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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 5

Verses 1-7

The Vineyard of the Lord (5:1-7)

This is an unusual passage which forms a striking parable, but at the same time it is introduced as though it were a popular love song. The first line, “Let me sing for my beloved,” calls to mind the love poetry in the Song of Solomon. It may be that during the fall festival which celebrated the completing of the wine harvest such popular songs were commonly sung, and that Isaiah was using the form of such a song as a way of fitting his prophecy into a given context of a great festival. At the same time what the prophet has to say in the song is a very bitter word. The subject is about a vineyard which was planted with great care but which would produce nothing but wild grapes. In verses 3-4 the prophet asks his hearers what he should do with a vineyard that responds to his care and careful ministrations in this manner. In the final section of the poem (vss. 5-6) the speaker and poet says that he will destroy the vineyard; because it is so unf ruitful it will again become a waste. Then in verse 7 the prophet thrusts the lesson home with an abrupt explanation of what he has been really talking about. This vineyard is the house of Israel on whom the Lord has lavished such care and attention. But when he expected justice to come from the vineyard, there was instead bloodshed; when he had the right to expect the fruit of righteousness, he instead heard a cry from those who were oppressed. In the Hebrew there is a powerful play on the words translated “justice . . . bloodshed” and “righteousness . . . cry” which brings the song to a very quick and abrupt conclusion. The sin of Israel is her perversion of the good. For love and care she has returned infidelity. The implication of the song, therefore, is clear: the people of God in their vineyard of the Promised Land will be destroyed as a useless vineyard would be destroyed by the vineyard keeper. One perhaps can imagine the prophet himself singing this song as a way of making his prophecy to an assembled audience. Or if he did not sing it himself, then he would have had some popular singer present it.

Verses 8-23

Laments Over the Evildoers (5:8-23)

This section includes the first series of the prophet’s “woes” over the people of Judah and Jerusalem. It has generally been supposed that the prophetic “woe” is an imprecation, meaning in effect, “May God bring woe upon people who act in this or that evil manner.” The Hebrew word translated thus is, however, a simple exclamation which would be better rendered “alas.” In everyday usage it was used at the death of someone, or in a comparable situation of grief or tragedy. A prophet killed by a lion was laid in a grave and people “mourned over him, saying, ‘Alas, my brother!’” (1 Kings 13:30). Jeremiah says that Judeans will not lament for the wicked king, Jehoiakim, saying, “Ah [alas] lord!” (Jeremiah 22:18). The prophet’s “woe” thus is to be interpreted as a form of lament. Wicked people are those over whom the prophet could utter a funeral lament. They were people to feel sorry for because the judgment of God would soon fall upon them. The “woe” had the effect of announcing the judgment, and its mood probably held a considerable element of irony. Only in very late times when the term was followed by the preposition “to” or “upon” can one say that the lament form had come to be conceived as a direct statement of God’s judgment upon given individuals.

The first of Isaiah’s “woes” in verses 8-10 is a lament for those who by every means, legal or illegal, buy up field after field until there is no room in the land for any but themselves. The prophetic word was always addressed to the leaders of the society, to the strong who controlled public policy and whose actions so affected the weak as to make them weaker and poorer. In the oldest legal traditions of Israel the leading people of the nation were warned not to make poverty an opportunity for profit (see Exodus 22:25-27). Speculation in land was frowned upon because it tended to deprive the weak of the means of making a livelihood. God owned the land, and he had given it to Israel as to a steward. In theory, therefore, there should be no private ownership with the power to buy and sell the land in perpetuity (Leviticus 25:23). Consequently the Jubilee Year was devised, when land would revert to the original clan to which it had been allotted by God (Leviticus 25:8-17). This institution was too impractical to be put into legal and regular operation, but it shows the depth of the concern for the poor. Isaiah’s words about the amassing of landed property by the wealthy rests on old Israelite tradition which regarded such a situation as a subversion of the Covenant society.

The next “woe” concerns the irresponsible use of wine and strong drink. The tradition of Israel had no thought that the wrong lay in the vine or in its products. Rather the wrong lay in the people who made the excessive use of alcoholic beverages a substitute for social responsibility: “they do not regard the deeds of the Lord.” It is this irresponsibility in the use of property and in private life which in verses 13-17 is indicated as the reason for the coming exile of the people from the land God had given them in trust. Sheol, the realm of the dead, is pictured in verse 14 as a hungry animal with mouth stretched open to swallow the great ones of Jerusalem. Their death is the humbling of the haughty that the Lord of Hosts may be “exalted in justice” (vss. 15-16).

Verses 18-19 picture the Covenant violators as people who draw sin along behind them as a cart is drawn by ropes. Then they plead ignorance of the way of the Lord and ask that God make speed that his purpose may be known. The remaining verses of the section (vss. 20-23) further summarize in vivid expressions those for whom lament must be uttered. They are those who turn all values around, calling “evil good and good evil,” putting “darkness for light and light for darkness.” They are very wise in their own eyes and very valiant at strong drink, but they “acquit the guilty” and “deprive the innocent of his right.” Indeed, the problem is just that: subversion of responsible society by irresponsible actions of the men who have the power to affect the lives of others.

Verses 24-30

“His Hand Is Stretched Out Still” (5:24-30)

The collectors of Isaiah’s prophecies inserted at this point a group of poetic sayings about the coming judgment of God, each of which seems once to have concluded with the refrain: “For all this his anger is not turned away and his hand is stretched out still” (vs. 25). The group is continued in 9:8—10:4. The two sections seem to have been split apart for the insertion of 6:1— 9:7, a short scroll containing pieces of autobiography, biography, and prophecy from the time of Isaiah’s call about 734 b.c.

Verses 24-25 picture the coming devastation of the land as though it had already happened because the people had rejected God’s Law and despised his Word. The refrain means that the judgment is not at an end; the directing hand of the divine Sovereign is still raised in command; God’s agents of punishment will continue their work. The agents are an enemy “nation afar off” which growls and carries off the prey and “none can rescue” (vss. 26-30). Yet the violation of the divine order is so great that more than historical forces are unleashed. It seems as though the whole natural order also is in convulsion, so that mountains quake (vs. 25) and land and sky are in darkness (vs. 30). The society that despises justice despises also the sovereignty of God and refuses the obedient service which is his due. A world so alienated cannot have peace and security. It will instead hear the constant growling of preying animals, and there will be darkness over the land and distress.

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"Commentary on Isaiah 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary".