Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
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 briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
I was recently listening to NPR when they were doing a story on how the wildfires in California were impacting vineyards and the production of wine. Naturally, wildfires are a huge threat to productivity, when they can completely wipe out a vineyard. But as I listened, I also learned a little bit more about the care and management of vineyards. Cultivating healthy grape vines is actually quite a fine art that takes a lot of care, patience, wisdom, and, of course, cooperative weather/soil/environment, etc. There are many things that can go wrong in the process that can lead to a failure to produce good, healthy, and flavorful grapes. I imagine that it must be highly stressful work to be a vintner. You have to work hard to manage the “just right” conditions, and even if you do everything according to plan, wildfires (among other things) can still come along and mess everything up.
In the Isaiah 5, the prophet begins to sing a song about a vineyard and a vintner. This vintner loved his vineyard and put everything he had into it. He managed to get the “just right” conditions. He built a watchtower so he could see and protect the vineyard from anything that threatened to come in a wipe it out. The vintner did everything according to plan. And then… and then… the time came for the crop. The grapes should have been perfect. But the grapevines yielded only bad fruit. It was all sour grapes.
In v. 3, the text shifts from the prophet singing a song about a vineyard and a vintner to God speaking in the first person. We realize that the vintner is God, and God is angry about the failed crop of the vineyard that he so carefully and attentively cultivated. God is ready to destroy the vineyard. He’s ready to let the proverbial wildfires come in and make it a wasteland where only briars and thorns can be found. In v. 7, we find out that the vineyard is representative of the southern kingdom of Judah (which is where Isaiah did his prophetic work).
But what exactly was the “bad fruit” of Judah? What was it that made God so angry with his people? The prophets in both the northern and southern kingdoms tended to have two main criticisms that they articulated over and over again: the people needed to stop worshipping idols and the people needed to stop inflicting injustices upon the vulnerable. In this instance, the accusation against the people of Judah falls in line with the second of the two criticisms: where there should justice (mishpat), there is bloodshed (mispakh), and where there should be righteousness (tsedaqah), there are cries of distress (tse’aqah).
Justice here does not simply mean appropriate punishment for wrongdoings. Justice, in the biblical sense, has a much greater breadth of meaning. Justice is about the world being as it should. It is about wrongs being made right. It is about a vision of a society where the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable, and rather than exploitation, there is equity. Justice is about a social order where all of God’s people flourish.
Similarly, righteousness also has a social component. While the word “righteousness” for us often connotes a sort of personal purity and piety, in the biblical sense, righteousness is also relational. It has a connotation of “doing right” by one another.
If justice is about creating a right order where all people can flourish, righteousness is about each person looking out for their neighbors. That sounds like the kind of world I want to be a part of. That is certainly the kind of world God hoped his people would work to create. But instead of finding justice and righteousness, God finds bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds manipulation, exploitation, and everyone only looking out for number one. Let the vineyard be destroyed, God declares.
But then, a few chapters later, we shift metaphors, but we see that God does not leave God’s people to be destroyed, after all. Instead, we find God proclaiming anew the vision of justice and righteousness that God has for God’s people. God has not given up hope!
Some days, when I look at the world around me, I become overwhelmed. On those days, I become pessimistic at best, and nihilistic at worst. I get angry at all of the ways in which we, as human beings hurt one another. I feel rage at the evil we commit. I feel like I understand Isaiah’s vineyard song.
But God doesn’t leave us with the vineyard song. God leaves us with the image of the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse. God leaves us with new life coming out of that which appears to be dead. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor and needy. It’s good news to those who are crushed beneath the wheels of injustice. It’s good news to those who are trampled by unrighteousness. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – one that comes into existence through the gift of the Spirit. As you meditate today upon these words of Scripture, may God instill in you the vision of the kingdom and courage of the Spirit to work toward its reality.
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o Where, in our world, do you see injustice and unrighteousness?
o Where do you catch glimpses of God’s kingdom being made a reality? What can you do to be a part of that?
Enjoy some grapes, or fruit, or other type of food that comes from the ground. As you eat and taste the sweetness of the food, meditate on this passage again. As you think on it while engaging your senses in this different way, pay attention to what new insights or thoughts God might be showing you.
Consider an injustice that is occurring in your own community. It might be related to food security, access to medical care, or any number of things. Identify one thing that you can immediately do about it, and then do it. It may be as simple as taking food to a neighbor who sometimes goes without or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. It could be volunteering with an organization that directly addresses social needs. It might even be working to change or create laws that care for the most vulnerable.
God, you are the great vintner and you continue to nurture your vineyard. You want your vineyard to be a place where all vines can flourish. You want your vineyard to be a place where all may find the sweetest of fruit. Cultivate me, that I might be a vine rooted in Jesus Christ. Prune me, that I might bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. Through your Spirit, may I work with you, as you give me a vision of your world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.