It is easy to give up and even give in to worldly values; to imagine that God doesn’t care about fair and right living, and that selfish pride is the way to thrive. Malachi reminds us that a day is coming when we will again know better.
The Lord says, “You said cruel things to me.” But you ask, “What did we say about you?”
You said, “It is useless to worship God. We did what the Lord All-Powerful told us, but we didn’t gain
anything. We cried like people at a funeral to show we were sorry for our sins, but it didn’t help.
[Now] We think proud people are happy. Evil people succeed. They do evil things to test God’s
patience, and God does not punish them.”
Then the Lord’s followers spoke with each other, and the Lord listened to them... The Lord said,
“They belong to me… Parents are very kind to their children who obey them. In the same way I will be
kind to my followers. You people will come back to me, and you will learn the difference between good
and evil. You will learn the difference between someone who follows God and someone who does not. (ERV)
John the Baptist did not lose sight of the right way to follow God. He understood his role and place in the world. But his disciples did get confused over what indicated thriving. In their pride they imagined a need to compete with Jesus for the most followers. Therefore,
His disciples came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the
Jordan, about whom you testified—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him!” John answered,
“A man cannot receive a single thing, unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves
are witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ The one who has the
bride is the bridegroom. But the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and listens for him, is overjoyed
when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine is now complete. (EHV)
Message Covenant Care - Covenant Pride Isaiah 5:1-7
John the Baptist presents himself to his disciples as – for lack of a better equivalent in modern language – as the best man. But the role went far beyond what it is today. This dear friend listened and stood for the groom because ancient custom allowed no contact between the couple before the marriage. He was the official intermediary who negotiated the marriage contract and represented the groom if there were any comp-laints against the bride to be.
In Isaiah 5, the imagery begins with this man standing to address the huge gathering. He draws them in with what sounds like a light musical “toast to the couple”.
Now let me sing for my friend a song of my friend for his vineyard, a vineyard belonging to my
friend in a very fruitful hill. (Isaiah 5:1*)
We might wonder how the groom’s vineyard gets into the mix. But back then, in poetry and music, it wasn’t unusual to describe a bride in those terms, not in the sense of property, but as comparative traits of valuable beauty… (See Song of Songs 4:12, 4:4, 7:4,8,9). In the rose-colored glasses of this groom, he saw her as a person of great value and great promise. And this vineyard is equated to the promised land of Canaan (flowing with milk and honey).
He proceeded to dig it, then to clear it (of stones) then to plant it (with) choice vines. Then
to build a watch-tower in it and even a winepress he hewed out in it,
(Isaiah 5:2a emphasis added)
Now the best man’s song moves fully into the vineyard image. He sings that the groom dug the ground, meaning a most thorough working of the field, breaking the hard ground necessary to receive young and tender plants. He removed all the stones that would prevent growth, and used them to create walls around the field, protecting it from sheep and other grazing animals. Then he planted the highest quality vines. On top of that, he built (rather than the ordinary shelter) the better, taller stone tower with thatched palm branches for the roof to better watch over the rich field. And not only that, he carved out an on-site winepress as well. In other words, no expense or labor spared, no corners were cut. This was a top notch highest quality lavishing of care and investment of energy.
He waited for it to produce grapes, (Isaiah 5:2b emphasis added)
All of this diligent cultivating, weeding, irrigating, washing and pruning happened while the gardener actively waited, anticipating excellent results. This “waiting” is mentioned two more times in this short 7 verse song. That means the enduring care-giving patience of the gardener is a critically emphasized characteristic of the gardener, (the groom). There can be no accusation of not giving the crop more than enough time to flourish… This anticipate objections --
but then it made stinking things. (Isaiah 5:2c)
-- for our light-hearted optimistic toast has a sudden, shocking twist. The field has produced a “bad” crop. The word is unique, so not easily translated. Some interpretations say it could mean that the field produced thorny plants or thistles that choke the vines and are highly inflammable (I had to look that up flammable means something will catch fire when ignited, inflammable means that under the right conditions something will catch fire without an igniting force, and non-flammable means something won’t (easily) catch fire. This type of growth had the potential of being a serious destructive force, or it could mean that the vines grew wild, or had a bad smell or stink, or that the fruit was unripe, spoiled, rotten, and/or the grapes have a bitter, sour taste… But however it is translated, the gist is that the all of these best efforts led to a horrible crop.
The “best man” has recited how much love and care and investment the gardener has placed in his field -- how much effort the patient and diligent groom has graciously placed into investing in and loving his bride to be--but now he accuses the woman of being unfaithful -- and the image shifts to family court. The case has already been laid, about what the groom has done and what the bride has failed to do with more than ample time to respond to his love -- The voice now changes to the gardener/groom himself. He says, or is quoted to say,
And now inhabitant of Jerusalem and man of Judah judge, (Isaiah 5:3a)
(“inhabitant” and “man” are singular collectives. Think the word “you” -- it looks singular but can refer to many as one group as in “y’all”)
And now inhabitant of Jerusalem and man of Judah judge, I pray, between me and my vineyard!
What (was there) more to do a for my vineyard that I did not do with it? Why did I wait for (it)
to produce grapes but then it bore stinking things? (Isaiah 5:3-4)
What went wrong? What else could have been done?
He appeals to the gathered community -- many of them vineyard owners themselves, to gain support and judge the case between the couple. The question that underlies the entire song is “What went wrong? What more could he have done to have a bountiful harvest, a faithful wife?” The grammatical construction (which is beyond me) but scholars say it indicates that every possible necessary action (by the gardener/groom) has been fulfilled. There is no fault lying with him.
No words are put in the mouths of the crowd, but the assumption is that there are no suggestions of incorrect actions or additional actions available.
The voice changes again, and this time the Lord as Judge is pronouncing judgment on the field. The relationship between the gardener and the field has been severed and the field will -- well, hear God’s pronouncement:
And now, please let me announce to you What I am going to do for my vineyard! Its hedge is removed -
it shall be (open to) grazing. Its wall broken down— it shall be (open to) trampling. So I will make it a
waste. It will not be pruned, not be hoed. It shall surely grow up (as) thorns and bushes. And upon the
clouds I will lay a command not to rain on it. (Isaiah 5:5-6)
The natural consequences of growing outside the boundaries, of not cooperating with the gardener -- loss of protection, exposed to the elements, to enemies, to trampling, the neglect making them susceptible to drought… When a field receives such a major disaster, it may not recover for years. Again, the people’s silence agreed with the field’s fault and with the resulting pronouncement. It is what they would do with a field that yields nothing.
The rapid movement from affectionate love ballad turned trial accusation dialing into destruction of the relationship amplifies the shocking and devastating turn of events. And if we haven’t read ahead, all that remains is the big reveal -- the punchline.
(See 2 Samuel 12:1ff) It is likened to the prophet Nathan when he speaks to King David and tells him a parable about a rich man who robs a poor man – as the story is fleshed out David becomes incensed along with Nathan at the injustice of the rich man in the story, and then the story ends and Nathan drives the point home to David: “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7a) and then records God saying in essence, “and after all I’ve done for you, too.”
And here in Isaiah, the voice changes again - now it is the prophet announcing to the people the main players of this musical story.
The vineyard of the Lord who rules over all is the nation of Israel. The people of Judah are the
vines he took delight in. (Isaiah 5:7a (NIRV))
The big reveal is that God is the groom, the landowner, and the gathered community is the unfaithful wife, the field that had every advantage yet yielded terrible fruit. And all of a sudden, they realize that they were the guilty ones, and the judgment that they completely agreed with -- was on them.
They realized that the long period of time and care and skill required to build up a successful vineyard make it an excellent metaphor for God's care of his people. Psalm 80:8 says,
When you brought us out of Egypt, we were like your special vine. (ERV) You chased other
nations away and planted us here. (CEV)
And in that planting and care for his special people, he expected what he has always expected of his people throughout the Bible: Justice and righteousness, or as Jesus puts it -- to love God and to love others, doing for them what you would want them to do for you if the foot was in the other shoe. But instead,
When he waited for justice, behold bloodshed! For righteousness,
behold a cry of distress! (Isaiah 5:7b)
As if the imagery of marriage and court and farming weren’t enough literary device -- he now uses word play (it doesn’t translate into English so it is displayed to the right) to drive the point home powerfully and memorably, to draw out the contrast between quality grapes (people) and “stinkers”. His people, instead of treating people fairly according to the Law, they produced bloodshed -- a strong visual for lawlessness and sin, and instead of creating right living and right relationships, all God heard were the cries of people suffering from political and social violence and oppression.
How did it all go wrong?
The underlying question surfaces again. How did it all go wrong? One typical answer was found in our Malachi reading. There, as is often through the Bible and church history; people are blessed by being graciously chosen to be God’s people and privileged to be under his extraordinary covenant care. But then they develop a covenant pride that goes to their head and they treat their status and blessings not as something to be stewards of, as resources to fulfill God’s call and mission -- but as resources to hoard and to use to take advantage of others, unfairly gaining even more to themselves. And in God’s patience, there doesn’t seem to be any instant consequence.
Actions by the oppressors cause circumstantial struggles for the faithful who then imagine that evil strategies are happily advancing the successful (See Psalm 73:esp 12-13). When the reward seems to go to the faithless rather than the faithful, the sinking feeling is that serving God is useless, and more and more turn from the golden rule to exploitation, ravaging, and oppressive practices as well as other values that displease God. The “whole field” turns more and more sour; and the people that once had every privilege were now facing inevitable judgment. (See John 15:6)
And now it dawns on the people that they are not hearing a toast at a wedding event, or a presentation at family court, but they are listening to the opening bars of a requiem, a funeral. It introduces and explains the fitting and understandable reasons they have gathered -- to mourn the death of a nation that had once held such promise as the chosen bride of God, whose patient endurance and care-filled planning could plant a flourishing vineyard, raise a people, and cultivate a nation, but was resisted and rejected, and every turn.
What of the bride of Christ?
The question is, will the bride of Christ, the people who follow Christ and his ways learn from history? Or will we only succeed only in repeating the mistakes of our heritage? Will we humbly seek to be productive in God’s mission and purpose for us? Or will we too hoard the grace and blessings of Christ and use them selfishly for our own advancement?
One nice thing -- God’s patience never changes. In Luke 13:6-8, Jesus told a parable about a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, (this was not an unusual practice to plant a fig or other fruit tree in the vineyard) and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. For three years this tree had been consuming soil nutrients and taking up space –the time it takes a tree to reach full maturity -- and the general rule is, if it doesn’t bear fruit by then, it usually won’t produce fruit - ever. Three years was ample time. So the owner told the gardener to dig it up, it was taking up time, taking up space, wasting valuable soil that we could be using for something productive. But the gardener asked for yet another year where he would lavish even more care on it, hoping it will come around and produce fruit.
God is always more than patient in waiting for us and helping us to play our role in helping God fulfill his mission in his world through us – that we will love God and others through his powerful, amazing grace. Malachi passage concluded by reminding us that God is kind to us, to those who still remain faithful.
Thank you for the role that you play in your homes, church, and community, humbly representing Christ in your life to others.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your power and your patience with us. You work with us and in us, gifting us to be what you desire us to be in your vineyard. We accept your presence in our hearts, we strive to cooperate with your way, so that you will break the power of sin and darkness within us, restoring order within, for you took our place among the chaos of our life -- realigning our priorities so that we can be set free to remain faithful by your grace. Amen.
Closing Music This is Amazing Grace
Closing Blessing Now may the beauty of God be reflected in your eyes, the love of God be reflected in your hands, the wisdom of God be reflected in your words, and the knowledge of God flow from your heart, that all might see, and seeing, believe and become a part of his great bride…
* Translation of Isaiah 5:1-7 is by John D.W. Watts in the Word Biblical Commentary unless otherwise indicated.