Isaiah had a difficult task – he was one of the instruments God used to prepare his people for the coming of Messiah. God’s people weren’t interested in cooperating; their focus was on doing their own thing their own way. That included doing all they could to ignore God’s prophet, especially when what he had to say was not good news. Isaiah was just as determined to get their attention as they were to avoid him.
To gain an audience, Isaiah began singing a song about his friend only to be interrupted partway through by that very friend. A number of principles and symbols are present here in God’s message to his people. There’s the idea of preparation, both in an agricultural sense and with respect to people. There are the symbols of a vineyard – Israel, the church; vinedresser – the Father; true vine – Christ (John 15:1-5); fruit of the vine – symbol of Jesus’ shed blood. These are found to some degree in the Old Testament and are more fully developed in the New as God’s plan of redemption is unfolded.
As is true of Isaiah in general, there is one who is always in view – God. The prophet himself speaks occasionally, God speaks often, and God is the one who always initiates the action. God has his people in mind, what their true condition is and consequently their true need, how he will by carrying out his plan deal with people in a way that brings glory to himself and good to them.
1. the careful owner vv. 1-2
These first two verses give us a perfect description of a skilled horticulturist, one who knows how to do everything necessary to establish a prize-winning vineyard. Isaiah identifies the one to whom he sings as his dearest friend, one to whom he is inseparably attached and for whom he possesses undying affection.
This beloved friend of Isaiah is portrayed as the initiator in every aspect of the parable-song which follows. It is the Beloved who selected the location for the vineyard and then did all things necessary to establish it.. He chose the place, prepared the ground, chose the vine he would plant, erected a tower of protection, expecting it to yield abundant and good fruit.
There’s a Middle-Eastern proverb to the effect that when God created the world an angel flew over it carrying a bag of stones under each arm. As he flew over Palestine, one bag broke so that half of all the stones in the world are in Palestine.
Each of these actions of God on the part of the grapevine have parallels in his work of redemption and his establishment of the church. God chooses the individual in which he will do his work, he roots out the obstacles to spiritual growth which can be found in the individual’s heart, he plants new spiritual life through regeneration, he builds a tower of protection by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The Beloved went above and beyond the call of duty in expending time, energy, and resources to establish the vineyard, make it secure, and make it easy for good grapes to grow there. Yet he did even more, making preparations for the grapes to be conveniently used, pressed out into fine wine when they are fresh from the vine.
2. the contrary vineyard v. 2b
After the Beloved had done all of these things to establish his vineyard and set it up for success, he expected that it would produce succulent grapes in abundance. His expectations were not unreasonable; he had done many things to ensure the success of his venture. All the vines needed to do was act according to their design – grow and produce much good fruit.
But contrary to the intent of the vinedresser and the design of the vineyard, the vine failed to produce that for which it was made. How sad that a prize vineyard would produce “stinkberries”; it is even more disheartening when God’s people fail to produce the right kind of fruit. The vineyard is used often in Scripture to designate Israel; Jesus made it personal when he described himself as the true vine and us as the branches in John 15:1-8 . The Jewish people recognized that they were God’s vineyard which is why the chief priests and Pharisees knew what Jesus was talking about in his parable in Matt. 21:33-45.
For generations Israel had benefited from God’s tender care and blessings. God chose them to be his special people, God guarded and guided them through all sorts of situations. Yet it was the repeated story of their life that they failed to produce godly fruit. Instead of responding to God’s demonstrations of love, they chased after idols of their own making. Rather than gladly accept God’s offers of redemption and righteousness by faith, they tried to save themselves. Like the vines that produced sour grapes, they were unfit for God’s use and undeserving of his favor.
3. the compassionate judge vv. 3-4
At this point in the parable-song Isaiah becomes a backup singer and the Beloved takes the lead. He appears in the role of Judge, calling on the audience to render a verdict on the poorly performing vineyard. He asks the question “What more could I possibly have done?” and waits for an answer. Jerusalem and Judah are in an awkward position – accuse the Judge of having failed to do his part, -or- acknowledge that the vineyard had a problem. To charge the Beloved Judge with failure would be unthinkable. The other option would mean condemnation and destruction of the vineyard. Either way the vineyard is headed for a bad end.
We must be careful not to misunderstand the question here; the Beloved is not asking for help to understand what he did wrong or failed to do. He is not implying that he has done the best he can under the circumstances but the circumstances were beyond his control. The question emphasizes the overwhelmingly abundant grace bestowed on the vineyard so it is utterly without excuse. The Beloved has been absolutely faithful to keep his promises, a fact which all of Isaiah’s audience were compelled to acknowledge.
But is it right to call the Beloved a compassionate judge? Consider the circumstances – at this point in time God was absolutely justified in bringing down whatever judgment he deemed most appropriate on his people. Yet that is not how God acted; by confronting his people, he gave oppprtunity to acknowledge their guilt before him. It was an ideal time for repentance and throwing themselves on God’s mercy. Had they done so, he would have graciously pardoned them and the promised judgment would have been averted.
Verses 3 & 4 provide a picture of the final judgment as well. At that time, God will reveal in full detail all he has done for mankind, giving them all they needed to know there was a God and worship him as such. When mankind at the last judgment is confronted with that evidence and asked the same question “What more could I have done?” they will condemn themselves by their response. On that day there will be no opportunity for repentance or the granting of mercy.
4. the convicting sovereign vv. 5-6
The silence at the end of verse 4 is deafening as the Judge awaits an answer to the question: “Why did the vineyard behave as it did?” Hearing no answer other than perhaps a token attempt at self-justification, he proceeds to declare what he will do to his vineyard. The very things which Judah and Jerusalem despised and which they needed the most will be taken away by the vineyard owner.
First, God will remove that which separates the vineyard from the surrounding territory – the hedge and the wall which defined its boundaries. The hedge was likely plantings of prickly pears in combination with the wall constructed of stones dug out during the initial cultivation to protect the vineyard. Once the hedge and wall are removed, wild animals would come in and trample the vines ending their usefulness.
Just as the vineyard would be left without protection, so God would remove the hedge of protection from around Judah and Jerusalem leaving them open to attack from foreign nations. God will lay the vineyard waste by means of Assyrian and Chaldean armies. God not only will remove his hand of protection, he will also remove his hand of provision. The vineyard will not be tended, pruned or cultivated; in place of the choice vines the Beloved planted there, briars and thorns will spring up in their place.
In his final word of threatening, the Beloved vinedresser demonstrates his absolute sovereignty; who but the sovereign creator of the universe can command the clouds to drop or withhold their rain? God has declared that since his people are determined to remain rebellious and ungrateful, He would withhold his blessings from them, withdraw his presence from them, and leave them to their own devices and exposed to their enemies.
5. the concise teacher v. 7
The voice we hear in verse 7 tells us there truly is a vineyard and it is destined for disaster. God had bestowed great affection and blessing on his people, the vineyard, and looked for only two things in return – justice and righteousness. But rather than respond properly to God’s blessings, his people rejected him and his expectations. Instead of finding justice as he looked at Jerusalem society he found bloodshed; instead of righteousness, he heard cries for help.
Just as God refused to allow self-seeded vines to remain in the vineyard, so he has no grandchildren in his family. Simply being descended from Abraham was in God’s view no guarantee of spiritual blessing; each member of God’s family is adopted individually. The same is true of 21st century America. Simply being descended from the founding fathers is no guarantee God will continue to bless our nation. Simply continuing to hold worship services in a structure that once proclaimed truth is no guarantee of God’s continued favor on that assembly.
Living under the shade of parents’ or grandparents’ Christianity is no guarantee of divine protection. We cannot live on borrowed capital in the Kingdom of God; we must in each sphere of influence be living in such a way as to find favor with God. In the public square, in the local assembly, in our individual families, God expects that having been joined to him by faith we will produce the right kind of fruit. We must give a clear witness to all who see us that we are indeed branches of the true vine, “a holy people, zealous for good works”. May God give us grace to live for Jesus lives that are true and pleasing in all we do.