Isaiah 5: The Song of the Vineyard
Updated: May 5
“I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard.” Isaiah 5:1
I sing a lot. Not in front of others, usually, unless others are singing with me. But when I am alone, and my mind is not otherwise engaged, I am singing. I don’t sing because I’m a good singer. I’m not. It just seems to come out of me. I do it in the car, loudly. I do it in the store, quietly. One day while I was singing on the outside, I started whining on the inside: “I wish I could sing better. Why would the Lord give me a desire to sing but not a voice to sing with? I don’t like how I sing.” It wasn’t the first time I had attended that pity party, but this day, the Lord arrested me. He said, “Well, I like how you sing.” Wow. So I had to ask myself, who am I singing for anyway?
God made music a powerful tool. It can bring people to tears and it can stir up boundless joy – in an instant and all at the same time. The emotion carried by a song can be infectious because it carries with it the heart of the singer. In Isaiah chapter 5, Isaiah steps into that role. He sings to the Lord on behalf of the Lord, and it's obvious he knows that others are listening. So, as a prophet, he sings a song about the Lord’s emotions. As a prophet, he carries the heart of the Lord.
Isaiah, as well as a singer, was a master storyteller. And as a master storyteller, he knew it would probably be best if he didn’t disclose, not yet anyway, just who his beloved was.
My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
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…
Vineyards are beautiful, yet vines are not planted for their beauty, but for their fruit. My visit to a vineyard was in the spring, and I saw acres of neatly spaced rows of brown stakes, with the green of the vines just beginning to show. There was not a grape in sight. But I knew that in a few months the vines would be full, heavy with fruit, just waiting to be harvested. So I really wasn't disappointed by what I saw; the beauty of the vineyard was in its promise.
God’s relationship with His people has always been related to the land: Adam was formed from the dust of the ground and employed to tend a garden. Abram was called to inherit a land that God would show him. The transition from a nomadic culture to an agrarian one was an indicator that the God’s people had “arrived.” Once in their land, the primary sign of the LORD’s blessing was the size of their crops: “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full.” Deuteronomy 11:13-15
The primary effect of the curse was the condition of the land: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” Genesis 3:17-18
And most often in the parables of Jesus, man’s heart is likened to soil.
So in his song, Isaiah presents his beloved as a vinedresser. The ultimate vinedresser. Isaiah sings of the care the vinedresser took with his vineyard: he readied the soil, cleared out the stones, and planted the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower: a place to watch over the vines. He cut out a wine-vat. (Your Bible, like mine, probably says “winepress”, but that’s not quite right. The Hebrew word is yeqeb, a wine-vat, which includes the upper part where the grapes are crushed, and the lower part where the juice is stored.) The vinedresser prepared everything necessary to make the best wine, then waited patiently, expectantly, looking forward to a harvest of good grapes.
...but it yielded only bad fruit.
The outcome of all of the vinedresser’s care was not a lack of fruit, but something far worse. The vines he had planted put out bad fruit, noxious grapes – literally, “stink fruit.” The vines had disregarded the care of the vinedresser, and in spite of rich soil in a place prepared just for them, the vines produced only sour grapes.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
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?”
“Tell me,” the vinedresser asks his listeners, “what should I have done differently?” Those listening probably shook their heads and said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
"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. 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.”
A wise farmer’s response to a bad vineyard? Abandon it. Leave it without protection, let the weeds take over, let it wither and die. No more digging, no more pruning, no more watering. The whole venture is unprofitable, so why should the vineyard receive anything more from the vinedresser?
I can imagine those listening, agreeing, nodding, perhaps even clucking their tongues at those worthless vines. But all of a sudden Isaiah, as master storytellers do, draws back the curtain, and with an intended “ta-da!” says:
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Can’t you just see it? His listeners first turning to each other with mouths wide open in surprise, then cursing that impudent prophet that would level such accusations—at them! What bloodshed? What cries of distress?
It’s not surprising they didn’t understand what he was saying. The religious seldom see themselves in the midst of their mess. The “bloodshed” Isaiah referred to wasn't the result of war – compared to the nations around them, they were enjoying a time of relative peace. The bloodshed was that of high society bleeding the poor to death. And the “cries of distress” Isaiah spoke of were coming from those who were suffering under their leaders‘ self-righteous neglect. These were the unrighteous acts, the bad grapes – the stink fruit – that God’s vineyard had produced. The lack of justice in the land had resulted in a crop failure of righteousness.
Now that Isaiah has their attention, he delivers the woes:
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
Israelite law viewed the land as a gift from God to be stewarded by His people. Once a parcel of land was allocated to a family, it was intended that the land would remain with that family forever. By the time of Isaiah, though, the land speculators had moved in and were accumulating property by exploiting the poor. They were building huge estates and living alone in the wide-open spaces while common men lived in the margins.
The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
The fine mansions left without occupants.”
Beautiful homes would become abandoned farmhouses—a consequence of failing crops and economic collapse. God’s judgment wasn’t on their wealth; He makes it clear throughout Scripture that He prospers man in material ways. But He prospers His people for a purpose: so they can bless others, live free, and demonstrate the goodness of God. It is how wealth is used and the attitude of those using it that determines what is prosperity and what is a snare. God’s instruction to the wealthy: don’t forget the poor, don’t forget that “it is He who gives you power to get wealth”(Deuteronomy 8:18), and don‘t forget that He who gives you the power to get wealth has the power to take it away. So don't disregard your call to justice and righteousness.
Without the LORD’s blessing on the land,
A ten-acre vineyard will produce only about 6 gallons of wine;
160 kilos of seed will yield only 16 kilos of grain.
And I, even I, with no knowledge of farming whatsoever, know that that is not good, not good at all.
Woe to those who rise early in the morning
to run after their drinks,
who stay up late at night
till they are inflamed with wine.
They have harps and lyres at their banquets,
pipes and timbrels and wine,
but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord,
no respect for the work of his hands.
It would be easy to look at these verses and forge a simple rule: “Don't drink, don't dance, don't chew, and don't hang around with those who do.” But that can’t be what they mean—the LORD is a vintner Himself! Rather, Isaiah is addressing lives full of noise: running after entertainment to fill up the space of their days, partying to disguise their lack of direction. Living a life full of noise reveals that we have no understanding of our value. Understand this: acknowledging our value to God doesn’t result in arrogance but in purpose.
So, without land and without purpose, God’s people were going to lose their identity:
“Make no mistake: My people are headed for exile
because they never took note;
Even the most honorable among them will endure hunger
while the majority will be parched with thirst.
Make no mistake: the force of death is insatiable.
The great gaping grave is opened wide
To swallow whole Jerusalem’s opulence and pageantry—
her noble citizens and her common folk, all the raucous revelry.
Human beings will be cut down to size, one after another.
Those who walk around with their noses in the air will be humiliated.” (The VOICE)
The party is over and pride is coming to an end. Their judgment will result in an emptied, desolate land.
Judgment comes to accomplish this: that man would be humbled, and God exalted. God’s demand for exaltation is not self-seeking or arrogant. He demands to be exalted because that is what makes His kingdom work. When we see Him as He is, we begin to see who He's made us to be. And when we take our places as His sons and daughters, the result is a land filled with plenty.