We began our study of the book of Isaiah with a broad introduction to the prophet and his book. In this essay we take up 1:1-31. Before we begin I want to raise a question that frequently comes up in regard to the first five chapters. The question is, why do these five chapters of Isaiah’s prophecies appear before his call to be a prophet in chapter six? Logically, one would expect the call to precede the prophecies themselves. Oswalt offers two possible answers to that question. One is that Isaiah actually could have uttered these prophecies before his experience in the temple. He could have seen the terrible plight of his people and nation and tried to bring them back to God prior to discovering what he really was like before God.
The second possibility is that the prophecies were uttered after Isaiah’s call, but either Isaiah himself, or his followers (who may have edited the final version of the book), made an editorial decision to place the prophecies of chapters 1-5 before chapter six. Furthermore chapter six is closely related to chapters 7-9, and it would have been disruptive to have placed chapters 1-5 between chapter six and chapters 7-9. There is no way to know the answer to this question with certainty, but I would favor the latter possibility.
We dealt with verse one in the previous essay. In verses 2-3 we see Israel’s true condition. God speaks through Isaiah; and although he declares Israel to be his children, they are rebellious children. Even animals have more sense than the people of Israel. An ox or donkey knows who its master is and who feeds it. But Israel can’t figure that out. Of course we are challenged to ask ourselves if we evangelical Christians have figured it out. Or have we, like Israel, put too much stock in wealth and politics.
In verses 4-9 Isaiah expands on God’s charge against them. These verses are in the form of a poetic lament. Isaiah is sad and grieving over the sin of his nation. However we must remember that the people of Israel not only are a nation, but they also are children, a family. And their sin applies at both levels. The primary sin is that they “have forsaken the Lord;” they “have despised the Holy One of Israel” (v. 4). The Hebrew word translated “forsaken” also is used for “divorce.” One might legitimately say they have divorced the Lord. Thus Israel has done evil things, because they have broken their love relationship with God. Again we must ask ourselves whether or not we have, in our own way, forsaken the Lord.
In verses 5-8 Isaiah uses the metaphor of health to describe the condition of Israel. She has been beaten up and is sick. But it isn’t just a matter of disease. There are wounds of the kind received in battle: slash wounds, lacerations, bleeding wounds.
Notice in verse seven that Isaiah shifts his imagery from a sick and injured body to that of a desolate conquered land. These images suggest a time when Israel literally was beaten up in a literal battle with some enemy, but it isn’t possible to pin down an historical event that he may have had in mind.
Then in verse eight Isaiah again changes the image, this time to a forlorn, abandoned lean-to that farmers would build as temporary shelters beside their fields during the harvest season. Long after the harvest, these deteriorating shacks offered a picture of Israel’s spiritual condition.
However verse nine ends the segment with a ray of hope. Israel is not yet completely destroyed. God could have justly obliterated her, like Sodom and Gomorrah, but he didn’t.
In the next section, 1:10-17, Isaiah lays out two ways of relating to God. One is the way of religious, or cultic, ceremony. We see that way in verses 10-15. This was what Israel had been doing.
As we saw in verse nine, due to a war Israel had almost literally become like Sodom and Gomorrah. But here in verse 10, Isaiah declares that spiritually they are Sodom and Gomorrah. Wow! Spiritually speaking, Israel was totally sinful and worthy only of complete destruction.
Their problem was that they had misinterpreted God’s law. The sacrifices that the law demanded were supposed to represent spiritual realities, but Israel had focused on the physical. Instead of seeing the sacrifices as representative of their need for forgiveness so that they could be obedient, they believed that forgiveness depended only on their doing the sacrifices properly. Thus no change of behavior was necessary.
As you can see, God was unhappy with them. He considered them hypocrites. The key statement in regard to God’s displeasure is at the end of verse 13: “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” God hates hypocritical worship (verse 14); and he hates hypocritical prayer (verse 15). Why? Because it combines worship with sin.
Again, we can make the same kind of mistake. We easily can put our emphasis on the physical, that is, emphasize what we do. In my case, I could choose to believe that my writing of this essay makes me right with God. All of us can count how many times we go to church, perhaps taking pride in saying, “I’m there every time the doors are open.” We also can add up how much we contribute to the church and take satisfaction in the fact that it is more than what our neighbor contributes, even though it is less than it should be, and so on. We can do all of these things, including worship and pray, while ignoring our sinfulness. And God says that disgusts him!
But praise God there is another way. In verses16-17 we see what God wants! He wants ethical purity. He wants us to confess our sin and genuinely turn it over to him so he can cleanse us of it. We must cease to do evil. Evil here simply means anything that is not according to God’s will and plan. On the other hand, we are to do good. Good is that which is according to God’s will and plan. And Isaiah gives four examples: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.
Now then, the section ends with verses 18-20, which express the wisdom of obedience. As disobedient and sinful as Israel had been, it wasn’t too late. But there had to be a change of attitude. They had to be willing to obey.
As we have seen, God’s forgiveness and favor cannot be manipulated. That was what Israel had been trying to do with their corrupted view of the sacrificial system. Instead God freely offers forgiveness to the obedient. And Isaiah made it clear to Israel that consequences would follow their decisions. They either would be blessed (19b), or they would be “devoured by the sword” (20b). The same is true of us. If we are obedient to our love relationship with God, we will be blessed; but if we insist on continuing in sin, we will suffer the consequences of that decision.
Moving on, in the next section Isaiah turns to the present condition of Israel and what God’s response will be. First, in verses 21-23, he makes an announcement of judgment. The “faithful city,” Jerusalem, here represents Israel as a whole. And Isaiah characterizes her as a whore, or a prostitute. Her “princes,” or “rulers” (NIV), who are responsible to promote order and justice are themselves disorderly and unjust. They neglect the needs of the orphans and widows in direct opposition to God’s will, which we saw expressed in verse 17.
Therefore, God declares through Isaiah in verses 24-26 that he will bring his wrath to bear on his enemies, even if those enemies are part of Israel. But notice once again a hopeful note in verse 26. God once again speaks of restoration. His ultimate intention is not destruction, but restoration.
Finally, in verses 27-31 the section concludes with a summary. Those in Zion who repent will be redeemed. But those who continue in their sinful rebellion, will be destroyed. Verses 29-30 make it clear that the worship of idols is at the heart of Israel’s problems. The “oaks” represent the sacred groves of Baal and Ashtoreth, or perhaps the worship of spirits that were thought to reside in trees. In any case, such worship is folly (v. 30). The idolatrous, rebellious ones will end up like a withered, dead tree, or a dead unwatered garden. Their only value will be as tinder that will be used to burn up their works.