How would you like to have Isaiah for your pastor or as the legendary national evangelist during your lifetime? Isaiah would be incredibly qualified. Could you bond spiritually with Isaiah and accept his preaching? Or would his sermons, leadership, communication skills and pulpit presence be assessed with the typical Sunday accolades: “I enjoyed your message today,” or “You sure spoil us with your great sermons”?
This is not just a rhetorical question for discussion in a Bible class. It is much more poignant, penetrating and practical. What really is involved is the expectation of our own response to the biblical truths by which Isaiah warns not only Judah but our nation, our culture, our government, our church and our families today.
God’s righteous expectations have not changed. Our God expects as much from our Christian family and secular nation, as he did from the nation Israel.
Born around 765-760 B.C. in Jerusalem, all of his life was spent in Judah, the southern half of the divided kingdom. Isaiah, meaning “salvation of Yahweh,” was in his early 20s when he was called to his prophetic ministry (Isaiah 6;1-8), which occurred in the year that Uzziah died (6:1) around 742 B.C.
Isaiah was married and had at least two sons (7:3, 8:1-4). He lived 70 to 80 years and his prophetic ministry lasted some 50 years, during the last half of the eighth century. He addressed the nation of Judah during the reign of Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz and Hezekiah (1:1). Manasseh succeeded Hezekiah and, according to tradition, had Isaiah “sawn asunder,” about 686 B.C.
Judah was experiencing a time of affluence and prosperity, of military strength, strong economy and national prominence. Assyria was the dominant power in the region, taking the northern kingdom, Israel, into captivity in 722 B.C., about 20 years after Isaiah was called. Seriously threatening Judah, near the end of the eighth century B.C., Assyria assaulted Judah, but God intervened to protect them.
Isaiah was no ordinary man and citizen. He was a valiant visionary, notable historian, statesman of patriotic stature, farsighted seer, brilliant communicator and, preeminently, a servant of God. He was spiritually mature, intensely energetic, patiently persistent, expectantly hopeful, authentically compassionate, boldly confrontational and courageous.
The book of Isaiah provides the world with some of the most profound prose and poetry ever produced and one of Israel’s best literary pieces. The content is a treasure of biblical doctrine and a revelation of God’s mission in our world.
No doubt the most important of the eighth century prophets, Isaiah was wise beyond his years, a spiritual giant and ethically uncompromising. Isaiah spent his entire life desperately trying to save his nation from the consequence of moral decay, evil and rebellion against God. Amoz, Isaiah’s father, must have been proud.
Background to advance the parable
Isaiah begins with his “vision concerning Judah” which includes, in chapters 1-5, the heart-breaking insight and detailed description of what he saw and foresaw in the future of his beloved nation. The changes taking place before his very eyes were disturbing and destructive.
He used imagery to compare Israel to the ox and donkey, “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (1:3). Israel had forsaken God as rebellious children forsake the love and teachings of their parents.
He saw his nation, without God, committing every imaginable sin of omission and commission. Speaking not for himself, but for the Lord (1:2), he begins the message of judgment with this: “See now, the Lord , the Lord Almighty, is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support” (3:1). Isaiah’s message clearly is a warning of impending doom and divine judgment. The purpose of God’s judgment is not for destruction but for restoration and renewal (4:2-6). Our own nation should receive and heed Isaiah’s warning.
The parable: Divine expectation
Isaiah was a master of the use of imagery as a communication vehicle or medium to simplify and explain his foresight and understanding of God’s judgment revealed to him. In the venue of the fall harvest festival, he presents his sermon through song and poetry.
His song is a parable of the vineyard. I only can assume that Isaiah sang this song at just the right moment in the best possible setting. The subtlety in the beginning of the song quickly is diffused and must have caused a shocking response to those who heard it or heard about it. His stature brought in the audience, and his words brought down the house.
Couched as a love song, Isaiah reminded the listeners of the love of God for his people, the whole nation of Israel. Then, the song became a subtrefuge for a sermon and the mechanism to mirror Judah’s soul. Like the prophet Nathan, who drew David to respond with anger at the story about the little ewe lamb and then said, “You, David, you are the one” (2 Samuel 12), Isaiah says, “Listen up Judah, you are the one.”
Awareness of God’s steadfast love (Isaiah 5:1-2)
Isaiah affirmed his love for God and God’s love for Israel (v. 1) in the preparation of the vineyard and its expected production. The vineyard on the hillside belonged to God who tilled it, cleared it of stones, planted it with the best of vintage grapevines, built a watchtower to protect it and dug out a wine press in expectation of the harvest. The message proclaims that God, lovingly and carefully, had done his work and steadfastly kept his covenant promises with the highest expectation of a great yield of fruitful production from Judah. The result was only rotten, unfit and unacceptable fruit.
America has received the blessings of the nurture of God in creating the most notable nation on earth with a lustrous history of success spiritually, socially and materially. For most of the world, we are the most enviable place on the planet. God has loved us with favor and blessings immeasurable like the choice vineyard. Should God not be as disappointed in America as he was Judah and Israel? Is there enough fruit to stay the hand of God’s judgment?
Acknowledgment of God’s judgment (Isaiah 5:3-7)
The love song of the vineyard presents a truthful and bitter assessment of God’s disappointment and response. Judah lived in contempt and ingratitude of God’s steadfast love. Giving the people of Judah and Jerusalem an opportunity to evaluate the grace of God toward them, Isaiah asked the probing question, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (v. 3).
Verse 7 makes it clear the judgment was not about a vineyard but about Judah to which he looked “for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (v. 7). God clearly defined his reaction. He would allow all the necessary enemies to destroy the vineyard and its vines. The blame for the devastation rests upon the shoulders of Israel because of her infidelity to God and her rebellious ways.
Adoption of God’s standards (Isaiah 5:8-14)
The elaboration of the essential content of Judah’s sin continues (vv. 8-30) with a series of woes expressing deep grief, severe suffering and ruinous trouble under the judgment of God. Judah had spurned his love, perverted the right and good while rebelling against God’s statutes.
It is not clear if this section is a continuation of the parabolic song or an independent section to further define Judah’s sin and God’s threatening response. Nevertheless, the day of reckoning is close at hand as God “whistles” for the “distant nations” (v. 26) to participate in the discipline of his favored children. Isaiah pronounces six woes (vv. 8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22) for specified sins with grievous consequences to follow, should God’s hand of protection fall away.
God has a standard of righteousness that he expects of His disciples. The warning is clear. When his standard, laws, principles, statutes and instructions are pushed aside, there will be divine consequences. These consequences have the purpose of restoration. God always allows people the choice of self-destruction but gives us the Bible, his song, to mirror the soul, reveal sin and call people back to him through forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.