The Unfruitful Vineyard in the Hands of an Angry God

Jesus told the Pharisees that God will evict the Jews, the old tenants, and bring in new tenants into the vineyard. The Jews perceived what Jesus meant: God will take the kingdom away from the Jews as his chosen people, and his new kingdom will now be expanded to include the Gentile nations.

Psalm 118:19-24; Isaiah 5:1-7 (text); Matthew 21:33-46; John 15:1-6
May 8, 2011

The valley known as the Napa-Sonoma in the San Francisco Bay Area is world-renowned for its vineyards, and of course, its wineries. Last year, our friends from Denmark came to California for their vacation, and we took them on a day-long tour of San Francisco, and one of their wishes was to visit the famed Napa-Sonoma vineyards. So we drove them to the picture postcard valleys with their lush vineyards, black oak trees, and rolling hills, and stopped by one of the wineries for wine-tasting. As the driver, I had a sip of three different wines, and my favorite was sweet wine.

Napa Valley vineyard (click to enlarge)

Napa Valley vineyard (click to enlarge)

Sweet wine, of course, is better than bitter wines. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I assume that the most succulent sweet wine comes from sweet grapes, not bitter grapes. Isaiah Chapter 5 is about a vineyard owner who planted a vineyard, tended and protected it with care, but when harvest came, his vineyard produced not sweet, but only bitter, wild and therefore, useless grapes. What a disappointment!

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This chapter is introduced in verse 1 as Isaiah’s song for his “beloved,” a Hebrew term of endearment usually applied to a romantic relationship between a man and a woman (cf Song of Songs 1:13ff). But here, the term is used by Isaiah for God. To him, God is not only “the Holy One of Israel,” but his “beloved friend” as well. Our text is not just a song, but a “love song,” but what kind of a love song is this? It is a strange love song, because it talks about his dear friend’s unfruitful vineyard and how his friend will let it be ruined.

In this love song, Isaiah develops the story about the Lord’s vineyard in the form of an allegory, an Old Testament literary device that uses symbolic characters and events to illustrate a message. At the end of the story, the symbolism is usually explained, as Isaiah does so in verse 7: the vineyard is Israel itself whom God loved, provided for, and protected all her days. But in return for all of God’s love, Israel rebelled against God, resulting in their ruin.

Remember how God sent the prophet Nathan to confront and rebuke David for his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah? In 2 Samuel 12:1-15, Nathan tells David a parable of a poor man who owned, loved and cared for his only sheep like it was his own daughter. Then came a rich man who owned a flock of sheep and stole the poor man’s sheep to wine and dine a friend who was passing through. David was incensed against the rich man, and told Nathan, “The man who has done this deserves to die … because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. Who is this man?” Nathan answered, “You are the man!” (verses 5-7) Without realizing it, David condemned himself with his own words and repented of his sin, “I have sinned against the Lord” (verse 13).

In his rebuke, Nathan reminded David of God’s love, provision and protection for him, and yet David committed these grievous sins against God and his neighbors. In Isaiah 5, the Lord tended, worked and protected his vineyard with great care, but like Israel in the wilderness and David on his throne, it produced bad fruit. And although David repented, he was punished by God for his sins. In the same way, God will punish Israel for their sins.

All is not lost, however, for God’s people. The Lord did not destroy his vineyard completely, but is now restoring it slowly but surely. In fact, he is not just restoring it with his care and protection, but he is expanding it from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth.

The Owner’s Care and Protection

"The Red Vineyard at Arles" by Vincent van Gogh (1888)

"The Red Vineyard at Arles" by Vincent van Gogh (1888) (click to enlarge)

Chapter 5 is the summary and conclusion of Isaiah’s diagnosis of Judah’s rebellion against God. This chapter is easily divided into three parts: verses 1-7 is a description of the owner’s care for and protection of his vineyard; verses 8-24 is a litany of the “wild grapes” that it produced, which is Israel’s sins; and verses 25-30 tell us of God’s impending punishment against the people.

Isaiah describes how his beloved friend planted a beautiful vineyard. He chose a very fertile hill, dug it and cleared it of stones. He bought the best and choicest vines to plant his vineyard. In the ancient Near East, including the hill country of Israel, vineyards were often planted on hillsides terraced by retaining walls. Imagine the rice terraces in Banaue, but instead of rice, vines were grown. The owner digs the ground, removes the stones very common in the area, and then backfills it with fertile soil. To protect his vineyard, he builds a watchtower in the middle with the stones he removes, and surrounds it with a wall or a hedge.

Grapes were very important in the ancient Near East, as it is used not only for producing wine, but also preserved as raisins. When the grapes appear, the owner will hire other workers to protect his vineyard from wild animals, birds, or even thieves from the watchtower. The owner also digs a winepress to get ready for the harvest of grapes. After the harvest, the workers would press out the grape juice by walking through the winepress barefooted.

In short, the owner of the vineyard did all the careful and diligent work of building, planting and protecting his vineyard for a plentiful harvest. But when harvest came, the owner tasted the grapes, and alas! The grapes were “stinking” or “sour,” which describes its bad smell and taste inconsistent with the planting of the best vines in a fertile, cultivated land. They were like “wild grapes” growing in the wilderness without the care of an owner, and so tasted and smelled bad.

To digress a little, what is the origin of the well-known idiom “sour grapes”? One of Aesop’s fables tells of a fox that cannot reach the grapes he desperately longs to eat because they were hanging high on the vine. So the fox says, “I don’t really want these grapes; they’re sour anyway!” Many Filipino politicians are fit to be called “sour grapes” because they always cry “Foul!” or “I was cheated!” whenever they lose an election. Even Eddie Villanueva’s supporters claimed that their candidate got cheated when he received only 2 percent of the vote. But “sour grapes” is an example of a Biblical term used by the secular world, in this case attributed to Aesop, a 7th century Greek writer.

A vineyard is the most common symbol used for Israel in Scripture. God condemned Israel’s leaders because they “have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer 12:10). In Psalm 80:8-16, Israel is “a vine out of Egypt” whom God brought out and planted in the land where they prospered. In Jeremiah 2:21, God rebukes Israel in the same language he uses in Isaiah 5, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” And Hosea 10:1 says Israel is “a luxuriant vine,” but sinned more and more with its prosperity.

How did God plant Israel as his choice vine? The historical Psalm 105 tells us of God’s provision and protection for his chosen vineyard Israel. From the beginning, God called their forefather Abraham from a pagan land, brought him into the Promised Land of Canaan, and made a covenant with him and his descendants. Through the centuries, God never broke his covenant promises to Abraham, sending Moses to redeem them out of slavery in Egypt by performing mighty acts before the Pharaoh. Because “he remembered his holy promise and Abraham, his servant,” he spread a cloud to protect them from the heat by day, and a pillar of fire to guide them by night. He sent manna and quail from heaven, and opened the watery rock to satisfy their thirst. In summary, the Psalmist sings,

So he brought his people out with joy,
his chosen ones with singing.
And he gave them the lands of the nations,
and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil,
that they might keep his statutes (Psa 105:43-45).

But soon enough, Israel forgot their covenant vow to observe God’s laws,

But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel (Psa 106:13).

Because God has done everything to care and provide for his people, he asks rhetorically, “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Israel has no excuse for their rebellion against their holy God.

Unfruitful Vines Made Waste

Although verses 8-24 are not part of our text, nevertheless, an explanation of these verses is required to show how Israel became “wild grapes.” These are proclamations of doom against Israel, which is the meaning of the word “woe.” God is saying, “Alas, O Israel! You are doomed because of these sins!” Here, “woe” is God’s mixed expression of sorrow, anger and doom over the sins of Israel. There are six woes in verses 8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22.

The first woe is a condemnation of materialistic greed among the people who accumulate houses, fields and other material possessions, “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field.” Like today’s affluent rich, there is no satisfaction with one, two or three houses. Indeed, there is no satisfaction with one million, or a hundred million, or a billion. Where is the trust and dependence on God for his care and providence? Where is the remembrance of his faithfulness in the past? For this greed, God will destroy their “large and beautiful” houses and fields.

From verses 11-17, God describes Israel’s narcissistic self-indulgence, caring about nothing except the bread and wine from their vineyards in their unending feasts: “They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands.” Where is the support of and attention to God’s work and to the worship of God? And does God care for their lavish sacrifices and feasts when their hearts are far from him? Like our self-indulgent culture today, they cared only about food, wine and garment, how they looked; in short, their “good life.” For this sin, God will send humiliating exile, hunger, thirst, and death to them, and sheep and strangers will eat in the ruins of their homes (verses 13-17).

The third woe is a pronouncement of judgment against irreverence for God. They dare and mock the Lord, “Let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!” If he is God, why doesn’t he come and show himself and his power so we may see him? “If you’re real and alive, we dare you to punish our wickedness!” Judgment on this sin is reserved for later announcement in verses 25-30.

The fourth and fifth woes condemn moral perversion, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (verse 20). To rationalize their wickedness in their own wisdom, the people pervert the truths of God’s Word. There is no such thing as good and evil, or the rule of law, or moral authority; only lawlessness. Like our present culture, all things are relative. The perception of good and evil depends on man’s wisdom, desires and loving feelings, “wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (verse 21) What’s wrong with unmarried couples living together if it’s a loving relationship? What’s wrong with unbiblical worship if we’re sincere in our worship?

Lastly, the sixth woe is the most grievous of all, because it ties all the other sins together: social injustice. Isaiah’s condemnation is also a mockery. They acclaim “those who are heroes at drinking wine,” and those who pervert justice, “who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (verses 22-23) The powerful enrich themselves by oppressing the poor and powerless through injustice. The roots of social injustice are the sins of greed, self-indulgence, disregard for God, and moral perversion. Judges 21:25, although written four centuries before Isaiah, accurately analyzes Israel’s disregard for all of God’s law, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Therefore, in verses 25-30, God expands on his summary of judgment against his people. Earlier in verses 5 and 6, Isaiah uses the imagery of an invasion and destruction of Israel by a foreign power, “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.” The Lord will remove his protective wall and hedge around the nation. In this summary sentencing, the angry God will send a foreign army, fierce, cruel and speedy like a lion, to trample the vineyard and eat whatever is left over. The watchtower will crumble, so that no one will be able to warn them of thieves quickly coming to plunder them and carry them away into exile.

This is the consequence of Israel’s sin. God weighed them and found them wanting. In fact, to dramatize this perversion, Isaiah uses wordplay: instead of justice (mishpat), God found bloodshed (mispach) ; instead of righteousness (tsadaqah), he heard an outcry (tsaaqah) of distress and oppression. The people have distorted God’s truth of justice and righteousness into violence and oppression. So their judgment will fit the sin: because they loved darkness over light, God will grant them their desire, and will send darkness and distress over the land (verse 30).

New Tenants Produce Fruits

Jesus himself used Isaiah’s allegory of the vineyard to confront and condemn the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus continues Isaiah’s allegory of the vineyard. The master rents the vineyard to tenants who agree to pay rent in the form of a fixed percentage of the wine from the winepress. So the master sends some servants to collect the rent. But instead of being thankful to the owner for letting them live in the vineyard and earn their living, the wicked tenants beat and stoned some and killed the others. The master sends a second group of servants, and the tenants did the same to them.

What would the master do now? He sends his own son to the vineyard, thinking that the tenants would honor and respect his own son. But they threw the son out of the vineyard and killed him as well, because they thought the owner was dead, and the only heir left was the son. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, an ownerless vineyard would be claimed by those who lived in it. This is very much like the squatters in the Philippines, who, after living illegally for many years on property that is not theirs, will claim to be the lawful owners of the land.

Jesus then asks the Pharisees and scribes, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The Pharisees answered, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (verse 41). Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22-23, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Afterwards, Jesus summarizes the theme of this parable, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (verse 43-44).

Like King David, the Pharisees condemned themselves with their own words. They knew right away that Jesus was talking about them. The Jews rejected and killed God’s servants, the prophets, who made them accountable to the Lord, and warned them of impending judgment. But the Jews repeatedly rejected God, and when their wickedness was full, God finally sent his only begotten Son to their condemnation. The Jews rejected, despised, and later, crucified him on the cross outside the walls of the city. This is why Jesus pronounced seven woes on Jerusalem, then finally cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matt 23:37).

Therefore, Jesus told the Pharisees that God will evict the Jews, the old tenants, and bring in new tenants into the vineyard. The Jews perceived what Jesus meant: God will take the kingdom away from the Jews as his chosen people, and his new kingdom will now be expanded to include the Gentile nations. How will he give it to the Gentiles? After sending his Son to die for their sins, he sent his apostles and disciples to preach Christ to all the nations, and all those who believe are brought into the kingdom of God. But how will God make sure that they will be different from Israel, the old tenants, a people who are able to present sweet-tasting wine before God? In the new covenant, the Holy Spirit will give them a new heart and indwell them, thus enabling them to willingly offer sacrifices of thankfulness and obedience—a pleasing aroma to God.

The new covenant will be different from the old, since God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). But even in this change, there is fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). This new kingdom of all nations, peoples and languages of the world will consist of all disciples, both Jews and Gentiles brought together as one holy nation.

Conclusion

Jesus is the True Vine and his Father as the vinedresser. And you as God’s chosen people are his branches. If you produce good fruits, the fruits of the Spirit, then you are truly connected to the True Vine. He assures you that you are a true branch if you bear much fruit, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Only those who remain faithful to him bears good fruits (John 15:1-5).

We Gentiles were not natural-born citizens of the kingdom; only the Jews were. Paul says that Jews were the original branches of the olive tree, but many of them were broken off, that is, many Jews were cut off from the chosen nation. Gentiles were then grafted in. Paul warns us that if God did not hesitate to cut many Jews off from his kingdom because of their rebellion, he will not spare us Gentiles who were merely grafted in (Rom 11:11-24).

This is why Paul has another word of warning: make your calling and election sure by bearing much fruits. Through Christ’s death on the cross, you have been declared righteous, and you abide in him. But Jesus said, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). The vineyard that produces sour grapes will be cast out of the Promised Land and destroyed. The tenants who reject the Son of God will be cut off from the True Vine, thrown out of the kingdom of God, and receive eternal fiery judgment. But those who produce good fruits—obeying the Father’s commandments—will be blessed with complete joy in God’s eternal vineyard.

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