In our last essay we studied Isaiah 56:1-57:2. In this essay we are studying 57:3-21. In 53:3-4 we see language of contrast: “But as for you.” By this phrase God contrasts Jews in general with the righteous ones of verses 1-2, and he calls them before himself for judgment. Rather than being children of Abraham, he calls them children of “a sorceress,” “an adulterer,” and “a whore” (v. 3). Apparently they had been mocking others, perhaps the righteous ones of verses 1-2 (v. 4).
In verses 5-8 God accuses the Jews of serious idolatry and of practicing the nastiest practices of the Canaanite religions. It is doubtful that many Jews were as blatant in their idolatry as this, or as disgusting in their religious practices, as the accusation implies. Isaiah was using hyperbole to make God’s point.
First, he accuses them of fertility worship, which involved the use of ritual prostitutes in the sacred groves. And he accuses them of child sacrifice, the most disgusting practice of the Canaanite religions, which took place in the valleys. Low places, such as wadis, dry gullies cut out by rushing water, like the groves, were common places of worship. As we shall see in the next verse, mountains were a third favorite place for pagan worship. Notice in verse six that God asks rhetorically and rather sarcastically, if he is supposed to be appeased by all of this paganization of Israelite religion. And of course the implied answer is that he is not.
In verse seven, Isaiah turns to pagan worship on the mountains, the third favorite place for the practice of Canaanite religions. The specter of ritual prostitution once again is raised when Isaiah mentions that the Jews had set their beds there.
Verse eight is difficult to understand, but we can get the basic point. It begins, “Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol.” The word translated “symbol” literally means “memorial.” Scholars are not certain what was intended here, but most believe it refers to some sort of pagan symbol. The NIV translators even inserted the word “pagan” into their translation. Whatever the hidden object was, for Isaiah it symbolized the Jews’ forsaking of God for pagan ways, including ritual prostitution. So we can at least understand from this verse that Israel had turned her back on God and had taken other gods as lovers.
Now there is a translation problem at the end of the verse as well. The NRSV translates the last clause, “you have gazed on their nakedness.” And the NIV translates it almost exactly the same way. But the phrase literally reads, “gaze on a hand.” As you can see, the translators recognized that the Jewish culture sometimes used the word “hand” with a sexual connotation. And scholars point to parallels in the Egyptian culture. This could be referring to the pagan symbol hidden behind doors mentioned earlier in the verse. At any rate, God is accusing Israel of deserting him for other gods.
Having dealt with the matter of fertility worship and the ritual prostitution that went with it, second, in verses 9-10 God accuses Israel of child sacrifice. Molech was a popular Canaanite god with whom child sacrifice was closely associated. The god Molech and child sacrifice are closely tied together several times in the Old Testament.
Some scholars suggest that Molech represents foreign countries that Israel allied herself with, and they interpret the oil and perfumes as items for trade. That doesn’t really fit the context. Molech represents a foreign god that Israel had begun to worship, even to the point of child sacrifice. And the oil and perfumes suggest that Israel sought to impress the god by adorning herself with these substances.
As the verse continues, it becomes clear that literal countries are not intended. Isaiah says that Israel even sent envoys to Sheol, the realm of the dead. This suggests that some in Israel even had begun to worship the gods of the underworld, Death and Pestilence. The first half of verse 10 tells us that Israel wearied of her wondering after other gods, but she never said that the quest was useless. That’s why she kept at it.
At this point God begins to call Israel to account. In verses 11-13 we see that the people of Israel had lied to God, had forgotten him, and indeed, hadn’t even given him a thought. And God had been silent for so long about their sins that the people no longer feared him. But Isaiah declares that the day is coming when God’s silence will end. A day of judgment is coming when God will expose their “righteousness and works.” And what he sees will not help them. It won’t help them, because what they think is righteousness, namely the pagan practices, actually is sinfulness.
Verse 13 informs us that Israel’s idols will not be able to deliver them on that judgment day. When they pray to the idols, the wind will carry them away. But the verse ends on a positive note. It is not too late to repent and believe. They still can “possess the land” and inherit God’s “holy mountain.”
Now then, building on that positive word at the end of verse 13, Isaiah goes on in verses 14-16 to show what God will do for believers. Isaiah begins with a reference to highway building, a recurring theme throughout the book. An example is 40:3 which I remind you says, “A voice cries out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The image is that of building a highway for God. The picture is that of building up a roadbed and clearing it in order to provide a level road, without obstacles, for spiritual travelers.
Verse 15 explains why God wants to build a road for repentant believers. Isaiah makes three points in the verse. First, he reminds us that God is “high and lifted up.” You will remember that language from earlier in the book. In 6:1 Isaiah, during his call as a prophet, saw God High and lifted up in the temple. And in 52:13 he declared that the Suffering Servant would be high and lifted up. Now he reminds us that God is high and lifted up. He exists apart from this world. He inhabits eternity, rather than time. And his name, that is, his character, is Holy.
In the middle of verse 15 we see Isaiah’s second point. God also dwells with “the contrite and humble in spirit.” In other words, God not only exist apart from this world, he also is active within it. He is willing, even anxious, to dwell with those of us who repent of our sins, believe in him, and want to have a relationship with him.
Isaiah’s third point is at the end of the verse. When God comes to dwell with repentant believers, he revives our hearts. What a blessing to find such good news in the Old Testament! That’s the good news of salvation. When God comes to dwell, he brings life to us. No matter how crushed, or downcast we may be, God’s presence enlivens our spirits.
In verse 16 God announces, through Isaiah, that his anger is not eternal, as he himself is. It is true that he becomes angry, but he is love (Oswalt). Were his angry eternal, the spirits he created (that includes us) would “faint” before him, because there would be no real hope. But because he is love, we not only have hope, those of us who are in relationship with him have assurance of salvation. Praise the Lord!
In verse 17 we see that as anxious as God is to save humanity, he still is angry about our sinfulness. So he brings judgment on humanity. Greed seems to express for Isaiah the utter selfishness that characterizes humanity. God not only punishes such sin, he hides himself from sinful humans, that is, he refuses to help them. But as you see at the end of the verse, they refuse to change. They keep turning back to their sinful ways.
Of course this leaves God with a dilemma. He wants to save, but most people are unwilling to repent. So he declares in verses 18-19 that he will heal them anyway. Indeed earlier in the book he already has announced through Isaiah how he will reconcile sinful humanity to himself. He will do it through the ministry of his divine, messianic Servant. And we see the benefits to human beings listed in verse 18. God will heal us; he will lead us; he will comfort us; bringing praise to our lips, even when we mourn.
Notice that God’s message is one of peace and healing to believers far and near. It is instructive that we see in the Gospels of the New Testament that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of preaching peace and healing.
Verses 20-21 remind us that not all human beings are at peace with God. This is an aspect of the mystery of divine/human relationships. We humans are unable to reconcile ourselves to God, or to live the kind of life he calls us to live. Thus we must rely on his initiative for salvation, and on his Holy Spirit to live for him. On the other hand, God has given us the freedom to refuse his grace. And when we refuse, he honors that decision. Thus there is no peace for the wicked.