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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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 reubenbredenhof.com
 
Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:A Sad Song about God’s Vineyard
Text:Isaiah 5:1-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Faith Tested
 
Preached:2022
Added:2022-02-13
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 117:1                                                                                 

Ps 1:1,2,3       

Reading – Isaiah 5; Luke 13:6-9

Ps 92:1,6,7

Sermon – Isaiah 5:1-7

Ps 80:3,4,5,7,8

Hy 76:2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, maybe you’ve had to rebuke someone before. There was an admonition for sin you wanted to give, but this was the problem: you knew the other person probably wasn’t going to take it very well. They’d get upset, or defensive, or just deny it and storm away. Probably very few of us can accept admonitions in a humble spirit, so this is the challenge: How do you get your message across? And how do we take such a rebuke?

I doubt that we could ever do it as well as Isaiah. In our text he rebukes Judah in a really skillful way. He’s got a word of judgment and warning, but he knows how people quickly put up barriers. He needs a way around their defensiveness, so he sings them a little song. And right away it’s about something they could relate to, a scenario that helped them see the fairness of God’s judgment. In the end, if they were honest, they’d agree: they completely deserved condemnation and they needed to change.

Isaiah does it with a song, we said, ‘a song of God’s vineyard.’ It’s based on something that was a normal part of life. Vineyards were a common sight in the land of Judah, for grapes were one of the crops that grew best in that climate. He tells about a farmer who had invested a lot in the well-being of his vineyard. And everyone knew that a vine is either good for fruit or it is good for nothing. There has to be a good harvest, or the vine might as well be cut down.

Then comes the punchline: Judah needs to know that this song is about them! It’s in verse 7, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant plant.” Suddenly it hits close to home, and the whole song is rather uncomfortable.

It’s a song that we also need to listen to. We have the privilege of being God’s vineyard, the objects of his special care, even his joy and delight. How then do we live? What kind of harvest do we produce? I preach God’s Word to you from Isaiah 5:1-7,

Isaiah sings a sad song about God’s vineyard:

  1. God’s diligent care
  2. Judah’s disappointing harvest
  3. God’s difficult response

 

1) God’s diligent care: Before a singer or some other musician performs their piece, they’ll often say a few words. They introduce the song so that the audience has a bit of context, knows why they wrote it, what it’s all about. That’s what Isaiah does too, in verse 1, “Now let me sing to my Well-beloved, a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard.”

He is going to sing a song to his ‘Well-beloved.’ Who can that be, but the LORD God? Isaiah loved God. And when you love God with all your heart, you start to take God’s perspective on things. For example, we share in his delight over holiness, and we share his indignation over things that are wicked. What’s important to God becomes important to us! And Isaiah shares in God’s grief and outrage over what’s been happening in Judah.

This is how the song begins: “My Well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill” (v 1). Isaiah sketches a scene that was really familiar for his audience in Judah: beautiful vineyards on gently rolling hills, a fertile place, with vines in the warming rays of the sun. The location for God’s vineyard was everything that could be desired.     

But a good location isn’t enough. Grapes are a crop that takes a lot of attentive care. It’s probably one of the most labour-intensive crops that there is. So Isaiah describes everything that God has done for Judah, his nation.

Talking about the fruitful hill in verse 2, Isaiah says, “He dug it up and cleared out its stones.” Before you could plant vines, you had to make sure that the land was good and ready. That meant pulling up any other plants that’d be in competition for water and sunlight. It also meant clearing the ground of stones. The Judean countryside was fertile, yet there were always a lot of rocks on the surface. You needed to move these and then break up the soil so that your plants could have space to put down roots and grow.

So just preparing a field for planting could take several months. Then, finally, you were ready to ‘[plant] it with the choicest vine’ (v 2). Like with every crop, some grapes were of better quality than others. So if you wanted many years of good harvests, you’d plant one of the varieties that was known for size and quality. These would have to be purchased as small seedlings, laid out in the field, planted, and then carefully tended.

And still your work wasn’t done. The farmer next “built a tower in its midst.” All those cleared rocks could be used to construct a tower. It’d be a place where your vineyard workers could rest in the heat of the day, and from where you could keep an eye out for intruders.

Besides the tower, verse 5 says that the farmer builds a stone wall, and around that, a hedge: it was doubled-fenced! This was sure to keep out any robbers, whether four-footed or two-footed robbers looking for delicious grapes. A stone tower, a fence, a hedge—these are permanent structures. The farmer is so confident that his vineyard will produce that he’s setting it up to last.

Then he also constructs a winepress (v 2). This too, was a difficult piece of work: digging down, hewing a big cavity into the stone. In the winepress the grapes would be trampled, and the juice collected in vats. It’s another picture of how prepared the farmer is to receive the fruits of his labours. For what was all the work of a vineyard without the crowning labour of gathering grapes, crushing them, and starting to make a good batch of wine? That’s what it was all about.

The farmer has been busy on his land for three years now, four, five—pouring his heart into it. So what Isaiah says near the end of verse 2 is no surprise: “He expected it to bring forth good grapes.” Farmers are usually very patient people: they’re used to working, then waiting. But they do expect some kind of fruit on their labour.

We’ll get to the ‘fruit’ in a moment, but just remember where Isaiah is going with this vineyard song. Verse 7 told us: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant plant.” Yes, this little song is a parable about how the LORD had always nurtured his covenant people.

From the beginning, God had treated Israel with astonishing grace. He chose them out of all the nations and delighted in them as his very own. God had done everything for them, poured himself out for them, just like that hardworking farmer. God rescued them from their enemies, carried them through the wilderness, and gave a new and blessed home in the Promised Land. The LORD showered them with all things needful, giving his law, sending his prophets, leading them with kings, prospering their work, and above all, forgiving their sins through the blood of sacrifice. Nothing could be faulted in what God had done for them: the soil, the vines, the vineyard, the tower and walls of protection—everything was in place for a good harvest. Truly, Judah was ‘his pleasant plant.’

And I hope that you can hear already how our text is speaking to us today. There is one people of God, one covenant family across the ages. We’re not ethnic Israelites like those whom Isaiah sang to. But we are in the beautifully diverse crowd of nations now streaming to Zion. Once strangers to God’s covenant, now included by his grace—now joined like so many branches to the vine of Christ, and lovingly tended by the Vinedresser.

This means that what Isaiah says is for us too. Just think of how much God has provided for his people, how much effort the LORD has poured into us, his vineyard! God chose us. God saved us from captivity to sin through the saving work of Christ, his only Son. God has given us a new home in his church, where He speaks to us in his Word and He fills us with his Spirit.

And God multiplies so many other gifts: we have freedom, and prosperity, Christian schools and adequate homes, and a peaceful land in which to live and to serve him faithfully. It’s all a gift of grace, sure evidence of God’s loving care. And it means that the LORD is right to seek from us a rich harvest.

 

2) Judah’s disappointing harvest: Isaiah’s song was very relatable. Yes, the farmer had done everything, spared no expense for his vineyard, withheld no effort. So Judah would’ve quickly agreed that his expectation was fair: “to bring forth good grapes.”

And then they also would’ve shared the farmer’s outrage. He comes looking for a decent harvest, but his vineyard “brought forth wild grapes” (v 2). No better than if he’d wandered into a random field and happened to find a small vine, growing wild, producing just a handful of tiny, pulpy, sour-tasting fruit—ones even the birds didn’t want. In the Hebrew, it says literally that this vineyard brought forth ‘stink-fruit,’ or ‘smelly things.’ Disappointing because of all the effort that had gone into the vineyard! So let the owner give up on it, break down the walls and let the animals trample it. If it never rained again on this land, it would be no big loss.

You see how Isaiah has been a little sneaky with the people of Judah. For they are his vineyard, so how can they keep living like they’ve never been touched by God’s grace? The LORD had shown great kindness and goodness, and He wanted his people to be moved by his glory. That’s what God always seeks from us. A grateful response to his majesty, when we delight in worshipping him, giving our thanks, service, love. Yet God is left with wild grapes, just a bad harvest.

What does God mean by that? Isaiah explains in verse 7: “He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.” We don’t see it in English, but in the original Hebrew, this is two sets of closely rhyming pairs. One commentator translates it, ‘God looked for right, but found riot; looked for decency, but found despair.’ The difference was dramatic. On Judah’s branches there was no pleasing fruit of the Spirit, but only a putrid harvest of sin.

For the rest of the chapter, Isaiah describes this shocking lack of fruit. Notice how there are five (of six) specific sins, each introduced with the word ‘woe.’ That’s not a word we use much anymore, but it’s a word of sorrow. It was the kind of word you’d hear at a funeral.

It’s again very striking. In Israel, the end of the harvest was a time for festivity, as everyone celebrated God’s blessings. It was a time to have a drink, eat a feast, sing a song. Isaiah has written a harvest song, but there’s no joy, only sorrow. The harvest is an utter failure.

So what are the sins of Judah? We can’t look in detail at all of them, but greed was one: “Woe to those who join house to house, they add field to field” (v 8). Early in Isaiah’s ministry, Judah still enjoyed a time of wealth and ease. But all this money had a darker side, because what so easily happens to us when there’s lots of money to be had? We love it. We want more of it. In Judah, the wealthy folks were fixated on their possessions, busy growing their assets. They would trample on people just to build their own properties.

There’s another ‘woe’ for those who live in indulgence. Verse 11, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may follow intoxicating drink.” When life is good, and we have a lot more than we actually need, pleasure can become the only thing that excites us. We want to have a good time, indulge in the finer things, make the most of the moment.

There are more ‘woes,’ laments for Judah’s cynical attitude toward God, and their corruption of morals, and their self-made wisdom. They were champions at mixing drinks but never championed the cause of the oppressed. God was looking for justice and righteousness among his people. God wants our relationships to be faithful and honest, fair and merciful—because that’s the kind of God that He is: faithful, merciful, gracious. Yet his people have failed. Instead, Isaiah tells their whole history in one line: “He expected [them] to bring for the good grapes, but [they] brought forth wild grapes.” It was a deeply disappointing harvest.

All this makes us think of the parable Jesus told in Luke 13: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none” (v 6). We imagine that farmer too, looking forward to this crop. He must’ve been sure he’d find something on this tree—it was probably already in full leaf, yet there’s nothing. Just empty branches.

Jesus tells that parable as a subtle rebuke of his countrymen. For they were a lot like Isaiah’s audience: privileged, well-instructed, well-nurtured. Yet they too, were totally complacent in their nice lives. They stank of hypocrisy. They didn’t need to repent, did they?

Hearing Isaiah’s song, and then hearing Jesus’s parable in the same key, means this is surely a message the church needs in every age. We already said that God’s people enjoy all the privileges of the vineyard and the fig tree. So after all that He’s done, all that He’s given in Christ Jesus, what will He find on our branches? What He’s looking for is simple. God wants repentance and faith. He wants us to turn away from our sins and to turn to his Son as our Saviour and Lord.

Seeing ourselves in Isaiah’s song and in Jesus’s parable, we need to ask: ‘How much do I love the good news of Christ? And how does that show? Does God’s grace motivate me daily to leave my sins behind? Is the glory of God inspiring me to produce the fruits of faith?’

We can think here in terms of individual fruits, and communal fruits. As a community of believers, as a vineyard all together, what kind of fruit do we bear? God expects us to be a church who loves his Word, a church who cares for the poor. He wants us to be people who have compassion for the lost, and those who treat one another with grace.

Think of how many of ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5 relate to our actions toward other people: love, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. Does our life together as congregation show a good harvest for God’s Spirit? Or is there is a disappointing harvest of selfishness, envy, and impatience? Do we forget the poor, and ignore the lost?

As individual branches in God’s vineyard, it’s good for us too, to consider what kind of fruit we bear for the LORD. Think of it in terms of the ‘woes’ that Isaiah announces. Do I live in greed: greed for more money, more glory? Am I a drinking champion every weekend? Is my spirit proud? That’s not the fruit that God is seeking.

Beloved, how are you making use of everything God has given you? What more could He have done? So are you seeking ways to bring joy to God? Is your life marked by the fruit of quiet humility? Or do you always try to exercise self-control? When others offend you, do you try to forgive? When I think about everything God has done for me in Christ, I should want to worship him, and thank him, and serve him.

 

3) God’s difficult response: It’s hard to be rebuked. But God presses Judah to consider if He’s being fair: “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, please, between me and my vineyard” (v 3). Look at the evidence and see if God isn’t justified in punishing them.

After all, the vineyard belongs to him. God can do with it whatever He pleases: “I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” (v 5). No more hedge, no more wall, and without these protections, the cattle can enter and devour everything in sight. Already here, many years before it happens, God announces that He’ll take away his protecting hand from Judah, and the nations will come.

It’s a sad picture of what happens to the vineyard, “I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned or dug, but there shall come up briers and thorns” (v 6). All of God’s hard work comes to nothing. And God says, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it” (v 6). Here was the clearest proof of God’s judgment. Only God can withhold rain or command the clouds, and in God’s justice, He will cause his vineyard to dry up.

Isaiah is giving the people advance warning about the penalties of sin. It’s not a pleasant message, but this is sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone: a rebuke for sin, serious and direct, and one that spells out just what is at stake. It’s because we love them that we warn them. It’s because we want to see them live!

Not long after Isaiah’s time, Judah was judged. It happened again to Israel, after they rejected Christ: they were judged. And that’s what can still happen among us, who are the vineyard of God and his pleasant plant. Judgement can happen—it will happen—when there’s no living response to the Saviour.

If a good response is missing, our Lord says there’s a deadly serious problem. Remember too, what the vineyard owner ordered about his disappointing fig tree in Luke 13: “Cut it down! Why does it use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7). After so much time has gone by, so much energy invested, the tree is ripe for destruction.

That’s a message for everyone to reflect on. If there is a sin that we’re persisting in, and we’re not striving to bear some kind of holy harvest, God calls us to repentance. He gives us a warning at the same time: “Cut it down,” He could say. From those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded. Somewhere else Jesus describes what God the vinedresser does: “He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit…Such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:2,6). A vine is good for fruit, or it is good for nothing.

There’s not a lot of hope in chapter 5. But Isaiah will certainly give some in coming chapters. Like the farmer in Jesus’s parable, God is patient. ‘Give it another year. Give it more fertilizer. Let’s see if we can’t help it along.’ God is patient when we’re slow to learn his ways. Patient when our faith-life stinks. God will not be harsh or unforgiving, not for those who depend on his mercy.

This gives hope when we think about our failings. It also gives us hope when we think about those who’ve strayed from God. When there are members who withdraw or who are excommunicated, even members of our own families, we can find comfort in God’s patience. For as long there is life, God gives the chance to repent and believe. For He delights to see a fruitful tree, a flourishing vine!

God is patient, but his patience must move us. So we must consider how we’ll grow. Jesus says in John 15, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (v 5). There is the key to fruitfulness: be joined to Christ. We can’t do this on our own. We need the life that Christ provides, the strength Christ gives. Only by remaining in Christ will we ever bear fruit.

Beloved, how is it for you? Even today, are you bearing fruit for God? Are you embracing the Lord in thanks, praising him for all that He has done? Are you united to Christ, the true vine? Does it show? May the Lord rejoice in the good harvest of his people!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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