In our last essay we studied Isaiah 2:1-4:6, the second part of Isaiah’s three-part introduction to his book. In this essay we re studying chapter five, the last of Isaiah’s introductory chapters.
In 5:1-7 we see Isaiah’s song, or parable, about a vineyard. It sets the stage for the rest of the chapter. Notice how Isaiah begins: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” This intimate language upsets some scholars. Indeed they believe it is much too intimate and familiar to actually be a way a Jewish prophet would have addressed Almighty God. Thus some challenge the authenticity of the song. But as Oswalt suggests, it is fairly common for religious people to hold God in such high affection and to express that affection in song. Therefore that in itself is not grounds for questioning the authenticity of the passage.
Verse two describes the way that farmers of the day prepared their vineyards. After choosing a fertile, exposed hillside (v. 1), they dug up the ground, carried off the stones, and planted the field with choice vines. They would use the many stones to build a wall around the vineyard to protect it from wild animals. Then during the following two years, while they patiently waited for the vines to produce grapes, they would use the rest of the stones to build a watchtower. They also would hew out from the hillside the vats used for pressing and processing the grapes. They would hew out two vats on the hillside, one above the other. The grapes were pressed in the upper vat; and the juice flowed from the upper to the lower vat through a shallow trough that connected them.
The idea that Isaiah was communicating was the fact that proper preparation of a vineyard requires a lot of hard work. And when one has invested so much in a vineyard, there is an expectation that it will produce good grapes and a bountiful harvest of delicious juice. Unfortunately, the vineyard Isaiah was talking about yielded a harvest of “wild grapes,” meaning that they were bitter and thus totally unsatisfactory.
In verses 3-4 Isaiah uses an interesting audience participation method in relation to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. He challenges them to evaluate the situation in regard to this vineyard. He demands that they tell him what more the owner could have done to prepare the vineyard. He also wants to know why it produced wild grapes.
We do not know what their responses might have been, but Isaiah immediately goes on to tell them what the owner will do. He will “remove its hedge,” which means that the vines will become vulnerable to being eaten by animals. He also will tear down the wall, which will permit the animals to trample down the vines. No one will prune the vines, or cultivate the earth around them. And it will become “a waste.” It will “be overgrown by briars and thorns. And the owner even will shut of the rain supply.
The fact that the owner will shut off the rain gives away Isaiah’s meaning. It is God who is the owner; but Isaiah makes the interpretation explicit in verse seven. Not only is God the owner, Israel is the vineyard. It is Israel for whom God has done everything. And God expected certain fruit for his labors; namely, justice and righteousness. But he got “wild grapes” instead. He got bloodshed and the cry of the oppressed.
Next, in 5:8-25, Isaiah pronounces six “woes” that spell out the “wild grapes” of Israel. He also offers two “therefore” passages that show the eventual results of their wickedness. In 5:8-17 we see the greed and indulgence of Israel. There we find the first two woes and one “therefore” passage.
The first “woe” is in verses 8-10: “Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field.” Here Isaiah is accusing the rich landholders of Israel of blatant greed. They want to accumulate land so that they can live in the midst of it unbothered by anyone, especially the poor. But notice what will happen eventually. Their great houses will be empty and their lands will be unfertile. Ten acres of vineyard will produce only a “bath” of juice. That’s about eight gallons. And a “homer” of seed, about eight bushels, will produce only an “ephah,” about three pecks.
The second “woe” is in verses 11-12. Isaiah probably still has the wealthy landowners in view. At any rate, they are people who party all day. They begin drinking early in the morning and spend their day in drinking and feasting while ignoring God.
Then, in verses 13-17, we se the first “therefore” passage. The “therefore” passages tell us some of the eventual results. In verses 13-15 we see that one eventual result will be exile. In addition, both the rich and poor will suffer from hunger and thirst. Indeed many will die and go to Sheol. Those who don’t die will be brought low, humiliated.
But verse 16 tells us that God will be exalted because his justice will prevail and his righteousness will be seen. Oswalt points out the theological importance of verse 16. It is the justice and righteousness of God that separates him from us, not just his unlimited power. And it is our inability to love justice and to do rightly that brings about our ultimate humiliation. Verse 17 is a bit ironic. Isaiah is saying that flocks will one day graze on the ruins of Israel, presumably also on the ruins of those abandoned mansions of the rich.
Verses 18-25 continue with four more woes and another “therefore” passage. Oswalt labels this section, “Cynicism and Perversion.” He gave the section that heading because he believes it shows an underlying cynicism that resulted in a perversion of values.
The third “woe,” found in verses 18-19, accuses Israel of mocking God by demanding that God show his plan and works to them. Isaiah pictures their sinfulness as a pulling of their iniquity to themselves by means of cart ropes. The idea of that image is that they were consciously choosing to sin in this way. It was no accident. Moreover, it was a “high handed” sin, because they were actually challenging God.
The fourth “woe” is in verse 20. Rather than live by God’s ways, they were perverting morality by calling evil good and good evil.
The fifth “woe” is in verse 21. Not only were they sinning against God, they thought quite highly of themselves. Indeed they thought they were wise and shrewd.
The sixth and final “woe” is in seen in verses 22-23. Isaiah points out that the closest thing to a heroic action he sees in Israel; is heroic drinking. And they also are good at taking bribes and perverting justice.
Next comes the second “therefore” passage. Once again Isaiah spells out some results. Therefore, there is nothing left for God to do but destroy the worthless vineyard. For they have rejected and despised the word of God. Then in verse 25 Isaiah tells his readers that God is so angry that he already has begun to act in judgment.
The final subsection of the chapter is in verses 26-30. In it Isaiah foretells the coming destruction of Judah at the hands of a foreign power. It is likely that Isaiah had Assyria in mind as the destroying nation since that nation ravished Judah by the end of the eighth century BC. Notice that the nations do the bidding of the Lord. They come at his signal or whistle.
In verses 27-28 Isaiah describes the coming army as wide-awake and well prepared. Verse 29 tells us that “the sound of the onrushing hordes is like the roar of a lion” (Oswalt, p. 169). And once they seize their prey, no one can deliver them.