Songs have a way of speaking to us in ways that nothing else can. When I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m frustrated, when I’m lacking the ability to feel emotion… I turn to music. There have been many nights when I’ve played a single song on repeat – driving family, roommates or neighbors crazy, I’m sure. But there was something about that particular song that resonated, that spoke healing to the dark places of my soul. And so I listened, trying to glean every last ounce of the balm that the combination of notes and poetry offered.
I hardly think I’m alone in that. Movies – even “silent” varieties – are filled with song. Restaurants, shopping malls, dentist offices – even elevators – showcase music designed to put us in a better mood. Many of us are so surrounded by music, that we hardly hear it. Like the movie characters, the songs that surround us are merely part of the action – a soundtrack to our lives.
Isaiah must have known something about music (Isaiah 5:1-7). He doesn’t just speak his message – he sings it. He announces to the crowd, “I have a love song to share” and they gathered in to hear his sweet sentiments. The women gathered were prepared to swoon. The men were hoping to pick up a great line to try out. The skeptics in the crowd were waiting for an opportunity to tease the poor, unfortunate sap.
The song started well enough. Isaiah describes the beloved’s vineyard. While a vineyard might seem a strange image of love to us, it was very familiar to the Israelites. While we sing “you are my sunshine” or “I want to hold your hand,” the Israelites compared their special someones to vineyards. Unless you are a particularly skilled poet, I don’t recommend trying this today. Very few people melt when compared to a viney plant.
Nevertheless, the vineyard that Isaiah sings of is beautiful. The gardener chose the perfect location. The hill overlooks a gorgeous valley. The soil is ideal for planting. The gardener has spent countless hours pulling weeds, removing rocks and tilling the soil. He then purchases the best vines that money can buy and carefully planted them. He built a watchtower so he could keep an eye over the whole vineyard. He was so confident that the vines would produce that he dug out a wine vat to store the wine he would make.
As he sings, Isaiah paints a picture of deep love. This beloved is deeply cared for. In our terms, the lover is prepared to “climb the highest mountains” and “swim the deepest seas” – only, planting a vineyard is actually believable – so perhaps the ancient writers knew something about love songs after all.
Just as we are beginning to really admire this gardener – and perhaps get a bit jealous of the amazing relationship this couple must have – the song turns. “He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The gardener has been so careful – so caring. The result is obvious – vines full of beautiful, sweet grapes. But instead the vines are full of wild grapes – a grape with a large seed and little meat. They are bitter and maybe even rotten.
The object of the beloved’s affection does not return his love. We might understand if the grapes just didn’t grow or if they politely suggested that they had different interests from the gardener and would prefer to be sliced up in a vat of chicken salad. But these grapes – this desired individual – didn’t politely reject affection. Instead, the grapes spit in the face of the caregiver.
This reminds me of Anne Lamott’s latest novel “Imperfect Birds.” The story focuses on two desperately broken individuals – a mother and her teenage drug-addict daughter. The book is heartbreaking and ugly as it describes the girl’s continuous search for her next high, while Mom is beside herself trying to figure out how she can possibly help her daughter. It seems each attempt pushes the daughter farther down the rabbit hole of addiction.
The mother’s heartbreak is evident. Every time she hears a siren, she fears the police are coming to tell her of her daughter’s death. Her attempts at love, at rescue are met with whines and cries and more and more and more destruction.
While this mother is certainly flawed, she continues to love her daughter even when it seems she shouldn’t; even when she feels it is beyond her ability, she loves.
The heartbreak the gardener feels is perhaps similar. He has done everything imagineable to care for his loved one. He tended and tilled and watered – and was careful to provide space for growth. His actions were perfect. His loved one, on the other hand, laughed and spat and ripped out his heart.
He cries out “why? Why has this happened to me? Why did my garden yield such heartbreak?” And, of course, it is an unanswerable question. We don’t understand why a person could respond so harshly to such evident love.
But before we can take up our stakes and go after this horrible person, Isaiah turns the story yet again. God is the gardener, and we are the vile individuals.
At this time in Israel’s history, the nation is in crisis. They are at war – and losing. Israel is on the verge of destruction – and will be, in fact, destroyed. Isaiah is letting the people know that they are responsible for this, that God is leaving them with their desires. And he offers reasons – “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
The Israelites aren’t caring for one another. They have become more concerned with themselves and their own desires and are ignoring the pain and suffering of their brothers and sisters. By giving up on each other, the Israelites showed that they had given up on God.
And lest we believe this is an indictment on some other nation at some other time, let’s examine our own neighborhoods. I tried to research the homeless population in St. Louis. I couldn’t find any actual statistics for the City of St. Louis, but did learn that Gateway Homeless Services served over 1,000 individuals from 400 households in 2009. Think about that: one organization provided housing for more than 400 different families. How many sought help elsewhere – or didn’t find help at all? In parts of our city, people know to stay inside on certain nights because a shooting is scheduled to take place. Young, single mothers work multiple jobs to provide food and shelter for their children. We are surrounded by hurting people. The writer Mary Pipher has suggested that “We have cared more about selling things to our neighbors than we’ve cared for our neighbors. The deck is stacked all wrong and ultimately we will all lose.”
The end of this song makes it seem like all hope is lost. God has given up – walked away from God’s people. But the book of Isaiah doesn’t end here. While the metaphor in the song makes it clear that God has every right to abandon the Israelites – to abandon us… God’s love is too strong. This song isn’t about the God who walks away, but is a wake-up call to a nation that doesn’t recognize what it has. It’s a call to remember the God who has given everything, the God who relentlessly loves a broken, messy, seemingly worthless crop of people; the God who dreams of a restored vineyard – spoken of later in Isaiah 27.
This God is waiting outside the gate, ready to return to the watchtower, continuously singing a new love song. How will God’s people respond? Will we continue to spit in the face of the divine? Or will we begin to see others in our own community the way God does – with love, compassion and a yearning for justice? The planting has been done. The watering and feeding has occurred. Predators have been kept from the garden. What will our vines produce?
Read more from Jennifer at her blog.