The Lord had invested deeply in God’s vineyard, and yet instead of a rich harvest, the vineyard yielded rancid grapes. As every farmer knew, the only recourse at this point was to plow the vineyard under and start over.
God’s Heart Over Sin
Isaiah spoke of God’s anger, but he began with God’s deep sorrow, with a Hebrew word, הוֺי | hôy, that is translated as ah!, alas!, ha!, ho!, O!, woe! It is meant as a cry of pain, and of lament. So, instead of hearing each of these indictments as an angry pointed finger, let us listen to them as a grief-stricken parent might say them, devastated over the effects of sin in their child.
First Sorrow: Abuse of Wealth
Ah, you who join house to house,Isaiah 5:8 (NRSV)
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
These were affluent times.
But the rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor, in complete disregard of God and God’s law.
In order to understand what exactly God was grieving over, we need to go back to the Torah, to the Book of Leviticus.
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them:
Sabbath for the Land
When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord.
Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord:
– you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
– You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest
– or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine:
it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.Leviticus 25:1-7 (NRSV)
The Law of Jubilee
This was the outline for God’s law of Sabbath rest for the land itself. Then, beginning in Leviticus 25:8-12, God instituted the law of Jubilee.
In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another.
You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.
You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely.Leviticus 25:13-14, 17-19 (NRSV)
God had given each family a farm site to call their own as their inheritance in the Promised Land, which they were entitled to forever!
The Earth is the Lord’s
Following this section were all kinds of ways the land could be redeemed until the next Jubilee. But the underlying point of the entire body of law concerning the Jubilee was this:
All of Israel, all of earth itself, was all God’s land to give as God pleased.
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine;
with me you are but aliens and tenants.Leviticus 25:23 (NRSV)
Abundance comes from God, not our own efforts.
The people had not gotten this land on their own, it was a gift from God. If the people obeyed God’s law, their land would be fruitful.
A wise person views wealth as God’s resources to be invested in what pleases God and furthers God’s purposes.
But instead the people allowed greed to rule them, selfishness and self-serving, disregarding the needs of those around them who had less. Therefore,
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:Isaiah 5:9-10 (NRSV)
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
The land would be left almost barren.
Second Sorrow: Hedonism
Ah, you who rise early in the morningIsaiah 5:11-12 (NRSV)
in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine,
whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands!
Accompanying the abuses of their prosperity—wealth and abundance that were gifts from God—this was also a time of hedonism, the pursuit of feeling good. God’s work got sidelined.
Isaiah’s next line gives a little more insight to what was happening. People were losing their knowledge of God, which would eventually lead them into ruin.
Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge;Isaiah 5:13 (NRSV)
their nobles are dying of hunger,
and their multitude is parched with thirst.
Therefore, Isaiah said, because of this, people who shut down their thinking with drinking will really end up parched and hungry. But the grave’s appetite will increase, for many would die because of this, not realizing how dependent they truly were on God.
Isaiah conjured up the horrifying image of people’s mouths opened in laughter, and song, and in the drinking of their wines while underneath them gaped the shadowy maw of Sheol.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetiteIsaiah 5:14 (NRSV)
and opened its mouth beyond measure;
the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,
her throng and all who exult in her.
This sorrow was not about parties, or enjoying wealth. God’s great sorrow was over the effects of addictions to and abuses of alcohol (and in our day we would have to include other controlled substances).
Isaiah paused here and explained what God would do
People are bowed down, everyone is brought low,Isaiah 5:15-16 (NRSV)
and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.
The Lord will humble God’s people so that finally, when they hit the bottom of their pit, the only the direction they have to look is up.
The Measure of God’s Righteousness
Isaiah declared, The Holy God shows Himself holy in righteousness. Righteousness and goodness flow out from the character of God’s Own Person as a part of God’s attributes, a part of God’s nature.
Righteousness is actually a matter of one’s inner essence.
At this point, post-Genesis 3, every person who is measured against God’s own righteousness, will find themselves falling short. It is simply not in us—not in any of us—to have genuine, authentic, righteousness without first having God’s nature within us. God alone is without darkness, or impurity, or flaw.
Thankfully, gracious and loving God understands this about us. That is why the Lord gave God’s people the temple, the priests, and the sacrifices, so they would have a way of understanding the awfulness of sin, and be given a visceral while also symbolic way of being absolved of their sin, and receiving God’s forgiveness and reinstatement.
But the people had lost sight of all that and had turned the sacrifices into rote ritual, mistakenly thinking all this was for God’s sake, and not for their own.
You and I find ourselves in the same situation today, and God has provided for us as well through faith in Jesus, the Branch, the Messiah, our Savior, the One to Whom all those ancient sacrifices pointed.