Isaiah’s Vineyard Song
- Main Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
- Accompanying text: Mark 12:1-3
What this passage means to us
Isaiah lived in an imperfect age. What should have been a time when the kingdom of Judah was reaping the fruits of God’s blessings was in fact a prelude to national calamity. Israel in its beginning was like a well-prepared vineyard, with everything in place for a desirable crop of righteous fruit, but instead, says God, “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” (Isaiah 5:4). “Bad” is variously translated, “rotten”, “sour”, “wild”, etc.
The problem was that those who tended the vineyard had neglected their duties. The priests were often corrupt, and the kings seemed more intent in self-aggrandisement than in the things of God. The élite lived a comfortable and easy life, whereas the needy were neglected. “The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard’” (Isaiah 3:14). In his description of the godless culture of Isaiah’s time, Eugene Peterson’s rendition of Isaiah 5:8-30 in The Message resonates alarmingly with aspects of our own society: note some of the phrases he uses — “you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land for yourselves…leaving everyone homeless and landless…(you) get up early and start drinking booze before breakfast…(you) stay up all hours of the night drinking (yourselves) into a stupor…(you) have nothing to do with the work of God, (and) pay no mind to what he is doing…(you) use lies to sell evil…you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness in place of light and light in place of darkness…you who think you’re so smart, who hold such a high opinion of yourselves!”
Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard is a continuation of the Branch prophecy of Isaiah 4:1, which is fulfilled in Christ, and is mentioned again in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit”, in direct contrast to the vineyard of Israel. This song or ballad of the vineyard is picked up by other prophets (see Jeremiah 12:10), by Paul, and by Jesus in parables such as that of the noble vineyard owner and his son in Mark 12. “The Song of the Vineyard and the parable contain similar symbols. But there are important differences. Clearly Jesus is re-telling and giving shape to the story told in Isaiah. Mark’s account of this same parable adds extra details that reinforce the connections between the two accounts” . A notable difference is in the results: in Isaiah the vineyard is to be destroyed whereas in Mark the vinedressers are to be replaced. Paul used the vineyard imagery as a metaphor for the church, and the Apostle John explained that salvation is only through being incorporated in the True Vine, Jesus Christ.
In Isaiah 5:5 God explains that he will send his beloved son, a reference to Jesus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Isaiah predicts that, unlike the priests and the rulers of his day, “he will delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
Context and Story Line
“Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment (for example, Paul was jeered, flogged, and imprisoned — see 2 Corinthians 11:23). They were put to death by stoning (Stephen was stoned to death — Acts 7:57-58); they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword (James, the brother of John, was killed by the sword upon Herod’s command — Acts 12:1-2). They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:36-38). Most commentators view the reference to “sawed in two” as pointing to a collection of traditions about how Isaiah died.
It is said that the long-reigning, wicked Manasseh, one of the last kings of Judah and the son of King Hezekiah, had a felled tree trunk hollowed out into which the bound Isaiah was forced, had it sealed with the other part of the trunk, and then ordered that Isaiah be sawed “asunder with a wood-saw” . Another account explains, “It is related in the Talmud that Rabbi Simeon ben ‘Azzai found in Jerusalem an account wherein it was written that Manasseh killed Isaiah. Manasseh said to Isaiah, “Moses, thy master, said, ‘There shall no man see God and live’ [Ex. xxxiii. 20, Hebr.]; but thou hast said, ‘I saw the Lord seated upon his throne'” (Isa. vi. 1, Hebr.); and went on to point out other contradictions…Then Manasseh ordered the cedar to be sawn asunder, and when the saw reached his mouth Isaiah died” .
What makes the Old Testament stories of Isaiah and others who died in faith particularly remarkable is that they believed in future promises, without the clear evidence of God’s intervention in past or recent events. “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40).
During his own lifetime Isaiah appeared to have been active in the courts of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, but it’s unclear how much influence the Song of the Vineyard had on his contemporaries. What we do know is that one of the kings, Hezekiah, did eventually listen to some of what Isaiah had to say on various levels, especially when it came to the miracle of Hezekiah’s healing and the delivery of Judah from the Assyrians (2 Kings 20:1-11). As the poet Byron wrote:
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee…
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!” .
• 1 Corinthians 3:6-9
• Mark 12:1-12
• John 15:1-8
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (London, UK, SPCK: 2008). 414.
- The Martyrdom of Isaiah, 5:2 — http://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/martisah.htm
- Quoted from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43827/the-destruction-of-sennacherib