In Isaiah’s famous Vineyard Song (Isa 5:1-7), on which Jesus’ Vineyard Parable is based (Matt 21:33-41; Mk 12:1-9), God likens Israel to a horticultural paradise. Unfortunately, due to the peoples’ sins, this magnificent vineyard will be destroyed in the tragedy of exile. In order to highlight the heights from which God’s people have fallen, the prophet ends his song with a wordplay that contrasts the nation’s iniquitous behavior with the Lord’s righteous desires. The conclusion of Isaiah’s Vineyard Song uses Hebrew words that are remarkably similar, but have very divergent meanings that underscore the theological art in the prophet’s poetry.
Isaiah 5:7 states, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting. He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, outcry.” The Hebrew of this verse pronounces the problems among the Israelites. In particular, the Hebrew word for “justice” is משׁפט (mishpat) and the word for “oppression” is משׂפח (mispach). More, the Semitic spelling of “righteousness” is צדקה (tsedaqah) and “outcry” is צעקה (tse’aqah). In each case, the linguistic variation between these words is a matter of only one letter—but what a difference a letter makes! Isaiah’s wordplay shows the reader that, sometimes, it doesn’t take much to stray from God’s will.
Despite Israel’s shortcomings, however, Isaiah clarifies that God does not abandon the chosen people. In the very next chapter (Isa 6:13), the Lord promises Isaiah that a “holy seed” (זרע קדשׁ; zera’ qodesh) will remain after the wreckage of exile, out of which will come a “branch” (נצר; netzer) who helps to rebuild the vineyard of Israel (11:1). The Gospel of Matthew follows Isaiah’s proclivity for wordplay when it equates Jesus of Nazareth with this messianic “branch.” Matt 2:23 states that Jesus “went to live in the town of Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ; Natsarét), so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: that he would be called a Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος; Natsoraios).” The phonetic similarity between the Hebrew “branch” (נצר; netzer) and the town of “Nazareth” (Natsarét) shows that Yeshua fulfills God’s ultimate plan of salvation for the vineyard of Israel proclaimed in Isaiah.