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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 5

Verse 1

Much in the same way that Nathan induced David to pronounce sentence upon himself, Isaiah here gave a little song about one who planted a vineyard, etc.; and, when it produced poisonous berries instead of grapes and after it had become obvious that there was no possible excuse for such a thing, he revealed the true meaning of this little song about the vineyard. Only when we come to Isaiah 5:7 does it become clear that God is the one who planted the vineyard and that Israel and Judah (collectively) are the vineyard. "This is the first appearance, chronologically, of the vineyard as a symbol of Israel."[1] Later, the same figure was adopted by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12:10), and by the Psalmist (Psalms 80). In the New Testament, Jesus utilized the metaphor in the parable of the wicked husbandmen (Mark 12:1-10); and in John 15:1ff, Christ made one of the most significant announcements of his earthly ministry, namely, that he is the "true vine," and therefore the true Israel, replacing utterly and completely the old Israel which had indeed, in their rejection of Christ, fallen into the status of a corrupt or degenerate vine! Thus, Jesus Christ and his Church, who are united with him as his spiritual body are indeed the New Israel, the chosen people of God, and the only Israel God now has.

Immediately after this first section (Isaiah 5:1-7), the chapter becomes a catalogue of the characteristics "of a corrupt civilization"[2] (Isaiah 5: 8-23); and the final paragraph (Isaiah 5:24-30) is a powerful and overwhelming picture of the final judgment. The special attention which Jesus Christ our Lord gave to this chapter and its prophecies should induce all Christians to take a very careful look at it.

Isaiah 5:1-2

"Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved had a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he digged it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also hewed out a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes."

"My well beloved ..." In the light of what follows in Isaiah 5:7, we know that Isaiah's "well beloved" here is no other than the "Lord of Hosts." As for the winepress, the tower, etc., these are fully discussed in Vol. 2 of my New Testament series, pp. 221-222. The message is that every possible improvement and advantage of the wonderful vineyard were provided by the God who planted it.

"The choicest vine ..." These were the great Jewish patriarchs, especially, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were the beginnings of the Old Israel. They did indeed establish benchmarks of human conduct which were far in advance of their times and infinitely above the sordid behavior of the pagan society in which they lived. This is seen in the truth that God Himself consented to be known as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

"Wild grapes ..." These should not be identified with the grape known by this designation in America. Lowth tells us that, "They were not simply useless, unprofitable grapes such as wild grapes; but they were offensive, noxious, and poisonous."[3] The same scholar cited 2 Kings 4:39-41, which records the instance where there was "death in the pot" as a case where the poisonous effect of this variety of "wild grape" was demonstrated. Jamieson pointed out that the particular variety of wild grape intended here was known by several other names, such as, "nightshade, monk's head, and wolf grapes."[4]

Verse 3

"And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you betwixt me and my vineyard. What could I have done more, that I have not done in it? wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; I will break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned nor hoed: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry."

As Kidner pointed out, this section of Isaiah is a masterpiece. First, Isaiah concealed the identity of the vineyard and the One who planted; and then, when he explained what happened, he asked his hearers to "Judge" between the owner and the vineyard. It is easy to know what the judgment of the people was certain to be in that situation. Next, notice the dramatic shift to the first person on the part of the prophet. Why? Isaiah was God's mouthpiece here and was speaking for God Himself. Notice the promise to "command the clouds" in Isaiah 5:6. Only God could do that. At that point, no doubt, the more discerning of Isaiah's hearers had begun to understand; but then the prophet hit them squarely with the full, literal, unvarnished truth in Isaiah 5:7. God indeed had planted the vineyard which was composed of Israel and Judah. He would now remove all of the protection from his people and cause them to be overrun and destroyed. Furthermore, he restated their guilt in some of the most dramatic words in the Bible, utilizing the device of paronomasia. Hailey explained that the Hebrew here uses pairs of words to contrast what God looked for and what he received. These words, similar, and almost identical in sound have radically different meanings.

"God looked for justice ([~mishpat] in Hebrew) but received bloodshed, or oppression, ([~mispah] in Hebrew). God looked for righteousness ([~tsedakah] in Hebrew) but received a cry ([~seakah] in Hebrew).[5] This play upon the contrasting meanings of similar words is called paronomasia, and will be noted often in this prophecy. Of course, much of the force of such contrasts is lost in translation from one language to another.

In the next section of this chapter (Isaiah 5:8-23) six woes (actually seven) are pronounced upon the corrupt society which had at this point reached a degree of wickedness that would result in their final overthrow. Every so-called civilized society can read in this chapter the prophecy of their own doom. Here are presented the salient features of a human society on the way down.

Verse 8


"Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land! In mine ears saith Jehovah of hosts, of a truth many houses shall be left desolate, even great and fair without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah."

The insatiable desire of men to own more and more is the direct and certain result of a gross materialism in the heart. God here promises a judgment upon such ambitious concentrations of wealth and power.

"In mine ears ..." This is a reference to Isaiah's hearing the voice of God conveying to him the words God would have him deliver to the people.

"Acres ..." The literal Hebrew word here is "yokes," being a reference to "the amount of ground that two strong oxen could plow in a day."[6]

God's judgment upon the natural environment of greedy and selfish societies is shown in the prophecy here of a terrible drought in which a homer of seed shall yield only an ephah of grain. The severity of this is indicated by the fact that an ephah is only the tenth part of a homer. Thus the harvest would be cut to a disastrously low percentage of the seed sown.

Verse 11


"Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that tarry late into the night, till wine inflame them. And the harp and the lute, the tabret, and the pipe, and wine, are in their feasts; but they regard not the work of Jehovah, neither have they considered the operation of his hands."

This is a perfect picture of the reveling, drunken, irresponsibility of countless persons in our own society today; and the ultimate consequences of it shall not be any less serious than those which overtook ancient Israel. The international news services carried a story over the airwaves the very day this is being written stating that, "At least 100,000 deaths every year are caused by the consumption of alcohol in the United States." America seems intent upon drowning themselves in alcohol.

Note also the part played by instruments of music in the reveling and dissipation of the people. It has always been this way; and from the earliest times, instruments of music have been associated with pagan worship, as when, for example, Nebuchadrezzar associated them with the worship of his golden image. The reason for this is visible in the current influence of "rock music" upon teenagers.

Verse 13


"Therefore my people are gone into captivity for lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude are parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol hath enlarged its desire, and opened its mouth without measure; and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth among them, descend into it. And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled; but Jehovah of hosts is exalted in justice, and God the Holy One is sanctified in righteousness. Then shall the lambs feed as in their pasture, and the waste places of the fat ones shall the wanderers eat."

"The present tense in Isaiah 5:13 is the perfect of prophetic certitude."[7] Note also that there is the strong affirmation here that Israel deserves the death, destitution, and deportation that awaited them. Here is a terrible metaphor of death. The grave, or Sheol, is compared to a great monster opening its mouth to swallow the evil people. The last verse of this paragraph is ambiguous. Rawlinson wrote that the reference to the feeding lambs means that, "Sheep shall feed on the desolated estates of the covetous; and the last clause is a reference to the occupation of Israel's lands by wandering tribes of Arabs and others."[8]

Verse 18


"Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, and sin as it were with a cart rope; that say, Let him make speed, let him hasten his work; that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it!"

These verses are the language of scoffing materialists who use one of Isaiah's favorite names for God, but in mockery. These fearless sinners even dare to challenge the eternal God to "Do his thing in their presence!" Strangely, the words suggest the mockery of the leaders of Israel who challenged Jesus Christ to come down from the Cross. The mention of cords of falsehood and cart ropes, as Hailey stated, suggests that the "people are slaves to their idols and their sins ... They are harnessed with their falsehoods and their idolatry."[9] Archer compared the picture given here to that of a group of pagan worshippers "drawing the cart of a great idol in festal procession. Those backslidden people dragged along their idol of iniquity, challenging the Holy One of Israel."[10]

Verse 20


"Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!"

Dummelow called this the "perversion of all moral distinctions."[11] Calling sins by names that appear to approve of them is an old satanic trick. Thus the infidel is called a free thinker; the drunkard is called sociable; the alcoholic suffers from alcoholism; the stingy is called thrifty, etc.

Verse 21


"Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight."

The apostle Paul described perfectly the people of any generation who fall into this category, "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:22).

Verse 22


"Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink!"

Peake described these characters as "Drunkards, heroes, not for the fray, but for the debauch, having the hard head of the hard drinker. Not content with ordinary wine, they mix spices with it to enhance its flavor and increase its strength."[12]

Verse 23


"(Woe to them) that justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him."

The first three words of this verse are not in the text but are most certainly understood. Thus there are seven of these woes pronounced upon apostate Israel. Even the judiciary of wicked Israel had become corrupt; their judges had become evening wolves (Zephaniah 3:3). There could be but one answer to the problem of such a wicked society; and that answer was at once announced by the prophet; but it must not be supposed that Israel alone would suffer the terrible judgment announced here for the sinful kingdom (Amos 9:8). The judgment of Israel, as is also the case of many judgments of God upon wicked peoples throughout history, was a type of the eternal judgment itself. Thus, as we shall see in the final paragraph of this chapter, there will appear elements of both the judgment of Israel and that of the eternal judgment also.

Verse 24

"Therefore as the tongue of fire devoureth the stubble, and as the dry grass sinketh down in the flame, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust; because they have rejected the law of Jehovah of hosts, and despised the way of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore is the anger of Jehovah kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them; and the mountains tremble, and their dead bodies are as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still."

The big thing in this paragraph is the clear statement of the reason why God's judgment and destruction of Israel were proclaimed here as already predetermined and certain to occur, the past perfect tenses used here being the Biblical tenses of prophetic certainty.

Sinful men who have rebelled against God's government and who stubbornly continue their wickedness are on a collision course with disaster, determined and foretold from the foundation of the world and absolutely impossible of avoidance.

The mention of "God's law" is a reference to the Pentateuch without any doubt whatever, thus categorically giving the lie to all theories about the Pentateuch having been derived from the post-exilic works of Jewish priests.

Verse 26

"And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss for them from the end of the earth; and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly. None shall be weary or stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent; their horses hoofs shall be accounted as flint, and their wheels as a whirlwind: their roaring shall be like a lioness, they shall roar like young lions; yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and carry it away safe, and there shall be none to deliver. And they shall roar against thee in that day like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold, darkness and distress; and the light is darkened in the clouds thereof."

The extended metaphor of the lion, the lioness, and the young lions points squarely at the king of Assyria and his merciless armies as instruments through which the impending judgment of God's rebellious and wicked people would be executed. A reading of Nahum 2:11-13 will quickly reveal how this lion metaphor constituted the universally known logo of Assyria, an identification that clung to that evil kingdom until their own final destruction.

God's providential help of the enemies who would destroy Israel is indicated in the promise that not even the hoofs of the horses would be lame, and that at centuries of time before the shoeing of horses, as known to us, was ever heard of.

Here we also have another glimpse of the pattern in God's punishment of nations. The first chapter of Zechariah has the remarkable story of the horns that changed into smiths; and there it was revealed that the same nation, at first a horn to execute God's judgment upon the wicked; but when any "horn," that is, a persecuting power against God's purpose on earth, went beyond God's purpose, God at once changes another horn into a smith that destroys the offending horn. Thus Assyria was the "horn" that mined Egypt; but Babylon became the "smith" that mined Assyria. (See more on this in Vol. 4 of our series of commentaries on the minor prophets, pp. 35,36.)

In this mention of Assyria as the horn that destroyed Egypt, it should be recognized that Assyria was also the horn that destroyed the Northern Israel. Long prior to that, Israel had been the smith that wrecked the Canaanites under the leadership of Joshua. From the whole Biblical record, it seems reasonable to assume that when any nation reaches a certain degree of wickedness, God will destroy and remove them.

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 5". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.