The Song of the Vineyard

1 I will sing for the one I love
   a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
   on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
   and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
   and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
   but it yielded only bad fruit.

5 Now I will tell you
   what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
   and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
   and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
   neither pruned nor cultivated,
   and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
   not to rain on it.”

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
   is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
   for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Isaiah 5:1-2; 5-7

Isaiah’s complaint against the people of Judah for their lack of justice, likens the nation to the vineyard of the Lord. Canadian writer Tom Harpur says, ‘The Bible is literally drenched in wine.’ Jesus draws on it in his parables of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-41) and the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16). While Noah is described as the first to plant a vineyard (Gen 9:20), the inability of a wandering or exiled people to plant a vineyard was seen as a sort of curse (Jeremiah 35:1-10).

Isaiah’s description gives an insight into ancient Middle Eastern wine growing. The grapes were vitis vinifera sylvestris, originally from Turkey, Armenia and Iran. The ‘Syrah’ or ‘Shiraz’ grape is a descendant of those grapes, and Shiraz is still the name of an Iranian city. Back in ancient Israel, the harvest was welcomed with feasting and the grapes were put into open-air presses in the hills. Before presses were developed, pressing took place underfoot, an approach still valued today as it avoids breaking the pips, releasing tannin, oil and seeds. Yeast occurs naturally in wineskins, which begin the process of fermentation in the juice as soon as the grapes are pressed.

Most grapes were red thus inviting an obvious association with blood: ‘I poured out their lifeblood on the earth’ (Isaiah 63:6). Wine could be drunk young or old, though new wine should not be put into old wineskins (Luke 5:37), and some wine travelled well: Hosea drank wine from Lebanon (Hosea 14:7), a region that still produces excellent and reasonably priced wine today.

Many modern wines owe their heritage to vitis vinifera sylvestris, which, like God’s word, has spread, adapted, been cultivated, propa­gated and enjoyed worldwide, producing much fruit, with which body and soul are blessed. As wine is a constant in the Bible, so too are the key themes of God’s provision leading to celebration and rejoicing, allied with judgment, through which God calls us to repent and return to him.

God our Father, as you tend and nurture your heavenly vineyard, prune away our sin and restore us to righteousness, that we may lead lives of justice and moderation, to your glory, Amen