An Unlikely Love Song
July 17, 2011
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Maybe Isaiah got the words wrong.
After all, this is not how love songs are supposed to go. Love songs are supposed to make us feel warm and beautiful and blessed, and sometimes teary. They are supposed to remind us of life’s goodness. Whether remembering the past or hoping for the future or just reflecting on the exquisitely tangible pleasures of the moment, love songs are supposed to be about the presence of joy, or at least the possibility of redemption. Love songs are supposed to have lines in them like, “I can’t help falling in love with you,” and “Our love is here to stay,” and “There is nothing for me but to love you.” If you go back a few millennia to the Song of Solomon, there are lyrics like this ravishingly beautiful line: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.”
So it seems to me that maybe Isaiah got the words wrong—or, more likely, maybe the prophet got the genre wrong—because this passage, my friends, does not come off as a ballad of divine love. “I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard,” says the Lord. “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”
As it turns out, Isaiah may have been copping an attitude about the love-song thing—making a prophetic point with a little well-deployed irony and a dash of rhetoric. This text responds in no uncertain terms to the terrible social injustice and temptation to warfare that Isaiah witnessed among the eighth- century Judeans to whom he prophesied. It calls Isaiah’s audience to be a faithful vineyard, to respond to the ministrations and investment of a loving God. The passage is a poetic masterpiece, effective precisely because it uses language and mixes genres to such jarring effect. It is a love song laced with the language of the law court, a declaration of love that turns into a verdict of guilt, a ballad that bends abruptly toward bitter disappointment. The text may not be a “love song” at all.
But “a love song” is, in fact, what Isaiah calls this passage, and I would like to believe that there is something more to his reference than bitter irony. I would like to believe that this brief introduction to so violent a passage means to point us to a truth embedded more deeply in Isaiah’s words, to something more than a powerfully peevish God who forcibly extracts retribution from the wayward vineyard of his chosen people. I desire, beyond all else, to believe in the goodness of a God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and who therefore sometimes confounds our human abilities to perceive truly the intentions of his actions and the hand of his providence. And so, I want to spend a bit of time this morning taking seriously Isaiah’s claim, ironic and rhetorical and poetically adroit though it may be, that this little story of love invested and disappointed, along with the ensuing rage so vividly described, is, in fact, a love song.
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Now for a little correspondential background. The vineyard, according to Swedenborg, represents “the Church with a person,” or the way that God’s love and truth is understood and expressed by an individual within his or her larger community. As the plantings in a vineyard require cultivation and good weather and change from year to year, so does a person’s perception of God. And this perception, because every individual is unique, is subject to change as a person’s time of life and state of being changes. It is precisely because our understanding of the Lord changes, because the plantings and condition of our spiritual vineyards are fluid, that we are able to be transformed and regenerated throughout our lives. It is why we can grow in love toward one another and God, why it is possible to make heaven from humanity.
Of course, it is also because our understanding of the Lord can change that it is subject to devastation, and that is quite starkly the image with which Isaiah confronts us. Our responsive psalm this morning gives plaintive voice to the vineyard, to Israel, and to every one of us who has ever felt abandoned or undone by life and by God: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land . . . why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? . . . Turn again, O God . . . have regard . . . Restore us.”
So what of the devastation so vividly, almost gratuitously, depicted in the Isaiah passage? How are we to respond to such a depiction of the Lord’s righteous anger, especially when we hear Israel’s plaintive cry in the Psalm?
Where, as the late Peter Gomes used to ask his preaching students when they got a bit too full of brimstone, is the Good News here?
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There is in this text one tiny detail, one frisson of hope that glitters like a tiny ray of sun in an otherwise stormy passage. For, you see, the hill on which Isaiah’s beloved Lord has his vineyard is fertile. And not only fertile, but very fertile—it is, both literally and correspondentially speaking, fat with goodness. The word translated here as “fertile” literally means “full of oil” (olive oil in ancient Israel, not the oil we in the U.S. worry so much about)—and oil, according to Swedenborg, corresponds to the goodness of truth and love, to essence, to that which is essential in something’s being.
The fertile hill upon which the Lord had his vineyard, then, is a hill full of life, rich not merely because it is well-cultivated but because it overflows with God’s inflowing being. Whether one is speaking of agriculture or spiritual formation, there is a lot you can do with a fertile hill. If the hill is fertile, this passage does not mark the end of the story. Fertile land, even fertile land laid waste and parched with drought, can be made fertile once again. In fact, it can be made more fertile than before, because the very weeds that choke back the goodness can be turned into the soil to nourish it.
Swedenborg’s account of our spiritual regeneration process provides an illuminating way in which we might interpret this “fertile hill.” This hill upon which the doomed vineyards sits can be read, I think, as representing each one of us. The “very fertile hill” is our soul, our inmost spirit which receives life from the Lord, and from which the Lord shapes our being. Swedenborg tells us that these things that are the Lord’s are called “‘the remnants’ in the Word and are primarily insights of faith that have been learned from infancy. These are stored away and do not surface until the person reaches the second state of regeneration, which rarely happens nowadays without trial, misfortune, or depression, which deaden the physical and worldly concerns that are typically human . . . The primary purpose of this depression and loneliness is that the second-hand faith they have tried to maintain for their self-image may be broken . . . and that they may accept some perception of what is good and true . . . No one can grasp with full sensitivity what is good, what is blessed and happy, without having been in a state of not-good, not-blessed, and not-happy.”
The monk and mystic Thomas Merton puts it another way, saying that our true identity is “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth . . . which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point . . . of absolute poverty,” he says, “is the pure glory of God in us.” Poverty, as is so often the case in the Bible, paradoxically reveals glory, whether in a manger, or on the cross, or in our own souls.
Even as I stand in this pulpit, having done my research on this scripture, having reflected theologically and prayed a good bit, I have to admit that what I have just said, and am about to say, seems somehow inadequate. I offer an interesting and, I hope, somewhat unique perspective on this challenging passage, a viewpoint that at least puts a chink in the armor of this passage’s rage. I can express my conviction—or maybe it is only my desperate hope—that there is a redemptive point to the ruin that Isaiah describes. I can interpret this frightening passage in good faith, probe it for its internal sense and believe that, encoded in this passage as in every passage of the scriptures, is an expression, not always easy to comprehend, of God’s abiding love for us. I can believe—or want to believe—that what Swedenborg and Merton say is true, that regeneration brings us into loneliness and hopelessness and breaks down our protecting walls for a good reason—so that in our spiritual poverty, at “a point untouched by illusion,” stripped bare of any ability to lie to ourselves, we are at last able truly to know and receive God’s glory and goodness.
What I cannot do, and wish I could, is explain why this particular part of our spiritual rebirth, this second stage that opens us to God’s love, has to be so painful. And it is painful, sometimes devastatingly so, to a degree that cannot be abstracted if you have ever felt the degree or kind of suffering that Isaiah attributes to the vineyard.
I wish I could really know and explain why the vineyards of our souls have to be laid waste, why the nature of our spiritual being is such that regeneration must of necessity pare us down, stir us up, break apart our certainties, and otherwise botch things up so that we can see the reality of God’s love and wisdom. But I cannot.
I wish that I could explain why we have the freedom to produce the wild grapes of mistakes and falsities and self-deception in the first place, instead of the grapes of truth and right life. But I, despite much wrestling with the angelic paradox of free will, cannot. Nor can I pinpoint the quality that makes this process of baptism—which is, in a very “dunk ’em under the water and bring ‘em up spluttering” kind of way, what Isaiah is describing—something other than drowning, this spiritual refinement something other than a holocaust.
Nor, for that matter, can I really say I believe without ambiguity that God could possibly have an adequate reason for setting up the universe and human nature the way he did, so that this painful emptying out that Isaiah describes would be necessary. I can only say that faith is hope in things unseen, and that faith involves a certain amount of trust. And I can quote yet another wise soul and say this: Antoine de St. Exupery, the French writer whose novel The Little Prince suggests that he knew something about love and loss, puts it this way: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. We can only know what completeness is when we feel, or have once felt, that we have nothing left. And then it is possible to begin again, to take stock of our surroundings, to realize that we, like Isaiah’s vineyard hill, may be ravaged—but we are still fertile, still full of goodness, still full of understanding about the good and the true, still sustained by the Lord from whom we cannot ever be separated and whose being flows through us in times of challenge or devastation as surely as it does in joy.
The hedges that shore up our lives, that make our lives fruitful and fulfilling—those hedges may be devoured. The walls that protect the fragile structures of our lives may be broken and trampled. The weeds of grief, or misfortune, or bitterness, or rotten choices, may choke back the vines of loving truth and hope in our hearts. Our souls may gasp for water, we might seek for God and not find him in the places we know to look—but in all the desolation, in our deepest vulnerability, we can know this: the hill is still very fertile. The ruined land still holds promise. The inmost of our being still vibrates with the life of God. The weeds of our sorrows can be turned back into the soil of our souls to nourish it, our tears can be rain to water parched land, the vines can be restored to flourish again, the walls and hedges of our world can be fashioned anew.
The hill is still fertile. And when—not if, but when—our vineyards are rebuilt, their beauty will be brighter for the darkness they have suffered.
Isaiah’s dire tale of the vineyard is an unlikely love song, indeed—but after all, the Lord has never specialized in “likely,” or reasonable, or obvious. And this passage is, remember, only a part of the story. It represents one crucial step, a painful but transformative stretch on the road to regeneration. And years later, speaking to an exiled Israel, another prophet will add his stanza to the song, his vision of the rebirth that comes out of a desolated vineyard. He will show us the end of the ancient story of rebirth, if in fact the story can be said to have an end:
“Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4a)
So, you see—it really is a love song.
Leah. G. Goodwin