My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Isaiah 5:1-2
Isaiah chapter 5 starts off with a love song (vs. 1), a parable of God’s vineyard and how he has taken such great care to cultivate it. In Isaiah’s song there are five things that God does for his vineyard – five things that he does to care and cultivate this vineyard that he loves – his people.
Five things God does for his vineyard
1) “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” (Isaiah 5:1) The location of a vineyard is vitally important to its success, just as the location of a nation is important. This verse poetically refers to Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. God planted his vineyard in a very specific place, a rich, fertile land that stood apart from other nations.
2) “He dug it and cleared it of stones” (5:2). Whenever you prepare a garden (or vineyard), you must carefully prepare the ground. God carefully prepared the ground by digging it up, overturning the dirt and chopping it up. Through this process he would remove all the rocks and stones that would lie in the way. This is a necessary process to produce fruit and God had taken these steps. He take dug up the earth of his people, preparing them for growth, and he cleared the path, removing obstacles that stood in the way of having fertile ground.
3) “planted it with choice vines” (vs. 2) – This is an interesting phrase and there seems to be more to it than one might think. Adam Clarke mentions that this verse could be referring to Sorek, a valley known to the Israelites. Clarke writes:
Sorek was a valley lying between Ascalon and Gaza, and running far up eastward in the tribe of Judah. Both Ascalon and Gaza were anciently famous for wine; . . . And it seems that the upper part of the valley of Sorek, and that of Eshcol, where the spies gathered the single cluster of grapes, which they were obliged to bear between two upon a staff . . . this part of the country abounded with rich vineyards.
Again, God cultivates his vineyard by planting it with the choicest vines that are rich beyond measure. All this care should produce the best of fruit.
4) “he built a watchtower in the midst of it” (vs. 2) – What tower is this? Many think this is a symbol of protection. God having his watchman look out for the fruit from a tower. And while this is a worthy interpretation, Clarke offers another idea. He suggests that this tower is actually the temple or sanctuary of God. That God has built his temple in the midst of the land. And while we cannot be sure of this interpretation, what Clark is saying pinpoints a much deeper care for God’s people. The tower not being just a building, but a sanctuary. This has a much deeper meaning and not just due to the spiritual nature of a temple, but would imply that God’s presence is in the midst of the people.
5) “hewed out a wine vat in it” (vs. 2) – Jesus uses the parable of a vineyard in the New Testament. In Mark 12:1 it states, “And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country.’” Notice the words “dug a pit for the winepress”. And this is the meaning. A winepress contains two vats or troughs, an upper one where the grapes are crushed and a lower one where the juice flows. God made a place where the fruit would be transformed into fermented wine. If there was only the upper vat, then the wine would contain the impurities (grape shells, etc.) from the grapes. God made a way for the fruit of the vineyard to produce pure wine.
These are the five things God has done in his vineyard, but the end of verse 2 explains what happens in spite of his great care and cultivation. After all the careful planning, digging, and building, God expected to reap a fine harvest, but the text says, “he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” (5:2) Wild grapes is an interesting translation; for the modern reader it does not quite give us the same idea as the writer likely meant. When we think of wild grapes or berries, we tend to think of a vine growing in the wild. It does not give the essence at all of what the prophet meant by “wild grapes”. II Kings gives us an example of what is meant here. In chapter 4 it talks about eating wild gourds:
One of them went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. And they poured out some for the men to eat. But while they were eating of the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. II Kings 4:39-40
The wild grapes mentioned were poisonous, bad, not fit for eating; the very opposite of good grapes. Referring to these wild grapes, Clarke writes, “not merely useless, unprofitable grapes, such as wild grapes; but grapes offensive to the smell, noxious, poisonous.” A couple of other examples from scripture that use the same imagery are found in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy. “Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21) And Deuteronomy 32:32-33 states, “For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter; their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps.” All these images give a clear picture of what is meant by wild grapes. Not simply a different vine growing in the wild, but a dangerous, bitter and poisonous vine.
It is not surprising that God very pointedly asks the question why. Why did his vineyard yield these poisonous grapes? After all his care and cultivation, why do his people yield sour grapes? God calls on the people’s sense of justice, and says, “judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:3-4) God is beside himself asking what more could he do. He has blessed his people and cared for them, yet still they give him bitter fruit.
We should carefully ask ourselves, is God calling to our sense of justice? Is he asking, where is the good fruit he cultivated? And if so, what is our response?