When God is disappointed
This article is based on a talk given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church, Southampton, on Sunday 25th July 2004. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites subject to the copyright notice below.
One Sunday in Oxford, a man went into a church to collect something for his partner, who worked in an arts project that the church ran during the week. He arrived as the morning congregation was leaving. He was surprised to see so many people about, and asked 'What are all these people doing here? I didn't know churches were open on Sundays!'
In a school in London, a teenager heard the Christmas story for the first time. He was fascinated. After the lesson, although he knew that his friends would make fun of him, he talked to the teacher about it. 'Amazing story,' he said, 'but why did they give the baby a swear-word for his name?'
Both of these are true stories. I do not know whether they make you want to smile, or make you want to weep. However we feel about them, they remind us that we live in a culture that has moved a long way from its Christian heritage. People do not know the Christmas story; they do not go to church.
It is a cliché, but it is still true, that we live in a post-Christian culture. We do not need to be gloomy about this: it gives us some exciting opportunities that we never had when the Christian message was the background to the whole of our society.
But our post-Christian culture is different from the pre-Christian world the first churches lived in. One difference is that people today think they know what the Christian message is about. And because they think they know, they are inoculated against really hearing it for themselves.
One common misunderstanding today is that whatever religion you follow, whether it is Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism or something else, all religions basically teach the same thing: they give you a moral code which you have to follow if you want to be a good person.
So well-meaning people often say things like 'it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you are sincerely trying to do your best.'
(This is really incredibly naïve: what you believe will make all the difference between whether you sacrifice your life as a medical missionary, saving the lives of the poor - or whether you sacrifice your life as a suicide bomber, killing the innocent. What you believe completely shapes what you do.)
But there is this very common idea that Christianity is all about living a life good enough to please God. You try to be a nice person, and to do good deeds. You give your small change to people with collection boxes, and you are kind to cats. On judgment day, God will add up all your good deeds, and the few less good things you may have done, and you hope that the cat kindness and the small change will outweigh those less charitable things. God will decide that you are good enough to get into heaven. So you earn your way into God's favor because your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds.
Of course this is not the Christian message, and it never has been. In this article, we are looking at Isaiah chapter 5, and we shall see that it says something very important about what pleases God, and what does not.
Overview of Isaiah chapter 5
We are going to skim through the whole chapter quickly, and then come back and look at the first part in a bit more depth. So here is the overview. The chapter gives us three pictures:
Verses 1-7: A picture of disappointment
The picture is of someone who owns a vineyard, and looks after it lovingly, but the vineyard produces only bad fruit. Verse 7 explains the picture: the vineyard is God's people, Israel and Judah, and the owner is God himself. We will come back to this picture in a moment.
Verses 8-25: A picture of destruction
The key theme of the first part of Isaiah is about God's judgment. Here, we have a list of six woes. 'Woe to those who...'
- Verse 8: 'Woe to you who add house to house...'
- Verses 11-12: 'Woe to you who rise early in the morning to run after your drinks...'
- Verse 18: 'Woe to you who draw sin along with cords of deceit...'
- Verse 20: 'Woe to you who call evil good and good evil...'
- Verse 21: 'Woe to you who are wise in your own eyes...'
- Verse 22: 'Woe to you who are heroes - at drinking...'
The New Living Bible translates this phrase as 'Destruction is certain...'
This is a picture of people who are supposed to be God's own people, but they have rejected God.
In between these woes, there are warnings of judgment:
- Verses 9-10: Judgment: all these houses are going to be left unoccupied, and the farmland that goes with them will be devastated.
- Verses 13-17: Judgment: You will go into exile and death. You wanted a party - well, it is death that will do the feasting (verse 14)
It is a warning of grief to come: 'destruction is certain.' You cannot reject God and get away with it.
A small detour: people sometimes say: 'this is just the Old Testament. There is lots of stuff in the Old Testament about judgment and wrath, but the New Testament is all about God's love. Jesus would never have talked like that.'
But in Matthew's Gospel chapter 23 verses 13-30 and Luke's Gospel chapter 6 verses 24-26, Jesus uses exactly the same pattern. Woe... woe... woe... Jesus also speaks about God's judgment. In fact, he speaks about hell more than he speaks about heaven.
So the second picture is a picture of destruction.
Verses 25-30: A picture of devastation
The destruction of verses 8-25 is not enough. Israel's rejection of God is so serious that even his judgments do not satisfy him. So as the end of verse 25 says
Yet for all this - for all these judgments - his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.
Then in verses 26-30 we have this picture of God's devastation on his people by bringing a powerful enemy against them:
He lifts up a banner for the distant nations,
he whistles for those at the ends of the earth.
Here they come, swiftly and speedily!
Not one of them grows tired or stumbles,
not one slumbers or sleeps;
not a belt is loosened at the waist,
not a sandal thong is broken.
Their arrows are sharp,
all their bows are strung;
their horses' hooves seem like flint,
their chariot wheels like a whirlwind.
At this point, Isaiah does not identify who this enemy is. The Assyrians swept through Judah in 701 BC and devastated the land, but did not actually take Jerusalem. A hundred years later, the Babylonians attacked, destroyed Jerusalem itself, and took the people away as captives.
And the chapter ends on a fearful down note:
If one looks at the land,
he will see darkness and distress;
even the light will be darkened by the clouds. (verse 30)
It is a picture of devastation.
A picture of disappointment
So these three pictures - of disappointment, destruction, and devastation - give us the shape of the chapter, very briefly. The overall theme is of judgment. Now let's look a bit more closely at verses 1-7, a picture of disappointment, to understand why God's judgment falls.
The picture used here of God's people, Israel, as his vineyard, is one that echoes through the Bible. Sometimes Israel is described as a whole vineyard, and sometimes as an individual vine.
So, for example Jeremiah chapter 2 verse 21 says:
I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
As we go on, we'll look at some other places where the Bible uses this picture.
This part of the chapter breaks down into three movements, or three acts:
- Verses 1-2: A song for my friend (described as 'the one I love' in the New International Version)
- Verses 3-6: An accusation by my friend
- Verse 7: A revelation about my friend
Verses 1-2: A song for my friend
The first two verses are the song itself - a song about a vineyard.
The owner has done everything he could for the vineyard. He has dug it, cleared out the stones, planted the vines, built a watchtower as his permanent home, and cut out a storage tank. It has had every possible advantage.
But the vineyard is a dead loss. It has only produced corrupt and rotting fruit - literally 'stink-fruit.' Alec Motyer, in his commentary on Isaiah, calls it 'a total work, a total loss.' The owner is disappointed.
Verses 3-6: An accusation by my friend
Here the scene shifts to a courtroom, and a legal charge:
Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard...
In verses 5-6, because the vineyard is a dead loss, the owner is going to undo all the good he has done for it - take away the hedge, break down the wall, and make it a wasteland...
By the end of verse 6, it is clear that this is a song about God himself, because he commands the clouds not to rain - something no human farmer could do.
Verse 7: A revelation about my friend
This is the explanation of what it is all about. When we get to verse 7, we discover that the owner is God himself, and the vineyard is a picture of God's people:
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.
Back in verse 2, the owner did all he could for the vineyard. So what had God done for his people Israel? Well, look at Psalm 80:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
and it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its boughs to the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
Why have you broken down its walls
so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
Boars from the forest ravage it
and the creatures of the field feed on it.
Return to us, O God Almighty!
Look down from heaven and see!
Watch over this vine,
the root your right hand has planted,
the son you have raised up for yourself.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
at your rebuke your people perish. (Psalm 80 verses 8-16)
The great thing God had done for Israel was to deliver them from slavery in Egypt. So verse 8 says: 'You brought a vine out of Egypt.'
God had brought them into their own land. He 'drove out the nations and planted' them. He gave them economic stability, prosperity, peace, a good king.
And he looked for good fruit from his vineyard. Back to Isaiah 5. In verse 4, the owner comes to the vineyard, and says:
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
The same expression is used in verse 7, of God himself:
He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
There is a pun here, which is lost in translation: In verse 7, the word for 'justice' sounds like the word for 'bloodshed,' and the word for 'righteousness' sounds like the word for 'distress.' One try at translating this verse is:
He looked for right, but found riot. He looked for decency, but found only despair.
So God himself is disappointed by what he finds in his people.
So we have an allegory here:
- Vineyard = God's people
- Owner = God
- Vineyard produces bad fruit = God's people are producing bloodshed rather than justice, and distress rather than righteousness
In its original context, this was a picture of judgment on the Jews of Isaiah's day, for their rejection of God and failure to obey his laws. So what does it have to say to us? In fact, does it have anything to say to us?
Well, let's jump forward seven hundred years. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all record Jesus telling a story about a vineyard. Let's look at Luke's version, which is in Luke's Gospel chapter 20 verses 9-18:
He went on to tell the people this parable: 'A man planted a vineyard...'
When he says this, a light goes off in the heads of all his hearers: Isaiah 5! They know that the man in the story is God himself.
A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. 'Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.' But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 'What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.'
Jesus picks up Isaiah's picture of Israel as God's vineyard, and he takes it and shapes it and extends it, in two main ways:
- He compares the religious leaders of his own day with dishonest and rebellious tenant farmers.
- He makes an inescapable claim to be the son of the vineyard owner. And who is the owner? Well, we already know this from Isaiah 5 - God himself. Do not let anyone tell you that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God.
So Jesus extends the allegory:
- tenant farmers = religious leaders
- son of the owner = Jesus himself
Then look at John's Gospel, chapter 15. This is Jesus talking to his followers on the night before he was crucified. John's Gospel chapter 15 verse 1-4:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener....
At this point, of course, his disciples are remembering the song of the vineyard from Isaiah 5, and Jesus's story recorded in Luke chapter 20.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
Jesus reshapes the picture again. Now, he says that he is the true vine.
The Jews and their leaders had failed as God's vineyard. They had not produced the fruit he was looking for, and God was disappointed with them. But Jesus, as the true Israel, would not fail, and would not disappoint.
Jesus is taking the Old Testament picture of Israel as the people of God, represented by a vine, and he is saying 'I am the true Israel. I am the true people of God.' You, my followers, have become branches in the true vine - you have become members of the true people of God - by being included in me. And he says that the way to bear fruit is to remain in him - to live in the closest contact with him.
Later, in verses 16 of John chapter 15, he will tell his followers:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last.
Now we can add a bit more to the allegory:
- true vine = Jesus (the true Israel)
- branches = his followers
- Way to bear good fruit = remain in living contact with him
We have traced how this allegory of the vineyard develops and grows through the Bible, from Psalm 80, through Isaiah and Jeremiah, through to Jesus's parable of the tenants, and on into John 15. What does it have to say to us? There are two main things that I believe God would have us take away from this chapter:
We cannot earn God's goodness
We began this article with the idea that Christianity is all about living a good life: earning God's favor by being kind to animals and giving away your small change. Hoping that on judgment day God will be lenient, and your good deeds will outweigh the bad.
This picture of the vineyard says to us that this is not how things are: the initiative is with God, not us. He has already done everything that he possibly could to for us as his people.
He had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. So also he has rescued us from the power of sin and death. He has forgiven our guilt. He has made it possible for us to enjoy a relationship with him that begins now and lasts for eternity.
He has done all this through Jesus Christ - through his life, but more particularly through his death on the cross, and his rising from the dead. When Jesus died, he paid the price for our sin and guilt. When he rose from death, that showed conclusively that God had accepted his sacrifice, and that he had defeated death itself, and every evil power.
What do we have to do? Nothing. Nothing at all. God has done it all for us. All we need to do is to reach out and accept what God offers. This is the response he looks for from us.
So we cannot earn God's goodness when we become followers of Christ in the first place. Neither can we earn God's goodness as we go on through life as his people.
Followers of Christ sometimes seem to think that we are saved through trusting Jesus Christ, and through his death on the cross, but then we have to try to earn God's favor day by day by living righteous lives.
But just as we can only be saved in the first place at God's initiative and through his goodness, so also we can only live day by day at his initiative and through his goodness. Just as we can only enter his family by grace, so also we can only stand, day by day, by his grace. We can never earn it.
We must respond to God's goodness
We cannot earn it, but we can respond to it, and the second thing God wants us to take away from this picture of the vineyard is that he is looking for a response from our hearts. A response of trust in him, of thanks for his goodness, and of obeying him day by day.
If one danger is that we think we have to earn God's favor by doing good works, there is an opposite danger, where we say, 'God has saved me. Jesus has died. My sins are forgiven, so it doesn't matter what I do. I can do whatever I like. I can live to please myself.'
This chapter warns us that this is not so. The owner comes to the vineyard and looks for good fruit. God comes to us as his people and looks for good fruit in response to all he has done for us.
It is not that we are trying to put God in our debt by doing good deeds, but that by our lives we are showing our thanks to him and our trust in him.
John Calvin, the French reformer, said
Good works will never produce a good person, but a good person [by which he meant a person who has already been put right with God through trusting Jesus Christ] will produce good works.
God came looking to Israel in Isaiah's day, and he was disappointed. He looked for good fruit from all he had done to care for them, and he found only the stinking and rotten fruit of injustice and violence.
God came looking to Jesus, the true Israel, the true vine, and he looked for fruit, and he was not disappointed. He said 'This is my dearly loved son, with whom I am well-pleased.'
God comes to us today, as branches of Jesus, the true vine, and he looks for fruit - for a response of thankfulness and trust and lives lived for him. What does he find?
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