A Love Song, of Sorts: Reflections on Isaiah 5:1-7

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 5:1-7
August 18, 2013

The Hebrew Bible is full of wonderful things, rich stories, mind-bending proverbs, uplifting and provocative psalms, laws that confront a close-minded society. It even has a few love poems in it, the most famous of those being the "Most Beautiful Song," known to many as the "Song of Songs" or "Song of Solomon," though the ancient king surely had nothing to do with its creation, save as its very distant inspiration. Today's love song from the 8th-century Isaiah is another kettle of fish entirely. If it is a love song, you better hope that no would-be lover ever sings one like it to you! But then again, maybe it is a song we need to hear, however great our lack of interest in hearing it.

It begins sweetly enough. "I will sing now my love song for my beloved concerning his vineyard" (Is. 5:1). Immediately, something is not quite right both with the singer and the object of the song. The object of a love song should be the beloved, not some vineyard of the beloved. But this singer tunes a harp and sits down to play, but instead of gazing dewy-eyed at the beloved while the strings are languidly plucked, turns attention to the beloved's vineyard. The words of the song are just right; it is the subject of the song that is off. The word "beloved" is dodi, a sweet word in Hebrew, and here the word appears twice, both as the name of the beloved and the song sung to him/her. The name of the famous second king of Israel, David, is a name based on this very word, so its sweetness is magnified with that royal connection. Yet, the song is not directly for the beloved, hymning her beauty, chanting his virility. The vineyard is in the mind of the singer.

"A vineyard had my beloved on the crown of a fertile hill" (Is. 5:1b). There is a pun here that cannot be rendered in English. The word I translate "crown" is keren in Hebrew, while the word "vineyard" is kerem. The former word often is translated "horn," thus suggesting the brow of a hill, as a horn crowns the head of an ox. The point appears to be that this vineyard was situated exactly right on a gentle hilltop, a place known for its fertility, and could be expected to produce abundant grapes. To ensure that the harvest is rich and plentiful, the beloved prepared the place; "he dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines" (Is. 5:2a). In short, the owner did what any good vineyard owner would do: loosening the soil, removing impediments to growth, then choosing the finest of shoots to start the process. The Hebrew soreq, "choice vines," reminds us of the homeland of one of the Bible's lushest sirens, Delilah, who came from the "vale of Soreq" (Judg. 16:4). After such careful preparation, the vineyard owner has only now to protect the growing vines.

And so "he built a tower in the middle of it and hewed out a wine vat in it" (Is. 5:2c). The tower is for protection against thieves, whether human or animal, and the vat is dug in the soil to get ready for the harvest. The beloved rightly "expected it to produce grapes," but to the contrary, "it produced sour fruit" (Is. 5:2c). The word I translate "sour fruit" is built on the Hebrew for "shame," b'osh. There is something deeply wrong with this vineyard, something dark and shameful, despite the owner's diligent and careful work. And now the love song itself turns sour.

"So now, inhabitants of Jerusalem, and people of Judah! Make a judgment between me and my vineyard" (Is. 5:3). The owner, the beloved owner of the beloved vineyard, is nonplussed. He did all that could be done for the vineyard to make it produce grapes, but instead all that appeared on the vines was the sourest and most bitter of fruit. The owner demands that the Judeans, and especially those in Jerusalem, make a judgment about whose problem this is. Is the owner or the vineyard guilty of the failure of proper growth? A courtroom scene is imagined, and the owner begins the argument. "What else could I do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? I expected it to produce grapes: but it produced sour fruit!" (Is. 5:4)

The vineyard owner, however, does not wait for any verdict from the Judeans. The owner plunges on to announce the judgment. "Now I will tell all of you immediately what I will do to my vineyard" (Is. 5:5a). I translate "all of you" to get the inclusiveness of this judgment; those of us in the south would say, "y'all" here, a most helpful second person plural that northern English has not provided! The owner's judgment is terrifying. "I will cut down its hedge, and it will be devoured; I will smash its wall, and it will be trampled" (Is. 5:5b). The vineyard lies open to all predators, without protection, and its doom is sealed.

Isaiah 5:6a is very difficult Hebrew, and we can only guess at its meaning. The NRSV's " I will make it a waste" assumes a small change in spelling in one word, while the Hebrew text I use, the BHS, makes a more radical suggestion in a footnote, yielding "I will obliterate it!" Whatever the words mean, it is hardly good! The singer goes on to describe the result of these actions of obliteration. "It shall not be pruned or hoed; briars and thorns will rise up" (Is. 5:6b). Inattention to the vineyard will allow it to turn back to unused ground as the owner neglects it after its unproductive season. And to add insult to injury, the owner proclaims, "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it" (Is. 5:6c). And with that command, the mask of the owner falls off, and we see YHWH of hosts, the true owner of this and all vineyards.

8/11/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.