You would be hard pressed to find a figure and book of greater influence for Judaism and Christianity than that of the Book of Isaiah. We know of this praise explicitly from the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes and sometimes called Sirach or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach [ben Sira] written in approximately 200 BCE/BC). This praise occurs in the long eulogy, Hymn in Honor of Our Ancestors, Sirach 44:1-51:24. He is introduced in Sirach 48:22 as one who is "great and trustworthy in his vision." It goes on to say, "In Isaiah's days the sun went backward, and he proplonged the life of the king. By his dauntless spirit he saw the future, and comforted the mourners in Zion. He revealed what was to occur to the end of time, and the hidden things before they happened."
It is important to keep this in mind as we turn to the well know Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7). It is easy to come away thinking, "Wow, this guy Isaiah seems pretty harsh. He was but he understood that God indeed could love a beautiful vineyard.
The text on the surface is simple enough. It begins with a love song about a vineyard that seems to have gone terribly wrong (Isaiah 5:1-2). Without delay a legal action is called for against the vineyard (Isaiah 5:3-4) which leads without any due process to a conviction (Isaiah 5:5-6). The passage ends with an interpretation (Isaiah 5:7) in which we discover that the guilty party, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, have been asked to judge themselves.
While that structure is simple there are a number of questions that emerge.
First, why is no context given for the recitation of the love song? Why and where was such a poem recited?
The fact that we have no context is not that unusual in many biblical passages. I have always imagined that Isaiah might have had a hard time getting people to listen after him telling the story about his call (Isaiah 6:1-11). So most probably at a harvest festival he was determined to get people to listen. He decided to disarm them by saying that he was going to sing a love song. No sooner did he get their attention than they found themselves condeming themselves!
Second, how could a vineyard, a mere portion of ground, inspire a love poem?
It may seem strange to us for the love poem to be about a vineyard but anyone who is familiar with Song of Songs will understand how frequent the image of gardens and natural surroundings have been used as a metaphor of love (Song of Songs 2:15; 4:16; 8:11-12). Even in Isaiah we find the metaphor used to speak of
God's people prior to the Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 1:8; 3:14). Of course later in Isaiah 27:2-6 we find this incredible new perspective on the vineyard.
On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it;
I have no wrath.
If it gives me thorns and briers,
I will march to battle against it;
I will burn it up.
Or else let it cling to me for protection,
let it make peace with me,
let it make peace with me.
In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit.
Third, how can a vineyard on its own end up producing these wild or rotten grapes?
The grapes, just as the people, are planted in the ground. Connections occur between everything. Maybe most importantly any consternation we have about this question will finally rest when we realize the interdependence of everything.
Fourth, why is there no second chance suggested or some way to solve the problem that is producing these unexpected wild grapes?
As we all know the great planter of the vineyard does become impatient and harsh because the vines do have a mind of their own and resist taking on any responsibility. There is that word, responsibility, we so frequently talk about but do not walk. We do have a walk to walk. Many love songs have an element of
sadness that lingers just under the surface. Isaiah's love song certainly reminds us of the frustration of the Great Gardener!