The Lord expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry.
Today’s Old Testament reading is a carefully crafted literary piece, at once a love-song, a lawsuit and an extended parable with a climactic punch line. Isaiah introduces the piece as a song for his dodi, a term of endearment meaning friend or beloved (v.1). Casting himself in the role of best man, he sings about his friend the bridegroom and his vineyard. In the ancient Near East vineyard, field and garden, were common metaphors for a bride (see Song of Solomon 8.12).
Drawing the audience in to interpret the well-known metaphor, Isaiah tells how his friend the husbandman prepared the soil, planted choice vines, built a watchtower and dug a wine vat, all in expectation of a rich harvest. But this faithful preparation and care was in vain. Contrary to expectations, the vineyard yielded wild or spoiled grapes, unsuited to making wine (v.2).
Isaiah subtly connects with his hearers’ patriarchal beliefs and gets their hackles up. Like the judges of the woman taken in adultery (John 7.53-8.11), they begin to arm themselves with the stones of righteousness indignation.
Then, playing masterfully on this indignation, Isaiah executes a double switch. From playing the role of best man he now becomes groom. From singing a love-song, he moves to launching a lawsuit (vv.3-6). He invites his hearers to “judge between” him and his vineyard. Casting his hearers in the role of jury, Isaiah now ups the stakes as he initiates divorce proceedings. What more could I have done? He asks in good rhetorical style. The fault lies clearly with the vineyard. Why did it not meet my legitimate expectations?
Without waiting for an answer, he announces a drastic course of action. If the vineyard, for all his effort, produces only wild grapes, then let it be reduced to a wilderness: unprotected, uncultivated, and overgrown with briers and thorns (vv.5-6). Then, in a startling climax, he declares: “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it (v.6)!”
Up until this point, Isaiah’s hearers have had no problem reading the metaphor in accordance with (admittedly harsh) cultural customs. But this last pronouncement gives them pause, for who alone can command the clouds to send or withhold rain? Certainly neither bridegroom nor farmer.
But before the shock of awareness can fully dawn upon his audience, the prophet lays his cards upon the table, revealing the true meaning of the song/lawsuit/parable. The husbandman is the Lord of Hosts and Israel is God’s (unfruitful) vineyard (v.7). With impeccable logic Isaiah’s audience has ruled the accused guilty as charged, only to find its collective finger point firmly at itself. The punch line here has the force of the prophet Nathan’s “Thou art the man!” addressed to King David after a similar parable in which Nathan has led David to implicate himself (2 Sam 12.7).But the prophet has not simply told his listeners of Yahweh’s disappointment with them. With dramatic skill he has first raised, then thwarted, their expectations for the meaning of the parable, so that they might reproduce in themselves the shock of Yahweh’s disappointment. Yahweh had expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispah); had expected righteousness (tsedeqah), but heard an outcry (tse’aqah). With these two pairs of similar-sounding Hebrew words, Isaiah is not just making puns: he proclaims that although Israel’s social life might sound like it meets God’s covenantal expectations, that superficial harmony hides a basic clash of values.
In contemporary terms, we might say that God expected social justice, but found “economic growth,” a superficial look-alike which seemed initially full of promise but which has produced in our time the spoiled fruit of human pain and suffering. Our single-minded pursuit of profits and “progress” (to the exclusion of the broader virtues of stewardship and compassion) may keep fooling many because it contains a grain of truth, but it ultimately disappoints the just and righteous Creator.
But God’s expectations are neither self-serving like those of Isaiah’s audience, nor arbitrary like those of Jesus’ listeners (Luke 7.31-35). Yahweh’s disappointment and the judgment to follow are rooted in a profound desire to see humans genuinely flourish. Although the vineyard will be laid waste (such are the consequences of human injustice), the Lord of the harvest has plans for a replanting—a planting which will root us in Jesus, the true vine (John 15), for our healing and for the healing of the world. Through Advent, God’s righteous expectations shall ultimately bear fruit.
Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.
From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.