“The Country Music of the Bible”
Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7
October 2, 2005
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
When I was little I used to love to listen to Willie Nelson. I didn’t realize so many of the songs he sings were as sad as they are until I listened to him once I was a little older. So many country songs, especially the older country songs, are all about losing the girl they love or the singer wishing he had done something differently in his life. Who can forget the classic “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys?” Well, most country love songs are about lost love. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke about what do you get when you play a country music song backwards? You get your job back, you get your truck back, you get your dog back, you get your wife back, etc. It may be a stereotypical joke, but there is some truth to it.
I think county music is a fascinating musical genre. I personally prefer the older country groups that I think are a little more true to the genre. It is not happy like pop music is. It isn’t about life as a gangsta like so many rap songs. Country music has a very real-life flair to it. Things don’t always work out for the best in the ballads of these older country songs. Maybe that is why so many people like it. Everyone can feel the resonances of losing someone or something they love. Everybody knows what it is like when things don’t go the way we might have planned them to. We all know the pain of the country singer as he tells us about his lost love.
You may be wondering what this has to do with our Scripture lessons. Well, if you think back to the reading from Isaiah 5, we hear something of an ancient country love song where God is mourning the loss of his love, the people of Israel after they worshipped other gods. In a very ancient way that is somewhat lost on us, the people of God are likened to a vineyard. “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard” (5.1a). Like most old country love songs, this is not a happy ballad where everything works out in the end and the two parties live happily ever after. This is a song of betrayal and hurt, of infidelity, of unfaithfulness, of lost love.
God had worked so hard for his people throughout history. He had miraculously delivered them from slavery, led them to freedom through the Red Sea, rained down bread from heaven upon them, even given them some basic guidelines for how to live, but his people turned away. In the marriage of God and his people, his people cheated on God and God is deeply hurt.
In the story from Isaiah 5 where these unfaithful people are compared to a vineyard, the landowner worked so hard, for many years even, to get the vineyard ready. He planted the choicest vines on the most fertile hill. He built a watchtower in the middle of it, he carved out a wine vat in the stone. As you know, it takes years for grape vines to yield their fruit, and when it finally bore fruit it was not the fruit of those choicest vines he planted. It yielded instead wild grapes. God planted pinot noir, but the grapes the vines yielded were muscadines. God planted pinot grigio and got instead scuppernongs.
God intones his heartfelt and painful lyrics about the situation. God did all he could do for these grapes, these people. He mourns the plight he has found his vineyard in and decides that he will tear up the vines and tear down the walls and let the vineyard become overgrown with briers and thorns. He even commands the clouds not rain on the vineyard. God then makes the comparison between his people and this vineyard clear.
“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.”
Another thing I like about old country songs is the way they make the lyrics a play on words. Isaiah does this as well. In the last verses of this song, “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7). If you were to read this Old Testament country love song in the original Hebrew, you can really hear the impact and the wit these words would have had. He expected mishpat, but saw mispach; tsedeqah, but heard tse’aqah. Isaiah is doing much the same thing as country artists do in playing on words that sound similar but have very different meanings.
Is that how this love song ends though? The people of God being uprooted, the walls around their vineyard demolished, their watchtower torn down, stricken by drought? Well, yes and no. The people of God, Israel, would see the walls of their city Jerusalem demolished by the Babylonians, along with the temple. They did see themselves uprooted from the ground of Israel and exiled to the grounds of Babylon at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. They deserted their God, and God it would seem deserted them. This is a very unhappy ending for a love song though. Is there not a better ending than this? Of course there is. The lovers of God were not abandoned by him ultimately. God was forgiving. God is forgiving. If you read on just a bit in Isaiah’s book, in chapter 27 vineyards are sung about again.
“On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it; I have no wrath…In days to come Jacob shall take root. Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.”
The prophet Isaiah lets us know just how much God loves his people and how much it hurts God when we are unfaithful. Like a vineyard that yields wild grapes instead of the choicest grapes, so are the grapes of our lives when we yield actions that are not in keeping with our faith and with our love of God.
This Old Testament country music love song is not just a hymn about how much pain the people of God cause him. It is a call to repentance, to turn around, to get back with the one who loves you enough to die for you. The word “repent” literally means “to turn around.” It doesn’t mean to be sorry. It doesn’t mean to say anything or vow anything. Rather, it means to do something, to change the direction of your life 180°, to return to God, to play our lives backward.
Like a country music song, when we play our lives backward, we get everything back and God will once again be the keeper of the vineyard that is his people. Let us all take a moment to reflect on what we need to do to get our vineyards back in shape. And mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Amen.