Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The chapter consists of three parts:—
i. Isaiah 5:1-7. The ingratitude of Israel and its approaching rejection by Jehovah are set forth under the veil of a homely parable.
ii. Isaiah 5:8-24. A series of six “Woes” directed against the prevalent vices and injustice of the upper classes and leaders of the state.
iii. Isaiah 5:25-30. Isaiah’s first description of the Assyrian invaders, the agents of Jehovah’s chastisement, already appearing on the horizon of the prophet’s vision.
There are strong reasons for thinking that iii. formed originally the peroration of a different prophecy, entirely independent of Isaiah 5:1-24 (see below). 1 and 2, on the other hand, form a connected whole to which Isaiah 5:24 forms a suitable and well-marked conclusion. Although they may not have formed parts of a single spoken address, there are no grounds for supposing that they ever existed separately in writing.
To what date is this passage (Isaiah 5:1-24) to be ascribed? By the consent of nearly all critics, it belongs to the first period of Isaiah’s career, but beyond this it is impossible to speak very definitely. A comparison with ch. 2–4, however, suggests that the prophet has now acquired a more intimate knowledge of the state of society in Jerusalem, and is able to lay a firmer hand on the evils of his time. We shall probably not go far wrong if we assign the prophecy to a slightly later date than the preceding chapters.
Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:1. (Four lines.) The first half of the verse contains the preamble, the second is the commencement of the poem.
Now will I sing … vineyard] Translate:—
I would sing of my Friend,
My Friend’s song about his vineyard.
The A.V. has the merit, however, of distinguishing the two closely related words used for friend (“wellbeloved” and “beloved”). The difference probably has only a metrical value. Isaiah does not mean as yet to excite curiosity as to who the “Friend” is, only he cannot, even in a parable, divest himself of the consciousness that he represents the interests of Another.
A vineyard had my Friend
On a fertile peak.
a very fruitful hill] lit. “a horn, the son of fatness.” “Apertos Bacchus amat colles” (Verg. Georg. ii. 113). The land of Palestine is no doubt meant, but it is a mistake to allegorise the details of the imagery. This use of the word “horn” for “hill” is not found elsewhere in the O. T., but has many parallels in-Arabic as well as other languages (cf. “Schreckhorn,” &c.). It is chosen here for the sake of the assonance with the word for “vineyard.”
1–7. The Parable of the Vineyard and its Application
One of the finest exhibitions of rhetorical skill and power which the book contains. The prophet appears in the guise of a minstrel before an assemblage of his countrymen, and proceeds to recite the unfortunate experience of a “friend” of his with his vineyard. The simple story, told in light popular verse, disarms the suspicions of the crowd, and the singer, having secured their sympathy, demands a verdict on the course which a man might be expected to pursue with so refractory a vineyard as this (Isaiah 5:3). The answer was so obvious that the people, like our Lord’s hearers on a similar occasion (Matthew 21:41), had practically assented to their own condemnation before they clearly perceived the drift of the discourse. But from this point onwards the parable becomes more and more transparent, till at last the prophet, with a sudden change of rhythm (see on Isaiah 5:6), throws off all disguise and drives home the lesson of the whole in the crashing lines of Isaiah 5:7.
The idea of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard probably originated with Isaiah. (Cf. ch. Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 27:2 ff.; Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 12:10 f.; Psalm 80:8 ff.; Matthew 20:1 ff; Matthew 21:33 ff. and parallels.)
And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.2. (Six lines.) The situation was all that could be desired: and labour had not been spared. Note the resemblances in Matthew 21:33 ff.; Mark 12:1 ff. fenced it] digged it (R.V. marg.). The word is not found elsewhere, but the meaning is certain. gathered out the stones thereof] In Heb. a single word: lit “stoned it” (ch. Isaiah 62:10). The phrase “stone a field,” for “clear it of stones,” is said to be common in some parts of England. the choicest vine] A technical name (collective) for the finest sort of grapes grown in Syria. The word occurs again in Jeremiah 2:21; the corresponding noun of unity (fem.) in Genesis 49:11. built a tower] for the watchers; not a mere hut, as in Isaiah 1:8.
and also … winepress] yea, and hewed out a winefat (ὑπολήνιον, Mark 12:1). The yeqeb is the receptacle (here cut out of the rock) into which the juice flows from the winepress (gath). (Cf. Joel 3:13; Proverbs 3:10; Nehemiah 13:15, &c.) The emphasis on this clause calls attention to the owner’s confident expectation of a return for his outlay.
brought forth wild grapes] Cf. Jeremiah 2:21.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.3. (Four lines.) The beginning of a new stanza is marked by the “And now” as in Isaiah 5:5.
betwixt me and my vineyard] The change of person here is the first hint of a deeper meaning under the words of the song.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?4. (Four lines.) The case for the owner of the vineyard.
What could have been done] lit. What more is there to do (cf. 2 Kings 4:13).
wherefore, when I looked … wild grapes] Lit. why did I look that it should … and it brought forth wild grapes. The co-ordination of clauses assimilates the ending of the second stanza to that of the first. (For other examples of the same order, see Davidson, Synt. § 126, R. 4.)
And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:5. I will take away … and break down] better simply, Remove … Break down—absolute infs. in apposition to “what.” The vineyard is provided both with a hedge (of thorns) and a wall (of stone).
5, 6. The hearers are silent, and the prophet proceeds to pass sentence on the vineyard.
And now, let me tell you, I pray,
What I am about to do to my vineyard.
The construction in the second line is the fut. instans; the owner’s mind is finally made up.
And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.6. lay it waste] or, make an end of it. The word is thought to be connected with that rendered “desolate” in ch. Isaiah 7:19,—better “precipitous,” “cut off,” hence (as here) “made an end of.”
there shall come up … thorns] The Heb. is more forcible: it shall go up in thorns and thistles. “Thorns and thistles,” a phrase peculiar to the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 7:23-25; Isaiah 9:18; Isaiah 10:17; Isaiah 27:4. The change of rhythm referred to (Introd. Note above) commences with this clause—rightly, since the next line reveals the whole drift of the parable: He who can command the clouds must be no other than Jehovah himself.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.7. The formal application of the parable, emphasising two facts: (1) Jehovah’s vineyard is the house of Israel, but especially the men of Judah, the plant of his delight (R.V. marg.); (2) “the wild grapes” it produces are the frightful oppressions and perversion of justice which are perpetrated in its midst. The underlying thought is that Jehovah’s signal care and goodness ought to have resulted in a national life corresponding to His moral character—a fundamental truth of the prophetic theology.
He looked for judgment (mishpâṭ), but behold bloodshed (mispâḥ);
For righteousness (çědâqâh), but behold a cry! (çě‘âqâh).
These powerful assonances, which cannot be reproduced in English, are evidently designed to clinch the moral of the parable in the memories of the hearers. The “cry” is that of the oppressed, cf. Job 19:7.
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!8. that they may be … earth] Render with R.V., and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land; i.e. so that only the few have residential rights.
8–10. The first woe, against the absorption of small properties by the wealthy landowners. Cruel evictions, by which the smaller peasant proprietors lost not only their homes but the rights of citizenship, were common in the age of Isaiah, both in Judah and Israel. Cf. Micah 2:2; Micah 2:9; Amos 2:6 f. “The old Israelite state was so entirely based on the participation of every freeman in the common soil, and so little recognised the mere possession of capital, that men were in danger of losing civil rights along with house and fields, and becoming mere hirelings or even slaves” (Duhm). An instance of the tenacity with which the Hebrew yeoman clung to his land may be seen in 1 Kings 21. For legal checks to this evil, see Leviticus 25:8 ff.; Num. 27:1–11, 36; Deuteronomy 27:17.
8–24. Denunciation of the Social Evils which call down God’s Judgment on the Nation
The indictment contains six counts, each introduced by the word “Woe,” and is addressed exclusively to the upper classes, although the punishment of their sin falls on the nation as a whole. The prophet sets before us a vivid picture of a debased aristocracy, in whom public virtue has been eaten out by avarice and sensuality; and he traces with remarkable insight the effect of these sins in the religious insensibility and perversion of the moral sentiments which characterised the nobles of Judah at this time.
In mine ears said the LORD of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant.9. In mine ears said the Lord of hosts] The verb is to be supplied as in Isaiah 22:14 : In my ears (hath revealed himself) Jehovah.… It is a prophetic “audition”; the words which follow seem actually to sound in his ears. The great houses shall be uninhabited, because—
9, 10. The divine judgment on this evil. Cf. Amos 5:11.
Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah.10. The land shall be smitten with the curse of barrenness; Jehovah’s remedy for land-grabbing.
ten acres] lit. ten yoke; a yoke of land being
“As much as two stout oxen
Could plough from morn till night.”
one bath] (of wine),—about 8 gallons.
seed of a homer … ephah] The ephah is a dry measure of the same capacity as the bath; the homer is ten ephahs (Ezekiel 45:11).
Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!11. rise up early] Drinking in the morning was considered disreputable by the Jews (Ecclesiastes 10:16 f.; Acts 2:15) and Romans; but not, apparently, by the Arabs (Gesenius). The word for strong drink seems to be a general name for various kinds of alcoholic liquors obtained from dates, honey, raisins, barley, &c.
that continue … inflame them] rather, that sit late into the night, wine inflaming them.
11–17. The second woe, against dissipation and the spiritual blindness which accompanies it. Cf. Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 28:7 ff.
And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.12. Cf. Amos 6:5-6. And the harp … feasts] better, And guitar and harp, tambourine and flute, and wine constitute their banquet;—as if to drown the voice of conscience and destroy the sense of Jehovah’s presence and working in their midst.
the work of the Lord … the operation of his hands] i.e. the crowning work of judgment which he is about to execute, and of which there were many ominous warnings for those who could discern the signs of the times: “opus aliquod illustre futurum … quod Deus hoc ipso tempore iam moliebatur” (Vitr.). Cf. Isaiah 5:19, ch. Isaiah 10:12, Isaiah 28:21; Psalm 28:5. A similar thought is expressed in Amos 6:6, where the luxurious nobles are charged with insensibility to the “ruin of Joseph.”
Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.13. Therefore (because its leaders are so blind) my people goeth into captivity (proph. perf.). This is the only explicit mention of exile in Isaiah. Cf. again Amos 6:7. The next words may be rendered either from lack of knowledge (R.V.) or without knowing it—“unawares” (Cheyne). The former gives the better sense (cf. Hosea 4:6).
their honourable men … their multitude] lit. “its glory” … “its tumult.” The contrast, however, is rightly indicated by A.V.—the noblesse over against the populace. famished] Hebr. “men of hunger.” But the word for “men” is poetic (Isaiah 3:25) and never found in such phrases as this. The ancient versions, with a different vocalisation, read “dead with hunger,” which is obviously too strong. Most commentators now follow Ewald and Hitzig, and alter the text in accordance with Deuteronomy 32:24 (R.V. “wasted”), reading “sucked out (exhausted) with hunger.” This involves the change of a single letter, and yields a suitable parallelism to “dried up with thirst.”
Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.14–17. A second threatening, in a sublime image, of the sudden destruction of Jerusalem. The transition to the fate of the capital is somewhat abrupt. 14. hell hath enlarged herself] better, Sheol hath enlarged her appetite (Habakkuk 2:5). Sheol, the Underworld, the realm of the dead (like the Greek Hades), is here, as elsewhere, conceived as a devouring insatiable monster; cf. Hosea 13:14; Jonah 2:2; Song of Solomon 8:6; Proverbs 1:12; Proverbs 30:16.
and their glory … descend into it] Render (nearly as Cheyne) and down goes her (Jerusalem’s) pomp, and her tumult and her uproar and (all) that is (so) jubilant in her.
And the mean man shall be brought down, and the mighty man shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be humbled:15, 16. A reminiscence of the refrain in ch. Isaiah 2:9; Isaiah 2:11; Isaiah 2:17; but with significant modifications. These verses seem to interrupt the connexion of Isaiah 5:17 with Isaiah 5:14, and are either parenthetical or interpolated.
But the LORD of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness.16. God that is holy …] the Holy God sanctifies Himself through righteousness. God “sanctifies Himself,” i.e. compels the recognition of His divinity, by the righteous judgments in which He reveals His true nature as the Holy One of Israel (cf. Isaiah 29:23).
Then shall the lambs feed after their manner, and the waste places of the fat ones shall strangers eat.17. The obverse of the picture in Isaiah 5:14. The city, with all its tumult and gaiety, has vanished into the underworld, and now flocks are seen grazing amidst the ruins,—an image of awful desolation rather than of “idyllic peace.”
Then shall the lambs … manner] And lambs shall grate as in their pasture (R.V.). strangers] sojourners—perhaps “nomadic shepherds.” But the reading of the LXX. (ἄρνες = lambs) can be explained by a slight change in the text and is on some grounds to be preferred.
Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope:18. The figure seems to express two ideas: (1) the determination with which these men set themselves to work iniquity, and (2) the inevitable connexion between sin and judgment. The idea of punishment is included in the words iniquity (or “guilt”) and sin.
18, 19. The third woe, against the mocking scepticism which leads men to harden themselves in sin. The men addressed do not believe in the prophet’s threats of a day of retribution yet all the while they are unconsciously doing their utmost to bring about their fulfilment.
That say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it!19. An impious challenge to Jehovah to make good His words spoken through the prophet. This defiant unbelief seems to have been the reigning spirit in the political circles of Isaiah’s time; Isaiah 28:14 f., 22; cf. Jeremiah 5:12; Jeremiah 17:15.
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!20. The fourth woe, against those who confuse moral distinctions. Amongst the “wise men” of the time (Proverbs 25:1) there may have been a class of sophists, who employed their subtlety in making out a case for abuses condemned by the unsophisticated moral sense.
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!21. The fifth woe, against the self-satisfied astuteness of the politicians. That the prophet has the statesmen in his eye is probable from such passages as Isaiah 28:9 f., Isaiah 29:14 f., Isaiah 30:1; Isaiah 30:10 f., Isaiah 31:1 f.
Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink:22. them that are mighty] heroes.
to mingle strong drink] This was a delicate operation, almost a fine art, demanding a refined taste and much experience (Proverbs 23:30). The phrase does not mean to dilute with water, which was common among Greeks and Romans, but rather to enhance by the addition of aromatic herbs (cf. “spiced wine” in Song of Solomon 8:2).
22, 23. The sixth woe, against dissolute and corrupt judges. In Isaiah 5:11 f. drunkenness was denounced as destructive of all serious thought; here it is spoken of as the parent of injustice on the bench. Cf. Proverbs 31:4 f.
Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!23. These valiant drinkers are weak enough in their official capacity; they acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent. justify the wicked] “wicked” and “righteous” are here used in their forensic sense: “he who is in the wrong” and “he who is in the right” (cf. Exodus 9:27). So “take away the righteousness” means “declare guilty”—the opposite of “justify.”
Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.24. The conclusion. Render with R.V.
Therefore as the tongue of fire devoureth the stubble,
And as the dry grass sinketh down in the flame, &c.
The similes are taken from two common customs, the burning of the stubble in the fields, and the use of dry grass for fuel. The comparison is completed in a different figure.
root … blossom] The expression is found on a Phœnician sarcophagus (Eshmunazar), “let him not have root below or fruit above”; and frequently in the O.T., Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 37:31; Amos 2:9; Hosea 9:16, &c.
the law of the Lord of hosts] See on Isaiah 1:10. The last clause is a summary description of the sins of the nation; the source from which they all spring is the rejection of the prophetic message.
Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.25. Therefore] The Hebr. word differs from that in Isaiah 5:13-14; Isaiah 5:24, and agrees with that in Isaiah 9:17. The following tenses are perfects (or consec. impf.) usually taken as prophetic pert.; but this is scarcely natural. Past judgments are probably referred to (see on Isaiah 9:8 ff.). Some think of a pestilence (Amos 4:10), pestilence being preeminently the stroke of God (he hath smitten them); others (from the next clause) of an earthquake. Both may be meant.
their carcases were torn] rather, were as offal, a very common figure (2 Kings 9:37; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 25:33; Zephaniah 1:17; Psalm 83:10).
For all this …] See on ch. Isaiah 9:12.
25–30. A warlike Nation, summoned from the Ends of the Earth, is the destined Instrument of Israel’s final Chastisement
That the Assyrians are here alluded to is certain both from the explicit statements of later prophecies, and from the terms of the description itself. It speaks of the foe as characterised by the rapidity of his movements, the perfection of his discipline and military equipment, his love of conquest, and his irresistible might. These features are no doubt highly idealised (as was natural in a first sketch), but it is clear that some particular nation is meant, and we can have no hesitation in saying that the reference is to the most perfect military machine that then existed, the Assyrian army.
Although the passage might be explained fairly enough as the continuation of Isaiah 5:24, it gains immensely in significance when read as the final strophe of the prophecy in ch. Isaiah 9:8 to Isaiah 10:4, a position to which several considerations lead us to assign it. (1) The latter part of Isaiah 5:25 occurs as a refrain in Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21 and Isaiah 10:4. It is found nowhere else and its isolated occurrence in Isaiah 5:25 distinctly weakens the force of Isaiah 5:24. (2) The four equal strophes of Isaiah 9:8 to Isaiah 10:4 correspond very nearly in length with Isaiah 5:26-30. (3) After reading Isaiah 10:4, we feel that the last word has not been spoken: the hand is still outstretched, we wait to hear of the final blow. The verses before us supply the appropriate climax. On the other hand, they are not necessary where they stand, Isaiah 5:24 affording a satisfactory conclusion. The hypothesis, to be sure, does not remove every difficulty. It is vain to speculate as to the reasons which may have led to the transference; although it might have been suggested by the appositeness of the passage as a reply to the challenge of Isaiah 5:19. Further, Isaiah 5:25 is far too short for a complete strophe, and therefore can hardly have followed immediately on Isaiah 10:4. We must suppose that some verses have been omitted in the process of transference, as irrelevant in their new context.
And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly:26. And he will lift up an ensign] i.e. a signal, set up on a hill (Isaiah 13:2, Isaiah 18:3, Isaiah 30:17; cf. Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 11:12) as a point of rendezvous. (Mark the significant change to the future tense.) the nations from far] better, a nation from afar (cf. Amos 6:14). The singular is demanded by what follows, and is obtained by removing the last letter of one word to the beginning of the next, exactly as in Jeremiah 5:15. will hiss] as in ch. Isaiah 7:18; Zechariah 10:8. The image is that of a bee-keeper alluring the swarm.
with speed swiftly] because it is Jehovah who calls. “They” should be “he,” to the end of the chapter, the nation being individualised.
26–29. A powerful description of the advance of the invaders, who however remain unnamed.
None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken:27. Their accoutrement is perfect down to the smallest detail.
Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses' hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind:28. bows bent] which was done only for immediate action. his horses’ hoofs … flint] Therefore he will not shrink from riding them on the rocky soil of Palestine, which was extremely unfavourable to the use of horses (Amos 6:12). Similar allusions are frequent in ancient literature (κρατερώνυχες ἵπποι) the shoeing of horses being unknown in antiquity. The bows and arrows, cavalry and chariots, are all characteristic of the Assyrians.
Their roaring shall be like a lion, they shall roar like young lions: yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and shall carry it away safe, and none shall deliver it.29. Their roaring …] Or, he has a roar like that of a lioness, he roars like young lions and growls seizing the prey, &c. Two words are here used of the lion’s roar, the first is perhaps that uttered as he searches for prey, the second the low growl with which he springs on his victim.
And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.30. Apparently an image of the land in the throes of the invasion. The verse, which presents many difficulties, may read somewhat as follows: And he shall growl over him in that day like the growling of the sea, and if one look to the earth, behold darkness of distress (and the light is dark) in its clouds. The text is probably in some disorder. The words in brackets are wanting in the LXX. The first clause is generally interpreted of the growl of the invader over the prostrate land; some, however, understand it of the voice of Jehovah (the thunder) moving overhead and directing the attack. The latter part of the verse has a general resemblance to Isaiah 8:22; the words “look to the earth” seem to require some such antithesis as “look up” in Isaiah 8:21.
in the heavens thereof] The word is not elsewhere used and is of uncertain meaning.