Welcome to the first chapter of Isaiah! Before getting into the text, it will be necessary to set the scene. If you have any experience reading the Old Testament, you have probably picked up on the seemingly disorganized chronology of its books. Many of the prophets can often be mapped unto stories found in the books of Kings and Chronicles and others will take place after the exile into Babylon. Since the prophets often do not give narrative background to their situation, placing them within the specific reign of a king helps us grasp the direction of their words.
Thankfully, the book of Isaiah places his work within the reign of a few Judean kings. At this time the nation of Israel has been divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Reading through 1 and 2 Kings, you will notice a back-and-forth narration and judgment of the kings of Israel and Judah (side-note: Israel has no good kings while Judah only has 8 kings who “did what was pleasing in the LORD’s sight”).
Isaiah prophesied and ministered during the reigns of the Judean kings Uzziah (2 Kings 15:1-7), Jotham (2 Kings 15:32-28), Ahaz (2 Kings 16), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-20). He had a career of about 40 years (739-700 BC) and tradition says he was killed by king Manasseh (one of the worst kings and the breaking point for impeding exile according to Kings). Critical national events such as the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Syro-Ephraimite war, and the siege of Jerusalem occurred during his lifetime. The first half of the book spans during the growing threat of Assyria and then in chapter 40 and beyond, the prophecies take place during the Babylonian exile (which will then beg the question as to whether Isaiah actually wrote that portion of the book, but we will get to that quandary later!)
New Sodom and Gomorrah
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken
Court is now in session. God is calling the heavens and earth to be His witness for the accusations He calls against His people. Whatever He is about to say, is not just vital for the small nation of Israel, but carries enough weight to invest the cosmic whole. The stakes are high.
Recalling the biblical narrative, God has made a covenant with a group of people called Israel who were called to bless all of the nations of the world. Creation had fallen into rebellion and sin and God was going to work through this people group to bring restoration. He had enter into a partnering covenant with them that required obedience and loyalty. This covenant would lead them to fill their land with justice, righteousness, and love as an example to the other nations.
However,the solution was filled with the very problem it was meant to solve. Sin had affected the very people who were meant to rid their land of sin’s vandalism.
Isaiah sees that Judah has rebelled against God and completely forgotten Him. A quick reading of 2 Kings will reveal their habitual acts of rebellion. Time and time again they abandoned Yahweh for another god (often Baal) and abandoned His vision of justice and righteousness. Even the “good” kings will fail to completely eradicate the land of this behavior. In Isaiah’s words we find a curious description of what this sin has brought to Israel:
Why do you continue to invite punishment?
Must you rebel forever?
Your head is injured,
and your heart is sick.
Isaiah makes a intriguing observation for us to reflect on. Normally, when thinking about sin, we envision punishment only coming from God, often in a future sense. There are certainly plenty of prophetic passages which depict God as being active in bringing punishment to Judah as a wake-up call, yet just as often, sin is depicted as having intrinsic consequences. Built within the fabric of creation is a sow and reap nature of sin. Now obviously this is nuanced (just read Job or Ecclesiastes!), but there seems to be a consequential relationship to sin and invited punishment. Why were the kings constantly being assassinated? Maybe because they burdened the people with injustice and dishonesty. Why were the people constantly inviting other nations to take them over? Maybe because their selfish desires drove them to disunity and a failure to band together.
Yet, it seems that the invited punishment was not enough to wake Judah up. God was going to have to step in and make reality clear. Judah had become so engrossed with sin that Isaiah cannot help but compare them with two of the worst cities in the biblical narrative: Sodom and Gomorrah.
Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
A harsh comparison to hear for God’s people. Isaiah is making it clear to Judah the depth of their offense. God’s people are moving backwards in the development of His rescue plan. They look more like a rebellious city of the past than the picture of a glorious Jerusalem that invites all the nations in for rest and refreshment. This accusation would cut deep for Judah, especially concerning the next passage which seems to indicate Judah was trying to follow some of the practices of the covenant:
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord…
Stop bringing meaningless offering…
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Meaningless sacrifices and God’s hatred for empty worship will become a common theme for many of the prophets (see Amos 5 and Jeremiah 7:16-29). No amount of sacrificial observation could cover up their disregard for justice. Isaiah, and many of the prophets, will say similar things to remind the people of God’s true desire:
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Without a love for justice, the sacrificial system was worthless. Notice the double entendre Isaiah uses (I will consistently remind you of the prophet’s creativity!) when he accuses the people that, “your hands are full of blood!”. The peoples hands are full of blood because they blindly sacrifice hoping that the blood of the animals will atone for their sin but at the same time there is “blood on their hands” because they have disregarded the oppressed. When the people spread out their hands to pray, it is not the blood of the sacrifice that God sees, but the blood of the innocent. In this short passage, we gain insight into God’s heart. Justice and righteousness trump the following of ceremonial practices. While the sacrifice and festival system was important, it was futile and aimed in the wrong direction outside of justice.
Now, Isaiah 1 is not all bad news. Interwoven within this message is hope. In fact, as you read Isaiah, you will find a constant combo-punch of hope and judgement. So connected are these that at times the prophet seems schizophrenic in his purpose. Even in the bad news, glimmers of hope can be found. Right after this passage on meaningless worship, we catch a glimmer of this hope:
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
Somehow God is going to deal with his people’s failure. He is going to eventually transform their sin into purity. What the people have tried to accomplish through their empty worship will be freely giving to them by God’s grace.
Isaiah 1 has set the stage for the rest of the book. Judgment is coming for Judah’s consistent failure but hope is on the other end. In the next blog we will focus on chapter 2. For the first few chapters, we will focus on one chapter at a time and as we get closer to the middle of the book, I will combine chapters here and there. As you read chapter 2, I would suggest reading Micah chapter 4 as well. Micah was a contemporary prophet with Isaiah and in this chapter of Micah you will see obvious similarities between Isaiah 2
Reflection Questions for Isaiah 1
- As God’s people, how might we be tempted to “sacrifice and festival observation” over and against bringing justice and righteousness?
- Isaiah compares God’s people with two of the most notoriously sinful cities. What might this tell us about our capabilities as God’s people when fail to live into His vision?
- How might this chapter teach us the nature of sin and consequences?
- How does this chapter reveal God’s heart and desire for his people? For this world?
- Where do we find grace in this chapter among the judgment? Is there anything here that points to (not necessarily “predicts”) Jesus?
If you have any questions or comments on Isaiah 1 please feel free to leave them below or visit my Contact page to submit one to me personally.