Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Comfort My People: The Prophecies Of Isaiah, Day 7

Comfort My People:
The Prophecies Of Isaiah
Day 7

The song we are going to begin studying today was probably composed by Isaiah during the grape harvest, a time of merriment and celebration. The people were in a relaxed mood and ready to enjoy some entertainment and Isaiah uses this method to get their attention. It's both a parable and a love song, but a song about love gone wrong. 

The nation of Israel is often represented in the Scriptures as a vineyard. Isaiah's song today is about Israel but even more specifically about Jerusalem and Judah. "I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard:" (Isaiah 5:1a) The Lord is the one Isaiah loves in this song and the vineyard belongs to Him.

I like to picture this scene with the people sitting attentively on the ground, having already shared a meal after a long day of harvesting grapes. This is the time of evening when they expect to be entertained by musicians and storytellers. They have their eyes expectantly fixed on Isaiah as he gets up to sing his song. He continues, "My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside." (Isaiah 5:1b) This refers to the mountain of the Lord at Jerusalem, often called Zion or Mount Zion. The Lord planted His vineyard in fertile soil. He wasn't careless with His vineyard; He gave the young plants the best start possible.

"He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines." (Isaiah 5:2a) The Lord prepared the ground for His vineyard. He cleared all the stones out of the way, removing the pagan tribes of Canaan from the promised land so His people could be planted there. 

"He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well." (Isaiah 5:2b) Zion was a fortress city. David captured it and built his palace there along with heavily fortified walls and watchtowers. The Lord did something similar when making the area of Zion His capitol, surrounding His people with a massive wall of divine protection, building a watchtower so He could see the approach of enemies while they were still a long way off. The Lord Himself was the mighty wall around His people. He was their watchtower. Enemies would have liked to break in but He has kept them out.

After doing all that could possibly be done to ensure a valuable crop, the Lord came to the vineyard at harvest time and found nothing but bad grapes. "Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit." (Isaiah 5:2b) Up til now we have mostly seen Isaiah presenting the people with a list of their sins. It has had no effect on them so he's using a different tactic today. He tells the story from the viewpoint of a man who did everything right for his vineyard but was betrayed by it. In this story the owner of the vineyard is the sympathetic character whom the listeners feel sorry for. He has been good and faithful. He has done everything that can be expected of him and the vineyard has had the very best of everything. But something has gone horribly wrong.

After presenting this sad story, Isaiah asks the people to judge what should be done to such an unprofitable vineyard, and he asks it in the first person, in the voice of the vineyard's owner, "Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?" It's my opinion that the listeners don't yet realize the song is about them. They are entranced by the story, feeling righteously indignant on behalf pf the owner of the vineyard who has been so horribly disappointed. When Isaiah asks them to make a judgment I believe they agree with him that the vineyard owner couldn't have done anything more than he has done. The vines are just bad. They've gone wild. They are inedible and useless.

When Isaiah tells the people what the vineyard owner plans to do, they will be in agreement. They are an agricultural society and know the value of good land. Why waste good ground on bad vines? "Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it." (Isaiah 5:5-6) The man who owns the vineyard is rejecting it as it has rejected him. No more will he waste hours hoeing around the plants and fertilizing them. No more will he bother keeping the hedge around it repaired. No more will he defend it against wild animals or thieves. No more will he water it. The land will lie there unused until such a time as the owner decides to plant again. The bad grapes have sucked all the nutrients out of the good ground and have yielded a bad crop, so the owner is going to let the land lie for a time while it regains its fertility.

The captivity in Babylon is going to last for seventy years, during which time the soil of Zion will regain its fertility. It will rest, not being tilled or planted, until the Lord brings the people back to the land. The Chronicler says, "The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah." (2 Chronicles 36:21) At the end of seventy years, Cyrus the Great of Persia will conquer Babylon and set the captives free. He won't be a man who worships the God of Israel but he will be a man who believes in freedom of religion. He will give the people of Judah permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

I think by now the listeners are nodding their heads in agreement with what the vineyard's owner plans to do. They would do the same thing. They are incensed on behalf of the man who has worked so hard to reap nothing. They are in the same state King David was in when the prophet Nathan came to confront him with his sins in the form of a parable. Instead of pointing his finger at the king and denouncing his sins of adultery and murder outright, Nathan chose to beguile him with a story. He intended to make David sympathetic toward the man who had been wronged. After telling David the story about the rich man with many lambs who took the one little lamb the poor man owned, David rose up in a rage. "David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, 'As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!'" (2 Samuel 12:5) One of the most dramatic moments of the Bible occurred then when Nathan exclaimed, "You are the man!" 

Isaiah's song is about to conclude in the same way. The people's hearts go out to the man who has expended so much time and effort on a worthless crop of grapes. They enjoy the thought of how he is going to behave toward his wayward vineyard. They are caught in the skillful trap of Isaiah's song and he's about to spring it. "The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines He delighted in. And He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress." (Isaiah 5:7) Isaiah declares, "You are the vineyard!" 

It's so easy to see the sins of others while not recognizing our own sins. Have you ever been listening to a sermon and thought to yourself, "That sounds just like so-and-so! I wish she was here to hear this!" Well, as the saying goes, when we point a finger at somebody else there are four fingers pointing back at ourselves. It's a sobering thought for me to wonder if anyone has ever heard a renunciation of certain sins in a sermon and thought, "That sounds just like Kim! She has that very same attitude. I sure wish she was hear to here this!" 

It's easy for us to condemn the faults of others while giving ourselves a pass. We are more merciful toward our own sins. This is why Nathan's parable and Isaiah's song were so brilliant. David wanted the man dead who stole the little lamb but he was blind to the fact that he, a great king with a huge harem, stole the one wife another man had. The people of Judah wanted the bad vineyard ruined and laid waste for the sake of the good vineyard owner, while remaining blind to the fact that the Lord had planted and tended them exactly as the man in the parable planted and tended his vineyard.

It hurts when we are confronted with our sins, especially if we've been living in denial. We are cut to the quick when at last the word of the Lord gets through. When the Holy Spirit says to us, "You are the man!", we are grief-stricken to the core. But what a mercy this is! What grace! Sin is like a malignant tumor growing in our hearts and the Lord, our Great Physician, knows the only cure is to get it out. 

Suppose we got some test results back that revealed a huge, ever-growing tumor of the heart and the doctor said, "There's only one physician in the country who can do this type of operation, but if you go to him he can get it all, and you will be healed." We'd make an appointment immediately! The word of God is like those test results; it reveals what's in our hearts but it also points us to the only Physician who can make us well. Many times His word has pointed straight at me and declared, "You are the woman!" And it cuts to the quick but not for the purpose of condemnation. It's for the purpose of healing. "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

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