One of the forms of entertainment that became quite fashionable in the 18th century was the music hall. This period was marked by a proliferation of classical music, and people who could afford it would go out for a night on the town. After a good meal the people would sit and listen to an opera or some other classical piece. It was these events that caused Franz Joseph Hayden to write his famous piece which has come to be called “The Surprise.”
Hayden was known to be a little playful with his music. Most of his works are characterized by a happy sort of tune. This work in particular was jovial, but in a prank sort of way. The score starts out with a soft light melody. The symphony’s gentle tones were intended to lull the audience who would already be a little sleepy after having finished a big meal. Just as the audience began to nod off, Hayden’s orchestra would strike a sudden fortissimo burst to jar the audience from their sleep. After the jolt of the one cord the music returned to its original quiet theme as if nothing had happened. Thus the symphony was termed, “The Surprise.”
I believe that our passage for this morning somewhat mimics Hayden’s 94th Symphony. This morning’s passage, like Hayden’s piece, is a beautiful work of music. It is a song, and it is one that is perhaps unparalleled by any other ancient work. It stands in a category of its own, literarily.
Some commentators even believe that Isaiah might have even sung this song in the context of a formal gathering—much like Hayden might have played for the nobility of his day. These scholars surmise that it may even have been performed within the royal court itself. We don’t know that for sure, but it would heighten the surprise factor of the song.
Unfortunately though, it is not as jovial as Hayden’s piece.
It is commonly called the song of the vineyard. Isaiah presents an allegory which compares the Jews to a beautiful vineyard. The surprise of this piece is the same in that it jolts an unsuspecting audience. It starts out as a melodic love song. Listeners would have been drawn in by the initial romantic tenor. However, the audience is then jolted as the tone crescendos into a divine denunciation.
Even today many people are surprised by this song. It is interesting how many commentators characterize this song as a love song. To be sure, it does start out in that way. At the outset, it presents itself as a song of great love and labor.
I. It is a song of great love and labor
The first two lines of the chapter highlight God’s abundant love and how he fawned over Israel. These two verses show that God made every provision for them, and went to great lengths to care for his people. The imagery of how extensive the labor was is not spared in the slightest.
Verse two starts off with quite a remarkable statement. It says he dug it and cleared it of stones. That would have been no small task. If you know anything about Palestine you know that stones are everywhere. Farmers in Ohio would have had a lot of rocks to pluck out when they were first preparing their fields, but Palestine would have surpassed it. The process of digging out the stones would have required extensive time and energy.
There is a Jewish lore that when God created the world an angel was flying with two bags of rocks in his hands to bring to God. When it came over Palestine one of the bags broke. It was a way of saying that it seemed like half of the world’s rocks lay in that little region.
That story may be a fable, but it helps you understand the imagery that God uses to communicate how exhaustive his nurture of Israel was.
Then the care God takes is highlighted by the fact that he didn’t just throw any old vine in there. He chose the choice vines. In other words, he didn’t spare any expense. Then he built a tower and a wine vat. All that is to emphasize the fact that He took every precaution to beautify and nurture his garden. He labored intensely, and we can see that it was a labor of love. This wasn’t just the work of his hands. It was the work of his heart.
Now in listening to what is said here we should remember that this is how God has treated us. As the new covenant people, God has made and is making every provision for us. He treats us with the same love and care.
This passage is here to make us recall “how numerous and diversified were the blessings which God has conferred on us.” (Calvin) Do you know all that God has done for us? Have you thought about his incessant care and watchfulness?
Consider for a moment the events that had to transpire for us to be here today. Our forefathers in the faith at the time of the Reformation lost a lot of blood as they stood steadfastly for our faith. Then they put themselves at risk by taking to the waters and coming to America. The ocean voyage would have been rough enough. But that was the least of their troubles! When they got here, they had nothing. All their labors though secured our faith and our freedom to worship God according to our consciences.
Besides the blessing of our history, we have the blessings of the covenant. Each of us is a part of the church. We’ve been given the oracles of God. We have received the sacraments. Young people, you’ve been blessed with having been born into a Christian home.
That is such a wonderful thing. We hear all the time about these great conversions. There is the fellow who was drugged out and living the life of the gangster. He then bottomed out, was close to death, and miraculously came to Christ. From that point on it has been a testimony to grace in his life. That’s a great thing, don’t get me wrong. But I’m sad that that is always gets the press. Everyone will tell you that having been born into a godly home is one of the greatest blessings you could ever have. You are spared so many things that other people are not. You have the opportunity to get to know Jesus from a very young age. This is a huge blessing.
All of us should be able to testify to the love and care that God has demonstrated towards us. We should be warmed by the mere thought of God’s watchfulness and his most gracious providence.
I don’t want you ever to forget the goodness of God—the goodness that is expressed particularly toward you. This passage is here to remind us that God looks upon us in a way that is different from all the other people of the earth. He does things for us that he does not do for other people. As his elect people, he shows a particular interest in us. He indulges us with his love, and all his labors are for building us up.
But as the song continues on the surprise strikes. What began as a song of love and labor turns to a song of sadness and disappointment.
II. It is a song of great sadness and disappointment
At the end of verse two this song descends into a minor key. After all the happy cords that were struck which highlight God’s love and labor it says, “but it yielded wild grapes.” Then verses 3-4 give expression to the disappointment. He says, “You tell me: What more could I do for my vineyard?”
You all know how frustrating it is to pour yourself into something, only to have nothing come from it. A parent may have poured himself/herself into a child, only to have him or her take the wrong track in life. You come to the point where you say, “What else could I have done for him?” It is irritating beyond all comprehension to have that happen.
All this is to remind us that God expects something out of us. Our lives are to be bearing fruit. Our election, and the favors we receive as a result of our election, are intended to produce righteousness. And if we are not showing love and becoming more and more holy with the passing of time, then God is greatly disappointed with us. That irks God to no end.
The sadness that God experiences may be understood more when you understand the last phrase of verse two. The word wild (from wild grapes) comes from a word that means “to stink.” These were not just wild grapes, they were grapes were putrid. They wreaked to high heaven.
The word can be found in the story of the plagues in Egypt. The very first plague was when Moses struck the Nile and it turned into blood. It says that the fish all died which caused the river to stink.
Then there is the instance when the Israelites were given manna in the desert. The Lord commanded them not to leave any of it until the morning. But some people kept it. And the passage says that it bred worms and emitted a raunchy stench.
That’s the essence of God’s disappointment. That is the extent of the grief that God bears over those who do not produce fruit. God finds their lives so repulsive that they nauseate him.
In the year 1878 an Italian botanist discovered a new species of flower on the island of Sumatra. It happened to be the largest flower in the world. The bloom itself grows to be 10 feet tall and three feet wide. The entire plant can grow up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Because it is so titanic in size, it has been named the Titan Aurum. The plant rarely blooms in cultivation. It typically only grows in the wild. So when it does bloom it is a really big deal. And people go to see it.
It has a nickname. It has been dubbed the Corpse Flower. It is called that because when it does bloom, it emits an extremely foul odor. It is so foul that you have to hold your nose, lest you get sick to your stomach. Some have said that the aroma that wafts from the plant resembles rotting human flesh. Thus the name the Corpse Flower.
It is an ironic twist of nature, isn’t it? It is so beautiful, yet it drives away anyone who would come to admire it. Yet that is exactly the way Israel was (and the church can be!). God has made every attempt to make you beautiful. He has cultivated you and nurtured you so that you are a gorgeous vineyard. Yet when the church is filled with wickedness God cannot stand her. If your life is filled with sin, you become absolutely revolting to Him.
All of this reminds us (or at least should remind us) of our lost condition. It reminds us that we are sinners, and we have no power of our own to do anything that pleases God. If it is up to us, then God most certainly will be disappointed with us. We are not any different from the Jews of Isaiah’s time. We are just as defunct spiritually as they are. We are bereft of any ability of our own to please God and do what is right.
One thing that this passage should do is leave us longing for the power that will enable us to produce righteousness that God calls for here. And thank God we have it in Christ. As a matter of fact, if you go to John 15 you see a great link to this passage in Isaiah. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
This passage is here ultimately to point us to Christ. It is here to remind us that Christ is our remedy. He is the one provided for us so that we might bear fruit. And what we must do is abide in Him. That is to say, we must put our faith in him and allow him to work in us. For it is his enablement that is the only way we will ever be able to bear fruit. It is only by His omnipotent hand that the song he sings about us will keep from becoming a song of disappointment and sadness.
Israel was not abiding in Christ. They were refusing their God. They wanted to live their own way. Though they were the blessed of God, they were not producing fruit in keeping with their blessing. That’s why God was disappointed. And that’s why the last stanza of this song crescendos into a song of great anger and wrath.
III. It is a song of great anger and wrath
In verses 5-6 you see God’s disappointment turn into rage. In these two verses God outlines exactly what he is going to do to Israel. He says he is going to tear his vineyard apart. He is going to remove the hedge and break down the wall. He is going to trample it and make it a waste. You can just imagine someone in a fit of rage busting up everything, kicking things over and hacking at the vines.
I think that one commentator put it well when he said that the love song turns into a song of denunciation at this point. It is a denunciation. God here promises that their sins will be repaid.
The heat of this passage reminds us of how incensed God becomes when his people do not produce fruit that is in keeping with his grace. When we spurn our special position, or when we fail to respond appropriately to the special graces afforded to us by God, we infuriate God. Yes, God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Yes, he is patient and not easily provoked. But we should also recognize that those who apostatize will find that they will be sorely treated by God.
The principle is that of “to whom much is given, much is demanded.” In the New Testament Jesus talks about this. In Luke 12 Jesus talks about his return. In that passage he says, “Blessed is the servant who is found doing his Master’s will when the Master returns.” Then he goes on to talk about a servant who blows his master off. Then he gives an example of a wayward servant. The servant thinks to himself, “My master is delayed in coming.” So he begins to mistreat the other servants and get drunk and indulge in revelry. Jesus says that when the Master returns, he will cut him to pieces and put him with the unfaithful.
If that was not bad enough, Jesus then goes on to say that the servant who knew his master's will but did not do it, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.”
Of course, who are the ones who know the Master’s will? That’s us! Those who have never had contact with God’s covenant—those who have never received these special favors from God, will not be treated as severely in hell as those who have. There are differing degrees of punishment. And those who receive the worst punishments are those who God showed the most favor towards.
A while ago I took some time to read Dante’s Inferno. It is a fictitious account of the different levels of hell. What is interesting about that book is that Dante represents this to some degree. The very first ring of hell in his depiction was the realm of what are called the virtuous pagans. Basically it was just a dark forest. No real torments, just dark and quiet. Then further down in the lower levels of hell you found various popes and priests who had apostatized. At one point they were pictured as being immersed upside down into fiery waters, then hot burning coals put on their feet. It was Dante’s way of showing the evil of their apostasy. (It is a vivid one too: having disavowed their baptism, they are immersed in a baptism of fire and brimstone!)
Of course, Dante’s work does not give an accurate picture of what hell is like. It is much worse than anything that Dante could dream up! But he does illustrate well principle this principle: to whom much is given, much is demanded.
This should then be a warning to us. We need to recognize how important it is to heed the word of God. If I could put it in the words of John the Baptist, if we are not producing fruit in keeping with repentance, then the ax will be laid at the root of the tree.
You young people especially must take note of this. I know I have said this before, but it deserves to be repeated from time to time. You are in a special relationship with God. Because you are in a covenant relationship with God treats you in a different way than he treats other people. I want you to understand that you respond appropriately to his grace. If you are not responding with thanksgiving and love, it is like playing with matches in a dry forest. Once a spark catches, it will consume everything.
Again, we can go to John 15. Jesus says there that he is the vine and his Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit, he takes away. Then he goes on to remind us that a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine.
Because the branches that do not bear fruit will be thrown away, we must seek to bear fruit. And we can only do that if we are abiding in Christ. That’s exactly what we must do. That’s what God calls us to do in this passage. We must abide in Christ. We must trust in him and seek to develop a personal relationship with him. We must pray to him, and be obedient to his word.
If you are not doing those things, you must go to him and confess that. If there is not a harvest to be gained for Christ in your life, it is time to take heed to your ways. You must amend your ways by going to Christ in repentance and begin to abide in him.
The song that he sings does not have to end with such dissonant tones. Its final stanza can become one of grace and forgiveness if you look to him in faith.
Kindled Fire is dedicated
to the preaching and teaching ministry of
Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.