Isaiah Chapter 5


Song of the disappointing vineyard. Meaning of Sh'ohl.

The fugitive rhythm, the musical euphony, the charming assonances in this appeal it is impossible to reproduce; they are perfectly inimitable."* So writes Delitzsch of verses 1 and 2 of this chapter; and he continues:

"The prophet commenced the first address in chapter 1 as another Moses; the second with the text of an earlier prophecy, and now commences the third as a musician."
[* Perhaps, however, even our ear can catch a hint of the "lark-like trilling" in the Hebrew of verse 1:

"Ashirah nah lididi,
shirath doodi le-karmo,
kerem hayah lididi,
beqeren ben-shahmen."]

1: Now will I sing to my dearly Beloved,
A song of my dearest concerning His vine;
For a vineyard belongs to my dearly Beloved,
On the side of a hill, most fertile of soil.
2: He fenced it, He dug it, He cleared it of stones;
And planted within it the noblest of vines;
Then, for its guarding, He builded a tower,
And hewed from the rock a winepress within,
Then waited, expectant of sweet luscious fruit,
And lo, when He came, the grapes werea stench! **

[**Our word "wild-grape" does not convey at all the repulsive idea that is in this word that comes as an anti-climax. In Hebrew "bushim," from a root, "to have a bad smell." The same word is in chap. 34:3 rendered "stench."]

Now the Lord invites those to whom the parable applies to pass judgment between Himself and His vineyard, and in so doing, they will be condemned out of their own mouth. This is profoundly significant and characteristic of God's ways with men. I beg my reader to compare 2 Sam. 12:1-7 and Matt. 21:33-41, and he will again see, and in so doing, rejoice to see, that Jehovah and Jesus are One; for as Jehovah dealt with David, so did Jesus with the Pharisees.

Has any care been omitted? The judges are silent; every mouth is stopped. Then Jehovah pronounces sentence:

5, 6: No more will I trim it, no more will I dig it;
The briars and thistles about it shall grow;
Never a cloud shall drop blessing upon it,
Fruitful alone in its shame and its woe;
The beasts of the field shall tread in the mire
The vineyard I loved, My "plant of desire."
Then in verse 7 comes the interpretation of the parable: the vineyard is the house of Israel; His pleasant plant, the men of Judah; from these He expected good fruit; "but, behold, instead of mishpaht (judgment), He found mispach (oppression); instead of tzedahqah (righteousness), He found tzeahqah (a cry)." "The poet here closely depicts by word-likeness, which yet conceals a totally different meaning, the deceptive appearance in the conduct of the Israelites, which at first looked like a good vine and then developed a wild vine. This may be imitated in English thus: 'He waited for equity, and lo, iniquity: for right, and lo, riot.'"*
[*From the American translator of Langes "Commentary."]

This is followed by the cry of "Woe," six times repeated, foretelling thus by doleful forecasts the execution of judgment. Looking closer, we discern that whilst the woes are six, the penalties are three: first in verses 9, 10; second in verses 13 to 17; third in verses 24 to 30. We may then again note the Divine Fingerprint in the impression of the number "three," and its multiple "six," on this section.

I cannot here refrain from further noting this profound and deeply interesting truth: Israel is but a little stage on which has been acted out in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, as we may say, a drama that reveals to us what is occurring in a far larger one in the race of mankind as a whole; and that, in its turn, is only a miniature of a still larger and universal sphere where corresponding wonders are being enacted, only in this all is eternal. Exactly what is in our chapter, predicated of Israel and Judah, His "plant of delight" (as it very literally is), has occurred with man as a race, also His "plant of delight," for He sang a song of love and joy over him, too, at his creation, Gen. 1:27 being really a three-lined song:

So Elohim created the man in His image,
In Elohim's image created He him,
Male and female created He them.
Alas, that song has also been turned to sorrow, for after four "days" of testing, it may be said of him, too, that "he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days." So much for poor Adam the first; God may well be praised then for the Last Adam, "the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God." The song over Him never ceases, and (oh, wonder of wonders!) we, in Him, have a part in it, and abiding in Him who is the true Vine, we (even you and I, dear reader) may bring forth such good fruit as shall be to the glory of the Father, and give Him joy; but in no other way.

In verses 8 to 10 the first woe is directed against the lust of the eye: the coveting of house or land: the people are never satisfied. Having acquired one house or field that has been long coveted, that coveting is only diverted to the adjoining, and this goes on till there is nothing left on earth that they do not own, and then what? Will the earth satisfy that ever-hungry heart? Indeed not. Yet hungering ever, here is a curse on the very hungering! Nor is this coveting recognized at all as "sin," till the law comes with, "Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7:7). Alas, might not the injunction as well be, "Thou shalt not breathe," for who does not covet? Nor can the whole earth fill this hungry heart of man.

But Jehovah has spoken into the ears of the prophetso clearly as to preclude the possibility of any misunderstandingthe penalty that shall correspond to the offense. There shall be many beautiful dwellings, but no dwellers in them: as to the fields, so barren shall they become that a vineyard covering ten acres shall yield only a few gallons, and if one sows about thirty pecks of seed, he shall get back about three! Again let us turn to our "Last Adam" and sing:

"Satisfied with Thee, Lord Jesus,
I am blest."

In Him, too, we are not forbidden to covet, but indeed are urged to "covet earnestly the best gifts," that is, those that shall make least of ourselves, and shall most edify our brethren (1 Cor. 12:31).

In verses 11 to 17, the second woe is directed against the lusts of the flesh, against those who from break of day till the cool of the evening pursue strong intoxicants, till wine pursues them, gets hold of them, inflames them. This is combined with the more refined form of sensuous pleasure, music; which, from the day of Jubal, has been one of the chief delights of the children of Cain. Thesewine and musicare their feasts: body and soul are thus provided for, but what of that spirit that can never be satisfied with aught but God?

Alas, it is dead, for "the work of Jehovah they do not regard, the work of His hands they do not consider." What then is the consequence? Judgment would overtake them in this blind, dull, animal condition:

13: Banished are My people, all taken unawares;*
Their glory dies of famine,
The mass dried up with thirst.

[*That is, had they meditated on the way the Lord ever works, they would have foreseen what was coming, been intelligent as to the signs of the times (Luke 12:58): it is not "because they had no knowledge."]

The gluttonous rich, or aristocracy, called here "their glory," would be famished; the drunken mass would perish of thirst. Note again the correspondence between the sin and the penalty.
14: Wide hath Sh'ohl oped its jaws,
Its mouth is outstretched without limit;
And down therein their glory falls,
Their mass, their pomp, their revelers!
History closely repeats itself: substitute Christendom for Judah, and again we see the mass "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2 Tim. 3:4); and these pleasures have so deadened all spiritual faculties that they discern not that the Judge is at the door. No college can impart such knowledge.

I leave the word "sh'ohl" untranslated, for it is very difficult to render accurately. It is from a root "to ask," or demand, and may either have originated in the idea expressed in Prov. 30:16, "sh'ohl," never satisfied, never crying "Enough"; it is always asking (shahal, sh'ohl). Or it may have a more spiritual and pathetic force, and point not to the demand for fresh victims, but to the enquiring attitude of the survivors. They follow their kinsman to the exit from this scene; he goes, they stay, and as they stand before that closed door through which he has gone, they ask, "Where?" Is not that an inevitable cry of anguished affection? According to a most ancient custom, they thrice solemnly invoked his name, but no answer came back. So Job sighs, "Man dieth and wasteth away, yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?" Aye, "Where is he?" The very Hebrew "vayyo" has the sound of a sigh: "Where is he?" It is the question that has ever been asked but to which there is no answer at all through the Old Testament, till He comes who brings "life and incorruption to light."

As time went on, the idea of locality became more prominent in the term, and as God is always recognized as above, and with Him life is linked, so death became equally linked with the other direction, below, and distance from Him, till sh'ohl was lower than the grave that received the body and was found in the "heart of the earth." But we must not press the literalness of location too strongly, as many do. The occurrences of these terms will not permit such literalness, e.g., "Thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven," does not mean that the city was literally in the air, but the unique privileges she had enjoyed gave her a distinguishing place; so, "Thou shalt be cast down to Hades" (Greek equivalent of Sh'ohl), does not necessitate the literal descent into "the heart of the earth," but the loss of all these privileges, and the being left far away from God and Light. Strong moral ideas are attached to the terms of direction, "up" and "down," and these are of far more value than literalness.

Seeking to preserve something of the rhythm, we might render:

15: Brought low shall the peasant be, humbled be the noble;
The lofty looks of all the proud be humbled to the dust:
16: Then shall Jehovah, Jehovah, Lord of all hosts,
Show Himself in judgment exalted very high,
17: For lambs shall then be grazing, as if on their own pasture,
And nomads shall be eating the wastings of the fat ones.
Over ancient Canaan, once so prosperous, nomad shepherds pasture their flocks: the lambs graze as if the place had never been intended for anything else than to afford them pasturage. But in all this severity of judgment the Lord is indeed sanctified, as He shall be in eternity by that infinitely "sorer punishment," the "lake of fire." Oh, adore Him who bore all that judgment for us!

While "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," and in this sense "there is no difference," the seeds of all evils lying within every heart, yet those seeds do not germinate equally in all; the form in which the evil expresses itself in action, or externally, differs; so in these six woes there are six different forms of evil recognized. The third woe reads:

Woe to the drawers of sin!
By the strong traces of lying,
As with the ropes of a wagon,
They haul their sin along.
Who say, Let Him speed up His work,
Let Him hasten that we may behold it;
Let the counsel of Israel's Holy One
Come closer and come to fulfilment,
That we may know it indeed.
This then, is clearly directed against those who, boasting of liberty, are really but yoked beasts of burden, and the wagon they are drawing is their own sin. To ease it in its going, they make use of words of falsehood: for instance, the evil in which they particularly delight may be the love of money, this the Word of God calls "covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5). But that would never do for a "trace" by which to drag it along; they therefore call it being "diligent in business."*[*Footnote omitted.] This, being actually in the Bible, eases the strain greatly, for, under the guise of obedience to the Bible, they can turn with added zest to covetousness. Error would make slow progress were it labeled truthfully, so it is given some attractive name. Call unbelief of what God has said "infidelity," and the "wagon" would drag as heavily as Egypt's chariots; but under the name of "free thought" or "rational religion," it makes far better progress. But these are "lying words," and the goal to which they are progressing is greater judgment. As to this, they are boldly defiant, and challenge Jehovah to carry out what He has so long threatened. "Let it come," they cry, "let this long-predicted judgment take place, for that alone would convince us of its reality." Are those who insist that prophecy cannot be comprehended till its fulfilment, far from the same speech?

It is a long-lived generation, and the rationalists of our day take up the same cry in, "Where is the promise of His coming?" We might paraphrase vers. 18, 19 thus:

18: Woe to those whose wickedness is helped by words of lying,
Who in their pride and unbelief, the wrath of God defying
19: Cry, Let Him speed and haste His work, and then we may receive it;
Until that wrath, long-threatened, comes, we cannot quite believe it.
Now follow three woes in quick succession, with no intervening comment, like the cry of that angel that John heard as he flew through mid-heaven: "Woe, woe, woe" (Rev. 8:13). We may render the fourth freely, thus:
20: Woe to those who quite ignore the standards God has given,
Who call the evil very good, true good they term the evil:
They claim their darkness to be light, true light they term the darkness:
The bitter they pronounce the sweet, and call the sweet the bitter.
We must not suppose, however, that men ever call murder or drunkenness or stealing, good. No, quite the reverse; they will rather take credit for their sharp condemnation of that against which the natural conscience revolts. But there is a sphere in which we are dependent on God Himself for a standard of right and wrong, where His Word alone pronounces as to this, and it is here that the servants of that same subtle one who in Eden assured our mother Eve that it was not "evil," but "good" to eat of that forbidden tree, again deny the truth of the Word of God as an absolute and final standard. The formation of natural character is, they say, good, as the true basis of salvation. "All our righteousnesses is as filthy rags," says the Scripture, and it is the calling of these filthy rags clean, that is calling evil good. The doctrine of substitution is evil, says a popular preacher, for "it is an evil thing to punish the innocent for the guilty." "Christ died for our sins," says the Scripture, and thus today apostates, and (it is to be feared) the mass of professing Christians call good, evil, and evil good.

The fifth woe is the necessary consequence of the fourth:

21: Woe to those who're very wise in their own estimation!
Woe to those who prudent are in their own sight!
We fear that there are few, if any, who adopt the principles of the modern school of infidelity called "higher criticism" who do not come under this woe. They are wiser than all who preceded them, and are thus the forerunners of that apostate of the last days, addressed with stinging irony, under the cognomen of "Prince (not the king) of Tyre"; "Behold, thou art wiser than Daniel" (Ezek. 28:3). Each considers himself quite competent to bow (for it is done with educated politeness) God out of His world, His works, and His Word.

The sixth is in the same line:

22: Woe to those who heroes areto drink the wine!
(Woe) to those who valiant areto mix strong drink!*
23: Acquitting guilty criminals, won over by a bribe:
While from the truly righteous they take away the right.
[*Note the sarcastic anti-climax. Very heroic and brave are these, but it is only in drinking!]
This is not a repetition of the second woe, for these heavy drinkers are on the judgment-seat, and show their incompetency for the place they have assumed by reversing all justice; acquitting the guilty, and condemning the innocent.

That would interest us but little, were it only a record of what obtained in an obscure little country ages ago, but many of us are deeply convinced that all has been "written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor. 10:11), and that these linked woes are actually impending over us in Christendom today; for all through the centuries down to this very day there are the same reversals that are so sternly condemned in these woes. Judgment has not yet returned to righteousness.

But, you ask, are the leaders of Christendom "strong to drink wine"? All these literal evils, even in the Old Testament, had their spiritual antitypes, as in the New. The idolatry of old figured then, and figures today, covetousness (Col. 3:5). So fornication of old, worldliness today (James 4:4). What then is the spiritual counterpart of being "strong to drink wine," with the consequent reversal of all justice? In the light of Ephesians 5:18, it would appear to be the opposite of being "filled with the Spirit." This leads to a clear discrimination between what is of God and what not, and between who is of God, and who is not, and thus to "unfeigned love of the brethren." Then spiritual drunkenness is the excitement of the old Adam nature, leading to the satiating of that "carnal mind that is enmity with God," and all that is of God, with hatred of His truth and all that adheres to it. Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots as she is, is also a "drunkard," in this sense, but it is dreadful "wine" she drinks, for John sees her "drunken with the blood of the saints and of martyrs of Jesus" (Rev. 17:6). She, too, from the righteous takes away the right; as she ever did, as she will again, when she regains her power.

But now in verses 24 to 30 the penalty is announced, and this the more terrible from the graphic poetical form in which it is clothed:

24: Therefore as fire-tongue licks up the stubble,*
As grass that is dry doth shrivel in flame,
So shall their root become utterly rotten,
Their blossom fly up as the dust.
For the law of Jehovah of Hosts they've despised,
The word they've rejected with scorn
Of Israel's One—the Most Holy.
25: Therefore the wrath of Jehovah doth burn,
Against His people Israel.
Stretched forth is His hand still against them,
And He smites till the mountains do quiver,
Their corpses become as the dust of the streets.
For all this His anger is not turned away,
But His hand is ever outstretched.
[*In the multiplication of sibilants: "quash leshon esh," we hear the "crackling sparks and sputtering flames."Delitzsch.]
It is a clear picture of divine severity, ending in what becomes an oft-repeated refrain.
26: He lifts up a standard to nations afar,
Calls them with hisses from ends of the earth,
And see how they come with speed swiftly.
27: Not one is a laggard!
None stumbles among them!
Not one is drowsy or sleeps!
Never a girdle is loosed from their loins!
Never a shoe-string is broken!
28: Their arrows are keen, their bows are all bent;
The hoofs of their horses are flint-like,
Their chariots drive as the whirlwind.
This is obviously a graphic description in poetical terms of an ideal army, with no weaknesses at all, and the prophet seems to see it advancing from afar. In verse 26, God calls it, and at once the seer is struck with the swift motion as it sweeps along, like the shadows of clouds over a sunlit landscape in a high wind; then, as it approaches nearer, he is able to distinguish the perfect equipment, "never a girdle loosed, never a shoe-string broken"; weapons all in readiness for action, "arrows sharpened, bows bent." Still closer, and he actually hears the ring of the hardened hoofs of the cavalry, the whirlwind-like roar of the rushing chariots. The very wordsshort, sharp, quickgive the idea of the scene they depict.

But this brings up another figure of terror. "For thus far the prophet's description has moved along as if by forced marches, in clauses of from two to four words each, now it changes into a heavy stealthy pace; and then, in a few clauses, springs as a lion on its prey."* The first lines then should be read slowly, with pauses between the words.

29: Its roar is as a lioness;
They growl as do the young lions.<
Then quickly, as if the lion were springing:
Roaring, they spring upon the prey,
And bear it off unhindered.
30: Their roarings rumble over them,
As the roaring of the sea,
In that day.
If the look is to landward,
Lo, darkness there, and sorrow;
Yea, the light is very dark,
In the skies o'erclouded.
Note the words "in that day," linking this with the previous chapters, and justifying connecting them together. In utter misery poor Judah, in the lion's mouth, looks about for help; first, to the earthbut there is nothing there but hopeless anguish. Upwards, there are occasional gleams of hope, but these only add to the distress by deep disappointment, for these gleams soon become darkened. Most of us know the deepening of distress by the failure of hopes which lift up only to let fall again. The picture ends with gloomthick, impenetrablehanging over all!

Let us note that although nations may be influenced by all kinds of motives, yet, little as they recognize it, God controls, and is moving behind them. He called Assyria, Babylon, and Rome against His people Israel. He called Saracen and Turk in their day against those that had taken the place of these "natural branches," and most surely it is He, and He only, whose mighty Hand should be seen in all the present chastenings of war and its aftermaths on the nations calling themselves by the Name of His dear Son.