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God’s Fruitless Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7 ).
In the first few verses we find a song, which was possibly sung by Isaiah at the celebration of the vintage harvest, as he gathered with men who were singing vintage songs at a wine festival, and sang a song of his own compilation. As Isaiah began his song it would at first appear to them to be an innocuous general love song, listened to appreciatively by all, and especially as it became sad, until it finally delivered to them a devastating message. We can imagine the hearers first going along with the song, then sympathising with the young man described, and finally to their horror being brought face to face with the fact that it is spoken against themselves. For the whole compare Jeremiah 2:21.
We can analyse the song and its interpretation as follows:
a Let me sing concerning my well-beloved a song for my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved had a vineyard, in a very fruitful hill (Isaiah 5:1).
b And he dug it and cleared it of its stones, and he planted it with the choicest vine, and he built a tower in the middle of it, and he also hewed out a winevat in it (Isaiah 5:2 a).
c And he looked that it should produce grapes, and it produced wild grapes (Isaiah 5:2 b).
d And now O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, Judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard (Isaiah 5:3).
d What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done to it? (Isaiah 5:4 a).
c Why when I looked for it to produce grapes, did it produce wild grapes (literally ‘stinking fruit’)? (Isaiah 5:4 b).
b And now, go to. I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be devoured, I will break down its fence, and it will be trodden down, and I will lay it waste, it shall not be pruned nor hoed, but there will come up briars and thorns. I will also command the clouds, that they rain no rain upon it (Isaiah 5:5-6).
a For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah the planting of his delight, and he looked for justice but behold oppression, for righteousness, but behold a cry (Isaiah 5:7).
In ‘a’ we have the picture of the wellbeloved’s vineyard, and in the parallel we are told that Yahweh is the wellbeloved, and that the vineyard is the house of Israel and the men of Judah. In ‘b’ we have the careful preparations put in motion by the wellbeloved, and in the parallel the reversal of them. In ‘c’ we see his hopes for it, and in the parallel the failure of those hopes. And in ‘d’ and parallel comes the call to consider the rightness of the situation.
The Song of the Vineyard.
‘Let me sing concerning my well-beloved a song for my beloved touching his vineyard.
My wellbeloved had a vineyard, in a very fruitful hill,
And he dug it and cleared it of its stones,
And he planted it with the choicest vine,
And he built a tower in the middle of it,
And he also hewed out a winevat in it,
And he looked that it should produce grapes,
And it produced wild grapes.’
We see here Isaiah singing to the people in a way that draws their attention. It is often wise in witnessing to draw men’s attention and win their sympathy in a general way concerning things that they are interested in, before presenting our message, and that was what Isaiah was doing here. This may well have occurred at the vintage festival, and Isaiah begins seemingly innocuously with what appears to be a general love ballad, until it suddenly produces a sting in its tail. In the ballad the young woman is speaking of her wellbeloved and intends to sing him a song about his vineyard.
The song is about the work and labour involved in establishing the vineyard. First a fruitful hill was sought out, then it had to be dug and cleared of stones, then he planted in it the choicest vine, built a watchtower, made a vat ready for receiving the produce, and then waited for the harvest. All the hearers would be listening and smiling. They had most of them done it themselves. And then comes the crunch line. It produced nothing but wild, evil-smelling grapes! The whole effort had been fruitless. The final result was devastating.
‘A very fruitful hill.’ Literally ‘a horn, son of oil’. The horn here represents ‘a peak’. ‘Son of oil’ represents one which will produce much olive oil and is thus fruitful.
‘And now O inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Judgment On The Vineyard.
And men of Judah,
Judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard,
That I have not done to it?
Why when I looked for it to produce grapes,
did it produce wild grapes (literally ‘stinking fruit’)?’
The song is now applied, and sympathy sought for the young man. What a shame that after all his hard work he had nothing to show for it! All his listeners would be nodding sympathetically. But then suddenly in Isaiah 5:7 he reveals that it is Yahweh Himself Who is the beloved, it is He Who is speaking through Isaiah. The song was a parable. The vineyard was Israel (Isaiah 5:7), and the One Who laboured on it Yahweh Himself. And He asks them to judge for themselves whether He could have done any more for His vineyard than He had done, knowing that the answer could only be ‘No’. Then He challenges them as to why it has produced useless grapes. Let them pass judgment on themselves.
We may consider that the fruitful hill was Canaan, the gathering out of the stones referred to the defeating of the inhabitants of the land with the help of Yahweh, the choicest vine was Israel itself, the watchtower was Yahweh’s watch over His people, the winevat His expectations of them (compare Psalms 80:8-18). On the other hand it may only be intended to be a picture of God’s total care and expenditure of effort on behalf of His people. Either way the vineyard, Israel, should have produced choice fruit, but all that had resulted was ‘stinking fruit’, inedible, useless grapes, depicting the present unacceptable condition of the people of Judah. No wonder that He was dissatisfied.
‘What could have been done more?’ Literally, ‘what more to do?’ There was nothing more. All had to admit that all that was divinely possible had been done.
‘I looked.’ That is, waited confidently and expectantly, and inspected it often in the expectation of choice fruit.
The picture is intended to be dramatic. All would recognise that the difference between a vine that produced choice grapes and one that produced useless fruit was the direct result of the care heaped on it, and yet here was a vine that had been totally and lovingly cared for, and yet had produced bad fruit as though no care had been lavished on it. It was an incredible anomaly. As with the example in Isaiah 1:3 it was unnatural.
Then follows the prophetic judgment.
‘And now, go to.
I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard,
I will take away its hedge, and it will be devoured,
I will break down its fence, and it will be trodden down,
And I will lay it waste, it shall not be pruned nor hoed,
But there will come up briars and thorns.
I will also command the clouds, that they rain no rain upon it.’
The total desolation of the vineyard is now promised. Because it only produced wild stinking grapes it will be returned to its wilderness state as would be suitable for ground that only bore wild grapes. A place that can only produce wild grapes deserves to be a wilderness. All that has been put into it will be destroyed or removed. All its protection will be torn away. It will be desolated and receive no further attention. It will become a place of briars and thorns, a wild place. It will enjoy no life-giving rain. It will be returned to what it was. God will return His people to bondage and to captivity, to poverty and to spiritual barrenness. There will be no more blessings of the Spirit (Isaiah 32:15).
‘For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah the planting of his delight,
And he looked for justice but behold oppression,
For righteousness, but behold a cry.’
The application of the parable is confirmed. Note that Israel and Judah are still seen together as His people, they are all part of total Israel. They all still came within the ambit of God’s covenant, and were His vineyard and His choice planting in which He had once delighted. They would have been welcomed by Him if they had responded to the covenant, but they had rebelled against it. That was why the northern kingdom languished and would soon be under foreign rulers. That was why Judah was now under sentence. For God looked on and sought to find justice being applied by His people according to His covenant, but instead He found oppression everywhere. He looked to find a state of righteousness, of covenant fulfilment, of right relations, but all He heard was the cry of the oppressed and the needy. He had no alternative but judgment.
There is a play on words here. Justice is mishpat, oppression (bloodshed) is mishpach, righteousness is tsethaqa, a cry is tsa‘aqa. The words sound very similar, but the difference spelled tragedy. The good fruit God looked for was justice (‘mishpat’ - the righting of wrongs) but all He found was oppression (‘mishpach’ - the inflicting of wrongs), He sought righteousness (‘tsethaqa’ - right relationships and behaviour - compare Isaiah 60:21; Isaiah 61:3) but all He found was a cry resulting from their violence (‘tsa‘aqa a cry resulting from wrong relationships and behaviour).
We should note in the presentation of the song the tender way in which Yahweh is thought of as ‘the Beloved’. This can be compared with the approach of Hosea (e.g. Isaiah 2:14). God wanted His people to love Him as well as being in awe of Him (Deuteronomy 6:5). But they had spurned His love by their behaviour.
Finally there is a thought for ourselves. What kind of fruit are we producing in our own lives. Are we truly fruitful, or are we just producing wild grapes? We cannot justifiably call Him ‘our Beloved’ if our lives do not produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
The First Woe (Isaiah 5:8-10 ).
‘Woe to those who join house to house,
Who lay field to field,
Until there is no room,
And you are made to dwell alone in the land.
In my ears, the ears of Yahweh of hosts,
Of a truth, many houses will be desolate,
Even great and fair, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard will yield one bath,
And a homer of seed will yield but an ephah.’
The picture here is of the man of influence and wealth taking over surrounding land by fair means or foul, and adding it to his own, and then turning his house into a Great House by adding buildings (compare Micah 2:2; Micah 2:4; Micah 2:9). As a result, instead of enjoying covenant fellowship with his close neighbours he dwells in solitary splendour, for all his one-time neighbours have been expelled. They would then have had to become servants or even bondmen. Their ‘glory’ has been taken away for ever (Micah 2:9).
This was directly contrary to what Israel was all about. When the land was originally allocated as God’s gift to His people (Leviticus 25:2) the intention was that each man should have his own piece of land in perpetuity. All were to be free men. And although the land may have to be mortgaged in hard times, always in the end it was to revert to its original owner. (See Leviticus 25:13; Leviticus 25:23-24; Numbers 27:1-11; Numbers 36:1-12; Ruth 4:1-4). But now unreasonable influence, unfair means and dishonest pressure were being exerted by powerful men to acquire and permanently possess such land, and permanently subject their fellow Israelites to servitude. God’s covenant was being overturned, and His people degraded. And we need not doubt that the fifty year rule was being set aside. God’s will was being thwarted.
The gradual accumulation of wealth is never in itself condemned, unless it interferes with a man’s responsiveness to God. But doing so at the expense of others and especially when it was in direct disobedience to God’s will, is constantly condemned.
God’s concern about this is a reminder that God watches over all men’s business dealings, whether corrupt or just purely greedy, and will call men to account for them. It will be no good in that day saying, ‘it was business’. God will reply, ‘no, it was gross iniquity’.
‘In my ears, the ears of Yahweh of hosts, of a truth, many houses will be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant.’ ‘In my ears’ may refer back to Isaiah 5:7 bringing out again that the cries of the oppressed reach His ears. Or it may refer to the very cry of the fields at the mistreatment of their owners (compare Genesis 4:10) as reaching His ears. Either way the cries of distress reach His ears, and they are the ears of Yahweh of hosts. (The Hebrew is literally, ‘In my ears Yahweh of hosts’). Thus the great and fair houses that have resulted will assuredly be desolated, their inhabitants removed, their widespread fields yielding but a pittance. As they have done to others, so will be done to them.
‘For ten acres of vineyard will yield one bath, and a homer of seed will yield but an ephah.’ An ‘acre’ was literally ‘a yoke’, the amount that could be ploughed by a yoke of oxen in one day. Thus ten such large areas will produce only one bath (about twenty seven litres or six gallons). We are possibly to see in this that the expectation was that one acre would normally produce a bath. An ephah is a dry measure and is the tenth part of a homer (Exodus 16:36). Thus again what is sown produces only one tenth. Thus all activity in the fields will only produce a small proportion of what should have been produced.
The Six Woes of God (Isaiah 5:8-30 ).
A series of woes are now declared on the people of Israel because of their various sins. The vineyard had produced smelly grapes, now woe must come on it. They are a warning that God sees the ways of all men, whether in business, in pleasure-seeking, in their thinking or in their attitudes, and will surely call them all to account. Woes in Scripture can be divided into two kinds, those which express God’s determination to act in judgment, and those which represent sad events for people in the course of history (e.g. Matthew 24:19). These six woes are of the first kind.
The woes with their aftermath can be analysed as follows:
a The first woe is on those who have bought up or seized by force the fields of the people, so as to form for themselves large estates, actions which will finally bring desolation on them (Isaiah 5:8-10).
b The second woe is on the drunken behaviour and revelry of the people which will finally result in their humiliation (Isaiah 5:11-17).
c The third woe is on those who sin deeply, drawing sin with cart-ropes , and yet they cry out that they want to see God’s deliverance (Isaiah 5:18-19).
d The fourth woe is on those who have twisted truth for their own purposes, calling evil good, and good evil, darkness light, and light darkness, what is bitter, sweet, and what is sweet, bitter (Isaiah 5:20).
c The fifth woe is on those who are self-opiniated and self-conceited (Isaiah 5:21).
b The sixth woe is on those who are heavy drinkers, resulting in injustice and their despising the Instruction of Yahweh, and will result in lives which produce only rottenness (the wild grapes?) (Isaiah 5:22-24).
a The result of the woes is that Yahweh will bring judgment upon them, bringing darkness and distress and taking over the land (from those who had appropriated it for themselves in Isaiah 5:8-10) (Isaiah 5:25-30).
In ‘a’ the people who try to take possession of the land and exalt themselves will in the parallel be humbled, and their land will be filled with darkness and distress. In ‘b’ the heavy drinkers will be the same in the parallel, in both cases resulting in humiliation and desolation. Note how in both cases the words end with a reference to Yahweh of hosts and the Holy One of Israel. ‘C’ refers to those who ‘draw sin with cart-ropes’, but are blasphemous in their utterances, exulting in their sins, while in the parallel are those who are self-opinionated and self-conceited. In ‘d’ we have the centre of all sin, the turning of good into evil, and light into darkness.
The Second Woe (Isaiah 5:11-17 ).
‘Woe to those who rise up early in the morning,
That they may follow strong drink,
Who tarry late into the night,
Until wine inflames them.
And the harp, and the lute, the tabret and the pipe,
And wine are in their feasts.
But they do not regard the work of Yahweh,
Nor have they considered the operation of His hands.’
The first woe was against greed and avarice, the second is against over excess in pleasure seeking. It was one of the dangers, especially of those in high positions, that they could leave their responsibilities to others while they indulged themselves. These drank day and night and spent their time in no doubt ribald and sensual musical entertainment (compare Isaiah 22:13; Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 28:8; Hosea 7:5; Amos 6:5-6). Overindulgence in music and dancing can be as intoxicating as overindulgence in drink.
These were men who could have made a great difference in society, but instead they were saturated with fleshly indulgence. Their whole thoughts were on pleasure, and, in contrast, they did not take regard to the work of Yahweh, which should have been their main aim and responsibility. They were too taken up with themselves and their delights. Many today are similar. All thoughts of God and His requirements are dismissed by indulgence in music, drink, sport and drugs.
‘They do not regard the work of Yahweh, nor have they considered the operation of His hands.’ God and His ways are dismissed. For the ‘work (po‘al) of Yahweh’ see Deuteronomy 32:4 where the stress is on His faithful and righteous judicial work; Job 36:24 where the stress is on his general government of the universe; Psalms 44:1 where the stress is on His delivering power; Psalms 64:9-10 where the stress is on His judgments. Thus these men do not take note of what He has done, and what He is doing, because they are saturated with music and wine and pleasure.
The ‘operation (work - ma‘aseh) of His hands’ can describe His work of judgment (Isaiah 10:12; Isaiah 29:3); His miraculous works (Exodus 34:10); His work of creation (Psalms 8:3; Psalms 8:6; Psalms 19:1); and His overruling of creation (Psalms 92:4-5). Thus these men ignore His activity in the world. They are too pleasure ridden to consider it, or even notice it, and thus fail to fulfil God’s demands. But the consequences of this will soon come on them.
‘Therefore my people are gone into captivity,
For lack of knowledge,
And their honourable men are famished,
And their multitude are parched with thirst.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged her appetite,
And opened her mouth without measure,
And their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, descend into it,
And he who rejoices among them.
And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled,
And the eyes of the lofty are humbled.’
And because these men and their compatriots had failed to ‘know’ God Israel would suffer (or had suffered). They would find themselves captive, whether in exile or in their own land, subjected to the authority of outsiders.
It is constantly important to recognise that Hebrew only has two tenses, (although seven conjugations) the direct and indirect, the complete and incomplete. They were more concerned with the completeness and incompleteness of actions than with chronology. Thus the use of the perfect tense does not always depict past action, but rather action seen as completed whether past or future.
Here it may simply be a way of expressing the completeness and certainty of what God would do in the future, (often erroneously called ‘the prophetic perfect’) rather than indicating that it was in the past. It is saying that it is a certain and sure judgment that either has or will assuredly soon come on them in devastating completeness. Alternatively it may be seen as a comment added later by the prophet declaring the fulfilment of God’s verdict on their behaviour. But however we see it, it is depicting the consequence of their behaviour.
So through their ‘lack of knowledge’ of God, because they had failed to know and observe His ways, they are or were destined for captivity. And Israel, the northern kingdom, would indeed go into captivity and exile in 722 BC, even while Isaiah was still alive, their honourable men and their people chained and pleading for food and water. And Judah also would be invaded and made desolate, with captivity and exile for them also a certain but more distant prospect, unless they repented. Then would the pleasure ridden leaders, and the pleasure ridden people, instead of being able to overindulge themselves, be famished and thirst-ridden, and all because they had failed to know Yahweh and acknowledge and trust Him.
But worse. The grave would open its mouth to them in its own great thirst, a mouth gaping and wide open, and it would swallow up huge numbers of them. And into it would go their glory, and their pomp, and those who ‘rejoiced’ and behaved hilariously in their wild parties and excesses. ‘Their glory’ may indicate their important men in their grandeur and splendour, or the whole of what they gloried in, including paradoxically their glorying in the cult of Yahweh (contrast Isaiah 4:2).
Note how the punishment is made to fit the crime. Because they overindulged their ‘thirst’, they themselves would thirst, and a thirsty grave will swallow them. What men sow they will reap. We may not fear captivity in our day, but the grave awaits us all.
‘And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled, and the eyes of the lofty are humbled.’ The result will be total humiliation for all, both poor and wealthy, both insignificant and grand, and even for the royal house itself. Men lowered their eyes before the great, but even those who are so lofty that they do not need to lower the eyes will find that they are made to do so by what will come on them.
‘Sheol’ - the unseen shadowy world of the dead, unknown and unknowable. The grave and what lay beyond it. It was seen as a land of shadows, of grave-like creatures, where there is no joy or reality. There was then no concept of a satisfying afterlife.
‘But Yahweh of hosts is exalted in judgment,
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 will wanderers eat.’
In contrast with the humbling of rebellious man will be the exaltation of Yahweh. His righteous acts and judgments will result in the exaltation of His name, and all creation will declare the rightness of what He has done. He will be revealed as ‘the Holy One’, the ‘Set Apart One’, set apart by His righteousness. The word ‘holy’ means that which has been set apart for a sacred purpose (so paradoxically the cult prostitutes were called ‘holy ones’ by those who followed the cult) thus God as the Holy One is the One essentially set apart in His uniqueness. And that uniqueness is here declared to consist in His total righteousness, His total moral purity, rightness, and goodness. He is the essence of all that is right, and true, and wholesome, and good.
The words that follow may be seen in various ways. Either as wholly depicting the glorious future of His own when He achieves His final triumph, and also welcomes ‘strangers’. Or as a total picture of the final desert of the rebellious. Or as a contrast the one with the other.
In the first interpretation it is saying that so great will be the prosperity of His people that not only will they feed in their own pasture, in what God has given them, and grow fat in the best sense (compare Micah 2:12; Jeremiah 31:10), but there will be so much to spare that aliens and wanderers will be able to feast on it too. There was certainly a literal fulfilment of this in the shorter term in periods during the pre-Christian period when Israel comparatively greatly prospered, and even moreso spiritually in the days of the early church, but its greater, more figurative, fulfilment awaits that day when we feast with Him before the throne (John 14:2; Revelation 7:16-17).
Alternately the thought may be that all that once belonged to those wealthy, condemned Israelites, will from this time on merely be pasture for lambs, who will be able to wander anywhere and graze among the ruins of what is left, while aliens and strangers will feed in the waste places which were once their prosperous estates. It could thus be depicting that they have lost everything.
Or it may be that we are to see the reference to the lambs as referring to the blessing on the remnant, while the second part of the verse refers to the judgment on the rebellious as bringing blessing to ‘strangers’ because the land becomes available to tramps. In view of the fact that Scripture regularly depicts God’s own true people as sheep or lambs this may seem the most probable interpretation. Out of the devastations of judgment will come blessing for the righteous, who will feast on God’s pasture, while what the rebellious gloried in will become a waste place, but God will then turn this to the benefit of aliens who will gain from what the rebellious have lost. Thus will come triumph out of disaster.
The Third Woe (Isaiah 5:18-19 ).
‘Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of vanity,
And sin as it were with a cart rope,
Who say, “Let him hurry up,
Let him hasten his work, that we may see it,
And let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near,
And come, that we may know it.” ’
So great is the enthusiasm of the people for sin that they draw it along with them in great quantity. They lasso it and make it follow them in their ways. But the ropes are ropes of emptiness and deceit, of vainness and uselessness, of folly. They can only bode ill for them. Significant in this is the deliberate nature of it all. This is not sinning through weakness and frailty, it is deliberate indulgence in sin. They do it, not because they cannot help it, but because they want to do it.
And indeed so great is their sin that they mock God. They say, if God is going to act why does He not hurry up? They are waiting, they say. Why does He not get on with it? Let Him get on with it quickly so that they may see it. And they add that if He wants to advise them, let Him do so plainly and in such a way that they know that it is from Him. Let Him produce another Sinai. Man always thinks he knows what God should do.
It is not that they want Him to or expect Him to. (Although the same request might have been made in a godly fashion, compare Revelation 6:10). In their hearts they are denying the possibility (compare Jeremiah 17:15; Zephaniah 1:12; Psalms 10:3-6). They have no real expectation. The very blasphemy is drawn out by their use of the title ‘the Holy One of Israel’. They are treating commonly and carelessly what is most holy.
So does sin grow. It began with greed and avarice (the first woe), it went on to selfish overindulgence and excess of pleasure seeking (the second woe), now it has expanded into gross sin overindulged in and careless blasphemy. As men gain more, and find ease and grow in sin, so do they become more blasphemous and more careless of God. But things will shortly become even worse.
The Fourth Woe (Isaiah 5:20 ).
‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.
Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness.
Who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’
Three aspects of what God and His word are, are in mind here, what is good, what is light and what is sweet. What is good is of God, for the idea of goodness is essentially linked with God (Psalms 25:8; Psalms 34:8; Psalms 54:6; Psalms 86:5; Psalms 100:5; Psalms 107:1; Psalms 118:1; Psalms 118:29; Psalms 119:68; Psalms 135:3; Psalms 136:1; Psalms 145:9; Nahum 1:7). Thus what God requires is good, and what He is against is evil (Psalms 37:23). But these men glory in the opposite. They glory in evil, and call it good, while condemning and castigating what is really good.
‘Light’ too speaks of what God is and of His truth (Isaiah 2:5; Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 27:1; Psalms 36:9; Psalms 43:3; Psalms 118:27; Psalms 119:30). He is men’s light, and as His light shines on men they see and know the truth and it guides them and makes them free. But these men turn to darkness and the things of darkness, and call them light. Their backs are towards God and they choose evil. They seek to distort God’s truth, and replace it with a parody of God’s truth. They exalt their own wisdom at the expense of the word of God.
And God’s word is regularly seen as ‘sweet’, but these men see it as bitter. So these men in turning from good and from light are turning from God and replacing God’s way and will by their own way and will. They are rejecting God and choosing themselves and their own way. They are not just questioning morality, they are questioning God.
The words ‘light’ and ‘sweet’ are regularly associated by the Psalmists with the word of God (For ‘light’ see Psalms 19:8; Psalms 36:9; Psalms 43:3; Psalms 118:27; Psalms 119:105; Psalms 119:130; Proverbs 6:23; for ‘sweet’ see Psalms 19:10; Psalms 55:14; Psalms 104:34; Psalms 119:103; Psalms 141:6 - although not all the same Hebrew word). They are the essence of God’s truth which brings light and is sweet (compare Isaiah 8:20 and compare Isaiah 2:5). Indeed to those who would find light Isaiah says that they should put their trust and confidence in God (Isaiah 50:10). But these people turn away from that word. They corrupt it, and turn men from it. Thus do they make good evil, light darkness and what is sweet bitter.
Indeed in their rejection of the word of God they themselves see it as bitter. It is too demanding, they say, it is too hard. So they replace it with ‘sweet’ words of their own which are in fact really bitter in their effect, for they result in evil consequences for all. This was the essence of the false prophets. They said what people wanted to hear, and thereby destroyed them (Isaiah 28:7; Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 8:10; Jeremiah 13:13; Jeremiah 14:13-18; Jeremiah 23:9-15; Jeremiah 23:25-29; Jeremiah 27:9-15; Jeremiah 29:8-9; Jeremiah 37:19; Lamentations 2:14; Ezekiel 7:26; Ezekiel 13:2-4; Ezekiel 13:9; Ezekiel 13:16; Amos 2:12; Micah 2:11; Micah 3:5-6).
God’s word may sometimes seem bitter, but in the end its effect is sweet for those who respond, and it is always sweet to the believer even when its consequences are bitter because it is God’s word. The contrast between bitterness and sweetness, where what is sweet becomes bitter, is especially found in Revelation 10:9-10. There it was sweet because it was God’s word, but was bitter because of its sad message. What is sweet because it is God’s word often turns out to be bitter in practise for the unbeliever, for to the unbelieving and disobedient God’s word can only result in bitter consequences. What seems at first pleasant can therefore have appalling consequences. But that bitterness often finally results in sweetness for those who respond to it as is evidenced by the chastenings of God on His people (Hebrews 12:11).
End of note.
Those described here in Isaiah have in fact turned morality inside out. They have found rational and religious grounds for doing what God condemns as evil, and they condemn what is good, and by clever arguments make it seem wrong and unworthy (compare Micah 3:2; Amos 5:7; Malachi 2:17). They replace light with darkness, and so commend darkness that it is made to seem like the new ‘light’. Men follow after their idols and their ways. But Jesus would later point out that if the light within a man was darkness, how great was that darkness (Matthew 6:22-23). They make what is sweet seem bitter, and they offer as sweet what is essentially bitter suggesting that it will produce sweetness, although bitterness continues to lie underneath and will be experienced in the end.
The clever in mind can always find arguments that support their positions. It is always possible to bolster any position for a while, until time and events prove it fallacious and dangerous. But then it is often too late and many have fallen thereby. Today it often goes under the name of ‘research’. ‘Research shows’, they say, but it often reaches its solutions by inadequate means and rests on men’s opinions and optimism. It regularly assumes man’s essential goodness and fails to take into account his continual strong tendencies to sin and selfishness and perversion. And thus it comes to the wrong conclusion, while believing it to be right. And it goes in fashions and thus often turns out to be simply giving us man’s failing opinions which have ignored crucial factors time and again.
So those people whom Isaiah had in mind earlier would have put up ‘sound’ economic arguments for their land-grabbing, they would have defended strongly their sensual living, they would have plausibly argued for their gross sins, but God points out that none of their pleas will prevent the inevitable consequences. For when nations behave so, the end may be delayed, but it will only finally end in disaster. And so it is woe to them.
The Fifth Woe (Isaiah 5:22 ).
‘Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.’
This sentence is short but it is vibrant with significance. This is the final stage downwards. Man has replaced God in his own estimation. Man has become the ultimate arbiter, the all-wise one. God is no longer necessary. Now man propagates his own ways, and calls on all to follow. He no longer listens to God’s word. He no longer wants God. He is self-sufficient. He has said in his heart that “there is no God” (Psalms 14:1). And he thinks that he knows exactly what to do. He has finally become the ultimate fool.
But such men regularly reveal their folly by their lives. Many a great thinker who has advised others has made shipwreck of his own personal life. For when it comes to living most men are fools. The armchair savant becomes the lonely divorcee.
Such were some in Isaiah’s day, and sadly they were often advisers to the king (Isaiah 28:14-15 compare Isaiah 29:14). Instead of looking to Yahweh, and seeking a word from Him, they proudly looked to their own wisdom and knowledge, and consequently guided him to disaster. Was it to such that Ahaz listened when he turned to Assyria for help, binding and subjecting Judah to Assyria into the future? (See chapter 7). Was it to such that Hezekiah looked when he laid bare to the Babylonians what was in his treasure house? (See chapter 39). And so instead of trusting in God they trusted in their own wisdom and Judah and Jerusalem were led back into bondage.
The Sixth Woe (Isaiah 5:22-23 ).
‘Woe to those who are mighty (men) to drink wine,
And strong men (men of strength) to mingle strong drink.
Who justify the wicked for a reward,
And take away the righteousness of the righteous from him.’
Suddenly some of the great that have been described are seen as what they are. They truly are mighty men and strong men, heroes and champions - but only at drinking and pouring out wine! So what in the end they are seen as mighty at is drinking, and the only thing that they can use their strength for is to mingle the drinks. But as for their wisdom and their uprightness, they accept bribes, get the wicked acquitted and ensure that the truly righteous are found guilty. They too are turning morality upside down, in this case not by argument but by the way in which they behave.
A man is finally known not by what he claims for himself, or what others claim for him, but by what he does, and is finally to be assessed, not by his words but by his actions. We have only to examine the background lives of some thinkers of our own day to recognise how fallible is their wisdom. They are not wise enough to run their own lives satisfactorily. They are blind leaders of the blind.
‘Who justify the wicked for a reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him.’ There is no sadder or more fearful picture than the Judge who allows himself to be influenced by pressure and bribery, whether the bribe is money, flattery or promotion. It is the beginning of the disintegration of society. Men will then begin to take the law into their own hands. But sadder still it is when those who are truly righteous have their reputations taken away from them by false accusations and deceit.
The Consequences of Their Deterioration in Behaviour (Isaiah 5:24 ).
‘Therefore as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
And as the dry grass shrivels in the flame,
So their root will be as rottenness,
And their blossom will go up as the dust,
Because they have rejected the instruction (Law) of Yahweh of hosts,
And despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.’
This ‘therefore’ looks back to the previous four woes. By their behaviour, attitudes, wisdom and self-indulgence these men have rejected the instruction of the mighty Yahweh of hosts, and have despised the word of the supremely Holy One. They have refused to listen to His voice. They have revealed themselves to be stubble and dry grass, the emptiness that is left when the former fruitfulness has gone. So will they be burned up and consumed, as the stubble is burned up in the fields once the fruitful yield has gone, and as the useless dry grass shrivels and collapses down into the flame.
The sad thing is their unawareness of this. They think that their lives are taking root and blossoming. But really their root is like stubble, a useless rejected waste, and their blossom is like dry grass, set to be burned to ashes.
‘Because they have rejected the instruction (Law) of Yahweh of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.’ That is the essence of the matter. They have rejected the Almighty One and the Holy One. God is too big and too moral for them. They want to settle for something less. But that also reveals the greatness of their crime. They have rejected the One Who is over all, the only One Who can pull them from the morass in which they find themselves.
The Prime Source of Their Punishment (Isaiah 5:25 ).
‘Therefore is the anger of Yahweh kindled against his people,
And he has stretched out his hand against them, and has smitten them,
And the hills have trembled,
And their carcasses were as refuse in the middle of the street.
For all this his anger is not turned away,
But his hand is stretched out still.’
God does not overlook sin even though He bears long with it. For sin arouses His righteous ‘wrath’ against sin, that sense of antipathy to what He knows sin to be. The reference may be to an earthquake, with the hills trembling and the people struck down and lying in the streets unburied. He may indeed be referring back to the great earthquake in the days of Uzziah (Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5), a huge earthquake long remembered, which would have shaken the people and made them think, and even for a time seek God. But the spiritual effects of that (such as they were) had passed and the people had returned to their normal way of living. So Isaiah has to warn them that that earthquake and its passing does not mean that God’s anger is now assuaged. He still intends more punishments against them because of their intransigence and continued disobedience.
The idea of natural disasters as judgments of God is found constantly in the Old Testament. The interweaving of divine action in this way with such disasters is beyond human understanding. But they are a reminder that God created a world in which such things could occur so that they might contain a lesson for man, a lesson that Israel should have learned here.
Alternately the trembling of the hills was often a way by which a conqueror described his own progress. Thus this may have been a way of describing the approach of such a conqueror, with Isaiah now describing the approach of foreign armies. Those certainly soon came, first on Israel and then on Judah. The powerful Assyrian armies swept in, Israel was devastated, Samaria their capital city was destroyed, the leaders and artisans were carried off into captivity, and later Judah itself was invaded and its cities devastated. For even though Jerusalem itself might be spared by the decisive action of God in smiting the Assyrian army, the remainder of Judah suffered terribly.
‘The hills have trembled.’ When God acts, nature trembles at His mighty power. Great conquerors often spoke of the hills trembling at their approach. How much more then at the approach of the instruments of Yahweh.
‘Their carcasses were as refuse in the middle of the street.’ The only place where refuse could be tossed in most cities was as far away from the houses as possible, in the middle of the street (which were not very wide). There it lay and stank until it was borne away. Thus would their dead bodies also be cast out as rubbish, to rot and await the collector.
‘For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.’ Whichever type of judgment was in mind this time it would not be enough in itself. For Israel His action in bringing the Assyrians against them was to have lasting, permanent results, and so it would for Judah in the future (by means of the Babylonians) unless they listened to his message. Let them not think that this time the judgment would come and pass. It would continue. They would be carried away into captivity, into exile, once again being in bondage as in Egypt, awaiting deliverance. God’s hatred of sin could no longer allow them to go on as they were.
For this final phrase compare Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21; Isaiah 10:4. This was not just a solitary warning. There it would be repeated fourfold. A good phrase deserves to be repeated.
The fact that the phrase is taken up again and that woe continues to be pronounced in chapter Isaiah 9:8 onwards suggests either that chapters 6 to Isaiah 9:7 have been deliberately inserted into a pre-existent prophecy by Isaiah, or that Isaiah 9:8 to Isaiah 10:4 is a deliberate attempt to connect back to this chapter. Either way Isaiah 9:8 onwards is therefore to be seen as a continuation of these prophecies. It will be noted that chapters Isaiah 6:1 to Isaiah 9:7 begin with the throne of Yahweh, God in heaven, and end with the throne of the new God-raised David, God’s representative on earth. Isaiah continually seeks to avoid too much continual emphasis on wrath. Thus in the midst of wrath he presents God’s solution.
God Summons The Instruments of His Wrath (Isaiah 5:26-30 ).
‘And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far,
And will whistle for them from the end of the earth,
And behold they will come swiftly with speed,
None will be weary or stumble among them,
None will slumber or sleep,
Nor will their belts become loose,
Nor their shoe fasteners be broken.’
When God in His wrath raises His banner the nations will flock to do His will. They are there awaiting His call. At this time Assyria was ‘the ends of the earth’ to Jerusalem and Judah, for they were a ‘far off’ nation with which they had had little to do. But when Yahweh calls they will come.
However we interpret Isaiah 5:25 these verses are clear indication of a powerful invasion. For the enemy will come, summoned by Yahweh, responding to His whistle (‘hiss’) and they will come quickly with nothing to hinder them, not even a broken belt or shoe fastening. They will be tireless and their approach inexorable, wide awake, alert and with no faltering.
‘Whose arrows are sharp,
And all their bows bent.
Their horses hooves will be accounted as flint,
And their wheels like a whirlwind.
Their roaring will be like a lion,
they will roar like young lions,
Yes, they will roar and lay hold of the prey,
And carry it away safe, and there will be none to deliver.
And they will roar against them in that day,
Like the roaring of the sea,
And if one look to the land, behold, darkness and distress,
And the light is darkened in its clouds.’
The powerful intermingling of a description of an invincible enemy and awesome natural forces is again repeated. Their ferocity and speed of approach is emphasised. Their arrows are sharp and their bows ready for war, the hooves of their horses are sharp and strong, their chariot wheels whirl at frightening speed. And as they come they yell their battlecries like young lions in their strength roaring at their prey, and then they will pounce and seize the prey, growling their satisfaction, and none will be able to prevent it.
For the One Who could prevent it is the One Who has summoned them to the task. And those others that Israel and Judah had previously looked to for help will be unable to give it. Indeed the approach will be like that of the beating of a powerful sea against the storm battered shore, and against equally storm-battered ships; while turning landwards for relief will provide none, for it will be equally shrouded in the same fearful heavy-clouded storm.
So do we come to the end of his first section of Isaiah in which he has been concerned to lay down the basis of his message without specific historical application. He has revealed the extent of the sinfulness of those who claimed to be His people. He has demonstrated that only those who respond to Him are truly His people. He has declared the glorious future that God has prepared for those who are truly His, and the judgment that awaits those who are not. And has clearly indicated that that glorious future will be shared with some from the peoples of all nations. In the end all the glory will be His.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 5". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29