In 2 Samuel, Nathan conceives of a very special way of convicting David of his sin: get David to condemn himself out of his own mouth! He tells David an outrageous story of a rich man oppressing a poor man by stealing the poor man’s one and only sheep and sacrificing it, seemingly oblivious of the fact that his own sheep and cattle could provide plenty of supply in this regard. David becomes angry at the rich man, whereupon Nathan tells him “You are the man.” And that doesn’t exactly mean “You da man” in today’s slang, either.
Isaiah does exactly the same thing in Isaiah, chapter 5. We know right away that something is wrong when Isaiah says that this is a love song, but uses the lament form of poetry to sing it. This song was possibly written at the time of the grape harvest, such that the impact of grape harvesters sympathizing with the vineyard keeper would be more likely to blind the readers until just the right moment (which is verse 7).
Certainly, everyone’s sympathy is for the vineyard keeper. Look at everything He did for the vineyard: chose a great location (vs 1), cultivated the field, cleared it of stones, chose the very best vines, set a protecting watchtower (probably out of the stones He had cleared from the field), put a wine vat in it (vs. 2), all in the expectation of the best possible grape harvest. There was nothing more that could possibly have been done for it (vs 4).
In verse 3, the scene shifts to the courtroom, and here is where Isaiah’s rhetoric is incredibly brilliant. For he invites the listeners to be the judges before the listeners know that they are actually the defendants! But, as Alec Motyer notes, it was as if grace had never even touched them.
As verses 5-6 make clear, further effort on the part of the vineyard keeper would be completely counter-productive. The language in verse 6 certainly echoes the curse on the earth given in the Fall, only here in Isaiah, the curse falls directly upon the people, rather than upon the land. In Genesis, of course, the people are cursed too, but with different language.
In verse 7, we see the real kicker. The judges of verse 3 are the defendants after all. It should be noted here Isaiah’s wordplays. The word “justice” (mishpat) sounds just like the word “bloodshed” (mishpach). And then the word for righteousness (tsedaqah) sounds very similar to the word for “outcry” (tse’aqah).
The real marvel of this passage, however, comes in the realization that Jesus has taken this curse of the vineyard on Himself. After all, He is the true Vine. He was trampled, made waste, crowned with briers and thorns, and ultimately abandoned. We need to be branches in His true vine, persevering by God’s grace.
Lastly, I should note that all the insights in this post are from other people: John Mackay, Geoffrey Grogan, John Goldingay, Alec Motyer, and John Oswalt.