The ‘Song of the vineyard’ in Isa 5:1-7 is a passage central to the first section of Isaiah. Through the extended and complex use of a single metaphor (Israel as the vineyard) the themes of justice and righteousness in the context of Israel’s relationship with God are introduced. A fuller understanding of their social implications is explored in the rest of the chapter (vv. 8-25) and in other passages in chs. 9-10. The compilers of the Book of Isaiah have further explored the nature of justice, righteousness and faithfulness in relation to political affairs and international relations in still other passages in chs. 5 and 7-10, and have related this to the matter of the “calling” of the prophet (especially in ch. 6). We, therefore, end up with a complex interrelationship set up between social justice, national security, international relations and religious conviction. These things go hand in hand for the prophet, for the compilers of the book, and, in our own days of national and international insecurity, for us.
Isa 5:1-7 is a well-crafted, complex passage. There has been a great deal of debate over the genre of the passage. Suggestions have included a song, a love song, a drinking song, a satirical polemic against fertility cults, a lawsuit, a fable, an allegory, and a parable. The imagery of the vineyard is central to the passage. However, the passage begins (v. 1a) with words of love and a song suggesting possibly another context, one in which love is celebrated, maybe a wedding or even a harvest festival. But within two verses the scene has changed to that of a judicial proceeding (vv. 3-6). This sharp shift in context, as well as the change of singer from singer/prophet (vv. 1-2), to vineyard owner (vv. 3-6), who is only revealed as the Lord in v. 6, back to the prophet (v. 7), serves to keep the reader constantly reassessing their interpretation of the passage. Even at the end of the passage (v. 7), where the prophet seems to explain the imagery for the reader, further meaning can be gleaned by going back and comparing the interpretation with the image itself.
Both the natural and the human processes involved in vineyard care and wine production are employed in the ‘song’. The human role of preparing the vineyard, planting it, maintaining and securing it, and preparing for harvest (v. 3) is given in more detail than in any other biblical reference. Verses 5-6 emphasise this further. This detail serves to emphasise the effort expended by the vineyard owner on his property, a thought reiterated in v. 4. What is not stated, but assumed, is the lengthy wait by the owner for his vineyard to produce fruit, in the normal course of events probably several years. This human role is related to the Lord’s role with Israel.
This is further emphasised by the delay in revealing whom the vineyard owner represents. In the first part of the passage he remains anonymous (the ‘beloved’). This is only broken in v. 6b where the ability of the owner to command the clouds to withhold their rain clearly elevates his identity beyond the human. The delay in the identification of the owner, coupled with the detailing of the owner’s efforts with his vineyard, generates a deeper understanding of the Lord’s concern for Israel when the story is finally explained.
In contrast to the owner’s role in the vineyard, which represents divine activity with Israel, the natural processes of growth in the vine are given short measure, a mere two words in Hebrew (‘it produced stinking things’). They are repeated for emphasis in vv. 2b and 4b. In spite of having fulfilled his part, the owner had no control over the fruit produced by the vineyard. The latter was clearly the cause of the problem.
The interpretation of the passage in v. 7, with the shift to justice and righteousness, might seem to have little direct connection to the imagery of the vineyard, but that is not the case. The repetition of the verb ‘to wait’ (which also means ‘to hope’) in vv. 2, 4, and 7 ties the interpretation into the earlier description of the vineyard owner’s activity. The Lord’s waiting for justice compares to the owner’s waiting for the vineyard to produce grapes. But here further, the ‘stinking things’ are defined as injustice and unrighteousness (cf. Deut 32:32; Hos 10:1; Jer 8:13). Israel has acted contrary to the expectations and intentions of the Lord. For more detail see vv. 11-13, and 22. Just as the covenant with the Lord has been broken and undone, so the imagery of wine with its joyous associations at the start of Isaiah 5 is also ‘undone’ with descriptions of the destructive side of wine in the community and its association with injustice.
The Lord responds with punishment in terms of undoing all the careful work undertaken earlier (vv. 5-6). The people had proved unfaithful, negating the faithful and hopeful acts of the Lord. The long process of preparation of the vineyard and expectation of its fruitfulness by the owner underlines and justifies both faith in and a faithful response to the Lord. The owner not only prepares the ground for the vineyard, but has throughout the long period of waiting, guarded the vineyard from being overrun by thieves and wild animals (cf. Isa 7:23-25), kept weeds from destroying it from within, and given it every opportunity to become fruitful and joyous. Even the rebellious, unjust, and unrighteous acts of his people, ‘stinking things’ in the Lord’s perception of things, will not in the long run daunt what the Lord seeks for his people. The injustices of Isaiah’s world, no less than those of ours, require judgment. But what Isaiah stresses is that that judgment may be part of the Lord’s careful preparation and waiting for the fullness of his people.
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