As commentators note, Isaiah 5 begins with what looks like some light-hearted romantic ballad. A kind of troubadour opens this chapter by saying, “Listen up! I’m going to sing you a ballad about my beloved one–a song about the vineyard of our love!” It looks like a love song but quickly changes into a lament.
The singer worked hard to create the right conditions for his love-vineyard, for what is later called “a garden of delight.” He did everything right. He planted expensive vines, vines of cabernet, zinfandel, merlot, and chardonnay grapes. So far as he knew, everything was on track. Grapes grew and looked like the genuine article. Vines seemed to flourish. Finally the harvest came, but the only grapes he could find were sour, stinky, and worthless.
“What else could I have done,” the man cries out in despair. “What more could I have provided? There’s nothing for the entire project but to start over.” So in a kind of fury fueled by heartbreak the vintner declares the destruction of all he had labored so hard to build. And just in case anyone has missed the point of this chapter’s first 6 verses, the voice of the prophet bursts onto the scene in verse 7 to make painfully clear who the vineyard is: it’s Israel. And she’s done for.
But that is not all that verse 7 clarifies. Through the clever use of a verbal word play or pun Isaiah makes clear why it was that in the end Yahweh regarded the Israelites as a bunch of stinkers. In verse 7 Isaiah said that the good, juicy grapes Yahweh wanted were justice and righteousness. Instead what God discovered was the exact opposite. Instead of justice he found bloodshed, instead of righteousness he found the cries of the oppressed.
The word-play here stems from the fact that in Hebrew the difference between “justice” and “bloodshed” and between the “righteousness” and “cries” is just one letter. These words are so similar to each other that you have to read carefully and look closely to see the difference. God looked for
mishpat (justice) but discovered instead
mishpah (bloodshed); he looked for
zedekah (righteousness) but found instead
Again, this is a kind of pun where the change of just one letter creates a very different meaning. It would be like creating an English word play between words like “picture” and “pitcher” or “whither,” meaning “which way are you going,” and “wither,” which means to wilt and dry up. They sound and very nearly look the same but their meanings are exceedingly different. Puns, of course, are often used to humorous effect, as when Winston Churchill, commenting on what he regarded as the roaringly boring speeches of diplomat John Foster Dulles, once said that his speeches were “dull, duller, dulles.”
But there’s nothing funny about the pun in verse 7, so why did Isaiah use it? Perhaps to convey that when it comes to justice and righteousness, close is not good enough. It didn’t matter whether the grapes on Israel’s vine looked from a distance like the kind of grapes God desired. It was the closer inspection that counted.
Israel had a form of justice, all right, but it was justice for the few, the wealthy, the lucky “winners” of society. Meanwhile, most of what the upper crust had was ill-gotten gain: it was built upon the shed blood of the poor. Some of the people looked very righteous, very pious–they went to the Temple, observed the Sabbath, prayed now and again. Yet their ears were deaf to the cries of distress which God’s ears picked out very easily. Instead of being the locus of justice, the Temple became a shelter for the elite whose walls were used to keep them from hearing the cries of the needy.
Throughout the Old Testament it is clear that justice involved far more than criminals getting punished. Crimes carried punishments in ancient Israel, of course, but that negative aspect of justice was not nearly as vital as the positive aspect. Justice was mostly a way to prevent crimes from happening, and one of the biggest crimes that needed to be avoided was a trampling upon that trio grouping which comes up again and again in the Old Testament like a refrain: the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Women who had lost their husbands, children who had lost their parents, and the “stranger who is within your gates” were all people who potentially could have fallen through the cracks.
These groups represented the “underdogs” of society–the marginalized who could so easily be exploited. “Justice” in the Old Testament (and the Old Testament has 86% of all the Bible’s references to “justice”) was more about caring for the needy than punishing the wicked. Today we tend to restrict justice to matters related to the legal system. “Judges” today are people in black robes who get involved only after laws are broken. But the biblical “judges” (from the book of the same name) were not people who doled out verdicts from a bench but were champions of justice who went out and pursued the righteous things of God.
But the day finally came in Israel when there were no such champions. The Jubilee year was ignored. Farmers greedily picked up every last speck of grain from their fields, leaving nothing behind for the poor to glean. People who fell into debt did not see their debts cancelled or their mortgaged property returned eventually, as God’s law demanded. Precisely what God did not want to see in Israel happened anyway: there developed a permanent underclass of widows, orphans, and foreign immigrants. The people who allowed all of that to happen were the real stinkers in Israel who break God’s heart in Isaiah 5.
A divine heartbreak is, of course, no small matter. Eventually Israel did suffer grievously in history, being conquered in the northern kingdom by the Assyrians and later in the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians–a defeat from which the nation of Israel never really recovered (unless you count the founding of modern Israel roughly 2,500 years later!).
Still, that was then. That is history. So what does Isaiah 5 have to teach us now? After all, we are not living in ancient Israel or any kind of divinely sanctioned theocratic nation. Nowhere does the New Testament tell followers of Christ to form their own nation, adopting the laws of ancient Israel lock, stock, and barrel. As some of you know, there is a group which recommends just that. They are called “Theonomists” or “Reconstructionists” who believe that if America is truly to be God’s country, then Old Testament-like laws need to be adopted here, including the death penalty for gays, adulterers, and rebellious children.
But does that mean that for Christians in the church today 86% of the Bible’s talk about public justice is just an historical footnote? How are we to appropriate God’s love of justice and righteousness? That is not an easy question to answer. It needs to be wrestled with. But few can plausibly deny that God’s yen for justice has economic and human rights implications.
“I am the true vine, you are the branches,” Jesus famously said. Why didn’t Jesus simply say “I am the vine”? Why did he nuance it as the “true vine”? Commentators think it was because Jesus was harking back to Old Testament passages like Isaiah 5. Israel should have been God’s true and genuine vineyard, but she wasn’t. Only stinky grapes got produced off Israel’s vines in the long run. So God chucked it and ultimately started over with Jesus, the true vine of God. Here at last was the kind of fruit God had wanted all along.
But we are the branches of that vine. If grapes grow, they grow in our lives. So although our situation is vastly different from ancient Israel, many of the same ideas about justice then need to be of concern for us now. Christian people of good conscience may disagree on some of the specifics as to how this gets carried out but that a way must be found to embody God’s love of justice should be beyond dispute. Christian preachers need to keep that in front of God’s people.
Isaiah 5 is finally a passage about justice in ancient Israel. More specifically, it is about the lack of justice in Israel–a deficit which caused God great pain. In fact, as my seminary classmate Reggie Smith once said, Isaiah 5 is a little like “God Singing the Blues.” If you are familiar with the jazz genre of the Blues, then you know that most such songs are about unrequited love or love gone bad.
Billie Holiday was probably the greatest Blues singer as she crooned lyrics like:
“Without your love I’m like a song without words, a nest without birds, a plane without wings, a violin without strings, without your love.”
“Lady sings the blues, she’s got ’em bad, she feels so sad.”
“You’ve changed–that sparkle in your eyes is gone, your smile is just an aching yawn. You’ve changed, you’re bored with me in every way. You’ve changed. You’ve forgotten the words ‘I love you’ and each memory that we share. It’s all over now. You’ve changed.”
That’s the Blues!
And Isaiah 5 is God singing the Blues.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 14, 2022
Isaiah 5:1-7 Commentary