Isaiah 5 – The Parable of the Vineyard &The Mighty Assyrian Empire

Assyrian protective spirit with the head of an eagle was found in the temple of Ninurta at Kalhu (Nimrud). c. 865-860 BCE.
Ninurta, also known as Ninĝirsu, is an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with farming, healing, hunting, law, scribes, and war who was first worshipped in early Sumer. In the earliest records, he is a god of agriculture and healing, who releases humans from sickness and the power of demons. In later times, as Mesopotamia grew more militarized, he became a warrior deity, though he retained many of his earlier agricultural attributes.

He was regarded as the son of the chief god Enlil and his main cult center in Sumer was the Eshumesha temple in Nippur. Ninĝirsu was honored by King Gudea of Lagash (ruled 2144–2124 BC), who rebuilt Ninĝirsu’s temple in Lagash.

Later, Ninurta became beloved by the Assyrians as a formidable warrior. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883–859 BC) built a massive temple for him at Kalhu, which became his most important cult center from then on. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, Ninurta’s statues were torn down and his temples abandoned because he had become too closely associated with the Assyrian regime, which many conquered peoples saw as tyrannical and oppressive.

In the epic poem Lugal-e, Ninurta slays the demon Asag using his talking mace Sharur and uses stones to build the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to make them useful for irrigation. In a poem sometimes referred to as the “Sumerian Georgica”, Ninurta provides agricultural advice to farmers. In an Akkadian myth, he was the champion of the gods against the Anzû bird after it stole the Tablet of Destinies from his father Enlil and, in a myth that is alluded to in many works but never fully preserved, he killed a group of warriors known as the “Slain Heroes”. His major symbols were a perched bird and a plow.

Ninurta may have been the inspiration for the figure of Nimrod, a “mighty hunter” who is mentioned in association with Kalhu in the Book of Genesis. He may also be mentioned in the Second Book of Kings under the name Nisroch. In the nineteenth century, Assyrian stone reliefs of winged, eagle-headed figures from the temple of Ninurta at Kalhu were commonly, but erroneously, identified as “Nisrochs” and they appear in works of fantasy literature from the time period.

1 Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard.  My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:

“Wellbeloved” – God

“Vin

eyard” – Israel (see vs 7, 3:14; Ps 80:8-16).  Jesus’ parable of the tenants (Matt 21:33-44; Mk 12:1-11; Lk 20:9-18) is probably based on the song in John 15:1-17.

2 And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

“Tower” – contrast the more modest “cottage” (shelter) of 1:8.  God’s vineyard had every advantage (see Matt 21;33).

“Winepress” – a trough into which the grape juice flowed (see 16:10).

“He looked…And” – expresses a contrast between the return that God expected from his investment in the people of Israel and what he actually received.  The same expression appears in vs. 7 (“he looked for…but”).

3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.

4 What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

“Wild grapes” – grapes are the righteous, the wild grapes are those that have wavered away from God, have worshiped false idols.

5 And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:

6 And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

“Briers and thorns” – this pair occurs five more times (7:23-25, 9:18, 27:4).

“Rain no rain” – the withholding of rain constituted a curse on the land (see Deut 28:23-24; 2 Sam 1:21).  Elijah, through the power of God, stopped the rain for three years (1 Kgs 17:1).

7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

The song of the vineyard (vv 1-6) is now interpreted.  A powerful play on words makes the point: The words for “judgment” (justice) and “oppression” (mishpat and míspah) sound alike, as do those for “righteousness” (seaqah).

8 Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

“House to house…field to field” – Land in Israel could only be leased, never sold, because parcels had been permanently assigned to individual families (see Num 27:7-11; 1 Kgs 21:1-3).

9 In mine ears said the LORD of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant.

“Many houses shall be desolate…without inhabitant” – When God judges, the punishment fits the crime.  The people will forfeit the houses and lands they acquired through oppression and dishonesty.

10 Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah.

“Bath” – about six gallons.

“Ephah” – a tenth of a homer.  Meager crops often accompanied national sin (Deut 28:38-39; Hag 2:16-17).  The amount of wine and grain is only a tiny fraction of what a ten-acre vineyard and a homer of see would normally produce.

11 Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!

12 And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.

13 Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.

5:11-13 – see Amos 4:1-3, 6:6-7, where a style of life characterized by drunkenness and revelry is likewise condemned.

14 Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.

Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia, located on the outskirts of Mosul in modern-day northern Iraq.
It is located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Today it is a common name for the half of Mosul which lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris.

It was the largest city in the world for some fifty years until the year 612 BC when, after a bitter period of civil war in Assyria, it was sacked by a coalition of its former subject peoples, the Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul, in the Ninawa Governorate of Iraq. The two main tells, or mound-ruins, within the walls are Kouyunjik (Kuyuncuk), the Northern Palace, and Tell Nabī Yūnus.

Large amounts of Assyrian sculpture and other artifacts have been excavated and are now located in museums around the world. Nineveh’s wall, which was almost 8 miles long with 15 gates, was surrounded by a moat 150 feet wide. The moat had to be filled before attackers could reach the city wall. The “protective shield” refers to a large defensive shelter covered with hides to deflect stones and arrows.

“Hell” – Hebrew “Sheol” or the grave.   The grave has an insatiable appetite (see Ps 49:14; Hab 2:5).

15 And the mean man shall be brought down, and the mighty man shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be humbled:

16 But the LORD of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness.

17 Then shall the lambs feed after their manner, and the waste places of the fat ones shall strangers eat.

18 Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope:

Contrast Hos 11:4, where God leads His people with “cords of…love.”

19 That say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it!

The Hebrew for the words “make speed” and “hasten” corresponds to that of the first and third elements of the name “Maher-shalal-hash-baz” (meaning, “In making speed to the spoil he hasteneth the prey,”)  When Isaiah named his son (8:3), he may have been responding to the sarcastic taunts of these sinners.  According to v. 26, God did bring swift judgment.

20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

21 Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

22 Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink:

“Mingle strong drink” – spices were added to beer and wine (see Prov 23:30).

23 Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!

24 Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

25 Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.

The Devil in Disguise
The actor cast as the Prince of Darkness bears a striking resemblance to Barack Hussein
Obama, which has drawn a multitude of reactions. Producers call the allegations “utter nonsense.”
Yet, Obama pretends to be a Christian, but the world knows he worships Allah, the Muslim god.
Coincidence, or is God trying to tell us something?

“The hills did tremble” – when God takes action, even the mountains tremble (see 64:3; Jer 4:24-26).   This is not a science-fiction ideal, God more powerful then we can even begin to imagine.  If His actions can make a mountain tremble, imagine what it would do to a person?

26 And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly:

“Life up an ensign” – a pole with a  banner was often placed on a hill as a signal of gathering troops (13:2) or for summoning the nations to bring Israel back home (11:10, 12, 49:22; 62:10).

“Nations from far” – such as Assyria, whose armies struck Israel and Judah in 722 and 701 B.C., and Babylon, which began its invasions in 605.

27 None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken:

28 Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind:

29 Their roaring shall be like a lion, they shall roar like young lions: yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and shall carry it away safe, and none shall deliver it.

30 And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.

The Mighty Assyrian Empire
Emerges From the Dust

War heroes: royal recognition for Assyrian soldiers
Detail from the wall decoration of Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace at Nineveh showing an Assyrian soldier being rewarded for his success in battle.

Assyrian soldiers who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield could expect their king to reward them richly for their bravery. Whether it was the desire for immortal fame or for earthly prizes that motivated the individual warrior is impossible to know, but it is clear that contemporary society saw both as the deserved returns of a valiant fighter.

Merit and reward
A letter to an 8th century governor of Kalhu makes clear the link between performance in battle, material rewards and social status, as a military officer commanding the governor’s troops during a campaign to Babylonia informs his master about the yields of his recent engagement at the city of Rapiqu and elsewhere:

“Out of (all) the captives who came out (of some enemy city) I have looked for and chosen 30 people; I applied to the commander-in-chief and he gave (them) to me. Out of (all) the captives who came out of the city of Rapiqu I have chosen ten people but as the commander-in-chief was not in a good mood I did not apply to him. May my lord speak to him when he comes to the palace.”

The most outspoken sources for the material rewards that a war hero might come to enjoy are a series of royal decrees issued by Aššur-etel-ilani (630-627 BC), one of the last Assyrian kings. To those military commanders who had aided him in securing the Assyrian throne in a bloody succession war he awarded not only honours and property but also tax privileges; the preamble to the documents commemorating these decrees reads: “I planned to do them good: I clothed them with multi-colored robes and bound their wrists with golden bracelets… Fields, orchards, buildings and people I exempted from tax and gave to them”

Ranked among the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time is the unearthing of the ancient Assyrian Empire.

Ancient Jerusalem
Jerusalem is an ancient city located in ancient Judah that is now the capital of Israel. The city has a history that goes back to the 4th millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It is the holiest city in Judaism and Christianity and has been the spiritual center of the Jewish people since c. 1000 BCE, when David the King of Israel first established it as the capital of the Jewish Nation, and his son Solomon commissioned the building of the First Temple in the city.

Ceramic evidence indicates the occupation of Ophel, within present-day Jerusalem, as far back as the Copper Age, c. 4th millennium BCE, with evidence of a permanent settlement during the early Bronze Age, c. 3000–2800 BCE. The Execration Texts (c. 19th century BCE), which refer to a city called Roshlamem or Rosh-ramen and the Amarna letters (c. 14th century BCE) may be the earliest mention of the city.

According to Jewish tradition the city was founded by Shem and Eber, ancestors of Abraham. In the biblical account, when first mentioned, Jerusalem (known as “Salem”) is ruled by Melchizedek, an ally of Abraham (identified with Shem in legend). Later, in the time of Joshua, Jerusalem was in territory allocated to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 18:28) but it continued to be under the independent control of the Jebusites until it was conquered by David and made into the capital of the united Kingdom of Israel (c. 1000s BCE).

According to Hebrew scripture, King David reigned until 970 BCE. He was succeeded by his son Solomon, who built the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah. During the so-called First Temple Period, Jerusalem was the political capital of firstly the united Kingdom of Israel and then the Kingdom of Judah and the Temple was the religious center of the Israelites.

The First Temple period ended around 586 BCE, as the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II laid waste to Solomon’s Temple and took a significant number of Jews captive in response to a revolt. In 538 BCE, after fifty years of Babylonian captivity, Persian King Cyrus the Great invited the Jews to return to Judah to rebuild the Temple. Construction of the Second Temple was completed in 516 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great, seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple.

Assyria first appeared as an empire early in the 2nd millennium B.C.
The remains of a ziggurat, or temple tower, from that era still stands near the site of its ancient capital. 

 In the 9th century B.C., Assyria developed into an aggressive and powerful empire.  By this time, about 40 years after the reign of Solomon, Israel had split into two distinct kingdoms – Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 12:16-24)

Led by able and ruthless monarchs, the Assyrians began to menace and conquer their neighbors.  They eventually subjugated the whole of the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to Egypt.  By the late 8th century they crushed the kingdom of Israel.

About this same time they also invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, conquering its major cities and besieging its capital, Jerusalem (Is 36:1-2).  The Bible records the boastful words of the arrogant Assyrian monarch, Sennacherib, as he tried to intimidate and humiliate Hezekiah, king of Judah (Is 36:4-10).

At one time, many scoffers disputed even the very existence of the Assyrian Empire.  But it was no myth.  As the debris of centuries was removed from Nineveh, one of the empire’s capitals, dramatic proof of the Assyrian invasion was laid bare (Jonah hated the people of Nineveh and he argued with God about them, wanting Him to destroy them – Jon 1:1-3; 3:10-4). 

Assyrian records of these events quote King Sennacherib of Assyria boasting of his devastating invasion of Judah: “Forty-six of [Hezekiah’s] strong walled towns and innumerable smaller villages…I besieged and conquered…As for Hezekiah, the awful splendor of my lordship overwhelmed him” (Erika Bleibtreu, “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January-February 1991, p. 60). 

Sennacherib noted that he had made Hezekiah “a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage” (Magnus Magnusson, Archaeology and the Bible, 1977, p. 186).

The biblical record agrees with Sennacherib’s account of the Assyrian invasion and notes the desperation of the kingdom of Judah as the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, their last surviving stronghold. 

However, the Bible continues the story where the Assyrian records are silent.  With Jerusalem facing imminent destruction, the people of Judah, led by King Hezekiah, prayed fervently to God (Is 37:15-20) and were miraculously delivered against overwhelming odds.

Although Sennacherib painstakingly recorded the cities he captured and destroyed, one city is conspicuously absent – Jerusalem.  He speaks only of besieging Hezekiah in the city – not of taking it or Judah’s king. 

What happened?  The Assyrians, like other great empires of the time, left no records of their military defeats.  As the Bible reports, disaster befell them as they waited to storm Jerusalem’s walls:

And it came to pass that night that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand (185,000): and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.

So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh (2 Kgs 19:35-36).

This relief from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh shows the Assyrians’ assault on the Jewish stronghold of Lachish.

Sennacherib himself would later ignominiously die at the hands of two of his sons.  

And it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him down with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia.  And Esar-haddon his son reigned in his stead (2 Kgs 19:37)

Assyrian records also confirm this assassination.  Under Esar-haddon’s command of the empire, it soon peaked and fell into decline.  Assyria had been an instrument to punish Israel for its repugnant sins (Isa 10:5-6)

In turn, the Assyrians were punished for their sins (Isa 10:12).  Nineveh, the capital city, fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C. About 50 years after its peak, this voracious empire collapsed and virtually vanished from history.

By the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, no physical evidence of Nineveh could be seen. Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-180), a Greek writer, lamented:

Nineveh has perished.  No trace of it remains.  No one can say where once it existed (Magnusson, p. 175).

Alabaster bas-relief showing Assyrian soldiers playing catch with decapitated heads of their enemies. Neo-Assyrian Period, 865-860 BCE. Detail of Panel 6 (top), Room B, the North-Palace Palace, Nimrud, modern-day Iraq.

Such a lack of visible remains led some scholars of the 19th century to express skepticism that Nineveh or any part of the Assyrian Empire even existed, much less dominated a significant part of the world.

Indeed the only historical source in those days that verified the existence of the empire was the Bible.  The Old Testament histories and prophecies spoke about Assyria.  Jesus proclaimed the existence of Nineveh as a historical fact (Matt 12:41).

Yet some scholars disputed the testimony of Jesus and the prophets – that is, until:

one spectacular decade in the middle of the 19th century…[when] Austen Henry Layard and Paul Emile Botta rediscovered in northern Iraq the ancient remains of three Assyrian cities [including Nineveh] and evidence of the military panoply that had crushed all resistance from the Tigris to the Nile.  The Assyrian empire…in all its awesome power had been resurrected through archaeology (Magnusson, p. 175).

The skeptics were silenced.  There was nothing they could say.   The excavations at Nineveh and other cities in the area yielded a staggering wealth of historical evidence including “tens of thousands of tablets” containing “an immense amount of data” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, Vol. 1, “Assyria and Babylon,” p. 275).  The Bible had been right all along.