The Song of the Vineyard

In preparing for the study I'm leading at the local prison I came across something that shed new light (for me) on Jesus' "I am the vine" discourse in the Gospel of John.

The insight came by coming to understand how a particular song in the book of Isaiah shaped Israel's understanding of her experience of exile. The song comes from Isaiah 5.1-7:

Now I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes...
The "Song of the Vineyard", as some translations designate the song, starts with verses telling the story of the "beloved" who creates and plants a vineyard and is now waiting for a sweet harvest. But Verse 2 ends on an ominous note.
...but the grapes that grew were bitter.
The song then turns, in verses 3-4, to compare Israel to the disappointing vineyard.
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
Given that Israel has yielded "bitter grapes" despite all that God had done, the song concludes with God's judgments.
Now let me tell you
what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
to drop no rain on it.

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
but instead he heard cries of violence.
This Song of the Vineyard shaped how Israel explained her exile. Failing to produce "sweet grapes" Israel is now "overgrown" with oppression, no longer protected by "walls" and "trampled" by "animals" (read: Romans). What was once a "pleasant garden" is now "destroyed."

The hearers of Jesus' message understood themselves to be in the state of exile as expressed in the Song of the Vineyard. The messianic expectation was that the Messiah would come as a second Moses to lead a second Exodus. Given this expectation a part of Jesus' Kingdom-message was to proclaim the end of exile in his own ministry and person. And one way Jesus does this is by proclaiming a new ending to the Song of the Vineyard:
John 15.1-8
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
What I found interesting about the exilic connection with Jesus' vine imagery is that I'd always considered "I am the vine" to simply be a quaint horticultural metaphor. But in the minds of Jesus' audience the image of a "true vine" that "bears fruit" to the glory of God is a radical and epic proclamation. It is the revolutionary proclamation that in the person of Jesus the long exile of Israel has ended.

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16 thoughts on “The Song of the Vineyard”

  1. Ray Vander Laan speaks about this song in With All Your Heart session 5.  We just watched that video last Sunday.  What a powerful image!

  2. "And one way Jesus does this is by proclaiming a new ending to the Song of the Vineyard"

    How can this be new when the prophets had long before proclaimed the ending?

    "But in the minds of Jesus' audience the image of a "true vine" that "bears fruit" to the glory of God is a radical and epic proclamation."

    For the end of the exile to come about, His 'audience' had to believe Him. They clearly didn't see this as a grand proclamation. For how did they respond to John 15; they killed Him.

  3. David, this comment just doesn't make any sense. "They clearly didn't see this as a grand proclamation" and yet "they killed him."

    Do you think they killed him because he told cute stories about grapes?

  4. "this comment just doesn't make any sense."

    Sorry, that was not intentional.

    Of course it was a grand proclamation:  I am God and I am here to be your king and I am here to set up the kingdom (right here in Jerusalem) so you can have all the blessings that have been promised to you, Israel.

    But, they did not see that they were in exile and they didn't need any changes.  He was threatening to upset their 'grape' cart.  That's why they killed Him.  Certainly not because He told them how to grow grapes or gave them any new revelations that the prophets had not given them many times in the past.

  5. Illustrating my comments from yesterday, this is "poetry" and not "song".  To me it is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses.

    Thank God for George Frederick Handel.

  6. "They did not see that they were in exile." Ummm. That's incorrect. I'd refer you to the literature on Second Temple Judaism. 

  7. Richard,

    The ones to whom Jesus spoke in John 15 were living in Israel, they were not in exile.  Many Jews were of course out of the land at that time, as today.  Are you not using the term 'exile' in a figurative sense here?  They were suffering the consequences of their sin; but, they thought they were just fine with God.  Of course, when the kingdom is actually inaugurated, ALL Israel will be in the land of Israel, no exile of any kind.  But, that was not the focus of Jesus' message that you are addressing here?

  8. Yes, I'm aware they were living in Israel. To understand what I'm talking about I'd highly recommend exploring the theological, political, and psychological dynamics of Second Temple Judaism. It's a fascinating literature that I think you'd enjoy and get a lot out of. Particularly given your interest in the book of Daniel. 

  9. In particular:  exile as experienced - concretely, not figuratively - as under the thumb of an occupying power rather than under the benevolent rule of the throne of my kinsman, David.  If I am living in a house that is nominally mine but is functionally dominated by the Gestapo, or by Augustus, or Antiochus IV Epiphanes, or Necho, I am not really self-determined and free.  This is about land, but it is not ONLY about land.

  10. BTW, "all Israel will be in the land of Israel" is probably not what you really meant, is it?  After all, John's Jesus summarily dispatches the idea of Zion as the perpetual home of YHWH's worshiping community/kingdom in John 4.

  11. You took the time and effort to respond.  I am slow and don't get your point.  Could you spell it out for me?  Of course these people were under Roman rule and not free.  With Israel it is always about a holy people, a particular piece of land, and their own king who just happens to be God.  And, all of this is old news.  The OT is full of it.  John 15 was not a new ending to fill out the old story.

  12. Actually, it was.  The Israelites I reference will all experience the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31.  No conflict with what Jesus told the Samaritan woman.  He was not specifying the place of worship but the manner, in spirit.

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