Woe to the Unfaithful Vineyard!
1, 2. What does the “beloved one” plant, but how does it prove disappointing?
“FOR exquisite beauty of language and consummate skill in effective communication, this parable is virtually peerless.” So said one Bible commentator referring to the opening verses of Isaiah chapter 5. More than simply a work of art, Isaiah’s words paint a touching portrait of the loving care that Jehovah has for his people. At the same time, these words warn us against things that displease him.
2 Isaiah’s parable begins: “Let me sing, please, to my beloved one a song of my loved one concerning his vineyard. There was a vineyard that my beloved one came to have on a fruitful hillside. And he proceeded to dig it up and to rid it of stones and to plant it with a choice red vine, and to build a tower in the middle of it. And there was also a winepress that he hewed out in it. And he kept hoping for it to produce grapes, but it gradually produced wild grapes.”—Isaiah 5:1, 2; compare Mark 12:1.
The Care of the Vineyard
3, 4. What loving care is expended on the vineyard?
3 Whether Isaiah literally sings this parable to his listeners or not, it surely captures their attention. Most are probably familiar with the work of planting a vineyard, and Isaiah’s description is vivid and realistic. Like vine growers today, the vineyard owner plants, not grape seeds, but a “choice,” or rich, “red vine”—a cutting or shoot from another vine. Appropriately, he plants this vineyard “on a fruitful hillside,” a place where a vineyard will thrive.
4 It takes hard work to make a vineyard produce. Isaiah describes the owner’s ‘digging the land and ridding it of stones’—tedious, exhausting work! He likely uses the larger stones “to build a tower.” In ancient times such towers served as stations for watchmen who guarded the crops against thieves and animals.* Also, he builds a stone wall to line the vineyard terraces. (Isaiah 5:5) This was commonly done to prevent the washing away of vital topsoil.
5. What does the owner properly expect from his vineyard, but what does he get?
5 Having worked so hard to protect his vineyard, the owner has every right to expect that it will bear fruit. In anticipation of this, he hews out a winepress. But does the hoped-for harvest materialize? No, the vineyard produces wild grapes.
The Vineyard and Its Owner
6, 7. (a) Who is the owner of the vineyard, and what is the vineyard? (b) What judgment does the owner invite?
6 Who is the owner, and what is the vineyard? The vineyard owner points to the answers to these questions when he himself speaks: “Now, O you inhabitants of Jerusalem and you men of Judah, please judge between me and my vineyard. What is there yet to do for my vineyard that I have not already done in it? Why is it that I hoped for it to produce grapes, but it gradually produced wild grapes? And now, please, may I make known to you men what I am doing to my vineyard: There will be a removing of its hedge, and it must be destined for burning down. There must be a breaking down of its stone wall, and it must be destined for a place of trampling.”—Isaiah 5:3-5.
7 Yes, Jehovah is the owner of the vineyard, and he has put himself, as it were, in a courtroom, asking for judgment to be rendered between him and his disappointing vineyard. What, then, is the vineyard? The owner explains: “The vineyard of Jehovah of armies is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the plantation of which he was fond.”—Isaiah 5:7a.
8. What is significant about Isaiah’s calling Jehovah “my loved one”?
8 Isaiah calls Jehovah, the owner of the vineyard, “my loved one.” (Isaiah 5:1) Isaiah can speak of God in such an intimate way only because he has a close relationship with Him. (Compare Job 29:4; Psalm 25:14.) However, the prophet’s love for God pales in comparison with the love God has shown for his “vineyard”—the nation that he ‘planted.’—Compare Exodus 15:17; Psalm 80:8, 9.
9. How has Jehovah treated his nation like a valued vineyard?
9 Jehovah “planted” his nation in the land of Canaan and gave them his laws and regulations, which served as a wall to protect them from being corrupted by other nations. (Exodus 19:5, 6; Psalm 147:19, 20; Ephesians 2:14) Furthermore, Jehovah gave them judges, priests, and prophets to instruct them. (2 Kings 17:13; Malachi 2:7; Acts 13:20) When Israel was threatened by military aggression, Jehovah raised up deliverers. (Hebrews 11:32, 33) With reason, Jehovah asks: “What is there yet to do for my vineyard that I have not already done in it?”
Identifying God’s Vineyard Today
10. What parable involving a vineyard did Jesus give?
10 Jesus may have had Isaiah’s words in mind when he gave the parable of the murderous cultivators: “There was a man, a householder, who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and erected a tower, and let it out to cultivators, and traveled abroad.” Unhappily, the cultivators betrayed the vineyard owner, even killing his son. Jesus went on to show that this parable involved more than just literal Israel when he said: “The kingdom of God will be taken from you [fleshly Israel] and be given to a nation producing its fruits.”—Matthew 21:33-41, 43.
11. What spiritual vineyard existed in the first century, but what happened after the death of the apostles?
11 That new “nation” proved to be “the Israel of God”—a spiritual nation of anointed Christians totaling 144,000. (Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9, 10; Revelation 7:3, 4) Jesus compared these disciples to “branches” on “the true vine,” namely, himself. Naturally, these branches are expected to bear fruit. (John 15:1-5) They must manifest Christlike qualities and participate in the work of preaching “this good news of the Kingdom.” (Matthew 24:14; Galatians 5:22, 23) But ever since the death of the twelve apostles, the great majority of those who claim to be branches of “the true vine” have proved to be counterfeits—producing wild grapes instead of good fruits.—Matthew 13:24-30, 38, 39.
12. How do Isaiah’s words condemn Christendom, and what lesson do they hold for true Christians?
12 Therefore, Isaiah’s condemnation of Judah applies today to Christendom. A study of her history—her wars, her crusades, her Inquisitions—reveals just how sour her fruit has been! Nevertheless, the true vineyard of anointed Christians and their “great crowd” companions must heed Isaiah’s words. (Revelation 7:9) If they are to please the vineyard’s owner, they must, individually and as a group, produce fruits that please him.
13. What will Jehovah do to his vineyard because of its producing bad fruit?
13 Having gone to extraordinary lengths to nurture and cultivate his vineyard, Jehovah rightfully expects it to become “a vineyard of foaming wine!” (Isaiah 27:2) However, instead of producing usable fruit, it produces “wild grapes,” literally “stinking things” or “putrid (rotten) berries.” (Isaiah 5:2; footnote; Jeremiah 2:21) Therefore, Jehovah declares that he will remove his protective “hedge” from around the nation. The nation will be ‘set as a thing destroyed’ and will experience abandonment and drought. (Read Isaiah 5:6.) Moses had warned that they would undergo such things if they disobeyed God’s Law.—Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:63, 64; 29:22, 23.
14. What fruitage does Jehovah expect of his nation, but what does it produce instead?
14 God expects the nation to produce good fruits. Isaiah’s contemporary Micah declares: “What is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God?” (Micah 6:8; Zechariah 7:9) However, the nation fails to heed Jehovah’s exhortation. “[God] kept hoping for judgment, but, look! the breaking of law; for righteousness, but, look! an outcry.” (Isaiah 5:7b) Moses predicted that the unfaithful nation would produce poisonous grapes from “the vine of Sodom.” (Deuteronomy 32:32) Likely, then, sexual immorality, including homosexuality, is part of their deviation from God’s Law. (Leviticus 18:22) The expression “breaking of law” can also be rendered “outpouring of blood.” Such brutal treatment has no doubt resulted in “an outcry” from mistreated ones—an outcry that has reached the ears of the Planter of the vineyard.—Compare Job 34:28.
15, 16. How can true Christians avoid producing the bad fruits that Israel produced?
15 Jehovah God is “a lover of righteousness and justice.” (Psalm 33:5) He commanded the Jews: “You people must not do injustice in the judgment. You must not treat the lowly with partiality, and you must not prefer the person of a great one. With justice you should judge your associate.” (Leviticus 19:15) We must therefore shun partiality in our dealings with one another, never allowing such things as race, age, wealth, or poverty to color our judgment of people. (James 2:1-4) It is particularly important that those serving in positions of oversight ‘do nothing according to a biased leaning,’ always seeking to hear both sides of a matter before making judgment.—1 Timothy 5:21; Proverbs 18:13.
16 Further, it would be easy for Christians living in a lawless world to develop a negative or a rebellious attitude toward godly standards. But true Christians must be “ready to obey” God’s laws. (James 3:17) Despite the sexual immorality and violence of “the present wicked system of things,” they need to ‘keep strict watch that how they walk is not as unwise but as wise persons.’ (Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 5:15) They want to shun permissive views of sex, and when disagreements arise, they should settle these without “anger and wrath and screaming and abusive speech.” (Ephesians 4:31) By cultivating righteousness, true Christians bring honor to God and gain his favor.
The Price of Greed
17. What wicked conduct is condemned in Isaiah’s first woe?
17 In Isa 5 verse 8, Isaiah is no longer quoting Jehovah’s words. Condemning some of the “wild grapes” produced in Judah, he personally pronounces the first of six woes: “Woe to the ones joining house to house, and those who annex field to field until there is no more room and you men have been made to dwell all by yourselves in the midst of the land! In my ears Jehovah of armies has sworn that many houses, though great and good, will become an outright object of astonishment, without an inhabitant. For even ten acres of vineyard will produce but one bath measure, and even a homer measure of seed will produce but an ephah measure.”—Isaiah 5:8-10.
18, 19. How do Isaiah’s contemporaries ignore Jehovah’s laws regarding property, and what will be the result for them?
18 In ancient Israel all land ultimately belonged to Jehovah. Each family had a God-given inheritance, which they could rent or loan out but never sell “in perpetuity.” (Leviticus 25:23) This law prevented abuses, such as real estate monopolies. It also protected families from sinking too far into poverty. Some in Judah, however, were greedily breaking God’s laws regarding property. Micah wrote: “They have desired fields and have seized them; also houses, and have taken them; and they have defrauded an able-bodied man and his household, a man and his hereditary possession.” (Micah 2:2) But Proverbs 20:21 warns: “An inheritance is being got by greed at first, but its own future will not be blessed.”
19 Jehovah promises to strip these greedy ones of their ill-gotten gain. The houses they extort will be “without an inhabitant.” The lands they covet will produce a mere fraction of their capacity. Exactly how and when this curse will be fulfilled is not stated. Likely it refers, at least in part, to the conditions brought on by the future Babylonian exile.—Isaiah 27:10.
20. How can Christians today avoid imitating the greedy attitude shown by some in Israel?
20 Christians today must abhor insatiable greed like that manifested by some Israelites back then. (Proverbs 27:20) When material things take on exaggerated importance, it is easy to stoop to unscrupulous ways of getting money. One could easily become ensnared in shady business dealings or unrealistic get-rich-quick schemes. “He that is hastening to gain riches will not remain innocent.” (Proverbs 28:20) How important it is, then, to be content with what we have!—1 Timothy 6:8.
The Snare of Questionable Entertainment
21. What sins are condemned in Isaiah’s second woe?
21 Next comes Isaiah’s second woe: “Woe to those who are getting up early in the morning that they may seek just intoxicating liquor, who are lingering till late in the evening darkness so that wine itself inflames them! And there must prove to be harp and stringed instrument, tambourine and flute, and wine at their feasts; but the activity of Jehovah they do not look at, and the work of his hands they have not seen.”—Isaiah 5:11, 12.
22. What lack of restraint is manifest in Israel, and what will be the result for the nation?
22 Jehovah is “the happy God” and does not begrudge his servants reasonable recreation. (1 Timothy 1:11) However, these pleasure-seekers go beyond all limits! “Those who get drunk are usually drunk at night,” says the Bible. (1 Thessalonians 5:7) But the revelers of the prophecy begin their drunken sprees at daybreak and carry on drinking into the evening! They behave as if God did not exist, as if he would not hold them accountable for their actions. Isaiah predicts a dark future for such ones. “My people will have to go into exile for lack of knowledge; and their glory will be famished men, and their crowd will be parched with thirst.” (Isaiah 5:13) Because of refusing to act according to true knowledge, God’s covenant people—the high and the low—will go down into Sheol.—Read Isaiah 5:14-17.
23, 24. What restraint and moderation are Christians called upon to show?
23 “Revelries,” or “wild parties,” were also a problem among some Christians in the first century. (Galatians 5:21; Byington; 2 Peter 2:13) So it is not surprising that some dedicated Christians today have shown poor judgment when it comes to social gatherings. Unrestrained use of alcoholic beverages has caused some to become loud and boisterous. (Proverbs 20:1) There have even been those who behaved immorally under the influence of excessive alcohol, and some gatherings have been allowed to go on virtually all night, interfering with Christian activities the next day.
24 Balanced Christians, however, produce godly fruit and exercise restraint and moderation in their choice of recreation. They heed Paul’s advice found at Romans 13:13: “As in the daytime let us walk decently, not in revelries and drunken bouts.”
Hating Sin and Loving Truth
25, 26. What wicked thinking by the Israelites does Isaiah expose in his third and fourth woes?
25 Hear now Isaiah’s third and fourth woes: “Woe to those drawing error with ropes of untruth, and as with wagon cords sin; those who are saying: ‘Let his work hasten; do let it come quickly, in order that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near and come, that we may know it!’ Woe to those who are saying that good is bad and bad is good, those who are putting darkness for light and light for darkness, those who are putting bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”—Isaiah 5:18-20.
26 What a vivid picture this paints of practicers of sin! They are attached to sin the way draft animals are tied to wagons. These sinners do not fear any coming day of judgment. Mockingly they say: “Let [God’s work] come quickly!” Rather than submitting to God’s Law, they twist things, declaring that “good is bad and bad is good.”—Compare Jeremiah 6:15; 2 Peter 3:3-7.
27. How can Christians today avoid an attitude like that of the Israelites?
27 Christians today must avoid such an attitude at all costs. For example, they refuse to embrace the world’s view of fornication and homosexuality as acceptable. (Ephesians 4:18, 19) True, a Christian might ‘take a false step’ that could lead to committing a serious sin. (Galatians 6:1) The elders in the congregation are ready to help those who have fallen and need assistance. (James 5:14, 15) With the aid of prayers and Bible-based counsel, spiritual recovery is possible. Otherwise, there is the danger of becoming “a slave of sin.” (John 8:34) Rather than mocking God and losing awareness of the coming day of judgment, Christians strive to remain “spotless and unblemished” before Jehovah.—2 Peter 3:14; Galatians 6:7, 8.
28. What sins are condemned in Isaiah’s final woes, and how can Christians today avoid such sins?
28 Appropriately, Isaiah adds these final woes: “Woe to those wise in their own eyes and discreet even in front of their own faces! Woe to those who are mighty in drinking wine, and to the men with vital energy for mixing intoxicating liquor, those who are pronouncing the wicked one righteous in consideration of a bribe, and who take away even the righteousness of the righteous one from him!” (Isaiah 5:21-23) These words were evidently addressed to those serving as judges in the land. Congregation elders today avoid seeming “wise in their own eyes.” They humbly accept counsel from fellow elders and adhere closely to organizational instructions. (Proverbs 1:5; 1 Corinthians 14:33) They are moderate in their use of alcoholic beverages, never indulging before carrying out congregation responsibilities. (Hosea 4:11) Elders also avoid giving even the appearance of showing favoritism. (James 2:9) How different from the clergy of Christendom! Many of these whitewash the influential and wealthy sinners in their midst, in direct contrast to the apostle Paul’s warnings at Romans 1:18, 26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; and Ephesians 5:3-5.
29. What calamitous end awaits Jehovah’s Israelite vineyard?
29 Isaiah concludes this prophetic message by describing a calamitous end for those who “have rejected the law of Jehovah” and have failed to bear righteous fruit. (Isaiah 5:24, 25; Hosea 9:16; Malachi 4:1) He declares: “[Jehovah] has raised up a signal to a great nation far away, and he has whistled to it at the extremity of the earth; and, look! in haste it will swiftly come in.”—Isaiah 5:26; Deuteronomy 28:49; Jeremiah 5:15.
30. Who will rally “a great nation” against Jehovah’s people, and with what outcome?
30 In ancient times a pole on an elevated site could serve as “a signal,” or rallying point, for people or armies. (Compare Isaiah 18:3; Jeremiah 51:27.) Now Jehovah himself will rally this unnamed “great nation” to execute his judgment.* He will ‘whistle to it,’ that is, draw its attention to his wayward people as an object worthy of conquest. The prophet next describes the swift and terrifying onslaught of these lionlike conquerers who will “grab hold of the prey,” that is, God’s nation, “and bring it safely away” into captivity. (Read Isaiah 5:27-30a.) And what a sad result for the land of Jehovah’s people! “One will actually gaze at the land, and, look! there is distressing darkness; and even the light has grown dark because of the drops falling on it.”—Isaiah 5:30b.
31. How can true Christians avoid suffering the punishment inflicted on Jehovah’s Israelite vineyard?
31 Yes, the vineyard that God so lovingly planted proves itself to be barren—worthy only of destruction. What a powerful lesson Isaiah’s words hold for all who would serve Jehovah today! May they strive to bear nothing but righteous fruit, to Jehovah’s praise and to their own salvation!
Some scholars believe that cheaper temporary structures, such as booths, or huts, were far more common than stone towers. (Isaiah 1:8) The presence of a tower would indicate that unusual efforts had been put forth by the owner in behalf of his “vineyard.”
In other prophecies, Isaiah identifies Babylon as the nation that executes Jehovah’s devastating judgment on Judah.
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A sinner is attached to sin like a draft animal to a wagon
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