“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:1–7).
There has been much debate concerning the genre of the vineyard song in Isaiah 5:1–7. R. B. Y. Scott calls it “a parable” (Scott 1956:196). Gale A. Yee classifies the song as a juridical parable. The juridical parable serves as an “intentional decoy which provokes the hearer to condemn himself” (Yee 1981:31). The prophet Isaiah, whose ministry was in Jerusalem during the eighth century BCE, speaks of the great suffering of the owner of the vineyard.
The reader is invited to feel and to share the suffering of the one who has been betrayed by his own possession. As a result of the message of the prophet, the reader does not sympathize with the vineyard; the reader is challenged to sympathize with the beloved vineyard owner who, with great care and concern, has witnessed his vineyard produce “wild grapes,” instead of the intended good grapes.
The text can be divided into three distinct sections. Isaiah 5:1–2 represents an introduction to the love song. These two verses introduce the main characters of the song, someone known as “my beloved,” and the vineyard. Isaiah 5:3–6 speaks about the sorrow inflicted upon the beloved, and the beloved’s judgment upon the vineyard. In the transition, the pronouns shift from the third person, “He dug” (Isaiah 5:2) to the first person, “I will tell you” (Isaiah 5:5). The conclusion of the song, Isaiah 5:7, brings the delayed revelation that is found in juridical parables, where the listeners of the song now realize that they are the ones being accused.
Isaiah begins his song by stating that the song is directed to his beloved, “Let me sing for my beloved” (Isaiah 5:1). According to the prophet’s words, the owner of the vineyard is Yahweh. In the second half of verse 1, the prophet switches from an introduction that describes to whom he is writing and why he is writing, to tell a story about the love and the care which the beloved has shown for his vineyard.
His song is a “love-song” about the beloved’s vineyard, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” It is not until the end of the song that the reader equates the vineyard with the house of Israel and the people of Judah.
Isaiah introduces the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard belonged to the beloved. The vineyard was under his care, nourishment, and protection. The vineyard was located “on a very fertile hill,” in contrast with the low and dry land where the vineyard would be infertile and the harvest would be very poor.
Isaiah lists five different actions taken by the beloved to prepare the vineyard to produce a good harvest and good fruit. The beloved prepared the soil, removed obstacles that would stunt growth, planted the soil with “choice vines,” created a watchtower in the middle of the field, and formed a winepress with the expectation that the vineyard would produce good grapes.
At the end of verse two, the prophet gives the reader the reason for the judgment on the vineyard that is to be explained in the following verses. He says that the vineyard which had been planted and cared for with great care, produced not that which was expected, good grapes, but instead the vineyard yielded only worthless sour grapes.
In the first two verses of the song, the reader is captured by the method by which the prophet tells his story, through lyrics and song. The song presents an agricultural context, a context which would certainly have drawn an understandable connection among the people to whom the prophet was speaking, yet without introducing a word of judgment, a word that only comes at the end of his song.
The prophet intends to reveal the failure of the people and evoke emotions of sadness and longing for the beloved, without overly asserting that they, the Israelites, are the cause of the beloved’s suffering, that they are the vineyard. The aim of the prophet is to help the hearers of his song to understand the great suffering that the owner of the vineyard feels.
After the introduction to the song, there is a major shift in the song. The pronouns change. They change from Isaiah’s point of view (third person) to reflect Yahweh’s perspective of what is happening to his vineyard (first person). The words of Yahweh become the words of the prophet. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and all the people of Judah are to stand as the judge of what happened to his vineyard. Yahweh calls on the people to evaluate his care of the vineyard and what he had done to prepare it to produce good fruit.
Here, as in other juridical parables, the hearers of the song will clearly betray themselves by siding with the person who suffers: Yahweh. Similar to the form of a closing argument in a court of law, the beloved seeks sympathetically to show all he had done to help the vineyard produce good grapes. In fact, the beloved seems to convey his bewilderment by the growth of sour and worthless grapes.
Verses five and six pronounce the course of action that will be taken. All of the care and protection that was set up to make the vineyard fruitful will be taken away. The certainty of the destruction of the vineyard is apparent through a string of promises. The suffering endured by the vineyard’s owner is too much to handle, and therefore he has no choice but to remove the protective elements. The vineyard owner has given up on his vineyard.
At this point, the text moves from sorrow and sympathy felt for the vineyard’s owner to presenting the vineyard’s owner as just and righteous in the actions he must take concerning his vineyard. The vineyard, although taken care of with great care and concern, had produced worthless grapes. The owner was not to blame, but in fact, was to be felt sorry for the worthless grapes the vineyard produced. There would no longer be any use in working the ground again so that the vineyard could produce good fruits.
The song comes to its climax when the prophet reveals the meaning of his song to those who heard it. In a forceful statement, Isaiah announces that the “house of Israel, the people of Judah” are the vineyard of Yahweh. Standing self-condemned, the people are now forced to relive the words of the prophet and see themselves as those who failed the owner. The way in which the story was told allows no room for the accused now to transfer the blame back to the owner. The meaning of the parable of the grapes and the worthless grapes have now become clear. Justice and righteousness are the fruits the owner desired. Instead, bloodshed and the crying of oppressed people are the fruits the vineyard produced, causing great suffering and despair to the owner.
The song served as a powerful and useful tool to help Isaiah proclaim his message to the people of Judah. Scholars differ as to whom Isaiah was referring when he mentioned the house of Israel and the people of Judah. Marvin L. Chaney said that Isaiah was not referring to the peasant majority of Israel and Judah, but to the rich and powerful people of the country, “to the top of the social pyramid in Israel and Judah” (Chaney 1999:105).
The majority of scholars believe that Isaiah’s words were addressed to all the people of Judah. It is clear that the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1–7 refers to all the people who claimed to be in covenant with Yahweh. Ronald Clements says that “it is more plausible and attractive, however, to see in the parallelism of the names ‘house of Israel’ and ‘men of Judah’ Isaiah’s recognition of the oneness of Yahweh’s people whom he was addressing” (Clemens 1980:58).
One surprising aspect of the song is that the prophet does not tell the reader the reason the vineyard produced wild grapes. The song does list the problems that caused the vineyard to produce worthless grapes. There is, however, a good reason for this omission, and the reason rests in the emotions and understanding that the prophet seeks to create in the hearts and minds of his audience.
If Isaiah had explicitly stated the sins of the people, then the judgment cast upon them would be perceived as an expression of divine anger. By not stating the reason for the indictment, the focus of the song remains on the suffering that Yahweh feels toward his people. The crucial focus and the main emphasis of the song of the vineyard is not to describe the judgment and condemnation of the vineyard, but to emphasize the sorrow and the suffering of the owner of the vineyard.
The judgment that will come upon the people, although necessary, does not right the wrong. The suffering and the broken heart of the owner are not taken away. The one suffering is not healed; he is left with the awareness of the people’s failure and unfaithfulness.
The prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, present an understanding of Yahweh that is anything but that of a removed God who punishes and rights wrongs without cause. Yahweh is portrayed as a righteous God who is deeply involved in the life of his people. Yahweh is a God who loves and cares for his people, a God who invites them to repent and live.
Yahweh, the God who was their ever-present source of victory and strength, was passionately caring for and nurturing his people who were bound to him by covenant. The question Yahweh asked, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” reflects the genuine concern of a God who was at loss because of the rebellion and disobedience of the people. God had done everything to help Israel to be a fruitful people, but nothing worked, “What more could I have done?”, Yahweh asked.
The people of Israel were to produce good fruit that would be reflected in their commitment, holiness, and righteousness to their God. Then, Israel would become a blessing to the nations as God said that they would be when he made a covenant with Abraham.
In conclusion, the song of the vineyard was intended to force Israel to realize their failures before Yahweh. The people of Israel could not blame other nations, other gods, or Yahweh for their failure because the owner of the vineyard, Yahweh himself, had done everything to protect and nourish the land so that the vineyard could produce good fruits.
Isaiah’s song was meant to evoke not only sympathy, justice, and righteousness for Yahweh, but also it was a call for the people to accept responsibility and turn back in faithfulness and obedience. That the vineyard was planted and prepared to produce good fruits is the message Isaiah was trying to convey to the people of Israel. That the vineyard produced worthless grapes was the message Isaiah conveyed with great passion to the people. That Yahweh was the one with a broken heart for the failure of his people is the true intended message of the song of the vineyard.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Chaney, Marvin L. “Whose Sour Grapes? The Addressees of Isaiah 5:1–7 in the Light of Political Economy.” Semeia 87 (1999): 105–122.
Clements, R.E. Isaiah 1–39. The New Century Bible. Grand Rapids: Marshall, Morgan & Scott Publications, 1980.
Scott, R. B. Y. “The Book of Isaiah.” Interpreter’s Bible. 5:151–381. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Yee, Gale A. “A Form-Critical Study of Isaiah 5:1–7 as a Song and a Juridical Parable.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 no1 (1981): 30–40.
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