Old Testament Lectionary October 5th Trinity 16 Isaiah 5:1-7


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.

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

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The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.