Note: Isaiah 5:1-7 is one part of a broader literary unit which may be divided into three parts as follows: 1) The Song or Parable of the vineyard, verses 1-7; 2) woes condemning social injustice, verses 8-24; 3) the consequences of Judah’s complacency and sin, verses 25-30.
The “Song of the vineyard” is “A classic parable likening the ungrateful and irresponsive Israel to a carefully tended but inexplicably unfruitful vine (see Hosea 10:1; Jer 2:21; 510; 6:9; 12:10; Ezek 15:1-8; Mark 12:1-12). The parable was probably given on the occasion of the vintage harvest sometime between 742 and 735 BC” (Peter F. Ellis, THE MEN AND MESSAGE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT). In other words, “The prophecy…belongs…to the same early period of Isaiah’s career as chapters 2-4. about the time when Ahaz ascended the throne after the long and successful reigns of his father and grandfather, when the kingdom of Judah seemed girt with strength and filled with wealth, but the men were corrupt and the women careless, and the earnest of approaching judgement was already given in the incapacity of the weak and woman-ridden king” (George Adam Smith, ISAIAH).
The historical background seems to be the events leading up to the Syro-Ephraimite War. Judah had reached the summit of its power, both politically and economically. Patriotism was high and strong, borne, no doubt, upon the idea that the kingdom, because it was God’s kingdom, was invincible. As we have seen, the earlier prophecies of Isaiah’s career were meant to disabuse people of this idea
Isaiah adopts the resource of every misunderstood and unpopular teacher, and seeks to turn the flanks of his people’s prejudices by an attack in parable on their sympathies. Did they stubbornly believe it impossible for God to abandon a State he had so long and so carefully fostered? Let them judge from an analogus case in which they were all experts. In a picture of great beauty Isaiah describes a vineyard upon one of the promontories visible from Jerusalem. Every care had been given it of which an experienced vinedresses could think, but it brought forth only wild grapes. The vine-dresser himself is introduced, and appeals to the men of Judah and Jerusalem to judge between him and his vineyard. I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, but briers and thorns shall come up upon it. Then the stratagem comes out, the speaker drops the tones of a human cultivator, and in the omnipotence of the Lord of heaven he is heard to say, I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. This diversion upon their sympathies having succeeded, the prophet scarcely needs to charge the people’s prejudices in face. His point has been evidently carried. For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry.
The lesson enforced by Isaiah is just this, that in a people’s civilization there lie the deepest responsibilities, for that is neither more nor less than their cultivation by God; and the question for a people is not how secure does this render them, nor what does it count for glory, but how far is it rising towards the intentions of its Author? Does it produce those fruits of righteousness for which alone God cares to set apart and cultivate the peoples? On this depends the question whether the civilization is secure, as well as the right of the people to enjoy and feel proud of it. There cannot be true patriotism without sensitiveness to this, for however rich be the elements that compose the patriot’s temper, as piety towards the past, ardor of service for the present, love of liberty, delight in natural beauty and gratitude for Divine favor, so rich a temper will grow rancid without the salt of conscience; and the richer the temper is, the greater must be the proportion of salt. All prophets and peots of patriotism have been moralists and satirists as well. From Demosthenes to Tourgenieff, from Dante to Mazzini, from Milton to Russell Lowell, from Burns to Heine, one cannot recall any great patriot who has not known how to use the scourge as well as the trumpet. (George Adam Smith)
5:1 Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved touching upon his vineyard. My well beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill:
God, through the prophet Isaiah assumes the roll of a popular folksinger and announces his intention to sing a song about an intimate friend. Only gradually would it have become apparent to the original hearers that God was speaking through Isaiah, and that the song was really a parable designed to announce the condemnation of the kingdom.
5:2 and he digged (hoed) it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and he also hewed out a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild (literally, “stinking”) grapes.
Great care had to be taken by the husbandman in viniculturing. The land had to be fertile, walls had to be built (or hedges planted) and maintained to enclose the vineyard (Prov 24:30-31); weeding, watering, (Is 27:2-3) and pruning (Jn 15:2) were also necessary. Due to the place of the vineyard (vs 1), and to the care taken upon it by its owner (vs 2), the vineyard had every chance of producing good fruit, and the vintager had every reason to expect such an outcome; yet the vineyard proved useless.
5:3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
The pretext that Isaiah is singing about a friend is here dropped, and now it appears that Isaiah is singing about his own experience. He calls upon the people to issue a judgment, thus setting them up for a self-condemnation like the Prophet Nathan did with King David (see 2 Samuel 12:1-12); and as our Lord would latter o with the Jerusalem leaders (Mt 21:33-46).
5:4 What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I had not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild (stinking) grapes?
Though the peoples reply is not given, it is apparent what the answer should be: abandon or destroy the vineyard.
5:5-7 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor hoed; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry.
With the announcement that “I will command the clouds that they rain no rain…” the pretext that Isaiah is the husbandman of the vineyard disappears, and the full force of the song/parable is revealed; God is the husbandman of the people and their covenant injustice demands punishment (see my notes on chapter 1). The point of this punishment is to bring about conversion (see Deuteronomy 28:1-30:20) The text remind one of Psalm 80:
Thou broughtest a vine out of Egypt: thou didst drive out the nations, and plantedst it. Thou preparedest room for it, and it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with teh shadow of it, and the branches of it like the cedars of God. It sent out its branches unto the sea, and its shoots unto the river. Why hast thou broke down its walls, so that all they that pass by the way do pluck it? The boar out of the woods doth ravage it, and the wild beasts of the field feed on it. Turn again, we bessech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine, and the stock which thy right hand has planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance. Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. So hall we not go back from thee: Quicken thou us, and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O Yahweh, God of hosts; cause thy face to shine, and we will be saved.