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The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard

 5

Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

2

He dug it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

 

3

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem

and people of Judah,

judge between me

and my vineyard.

4

What more was there to do for my vineyard

that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes,

why did it yield wild grapes?

 

5

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.

6

I will make it a waste;

it shall not be pruned or hoed,

and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds

that they rain no rain upon it.

 

7

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,

but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,

but heard a cry!


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1. Now will I sing to my beloved. The subject of this chapter is different from that of the former. It was the design of the Prophet to describe the condition of the people of Israel, as it then was, in order that all might perceive their faults, and might thus be led by shame and self-loathing to sincere repentance. Here, as in a mirror, the people might behold the misery of their condition. But for this, they would have flattered themselves too much in their crimes, and would not have patiently listened to any instructions. It was therefore necessary to present a striking and lively picture of their wickedness; and in order that it might have the greater weight, he made use of this preface; for great and memorable events were usually described in verse, that they might be repeated by every one, and that a lasting record of them might be preserved. In like manner, we see that Moses wrote a song, and many other compositions, (Exodus 15:1; Deuteronomy 32:1,) in order that all the events might be proclaimed in this manner, both in public and in private. The instruction becomes more widely diffused than if it had been delivered in plainer language. For the same reason Isaiah composed this song, that he might present to the people a clearer view of their wickedness; and, undoubtedly, he handled this subject with magnificent and harmonious language, for the highest skill is commonly exercised in the composition of poems.

To my beloved. There can be no doubt that he means God; as if he had said that he would compose a poem in behalf of God, that he might expostulate with the people about their ingratitude; for it gave additional weight to his language to represent God as speaking. But a question arises, Why does Isaiah call God his friend? Some reply that he was a kinsman of Christ, and I acknowledge that he was a descendant of David; but this appears to be a forced interpretation. A more natural and appropriate one would be, to adopt the statement of John, that the Church is committed to the friends of the bridegroom, (John 3:29,) and to reckon prophets as belonging to that class. To them, unquestionably, this designation applies; for the ancient people were placed under their charge, that they might be kept under their leader. We need not wonder, therefore, that they were jealous and were greatly offended when the people bestowed their attachment on any other. Isaiah therefore assumes the character of the bridegroom, and, being deeply anxious about the bride entrusted to him, complains that she has broken conjugal fidelity, and deplores her treachery and ingratitude.

Hence we learn that not only Paul, but all those prophets and teachers who faithfully served God, were jealous of God’s spouse. (2 Corinthians 11:2.) And all the servants of God ought to be greatly moved and aroused by this appellation; for what does a man reckon more valuable than his wife? A well-disposed husband will value her more highly than all his treasures, and will more readily commit to any person the charge of his wealth than of his wife. He to whom one will entrust his dearly-beloved wife must be reckoned very faithful. Now to pastors and ministers the Lord commits his Church as his beloved wife. How great will be our wickedness if we betray her by sloth and negligence! Whosoever does not labor earnestly to preserve her can on no pretense be excused.

A song of my beloved. By using the word דודי, dodi, he changes the first syllable, but the meaning is the same as in the former clause. Though some render it uncle, and others cousin, I rather agree with those who consider it to contain an allusion; for greater liberties are allowed to poets than to other writers. By his arrangement of those words, and by his allusions to them, he intended that the sound and rhythm should aid the memory, and impress the minds, of his readers.

My beloved had a vineyard. The metaphor of a vineyard is frequently employed by the prophets, and it would be impossible to find a more appropriate comparison. (Psalm 80:8; Jeremiah 2:21.) There are two ways in which it points out how highly the Lord values his Church; for no possession is dearer to a man than a vineyard, and there is none that demands more constant and persevering toil. Not only, therefore, does the Lord declare that we are his beloved inheritance, but at the same time points out his care and anxiety about us.

In this song the Prophet mentions, first, the benefits which the Lord had bestowed on the Jewish people; secondly, he explains how great was the ingratitude of the people; thirdly, the punishment which must follow; fourthly, he enumerates the vices of the people; for men never acknowledge their vices till they are compelled to do so.

On a hill. He begins by saying that God had placed his people in a favorable situation, as when a person plants a vine on a pleasant and fertile hill. By the word horn or hill I understand a lofty place rising above a plain, or what we commonly call a rising-ground, (un coustau.) It is supposed by some to refer to the situation of Jerusalem, but I consider this to be unnatural and forced. It rather belongs to the construction of the Prophet’s allegory; and as God was pleased to take this people under his care and protection, he compares this favor to the planting of a vineyard; for it is better to plant vines on hills and lofty places than on a plain. In like manner the poet says, The vine loves the open hills; the yews prefer the north wind and the cold 7575     Denique apertos Bacchus amat colles: Aquilonem et frigora taxi. Virg, Georg. II. 112. The Prophet, therefore, having alluded to the ordinary method of planting the vine, next follows out the comparison, that this place occupied no ordinary situation. When he calls it the son of oil or of fatness, 7676     In a very fruitful hill. — Eng. Ver. he means a rich and exceedingly fertile spot. This is limited by some commentators to the fertility of Judea, but that does not accord with my views, for the Prophet intended to describe metaphorically the prosperous condition of the people.

2. And he fenced it. The incessant care and watchfulness of God in dressing his vine are asserted by the Prophet, as if he had said, that God has neglected nothing that could be expected from the best and most careful householder. And yet we do not choose to attempt, as some commentators have done, an ingenious exposition of every clause, such as, that the Church is fenced by the protection of the Holy Spirit, so that it is safe against the attacks of the devil; that the wine-press is doctrine; and that by the stones are meant the annoyances of errors. The design of the Prophet, as I have mentioned, was more obvious, namely, that by incessant care and large expenditure God has performed the part of an excellent husbandman. Yet it was the duty of the Jews to consider how numerous and diversified were the blessings which God had conferred on them; and at the present day, when the Church is represented under the metaphor of a vineyard, we ought to view those figures as denoting God’s blessings, by which he makes known not only his love toward us, but likewise his solicitude about our salvation.

In the verb planted the order appears to be reversed, for one ought to begin with planting rather than with the fence; but my explanation is, that after having planted, he did everything else that was necessary. Justly, therefore, does he charge them with ingratitude and treachery, when the fruits that ought to have followed such laborious cultivation were not brought forth. There is reason to fear that the Lord will bring the same accusation against us; for the greater the benefits which we have received from God, the more disgraceful will be our ingratitude if we abuse them. It is not without a good reason, or to enable them to make any idle display, that the Lord blesses his people; it is, that they may yield grapes, that is, the best fruit. If he be disappointed of his expectation, the punishment which the Prophet here describes will follow. The mention of his benefits ought, therefore, to produce a powerful impression on our minds, and to excite us to gratitude.

Besides, the word vineyard, and a vineyard so carefully cultivated, suggests an implied contrast; for so much the more highly ought we to value the acts of God’s kindness, when they are not of an ordinary description, but tokens of his peculiar regard. Other blessings are indiscriminately bestowed, such as, that he

maketh the sun to shine on the evil as well as on the good, (Matthew 5:45,)

and supplies them with what is necessary for food and clothing. But how much more highly ought we to esteem that covenant of grace into which he has entered with us, by which he makes the light of the Gospel to shine on us; for his own people are its peculiar objects! That care and diligence, therefore, which the Lord continually manifests in cultivating our minds deserves our most earnest consideration.

Therefore he hoped that it would bring forth grapes 7777     And he looked that it should bring forth grapes. — Eng. Ver. He now complains that the nation which had enjoyed such high advantages had basely and shamefully degenerated; and he accuses them of undervaluing the kindness of God, for he says that, instead of pleasant grapes, they yielded only wild and bitter fruits. It is undoubtedly true that God, to whose eyes all things are naked and opened, (Hebrew 4:13,) is not deceived by his expectation like a mortal man. In the Song of Moses he plainly declares that he well knew from the beginning what would be the wickedness of his people.

My beloved, says he, when she fares well and becomes fat,
will kick. (Deuteronomy 32:15.)

It is therefore not more possible that God should be mistaken in his expectations, than that he should repent. Isaiah does not here enter into subtle reasonings about the expectations which God had formed, but describes the manner in which the people ought to have acted, that they might not lose the benefit of such excellent advantages. Thus God commands that the Gospel be proclaimed for the obedience of faith, (Romans 16:26,) not that he expects all to be obedient, but because, by the mere hearing of it, unbelievers are rendered inexcusable. Moreover, there is nothing that ought to excite us more powerfully to lead a devout and holy life, than to find that those duties which we perform towards God are compared by the Holy Spirit to fruits of exquisite flavour.

3. Now, therefore, O inhabitant of Jerusalem! Those persons with whom he contends are made judges in their own cause, as is usually done in cases so plain and undoubted that the opposite party has no means of evasion. It is, therefore, a proof of the strongest confidence in his cause, when he bids the guilty persons themselves declare if this be not the true state of the fact; for immediately afterwards we shall find him declaring that the accusation is decided against those persons to whom he now commits the decision.

4. What more ought to have been done to my vineyard? He first inquires what could have been expected from the best husbandman or householder, which he has not done to his vineyard? Hence he concludes that they had no excuse for having basely withheld from him the fruit of his toil.

How did I expect that it would yield grapes? In this clause he appears to expostulate with himself for having expected any good or pleasant fruit from so wicked a people; just as, when the result does not answer to our expectation, we complain of ourselves, and are angry at having ill-bestowed our labor on ungrateful persons whose wickedness ought to have restrained us from doing what we did, and acknowledge that we are justly deceived, because we were too simple and easily imposed on. But a more natural interpretation will be this: “Since I discharged every part of my duty, and did more than any one could have expected in dressing my vineyard, how comes it that it yields me so poor a return, and that, instead of the fruit which was expected, it yields what is absolutely bitter?”

If it be objected that God had the remedy in his hands, if he had turned the hearts of the people, this is an idle evasion as applied to those men; for their conscience holds them fast, so that they cannot escape by laying the blame on another. Though God do not pierce the hearts of men by the power of his Spirit, so as to render them obedient to him, yet they will have no right to complain that this was wanting; for every pretense of ignorance is fully and abundantly taken away by the outward call. Besides, God does not speak here of his power, but declares that he was not under any obligation to do more than he did.

5. And now come, I will show you what I will do to my vineyard. Having held the Jews to be condemned, as it were, by their own mouth, he next adds that he will take vengeance for their contempt of his grace, so that they will not escape from being punished. The reproof would not have been sufficiently powerful to affect their minds, if he had not also threatened punishment; and therefore he now declares that the heinous offense, of having wickedly imposed on him, will not escape vengeance. Now the punishment to be inflicted on them amounts to this, that they will be deprived of the gifts which they had abused, when God shall not only withdraw his care of them, but shall give them up to be plundered by their enemies. At the same time he shows how wretched their condition will be, when God shall have ceased to bestow on them his multiplied favors.

Hence it follows that it must have been owing entirely to the extraordinary goodness of God, that the vineyard remained safe and uninjured till that time. He goes so far as to point out the various supports by which it was upheld, and the vast resources which God possesses for destroying it both within and without; for when his protection has been removed, they must become a prey to all that pass by, whether men or beasts. “When the fence has been removed,” says he, “the cattle will tread on it and lay it bare, robbers will ransack and plunder it, and thus it will become a wilderness.”

6. I will lay it waste. God will not take pains to dig and prune it, and consequently it will become barren for want of dressing; briars and thorns will spring up to choke its branches; and, what is more, by withholding rain, God will dry up its roots. Hence it is evident how manifold are the weapons with which God is supplied for punishing our ingratitude, when he sees that we despise his kindness. Isaiah is still, no doubt, proceeding with his metaphor, and, in order to obtain more eager attention, adorns his style by figures of speech. But we ought simply to conclude, that as God continually bestows on us innumerable benefits, so we ought to be earnestly on our guard lest, by withdrawing first one and then another, he punish us for despising them.

So far as relates to the government of the Church, the more numerous the kinds of assistance which she needs, the more numerous are the punishments to which she will be liable, if she wickedly corrupt what was appointed by God for her salvation. Nor ought we to wonder, if at the present day so many distresses threaten ruin and desolation; for whatever calamity befalls us, whether it be that there is a deficiency of instruction, or that the wicked abound, or that foxes and wolves creep into the Church, all this must be ascribed to our ingratitude, because we have not yielded such fruit as we ought, and have been indolent and sluggish. Whenever, therefore, we are justly deprived of those great favors which he freely bestowed on us, let us acknowledge the anger of the Lord.

7. Truly the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel. Hitherto he spoke figuratively; now he shows what is the design of this song. Formerly he had threatened judgment against the Jews; now he shows that they are not only guilty, but are also held to be convicted persons; for they could not be ignorant of the benefits which they had received from God.

Thou broughtest a vine from Egypt, says the Psalmist, and, having driven out the nations, plantedst it. (Psalm 80:8.)

Their ingratitude was plain and manifest.

Isaiah does not illustrate every part of the metaphor; nor was it necessary; for it was enough to point out what was its object. The whole nation was the vineyard; the individual men were the plants. Thus he accuses the whole body of the nation, and then every individual; so that no man could escape the universal condemnation, as if no part of the expostulation had been addressed to himself. Why the nation is called a vineyard is plain enough; for the Lord chose it, and admitted it to the covenant of grace and of eternal salvation, and bestowed on it innumerable blessings. The planting is the commencement, and the dressing of it follows. That nation was adopted, and in various respects was the object of Divine care; for the adoption would have been of no avail, if the Lord had not continually adorned and enriched it by his blessings.

The same doctrine ought to be inculcated on us at the present day. Christ affirms that he is the vine, (John 15:1,) and that, having been ingrafted into this vine, we are placed under the care of the Father; for God is pleased to perform towards us the office of a husbandman, and continually bestows those favors which he reproachfully asserts that he had granted to his ancient people. We need not wonder, therefore, if he is greatly enraged when he bestows his labor uselessly and to no purpose. Hence that threatening,

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he will cut off,
and cast into the fire. (John 15:2,6.) 7878     In our Author’s quotation the 2d and 6th verses are inaccurately blended. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he will take away. (John 15:2.) If a man abide not in me, he shall be cast out, and wither as a branch; and men shall gather it, and cast it into the fire, and it shall be burned. (John 15:6.) We follow the Author’s version. — Ed.

He looked for judgment. He begins without a metaphor to relate how wickedly the Jews had degenerated, among whom equity and justice was despised, and every kind of injustice and violence abounded. The words contain an elegant play of language, (paronomasia,) for those which have nearly the same sound have an opposite meaning. משפט (mishpat) denotes judgment; משפח (mishpach) denotes conspiracy or oppression; צדקה (tzedakah) denotes righteousness; צעקה (tzeakah) denotes the cry and complaint of those who are oppressed by violence and injustice; sounds which are not wont to be heard where every man receives what is his own. He mentions two things which the Lord chiefly demands from his people as the genuine fruits of the fear of God; for although piety comes first in order, yet there is no inconsistency in taking the description of it from the duties of the second table. They are justly charged with having despised God, on the ground of having acted cruelly towards men; for where cruelty reigns, religion is extinguished.

Let us now understand that the same things are addressed to us; for as that nation was planted, so were we. We should call to remembrance what Paul says, that we were like wild olive-plants, but that they were the true and natural olive-tree. (Romans 11:24. 7979     In the original text the reference reads: (Rom. xi. 25.) which I assume was a typographical error. — fj. ) since we who were strangers have been ingrafted into the true olive-tree, the Lord has cultivated and adorned us with unceasing care. But what kind of fruits do we bring forth? Assuredly they are not only useless, but even bitter. So much the greater is the ingratitude for which we ought to be condemned, for the blessings which he has bestowed and heaped on us are far more abundant. And justly does this expostulation apply to us, for violence and injustice abound everywhere. But since the general doctrine did not strike their minds so powerfully, the Prophet described chiefly these two kinds of wickedness; that he might point out with the finger, as it were, how far that nation was from the fruit which a good vineyard ought to have yielded.




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