Niko Bilić SJ (16 February 2011)

Where are the good fruits?

The Vineyard-poem and its ecological implications

Isaiah 5:1–7

“Wine gladdens the human heart” (Ps 104:15). This small, well known sentence witnesses to the influence and general acceptance of the Bible in wide ranges of our culture. Even in our modern time of highest technology we are sensible about a good cup of wine which requires knowledge and experience. Good wine is not a product of industrial machinery but of nature accompanied by human touch and skilled hands; indeed vine and wine production responds to personal relation and human sense.

Vineyard belongs to the core imagery of the Gospels and is recognized, valuable and comprehensible part of Christian spirituality until present day. Its roots can be found prominently in the famous and highly influential poem of the Prophet Isaiah in the Bible (Is 5:1–7). At first in a pair of thematically burdened verses the Prophet is singing about the vineyard of his dear friend: on a fertile hill there was a vineyard the esteemed friend installed and attended carefully; and he was looking for the proceeds (Is 5:1f). The Prophets lets then his friend take over revealing that this is God himself (Is 5:3–6). It is a well known prophetic way of introducing God’s speech in first person; prophet is a medium of – in this case – judging and threatening divine word. Finally Isaiah gives direct explanation and deciphers the code of the poem: Vineyard is a symbol for the people of God (Is 5:7).

Don Ziebell: Isaiah 5 Isaiah's vineyard

So it is in the prophetic text itself that the history of salvation is represented in ecological manner regarding human relation to the nature; the main issue of the poem is taking care for the delicate and fruitful life of vineyard, so much interdependent with the environment, weather conditions and human watchful and engaged presence. Important part of Isaiah’s theology is the distant continuation and conclusion of the Vineyard-poem which brings the abrupt and condemning break in Chapter 5 to a motivating and consoling future perspective in the inviting five verses of the far Chapter 27. The envisioned new day brings joyful conversion and new beginning (Is 27:2–6).

An active vine-grower

Resembling the multitude of Creator’s activities on the first pages of the Bible the Prophet gives the full list of divine diverse engagement. The lord of the vineyard is at the same time the working tenant. The first part we now from Isaiah’s own description: The Lord dug it, cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower and hewed out a wine vat (Is 5:2). The second part of the list we learn from the following God’s judgment: The vineyard has a hedge and a wall (Is 5:5); it has to be pruned and hoed (5:6); the special mentioning of rain at this point goes back to the original image of in the Book of Genesis (מטר mathar – rain Gen 2:5; Is 5:6).
In the distant end of the song, which is once more the first person voice of the Lord (Is 27:2–6), the issue of watering is repeated, a protection is granted in double occurrence of נצר (naşar – to watch over Is 27:3): The Lord himself is the keeper of the vineyard, he guards it constantly. Even thorns and briers (27:4), which were part of the threat (5:6), are taken in account.

The impressive listing of manifold action concerning Lord’s vineyard makes once more clear that created universe we live in is not something statically given as completed resource for exploitation or as a place we have to invade and arrange arbitrarily and exclusively according to our wish but it needs constant care, cultivation, attendance, guard and renewal. Going back to the original definition, a human being is an image of the working God, founder, good master and keeper of the vineyard. In the ending part of the Isaiah’s song the esteem and protective engagement for the vineyard is intensified in the switch to Hebrew feminine form used for it: Sing for her (Is 27:2), I am her keeper, guarding her… (27:3).

The all-around activity finds its continuation and affirmation in the master of the vineyard in Jesus’ teaching, exclusive to Matthew who is very concerned about fulfilling Isaiah's prophecies (Mt 20:1–15). The lord of the vineyard is going out five times from the beginning of the day up to the last hour; he repeats his invitation to work in his vineyard (Mt 20:4.7). He pays all the workers (Mt 20:9). Even the protesting one he considers friend (Mt 20:13), resembling the experience of Isaiah (Is 5:1). The ecological engagement is an answer to a call, it brings valuable proceedings for the one engaging; even if late it still could do some good. And it is always a shining reflection of the concern and action of the Lord of the vineyard who cares.


Very important and extremely challenging element of Isaiah’s poem is his insight into God’s intensive inner life. It is still in the first part of his own prophetic speech where he is describing not only active engagement in the vineyard but also the expectations of its master and keeper, which come somehow as the final aim and result of the action. The prophet reveals God’s hopes and desires. Taking over the original commandment to be fruitful (Gen 1:28) Isaiah’s song reaffirms and continues this constant trait of biblical God. Fruits, good fruits he expects (קוה qawâ Is 5:2). The biblical word used here is well known from the Psalm 130 describing the confident awaiting of the soul for the helper Lord, compared to the watchmen in the night expecting morning: “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait” (Ps 130:5f). The expecting, hopeful desire is what God’s own word in first person once more confirms (“I expected” קוה Is 5:4), and the same is repeated in the decoded interpretation at the end (“he expected” קוה  5:7).

Text of Isaiah 5 tekst

So in the small poem this divine wish is three times addressed and the final explanation makes clear that God wants justice and righteousness (5:7). For one, the reader is once more confronted with the fact that our engagement in the ecosystem given unto us is rooted in the hopeful heart of Creator himself. It is not our mere relationship to the goods around us and our obligation is not only reasonable and sustainable use of resources but also producing due fruits – in accordance to the first divine demand unto human being (Gen 1:28) and in accordance with the same expectation Christ, Master and Lord, approved in electing his disciples to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last (John 15:16). God of the Old Testament, a friend of the Prophet, and Jesus, the Lord of the New Testament come unto us revealing their emotion and showing us the same yearning and hope. God counts on us.

The deep divine emotion and expectation gives fundament to the well-known parable in the New Testament which in all synoptics, exponentially intensified, describes the destiny of Jesus himself (Mt 21:33–46). The Lord of the vineyard expects the fruits. Again and again – as pointed out especially by Mark (21:2.4.5) – he offers new possibility to the tenants, even though they didn't prove themselves. The reference to our ecological responsibility is easily established.

Sending his own beloved Son, not only servants, is the final measure in the parable, bursting with expectation to the extreme. Christian ecology is grounded not only in the sound humanistic respect for the original work of the Creator but it fully involves the life and work of Jesus Christ, the Lord, as the soter tou kosmou – the saviour of the Cosmos(John 4:42) we live in. He consecrated our universe with his blood. So it is not only the rain as elementary vital gift (Gen 2:5; Isa 5:6); it is even more the blood coming out of the side of the Pierced One on the Cross (John 19:34) that falls on the earth and oblige us to thorough conversion.

Open confrontation

Wild placeIsaiah’s Vineyard-poem is very relevant for our present state of matters because it does not look upon possible future failure, but pays attention to actual wrong results. The open confrontation, without hidden agenda, depicted in the middle of the poem is fascinating. The people themselves are called to frankly give their judgment before their God (Is 5:3). It is his invitation to make things clear. And it is exactly them and their world presented in the imagery of the vineyard! God’s readiness to do even more is generous and moving; his question about disappointing results and missing fruits is sincere (Is 5:4).

The transparent court-process, asking for the opinion and decision of the other party, gives fundament for the teaching of the Lord in the Matthew’s tradition with the image of two sons whose freedom their father respects (Mt 21:28–32). Both receive their mission to work in the vineyard. The first makes a positive conversion and finally takes action in spite of the initial "No!" (Mt 21:29). The other’s answer remains a worthless word without deed (21:30). It is exactly in the recent ecological movement that we witness the same, deeply human difficulty, both sons in the Gospel have: a disproportion and gap between words and deeds – decision without consequent action. Only the positive and prompt conversion pays due respect to the intention of the Creator and the future of the vineyard. The first son fulfilled the will of the father (Mt 21:31) as the one Son of the Father – without disproportion between speech and action – did.

The interpretation of the vineyard-image in the social setting at the end in Is 5:7 and in the ongoing list of woes (Is 5:8–23) suits also to our actual situation where western world and northern hemisphere with technical civilization are reflecting and asking questions about environmental issues and possible shortages whereas the poor have ever had daily experience of shortage and lack of existential basics in connection with the old colonial or new industrial exploitation. We, engaging in the ecological discussion, we are for the most part guilty of human made environmental disorder and can come to a conversion and more appropriate lifestyle by learning from the poor and oppressed. It is us who neglected the vineyard.

New start?

The precious impulse of Isaiah’s Vineyard-poem is the surprising turnover and positive, hopeful outcome in Chapter 27. It proposes essential rediscovery and new respect for God’s active presence in his vineyard. He is guarding and protecting it; he has no destructive emotion (27:3f). Human being is not left alone in his environmental concerns but called to participate in the first and original divine interest for the well-being of created world. According to Isaiah we are invited to judge ourselves in an open confrontation with the Author of our universe (Is 5:3); in similar way we can closely contemplate his action and desire, and join him as collaborators in the grand project (Is 27:3f)


In Isaiah’s song the religious question and humble recognition of God’s sovereign authority becomes righteously number one in ecological reflection. It is the clinging to God (Is 27:5) that can make us optimistic even with newest finding and measurements, and can mobilize all our powers not to delay action needed now. The isaian consoling view of “taking roots” “blossoming” and “shoots coming forth”, the view of “filling the whole world with fruit” (Is 27:6), how ever poetical, remain challenging Word of God, demanding to reconsider our human role. The message is clear: the improvement is possible; future of the world is achievable. The small vineyard of the Lord is to bear fruits for the whole world!

The call for reconciliation, already all-present in modern environmental discourse, is deeply rooted exactly in this ancient, immediate and disclosed divine invitation unto his vineyard: “let it make peace with me, let it make peace with” – repeating twice the famous biblical Shalom (2x שׁלום Is 27:5).

Dear friendship

The opening and fundamental point in Isaiah’s Vineyard-poem is his personal relationship and involvement with Owner and Lord of the vineyard. Emotional engagement of the Prophet with his God, who is his “beloved friend” is obvious in this thrice repeated designation in one verse (דיד Is 5:1), as well as in the consideration and esteem of God’s action (dig, clear, plant with choice vines, build… 5:2) and in opening space for God’s own word (5:3–6). The central and greatest commandment of the Law: “You shall love the Lord!” (Dtn 6:5) finds thus a good example in the person Isaiah’s. The Prophet loves God; his heart, his soul and all his strength are directed and engaged in relationship with his dear friend, in the description of his worthy possession, his active care and his desiring expectation. The Prophet starts singing with the same opening word “’ashira – I will sing” (אשׁירה Is 5:1; Ex 15:1) as Moses and children of Israel did after successfully escaping the threat of Pharaoh’s army as well as the mighty waves of the Red Sea.

The Christian call defined in Baptism, to be a prophet like Christ himself, is rooted and immersed in loving relationship with God and high esteem of his work. The sound ecology is grounded not only in a wondering respect for the earth and universe, and our obligation is not only to the generations coming. The genuine motivation and real, inevitable responsibility is before God, the Creator and giver of life. It is because the world around us belongs to God that we care for it even deeper, keeping clearly in mind that we have to give account. It is the Lord’s personal interest for his creation that moves us to undertake all we are capable of in fulfilling our original cultivating and attending mission (cf. Gen 2:15).

It is this background – it seems – of the close relationship and friendship of the Prophet with his God where the central image of Jesus’ teaching appears in the New Testament. Christ has deepened and sharpened the Old-Testament imagery. He retrieved the idea of the Father as the careful and active vine-grower (John 15:10). But the relationship of the people to their Lord is now defined as the precarious and delicate connection of the vine and the branches (John 15:5) – only thus the life and action is possible. It is the Prophet’s experience that gives fundament for Jesus proclaiming in the same context: “You are my friends” (John 15:14).