Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Isaiah 5: 1 and 2

Isaiah 5:1-2

Parable of the Vineyard

1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved
A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
He dug it all around, removed its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it
And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
But it produced only worthless ones.

When I was looking at the upcoming weeks' schedule for study a few weeks back, I noticed the title of the beginning of Isaiah Chapter 5: "Parable of the Vineyard." My first thought was, "A parable? In the Old Testament? A prophet's words?" Very excited! 

We hear 'parable' and we think Jesus. I do, anyway. In some of His teaching, Jesus used these stories, these metaphors, to explain concepts and truths he was trying to teach. Though commonplace language and expressions were used, still, not everyone understood them. Even now, culturally displaced as we are in 2012, we may not understand them without helpful resources. But for those Jesus was trying to reach, parables explained a mighty bit. 

In the Greek, the word literally means "a throwing beside," from para- "alongside" + bole "a throwing, casting, beam, ray," related to ballein "to throw." [] Jesus did not originate the parable. He used it as an effective teaching tool, as it was often used by others in that day and in the days before Jesus arrived. It should not surprise us, given what we know of Isaiah's creative writing, that God would use this approach through him in this prophecy. Not surprising, either, that Isaiah would set his parable around a vineyard, as the growing of grapes and the production of wine would be something the entire nation of Israel would know something about.

As we begin with verse 1, Isaiah is the one singing. The keeper of the vineyard--if not given away by the NASB's use of 'His' in verse 1--is clearly apparent by the end of verse 7 as "the Lord," meaning Jesus. This is a song about the Lord "touching his vineyard," as the King James Version reads. What is the vineyard?

"You removed a vine from Egypt;
You drove out the nations and planted it."
--Psalm 80:8

God's chosen people--"the vineyard"--removed from the land of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, Israel. The vineyard was planted on "a fertile hill" or a "fruitful hill," in other translations, which, in the margin notes is translated as "a horn, the son of fatness." In the Hebrew, 'horn' carries with it the idea of being a projection, as if sound coming from a horn or the end of the horn itself, which projects out to distribute the sound. "Fatness" or oil denotes the idea of richness. God's people were planted in a place of blessing out of "the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus," as Paul would later write in an epistle to the Ephesians (2:7). This planting was intended to be a growth opportunity, projecting the Word of God and His holiness from this rich beginning. (And I love the fact that 'grapes' in the Hebrew comes from an unused root meaning to bear fruit [Strong's]. More on this in a moment.)

Continuing with verse 2, the care taken by Lord in the planting of this vineyard is most notable. He prepared this soil with great intent, digging and removing stones that might otherwise cause the roots not to take hold. "He built a tower in the middle of it," implying a place of protection and watchfulness over the vineyard. He placed a wine vat, or winepress, in the vineyard. This aspect of the vineyard not only speaks to the fruit being put to good use but the idea of the firstfruits being returned to God as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. If those listening to Isaiah were led to think of their forefathers, these words would have spoken to them of a God who truly was their Beloved...once.

“Yet I planted you a choice vine,
A completely faithful seed.
How then have you turned yourself before Me
Into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine?"
--Jeremiah 2:21

"...The choicest vine" Isaiah uses in verse 2 to speak of the chosen people of God. A vine to yield the best possible, ripest, most delicious grape. "He planted it with the choicest vine, set up a pure religion among them, gave them a most excellent law, instituted ordinances very proper for the keeping up of their acquaintance with God," explains Matthew Henry in his commentary. What God had intended to be a vine that would grow, be fruitful and project His Kingdom out into the world had become, in Jeremiah's words, a "degenerate shoot." In Isaiah's words, "only worthless ones [grapes]," meaning, in Hebrew, "stinking or worthless things; poison-berries." [Strong's] Now you know where "sour grapes" comes from.

"For their vine is from the vine of Sodom,
And from the fields of Gomorrah;
Their grapes are grapes of poison,
Their clusters, bitter.
'Their wine is the venom of serpents,
And the deadly poison of cobras....'"
--Deuteronomy 32: 32 and 33

"This parable was put into a song that it might be the more moving and affecting, might be the more easily learned and exactly remembered, and the better transmitted to posterity; and it is an exposition of the song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-47), showing that what he then foretold was now fulfilled."
--Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Bible

God's expectation for His Son's vineyard was that it "produce good grapes" (vs. 2)--that it bear good fruit. It didn't happen! Everything was established to be just so, perfect conditions for growth, for fruitfulness, for the best kind of prosperity and success. Yet, it was not to be. As if to invoke the fall of mankind in the garden again, the vineyard that is God's people, Israel--Israel and Judah--would take matters into their own hands, cultivating success of their own will and following other gods. They did not heed the warning of Moses--the end of the song mentioned above: "Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this law. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life." (Deuteronomy 32: 45-47a)

As I write today, so many situations and thoughts of others come to mind. My church is in the midst of making decisions concerning its denominational affiliation. There are many issues and questions--unresolved issues of the past and questions we may have never explored answers to thoroughly enough, so that we are questioning our convictions. What is the church? What do we really believe? What would God have us do? How did we get here and where are we going? As overwhelming as it has been to address big questions with many worldviews, how marvelous an opportunity to do just that?! Look at that word in Deuteronomy: "For it is not an idle word for you...." God's Word is "living and active," says Hebrews 4:12. It continues to speak, guide, help in discernment--and, yes, to warn.

Where have we been planted? What kinds of "grapes" are we producing? Whose expectations are the most important to satisfy? Do we believe that the Lord is our caretaker and that He continues to be the watchtower of our vineyard, the clearer of stones from our roots? Do we recognize that our being grafted into the True Vine is not a position of idle connection but is a lifeline to growth, maturity and prosperity? Eternal fruitfulness? Do we believe and trust that He can "build us back" into a thriving "choice vine" on a "fertile hill" if we yield in all obedience and love to the One who planted us?

"A bare profession, though ever so green, will not serve: there must be more than buds and blossoms. Good purposes and good beginnings are good things, but not enough; there must be fruit, a good heart and a good life, vineyard fruit, thoughts and affections, words and actions, agreeable to the Spirit, which is the fatness of the vineyard (Gal. 5:22, 23) [fruit of the Spirit passage], answerable to the ordinances, which are the dressings of the vineyard, acceptable to God, the Lord of the vineyard, and fruit according to the season."
--Matthew Henry (italics his)

 More from this rich parable....'Til next Wednesday!


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Next week: Isaiah 5: 3-5

Note: I read from the New American Standard Bible translation,
specifically, The MacArthur Study Bible (NASB).
I will quote other sources if used in a post.

I also use
Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
(with notes from the King James Version).