Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 17 – Isaiah 5:1-7 (related)

‘The Song of the Vineyard’ – the title by which this passage is known, seems at first sight to be a fairly straightforward allegory or parable, and undoubtedly forms the basis of Jesus’ parable in Mt 21, today’s Gospel. But on closer examination it is not so simple. There are at least three different genres or styles of writing represented in these few short verses, with twists and turns in the plot as we go along. A love song becomes an international treaty, which ends as a courtroom drama. But the message is the same – frustration.

The love song is about the prophet’s beloved, who turns out to be God. The fact that Isaiah can speak of God in these terms, and go on in the middle section to speak as from God, reflects his prophetic calling. He is the one in a close relationship of love with his Lord, and he really feels his pain. One can imagine a Blues singer announcing his next song as ‘for all those who have lost someone you love’. It is a song about love which starts well but goes sour as that love is rejected.

But as the song continues, there is a sudden switch of mood. In the ancient Near East covenants would commonly be made between nations, and the form of words often contained a list of the benefits which the stronger party had bestowed on the weaker, used as a kind of moral blackmail: ‘You owe me!’ Verse 2 is in exactly this form: ‘Look at all I’ve done for you, all I’ve given to you!’ says God to Israel. But the result isn’t a relationship of obedience and mutual respect, and the King is deeply disappointed. So what is to be done?

Again the style switches abruptly, and now we are in the courtroom, with Israel both in the dock but also in the jury box. The jury are invited to judge between themselves and God, and clearly the prophet’s hope is that confronted with this parable they will get the point and repent, just as King David did when confronted by the prophet Nathan’s parable of the rich man and the lamb in 2 Samuel 12. But nothing is forthcoming, so in verses 5 and 6 sentence is passed by the judge. And what a dreadful sentence it is to be! In a threefold act of judgement God is going to remove protection, care and nourishment from the nation. In an act reminiscent of the Flood story God is going to remove the boundaries which hold back evil from the world, just as the waters which he had divided and forbidden to come any further were suddenly released with such destructive effects. He will stop his care for the nation, stop the weeding and pruning which any gardener knows are essential if chaos is not to take over. And he will stop the nation’s nourishment, the gentle rain which waters and brings life. We are all in desperate need of these three elements of God’s sustaining love for his people, so to have them removed is punishment indeed. Woe betide any nation or people from whom God removes his protection, care and nurture.

The final verse explains the allegory, as though there were any doubt, and uses two pairs of Hebrew words to ram home the message poetically. God looked for justice (mishpat) but found only bloodshed (mishpach): he looked for righteousness (zedakah) but instead heard a cry of despair (ze’akah).

As his prophet, Isaiah feels deeply God’s frustration and disappointment that the nation to whom he had given so much, and from whom he expected so much, had produced nothing but manky fruit. So great is his pain that he is willing to allow the Vineyard to be destroyed.

I can remember a staff meeting in one of the parishes in which I served at which the discussion led to an admission that many of us felt that while God loved us (that was his job, after all) he didn’t actually like us very much, and rather resented our feeble attempts to be his people. Many of us, if we were really to admit it, basically feel that God is frustrated and angry with us. But we might picture Jesus on the cross, the Father’s protection from the angry Jews and Romans removed, his care gone as his Son feels totally abandoned, and Jesus’ thirst for drink which is met only with bitterness. Jesus, even more beloved to the Father than his Vineyard, his people, is punished in our place so that we are set free to produce righteousness and justice.

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