We’ve spent 8 weeks looking at the church in the 1st century; now we’re speeding back 800 years or so to the time of King Uzziah. So I’d better give you a bit of background.
A little over 1000 years before Jesus was born, the nation of Israel wanted a king. The Lord God had made it clear that they didn’t need one, but they insisted, because they wanted to be like all the nations around about them. So they got Saul, then David and then his son, Solomon. So far, so reasonably good. Solomon’s reign was a time of peace and prosperity. Although he was given wisdom to rule the land, his son, Rehoboam – who inherited the throne of Israel, after Solomon died – did not. He refused to listen to good advice and soon the kingdom of Israel was split into two separate kingdoms. The northern part, which consisted of 10 tribes – the descendants of 10 of Jacob’s sons, retained the name of Israel. The southern part, consisting of two tribes, became known as the nation of Judah. Jerusalem was in Judah, and Jerusalem was where the temple was located. With the reign of Rehoboam, Israel began a spiritual downhill spiral. At the time of this text here in Isaiah, Uzziah was king. Uzziah was a good king, for the most part, but the spiritual condition of the nation was decidedly downwards. & now their very existence was being threatened by the armies of Assyria.
Isaiah the prophet saw that threat – the Assyrians bearing down on them – as proof that God was judging His people; they had had every chance, every opportunity, but they had blown it; they had wandered far, very far, from the way that God had chosen for them. So here in Isaiah 5 he’s speaking to the people in the form of a parable, the parable of the failed vineyard.
I’d like to imagine that when he delivered this word, Isaiah was in the temple, during the Feast of Tabernacles, around 725BC. The Feast of the Tabernacles was one when people gathered together to remember the tents they had lived in many years before & as they waited they maybe sang in small groups or just on their own; the environment was informal, as people waited for the big event, the climax of the festival, when sacrifices would begin. Some of the people there may even have been a little drunk from drinking too much of the early wine. This year’s crop from Israel’s vineyards had been good & they had a lot to be thankful for.
So there’s Isaiah – a priest, so he would have been distinctively dressed – & he caused something of a stir as people rushed to hear this new voice. His presence, his charisma we might say, as well as his voice drew a lot of people around him to listen to what he had to say.
The opening lines of his song (vss.1-2) described the typical work of the vine grower, the preparations he made and the failure he encountered. Many people in the audience would have been familiar with that experience. As they listened to his next lines, (vss. 3-4) they empathized with the depth of his tragedy. In a year when so many others had reaped an abundant harvest, the vine stock he had planted had yielded only wild grapes. Something tragic had happened & thus far, his audience would have been sympathetic with this farmer’s plight.
But suddenly the metre of the song – the pace & rhythm of the song – changed. In short abrupt words anger burst forth. His disappointment had turned to fury. He will devastate the vineyard that failed so miserably (vss. 5-6.) & still, many people would have agreed with his decision. It was the only thing to do; there’s no point labouring to rescue bad plants; you just rip them out & you have to start again.
But then the knife gets twisted: the prophet uttered the real meaning of his song (vs.7). The vineyard was a metaphor, a picture of God’s people; and the devastation that was to come was His judgment against them for their rebellion against God, their wandering off, their disobedience.
The vineyard owner is God, and the vineyard is the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The plentiful harvest for which God hoped was a just society & righteous people, but the inedible grapes that God received instead are violence and oppression. The Hebrew words for “justice” and “righteousness” are mishpat and tsedaqah, while the words for “bloodshed” and “cry” (NRSV) are mispakh and tse‘aqah. It is difficult to recreate the wordplay in another language, but we can try:
He hoped for justice, / But behold, injustice; / For equity, / But behold, iniquity!
You can imagine the shock that swept through the crowd as the prophet stared at them, meeting eye after eye until heads turned away in dismay and shame as he pressed home his message.
Through Isaiah, God is saying that He has done everything necessary to make them the most blessed nation on the face of the earth, but they had abused His blessings. Instead of sweet smelling wine, the vineyard produced only stinking (that’s the literal meaning of the Hebrew here) grapes, rancid, rotten grapes.
So let me try to expand on the meaning of these verses by making a couple of observations: Wild grapes look a lot like good grapes. Tineke and I have cycled hundreds of kilometres through France, quite a lot of it through vineyards in the hills and valleys west of Paris, next to the Loire river and further south in the Bordeaux area. & even close up, you wouldn’t know whether the grapes were sweet & fine, or useless & bitter. & here’s observation number 2: wealth looks a lot like a prosperity-blessing from God. You see, in the time of King Uzziah, we believe that people were actually pretty well off; & the temptation when times are good is to think that God’s blessing you. Oh no: look up, look out, look beyond your vineyard & see, the massed armies of the Assyrians: they’re coming to get you!
So if that’s the broader picture & the background; what then, of the detail? How did things get to this sorry pass? &, more to the point, what does this say to us, today, in Colombo, 2019? v5 tells us that the vineyard was hedged round, protected: last week we sang something like this in the famous 23rd psalm: The Lord’s my shepherd: that sense that God protects us from danger. & Isaiah goes on, v2, he dug it and cleared it of stones: the soil will produce precious little without this – & the land in Israel to this day is stoney and difficult in places. & this is true of your life & mine: there are obstacles & hindrances to faith – selfishness, the desire to keep control of everything, past hurts, worries about the future, materialism: all these things hinder us; we will produce precious little fruit if our lives are littered with these hindrances. & so v2 goes on to say that God planted it with choice vines. There’s nothing sweeter or more attractive than the awareness that God is with us; faith & love are gifts which are totally, utterly priceless; & God alone plants those gifts in our lives. He even built a watchtower, v3, keeping guard against the enemy: don’t we pray it every week: deliver us from evil & lead us not into temptation?
So, the underlying question that God is asking through Isaiah is this: What more could I do for my vineyard? What other blessings could I have given you? & this, the knife-twisting question: When I expected it to yield good grapes, why did it yield bitter, useless ones? We have everything we need; why, then, is the harvest so poor?
& the final little detail is this: these verses are a love-song: the singer, who of course is God, has a beloved – the vineyard; the vineyard is his bride. We sometimes speak of the church as the bride of Christ.
David Garber writes: “In congregations (like ours), this passage becomes a challenge. Are we using our privilege to produce the sweet wine of justice in our society? Or does our tendency to hide behind our privilege result in the stench of injustice that displeases the God whom we claim to worship?” Ouch! But this song is not just about justice; it’s also about righteousness – it’s personal: being right with God & leading good lives.
It’s not for me, today of all days, to judge, but we can all see that in our church today we have good wine & we have some bitter stuff too. & on a personal level, we can surely all see that in some areas of our life there is sweetness; whilst in other areas, there’s a wild bitterness that none of us is proud of.
So what to do about this? How do we get back to being fruitful, producing good fruit? Well, we thought about that a few weeks ago when we looked at Galatians and Colossians: the fruit of the Spirit & fruitful lives. As we look inwards, we can discern the darkness; we can see the dark wolf who’s waiting to dominate & we can choose instead to feed the light wolf. We can resist the temptation to do as others do & we can choose to be an example of grace, kindness & love. We can uproot the bitter grapes from our own lives…
& for some of us, it needs more than this; some of us need to go deeper & throw out the stones that hinder growth. You’ll know yourself what they are; the Holy Spirit shines His light to reveal them & in our quieter moments of reflection we see them in all their ugly uselessness. Those stones need to be chucked out: greed, selfishness, gossip, bitterness, anger, the desire for revenge. No life will produce the sweet wine of love whilst those stones are in the way. You know that.
So my prayer for you, as we take our separate ways, is this: that you come to produce sweet wine & nothing but sweet wine; that as individuals you produce the fruit of the Spirit – of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, humility and self-control. & that as a church you grow in true fellowship and love; I’m sure that this is what the Lord wants of you; that’s the harvest he wants; He has enabled it to happen, so, in the words of the Beatles’ song: Let it be!