1 Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes – but it grew rotten grapes. 3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? 5 Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. 6 I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. 7 The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (CEB)
A Love Song
I probably know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t sound like much of a love song. In fact, if this is Isaiah’s version of a love song, I’m not sure I would want to hear him sing a diatribe song. How can something like this be a love song? It’s full of judgment and punishment. The message Isaiah speaks is one of the reasons some people don’t like the Old Testament as much as the New Testament. This sounds more like love that failed. Love that turned sour. Love that became something despised. And maybe it is. The thing is, when you look at this closely, the fact that it gets angry doesn’t mean it isn’t a love song from start to finish.
The story is in the form of a parable. If you remember from the parables of Jesus, the tricky thing about parables is they invite the hearers to judge the situation. But what often happens is the hearer finds themselves judged in the end. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? The legal expert to whom Jesus spoke the parable did not like the answer he was forced to give.
Parables have a way of drawing us in and making us think we’re either on the side of righteousness or that we’re a neutral party asked to impartially judge a situation. The latter is what happens here. It’s a courtroom situation, where the plaintiff brings his case against a defendant in the form of a song. Everything is going well until the last line of verse 2: “but it grew rotten grapes.” (CEB). After that, everything falls apart, and the plaintiff gets angry.
Why do I still contend that this is a love song? Up to that point, everything the gardener did for the vineyard was loving. First, the gardener chose a fertile hillside. Then, he prepared the soil by digging, loosening, and turning it over. He removed the stones and planted the soil with the best vines. He gave it every protection, including a hedge, a wall, and a watchtower. He carefully pruned his vines as they grew, trimming just the right places to give the vine a maximum yield. He hoed the soil to keep it loose. He prepared for the good fruit the vines would bear by digging out a wine vat. Great care was given to the vineyard in every possible way. It was all a labor of love.
In fact, the words used in the text strongly suggest love is behind it all. The words which we translate into English as “beloved” are often used in regard to God’s beloved, such as Israel itself. Then, the words we translate as “love song” could actually be translated as “loved-one’s song.” The word there, “loved-one” is used by the young woman in Song of Songs in reference to the man she loves. Another connection to Song of Songs is the word “vineyard,” which is used as a metaphor for the woman who is beloved by the man.
Everything was lovingly done. The vineyard was given every possible care, but the grapes were rotten, wild, bitter grapes. So the gardener presents his case to the listeners in Jerusalem and the people of Judea. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?” (CEB).
Anyone listening to the case would have said, “There was nothing else to be done! Of course it should have given you good grapes! We’re flummoxed by this, too! You did everything right!”
Can you imagine the experience of doing everything right in a matter, only to have your efforts fail in the end? It would be incredibly frustrating. It would make me angry. To pour so much of yourself into something only to have it quit on you, or to invest yourself into a person only to have them betray you, would drive anyone to anger. Love is a vulnerable thing.
C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing my own fiction is due to a question I had after reading his Sci-Fi/Fantasy book, Perelandra. In Lewis’s book, The Four Loves, he said, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken… The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (Lewis, 121).
So the gardener, who acted with love, has had his heart broken. He lists the things he will do to the vineyard. By the way, it might help to understand that the original hearers listening to Isaiah present his case were probably thinking he was speaking about his wife and their marriage. With the talk about his beloved, his loved-one’s song, and the vineyard, they probably thought he was speaking metaphorically about his wife, to whom Isaiah gave so much care, but things weren’t turning out well.
So Isaiah announces his intentions: “I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” (CEB). It’s all about the removal of protection. The people probably thought, Ah. Divorce. Here it comes. He’s going to cast his wife out and remove his protection from her. After the case he presented, she deserves it. He did everything he could for her, but all she did was disappoint.
But what Isaiah does at this point, when the people are formulating judgments in their minds, is identify the defendant. “The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress.” (CEB).
The people found themselves judged, and we’re left wondering how the God of love could leave. How is that love? Don’t the Psalms sing of God’s steadfast love that endures forever? How can God do this?
The thing is, even the abandonment of the vineyard and the removal of protection can be seen as love at its most sorrowful moment. If the vineyard doesn’t want the gardener’s protection, then taking down the wall and hedge, promising to stop pruning and hoeing, allowing the beloved vineyard to return to its wild and uncultivated state, overgrown with thorns and thistles, is a kind of consent of the lover to the will of the beloved. Even though God knows it will end badly, God grants the people the independence from God that they clearly desire.
Yes, God pulls back. Yes, God is angry in this moment, but that doesn’t mean God’s love, itself, is withdrawn. In his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly About Prayer, C.S. Lewis said, “Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Lewis, 126).
After all, the best part about fighting is making up. Everyone knows that, including C.S. Lewis. In his book, The Horse and His Boy, he wrote, “Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently” (Lewis, 241).
Just because there is anger, it doesn’t mean love is withdrawn. Sometimes love means we let our beloved learn the hard way because it’s the only way they’ll truly learn. As strange at is might seem, the assurance of love can sometimes be part of the problem for people like Israel and people who follow Jesus.
The people of Israel and Judah knew about God’s love for them, just as we know about God’s love for us. Their experience of God was one who brought them up from slavery in the land of Egypt, who chose good land, who prepared the soil, who cleared the stones, dug holes, and planted hand-picked vines. Their experience was a loving God who provided them with everything they could possibly want—and even gave them things they demanded, but God didn’t want to give them. The people demanded a king, and God said, That’s a really bad idea. I’m your king. But they demanded over and again. So God gave them a king, saying, “They have rejected me as king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Out of love for the people God had chosen, God gave them the desires of their hearts. God even sent Jesus, his own son, to redeem us and offer healing and forgiveness from sin. Most of us know, in many ways, the love of God. So it’s just as easy for us—as it was for the beloved people of Israel and Judah—to feel comfortable in that care. We can begin to think we’re immune to devastation because God loves us. God is for us, so who can be against us? What have we to fear? As one scholar put it, “In no time, we are lounging in the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage” (P.S. Duke in Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, 343).
We talk about God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness as things that are freely offered. What we often forget is they are not free of expectations. Isaiah says it three times, in verses 2, 4, and 7: “expected,” “expected,” and “expected.” God expected certain specific returns for the labor of love he invested. A vineyard is for farming, and farmers expect a yield. God expects people to experience the goodness from God’s own hand and respond with similar goodness, generosity, love, sharing, peace, happiness, goodwill, invitation, and community.
The vineyard failed to produce the things God expected. God expected justice and righteousness. What God saw was utter devastation: bloodshed and screams. Indeed, the fact that justice and righteousness so often appear absent from our world is the true expression and proof of the devastation in which we live.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all stand rightfully judged by Isaiah’s love song, and that’s never easy to hear, let alone accept. The good news is that a love song is still being sung over us. Later on, in Isaiah 27, God sings about a vineyard that is restored, which God guards and waters every moment of every day: a vineyard with such bountiful fruit that it fills the whole world with its produce. There is still room for repentance so that our community can produce the kind of fruit God wants to see growing on our vines. God still sings a love song over us, and God still hopes we’ll produce the fruit God expects: justice and righteousness lifted up together in a new community where bloodshed and cries are no more.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
P.S. – After preaching this sermon, I had a visitor tell me it was a good sermon. He noted that I’m “a young preacher.” (Full disclosure: I’m 40 years old with 17 years of pastoral experience in local churches, the last 13 of which have been full-time). He said, “All of you young preachers want to preach from the Old Testament. The Gospel! You need to preach from the Gospel. The Gospel.”
With respect, I disagree. I preach from the whole of the Scriptures (at least the more limited Protestant version of the corpus). I believe the Old and New Testaments deserve equal time. I do preach from the Gospels, and the prophets, and Paul’s letters, and the Pentateuch, and the Epistles, and the writings, and Acts, and the wisdom books, and Revelation, and the Psalms. What faithful pastor would not?
It seems there is a misconception somewhere. The word Gospel comes from Old English godspel, meaning good tidings / news / tale / story. My contention with the idea that I – or any preacher – should limit their preaching to, or give priority to, the four Gospels is the undeniable fact that the Old Testament also contains good news. In fact, the Old Testament books have such good news for us that I am compelled to share that gospel in my preaching.
It’s too bad this gentleman wasn’t here on July 31 to hear my sermon With Bands of Love. I explained a good bit of this idea there. I do not apologize for preaching everything from Genesis to Revelation. The advice is not something I can accept and still remain faithful to my call. #SorryNotSorry. If I only preached on my favorite stories – or yours… well, that would tell you more about us than about God. We find comfort in our preferences and favored Bible texts, but sometimes our preferences are not what we need to hear. Sometimes it is the very thing we do not want to hear that we most need.