My Bible reading plan takes me through the book of Isaiah at the beginning of every summer, and one of the things that I have newly appreciated this time around is Isaiah’s versatile use of wine imagery. Isaiah uses wine in at least three major ways, as far as I can tell.
First, Isaiah uses wine as an image of sinful vanity: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!” (Isa. 5:11). These are the people who live their lives for nothing but pleasure, and Isaiah condemns them as such.
Second, Isaiah pairs the image of wine with the image of drunkenness to suggest YHWH’s judgment, specifically in chapter 28. “Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!…The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim will be trodden underfoot” (Isa. 28:1, 3). Isaiah insists that these drunkards will face their due punishment.
YHWH will even judge the drunken priests and prophets who have perverted his worship: “These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment. For all tables are full of filthy vomit, with no space left” (Isa. 28:7-8). Staggering, reeling, stumbling, and vomiting: notice carefully that this drunkenness does not lead to some kind of judgment unrelated to the crime, but that the drunkenness is itself YHWH’s judgment on their misuse of wine.
I think, however, that the militant teetotalers focus too much on these first two images because they miss the glory of the third image of wine, which is as a symbol of joy. Isaiah begins his book by lamenting all that has gone wrong in Jerusalem, and he does so in part by describing their joy as watered-down (that is, bland, weak, disgusting) wine: “How the faithful city has become a whore…Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water” (Isa. 1:21-22). If they had only obeyed YHWH, Isaiah suggests, they would have enjoyed unmixed, pure, joyous wine–the kind of wine that Jesus served to those at the wedding at Cana.
Even so, YHWH promises that, one day, “On this mountain YHWH of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isa. 25:6). YHWH will one day restore the rich, well-aged wine that Jerusalem forfeited, and he will include “all peoples,” in that feast–not just the people of Israel and Judah.
On this point, I cannot help but think of the richest wine that Christ freely offers us in his cup, and the fact that our sinful natures would often rather follow the Corinthian church into drunkenness. Our wandering-prone hearts are too eager to trade rich, life-giving, joyous wine of Christ’s New Covenant for the weak, watered-down wine that the world offers.
Also, Derek Webb’s verse in Lover becomes all the more profound:
Because I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved’s mine.
So you bring all your history, and I’ll bring the bread and wine.
And we’ll have us a party, where all the drinks are on me.
And as surely as the rising sun, oh you will be set free.
Oh! you will be set free!