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Isaiah 5:1-7

Philip Yancey’s classic book Disappointment With God reminds us that we are not the only ones disappointed with life at times. God is too. While honestly wrestling with the unsettling question of why a good God allows good people to suffer, Yancey turns things around and asks what it feels like to be God in such a world. Taking a survey through the Bible, he finds a God who feels the pain of the human condition and clearly bears his own frustration with the way his world has gone. Isaiah 5:1-7 is one of those passages that highlights this sense of divine disappointment.

Isaiah compares God to a diligent vineyard keeper who becomes severely disappointed with his crop. The vineyard keeper does everything possible to make his crop productive. Yet it yields “wild grapes,” literally “stinking fruit” (v 2). As verse 7 reveals, the vineyard is a metaphor for God’s people. They had been given every opportunity to get it right, but had not done so. God “looked for justice” among his people, but only saw “bloodshed.” He desired the fruit of “righteousness” in their daily lives, but only heard “a cry” of distress (v 7). Here Isaiah employs powerful wordplay to make his point. The Hebrew words for “justice” (mishpat) and “bloodshed” (mishpach) sound alike as do the words “righteousness” (tsedaqah) and “a cry” (tse’aqah). We might catch some of the poetry, if not the exact word meanings, by translating: “He looked for equity, but found iniquity; for a right living, but found loud lamenting.”

The rest of Isaiah’s message in vv 8-30 identifies seven specific examples of what the stinking fruit of injustice and unrighteousness looked like. They are: grasping for possessions at the expense of others (vv 8-10), living from one pleasure to the next (vv 11-17), making fun of God and his people (vv 18-19), rewriting the rules of right and wrong (v 20), making heroes of people with misplaced values (v 21), and taking advantage of innocent people while excusing liars and cheats (vv 22-23).

Hopefully none of this takes place in our world today. Or does it? What a stark contrast to “the fruit of the Spirit” Paul listed in Galatians 5:22-23. According to Paul, good fruit in a person’s life includes: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This is the kind of fruit God is looking for in his people.

As Isaiah’s song conveys, bearing bad fruit carries consequences. The vine keeper (God) withdrew his labors and allowed the vineyard (Israel) to become “a waste” filled with “briers and thorns” (v 6). With hedges and fences torn down wild animals freely foraged and trampled its plants (v 5). This is a striking picture of a person’s life apart from God. Those “beastly” adversities from which God often protects us begin to take free range in our lives. Without the nurturing hand of God to guide us through them we can feel as though we have become a wasteland.

Fortunately we know that this is not the end of the story. Isaiah’s song of the vineyard concludes on a note of judgment, but other messages in the book tell us that this is not God’s last word. God allows his people to feel the impact of their life choices, but he does not leave them there. Throughout the book of Isaiah God invites his people to return to him and be restored. One day God intends to sing a new song “about a fruitful vineyard” when “Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:2-6 NIV).

Another word of hope in the vineyard song can be found in verse 2. The description of God’s care for the vineyard in that verse provides creative images of divine providence. As Isaiah indicates, preparing the rocky soil of the Judean hills to grow grapes required the labor intensive work of clearing stones. Yet, as troublesome as these stones might have been initially, the vine keeper did not discard them. He repurposed them to create terraces, fences and a watchtower. Terraces were needed to catch water during the rainy season and fences helped keep out wild animals. The watchtower was needed so the vine keeper could guard his vineyard against thieves, birds or stray animals when fruit emerged. Additionally, some stones might be placed around the root of a plant in order to capture condensation from the warm humid morning air and hold moisture in the ground during the heat of the day.

The description of this back breaking work gives us an image of God’s determination to transform a human life as well as the process by which that might be accomplished. God can take “stones” that seem like obstacles to growth in our lives and use them to bear fruit. What might seem useless to us becomes useful to God. As we watch the very thing that appeared to be a hindrance to growth be repurposed for good, we realize that God wastes nothing in our lives.

In John 15, Jesus also used the vineyard metaphor to expand our understanding of life with God. He pictured himself as “the true vine” and his Father as “the vinegrower” (John 15:1). Those who follow Christ are “the branches” that can only bear fruit as they remain attached to (“abide in”) him (v 5). This is the secret to bearing good fruit and thus fulfilling the hopes of the Vinegrower. Three times Isaiah mentions how the vineyard keeper longed for the vines to become fruitful. He “expected” fruit on the vines (Isaiah 5:2, 4, 7). In each case, the term “expected” translates a Hebrew word qawah, which connotes hopeful anticipation. It highlights the never dying longing of God for his people to draw their life from him.