Sour Grapes

Isaiah 5:1-7

27 February 2011

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


The basic question behind our passage today is this: do we deserve judgement? Do we deserve to be punished by God?

How you answer this question will depend on your view of humanity.

There are essentially two views. The first, and I believe very widely held view today, is that people are fundamentally good. We are all basically good people who sometimes find ourselves in bad circumstances. When we behave badly we can always blame it on an external factor: an abusive upbringing, a broken home, a poor education, mixing with the wrong crowd, a bad day at work.

On this view, the key to achieving a happy and harmonious society is to improve people's environment. When we are all decently educated, and no-one suffers from poverty or abuse, and no-one has to live in a slum, then crime will disappear, and society will tend towards perfection.

This kind of "optimistic" view of human nature seems to be shaping much of our attitudes towards what's going on in the Middle East at the moment. The hope is, that if only people can be freed from tyranny and oppression then their societies will tend to become peaceful and benign. The assumption is that, fundamentally, people are good, they only need the right environment in which to express that goodness.

In this view of human nature, punishment is inappropriate - it's not people's own fault that they behave badly, they are only victims of their circumstances. They need help and education: correction, not punishment.

The alternative view is that people are fundamentally bad. That our hearts rebel against God as surely as gravity pulls downwards. That however good our circumstances, we will always tend to evil. That we deserve nothing from God but his wrath.

So these are the questions that our short passage explores. Do we deserve God's judgement? Are we fundamentally good people in a bad environment, or are we fundamentally bad people who truly deserve his punishment?

Let's look at the Bible: Isaiah chapter 5 verse 1.

Devoted Gardener (v1-2c)

My first heading is Devoted Gardener: The Devoted Gardener creates the perfect environment.

We find, perhaps surprisingly, in verse 1 that Isaiah has begun a love song. I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.ref

And in his song he describes everything the gardener has done to create a perfect vineyard. He's found a fertile hillside on which to grow his vines. Somewhere with just the right proportions of sunlight and rain, and ideal soil to grow the vines in.

Then he's dug the soil and prepared the ground, clearing it and weeding it. He's cleared it of stones and used them, we find later, to build a wall around it. Actually, he doesn't take any chances: he puts up both a hedge and a wall. This vineyard is completely protected.

And he doesn't take any chances with the vines either. He seeks out the best stock he can find, the choicest vines, only the finest.

Everything is perfect. This devoted gardener is so confident that his grapes will be the envy of the world that he builds a watchtower to keep an eye out for anyone who would steal his grapes. He is anticipating a great harvest, so he digs out his wine press as well.

Everything is ready; all he has to do is wait for the delicious grapes to grow and swell and ripen.

Actually, you can see something like this at Hampton Court. Has anyone been to see the Great Vine at Hampton Court? It's thought to be the oldest and largest grapevine in the world. The gardeners have tended and cared for it for over 240 years. As it has grown, larger and larger glass houses have been lovingly built around it. But the roots are carefully left to extend outside the glass house so they can benefit from the rain. There is a large empty bed outside which the roots run under that is kept well weeded and manured.

These days, the Great Vine yields about 700 bunches of delicious sweet black grapes that have always been eaten as desert grapes in the royal household.

This is the kind of vines our Devoted Gardener was looking for. He's created the perfect environment, he ought to get perfect grapes.

Disgusting Grapes (v 2d-4, 7)

But instead, the grapes are disgusting. And that's my second heading: Disgusting Grapes show that destruction is deserved.

Isaiah's love song is going on quite beautifully and melodiously, when suddenly there is a jarring dissonance. Look at the end of verse 2, he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.ref Literally, sour grapes or wild grapes. They are not sweet and juicy, they are sour and inedible.

Despite the perfect environment the Devoted Gardener has lovingly laboured to create, the grapes are disgusting.

So, in verse 3, God invites the people to judge for themselves. He asks them to judge between me and my vineyard.ref He invites us, no he dares us to judge for ourselves and see if we will disagree with him.

What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? ref

Each question can have only one answer. What more could the Gardener have done? Answer: nothing more. Why did it yield only bad grapes? It can only be because the vines were somehow inherently bad. There is nothing else that can be blamed: no possible external factor can explain why the grapes went bad; the environment was perfect.

In verse 7, the meaning of this little parable is spelt out. The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delightref. This vineyard that the Lord has laboured over so lovingly is his people. He has given them every advantage. He has give them a land, a land flowing with milk and honey. He has gone before them to clear out their enemies and to secure it for them. He has protected them on all sides. He has given them his law and revealed his heart to them. He has even gone so far as to put his presence among them in the temple in Jerusalem. These people have every advantage. What more could the Devoted Gardener have done for them?

Yet, verse 7, when it came to harvest time, he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distressref. The grapes were sour indeed, and the rest of the chapter unpacks this statement.

So, the question we started with is answered. Do people do bad things because they are inherently bad, or simply because they are victims of their circumstances?

The circumstances for God's people could not have been more favourable, but in the end they yielded only bad fruitref. The people were bad; even the choicest vines were rotten to the core.

We are very quick to make excuses for our bad behaviour, aren't we? In our society we will blame anybody or anything rather than take responsibility for our own evil. So people will blame their parents, their poor education, the fact they come from a broken home, or grew up in difficult circumstances, and so on and so on.

This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. That was another perfect environment where the people went bad. We are always looking for an excuse, someone else to blame. Adam blamed Eve for his disobedience; Eve blamed the serpent; the serpent, of course, didn't have a leg to stand on.

But God shows us here, that even given perfect circumstances our hearts will lead us into evil. Our hearts are bad. We are bad.

Destruction Great (v5-6)

So my third, very brief, section is headed Destruction Great.

Verses five and six. God is not going to persist with this terrible vineyard. He will break it down, crush it and abandon it. For the people of Judah, that was going to mean being invaded and taken into exile by the Assyrian army.

And who can say that this punishment is not deserved? What more could God have done for his people? They have proved themselves rotten and rebellious. What else can be done? They can't be rehabilitated; they can't be made good - they've already had the best the Devoted Gardener can offer them. There's nothing more that can be done. They are fit only to be ripped up and abandoned.

Despite every advantage the Devoted Gardener has given his people, they have turned wild, they have produced only disgusting grapes. Their destruction is great and thoroughly deserved.

Divine Grafting (John 15)

So, are we going to leave it there? Is there no hope for us? Are we doomed forever to yield only bad fruit and therefore to suffer God's wrath?

If God hadn't intervened again, then yes, that could be our only conclusion. We would be without hope.

But there is a note of hope in these chapters. I'm sure you've seen it as you've been looking through them. Back in chapter 4 a promise is made: a promise that somehow God's people will one day be able to bear good fruit. Chapter 4 verse 2, In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.ref

Somehow, God will bring good fruit from his people, despite our rottenness. And it's got something to do with this branch...

Well, perhaps you can see where I'm going. The heading for this final point is Divine Grafting, and we're going to hop over to John chapter 15 in the New Testament.

Jesus says, John 15 verse 1, I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardenerref. Can you see how he has picked up on the picture from Isaiah 5. God the Father remains the gardener, but Jesus has stepped into the place of Israel, his people. Jesus is the vine, and he is the true vine. He is good, there is nothing rotten about him.

But there is still a place for us. Verses 4 and 5, 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 nothingref.

We can become fruitful! There is a way for us to bear good fruit, despite our rotten hearts!

Apart from Jesus, we can only bear rotten fruit, disgusting grapes. But when we are divinely grafted into Jesus, the true vine, we can bear good fruit. Fruit in our lives that delights the gardener.

Apart from me you can do nothingref. This has been proven. This experiment has been tried: originally in the Garden of Eden, and then in Israel, the Lord's vineyard of Isaiah 5. Left to ourselves we will produce sour grapes. But grafted into Jesus, with his goodness flowing through us, finally we can produce the good fruit we were made for.


To conclude. The theme of God's judgement runs right through the book of Isaiah, and these opening chapters in particular.

The question that would have arisen for the original hearers is this, Is God right to judge us; is he justified in punishing us? And this question is highly current today. Frankly speaking, almost no-one believes that God is justified in judging them.

Now, of course, God is God, and he does not need to explain or justify himself. But in this love song from Isaiah he chooses to do so.

God explains what he has done, how he has been the Devoted Gardener tending his people, and how they have yielded only Disgusting Grapes. Then he asks us to judge, to judge on our own terms: what would you do? What more could God have done? And we find that we have no alternative but to agree with him. Destruction Great seems to be the only answer.

But God never gives up on his people. If we will allow ourselves to be Divinely Grafted into Jesus, the true vine, then at last we can bear good fruit.

Where does this leave you? God is looking for fruit from your life: he is looking to see you exercising justice towards others — kindness, goodness, fairness, — and he is looking for righteousness towards him — holiness, obedience, purity.

If you try to live life your own way, you will never be able to bear these fruit, God will look and find only sour grapes. And in the end he will abandon you to destruction, and rightly so.

So, will you trust in Jesus this week? Will you abide in him and depend on him and make him your Lord? This is the only hope we have of bearing good fruit, when we are grafted in to the True Vine.