1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
This portion of Isaiah is referred to as the “Song of the Vineyard.” It is a brilliant piece of street preaching. It starts as a love song – perhaps, more accurately, a bawdy song – about an unfaithful wife (the “vineyard” of his friend) that is sure to grab the crowd’s attention and elicit their sympathy. Then, halfway through, the pronouns change from the third to the first person. Now it is not “he,” my friend’s wife, but “I,” my wife. And so the crowd is even more engaged, drawn into the scandal of a betrayed husband. This is the same as Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. This is TMZ showing video of Ray Rice knocking out his wife in the elevator. This is the candidate trying to explain why he texted salacious pictures. The crowd presses in to hear more.
And then, suddenly, the prophet declares that God is the spurned husband and this people the unfaithful wife.
I wish I could preach like this.
The poetry is wonderful, unforgettable – and brutal.
We domesticate the prophet’s words by putting them in a holy book and labeling the lines with numbers, but the numbers are helpful. The second half of verse 7 is a brutal seven-word indictment that the translation can’t fully convey. Our translation has: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The seven words break out like this:
- He looked
- for justice –
- And behold!
- Violence! (Probably ‘bloodshed’ an ‘outpouring’ of blood)
- For righteousness –
- And behold!
- Outcry! (The cry of the victimized)
Adding to the power of this strophe, the words ‘justice’ and ‘violence’ sound nearly identical – as do the words ‘outcry’ and ‘righteousness’. To capture this, the JPS Tanakh translates the verse as
“And He hoped for justice,
But behold, injustice;
But behold iniquity.
So what starts as a guilty pleasure, a scandalous song, becomes a piercing, memorable, inescapable judgment.
God looked for justice from his people, and what he found was the cry of the oppressed. This is the outcry against the tyranny of Sodom and Gomorrah that leads to their destruction. This is the bitter cry of Esau when his brother’s deception is discovered. This is the cry of Israel in bondage in Egypt – a cry God heard, a cry God answered with deliverance. God brought them out from Egypt. God guided a landless people to a land. God looked for a just community – and behold, a cry!
God looked for sweet fruit and got only a bitter harvest.
And what would God say of the church?
- I looked for fidelity, and look! Infidelity!
- I looked for compassion, and look! Indifference!
- I looked for generosity, and look! Hardness of heart!
- I looked for unity, and look! Division!
- I looked for heralds of Grace, and look! Silence!
And what would God say of the nations of the earth?
- I looked for justice, and look! Injustice!
- I looked for peace, and look! War!
- I looked for equality, and look! Inequality!
- I looked for sufficiency, and look! Poverty!
- I looked for charity, and look! Avarice!
- I looked for humanity, and look! Brutality!
- I looked for liberty, and look! Bondage!
- I looked for care of strangers, and look! Bigotry!
- I looked for truth, and look! Falsehood!
- I looked for Life, and look! Death!
And I suppose, given the blessing of the animals this Sunday, we should add one more:
- I looked for care of my creation, and look! Devastation!
I can’t preach like Isaiah, but I can point to his words and hope we hear them.