Every now and then you encounter a Bible passage which doesn’t work nearly as well in English as it does in the original, in this case Hebrew. There are a couple of puns which really drive home this tragic message, and the whole genre of the text shows a subtle recasting of two well-known literary styles. Let’s try to unpack it and gain the full impact of the prophet’s words.
The text, we are told in 5:1 is a love song, a popular form of literature at the time, as indeed it is today. It is clearly a love song between the prophet and his God, but there is a sudden twist in v 3 where God becomes the speaker and the love song turns into a funeral lament. The nation of Israel become the loved but unfaithful other half, and the prophet vanishes from view until he returns, as narrator and interpreter, in v 7. It is in the context of this narration that two key puns are used: God has looked for justice (mishpat), but instead he finds bloodshed (mispach). He expected righteousness (tsedaqah) but all he can find is a cry (tse’aqah), presumably of distress. God has done everything he can to create the conditions under which his vineyard will grow and thrive (v 2), but in spite of it all the harvest has been rotten and rancid (‘bad fruit’ in v 2 is a bit of an undertranslation of the Hebrew). And then, just in case we are left in any doubt, we’re given the interpretation of this parable/love song/lament in v 7: God’s vineyard is the Israelite nation, and because of our refusal to bear the right fruit we’re bound for exile and punishment.
The theology here is to be restated by Paul in Romans 1: when we give up on God he gives up on us. His patience is not infinite, despite what we might like to think, and when his vineyard is not producing that for which he hoped he decides not to keep flogging a dead horse: his judgement in v 5-6 is active as well as passive: he will stop doing the cultivation which is needed, and instead he will actively break down and remove its protection.
So what of the Church, the ‘Israel of God’? We may put up our hands to a certain sense of not quite being what God would like us to be, although of course we don’t go in for any of the crimes which the prophet outlines as he continues this chapter. But this side of the cross, surely God would never turn against us? As soon as I find myself entertaining those kinds of thoughts I can’t help but wonder whether I might be guilty of the same kind of presumption the pre-exilic Jews were guilty of: they had the Temple of the Lord; they were the chosen race, so God must be mighty pleased with them. I’m an Anglican, and we have Canterbury Cathedral, and in any case Jesus died for us. Whether or not God will judge his church, or indeed whether or not he has, is something you might like to reflect upon.