The Song of the Vineyard audio (5MB)
I grew up in the 60’s listening to the Beatles. If you know anything about their music you’ll know that most of it was love songs: ‘I want to hold your hand’, ‘She loves you’, ‘From me to you’. And it was a winner because everyone loves a love song and everyone can relate to them. Of course not every love song is a happy one. Sometimes they’re more like a lament. That boy took my love away but this boy, wants you back again. She’s ignoring him, he comes to her door and there’s No Reply. I can’t sleep at night since you’ve been gone, ... I call your name.
Well Isaiah gathers the people of Jerusalem together and sings them a love song which turns out to be a parable. It starts out very happy like a good love song
The Hope of a Harvest
You can imagine the people settling down to hear this song of love and devotion. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.” If you’ve been out along the Yarra Valley lately you can imagine the scene. Rolling hills, green fields, rows of vines lining the road as you pass by. A stone farmhouse in the middle. It’s an idyllic description isn’t it? The watchtower indicates that he’s here for the long haul. And he’s dug a wine vat to store the wine so he must expect a great harvest. Everything that could be done for the vineyard has been done. The best position, the best soil, the choicest vines.
But then like every good parable we come to the sting in the tail.
The Failure of the Fruit
“He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Grapes, that is, that were too small or sour to be used. You can imagine his listeners gasping in amazement at this turn of events. What’s gone wrong? All his expectations have been dashed. Did he do something wrong perhaps? That’s the question Isaiah puts to the people of Jerusalem. “ 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” The implication appears to be that the fault is not with the farmer but with the vineyard itself. There’s something that’s not right that’s stopping it from bearing the right fruit.
The Verdict on the Vineyard
So what will the farmer do? “5I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briars and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” The only solution for a vineyard whose soil is tainted is to abandon it. To leave it to be overrun. To stop wasting your energy and resources on it.
And then Isaiah delivers the punch line: “7For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Suddenly the parable hits home. He’s been talking about us. We’re the vineyard. We’re the ones who have failed to bear good fruit, despite all of God’s care and attention.
And what is it that’s led to this verdict from God?
Well it’s all there in vs 8-23: Greed, v8, self-indulgence, v11, flaunting of sin while presuming on God’s goodness, v18, justification of sin, v20 through redefinition and glorification vs21-22 and finally their greed has led to bribery and corruption v23.
The Identification of Israel
The power of the accusation comes from the description of the people of Judah as his pleasant planting or more poetically the garden of his delight, v7. These are the people that God has taken delight in. He’s given them everything: a fertile land, protection, guidance and all he asked of them was to bear good fruit.
Look at v7: “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry; or as one translator put it: he looked for the right but saw riots, for decency but found despair.
Of course he’s right isn’t he? The whole history of Israel is a tale of failure. They’ve repeatedly failed to follow God, to do what he said. Joshua had warned them that it was all too hard for them. And now they’d come to the point where they didn’t even realise what they were doing. The judgement that would follow would be a case of both God acting to judge and the natural consequences of their own actions.
The Import of the Parable
First God would tear down the double line of protection he’s provided, the wall and the hedge around them v5. The land will be devoured and trampled by invaders. It’ll become overgrown with briers and thorn v6, That’s possibly an allusion to Gen 3 to the curse on the ground which would now produce thorns and thistles. And finally God says that he’ll withhold rain from the land. That is all that gives them life, v6.
But there are also natural consequences: “8Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” They thought they were just following a good economic rationalist model, but in fact it was a failure to provide justice and righteousness. I mean if you want to compete in a world economy, the only way to do it is to automate your factories and get rid of your workers. Forget the problem of unemployment. That’s someone else’s problem. Besides which, the trickle down effect will fix them up in the end. That’s the sort of thinking that was going on then, just as it is now. But they’d forgotten that the land was a gift from God, to be shared out equally among all the people. And so the rich were exploiting the poor and taking over their land. So instead of justice, the righting of wrongs, he found bloodshed, the inflicting of wrongs. Instead of righteousness, or right relationships, he hears cries of distress. Can you hear the echo there of the cries of the people when they were in slavery in Egypt? The call to righteous living in Deuteronomy was on the basis that they were once slaves in Egypt and God had delivered them. But that had now been forgotten, and people were now being enslaved by those of their own nation.
And so God was going to act in judgement on them “9The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 10For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah. [that is, about a tenth of what was sown]” What had been promised as a land of plenty would become the opposite. The land-hungry would end up just plain hungry, despite all their land.
Then there are those who have turned to a life of indulgence: “11Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine, 12whose feasts consist of lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine, but who do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands!” Their thirst for sensual indulgence has deadened their minds to what God is doing in the world. In fact there’s a sense in which this is the aim of their lifestyle. They rise in order to get drunk. They linger in the evening for the same reason.
This is not unlike our day is it? How many people today turn to alcohol to deaden their perception or their experience of the realities of life? But of course it won’t help them. You can’t escape reality. All you’ll do is lose your spiritual perception. All you’ll achieve is a blindness to God and what he’s doing: “12[they] do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands!” And the end result: “13Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge; their nobles are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst.” Failing to feed on God’s word leaves people dying of spiritual hunger and thirst, going into exile in ignorance.
This is a terrible word of judgement isn’t it, when you think of all the promise that was there as they entered the land, as they began to claim it as their own. When you think of the kingdom established in the time of David and then Solomon. And now it’s come to this. The people are about to go into exile without really understanding why. Their leaders have so failed them that they don’t even understand what they’ve done wrong. Their knowledge of God is totally lacking. Yet ignorance is no excuse. It’s the leaders who have failed, but the whole nation will suffer.
But as I mentioned last week, this is a tragedy that repeats itself. The same sort of message is given by Malachi years after the people have returned from exile. (Mal 2:1-2 NRSV) "And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart." That’s the same message isn’t it? If you won’t listen to the Lord his judgement will come on you.
And as we come to the New Testament we find Jesus berating the Pharisees because although they claim to know the Scriptures, they’re in fact blind to them. They’ve closed their ears and their eyes to God’s revelation. And so the kingdom would be taken from them and given to others. That is, to us.
But let’s remember, all of these people were called by God to be his special people. The danger they faced of failing to live up to their part of the covenant with God is just as much a danger for us. That’s why Jesus warned his followers that to follow him requires us to give up everything, to take up our cross. He warned us not to look back once we’ve put our hand to the plow. If we want to follow Jesus then we have to give him everything. He has to be priority No 1.
And listen to what God says at the end of the New Testament to one of the 7 Churches of Asia: (Rev 3:14-18 NRSV) “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation: ‘15I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Here was a church that had grown up in the great spiritual awakening of the first century, but now only 50 or 60 years after Jesus death, they were in danger of being rejected by God, the same way the people of Israel were in Isaiah’s time. Never let us become complacent about our faithfulness to our calling or about our success as a church or about the warmth of the fellowship we enjoy here. Remember that “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
But let’s remember, too, that God is a God of grace and mercy. Listen to how he finishes that letter to the church at Laodicea: (Rev 3:19-21 NIV) "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne." God never rejects his people totally. The people of Israel were sent into exile for a short time to bring them to repentance, and then God brought them back again. The warning to the church at Laodicea was intended to bring them to repentance, to renew their devotion to God. We too need to read these accounts as warnings to us not to do the same things, not to become complacent, but to persevere, knowing that God has a great reward prepared for us. What reward? That we will sit with Christ on the throne with God the Father. To receive it what do we have to do? We have to conquer, we have to keep going faithfully to the end. We have to avoid the pitfalls that the people of Judah had fallen into. Greed, flagrant sinfulness, explaining away God’s law, a lack of justice and self-indulgence. Instead we have to strive to live lives that reflect God’s nature in the way we relate to other people and in the way we relate to God, in the way we worship him. That’ll mean living lives of integrity, doing what we say we believe; being people who are what we claim to be. And it’ll mean being people who are continually turning back to God in repentance and recommitment. That was what was required of the people of Isaiah’s day. If they’d repented when they heard Isaiah’s voice they would have been saved from exile and death. Their kingdom might have continued even to this day. But their failure to repent meant God’s judgement coming on them.
Let’s make sure that we learn from their failure and be people who are always seeking to turn back to God in obedience and commitment. Let’s work at being a Church that seeks in all we do to serve God faithfully and in the end to win through to God’s throne room and the place he has reserved for us.