Summary: A best man's love song at a wedding turns out to be a dirge.
THE SONG OF THE VINEYARD
The first thing that we may notice about this passage, is Isaiah’s relationship with the LORD (Isaiah 5:1). The prophet is speaking for the remnant of Israel, and calls the LORD his Beloved. This echoes the language of Song of Solomon 2:16, where the Shulamite speaks for the Church: ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His.’ To which the contemporary hymn adds, ‘and His banner over me is love’ (Song of Solomon 2:4).
This is, in fact, the relationship that all believers have with their Lord. ‘We love Him, because He first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Jesus is our Beloved.
Now the prophet is standing, in this parable, as the friend of the Bridegroom - like the role of John the Baptist towards Jesus (John 3:28-30). Instead of a speech, he offers a love song: and he sings of a vineyard (cf. Song of Solomon 8:11-12). However, the ballad, before it is through, turns into a dirge: a fact that might have been anticipated in Isaiah 3:14.
The LORD put a lot of effort into preparing His vineyard: He built the fence, cleared the stones, planted the choicest vine; built a tower, and made a winepress. Not unreasonably, the LORD expected a return for His efforts: but when He looked for good grapes, He found nothing but rotting grapes (Isaiah 5:2).
The vineyard is a well-known motif for Israel (Isaiah 5:7a). We find it echoed in Jesus’ parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), and in the example of the two sons whose father asked them to go to work in his vineyard (Matthew 21:28-32). After these, Jesus offered ‘another parable’ (Matthew 21:33-46) - and started speaking in terms which are strongly reminiscent of Isaiah 5:2.
The voice now changes from that of Isaiah to that of the LORD Himself, challenging His hearers to write their own indictment (Isaiah 5:3). In Jesus’ parallel parable, it was the chief priests and elders of the people who first brought up the subject of vengeance: blindly suggesting that the vineyard be taken from themselves; and given to other, worthier, custodians (Matthew 21:40-41).
The LORD’s answer follows (Isaiah 5:5-6). Disappointed, He would take away the hedge that He has put around His people (cf. Job 1:10), and allow others to trample His vineyard. If they wanted bad grapes, rotting grapes they would have! Exile was slowly becoming inevitable.
That was the Old Testament: but let us not be complacent, for even in the New Testament, ‘whom He loves, He chastens’ (Hebrews 12:6; cf. Proverbs 3:12). A church which has lost its first love, needs to be wary lest the Lord removes its candlestick (Revelation 2:4-5). The individual who thinks he is standing firm, should take heed in case he falls (1 Corinthians 10:12).
We are left, finally with the question of Isaiah 5:4 - “What more could have been done for my vineyard?” For the LORD “looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry” (Isaiah 5:7b). Had Israel forgotten the time when the LORD had heard their own cry, and delivered them from Egypt, and planted them as a vine in the land of promise (Psalm 80:8-10)?
The amazing thing for the New Testament church, is that the LORD has done more for His vineyard! ‘God commended His LOVE towards us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). ‘By GRACE are you saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8).