“Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence; and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers” (Isaiah 1:7-8 NKJV).
As one drives through Bangladesh he sees many fields of rice, vegetables, or other crops, as well as many ponds used to raise shrimp or fish for the export market. All of these various kinds of produce are valuable, and since the fields and ponds are generally, unfenced they are vulnerable to thieves.
The land-owners protect against theft by putting guards in the fields at night as the crops become ready for harvest. They frequently erect simple huts or lean-tos for shelter during the long hours of duty. These shelters lack any amenities. I can only imagine spending the night in a rice field with nothing but a thin bamboo mat over my head and nothing to prevent mosquitoes and other pests from access. Perhaps even worse is the isolation of such shelters and the loneliness and boredom of hours spent in those conditions.
Isaiah’s oracles begin with a harsh condemnation of the kingdom of Judah, and a prediction of devastating judgment upon it. The severity of God’s judgment is illustrated by references to “a booth in a vineyard, . . . a hut in a garden of cucumbers.” Almost certainly these were watchmen’s shelters, just as are used in rural Asia today.
For hundreds of years Judah had been a prosperous and politically relevant crossroads in the Ancient Near East. Major land routes between powerful Egypt and the Mesopotamian Kingdoms (Assyria, Babylon, etc.) traversed Judah. Her long sea coast along the eastern Mediterranean assured trade with northern Africa, Asia Minor, and even Europe. Judah’s kings had married the offspring of world leaders like Pharaoh’s daughter, thus establishing powerful alliances (1 Kings 3:1). This status brought great pride and wealth to the people. Unsurprisingly, they soon took this for granted, assuming it to be their God-given right and that it would continue always.
Isaiah punctures this confidence with an implied comparison. While the Jews thought of themselves in terms of powerful cities and mansions of splendor, the prophet warns of the time to come when they would be like a primitive shack, alone in a field. Judah would lose all of its prosperity and prestige. The few citizens left to her would have no amenities or comforts. Desolation would be her fate.
The root cause of this bleak future was sin. A few verses earlier Isaiah had proclaimed, “Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward” (Isaiah 1:4). Their future desolation was to be the product of their own evil choices.
That is one of the most important lessons the Bible has to teach us. Sin is always, inevitably, destructive (see Romans 3:10-19). It robs one of possessions, destroys relationships, ruins health, and leads to death (Romans 6:23). Physical death is one consequence, but eternal, spiritual, death is far more serious (Revelation 20:11-15).
One who sins defies God (1 John 3:4, 6), becoming his enemy (Romans 8:7-8). In his righteousness (justice) God will “repay [them] with tribulation” (2 Thessalonians 1:6), sending Jesus to “take vengeance on those who do not know God” and who do not obey him (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Truly, sin makes those who commit it become desolate.