How did it all go so wrong?
The prophet ponders, looking at the opulence and sees the rot beneath the veneer - the layers of immoral excess, cruelty and carelessness. How did we get here?
Jerusalem’s economy during Isaiah’s times relied mostly on local produce - olives and grapes were the most prominent providers of commerce. King Uzziah expanded the trade to include maritime imports/exports on massive scale.
So when the prophet has a vision of a failed vineyard he’s not being pastoral - he’s talking about their version of Wall Street in a way that they - and us - can understand.
Standing in his study, looking out at powerful Jerusalem at its heyday he sees the visions of the brutal battles that will flatten the towers and wonders - if a king as great as Uzziah has led us to this terrible corruption and disgrace - can there be ever hope for the people of this land? Are we indeed - were we ever - the chosen people??
And so he introduces the Parable of the Vineyard, as plain and powerful now as it must have sounded then to his listeners - and a troubling theological trap.
It may even have been a song.
I’ve got this friend, he sings, or tells the people — a beloved friend, who had a vineyard. He did everything right to take care of it, from fertile soil and careful pruning, the best vines and cultivation, and yet when it came time for harvest - the grapes were sour and no good.
So what went wrong?
It isn’t clear. Lau writes:
“Both Isaiah and his listeners were well aware of the labor of involved in planting on the Judean hills; its rocky terrain requires particular effort, and there is much work to be done even before beginning to plant…Why did the vineyard produce ‘sour grapes’ and what doe these represent? The song of the vineyard, its opening evocative of the Song of Songs, is transformed from an ode into a lamination. “
Isaiah continues the parable: His friend, the“beloved” owner of the vineyard turns to the dwellers of Jerusalem and Judah, brilliantly bringing them - and us - into the story as active participants, asking the listeners to judge him and his vineyard, claiming that he did all in his powers to ensure success:
מַה־לַּעֲשׂ֥וֹת עוֹד֙ לְכַרְמִ֔י וְלֹ֥א עָשִׂ֖יתִי בּ֑וֹ מַדּ֧וּעַ קִוֵּ֛יתִי לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עֲנָבִ֖ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ בְּאֻשִֽׁים׃וְעַתָּ֛ה יוֹשֵׁ֥ב יְרוּשָׁלַ֖͏ִם וְאִ֣ישׁ יְהוּדָ֑ה שִׁפְטוּ־נָ֕א בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵ֥ין כַּרְמִֽי׃
Dwellers of Jerusalem
And citizenry of Judah,
You be the judges
Between Me and My vineyard:
What more could have been done for My vineyard
That I failed to do in it?
Why, when I hoped it would yield grapes,
Did it yield sour grapes?”
The question is rhetorical. And he continues to narrate what he plans to do - remove the fence around the vineyard, let it be a wilderness, trampled by beasts.
“Only after his friend has unleashed his frustration upon the rogue vineyard is another secret revealed, “I will command the clouds not to rain down upon it.” With this statement the vineyard’s tender’s true identity is revealed to the prophet’s audience. The friend, the vineyard tender, is He who makes the rain fall. The parable’s end revealed the identity of the true master of the vineyard, who is at once its tender, judge and executioner.”
Now that he has our full attention and horror at the parable’s meaning, Isaiah goes on to lament the sour grapes of his society. Each of his laments begins with the word ‘woe’ - we literally hear the anguish.
He blasts the wealthy houses of Jerusalem, growing bigger by the day, exploiting excess, while so many starve. He rails against those who drink from dawn to dusk, addicted to substances that cloud their caring and release them from responsible behavior. And then he mocks the ones who do not know the difference between good and bad, sweet and sour, what’s true or false, real or fake news:
ה֣וֹי הָאֹמְרִ֥ים לָרַ֛ע ט֖וֹב וְלַטּ֣וֹב רָ֑ע שָׂמִ֨ים חֹ֤שֶׁךְ לְאוֹר֙ וְא֣וֹר לְחֹ֔שֶׁךְ שָׂמִ֥ים מַ֛ר לְמָת֖וֹק וּמָת֥וֹק לְמָֽר׃
“Woe for those who call evil good
And good evil;
Who present darkness as light
And light as darkness;
Who present bitter as sweet
And sweet as bitter!”
And when’s he done detailing these three ills he paints the picture of the future - the demolition of the vineyard, by a swift and powerful army, descending from the north. In what was obvious to his listeners, and to us, he is referring to the Assyrian Empire - already beginning its conquest of the near east.
“This prophecy, which began with the the parable of the vineyard, concludes with Isaiah lifting up his eyes, not to heaven, but to the all too real threat of the enemy sharpening its swords just over the northern horizon. The enemy has yet to arrive, but Isaiah heard the clash of its weapons and the pounding of hoofbeats, and knew that it was only a matter of time before darkness fell upon the already slumbering Kingdom of Judah.”
Isaiah will return to the vineyard as a metaphor and parable for Jerusalem. It’s important to note that in Hebrew, the vineyard is feminine. And so here too, the fate of the kingdom and sacred city is alluded to in feminine terms - the queen who will be humbled, the widow, the city of sour grapes. The daughter of Zion, abandoned by her lover and master, will have plenty to be woeful about. But she is also the one to celebrate, one day in the future, the glories restoration of the divine presence - within her, a vineyard restored. More about the problematics of feminine language usage as we encounter more of these prophetic parables and riddles.
Isaiah continues his lament and in the next chapter looks up above the city and the present moment to imagine what it can look like if only all of it could be, would be well, and the vineyards will yield a good harvest of hope.
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My association, of course, is: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored..."