Isaiah 3: Welcome to New Sodom

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For Judah, it was the sincerest form of rebellion. As we saw in chapter 1, Isaiah cannot help but see Judah in the same light of the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (you can read about them here in Genesis 19). You can picture Isaiah seeing his people read these past stories and with a mask of self-righteousness on, thinking themselves as being far off from the evil of those cities. “Surely, God’s people are much better than those pagans”, we might imagine hearing them say. Yet, that was not the reality:

For Jerusalem will stumble,
    and Judah will fall,
because they speak out against the Lord and refuse to obey him.
    They provoke him to his face.
The very look on their faces gives them away.
    They display their sin like the people of Sodom
    and don’t even try to hide it.
They are doomed!
    They have brought destruction upon themselves
.

Notice that last sentence of self-inflicting destruction. We looked at this theme in Chapter 1 where the prophets are aware of a sow-and-reap system built into the fabric of our world. While much of judgment language seems to be God-initiated judgment, there is just as heavy of an emphasis on people bringing destruction on themselves. First, we see the undoing of society and structure. God had graciously given them a structure, which when enacted properly, would promote justice, peace, and rest. Yet, the system had been abused and misused, so God was going to take it all away.

The Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
will take away from Jerusalem and Judah
everything they depend on:
every bit of bread
and every drop of water,
all their heroes and soldiers,
judges and prophets,
fortune-tellers and elders,
army officers and high officials,
advisers, skilled sorcerers, and astrologers.

A common accusation among the prophets is directed at the people’s sole dependence on human strength (you can see this in Isaiah 2:2). Deserting trust in their God for the visible, and yet frail, might of people and nations around them, Israel and Judah failed to live by faith. In this judgment oracle of Isaiah, God is going to tear down all the faint measures of security the people trusted in. A few verses later, God declares that He will replace their rulers with child leaders; wreaking havoc upon the throne. If you go to the book of 2 Kings, towards the end, you will see younger and younger rulers becoming king over Judah.

God’s tinkering with the structure does not stop here. Next, God brings a case against the present rulers of Judah and the treatment of the people.

The Lord takes his place in court
    and presents his case against his people.
The Lord comes forward to pronounce judgment
    on the elders and rulers of his people:
“You have ruined Israel, my vineyard.
    Your houses are filled with things stolen from the poor.
1How dare you crush my people,
    grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?”
    demands the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
.

As we saw in chapter 1, God tells Isaiah He hates the people’s meaningless sacrifices and rituals when they are not connected to promoting justice and righteousness. One of the chief failures of Judah was a disregard for the poor. As “covenant watchdogs” (again, Dr. Tim Mackie’s term), the prophets were calling the people back into covenant obedience. Yet, their call is not about the people’s need to follow the rituals of the covenant, but rather following the heart of the covenant. Within Isaiah’s harsh words of judgment, we find God’s broken heart for the poor and needy. This is not a new idea found only in the prophets. The covenant laws of the Torah are covered with laws protecting the poor. Take a look at a few examples below:

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” Exodus 23:6
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Leviticus 19:15
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22

Isaiah is accusing the leaders of covenantal failure. We should note the boldness of Isaiah’s words. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, prophets often functioned as a “yes man” to the king. Bringing messages in congruence with he kings’ desire was their main function. It was not so among God’s kingdom. The prophets were sent to critique and warn. Isaiah sends a message to those in power that God could not care less about their position of authority if they were failing to take care of the poor. Worst yet, the leaders among Isaiah were stealing from them and bringing them to ruin. The leaders are far removed from the intentions of God’s covenant with them. A system designed for good was being exploited for evil.

In the next section of the chapter, Isaiah explores this reality further.He compare Zion (a metonymy for all of Judah), with a beautiful woman, adorned in splendor. Unfortunately, her beauty will not last long as she is soon covered in scabs and made bald. All her jewelry and elegant clothing will be taking away. What was once beautiful has been tainted. The only way for transformation is to tear it all down and start small.

This “starting small” will become the theme of the next chapter. A short passage, but one loaded with hope built on a small foundation.

Reflection Questions

  1. How might this chapter reveal God’s heart towards the poor? Do God’s people always seem to share this heart?
  2. How might this chapter reveal God’s heart towards authority and positions of power?
  3. What were some of the difficult portions of this chapter to read/understand?


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