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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Isaiah 5

Verse 1


(1) Now will I sing to my wellbeloved.—Literally, Now let me sing. The chapter bears every mark of being a distinct composition, perhaps the most elaborately finished in the whole of Isaiah. The parable with which it opens has for us the interest of having obviously supplied a starting-point for a later prophet (Jeremiah 2:21), and for our Lord’s teaching in the like parable of Matthew 21:33-41. Here, however, there is the distinctive touch of the irony of the opening verse. The prophet presents himself, as it were, in the character of a minstrel, ready to sing to his hearers one of the love-songs in which their culture delighted (Amos 6:5.) In its language and rhythm it reminds us of the Song of Solomon. The very word “beloved” recalls Song of Solomon 5:1-2; the description of the vineyards, that of Song of Solomon 8:11-13. The probability that the parallelism was intentional is increased by the coincidence of Isaiah 7:23, and Song of Solomon 8:11, which will meet us further on. On this assumption Isaiah’s words have a special interest as showing how early that poem lent itself to a mystical interpretation. One might almost conjecture that the prophet allured the people to listen by music as well as words, and appeared, as Elisha and other prophets had done, with harp or pipe in hand (2 Kings 3:15; 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 16:23; Isaiah 30:29). The frequency of such hymns (Isaiah 12, 25, Isaiah 26:1-4) shows, at any rate, that the prophet had received the training of a psalmist. (See Introduction.)

A song of my beloved.—A slightly different reading adopted by some critics gives A song of love. The “beloved” is purposely not named, but appears afterwards as none other than Jehovah. The word, closely connected with the ideal name Jedediah (the beloved of Jehovah; 2 Samuel 12:25), occurs in twenty-six passages of Song of Sol., and not elsewhere.

A very fruitful hill.—Literally, a horn, the son of oil. The combination “horn of oil” in 1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Samuel 16:13, and 1 Kings 1:39, suggests the thought that the phrase is equivalent to “the horn of the anointed” (Kay). The term “horn” was a natural synonym for a hill. So we have Matterhorn, Aarhorn, &c., in the Alps. Oil was naturally symbolic of fertility. In Psalms 80:8-16, we have a striking parallel. The “fruitful hill” was Canaan as a whole, with a special reference to Judah and Jerusalem. The “choicest vine”—literally, vine of Sorek (Genesis 49:11; Jeremiah 2:21), bearing a small dark purple grape—pointed back to the fathers of the nation, who, idealised in the retrospect, were as the heroes of faith compared with the then present generation. The picture which forms the parable might almost take its place among the Georgics of Palestine. The vineyard on the hillside could not be ploughed, and therefore the stones had to be taken out by hand. It was fenced against the beasts of the field. There was a tower for a watchman to guard it against the attacks of robbers. (Comp. Virg. Georg. ii. 399-419.) Each part has its own interpretation.

Verse 2

(2) And he fenced it.—In the “fence” we may recognise the law and institutions of Israel which kept it as a separate people (Eph. Ii. 14); in the “stones” that were gathered out, the removal of the old idolatries that would have hindered the development of the nation’s life; in the “tower” of the vineyard (comp. in a different context Isaiah 1:8), the monarchy and throne of David, or the watch-tower from which the prophets looked forth (Hab. Ii. 1; Isaiah 21:5-8); in the “winepress,” the temple in which the fruits of righteousness were to issue in the wine of joy and adoration (Zechariah 9:17; Ephesians 5:18). It was, we may note, one of the maxims of the Rabbis that the duty of a scribe was “to set a fence around the law” (Pirke Aboth, i. 1). In the last clause of the verse the pleasant song suddenly changes its tone, and the “wild grapes (sour and hard, and not larger than bilberries) are types of deeds of harsh and cruel injustice on which the prophet proceeds to dwell.

Verse 3

(3) And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem.—“The song of the vineyard” comes to an end and becomes the text of a discourse in which Jehovah, as the “Beloved” of the song, speaks through the prophet. Those to whom the parable applies are invited, as David was by Nathan, to pass an unconscious judgment on themselves. (Comp. Matthew 21:40-41, as an instance of the same method.)

Verse 4

(4) What could have been done more . . .—The prophet cuts off from the people the excuse that they had been unfairly treated, that their Lord was as a hard master, reaping where he had not sown (Matthew 25:24). They had had all the external advantages that were necessary for their growth in holiness, yet they had not used them rightly. (Comp. the striking parallelism of Hebrews 6:4-8.)

Verse 5

(5) I will take away the hedge . . .—This involved the throwing open of the vineyard to be as grazing land which all the wild bulls of Bashan—i.e., all the enemies of Zion—might trample on (Ezekiel 34:18). The interpretation of the parable implies that there was to be the obliteration, at least for some time and in some measure, of the distinctness and independence of the nation’s life. (Comp. Hosea 3:4, for a like sentence in another form.)

Verse 6

(6) There shall come up briers and thorns.—The picture of desolation is still part of a parable. The “briers and thorns” (both the words are peculiar to Isaiah) are the base and unworthy who take the place of the true leaders of the people (Judges 9:7-15). The absence of the pruning and the digging answers to the withdrawal of the means of moral and spiritual culture (John 15:2; Luke 13:8). The command given to the clouds (comp. 2 Samuel 1:21, for the outward form of the thought) implies the cessation of all gracious spiritual influences.

Verse 7

(7) For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts.—The words remind us of Nathan’s “Thou art the man,” to David (2 Samuel 12:7), and of our Lord’s words in Matthew 21:42-43.

Behold oppression.—The Hebrew word carries with it the idea of bloodshed, and points to the crimes mentioned in Isaiah 1:15; Isaiah 4:4. The “cry” is that of the victims who appeal to Jehovah when they find no help in man (Genesis 4:10; Deuteronomy 24:15; James 5:4).

Verse 8

(8) Woe unto them that join house to house.—The series of “Woes” which follows has no precedent in the teaching of earlier prophets. The form of Luke 6:24-26 seems based upon it. The general indictment of Isaiah 1:0 is followed by special counts. That which leads off the list was the destruction of the old village life of Palestine. The original ideal of the nation had been that it should consist of small proprietors; and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:13; Leviticus 27:24), and the law of the marriage of heiresses (Numbers 27:1-11, Numbers 36:0, Numbers 33:54) were intended as safeguards for the maintenance of that ideal. In practice it had broken down, and might had taken the place of right. Landmarks were removed (Deuteronomy 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:17; Proverbs 22:28), the owners of small estates forcibly expelled (Micah 2:2) or murdered as Naboth had been (1 Kings 21:16); the law of debt pressed against the impoverished debtor (Nehemiah 5:5), and the law of the Jubilee was practically set aside. In place of the small freeholders there rose up a class of large proprietors, often the novi homines of the state (e.g., Shebna in Isaiah 22:16), while the original owners sank into slavery (Nehemiah 5:5) or became tenants at will, paying exorbitant rents in kind or money, and liable at any moment to be evicted. Isaiah’s complaint recalls the agrarian laws by which first Licinius and then the Gracchi sought to restrain the extension of the latifundia of the Roman patricians, and Latimer’s bold protest against the enclosure of commons in the sixteenth century. The evil had been denounced before by Micah (Micah 2:2), and in a psalm probably contemporary with Isaiah (Psalms 49:11). The fact that the last year of Uzziah coincided with the Jubilee may have given a special point to Isaiah’s protest.

Verse 9

(9) In mine ears said the Lord.—The italics show that there is no verb in the Hebrew, the text, if it be correct, giving the emphasis of abruptness; but it is rightly supplied in the Authorised Version. The sentence that follows is one of a righteous retribution: There shall be no profit or permanence in the property thus unjustly gained.

Verse 10

(10) Ten acres.—The disproportion was as great as that which we have seen in recent times in vine countries suffering from the Phylloxera or the oidium, or in the potato failures of Ireland. The bath was equal to seventy-two Roman sextarii (Jos. Ant. viii. 2-9), about seven and a half gallons, and this was to be the whole produce of ten acres, from which an average yield of 500 baths might have been expected. The Hebrew word for “acre” means primarily the ground that could be ploughed in a day by a yoke of oxen.

The seed of an homer shall yield an ephah.—Here also there is an all but total failure. The homer was a dry measure of thirty-two pecks, and the ephah was equal to one-tenth of a homer (Ezekiel 45:11; Exodus 16:36). This scanty crop—Ruth’s gleanings for a single day (Ruth 2:17)—one-tenth of the seed sown, was to take the place of the “thirtyfold, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Genesis 26:12; Matthew 13:8) of average or prosperous years.

Verse 11

(11) Woe unto them that rise up early.—The same class as in Isaiah 5:8 meets us under another aspect. In Judah, as elsewhere, the oppressors were conspicuous for their luxury (Amos 6:5-6). They shocked public feeling by morning banquets (Ecclesiastes 10:16-17; Acts 2:14). Not wine only, but the “strong drink” made from honey and from dates and other fruits (possibly including, as a generic term, the beer for which Egypt was famous) was seen on their tables. The morning feast was followed, perhaps with hardly a break, by an evening revel. (Comp. Isaiah 22:13; Isaiah 28:7.)

Verse 12

(12) The harp, and the viol.—Here again the fashions of Judah followed those of Samaria, so closely indeed that Isaiah addresses the rulers of his own city as “the drunkards of Ephraim” (Isaiah 28:1; Amos 6:5). The list of instruments is fairly represented by the English words, but lute (or hand-harp), cymbal, timbrel (or tambourine), and flute would come somewhat closer to the Hebrew.

They regard not the work of the Lord.—The life of luxury was then, as ever, one of practical atheism. Those who so lived did not see, never do see, any Divine plan or order in the world around them. They anticipated, in their swine-like greed, the baser types of the school of Epicurus.

Verse 13

(13) My people are gone into captivity.—The great captivity of Judah lay as yet far off, but the prophet may be speaking of it as already present in his vision of the future. Probably, however, the disastrous wars of Ahaz had involved many captures of the kind referred to (2 Chronicles 28:5; 2 Chronicles 28:8; 2 Chronicles 28:17-18).

Because they have no knowledge.—Better, and they knew noti.e., did not foresee that this must be the outcome of their conduct. The “honourable men” and the “multitude” are named as representing all classes of society.

Verse 14

(14) Therefore hell hath enlarged herself.—The Hebrew Sheol, or Hades, like “hell” itself in its original meaning, expressed not a place of torment, but the vast shadow – world of death, thought of as being below the earth (Psalms 16:10; Psalms 49:14). Here, as elsewhere (Jonah 2:2; Proverbs 1:12; Proverbs 30:16), it is half-personified, as Hades and Death are in Revelation 6:8; Revelation 20:13-14. In that unseen world there were, in the later belief of Judaism, the two regions of Gehenna and of Eden or Paradise. What the prophet says is that all the pomp and glory of the rich oppressors are on their way to that inevitable doom. The word for “glory” (as in 1 Samuel 4:22) is the same as that for “honourable men” in Isaiah 5:13, so that the original has all the emphasis of repetition.

Verse 15

(15) The mean man shall be brought.—The recurrence of the burden of Isaiah 2:9; Isaiah 2:11-12; Isaiah 2:17, connects Isaiah 5:0 with the earlier portion of the introduction.

Verse 16

(16) Shall be sanctified.—Men had not recognised the holiness of Jehovah, and therefore He must manifest that holiness (in that sense “be sanctified”) in acts of righteous severity. The “Holy One of Israel” was, we must remember, the name, of all Divine names, in which Israel most delighted, the ever-recurring burden of all the prophet’s utterances.

Verse 17

(17) Then shall the lambs feed after their manner.—Better, feed even as on their pasture. The meaning is clear enough. The lands that have been gained by oppression shall, in the day of retribution, become common pasture ground instead of being reserved for the parks and gardens of the rich; and strangers—i.e., invaders, Philistines, Assyrians, or nomadic tribes—shall devour the produce (Isaiah 1:7). Possibly, however, the “lambs” may stand for the poor and meek, as in contrast with the “fat ones” of the earth. The LXX. version follows a different reading in the second clause, and gives “kids” instead of “strangers.”

Verse 18

(18) That draw iniquity with cords of vanity.—The phrase is boldly figurative. Evil-doers are thought of as harnessing themselves as to the chariot of sin. The “cords of vanity”—i.e., of emptiness or ungodliness—are the habits by which they are thus bound. The “cart ropes,” thicker and stronger than the “cords,” represent the extreme stage, when such habits become irresistibly dominant. Probably the words may point to some idolatrous procession, in which the chariot of Baal or Ashtaroth was thus drawn by their worshippers, like that of Demêter or Cybele in Greece, or Juggernâth in India.

Verse 19

(19) That say, Let him make speed.—We have here, as in Isaiah 28:10, and Jeremiah 17:15, the very words of the wealthy scoffers of Judah. Such taunts are not peculiar to any age or country. We find them in the speech of Zedekiah (1 Kings 22:24), in that of the mockers of 2 Peter 3:4. In the name of Isaiah’s second son (Isaiah 8:3) we may probably find an answer to the taunt. The words “the counsel of the Holy One of Israel” were obviously emphasised with a sneer at the name on which Isaiah dwelt so constantly. (Comp. Isaiah 30:11.)

Verse 20

(20) Woe unto them that call evil good.—The moral state described was the natural outcome of the sins condemned in the preceding verses. So Thucydides (iii. 82-84) describes the effects of the spirit of party in the Peloponnesian war. Rashness was called courage, and prudence timidity, and treachery cleverness, and honesty stupidity. That deliberate perversion is in all ages the ultimate outcome of the spirit that knows not God, and therefore neither fears nor loves Him, whether it shows itself in the licence of profligacy, or the diplomacy of Machiavellian statesmen, or the speculations of the worshippers of Mammon.

Verse 21

(21) Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes.—Here again the prophet would seem to have definite individual counsellors in his mind. For such men the ideal of statesmanship was a series of shifts and expedients, based upon no principle of righteousness. (Comp. Isaiah 29:15; Isaiah 30:1.)

Verse 22

(22) Woe unto them that are mighty to drink. . . . strong drink.—The words in part reproduce the “woe” of Isaiah 5:11-12, but with the distinctive feature that there the revellers were simply of the careless self-indulgent type, while here they are identified with the unjust and corrupt rulers. They were heroes and valiant men only in and for their cups. To such men it seemed a light matter to acquit the guilty and condemn the guiltless. The prophet dwells on the familiar truth, Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur. The Targum, it may be noticed, has “the mammon of falsehood” (comp. Luke xvi, 9), for the “reward” of the Hebrew.

Verse 24

(24) Therefore as the fire devoureth.—Literally, the tongue of fire. The scene brought before us is—(1) that of a charred and burnt-up field, horrible and hideous to look upon (comp. Hebrews 6:8); (2) that of a tree decayed and loathsome. The double imagery represents the end of the riotous mirth of the unjust judges.

Verse 25

(25) The hills did tremble.—We again trace the influence of the earthquake which was still fresh in the memories of men. (See Note on Isaiah 2:10.)

Their carcases were torn.—Better, were as sweepings, or, as refuse. The words may point either to pestilence, or war, or famine. The stress laid on scarcity in Isaiah 5:10 makes it probable that the last was prominent in the prophet’s mind.

For all this his anger is not turned away.—The same formula meets us in Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:21; Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 14:27, with a solemn knell-like iteration. It bids the people remember after each woe that this is not all. They do not as yet see the end of the chastisement through which God is leading them. “For all this” may mean (1) because of all the sins, or (2) notwithstanding all the punishment already inflicted. (Comp. Leviticus 26:18; Leviticus 26:23.)

Verse 26

(26) And he will lift up an ensign.—The banner on the summit of a hill indicated the meeting-place of a great army. In this case the armies are thought of as doing the work of Jehovah Sabaoth, and therefore as being summoned by Him. The same image meets us in Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 11:12; Isaiah 13:2; Isaiah 18:3; Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 62:10.

Will hiss unto them.—The verb meets us in a like context in Isaiah 7:18. It seems to describe the sharp shrill whistle which was to the ear what the banner was to the eye, the signal of a rendezvous. Possibly, as in Isaiah 7:18, the idea of the bees swarming at the whistling of the bee-master is already in the prophet’s thoughts.

From the end of the earth.—The words point to the Assyrians, the Euphrates being the boundary of Isaiah’s political geography.

Verses 27-29

(27-29) None shall be weary . . .—The three verses paint the progress of the invading army. Unresting, unhasting, in perfect order, they march onward. They do not loosen their girdle for repose. The latchet or thong which fastens their sandals is not “broken” or untied. The light-armed troops are there, probably the Medes and Elamites in the Assyrian army (Isaiah 13:18). The chariots of the Assyrians themselves are there, sweeping onward like a tempest. Their unshod hoofs (the practice of shoeing horses was unknown in the ancient East) are hard as flint. Comp. Homer’s epithet of “brazen-footed” (Il. v. 329); and Amos 6:12. The battle-cry is heard far off like the roaring of lions.

Verse 30

(30) They shall roar against them.—Literally, there is a roaring over him. The verb is the same as in the previous verse, and points therefore to the shout and tramp of the armies. It suggests the thought of the roaring of the sea, and this in its turn that of the darkness and thick clouds of a tempest; or possibly, as before, of an earthquake; or possibly, again, of an eclipse. The word for “heavens” is not that commonly used; better, clouds.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 5". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.