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Isaiah 5: The Vineyard: Chapter 18: Six Woes for Jerusalem

The people’s misuse of “the vineyard” meant that they were not using it according to the principles of God’s laws, which were their terms of agreement at the beginning. Isaiah then issues six “woes,” by which he condemned the wickedness of the nation for allowing sin to oppress the common people.

Woe #1 against Jubilee Violations

Isaiah 5:8 says,

8 Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until there is no more room, so that you have to live alone in the midst of the land.

This was directed at the wealthy and powerful men of Judah who had foreclosed upon the inheritance of the poor. It implies that they had failed to keep their Jubilees, where every family’s land would return to them every 49 years (Lev. 25:10, 13). The law of Jubilee was a safeguard against perpetual debt and the loss of one’s inheritance.

A growing number of Judahites had to “live alone” because of the breakup of the family. The family inheritance provided space for the family to work together, each person having assigned duties according to their abilities. The family structure, held together by their family inheritance in the land, was meant to provide stability to the nation.

The divine judgment for violating these principles is seen in Isaiah 5:9, 10,

9 In my ears the Lord of hosts has sworn, “Surely, many houses shall become desolate, even great and fine ones, without occupants. 10 For ten acres [tsemed] of vineyard will yield only a bath of wine, and a homer of seed will yield but an ephah of grain.”

The prophet had heard the oath sworn by the Lord of hosts “in my ears,” he says. When God swears an oath, it will surely be fulfilled. It is a settled verdict from the divine court. It may yet be delayed through repentance, as we see with Judah, when the Assyrian army failed to capture Jerusalem and the captivity was delayed another century. Nonetheless it would surely come to pass in the end.

Those great houses and mansions, which the rich and powerful had built for themselves, would be unoccupied, because they would either be dead or sent into exile. The reason for such desolation is the land’s inability to produce fruit (wine and grain). Here is a subtle reminder of the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, where the issue was Judah’s lack of proper fruit. As we have seen, this was a spiritual problem set forth in a farming parable.

A bath was about six English gallons. Ten acres of grapevines should have produced far more than just six gallons of wine. The Hebrew word tsemed for “ten acres” literally means “a yoke (pair) of oxen,” and by extension it referred to the amount of land that a pair of oxen could plow in a day. This too was how an acre was measured during the Middle Ages.

Likewise, the prophet says, “a homer of seed will yield but an ephah of grain.” There were three basic measures of capacity in the Hebrew culture: omer, ephah, and homer. An omer is a small measure of grain; an ephah is ten omers, and a homer is ten ephahs or 100 omers. The measures go by multiples of ten.

So the prophet was telling us that if they were to plant a homer of seed, they will harvest just one-tenth of what they had planted by the law of diminishing returns. Normally, one would expect to receive 30-fold, 60-fold, or even 100-fold from one’s labor (Matt. 13:8).

All of this shows the deeper meaning of Judah’s lack of fruit. They refused to implement God’s law of Jubilee, which resulted in a severe shortage of the fruit of the Spirit that God required. The purpose of His labor at creation was to enjoy the fruit of His labor in the time of rest.

Woe #2 against too much Partying

Isaiah 5:11, 12 says,

11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink, who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them! 12 Their banquets are accompanied by lyre and harp, by tambourine and flute, and by wine; but they do not pay attention to the deeds of the Lord, nor do they consider the work of His hands.

This is not merely a condemnation of alcoholics. It is a condemnation against those who prefer parties and frivolous pleasure-seeking to studying and learning about God and His nature. The prophet considered their parties to be a waste of valuable time caused by men’s lack of proper priorities in life. The judgment of God is then set forth in Isaiah 5:13-17. Verse 13 says,

13 Therefore My people go into exile [gala] for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst.

The prophet uses the word gala, “to be carried away, or exiled” with a double meaning. On the surface, it means that the people would be carried away by the Assyrians shortly. But meanwhile, the people were getting “carried away” by their frivolous pursuit of fun. Being carried away with parties resulted in their lack of knowledge of God and what He had done in Israel’s history.

Our English word gala, means “a festive celebration.” It is derived from the French word gale and galer, “pleasure, merrymaking,” but it is one of thousands of English words originally derived from the Hebrew language.

The judgment of God, then, is rendered in Isaiah 5:14, 15,

14 Therefore Sheol [the grave] has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure; and Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it. 15 So the common man will be humbled and the man of importance abased, the eyes of the proud also will be abased.

The whole nation, great and small, was to suffer by being “humbled” and “abased.” Sheol, the pit or the grave, was pictured as a python, which enlarges its throat to swallow its prey whole. In this case, to be “abased” (shafel) is to be brought low or cast down (into the pit of Sheol), even as a python swallows its prey.

Isaiah 5:16, 17 concludes,

16 But the Lord of hosts will be exalted in judgment, and the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness. 17 Then the lambs will graze as in their pasture, and strangers will eat in the waste places of the wealthy.

The abasement of the sinners stands in contrast to God’s exaltation (gabbah, “to be lofty, high”). His judgments (mishpat) are His verdicts as He judges the nations and the people. All of His judgments will be vindicated as acts of righteousness (tsedeqah).

So Rev. 15:3, 4 says,

3 … Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are Your ways, King of the nations! 4 Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy, for all the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.

The prophet’s concern is that when God brings judgment the people usually think that God is abusing them unjustly. They misunderstand because of their lack of knowledge. Not knowing the ways of God or the divine plan, they think, in their arrogance, that they are their own masters. They do not recognize that the Creator owns what He creates and has the right to set the standard of behavior according to His own righteous nature, as expressed in His law.

The judgment is that lambs will eat grass in what is left of their houses, and foreigners will use its ruins for shade when they have lunch.

Woe #3 against Cynicism

Isaiah 5:18, 19 says,

18 Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood, and sin as if with cart ropes; 19 who say, “Let Him make speed, let Him hasten His work, that we may see it; and let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near and come to pass, that we may know it.”

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says this:

18, 19. Guilty of cynical materialism. Like idol worshipers drawing the cart of a great idol in festal procession, these backslidden people dragged along their idol of iniquity, challenging the Holy One of Israel, as if he were powerless to intervene in human history and exercise His sovereignty.

In other words, to “drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood” was to parade an idol (“iniquity”) along the streets of Jerusalem. Their cynicism was based on God’s apparent failure to vindicate Himself or to manifest Himself in the earth. The prophets had foretold many things, which had not yet come to pass. Hence, the word of the prophets carried no weight with them.

So when Isaiah objected to their idolatry, the people said, in effect, If your God is the true God, then let Him hurry up and fulfill His word so we can see and believe. We read of similar people in 2 Peter 3:3, 4,

3 Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their own mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.”

Peter answers in 2 Peter 3:8, 9,

8 … with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Time is the main ingredient to patience. God’s patience is based on His immortality; man’s impatience is based on his mortal perspective. Man therefore lacks time and demands to see everything immediately. But God is the One who sets the policy, and men’s cynicism and childish impatience will not make Him follow their childish example.

Someone has to be the adult around here.

Woe #4 against Redefining Good and Evil

Isaiah 5:20 says,

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Such people have an inverse moral code, the opposite of the divine nature as expressed in His word and law. What God defines in His law as sin, these people claim is good. What the word of God proclaims as truth (“light”), these people denounce as evil (“darkness”). What is sweet to God the people treat as a bitter pill.

Instead of men conforming to the image of their Creator, these expect the Creator to conform to the desires of their own heart. Jesus said in John 3:19,

19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

This is the condition of mortal flesh since the time of Adam. Children of the flesh have corruptible hearts, and some have degenerated to unfathomable depths, especially when induced by the doctrines and practices of witchcraft and satanism. The long-term historic trend is that of degeneration, and if it were not for the presence of the remnant, every nation would soon become Sodom and Gomorrah.

But the divine plan is to leave a remnant of grace in the earth to prevent this. To counter the sin, iniquity, and wickedness in the earth, the Holy Spirit working in the believers and especially in the remnant will prevail as the Spirit is poured out in the timing of God (Isaiah 32:15).

Woe #5 against Fleshly Cleverness

Isaiah 5:21 says,

21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!

Isaiah gives no explanation for this woe, but it will become clearer when we later compare Isaiah’s six woes with Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. Then we will see that Jesus explained this woe in Matt. 23:29. In that woe, the Pharisees’ practice of adorning the tombs of the prophets after they had killed them was the example of being “clever in their own sight.” Jer. 4:22 KJV describes this well when he says that “they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.”

In more modern terms, we see that people and governments are experts in hiding their sins and crimes. They have many public relations programs that are designed to hide their sins and give the appearance of righteousness. That, in fact, is the cornerstone of most politics today. They follow the wisdom and cleverness of Edward Bernays, who established the first Public Relations firm in the United States.

Bernays (1891-1995), the nephew of Sigmund Freud the psychoanalyst, was known as “the father of propaganda.” His mother, Anna Freud, was Sigmund’s younger sister. Bernays’ 1928 book, Propaganda, included a famous quote:

“Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda.”

He was certainly “wise” and “clever” in the art of manipulating public opinion to hide from their eyes the sins of his clients. So also the Pharisees had whitewashed and beautified the sepulchers of the prophets that their forefathers had killed, honoring them posthumously as a propaganda ploy to try to absolve Jerusalem and make themselves appear righteous.

Woe #6 against Unjust Judges

Isaiah 5:22, 23 says,

22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant men in mixing strong drink, 23 who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!

This is not so much a condemnation of alcoholics as it is about the judges in Isaiah’s day. The judges were the ones who “justify the wicked for a bribe.” This is about the court system and its injustice. The rich, who could afford bribes, and the powerful men in government, who had appointed the judges with instructions to favor themselves in any court case, had subverted the judicial system.

That problem was not unique in Isaiah’s day. No doubt such injustice had been prevalent throughout the world, but Israel was supposed to be different. The law instructed the judges not to take bribes or even to drink wine while they were on duty, lest their minds be clouded. We read in Exodus 23:6-8,

6 You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute [legal case]. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8 You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.

This is affirmed in James 2:1-4,

1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?

One does not have to judge in a courtroom to be a judge. We all make judgments every day and are accountable to the same law of God. We need to be well educated on righteous judgment, even if the judges sitting in the courtroom (“the bench”) often judge unrighteously.

Divine Judgment

Isaiah 5:24 continues,

24 Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble and dry grass collapses into the flame, so their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah’s first metaphor comes from Deut. 4:24, that our God “is a consuming fire.” When He went before the army against the wicked ones of Canaan, He said in Deut. 9:3,

3 Know therefore today that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the Lord has spoken to you.

Nonetheless, this “consuming fire” is impartial, for fire burns all flesh, regardless of genealogy or nationality. The judgments of the law were to fall upon the Israelites too if they acted as the Canaanites who had been driven out before them. Hence, Isaiah applies the metaphor of fire to Judah and Jerusalem.

The second metaphor was “their root will become like rot.” While the prophet was speaking about the people themselves, he used a farming metaphor. The law in Deut. 28:22 speaks of divine judgment in terms of mildew and blight, and the prophets show how this was actually fulfilled.

Amos 4:9 says,

9 “I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and the caterpillar was devouring your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees, and olive trees; yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the Lord.

Haggai 2:17 adds,

17 “I smote you and every work of your hands with blasting wind, mildew, and hail; yet you did not come back to Me,” declares the Lord.”

The reason for divine judgment, of course, was that “they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” It is one thing to have an erroneous interpretation of the law, and quite another to reject and despise the law itself. Many argue that Jesus put away the law and replaced it with the law of love. They forget that the entire law hangs on love—love of God and love of one’s neighbor. No one can put away the law and still claim to be led by love. The law defines love as God sees it.

I have heard men tell me that the law was satanic, that Moses received it from Satan. One man even told me that Yahweh was Satan. Fortunately for him, he did not know what he was saying, for such statements are blasphemous.

The point is that the church’s treatment of the law today is based on the same attitude that the people of Israel and Judah had long ago. Human nature has not changed. The flesh hates the law and cannot hear the word of the Lord (Rom. 8:7). We must be diligent, then, to recognize the carnal nature of the flesh, for that is not the way to be led by the Spirit.

That which is begotten by God does not commit sin (1 John 3:9). Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Hence, it is only the flesh man that is lawless. If we identify with the new man that is begotten by God, we will not follow after the lusts of the flesh.

Our behavior manifests either the fruit of the Spirit or stinkberries of the flesh. While the law can only regulate behavior and cannot make anyone righteous by its dictates, the law is still the righteous standard by which we are to judge our fruit. All things must be judged by the law, which is the will and nature of God.

The Old Covenant makes man’s will responsible to bring forth good fruit; the New Covenant makes God’s will responsible to bring forth good fruit from us. In both cases, the righteousness of God is the same, but the means by which the goal is accomplished are vastly different. The Old Covenant holds men to their vows of obedience and their ability to refrain from sin; the New Covenant holds God to His vow to make us obedient by the inner working of the Holy Spirit.

The word of God given to Isaiah is thus still relevant to us. Failure to keep God’s law is still the reason for divine judgment. We simply need to know which Covenant will succeed in bringing forth the fruit that God requires.