Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Protest Singer

I am old enough to remember the emergence of the protest song in the 1960s. Before that, almost all popular songs were love songs, all with rhymes like “June” and “moon” and “love” and “dove”. I remember the sense of dislocation that came when singers playing the same kind of instruments and singing in the same style started singing songs that turned out to be about inequality, war, nuclear weapons and social change. A shock something like this could quite well have been experienced by the people who first heard the song in the fifth chapter of Isaiah:

“Let me sing for my beloved

My love-song concerning his vineyard”

“Love” and “vineyards” were often a good pairing of ideas, as we find in the Song of Solomon. This song seems to be sung by a woman. Perhaps it was Isaiah’s wife who sang it. She co-operated with him in giving symbolic names to their children, and she is referred to in one place (Isaiah 8:3) as “the prophetess”.

The song starts like a love song, but soon turns out to be something different. It tells of a man who put a lot of work into preparing and planting a vineyard, only to find that it produced useless fruit. He is therefore going to remove its hedge and not protect or cultivate it any more. The anger expressed in this destructive action, culminating in his commanding the clouds not to rain on it, keeps alive the sense of passion: disguised under the experience of an unlucky farmer, it seems to be the bitter song of a betrayed lover. The singer then goes on to show that the vineyard is a symbol of the people of Israel: this too is found elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 80). God had gone to great trouble to cherish Israel, and is bitterly disappointed by the results. This is dramatically expressed in the juxtaposition of similar Hebrew words:

“he expected mishpat (justice)

but found mishpach (bloodshed);

tsedakah (righteousness)

But heard tse’aqah (a cry)!      

After this the prophet returns to the themes of wealth, pride and the resultant downfall. He  preaches against the greedy landowners who “join house to house” and “add field to field” – reminiscent of the land-grabbing agriculture that goes on today in some parts of the world. He then envisions “large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant”, and land that has lost its fertility. The suggestion of today’s exhaustion of the soil with artificial fertilisers and pesticides is almost uncanny. He then satirises the determined pleasure-seekers who live for wine and music and care nothing for God’s ways, who show their machismo by how much they can drink (5:22) while their corrupt dealings deprive innocent people of justice and let the guilty go free.