Isaiah (Part 07): Vineyard Allegory (Ch 5)

11/04/2011 08:40


Isaiah 5 begins with an allegory of a vineyard. The allegory is not that difficult to understand. But it is usually true that with fairly straightforward allegories, we often miss some of the nuanced fullness. Biblical interpretation certainly goes beyond a surface level read. Understanding of a passage may go beyond its general context and even its historical and cultural setting. A biblical theology approach ties the passage not only to it systematic or even obvious general principle ideas. It fits the passage into God’s overall story at precisely a certain point along God’s progressive revelation.

Biblical theology is not a tautology. Biblical theology means more than simply theology that is biblical. It is also not a synonym for conservative theology, as in “I don’t base my theology on feeling or culture like those liberals. I stick to the Bible. I hold to biblical theology.” Biblical theology is an approach to theology that values God’s revelation as the progressive telling of a story. The Bible is not considered a mere reference book for either command or principle. Reading a passage must be interpreted in light of the meta-narrative of the whole. And it is not simply a principle extracted from the passage in question that must be matched to a general principle from the whole of God’s story. The passage, rather, must be understood in its place along the revealing process of God for those people in particular along that path who are its primary recipients.

Here are a few attempts at explaining what biblical theology is. (The bolded text is my emphasis throughout.)

“Biblical theology is principally concerned with the overall theological message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole and, to achieve this, it must work with the mutual interaction of the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of the various corpora, and with the inter-relationships of these within the whole canon of Scripture Biblical theology may be defined as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse and synthesize the Bible's teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible's overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.” (B. S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (IVP, 2000))

“Biblical theology, as its name implies, even as it works inductively from the diverse texts of the Bible, seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves. In this sense it is canonical biblical theology, 'whole-Bible' biblical theology; i.e. its content is a theology of the whole Bible, not a theology that merely has roots in the Bible, or merely takes the Bible as the place to begin.” (D. A. Carson, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (IVP, 2000))

“From the evangelical preacher's point of view, biblical theology involves the quest for the big picture, or the overview of biblical revelation. It is of the nature of biblical theology that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstraction. It does contain many timeless principles, but not in abstract. They are given in an historical context of progressive revelation. If we allow the Bible to tell its own story, we find a coherent and meaningful whole.” (G. L. Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, (IVP, 2000))

I am emphasizing a biblical theology approach because I think it will give us greater insight to God’s instruction in this preface (first 5 chapters) of the book of Isaiah. The vineyard allegory should bring something to mind. God planting this vineyard ought to bring to recall another garden planted by God. At the very beginning, God planted a garden in Eden in which he placed our first parents. And there are, in fact, several points along Isaiah’s preface that should stir up thoughts of that creation ideal.

As a reminder, our preface in Isaiah is divided into four parts:

  • Level 1: General Terms, covering chapter 1
  • Level 2: General Activity, covering chapter 2
  • Level 3: Specific Activity, covering chapters 3-4
  • Allegory Summation, covering chapter 5

The first section (chapter 1, verse 2) begins: “Listen, heavens, and pay attention, earth, for the Lord has spoken.” This call to heaven and earth with the word of God mirrors the creation of the heaven and earth by the word of God found in Genesis 1. The beginning of the next section in Isaiah contains similar creation imagery. Level 2 begins with a priestly prophecy of the Lord’s house being established on top of a mountain. The Lord’s house, of course, is the place where God meets with humankind. In the beginning, God planted a garden in a land called Eden (pleasure) where God met with Adam and Eve. Isaiah 2 says that nations would stream to this place. In Genesis, the rivers flow from this place to the nations. Isaiah 2 speaks of meeting with God in this place, being instructed, and enjoying relationship blessing. In the Garden, Adam and Eve walked with God, were instructed, and received relationship blessing.

Then in Isaiah 3 (the beginning of the third preface section) we are struck with the words “Observe this!” In this call God focuses attention on the removal of the support, described as removal of the “entire supply of bread and water.” The very first time this Hebrew word (translated here “observe this”) is used in Scripture is in the Garden. God calls for Adam and Eve’s attention as he says in verse 29: “Observe this!” and then goes on to tell them of the support he has provided—the plants and fruit for food.

These parallels to the creation ideal at the beginning of each section of the Isaiah preface are no coincidence. God has used the creation of heaven/earth, the specific planting of the garden in Eden, and the provision from that Garden to found the land imagery that he would use over and over throughout the Bible to indicate covenant blessing. And in Isaiah he uses it again for emphasis. God emphasizes his care and faithfulness to his covenant people by the land imagery. He did so from the beginning. And he does so with Israel in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Notice then specifically the beginning of Isaiah 5. Verses 1 and 2 may seem a bit confusing because they start speaking of God in the third person: “I will sing about the one I love, a song about my loved one’s vineyard.” Certainly we are speaking of God’s vineyard (1:7 confirms), so the loved one is God. Who is the “I”? Is it Isaiah speaking? The problem is that in verse 3, without transition, we find God speaking: “Judge between Me and My vineyard.” Is this a switch from Isaiah to God? And why? Also, why is there a seeming emphasis of Isaiah loving God in verse 1? Does the prophecy concern setting Isaiah himself up as a model of love that the people should be following?

Deciding that Isaiah speaks the first two verses before an abrupt change to God speaking creates as many problems for the passage as it solves. What if there is no speaker change? What if God begins the chapter and continues speaking through verse 3 and following? His address, then, would be very similar to his address in Genesis 1:26. There he said—to himself—“Let Us make man in Our image.” He presents a Trinitarian involvement in creation in Genesis 1. Isaiah 5, I think, is no different. He not only informs that it is his vineyard, but he also explains both his care for it and his love relationship inherent within himself that those of his vineyard ought to see. With this understanding, the first person / third person conflict is removed and the love emphasis makes sense.
Verse 2 goes on to tell us that God “planted it with the finest vines,” emphasizing both God’s planting and the quality of what was planted. In Genesis 2:8 we read that God “planted a garden in Eden.” Since Eden means pleasure, we find a similar expression in God’s activity. Again in Isaiah 5:2 we read of God’s provision for this vineyard. And in Genesis 1:29-30 we read of the provision of God for Adam and Eve.

Therefore, the emphasis in Isaiah’s preface and in the opening of chapter 5 in particular is in the consistent, care giving and faithfulness of God offered to his people Israel, that has been the same activity of God since the founding of the world.

Look over the following chart. In it we see that the basic relationship activity and aspects that God first advanced in the Garden and that he continues to emphasize throughout his progressive restoration.

God created the heaven and earth. He is authority over heaven and earth. Heaven and earth stand in submission to him. Then God created humankind—IN HIS IMAGE—and told them to have dominion over the heaven and earth. But we also see within the first three chapters of Genesis a reemphasis that although humankind was given authority over the earth, submission to God was still an aspect of relationship between God and humankind.

Now, each member in the relationship structure is a plurality. And in the plurality we see equality. The Godhead—three in one—are equal in being and existence. Heaven and earth do not have authority over each other (the poetic “sun to rule the day” does not intend an authority/subordinate relationship). And Genesis 2 emphasizes the equality of the male and female of humankind. However, in the whole structure we see an emphasis by God on his care giving and faithfulness that humankind, as image-bearers, should incorporate in their relationships.

The submission emphasized in the “Construct” side of the chart is a bit different from the submission on the “Activity” side. By construct, God as creator and sovereign is authority over all. He has given humankind authority over the rest of creation. All creation is subject to God. But within the activity of relationship, we mutually submit to each other through these God-imaging qualities of faith, hope, and love. God, too, mutually submits within the Godhead, although that may be a little more difficult to harness in our minds because of the one will and three persons. It is a submission of the one will to the purpose/plan of God in which we see the mutual faith, hope, and love within the Trinity. But God also, in this sense (not in the construct sense) submits even to us. Love is submission for another’s benefit. And God does love us.

Continuing in Isaiah 5, the next few verses (3 through 7) describe the failing vineyard. God addresses both Judah and Jerusalem, corralling both images of the previous chapters, and asks them what more or what possible additional provision could he have given for them. The Jews are silent. They can’t reply because they know their selfish sin was their own fault and not due to lack from God. Contrast their silence to David in 2 Samuel 12:7-13, who, when confronted by Nathan, immediately admitted his sin to God.

Judgment would be the result of Judah’s sin. God would cause destruction by the withdrawal of his care. He continues the vineyard allegory by speaking of his care withdrawal in terms of removing the hedge (so that animals could eat the fruit), removing the wall (so animals could trample the plants), ceasing the pruning and weeding (so the plants would be choked out), and withholding water (so that the plants would wither). God ends this section with a clear explanation that the failing vineyard was Israel/Judah, and their end was because of their lack of justice and righteousness.

In the next section (verses 8 through 23), God presents a series of six woes intended to describe all aspects of Judah’s sin. Verses 8 through 10 include the woe on those seeking riches. We are told that they “add house to house…field to field.” The idea described is an all-consuming quest for riches without consideration for others. The result of this sole focus on personal gain is a driving away of others and isolation. And the judgment for this is loneliness and the failing or dwindling of the riches. Their intent in personal satisfaction fails. They do not support as intended.

The next woe is on those who seek pleasure. The description given is the mindlessness in intoxication by food, wine, and music that speak only to feeling. Judgment for this is total mindlessness in which the nation as a whole loses discernment and understanding. That mindless nation is then led into exile—leaders and people lose support (are starved), find death (the opposite of their feeling desire), and are humbled. God is exalted for his justice and righteousness while the pastures and land (support) of Judah is taken over by other nations.

The third woe is on those who defy God. (Notice already we start to see some overlap. These woes are not mutually exclusive groups, but rather depict all aspects of those in rebellion to God.) The God-defiers are described as pulling along their wickedness as animals pull along carts. This indicates a choice in sin rather than accidentally falling into it. And we see the direct defiance (possibly to Isaiah’s warnings with the first two woes). They are defiant, telling God to go ahead with his judgment. They act in disbelief, wondering in sarcasm when God will act. Immediately, the next woe comes in on those who exalt evil. God describes them as those who turn knowledge and wisdom upside down. They are foolish, calling darkness light and bitterness sweet.

Following the woe on those who exalt evil is the woe on those who exalt self. These people are wise and clever—in their own opinion. We see many of these today who huddle in the think tanks of science and academia, praising their intellect while denouncing God.

Finally, the last woe is on those who are totally self-absorbed. We see these careless in their thinking, caring for their own interests and carless of others.

In verses 24 and 25, God describes his judgment. We may see burning grass and blowing blossoms as a mix of metaphors, but the intent of the metaphors is to understand that God’s judgment will be swift. He will quickly judge those who have rejected his instruction and despised his word. Notice that the mountains quake. Mountains always indicate strength. Foolish men defy God while even the strong mountains recognize and tremble before their Sovereign. And in the end there is death.

The last section of the chapter provides the means of destruction. Again the vineyard imagery comes in view as God calls the animals, once he has removed the hedge and wall, to attack the vineyard. The animals, of course, are other nations. Notice that the land—the symbol of God’s support—“will be darkness and distress; light will be obscured by the clouds.” There is no offered hope in this scene. Isaiah ends this allegory and the preface on a dark note of judgment.


Reflecting on the preface we find that, although we are certainly in the midst of Moses’ covenantal period, the law is not emphasized at all. In fact, when mentioned it was discounted (1:11-15). The focus of sin throughout, rather than breaking of the law, has been lack of trust and pursuit in relationship with God. What is trust in God? Trust is the recognition of and reliance in the care-giving of God. By failing to trust in God, Judah failed in its relationship with humanity. Their concern was self-focus rather than in imitating (and imaging) God in his care-giving.