Isaiah 65:1-14.
The Fruitless Vineyard

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology   Scripture quotes from KJV

God has a plan and purpose for His creation:  that through it He would be glorified.  It would be through creation that God would form man in His image, and call man to Himself that we might find a relationship with Him.  When we observe the creation event as narrated in the book of Genesis, we find that God referred to His creation as “good.”[1]  However, that goodness was shattered when sin entered the world through the self-centered choices of man, choices that entered man’s thoughts and actions through the influence of the evil one[2] who, in rebellion against God, seeks to turn this world away from God and to himself.

If we consider that God created a Garden of Eden, a place of beauty and innocence where God walked with man, what do we find when we look at the world around us.  What happened?  Where is the innocence of Adam and Eve that existed before the fall?  Is it lost forever?  When we look at the world today, what do we see?  What went wrong?

God has been progressively revealing Himself and His purpose to mankind since the fall of man into sin and rebellion.  He demonstrated man’s arrogance and His sovereignty when He confounded man at the Tower of Babel.[3]  Sin continued to run rampant in the world until He provided cleansing through the great flood.[4]  God called the faithful man Abraham out of the ancestors of Noah to be the father of a nation whom God would draw to Himself as priests to the world, a nation that God would use to bless all other nations.  This nation would become Israel, a people who, like Adam and Eve, rebelled against God’s sovereignty and suffered the consequences of their sin.  Isaiah wrote his prophecies during the waning years of the Jewish state.  Isaiah’s ministry started with the death of Judah’s king Uzziah (740 B.C.) to approximately 690 B.C.  It was during his ministry that the northern nation of Israel was destroyed and dispersed by Assyria (722 B.C.).  Isaiah had watched the demise of the northern kingdom, and witnessed a similar dissolution of Judah, a downward spiral that would result in Judah’s destruction only a few generations after Isaiah’s death.

Isaiah’s prophecy starts with a reminder of God’s sovereignty, His purpose of creation, and His care for Israel.  As Israel is falling away from God, Isaiah first calls for purity (1:1-31), prophesies of Israel’s coming peace and apostacy (2:1-4:6).

Chapter 5 introduces an abrupt change in the format of Isaiah’s writing as he changes from prose to poetry.  Chapter 5 is a grand and complex poem that emotes both Isaiah’s emotions and his understanding of God’s purpose for Israel.  Translating this form of writing presents particular challenges as it includes the added difficulty of determining the meaning behind abstract thoughts and images.

Isaiah’s poem depicts the nation of Israel as a vineyard, a common scriptural metaphor,[5] one that he had already used in his description of the plundering of Israel by its neighbors.[6]  The planting, maintenance, and harvesting of a vineyard was a well-understood task, providing Isaiah with a colorful means of presenting a message of God’s purpose for His people as He planted the nation and provided the resources to bring it growth and fruition.

Isaiah 5:1.  Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:

Isaiah is going to present his message as a poem, one that he describes as being presented in song.  Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas rather than sounds, so as we look at each phrase, it is appropriate to examine how each pairing of ideas develops a single thought.

Isaiah first notes his relationship with the owner of the vineyard, referring to the LORD as his Beloved.  This speaks to the close and personal relationship that Isaiah had with God, a relationship that God desires for all people.   It is through this relationship that the LORD was able to reveal His plan and purpose for Israel through Isaiah. 

Then, Isaiah notes that the vineyard is planted on a very fertile hill.  The arid country around the region of Israel made any fertile region to be notable.  The phrase carries the connotation that the vineyard owner has planted His vineyard on very fertile soil.  Because of the soil’s fertility, the vineyard should be able to grow and flourish.

The vineyard is also placed on a hill.  The word used for hill conveys the idea of a place that is visible to all.  Like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden,[7] this vineyard, Israel, will be seen by all and known by all.

In some ways, the modern church is much like that vineyard that God has planted and has empowered with His Holy Spirit to grow and flourish.  Likewise, the church is visible to all and serves as a testimony, positive or negative, to God’s grace on earth.

Isaiah 5:2.  And he fenced 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 made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

The LORD of the vineyard put a tremendous amount of work into the preparation of the land for His vineyard.  The word rendered “fencing” refers to the very difficult task of breaking up of hard, dry, soil for the first time.   I am reminded of my first attempt to plant azaleas in the hard clay of the North Carolina Piedmont region.  After a frustrating attempt to dig with a shovel, I tried to carve a hole in the ground with a hammer and screwdriver.  I broke the screwdriver.  This illustrates the toughness of the soil that God has to work with as He is preparing His people for His purpose of grace.  The soil is greatly fertile, but it strongly resists the efforts of the LORD to plant the seed. 

The Owner then cleared the land of stones.  Stones serve as obstacles to the tiller that must be removed as part of the preparation of the land.  We are quite hopeless without the power of God to prepare our hearts for Him when it is so filled with barriers.  Isaiah describes God as the One who removes those barriers so that His work can be accomplished. 

The Owner then planted the vineyard with the choicest of vines.  There was (and still is) a wide variety of vines that one can plant in a vineyard.  The ancient contemporaries of Isaiah would identify and understand well when the Owner is selecting the very choicest of vines.  These vines would be out of the reach for the average farmer, being far too costly to obtain, and representing far too great a risk in this arid land where so many things can diminish the quality of the harvest.  Farmers understand the faith that is necessary to plant a crop with an expectation of harvest.  In this metaphor, the Owner is demonstrating great faith as He is prepared the land for the very best and most valuable harvest imagineable.

Even before the harvest, the Owner built a stone watchtower in the center of the vineyard.  This tower would serve two important purposes.  First, it would provide housing for the Owner.  The concept is that the Owner will live in the midst of his vineyard, that He will be present with his crop during the period of its development through to the point of harvest.  His presence also implies his responsiveness to serve the needs of the vineyard, providing it with His protection. 

The vineyard does not produce a viable crop for a couple of years.  However, the Owner immediately built the winepress, implying His confidence that the harvest will be fruitful.

The owner had put into place an optimum setting for the production of the finest grapes.  He could look forward to a great and valuable crop, the finest crop in the lands.  No typical farmer would go through all of what the Owner had done, and so His expectation could be greater than that of any farmer.  However, we find that the crop did not produce as the Owner had intended.  Instead of producing the finest of grapes, this vineyard produced only wild grapes.  His vineyard produced disappointment.  Wild grapevines produce few grapes, and those are dry and sour, not suitable for the production of good wine, and certainly not suitable for the production of fine wine.

Likewise, God has put in place all that is needed for His people to develop into people of faith who love Him and serve Him with a bounty of spiritual fruit.  However, when sin entered the world, God could find only great disappointment.  God created us and has a right to expect our faithful obedience.  However, we have turned our backs on Him and chosen to live in this world, reaping a minimal and bitter harvest that this world produces.

Isaiah 5:3-4.  And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. 4What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

We see in this parable a frustrated owner, as though he is scratching his head and asking the question, “What more could I have done?”  What more could God do for man to provide him with every opportunity for a life that is faithful and full of spiritual fruit?  God revealed Himself to all people through His Word and through His Creation.  It is evident to all that there is one God, and that He is a righteous God.  Furthermore, it is evident to all that we are unrighteous, and instead of producing the finest of fruits, we have chosen to lead self-serving lives with a bitter fruit like that of the wild grapes, rather than that of the choicest fruit that God deserves. 

The fault in this parable does not lie in the owner, but rather in the vine itself.  As the vine planted in fertile soil, we have chosen to bear the fruit of sin by choice.  This apostasy certainly characterized the chosen nation of Israel who had promised faithfulness to God when it was delivered from Egypt, but turned away from Him to seek the sensual and accepted practices of their pagan neighbors.  The church today shows signs of similar apostasy as it continues to accept as normative more and more egregious lifestyle sins.  God’s word provides a moral compass that much of the church has abandoned, following the pattern of ancient Israel.  The good spiritual fruit that should be the product of the church is being replaced by the sour fruit of that wild grape. 

What is the Vintner to do with a crop of useless, wild grapes?  They are not suitable for his profit, and are not worthy of his continued cultivation and protection. 

Isaiah 5:5-6.  And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: 6And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Though the Vintner prepared the soil, planted the seed, cultivated the vineyard, and provided continued protection of its vines, when it came to fruition it proved to be without worth.  There is no point in investing any more resources in the preservation of a crop that is nothing more than weeds.  How does the vintner respond to this circumstance?

1.     Remove the hedge of protection.  The hedge refers to the protection that the Vintner provided during the growing season.  There is no longer any need to maintain this hedge, so by his lifting his hand of protection, the hedge will fall to the elements, allowing all manner of natural enemies to invade and destroy the vines.  The beautiful vineyard on the hill will lose its definition, now blending in with the rest of the uncultivated hillside. 

2.     The vine will be downtrodden.  The degredation of the hedge will allow passersby to simply walk through it and through the vineyard like so many other weeds, beating down both the hedge and the vines.  The vine will be walked on by its neighbors, trodden underfoot to its destruction.

3.     Lay to waste.  When God removes His hand of protection, the only result is a barren waste.  God is not going to treat the vine as if it’s a choice grape, even though it may think that it is.  He will treat the vine as it truly deserves to be treated:  left to its own devices.  Without the Vintner’s protection the lack of pruning will cause the vine to run wild and minimize the production of even its own sour fruit.  Furthermore, the lack of cultivation that God would have provided will allow all manner of thorns and briers to intermingle with it.  The vine will lose its identity, and be choked by the things of this world.

4.     Removal of sustenance.  Finally, the Vintner has no reason to expend the resources necessary to feed the vine.  Without life-giving water, the vine will only wither and die.  The life of the vineyard is now short, lasting only a single season.

God had intended that His vineyard would produce good fruit, and that He would sustain it forever.  However, instead of bearing good fruit, it turned wild and bore the fruit of a wild plant, serving no good purpose of the LORD. 

Isaiah’s readers would understand this parable.  They would agree that the investment that the Vintner initially made could only have been considered a total loss, and the land that was given to the vineyard is now without value. 

Isaiah 5:7.  For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

If there is any doubt that this parable was intended to expose the state of the nation of Israel, Isaiah moves to remove it at this point.  The vineyard represents the current state of Israel, God’s chosen nation.  God prepared Israel as a choice vineyard, giving it the opportunity to produce a fruit like the world has never seen.  God revealed Himself and His word to the children of Abraham, giving them instruction on obedience.  Had they turned to Him in faith, they would have served as a nation of priests.  They would have dispensed God’s judgment throughout the land, a judgment that has at its foundation the very love of God.  However, Israel chose rebellion against God, and produced only oppression.  Rather than minister to the needy, they condemn and brutalize them.  Rather than demonstrate the righteousness of God, they are characterized by sin and strife.  Rather than hear the praises of the people, God hears their cries of suffering.  This was not the purpose or intent that God had for Israel.  It is simply the purpose and intent that was the product of Israel’s choice to disregard faith in God and replace it with faith in the things of this world, the wild briar-patch that provides no true and lasting resource.

Isaiah 5:8.  Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

The declaration of “woe” was common among the prophets as they prophesied the imminent destruction of the nations of Israel and Judah.  The word refers to the acceptance of a coming destruction.   The word was also used by the nation when they realized the potential of their imminent destruction by an enemy,[8] by individuals who recognized their inability to overcome oncoming destruction.[9]  Isaiah is referring to those who have set themselves above others as they are engaged in all manner of intrigue over the covetous acquisition of land. 

Though their teaching holds that individuals are only stewards of land that belongs to God, the inheritance of the land because a badge of ownership and position.  Those who did not own land were despised.  It is this prejudice that is evident in the conflicts between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau.  By rejecting others, the landed Jews created enemies among all others, not only including their neighboring countries, but among their own families and communities.  Samuel’s indictment against the Jewish aristocracy may be understood to also state that their penchant for being alone in life will be also granted in death as they will be buried alone in the “midst of the earth,” denying them the blessing of “Abraham’s Bosom,” a traditional place of death for the faithful who awaited the coming of the Messiah.  Isaiah identifies that their rejection of God will win for them only an eternity separated from Him and from the remnant of the faithful who will reside in “Abraham’s Bosom.”

Isaiah 5:9-10.  In mine ears said the LORD of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant. 10Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah.

Samuel states that literally, the LORD is in his own ears as He reveals the destruction of the apostate Israel.  As the landed Jews have vied over land, their demise will result in its intrinsic worthlessness.  As they invested great effort and money into the accumulation and maintenance of the land, it will return nothing for them.  They will be taken from the land, leaving their houses and lands empty.  Their crops will lay to waste, whereas ten acres of a vineyard which should produce enough wine to make its owner rich will produce only enough to fill a small container, indicating a devastating financial loss.  The idea is simply that all of the investment and priority that they put into the land will result in no gain.

Isaiah 5:11-17. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! 12And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.

Isaiah repeats the woe that is a curse among those who have disregarded the LORD in their lifestyle.  Note that Isaiah is pointing out the “lifestyle of the rich and famous,” those who think of themselves as better than others, and those who are considered great by those of little means.  Yet, when we look at the true lifestyle of these “great” people, we find idolaters who are caught up in their own self-gratifying addictions, blinded by them so that they do not see or appreciate the LORD or His work.

We may, like so many others in history, give great respect and honor to those who have great wealth and power, not realizing that true greatness is not found in that wealth and power.  True greatness is found in the humble heart, found only in one who has given all to the LORD.  We get caught up in one of satan’s lies when we give veneration to the wicked and we dispise the lowly.  Through Isaiah the LORD clearly defines the state of the wicked rich: a state of woe.

Isaiah 5:13.  Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.

With the hand of the LORD’s protection, the nation of Israel (and later Judah) will, indeed be destroyed, and its people of note will be taken into captivity.  Their land will be taken by the invading king, and distributed to strangers.  Where they thought that their lives would continue in their current state of greed and gluttony, they will find only famine and thirst.

At first glance, we may think that this is an unfair judgment of God, but when we consider the nature of God’s promise, it is the only possible outcome to Israel’s apostasy.  God promised to give the “chosen people” the land and keep them safe in it as long as they would be faithful to Him.  There were a lot of “If you will…” statements in the covenant between God and man.  By rejecting God, Israel walked away from Him, walking away from His protection and giving that task to their surrounding allies who turned against them.

Isaiah 5:14.  Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.

Isaiah does not hold back the nature of the judgment that is coming upon those in his nation that are leading it into destruction.  The “midst of the earth” that he refers to in verse 8 is large enough to contain the souls of those who have turned their back on God and sown a harvest of sin.  Isaiah speaks of the greatness, the pomp, and the self-rejoicing that so characterizes those who have been condemned.  Their pomp will descend into the depths of Sheol along with them.

Isaiah reveals a dramatic judgment against Israel, a nation that has been called by God to be His people, called to obedience to Him.  If any people could know the glory and majesty of God, it would have been the nation of Israel, yet even with this knowledge, the replaced their faith in God with a greater faith in the things of this world. 

How does this relate to the church today?  We may be encouraged to know that Israel was writing to a nation of unfaithful, lost people.  They were a group who was unsaved and unregenerated, lacking the resource of the Holy Spirit to lead their hearts to the truth.  Consequently, these verses would be inappropriately applied if they are used to communicate a message of condemnation to today’s faithful Christians.  However, Isaiah’s prophecy does clearly identify the consequence of apostasy.  As the modern church has, like ancient Israel, moved further and further away from the truth, it is becoming easier for an individual to be part of what they believe to be a Christian fellowship, but remain in their lost state because of that fellowship’s low standards of faith. 

We saw a great deal of self-importance among the ancient Israelites, and we see that same behavior today among those who claim the faith.  We see a great deal of pomp and pride, among the leaders of the larger church fellowships, or among the multi-million-dollar ministries. 

God described the work that He has put into the vineyard, work intended to bring a great harvest of good fruit.  The early Israelites were judged by their lack of fruit.  Is the church producing a bounty of spiritual fruit today?  As a believer, what kind of spiritual fruit are you producing?  Is your fruit one that the LORD of the vineyard would cut down and carry to the waste pile, or is it the choice fruit of obedience that produces a bounty of love and grace in the community around you?

Isaiah gives us much to think and to pray about.  Let it be a declaration to us to set behind us any encumbrance that would impede us as we strive to press toward the mark of the high calling of God.

[1] Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31, et. al.

[2] Matthew 13:19,38; John 17:15, e.g.

[3] Genesis 11:19.

[4] Genersis 6:13, ff.

[5] Jeremiah 12:10, Ezekiel 19:10, Micah 1:6, Matthew 20:1, e.g.

[6] Isaiah 3:14.

[7] Matthew 5:14-16.

[8] Numbers 21:29;

[9] Job 10:15; Psalm 120:5; Proverbs 23:29, e.g.