The Isaiah Project: Chapter 5, or, the Song of the Vineyard

Something a little new this week: I've had a couple of requests to record myself reading Isaiah aloud, and this is the perfect chapter to start. Chapter 5 is the last of the introductory chapters before our prophet tells the famous story, in Chapter 6, of how God called him to begin his ministry. That pivotal chapter is preceded by this one, which summarises much of what the first four chapters have proclaimed.
So Chapter 5 is a song and an allegory — a story of how Israel has fallen, how terribly it will suffer, and how in the midst of it all God will save his broken world. Because it's a song, the Hebrew is full of masterful wordplay and alliteration. I've tried to transfer some of that into the translation (for more on how this works, check out my introduction). I've also written three very short explanatory essays below, but much of what I have to say about the pain and promise of these words I've said in the previous four chapters. So mostly I'd like to let the language speak for itself: you can click above to hear me read the thing as I think its rhythms and its message merit.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 5

Isaiah sings: God has cared for his chosen people like a farmer tends to a cherished vineyard. But they have insisted on rejecting him, and now a reckoning will come from foreign lands.

1. Let me sing to the one I love a song of him I love, about his vineyard.

The one I love had a vineyard, on the crest of a hill with rich soil.

2. Now, he fenced it off, and cleared it of stones, and sowed it with select varietals, and built a tower inside it.
Then he hollowed out a winepress in it too, and waited with high hopes for succulent grapes. But it produced rotted berries.

3. And now, any citizen of Jerusalem or man of Judah — judge between me and my vineyard.

4. What else was there to do to my vineyard that I didn’t do? Why, when I had high hopes for succulent grapes, should it produce rotted berries?

5. And now let me tell you what I’ll do to my vineyard: have its hedge removed, so it gets devoured. Smash its wall, so it gets trampled on.

6. I’m going to lay waste to it: it won’t be weeded or trimmed; thorns and choke-weed will sprout up; I’ll give orders to the clouds to rain no rain upon it.

7. Because the vineyard of God with his Legions is the household of Israel, and the man of Judah is the crop of his delight. He had high hopes for virtue, but look: see the violence. High hopes for honour, but listen: hear the screams.

8. Doom, oh, for the people who annex one house to another: they connect field to field until there’s no more space. Until you have to live in isolation in the middle of your own land.*

9. In my ears, the God of Legions: ‘just see if countless houses don’t become wastelands — big ones and good ones, with no one to live in them.

10. Yes, ten acres of vineyard will produce just one vat of wine; ten bushels of seed will produce just one bushel of grain.

11. Oh doom for the people who wake up at dawn to hunt for hard liquor; who keep it up until night falls and wine makes them burn.

12. There are strings and lyres; there are tambourines and pipes; there’s wine at their drinking parties — it’s only God’s miracles they don’t attend to. It’s the things he does with his hands they don’t see.

13. That’s why my people are driven into captivity: for lack of knowledge. Their noblemen go hungry, and their commoners are parched with thirst.

14. That’s why the Grave bloats herself and her maw gapes limitlessly open. And down they sink into her, with all their glamour, and their ruckus, and their crowds and giddy celebrants.*

15. Men grovel in the dirt; humanity degrades itself, and the eyes of the arrogant are brought low,

16. But he is exalted: God with his Legions in justice. The one sacred god will be held sacred in righteousness.

17. Then lambs will graze the way they do, and nomads will feed on wastelands that had belonged to fatcats.

18. Doom, yes, for the people that drag corruption along behind them with straps of inanity, and sin like a cart with a rope.

19. The people who say, ‘let him hurry it up then, and fast-track the work he’s doing. That way we’ll see, and the counsel of Israel’s sacred one will be close — will arrive, and we’ll know it.’

20. Doom for the people who say evil is good and good evil. Who put the deep dark in place of the light and the light in place of the deep dark. Who put bitter in place of sweet, and sweet in place of bitter.

21. Doom for the people who are wise in their own eyes, and discerning in their own sight.

22. Doom for those heroes of wine drinking — the mighty mixers of liquor.

23. The people who justify evil in return for bribes: they strip the righteous man of his righteousness.

24. That’s why, like a tongue of flame eats up dry wheat, and a blaze depletes the grass,
Their roots will become like rotten filth, and their blossom will dissipate like dust: they reject what God with his Legions teaches, what Israel’s Sacred One says — they make a mockery of it.

25. That’s why God’s blazing anger seethes against his people; he’s reaching out his hand towards them, and he’ll smite them so the mountains quake — so their corpses lie like garbage in the middle of the road. In all this his anger doesn’t turn back, and his hand still reaches out.*

26. But he raises a flag for the nations from far away, and whistles for them from the ends of the earth — and look: they rush ahead; they’ll be coming fast.

27. No fatigue, no stumbling among them: they won’t doze, won’t sleep; their loincloths never come undone, and the strap on their sandal never snaps.

28. Their arrows are whetted and all their bows pulled taught; you’d think their horses’ hooves were rock, and their wheels roll like a hurricane.

29. The roar they make is like a lion’s. They’ll snarl like wild cubs, roaring and pouncing on their prey: they’ll carry it off safe and sound, with no one to rescue it.

30. Then they’ll roar at them On That Day, like the ocean’s roar. Survey the earth, see: pitch black dark. Grief. The light goes black on the horizon.

-- -- --

Line 8: Territory in ancient Israel was supposed to be equitably husbanded and managed by righteous landowners (see especially Leviticus 25). But in Isaiah's day, elites and 'fatcats' were taking advantage of vulnerable families and claiming others' land as their own by force or extortion (see especially Micah 2:2). This predatory annexation is part of the rampant injustice which Isaiah laments in Chapter 2 especially. Here in Chapter 5, the prophet forsees that Babylonian invaders will ravage all these ill-gotten mansions (line 9), rendering the surrounding properties almost entirey barren (line 10). Israel's decadent noblemen will then meet with death and oblivion (line 14), and their estates will be emptied out to become pastureland for wandering animals and nomads (line 17).

Line 14: The Grave (Sheʾol) will come up again in later chapters. It represents less an afterlife than the complete oblivion of dead flesh, the nothingness to which all human beings are consigned unless some eternal part of them is to be rescued by God. This is not unlike the ancient Greek idea of the underworld, where people survive (if they survive at all) only as pale shadows of memory. Particularly poignant is the poet Homer's famous depiction of this empty eternity in the 11th book of his epic, the Odyssey. There the wanderer Odysseus meets the great hero Achilles, whose glory has evaporated into shadow and who laments, 'I'd rather serve another man, and be a slave to some disenfranchised nobody, than rule in state as king of all the wasted dead' (11.468-91). So too Shakespeare's Hamlet, who sees the nobility and dignity of the human form but proclaims that it is ultimately a 'quintessence of dust' (Act 2, Scene 2).
Isaiah would have agreed that, though humans may attain what looks close to godlike majesty and beauty (cf. Psalm 8:5), all of it will ultimately wither into nothing when death comes. But for the prophet there is still one distant and desperate hope, in that God's eternal word has power to resurrect even dry bones. Chapter 40, lines 6-8: 'all flesh is grass, and all its grace is like a blossom in a field . . . but the proclamation of our god will stand fast for eternity.' Cf. Job 19.

Line 25: The last sentence of this line will be repeated again and again (e.g. in Chapter 9): 'his anger doesn't turn back, and his hand still reaches out.' It contains a perfect ambiguity: God's hand reaches out relentlessly to bring the consequences of corruption upon Israel, but that in itself is a sign of his unyielding commitment to rehabilitating his people. And so at the same time as his hand reaches out in punishment, it never stops reaching out in invitation: 'come here,' says God in Chapter 1: 'let's talk this out together.'
This is related to what transpires in the final lines (26-30) of Chapter 5: God 'raises a flag' and 'whistles' to summon foreigners into the once sovereign territory of Israel, which will now be overrun by hostile armies from Assyria and Babylon. But in that very act he folds the gentiles (the nations outside of the chosen race) into the story of salvation which he insists on telling in Israel. When ancient Rome conquered ancient Greece, the Roman poet Horace wrote that 'conquered Greece conquered her savage captor' (Epistles 2.1.156): in the course of taking over Greece politically, Rome fell in love with Greek culture and adopted Greek ways of life. Something different but comparable is happening here: the nightmare tragedy of Jerusalem's subjugation may be inescapable given how far Israel has fallen, but even then God may use it as an occasion for outsiders to be ushered into the kingdom of righteousness which had previously been reserved only for the Jews. So as the Jewish patriarch Joseph said to the brothers who abandoned him to Egyptian slavery, 'you intended evil against me, but God intended it for good' (Genesis 5:20).
In his unyielding punishment, in the bitter retribution that courses through Isaiah's words, God's anger does not abate because his devotion does not fail. Though by all accounts he ought to give us up for dead, he refuses to sit idly by while we shoot ourselves in the foot: at the sight of our self-destructive perversity his love and his anger blaze with the same unquenchable fire. And so in all this, in punishment and invitation, 'his hand still reaches out.'

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