The True Vine
It is April and that means the season of growing is approaching. As we watch the snowbanks shrink, farmers are watching runoff and soil moisture and are getting ready to start putting things in the ground. Gardeners are planning ahead to this year’s garden, and I know that at least a few of you already have seedlings sprouting under lightbulbs inside your house somewhere.
Those of you who farm or garden know that some years are good, and some years are bad. But on the whole, as you learn about how the plants work and what kind of soil you have, you should be able to expect a certain kind of result from your work. If you’ve got good seed and good soil and you manage moisture and fertilizer just right, and no big storm or drought interferes, you know how to produce a good crop.
But what if you couldn’t? What if you had a patch of ground and a bunch of plants which, no matter what you did, refused to produce a good crop?
How much work would you keep putting into it? At what point would you say, “I’ve done enough, and I need to walk away now?”
These questions help us approach our passage today. Isaiah 5 forms the third section in Isaiah’s prologue or preface before his book formally starts in chapter 6. And this chapter has two main parts to it. It begins, in verses 1-7, with a song. It’s a very symbolic song that Isaiah sings about a vineyard and the one who tried to grow things in that vineyard.
Towards the end of that song, in verse 7, Isaiah explains the meaning of that song—who it was really about. And from there, for the rest of the chapter, Isaiah sets aside the symbols and speaks directly to Judah about what this song was talking about.
But as we start with the song, we can see that the song is about a vineyard: “Let me sing a song for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”
Vineyards were where grapes were grown. There were vineyards all over the land of Israel and Judah, and they still are today.
I took a tour of a vineyard in Southern Ontario once and it blew me away just how much time and work and artistry goes into caring for these vines and producing the wine that comes from those grapes.
And that’s the care and attention that Isaiah describes in this song. Verse 2 tells us that “he dug it and cleared it of stones.” He made sure there was nothing to get in the way of these vines growing. “He planted it with choice vines.” Not only was the soil very fertile, but he picked the best plants to grow there.
Already, anybody who knows anything about vineyards should be expecting this vineyard to grow really good grapes. And then verse 2 goes on by telling us that “he built a watchtower in the middle of it.”
Now we’re getting into luxury territory. Whoever planted this vineyard was very rich and could afford to build a tower and pay someone to stand in that tower to keep watch over the vineyard, chasing away wild animals or intruders who could steal or hurt these good grapes.
Then, “He hewed out a wine vat in it.” This was another luxury item, a place for long-term storage of the wine right there in the vineyard. And we know from verse 5 that he put a hedge and a wall around it to keep wild animals and other people out.
The picture here is that this vineyard owner went all-out. He spared no expense as he made long-term investments into this very fertile vineyard, doing everything right, by the book, to ensure a good crop.
And the point here is that we’ve got high expectations. Anybody who knows anything about vineyards is expecting to hear that this vineyard produced a bumper crop of award-winning grapes and everybody was happy.
But instead, verse 2 finishes up by telling us that “he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” He came to harvest the fruit and instead he found wild, unripe fruit. The word here for “wild grapes” is related to the word for “stink” and literally means “stink-fruit.”
He expected a good crop, and all that grew was wild, stinky fruit. It’s as if he had done nothing. All of that effort was wasted and these grapes did no better than if they had been planted by accident at the side of the road somewhere.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “What if he missed a step? What if there was something more he could have done that he didn’t?” But the people listening to Isaiah, the people who knew all about growing grapes, would have known that there was nothing more he could have done. And that’s what verses 3 and 4 tell us.
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:3–4).
He asks two questions. What more could he do? And the answer is, nothing. The second question, why did it grow stink-fruit instead of actual grapes?, goes without an answer. He leaves the people to chew on that answer themselves for a while.
But in verse 5 and 6 he tells us what he will do next: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”
The idea here is that he’s going to let it go back to being wild ground. He’s going to remove it’s hedge so that wild animals can come in and eat the fruit. He’s going to remove the wall so that people can just stomp through it as if it was public property. Verse 6 says that he’s not going to prune the vines or till the ground or remove weeds. This beautiful vineyard is going to become like any other patch of wild ground. And finally—here’s where we see that this vineyard owner must be God—He’s going to make sure no rain falls on it.
Now you might think that all of that sounds awfully harsh. But we should understand that all he’s doing is treating this vineyard the way that it’s asking to be treated. If it’s just going to grow wild grapes, he’s going to treat it like a patch of wild ground. No farmer would keep putting so much work into a piece of land that only grew stink-fruit.
And so this beautiful vineyard is going to turn back into a patch of wild ground, because that’s all it ever really was. He’s going to treat it according to its crop.
And now, finally, we get to verse 7 where Isaiah explains the point of this song, this parable. Here we find that the vineyard in this song represented the people of Israel and Judah.
And knowing that, we understand that this song is inviting us to reflect on everything that God had done for His people in the 500-600 years since he had brought them out of Egypt. He had rescued them and brought them into covenant with Him and gave them His word and saved them from their enemies time and time and time again.
They had a perfect law, they had the most amazing blessings and the most terrifying curses to motivate them. They had judges and kings who saved them again and again. They had every opportunity a people could need. And God looked to His people to find the righteousness that they should have produced with all of this care.
But, as verse 7 says, “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah 5:7). In Hebrew, the words for “justice” and “bloodshed” rhyme with each other, as do the words for “righteousness” and “outcry.”
And this emphasizes the sad irony between what the people should have produced and what they actually produced.
By the time of Isaiah’s day, Jerusalem should have been the most godly, peaceful city in the world, filled with people who knew God and were leading the nations in His ways.
But instead, like we’ve seen in the past two weeks, it had become a place of idols and pride and wickedness and oppression and murder and people crying out for help as others oppressed and killed them.
And so this song warns the people what’s going to happen. God is going to treat them the way they are asking to be treated. They are acting like any other wicked, pagan nation, and so God is going to let them be treated like any other wicked, pagan nation. He’s going to remove His protection from them and allow the superpowers of Assyria and Babylon to stomp all over them just like they stomped all over any other country in the world.
And we know that this judgement came when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in Isaiah’s lifetime. It came when Babylon conquered the southern kingdom of Judah a few decades after Isaiah’s death. It happened again when Rome destroyed Jerusalem again 800 years later.
So this song gives the people of Jerusalem and Judah a stark warning of what’s coming. And the questions ringing in their minds from this song is, “What more could God have done? What other opportunities could he have given them? What chances did they not have?”
And the answer is none. There is nothing that God should have done that He had not done for them.
And with that question ringing in the air, this first section of chapter 5 comes to a close. This is the song of the vineyard, and it’s the emotional centre of this chapter in Isaiah.
But the chapter isn’t over. There’s still 23 more verses. And what Isaiah does in the rest of the chapter is describe, in very literal language, the stink-fruit that was growing on the vine of Israel and Judah.
Perhaps the people listening to the song would have said, “What do you mean, stink-fruit? I think we’re doing pretty good, aren’t we?” And so verse 8 and following go into detail on what exactly this rotten fruit was that the people were producing with their lives.
And the main way that Isaiah introduces this stink-fruit is with statements of “woe.” There are six statements that begin with “woe,” in verses 8, 11, 18, 20, 21 and 22.
“Woe” is a word used often by the prophets. And a “woe” is basically the opposite of a blessing. Like when Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit?” A statement of “woe” is like the opposite of that. When the prophets say “woe” to someone, they are saying that they are wretched and miserable and, even though they might be rich and comfortable at the present time, their worst life was coming when God’s judgement comes.
And so Isaiah describes the stink-fruit of wickedness produced by God’s people in these six statements of “woe.”
The first is in verse 8: “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.”
Here’s the idea behind this “woe”: back in the days of Joshua, the land of Israel was divided up and every family received a portion as an inheritance. And there were laws in place to make sure that that inheritance stayed with that family. If they got poor and had to sell their land to get out of debt, every 50 years there was a year of jubilee where the land would go back to the original owners.
But by Isaiah’s day, 500-600 years later, nobody was obeying those laws anymore. And so you had rich guys buying more and more land, expanding their estates further and further out, until they had no neighbours because they owned everything their eye could see. And the result was that the poor of the land had nowhere to live and had to go beg outside the temple instead of living with their families in their ancestral lands.
This was one example of the stink-fruit Isaiah saw in his day.
The second woe is in verse 11. “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands” (Isaiah 5:11–12).
This is a woe to the party animals. God had no problem with His people enjoying wine in moderation. But these people had moved way past that. This verse tells us that alcohol is what got them out of bed in the morning and alcohol is what kept them out of bed in the evening. Their parties were out of this world, but they don’t pay any attention to God.
The third “woe” is in verse 18. “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: ‘Let him be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!’” (Isaiah 5:18–19).
These are people who are not sinning by accident. If someone is pulling something up with a rope, it’s on purpose. They are working hard because they want what’s on the other end. And that’s what these people are doing with sin, eagerly working to get at fresh opportunities to sin. All the while, saying sarcastically, “Sure, let’s see what God is up to these days. See if he notices.”
The fourth woe is in verse 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!” (Isaiah 5:20).
These people don’t know the difference between good and evil anymore. They see a wicked thing, and they call it a good thing. They see a good thing, and they call it a wicked thing.
It’s like the Canadian government who supports the murder of babies and calls it a “right to choose.” And then points to the pregnancy centres who are actually telling women the truth, and call them “dishonest.” And this kind of thing was happening in Israel and Judah just as much as our world today.
The fifth woe is in verse 21. “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:21). Have you ever met someone who thought they had figured it all out, and they think that the best thing would be for you to just put your Bible away and listen to what they have to say?
That’s the sin of Eve, who lusted after the fruit of the tree because it was desirable to make her wise. She didn’t want God’s wisdom. She wanted to be wise apart from God. And Israel and Judah were full of those people. And Isaiah calls “woe” on them.
Finally, the sixth “woe” in verse 22. “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isaiah 5:22–23).
This final “woe” is a double-whammy. On the one hand, we’re back to the party-animal business. These people here are rockstar bartenders. But they don’t give a rip about justice. They cared deeply about their fancy drinks but they’d turn around and let a guilty person go free for a bit of cash. And they wouldn’t look twice when the innocent person is being oppressed.
And this is what God sees when he looks at the people of Israel and Judah. After centuries of caring for them, centuries of speaking to them, centuries of rescuing them and giving them far, far better then they deserve, this is the crop that he gathers from them: oppression of the poor, wild parties, deliberate disobedience and unbelief, messed-up morals, pride, and injustice.
In other words, they were no better than the pagan nations around them. Just a bunch of wild grapes.
Now there’s a final element in this chapter we have yet to consider, and that’s what God is going to do about this. Isaiah has said “woe” to these people, and when we put that together with the song of the vineyard in verses 1-7, something terrible is coming.
And interspersed with these woes, God tells us exactly what that is. He tells us exactly what judgement is going to look like.
In verse 9 we read that those big houses they had built were going to be left empty, suggesting those rich people would be killed or taken into exile. Those big fields are going to be stricken by a drought and produce no crops.
Verse 13 tells us that the people will go into exile, hungry and thirsty. Verse 14 speaks of Sheol, the grave, who will swallow up many. In other words, a lot of people are going to die.
“Man is humbled, and each one is brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are brought low. But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:15–16).
God is going to win over all of their idolatry and arrogance. He’s going to prove Himself mighty and glorious.
Verse 17 describes their fields and pastures and homes becoming ruins and wild places where nomads will pass through with their flocks.
Verse 24 says that they will be consumed and destroyed like dry grass in a fire because they’ve rejected God’s law and hated His words.
Verse 25 tells us that an earthquake is coming: “Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets.”
In ancient Israel, it was a horrible thing to not be buried. To have your dead body left out in the open to be eaten by animals was an awful judgement. God brought this judgement upon the people, and in fact there is some evidence of an actual earthquake which took place in Isaiah’s day.
And yet, as verse 25 concludes, “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.”
And so the chapter finishes by describing the climactic judgment, as enemy armies come to take the people into exile. Look at verse 26: “He will raise a signal for nations far away, and whistle for them from the ends of the earth; and behold, quickly, speedily they come! None is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a waistband is loose, not a sandal strap broken; their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, and their wheels like the whirlwind. Their roaring is like a lion, like young lions they roar; they growl and seize their prey; they carry it off, and none can rescue. They will growl over it on that day, like the growling of the sea. And if one looks to the land, behold, darkness and distress; and the light is darkened by its clouds.” (Isaiah 5:26–30).
These words poetically describe a foreign army, endowed super-human strength, coming to conquer. This could point to the Assyrians, who conquered Israel and posed a major threat to Judah in Isaiah’s lifetime. This could point to the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem 100 years or so after Isaiah’s time. But in either case, the message is clear: judgement is coming, and God, the owner of the vineyard, is the one raising the banner for these advancing armies to come and judge His people.
This wasn’t a new message. 500 or 600 years before, through Moses, God said this is what would happen if they rebelled. Isaiah simply repeats the message that God has not changed and judgement is coming, and there is no way out.
The True Vine
And that’s how Isaiah 5 ends. That’s a heavy message, isn’t it? The previous two messages in Isaiah have had some heaviness, but they’ve both ended, or at least included, a note of hope and promise and grace.
But here in Isaiah 5, the third and final prophecy in Isaiah’s introduction, we simply have a message of judgement and doom and woe and… that’s it.
And the question ringing in the air is, “is that it?” Is there any hope? Is there any grace? Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?
That’s an important question to ask. It’s important for Isaiah’s listeners to not presume on grace, to not just think that they can do whatever they want because God is going to save them anyways. This chapter forces them to reckon with the consequences of their wickedness.
But you and I know that this wasn’t it. This chapter is not the last word. We know that, in the chapters ahead, we’ll hear about the hope that is coming—hope in the form of a baby, the Messiah, who would bring light to those dwelling in darkness. This child would usher in the triumph of grace.
But he won’t do that just as one more human saviour. Israel and Judah had a long string of human saviours and they didn’t do a thing.
Instead, God’s people need a Savior who will do Himself what they people have been incapable of doing. They need a saviour who would offer to God the obedience they can’t, and bear the awful judgement they deserve, and somehow change their hearts to produce the fruit that God had been after all along.
And with these ideas in mind, I want us to turn over to John 15, which we read from at the beginning of our service this morning. With Isaiah 5 in the back of your head, with the song of the vineyard in your head, hear the Messiah speak these words in your hearing: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1).
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says. That meaning would not have been lost of Jesus’ Jewish hearers. They would have thought about Isaiah 5, and the numbers of other places where God had compared his people to a vine (Psalm 80:8–16; Isaiah 27:2–6; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1–8).
And Jesus is saying that He—He—is the true vine. This is the same idea that we saw back in our series in Matthew last year. Jesus is the true Israel (https://ebcnipawin.ca/sermons/the-gospel-of-the-kingdom/jesus-the-new-israel/). And what that means is that Jesus was who Israel was supposed to be, and Jesus did what Israel was supposed to do.
He was the obedient, righteous son who re-enacted the story of Israel, going to Egypt and back, passing through the waters, being tested for 40 days in the wilderness, and proving Himself again and again to be the well-pleasing son Israel was supposed to be..
And then Jesus went to the cross where He was bruised and crushed for the sins of His people, bearing their guilt and God’s judgement in their place. Isn’t that what we celebrate this week?
And now Jesus invites people from any tribe, tongue, people and nation to come and be a part of the people of God as we join ourself to Him by faith. And as we abide in Him—resting in His love, and trusting in His words—then we will finally begin to bear good fruit. Not the stink-fruit of Isaiah 5, but the real fruit of love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and gentleness, and self-control.
See, God has never stopped caring about the fruitfulness of His people. It’s not as if Jesus was perfect so that you don’t have to be. Jesus became the true vine so that, through Him, all of God’s people could finally produce the fruit he seeks.
So let Isaiah 5 point you to Jesus. Let this vision of wickedness remind you of who you could be apart from Him. Let this vision of judgement remind you of what you deserve apart from Him. And let this vision of the rotten vine remind you about Christ, the true vine.
And let this vision of Jesus lead you to abide in Him. Hour by hour, day by day, to give up on any attempt to make it through life on your own. Apart from Jesus you can do nothing. May these truths bring you, again and again, to rest in Jesus’ love for you and trust in the words He has given us.
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). That is God’s will for your life. That is God’s will for this week. That is God’s will for your Sunday afternoon and your Monday morning and your Friday night. That, whatever you’re doing, you abide in Jesus and so produce the fruit of righteousness that the Father seeks from His people.
And as we end here, I hope you’re astounded by this. I hope it blows your mind that this God of holiness and justice and judgement would not give up on us, but would give us His very son to bring us to Himself. And it’s that wonder and that worship which this final song calls us to respond to Him with.