly reaffirmed in the question of 5:4a, it is certain that the beloved expects that a judgment ‘between me and my vineyard’ should hold the vineyard responsible.[9]

The passage continues with this understanding that it is the vineyard that is responsible and thus deserving of judgment. The beloved’s judgment on the vineyard is introduced in 5:5a, ‘Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard,’ and it is described with vivid imagery in 5:5b-6. The first half of the described destruction is communicated with synonymous parallelism, structurally noted by the formula ‘I will…and it will’ (5:5b) – i.e. it twice notes (1) an act of the beloved’s judgment and (2) the consequence of that act. Both of the acts of the beloved’s judgment represents a removal of the vineyard’s protection: ‘I will take away its hedge’ and ‘I will break down its wall’ (cf. Isaiah 3:1-3). The consequence of both of these actions of judgment result in the vineyard’s destruction: ‘it will be destroyed’ and ‘it will be trampled.’ One might note that a ‘trampling’ is far less harsh than a ‘destruction,’ but three reasons dissuade the reader from drawing any profound distinction in the descriptions of the consequences. (1) The synonymous parallelism leads one to understand the two consequences in conjunction with one another, where the extent of destruction ought not to be lessened by the intended synonyms. (2) In keeping with the imagery of the vineyard, a ‘trampling’ of a vineyard is quite extensive in regards to its destruction, at least in reference to its possibility to no longer produce a good crop. (3) The consequences of the beloved’s judgment mentioned in 5:6 should also be taken in conjunction with the consequences mentioned in 5:5b, where the culmination of all the imagery has no indication of a consequence less than the vineyard’s destruction. The point being, in all of this, the beloved’s acts of judgment on the vineyard lead to the vineyard’s destruction, and no lessening of this destruction should be contingent upon the various descriptions of this destruction provided throughout the passage.

The description of the beloved’s acts of judgment on the vineyard is continued in 5:6, reaffirming the result of the vineyard’s destruction. There are again two noted actions of the beloved’s judgment: ‘I will make it a wasteland’ and ‘I will command the clouds not to rain on it.’ In the middle of the two noted actions, a further description is provided for the first action: ‘neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.’ The additional explanation ought to be understood as a characteristic of the vineyard being made a ‘wasteland’ – i.e. the vineyard is wasted (1) in the negative sense that it will not be pruned or cultivated, and (2) in the positive sense that briers and thorns will grow there. Where the judgment described in 5:5b consisted in the beloved’s removal of protection for the vineyard, here the judgment consists in a removal of the vineyard’s favorable conditions. Again, all of these images of the beloved’s judgment on the vineyard and the result of destruction culminate to emphasize that the vineyard will be destroyed.

The prophet then provides the meaning for the symbolism in the beloved and his vineyard, providing what both of the main images represent. The beloved is implicitly identified as ‘the Lord Almighty’ – i.e. it is his vineyard, ‘the vineyard of the Lord Almighty’ – and the vineyard is explicitly noted as ‘the house of Israel’ (5:7a). Furthermore, the vineyard is apparently synonymous with ‘the garden,’ where the prophet notes, ‘the men of Judah are the garden of his delight’ (5:7b) – ‘his’ referring back to ‘the Lord Almighty’ of 5:7a. More implicit identifications are noted in the final sentence of the passage. Comparing 5:2b and 5:7c, one can understand the ‘crop of good grapes’ to refer to ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness,’ and the ‘bad fruit’ to refer to ‘bloodshed’ and the sound of ‘cries of distress.’ There are two powerful wordplays noting the dynamic of reversed expectations contained within 5:7: “The word for ‘bloodshed’ (miś·pā) sounds like the word for ‘justice’ (miš·pā), and the word for ‘cries’ (eʿā·qāh) sounds like the word for ‘righteousness’ (eā·qāh).”[10]

In conclusion, the symbolic song in Isaiah 5:1-7 illustrates that the Lord Almighty provided for Israel, gave them all they needed to prosper and produce justice and righteousness; but instead Israel produced bloodshed and cries of distress, which will therefore prompt the judgment of the Lord Almighty, resulting in the destruction of the house of Israel and the men of Judah. This is the plain apparent meaning of the text, but it requires further consideration in regards to its proper application and modern day relevance.

Application

Isaiah is only second to the Psalms in regards to its quotation in the New Testament, which at least reveals that the value of its teaching is beyond its immediate audience. Appropriate application is clarified by observing the inherent theological principles through the immediate teachings of the text. A summary of those teachings is as follows: (1) God provided for Israel (5:1b-2a). (2) God’s provision was purposed in equipping Israel to produce good fruit – e.g. justice and righteousness (5:2b, 4b, 7c). (3) Despite God’s provision, Israel did not produce good fruit, but produced bad fruit – e.g. bloodshed and cries of distress (5:2b, 4b, 7c). (4) Because of Israel’s yielding of bad fruit, God will bring judgment to Israel resulting in destruction (5:5-6). (5) The description of God’s judgment upon Israel will consist in his removal of their protection (5:5b) and their favorable conditions (5:6).

From the noted teachings, several theological principles can be observed and thus given a broader application. First, God provides for his people. In Isaiah 5:1-7, God’s provision specifically references Israel, and thus the most immediate translation broadens God’s provision to his chosen people. However, from a New Testament perspective, the Christian understands God’s provision with an emphasis on christological fulfillment. Jesus has provided salvation for God’s people. In an even more generalized sense, in light of Christ, God has provided for all people. Forgoing the theological discussion of the extent of the atonement, it is nonetheless beyond contention that Jesus’ atonement has global significance (cf. 1 John 2:2). All people are called to have faith in Jesus Christ, for in Jesus, God’s provision is realized and actualized for man’s equipping to do good works (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).

Second, God’s provision for his people is purposed in equipping them to produce good fruits for his glory. One ought not view God’s provision as a mere source for his creatures’ favorable existence. Although it certainly encompasses all that God’s creatures’ favorably exist by, God’s provision has a higher end in mind than mere preservation; it includes the ultimate end of God’s glorification. God is most glorified when his people and his creatures embrace his provision for the purpose on which it was designed – i.e. the production of good fruit for the further emanation of God’s glory to the entire world.

Third, it is the people’s responsibility for producing good fruit for God’s glory. It can be far too easy to realize the overwhelming provision of God and then place oneself as a passive recipient. God did not design his provision to work in such a way. Provision, otherwise known as grace, is an active bestowal, empowering the recipient to be transformed for production. God supplies for the purpose of his creatures’ engagement, for their ‘working out’ of what God ‘works in’ (cf. Phil. 2:12-13). It is a perspective of honor that then motivates the servant to actively obey, actualizing the production of God’s provision.

Fourth, God’s judgment is the consequence for people’s production of bad fruit, because people are responsible to their creator and his designed intentions for their existence. The gravest offense ever committed by man concerns his dishonorable rejection of God in light of his overwhelming provision. Furthermore, man not only rejects God, but he spoils the very provision that God graciously bestowed upon him. In the words of Paul, the man ‘exchanges the glory of God’ (Rom. 1:23), utilizing the very provision God supplied to glorify creation (themselves) instead of their creator. Such an offense deserves nothing less than God’s judgment.

Fifth, God’s judgment results in destruction. Generally understood, when the intended design of a thing’s existence is compromised, the designer’s destruction of the said object is completely justifiable. While this may be a harsh translation for God’s relation to man’s existence, it is nonetheless profitable in regards to understanding the weight of man’s sin. God’s judgment unto destruction upon sinful man is utterly justifiable by route of understanding the dynamic between creator and creature, designer and design. Man was created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. When man spoils God’s provision by using it to produce bad fruit (self-glorification), the design is ultimately corrupted and the designer is left to pour out his wrath unto destruction.

Today let the listener see the full provision of God that has been supplied in Jesus Christ. Let him meditate on the splendor of his purchased redemption. Do not give ground to apathetic recognition, and do not accept the blessing apart from the one who provided it. Embrace his provision by faith, and allow God’s supply to work in you a mighty transformation for the production of good works for the further emanation of God’s glory.

Conclusion

Isaiah 5:1-7 has provided a moving picture of the glorious provision of God that man has spoiled in search of self-glorification. Such an offense will not stand against the righteous Lord Almighty, and judgment unto destruction is inevitable. However, Christians can boast in the provision of Jesus Christ. He is the full fruitfulness of God. Utilizing the same imagery, Jesus is the wine of God (cf. John 2:1-11). Therefore, as followers of Jesus, Christians are called to fruitfulness through faith in Jesus Christ. Once a person has faith in Jesus, he or she is united to Christ, where God’s wine is poured out through them unto the world. Faith in Christ reckons the believer as “the wine of God,” where the believer’s fruitfulness is continually accomplished by living in Christ.[11] As Wilhelm commented, “Like Christ, we are the lifeblood of God’s mercy for the world, offering justice instead of violence, generosity instead of greed.”[12] The believer’s fruitfulness is a means to an end, and that end is the vessel of God’s joy (wine) unto the entire world for the further emanation of his glory

[1] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah, BST (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 37.

[2] Secondary discussions regarding the passage’s socio-economic context, focused address, and the proper identification of genre may be mentioned briefly as needed or marked in the footnotes for the possibility of clarifying questions, but the majority of the lesson will deal directly with the text of passage.

[3] For an analysis of the passage as a juridical parable see T. Furman Hewitt, “The Parable of the Vineyard: An Exegesis of Isaiah 5:1-8,” Faith and Mission 09, no. 1 (Fall 1991): 65-66; Gary Roye Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah 5:1-7: A Literary Interpretation,” Vetus Testamentum 35, no. 4 (1985): 462; Gale A. Yee, “A Form-Critical Study of Isaiah 5:1-7 as a Song and a Juridical Parable,” The Catholic Bible Quarterly 43 (1981): 30-41; Adrian Graffy, “The Literary Genre of Isaiah 5:1-7,” Bib 60 (1979): 400-409; and John T. Willis, “The Genre of Isaiah 5:1-7,” Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (1977): 337-362.

[4] Gary Roye Williams conducted his literary interpretation of Isaiah 5:1-7 with an emphasis on the reader’s ability to identify with the Lord’s frustration. Williams commented, “As we move through the passage, again and again we are led to expectations which are shortly proven to be false. These false expectations force us to reinterpret the passage repeatedly. Thus our frustration in the interpretative process enables us to identify ourselves with Yahweh’s frustration,” in “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah 5:1-7: A Literary Interpretation,” 459.

[5] All quotations of the text are derived from John N. Oswalt’s translation in Isaiah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 109.

[6] The ‘choicest vines’ is literally “Sorek, apparently the name of a choice grape which the Valley of Sorek derives its name,” Hewitt, “The Parable of the Vineyard,” 67.

[7] The translation of beʾǔ·šîm as “stinking grapes” was supplied by Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah 5:1-7,” 461.

[8] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm commented, “In one of the most beautiful love songs recorded in scripture, there could be no more promising vineyard and no more careful farmer than Isaiah’s beloved,” in “Of Grapes and Other Wild Things Isaiah 5:1-10,” Brethren Life and Thought 52, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 204.

[9] As Hewitt commented, “The point of the parable is not to answer the problem of ‘moral failure’ by giving a clear and sufficient account of how evil originates, but to give the owner’s (Yahweh’s) response to the moral failure,” in “The Parable of the Vineyard,” 68.

[10] Oswalt, Isaiah, 113.

[11] Wilhelm, “Of Grapes and Other Wild Things Isaiah 5:1-10,” 210.

[12] Ibid., 210.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s