The Protest Singer
Sermon by Ray Vincent 14th August 2016
Readings: Psalm 80; Isaiah 5:1-7
It was in the 1960s that the modern protest song began to take off. In the 50s all the pop songs seemed to be about romantic love: we heard “moon” and “June” and “croon” and “spoon” ad nauseam! Then we suddenly started noticing that some songs sounded similar, but when you listened to the words you realised they were really not about love at all. They were about nuclear weapons, the Vietnam war, poverty, inequality, race relations: songs like “Blowin’ in the wind”, “The times they are a-changing”, “We shall overcome”, “Where have all the flowers gone?”, “Give peace a chance”. Then there were songs about the sadness and hardship of life: “Streets of London” and “Eleanor Rigby”.
The passage we read from Isaiah is actually a song. It starts off like a love song, but it isn’t. The singer was probably sitting with his harp or lyre (the nearest they had in those days to a guitar), in the royal palace with an audience of courtiers, or maybe in the market place. He began:
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill . . .”
In the culture of ancient Israel the word “vineyard” was often as much associated with romantic love as words like “June” and “moon” are today. This sounds like a love song sung by a woman. It goes on to describe the care her “beloved” took with his vineyard: preparing the ground, planting choice vines and preparing the vat to store the grapes. But the produce is disappointing. The grapes are useless for making wine – no better than wild grapes.
As with many songs, the logical progression is not obvious. At the beginning it seems to be about the singer’s “beloved” who had a vineyard, but then it switches to the first person, and it is the owner of the vineyard who is speaking. And as in many songs, his reaction is not entirely rational. A normal vintner would surely ask himself what went wrong. Was the soil not good? Was the position unsuitable? Did he make a mistake in choosing the plants, or was there something wrong with the way he planted them? But this is not meant to be a story about the technique of vine growing. This vintner is actually offended and angry with his vineyard. He threatens to take away its hedge and leave it defenceless, to be overgrown with briers and thorns. When he goes on to say, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” it becomes obvious that this is not literally a story about a bad grape harvest. It is the passionate outburst of a spurned lover.
But then it moves into yet another dimension. The tone becomes more stern and serious, and the listeners suddenly realise that it is not just a love song. It goes on:
“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”
The lover is God, and the “vineyard” that disappoints him is the nation of Israel. The image of Israel as a vine or a vineyard was also well known. The bad fruit being produced instead of choice grapes is now spelt out:
“he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
In the original Hebrew this was much more dramatic than it sounds in English. The word for “justice” is mishpat, “bloodshed” is mishpach; “righteousness” is tsedakah and “a cry” is tse’aqah, a harsh guttural word to end a song that started so sweetly. This is a protest song.
How do you imagine the prophets? Standing on whatever was the equivalent of a soap box in the street, thundering out their denunciations? Sitting down and writing books? It’s much more likely that they were usually singers. After the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian horsemen were drowned, it is said that Moses’ sister “Miriam, the prophetess” picked up a tambourine and led the women in dancing and singing: “Sing to the LORD, for he has won a glorious victory; he has thrown the horses and their riders into the sea.” Another woman prophet was Deborah, who stirred up Barak to rally the tribes of Israel against the Canaanites. She and Barak celebrated the victory with a song. Once when Elisha was asked for advice in a crisis, he called for a musician, and as the musician played the harp he uttered a prophecy.
Whether singers or not, the prophets were certainly poets. Of course it’s difficult to translate poetry into another language. When we read the Bible in English we don’t get the rhymes, the rhythm or the alliteration. But fortunately the main feature of Hebrew poetry is one that can be understood in any language. It is called “parallelism”. Listen to this well-known passage from Isaiah:
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots . . .
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness shall he judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
Notice how in every pair of lines the second repeats the thought of the first in different words, or slightly expands it. It is a kind of rhyming of ideas rather than words, and it is very common in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and the prophets. This is how we can tell that the prophets were poets.
Poets are sensitive people who feel things very deeply and write passionately. Ordinary people can just shrug their shoulders and say “that’s life”, but poets are not content with that. They have visions that most of us think are unrealistic, and nightmares we would rather not think about. What they write is not meant to be taken in a literal, matter-of-fact way: we are meant to feel the poet’s passion and let it move us rather than try too hard to follow the logic of it. Poetry is sometimes difficult to understand, and when we do understand it we may find it uncomfortable. We appreciate the books of the prophets best by realising this. The very last thing we should do is to take them as straightforward instructions or information from God, or use them to “prove” a doctrine or establish an ethical rule. That is not what they are about. When we realise that they are poetry, we can understand their books better too. They are anthologies of poetry. You don’t pick up a poetry book and expect to get the “plot” by reading from the beginning through to the end. You dip into it and read one poem at a time.
Sometimes we get the impression that the prophets were rather fearsome characters, always denouncing sin and threatening terrible punishment. But they weren’t like some of the old-fashioned hell fire preachers we used to hear in the chapels, and sometimes still hear in the street. They were talking about this world, not the next. They were fighters for justice. Their anger was the same anger we see in marchers and demonstrators today – and, like today’s marchers, they often sang. They sang to express their anger, but also to boost their spirits and give themselves courage for the fight.
So what was Isaiah singing about? God’s disappointment. God had given much to Israel: a land, laws to give them a blessed way of life, a king with the promise of an eternal dynasty, a covenant that assured them of an unbroken relationship and constant care, and the knowledge of himself as the only God: a message for the world. But the nation had become corrupt. The family was torn with injustice and bloodshed. Just as God had heard the cry of his people in Egypt against their slave-masters, now he was hearing the cries of Israelites against other Israelites who were ill-treating them.
The Christian Church is often called “the people of God”. How does God see us? Is he pleased with his vineyard, or disappointed? Does he sometimes look to his Church for justice and see violence and cruelty, look for righteousness and hear cries for help? In Christian history there has been a lot of bloodshed and persecution. The Church that began as a persecuted minority went on to become a persecutor of minorities. God hears cries for help from many people today who have been wounded by the Church: harshly judged, rejected because of prejudice, had their questions ignored or condemned, been neglected by the Church’s lack of love.
We have to ask the question about our nation too. All nations must, especially those that claim a Christian heritage. God has invested a lot in Britain: he has given us freedom, democracy, a rich culture, a comparatively secure society, and a measure of prosperity. But he still hears cries for help: from the poor and neglected among us, and from the other nations of the world who suffer because of our greed.
And we can ask the question of the whole world. So much of God’s loving care has been invested in this beautiful planet, but what are we doing with it?
In the time of Jesus it was just as bad as in Isaiah’s time. He said a lot about what God expected of Israel and did not find. He reminded people that: “much is required of the person to whom much is given” (Luke 12:48). Listen to one of the ways he challenged them:
Reading: Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the talents)
This parable, like all the parables of Jesus, was meant to provoke us and make us think. It can be interpreted in different ways. One way in which we can take it is to let it challenge about what we are doing with our Christian heritage: are we holding on to it as a precious possession and boasting about it, or are putting it out to the world, taking risks with it, even being prepared to lose it if it helps to make the Good News more widely heard?
Isaiah’s anger was repeated by many, and often by Jesus himself. But what is the answer? Isaiah sang about God destroying the vineyard – it was not worth all the effort he had put into it. Jesus talked of God giving the vineyard to another people. But this is not the last word. The “big story” of the Bible tells us that God continued to invest. Eventually, in Jesus, God invested his own life in the world. God has not given up. He will not rest until the bloodshed and the cries have ceased, and he sees the true harvest of righteousness and justice.