This will be a hard text to preach in many settings. I’ve tried to imagine preaching it in my last congregation, a congregation of privilege located in a neighborhood of disadvantaged people. My church had a number of ministries in that neighborhood, because we understood our responsibility for the poor. A significant number of our members were social justice advocates. But Isaiah’s powerful words about social justice would be hard for some of our privileged people to hear and his equally powerful words about God’s judgment upon sin would be hard for some our social justice folks to hear. How can we preach this hard text so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard?
We certainly ought to try, because it is such an important summary of God’s dealings with his privileged Old Testament people, and it anticipates the Gospel message of Jesus’ dealings with his New Testament people in John 15 (vine and vineyard). Plus, its rich imagery and striking form make it a literary delight that should stimulate our creative homiletical instincts.
It begins with a love song—not about Isaiah’s love for God, but about God’s love for his as-yet-unidentified “vineyard.” The word translated “the one I love” is perhaps better translated “my friend.” God is Isaiah’s friend, so it might be more accurate to call this a friendship song.
In verse 1 Isaiah announces his intention to sing about a friend’s love for his vineyard, which is a little strange until we realize that vineyard is a symbol for bride. God is the bridegroom and the vineyard is God’s bride. He uses that imagery because it gives him a powerful way to talk about everything God has done for his bride.
God has showered his love upon his vineyard: selecting a fertile hillside where God’s vineyard was sure to produce bumper crops of delicious grapes that would ferment into the finest wine; cultivating the soil and clearing it of stones so there would be no impediments to growth; planting the very best vines guaranteed to yield the most healthy and tasty grapes; building a watchtower to guard the vineyard against human and animal invaders who would strip the vines of their precious fruit; erecting a hedge and/or a wall to keep those invaders out; digging a winepress or vat where the grapes could be processed into wine on the spot and stored for future consumption. God spared no effort or expense on this vineyard, so that it would be a complete success.
But this love song has a very unhappy last stanza. After all that loving attention and backbreaking work, God “looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” God’s expectations for his vineyard were shattered. His highest hopes were disappointed. Instead of sweet smelling wine, the vineyard produced only stinking (the literal meaning of the Hebrew here) grapes, rancid, rotten grapes. All of God’s loving attention and intentions came to nothing; the vineyard stunk to high heaven.
Now the love song turns into a legal indictment, as God calls the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the rest of Judah to judge between God and his as-yet-unidentified vineyard. Was the failure of the vineyard God’s fault? “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” Anyone with any common sense would answer that God had done everything necessary and possible to guarantee the success of this vineyard.
Assuming that the jury would agree with that conclusion, God asks the unanswerable question. Why? Why did it fail? “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” There is no good answer to that question, no good reason the object of God’s love would produce such stinking results. There is no good reason for rotten lives when God has done everything he could to produce rich wine.
When we think of it that way, God’s judgment on his vineyard is completely reasonable. The right thing to do was to completely demolish it. What more could he have done? Nothing. So, get rid of it. “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briars and thistles will grow there.” And if that isn’t enough, “I will command the clouds not rain on it.” God’s love for his vineyard will be replaced by anger and judgment. And the vineyard will be no more. Or so it would seem.
But God isn’t done yet, because this vineyard is nothing but a figure of speech, a rich image in a powerful song. Like David listening to Nathan’s story about a rich man who robbed a poor man of his most precious possession, Israel has no clue that God is talking about them. But then God ends this love song/judicial proceeding with a blunt punch line. “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.” “You are the man!”
Before Israel can stutter their objections and excuses, God identifies their bad grapes, their stinking, rancid, rotten lives. I “looked for justice, but saw bloodshed, for righteousness, but heard cried of distress.” God’s identification of Israel’s sin is made more powerful by the word play in the Hebrew: “justice” is the word mishpat and “bloodshed” is the word mispah, while “righteousness” is tsedeqah and “cries of distress” is tseaqah. What I looked for and what I found may sound alike, but they are the exact opposite.
You have taken my love and totally distorted it in your lives. I wanted you to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness on earth, to exhibit and enact my justice and righteousness. That’s why I did all that for you. You have completely distorted my intentions, choosing to simply enjoy the privileges I gave you, rather than doing justice and living righteousness. And that stinks.
There are two great problems with preaching on this text. What, exactly, does God mean by justice and righteousness? And what does this ancient indictment of Israel have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ today?
One scholar points out that justice is an abstract word and thus hard to define. Consequently, everyone knows what it means, and yet no one does. It is as difficult to define as “right and wrong.” Righteousness is, likewise, a word with a wide variety of meaning.
But the Bible, particularly, the Old Testament does give some specific content to these abstract words. Righteousness is more than right living; it has to do with having a right relationship with God. The New Testament, particularly Paul, teaches that we can have a right relationship with God only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. That right relationship with God should produce right relationships in society, relationships characterized by the kind of love God has shown us. That means that justice should flow out of that right relationship with God, because love wants the best for others. Justice has to do with fair and equitable relationships within a society grounded in the just will of the Lord.
That is why God contrasts justice with bloodshed and righteousness with cries of distress. And lest we miss the exact meaning of “bloodshed and cries of distress” we need only keep reading in Isaiah 5. The very next verses talk about greedy accumulation of property that leaves the poor even poorer, about wildly excessive living that wastes resources on the few, and generally godless living that ignores the work of God in the world. The God of justice and righteousness planted a vineyard in the world precisely so that his beloved people could exhibit and enact his justice and righteousness and make the world a better, more heavenly place. And it stinks when we don’t do that.
James Limburg minces no words. “To do justice according to the prophets is to take up the cause of the widow and orphan and poor and act as their advocate. The failure of leadership to act as advocates for the powerless caused once-faithful Jerusalem to become a faithless whore of a city.” And David Garber makes me squirm when he writes: “In congregations of privilege, this passage becomes a challenge. Are we using our privilege to produce the sweet wine of justice in our society? Or does our propensity to cower behind our privilege result in the stench of injustice that will ultimately repulse the God whom we claim to worship?”
That brings us to the second problem with this text. How do we preach this hard old text as Christian pastors? It seems so Jewish, so judgmental, so negative, so final. Well, we can begin by pointing out that God’s judgment is a last resort, not what God wants to do in his heart of hearts. God’s intention was to bless his people and through them to bless the world. It was only when they took his sweet love and turned his blessings into stinking lives that he finally “destroyed” them. God did not abandon his people; they abandoned him. Therefore, writes David McKenna, “God was justified in his decision to leave them to their own devices and let them suffer the consequences of their sin as the only way to redeem them.”
Those last words remind us of the Gospel. God’s punishment of Israel was not the end of them, even it sounds that way to us and seemed that way to them. Rather, God’s punishment of Israel was a hard step in their redemption and in the redemption of the world through them and through the Seed of Abraham. While sin always yields death of one sort or another, death does not get the last word in human life or in human history. God’s loving intentions will not be ultimately frustrated, even if it kills God. Which it did.
Yes, God will still deal harshly with his vineyard. Those branches that bear no fruit will be cut off and thrown into the fire. And even those who do bear fruit will be pruned so they can bear more. But God is harsh only because of his love for his vineyard and for the world in which he has planted it. Indeed, God is so loving that he not only plants and cultivates and protects his vineyard; he even became the vine (John 15).
And by staying connected to the Vine, we can do the impossible—bear much fruit, even the fruit of justice and righteousness in a world dying for both. “I am the Vine and you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (verse 5).” In verse 16 of John 15, Jesus summarizes Isaiah 5 for us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” We are loved and chosen not merely unto privilege (though the benefits are vast), but unto abiding fruit (both the pursuit of justice and righteousness and the grafting of changed lives into the Vine).
One way to help contemporary folks sympathize with God’s disgust over “stinking grapes” is to talk about how disgusted many social justice advocates are with the problem of the stinking piles of refuse, garbage, waste that accumulate in our landfills and, alarmingly, in the center of the Pacific Ocean. We are appalled and frightened at the prospect of a world choking on its own waste. Natural and manufactured things intended to help and nourish humanity have become a threat to society. So it was with Israel and so it is with the church today. God intended to bless the world through his people. Who can blame God for being upset when his blessing turns into a stinking mess? And who can’t help but praise God for his gracious response to the mess, namely, sending his own Son the stinking pile of death called “the Place of the Skull?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7 Commentary