Setting up the book of Isaiah
READ Chapter 1
Isaiah’s ministry began before the Northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria and before the first exile. He is perhaps THE most quoted prophet and was the prophet that had the most to say about the Messianic hope of Israel. Like his fellow prophets, he also had strong words of condemnation for the people of Israel. His message was delivered primarily to the Southern kingdom of Judah, and in the intro only the kings of Judah are named.
Isaiah’s message is relatively simple. First, Isaiah accused God’s people of sin: rebelling against the one who made them and redeemed them. Second, Isaiah instructed these sinners to reform their ways and act obediently. Third, Isaiah announced God’s judgment on the people because of their sin. Finally, God revealed his future restoration of the people, or at least of the faithful remnant that survived the judgment. ~ CSB Study Bible
That is the summary of the entire book, and it is also a great summary of chapter 1 which acts as a kind of table of contents to the book:
Chapter 1 is a courtroom scene. God, as the Prosecutor, is levying the charges against the accused and presenting his evidence. God as the Judge then declaring the consequences for the guilty.
Isaiah 1:2–4 CSB
Listen, heavens, and pay attention, earth, for [Yahweh] has spoken: “I have raised children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s feeding trough, but Israel does not know; my people do not understand.” Oh sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, brood of evildoers, depraved children! They have abandoned the Lord; they have despised the Holy One of Israel; they have turned their backs on him.
Yahweh calls the heavens and earth to order to listen to the charges being brought forth. This could perhaps imply the calling of the divine, heavenly counsel as we read about in Job 1 along with all the people of the earth. There is no one that will be absent, in heaven or on earth, angels or human, that will miss this case.
As they are gathered, Yahweh says:
That is a harsh statement! Pretty dense animals are smarter and more acute than my children, God says.
He then goes on to call them names:
These titles are pointers to how far the nation has strayed from Yahweh.
This entire section of poetry uses the Hebrew tool of repetition to make a point. The words are switched up, but each section is repeating pretty much the same thing. But by repeating the same concept in several different ways the author gets his point across which is:
YOU LEFT YAHWEH.
Though God is going to send them away, it was they who left him first. Just as Adam & Eve were banished from God’s presence, it was their action that cause God to send them away. WHY? Because a HOLY GOD cannot allow an impure people to remain in his presence.
There is a phrase in verse 4 that shows up more in Isaiah than all the other books of the Bible combined; “The Holy One of Israel”.
In the event of this court case, it is a declaration that God is without blame or charge. He is without sin in this matter, unlike the rebels who are burdened by their sin. Holiness is a characteristic of God. He is holy.
What is unique is not HIS holiness, but the fact that he calls his people, ALL his people, to also be holy!
Leviticus 11:44–45 CSB
For I am the Lord your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy. Do not defile yourselves by any swarming creature that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God, so you must be holy because I am holy.
Leviticus 19:2 CSB
“Speak to the entire Israelite community and tell them: Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
Leviticus 20:7–8 CSB
Consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sets you apart.
The book of Leviticus is a set of laws for how to live. While much of it consists of things NOT to do, this command to be holy is something the Jews were commanded TO do or become.
YOU AND I are also called to relationship with the Holy God of Israel and we are called to represent him to the nations around us. WE, just as the Jews, are called to be HOLY, like the one who called us out of darkness and into his glorious light:
1 Peter 1:14–16 CSB
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance. But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.
Our CONDUCT is to be holy - like God’s. What does that mean?
Well, I believe Isaiah helps us understand a little bit about what it means to be holy when he names the evidence he has against the people.
Verses 21-26 are a chiasmus. It is a literary style that uses a crisscross type or reverse order of structure. Perhaps you have heard this one, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That is a chiasmus. The first half starts with country and ends with you, the second half starts with you and ends with country.
In our passage in Isaiah, it maps out like this:
vs 21 -> vs 26
vs 22 -> vs 25
vs 23 -> vs 24
You start in verse 21 with the unfaithful city you end up in verse 26 with the faithful city restored. In verse 21 it is an unrighteous city and in 26 you have the righteous city. Similarly, you see the silver and dross in verse 22 that will be refined and the dross removed from them in verse 25. Do you see it?
Let’s look at the first half:
Isaiah 1:21–23 ESV
How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
The evidence against them is that they have taken bribes, ignored the needs of the underserved in society (widows and orphans), and they are rebels.
Interestingly, these are the same charges Jesus would levy against the religious leaders during his day. Not much will change here. Not yet.
These verses not only point out the shortcomings of the Jews, but they also point out the compassionate heart of God. In the books of the Law there are many laws that are designed to protect the widow and the orphan. The entire book of Ruth is a pointer to the value that God places on the widow and how God rewards and blesses those that make them a priority.
In the NT there are commands about how we are to continue to look out for these people groups (see 1 Timothy 5). The first big problem in the church in Jerusalem was an issue of taking care of a certain group of widows (see Acts 6). And James, the brother of Jesus makes an incredibly bold statement:
James 1:27 CSB
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
I am not sure there is a better verse to counter Isaiah 1:21-23 than that one!
The heart of God has always been for the underserved. He has always desired that his people look out for those that cannot look out for themselves, just as he looked out for us and provided Jesus to take our place in his sentencing of Justice.
Those that are in this category still include widows and orphans. It could also include foster children and unborn children. It might include the poor, the immigrant, slaves (victims of human trafficking) and the mentally challenged. I am sure we can make this list go on and on.
God’s expects his people, in all nations, in every generation to take up the cause of those that are less fortunate or unable to take care of themselves because we are called to represent HIM, and that is what HE does for us.
The verdict is that all rebels deserve punishment and will be wiped out.
Isaiah 1:20 CSB
But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
I love the imagery of vs 19-20: Willing means eating good things. Rebelling means being devoured (eaten up) by the sword. For the MOUTH of God has spoken. Kinda nerdy!
Isaiah 1:28 CSB
At the same time both rebels and sinners will be broken, and those who abandon the Lord will perish.
We know from Jonah that God is a merciful God, slow to anger. So by the time we reach this point, it is very obvious that this is a just sentence. It is NOT a flippant and of anger, it is a punishment for repeated failure and persistent obstinance:
So rather than focus on the verdict I want to focus on the little “clauses” in this legal brief that seem like loopholes in a very cut and dry case.
Though God had a right to wipe them out completely, he also had an obligation to keep his promise to Abraham and Moses and David. So, though MOST will perish, SOME will be saved and refined.
Isaiah 1:9 (CSB) — If the Lord of Armies had not left us a few survivors, we would be like Sodom, we would resemble Gomorrah.
Isaiah 1:24–26 CSB
Therefore the Lord God of Armies, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: “Ah, I will get even with my foes; I will take revenge against my enemies. I will turn my hand against you and will burn away your dross completely; I will remove all your impurities. I will restore your judges to what they were at first, and your advisers to what they were at the start. Afterward you will be called the Righteous City, a Faithful Town.”
The second half of our chiasm shows how God will restore things back to the way they were, and even better. This is NOT going to be immediate. As a matter of fact, some of this will take place at a time referred to as “the day of the Lord” - which is a topic that I believe David is going to introduce us to next week.
God will eliminate his foes. In this case, that is the rebel Jews! What? Yeah, as rebels were the enemies of God!
The goal of this “punishment” is to refine, purify and make holy once again! The goal of God’s chastisement on his children is always this way.
Hebrews 12:5–10 (CSB)
And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or lose heart when you are reproved by him, for the Lord disciplines the one he loves and punishes every son he receives (cf Proverbs 3:11-12). Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline—which all receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness.
God will purify the people and restore justice and fellowship - once the sin is smelted away. Again, we are introduced to a concept we will see over and over again, the mercy of God.
But there is one final section we really MUST look at. As much as I want to cover:
I think our time is better spent focusing on God’s mercy.
Surely, the people deserved punishment, but the holy and righteous judge gives the people an out.
Isaiah 1:16–19 CSB
“Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause. “Come, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are crimson red, they will be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land.
We call this repentance.
CHANGE. Do the OPPOSITE. REMOVE the evil and do what is good! It does not matter how big or bad that list is that is levied against Israel, God offers for all of it to be wiped out!
No matter what sin you and I struggle with, God calls US to repent. TRUE repentance means to stop rebelling against God and to obey him. Notice this list of what they need to do is the counter part to the accusations levied against them?
This is still the NT concept of repentance. I love this passage:
Ephesians 4:28 CSB
Let the thief no longer steal. Instead, he is to do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need.
The person who took from others must change in such a way that they give to others!
The word repent is used in 1:27 and that word means to “return” or “turn back” - in this case to God. To go from abandoning God to turning back to him, from despising him to honoring him and from taking advantage of the widow and orphan to taking up their cause.
STOP doing what is evil and LEARN to do what is good. Remove the evil from God’s sight.
I believe we often forget that God’s spirit now lives in us, and when we sin, we are dragging a holy God into an unholy place and waving our sin in front of his eyes. God says to remove it from his sight in verse 16. What a vivid picture and a great motivator for being holy!
Verse 18 is AWESOME. “come, lets settle this” - it is a legal phrase, like settling out of court! Come, let’s argue this out and come to an agreement:
BUT, IF You will obey and return, the judge promises to expunge our record. Not to seal it up and pull it out later, but to wipe it clean, remove it for good! This is STILL the mercy of the Judge today.
Psalm 103:12 CSB
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Hebrews 8:10–12 (CSB)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And each person will not teach his fellow citizen, and each his brother or sister, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will forgive their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins.
This is actually a quote from Jeremiah 31!
God said,” I don’t want your offerings, I want your hearts! I don’t need empty sacrifices, I need people who will follow me and trust me!
Hebrews 10:15–18 CSB
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. For after he says: This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, the Lord says, I will put my laws on their hearts and write them on their minds, and I will never again remember their sins and their lawless acts. Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.
The author of Hebrews sees these verses as so significant that he brings them up a second time!
Just as God reasoned with Israel, he wants to argue with you and me today - trust him! Obey him! And your sins will be washed clean as snow and God can bless you! Do not rebel against the Lord.
Not sin is too big for God to forgive. No rebellion is so far that God cannot redeem. No impurity in our lives is so tainted that God cannot make it pure again.
God is a HOLY God and MUST punish sin and must reprimand the unjust. But God is also a merciful God that provides a pardon from our sentence if we will repent.
God has made his case - will you accept his plea or stand in defiance to his mercy and compassion?
You could also say: "A holy god cannot allow an impure people to remain in his presence"