Isaiah 5:1-7 (The Song of the Vineyard)
See also Matthew 21:33-46
Old Testament Prophet Isaiah tells the people of Judah that God has a love song for them. They would have expected nothing less and sit back in anticipation of the beautiful compliments they are about to receive! After all, they are the “chosen” people and they keep the more than 700 rules in the Torah, offer fervent prayers, and celebrate in lavish festivals the high holy days of their ancestors.
So the prophet begins to sing. In this song, God is the master of the vineyard; the people of Judah and Jerusalem, are the vines. The song begins: “You are the ones I love, my choicest vines, I delighted in you. I planted you on a fertile hillside that I had dug up and cleared of stones. I set a hedge around you to keep out the predators who would devour you and to break the winds that would blow wild seed into my garden. I cultivated the soil and pruned the dead branches. I set a watchtower over you and built a wine press for the harvest that I eagerly awaited.” Ah, the Israelites say, God is reminding us how special we are and of his special favors to us.
The song continues: “I expected a crop of good grapes,” says the Lord, “but it yielded only stinking fruit – bitter wild grapes.” Their faces fall.
“ Now you tell me where the fault lies? What more could I have done for my vineyard? I planted good grapes. Why did it yield only bad?”
Now the Judeans are squirming in their chairs. They say, “Isaiah, who are you to accuse us in this way? Aren’t we keeping the Law? What more does Yahweh expect of us? ”
But Isaiah goes on – the “love song” isn’t over: “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard,” says God. “I will cut down your hedge and people will trample all over you. You will perish beneath the hooves of wild beasts. I will not tend your vines or plant any more grapes. I will not provide water nor shield you from the scorching sun. I will do nothing more for my garden; you will become a wasteland.”
Now Isaiah’s listeners are appalled – even angry! “We thought this was a love song but it became a lament and now a curse. Can this be true? Why is God so angry with us? What have we done?”
Isaiah is ready with an answer: [ANGRY] “I’ll tell you,” says the Lord, “I expected you to act with justice, but all I see is in your nation is bloodshed. I expected you to sing a song of righteousness but all I can hear are cries of distress. And so I will let you suffer the consequences of your actions.”
WOW! Isaiah was a brave man to deliver such a message! Prophets were seldom popular people. I am sure he did not get a standing ovation from his 8th century listeners! Whatever was going on in Judah during Isaiah’s time was anathema to God. God was angry and, through Isaiah, he let them know it!
It seems that, in Isaiah’s time, God’s chosen did not live separate and apart quite like the garden Isaiah describes. There was no tall hedge around them, and Jerusalem was becoming more and more pluralistic. The Israelites were tempted to adopt other religious practices. And their first reaction to Isaiah’s condemnation must have been to blame it on the “wild seed” – the heathen folks around them.
But Isaiah makes it clear that God isn’t speaking to the gentiles; He is concerned with his own peeps. “You – you Israelites– have not practiced true righteousness, and you have not been just with your neighbor. You have not truly walked with God. You have not acknowledged God in all your doings and you have not been faithful to me. Although you pray fervent prayers, offer lavish sacrifices, and hold great festivals, you do not practice what you preach! Through Isaiah, God reminds them that He, God Almighty, created them as a people, brought them out of slavery in Egypt, fed them through the wilderness, brought them into a fertile land, fought for them as they settled there, guided them with the kings and judges and prophets he ordained. And yet, they did not love and serve Him with their whole hearts.
And the evidence? They had not produced fruit. There was a mismatch between worship and life outside of worship – their offerings, prayers, rituals, and festivals were not matched with acts of justice to the most vulnerable among them. They would not defend the cause of the widow and orphan, they coveted and stored up wealth for themselves, they oppressed the poor, they acquitted the guilty and convicted the innocent. This was the “stench of injustice” – the stinking fruit that Isaiah spoke of. And God says, “No need to point the finger at others; You are the problem. You have become wild seed.” Surely, this passage is one of the harshest scoldings in the Bible!
It brings to mind God’s words in the Book of Amos: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And from Micah: “With what shall I come before the LORD . . . ?” the prophet asks. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No, says Micah, He has told you, O mortal, what is good. What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8) Translation: God has no patience for empty piety!
Sadly, all of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Our time is not so very different from Isaiah’s. Today, we live in an even more pluralistic society. We are tempted by “spiritual practices “of every sort including the false religions of consumerism, power, pleasure-worship, and selfishness. We live in a culture where almost nothing is taboo. Our enemies are not the Assyrians but terrorists, supremacists, drug lords, and corrupt officials. In other words, we, too, are tempted to look around us and say, “Look, Lord, we are infiltrated by weeds. We are doing the best we can, but we are not operating in a bucolic garden. We’re surrounded by crabgrass here. It’s an uphill battle –we’re almost helpless—we’re overrun by really, really bad guys.”
To which God says, “Blah, blah, blah. I’m not concerned with other people’s children. I’m concerned about my children – YOU—and you are my problem. No, you do not live in the Garden of Eden. Instead, you are the good seed scattered on the path, sown among rocks, carried into rain forests and thrown upon the sand. I have dropped you onto battlefields, and into hospitals, prisons, classrooms, and slums. But I did not send you out helpless.
“You are my chosen people – not chosen as in better or privileged, but chosen as in called. You have work to do in the world. I have equipped you with the Word of Life, the knowledge and authority of Jesus Christ, the companionship of the Holy Spirit, the armor of God, and the unfailing power of prayer, and the certainly of eternal life. But, to whom much has been given, much is expected. And I expect more than what you’re doing.”
This past Tuesday evening, we had the privilege of sharing a few hours with Ebun James DeKam, a peacemaker and, in a sense, an activist from the tiny west African nation of Sierra Leone. Randy and I were privileged to host Ebun in our home. I felt an immediate kinship with this strong Christian sister and was inspired by her work and her faith.
Sierra Leone is known for its religious tolerance. The country is predominantly Muslim but has an established Christian community, as well as numerous tribal traditions. The groups not only co-exist but, for over a hundred years, have banded together in a Council of Churches that speaks with one unified prophetic voice to the issues of the day. Ebun, who is the first-ever female general secretary of Council, this ays the group does not address matters of religious practice or theology. They do not argue how baptism should be done or parse passages from the Bible or the Koran. No. They speak collectively what they agree to be God’s will for the good of the people. They speak for righteousness. And the voice of this Council of Churches is respected by the rulers of Sierra Leone.
What are the social issues there? There have been many. Hardly more than a decade ago, the country was wracked from within by warfare. Young, armed insurrectionists created atrocities of every sort, kidnapped young boys to join their ranks, cut short their innocence, armed them, brainwashed them, and taught them to kill and maim thousands of innocent people. As a secondary result, Ebun said there was hardly a 9 or 10 year old boy left in the country at the time – they became the lost generation.
Though the war ended, the nation has minimal infrastructure. Electricity frequently fails for days, even weeks, at a time. People carry their water. Unemployment is high. Poverty is rampant. Corruption exists at all levels of bureaucracy. Compounding all this, the hideous Ebola virus claimed over 11,000 lives, leaving widows, orphans, and disabled people in its wake. Doctors and nurses on the front line were wiped out. Among the dead: 10% of all the physicians in Sierra Leone.
From all of these issues, the Council of Churches particularly concerns itself with changing the culture to give opportunity to women and to girl children. Women have little social status and legal status, and few opportunities. Parents do not send their girl children to school or, if they do, the girls are the first to be pulled out when the money runs short. Women have little or no education about personal hygiene or reproductive health or birth control. The young girls who were kidnapped and forced to be bush wives during the civil war, were shunned when they returned with their children. In councils and in governments, women are seldom given a seat or a voice. But the collective efforts of the Council of Churches are making a difference!
It seems to me that the good seed God is cultivating in Sierra Leone is thriving! Acting with righteousness. Bringing hope. Extending the love of God.
What should we be doing on this side of the pond? We, too, have corruption. We have abused women, hungry children, people without medical care, unfair taxation codes, unjust social stigma, not enough good parents and too many guns and drugs. Can’t we please stop arguing theology among ourselves? Can’t we please stop resisting, resenting, fearing, and trying to convert the sheep of other folds. Can’t we please understand that change requires political involvement? Can’t we please speak against injustice with one prophetic voice? Can’t we be the good seed where we are planted?
“If not,” says God, “my kingdom will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21: 43)
“Take away from me the noise of your songs,” God says. “I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) Thanks be to God. AMEN