Read: Isaiah 5:1-7
An early passage from Isaiah offers a moving parable about God’s grace and human sin, a parable that Jesus himself found to be all too accurate a description of his own life and work.
Biblical parables are not limited to the Gospels in the New Testament. The opening section of Isaiah 5, for example, contains a sort of song that includes a moving parable of grace and sin, of God’s persistent love in the face of his people’s persistent rejection. The prophet writes,
Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. . . . And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste . . . For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Isaiah 5:1-7)
“Let me sing a love song about the vineyard.” The singer here is Isaiah himself; the one he loves is the Lord God; and the people of Israel—or more specifically the remnant of the people left in the kingdom of Judah following the destruction of the northern kingdom—that’s the vineyard (v. 7).
God’s marvelous condescension in creating and establishing Israel as his very own people, his incredible power in rescuing them out of bondage in Egypt, his loving care and protection of them through those years of wilderness wandering, his provision of a land of promise for them, his gifts of rulers to govern and prophets and priests to guide his people—all those expressions of God’s gracious care for his people are the historical reality to which the metaphor of a man carefully building and planting and protecting a vineyard points (v. 2).
Then, when everything that could possibly have been done had been done (v. 4), the vineyard’s owner looked for a fine crop from his planting. It was the least he could expect. But instead the yield was bad. What was to be done? The owner, with perfect right and every justification, would totally destroy the vineyard on which he had lavished such care and so much hard work (vv. 5-6). That’s the song that the prophet Isaiah sings.
And its lesson isn’t hard to see. God’s people, the object of incalculable divine favor, the recipients of numberless benefits, owed to him their total allegiance. And that devotion ought to have expressed itself in lives of righteousness before God and justice towards one another, but instead there was only sin, violence, decadence, injustice. He looked for justice, says the prophet, but behold, bloodshed.
The rest of the fifth chapter of the book of Isaiah, from which this song is drawn, like so many similar passages in the Old Testament prophets, contains a devastating catalogue of Judah’s sins. These included: greed for acquisition, or as we might say today, consumerism (v. 8); the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and entertainment combined with a callous disregard for the things of God (vv. 11-12, 22); perversion of the moral order that turned categories of good and evil, right and wrong, on their heads (v. 20); and finally corrupting the system of public justice for the sake of personal gain (v. 23).
And the great point is not just how wrong this all is, but how, for want of a better word, inappropriate it is. If any people on earth could have been expected to produce a virtuous, just, and compassionate society, it should have been the people of ancient Israel, the people whom God himself had chosen and upon whom he had lavished so much grace. “He looked for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” So judgment, when it came, would be richly deserved, devastating, and it would be appropriately fitted to the crimes of that society (vv. 9-10,13; cf. also vv. 24-30).
If you’re anything like me, you must be struck by how current this all sounds. This passage reads as though Isaiah were trying to create a point-by-point description of our own contemporary society: think about it, the mindless pursuit of physical pleasure, addiction to entertainment, the feverish acquisition of more and more stuff, the public contempt for God’s Word and truth by an age that is wise in its own sight, the insistence that wrong is right and that even believing in right is wrong. How more accurate could this be?
If Isaiah’s description so clearly matches our culture, and if these evils will so clearly result in God’s judgment, what do you imagine the future might hold for us? Do you think we can go on casually expecting an ever-growing gross national product and an easy triumph in battle over all our foes?
Well, even more significant perhaps than what this parable says to our society is the way Jesus understood it speaking to his society in his day (see Matthew 21:33-46). According to the New Testament record, one of the things that made the Jerusalem rulers determine to kill Jesus was his teaching in the city during the days immediately following Palm Sunday, what we call “holy week.”
The Lord had entered the city in triumph. He cleansed the temple of its unholy commerce. The scribes and priests then demanded to know by what authority he did such things; where did Jesus get off acting as if he owned the place? But that was just it—he did own the place! And his reply to his critics as he stood in the temple courtyard took the form of an updated version of Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard.
Jesus’ story comes in Matthew 21:33-46. As he tells it, the owner, after planting the vineyard, and building a wall, and erecting a watchtower, goes away to another country for a long while. He turns his vineyard over to tenant farmers, who were to till it and gather in its produce and pay him the appropriate amount. Then, the harvest time having come, he sends servants to collect what is due to him. But the tenants beat some and kill others, rejecting servant after servant, until finally the owner decides to send his own son.
“But when the tenants saw the son,” Jesus says, “they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Matthew 21:38-39).
Jesus ended that parable on the same note as Isaiah did: when the owner himself comes there will be a terrible reckoning, and judgment will fall. “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41), declares the Lord Jesus.
Now some of Jesus’ parables were obscure and puzzling to his audience, but everyone who heard this one had no trouble whatsoever understanding him. They knew from Isaiah that the vineyard stood for the people of Israel. The servants who came again and again on behalf of the owner were the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord, demanding the fruit of repentance and obedience which was his due. The son, of course, was Jesus himself. But what about the vineyard’s tenants? Matthew’s Gospel puts it this way:
When the chief priests and Pharisees heard Jesus’ parable, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd. (Mt. 21:45-46).
Both these vineyard stories are really stories about persistence. Persistent love on God’s part—every passing year is a testimony to the patience of a holy God who continues to show grace to sinners. As someone once said, mercy is “God’s darling attribute.”
But the stories also tell of the persistent rejection of God’s love by hard-hearted people. C. S. Lewis wrote that if you seal your heart against love, it won’t be broken—it will rather become unbreakable. The more you reject God’s call to repent, the more you spurn his mercy, the harder your heart becomes. And in the end, hardness is all that’s left. When persistent love is met by persistent rejection, the only result can be judgment.
So the story of the vineyard is really a parable of destiny. It serves to warn us about the incalculable consequences of not listening to the word of God. Ultimately, everything in that word comes down to Jesus Christ. Your fate is determined by your attitude towards him. Accepting Christ is the only way to be saved. “Only? Why should that be?” many demand. “Why just him? Why not many ways?”
You know, human beings’ fondest hope is that they don’t really have to do anything to be saved, that they can simply drift along as they are, but the gospel declares the necessity of the cross. It is “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” to many, but to those being saved it is the wisdom and power of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-23).
But suppose you have received Christ, that you’re not among those who have hardened their hearts. Then remember this: we still are the Lord’s vineyard, and he continues to look for the fruit of repentance and faith. That faith must also bear fruit, as a sign that it’s alive and not dead — the fruit of good works, especially of justice and righteousness, as Isaiah describes. You remember what Jesus said? “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit . . . ” (John 15:5-8).
May all who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ live such fruitful lives of faith and love and good works.