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1:1 Here is the message about Judah and Jerusalem that was revealed to Isaiah son of Amoz during the time when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah reigned over Judah.

Motyer suggests that chapters 1-5 constitute a kind of preface to the Isaiah’s collected prophecies.  The book as a whole would have begun quite well at chapter 6, with the account of the prophet’s call.  These earlier oracles are undated, and it is difficult or impossible to pin down the precise historical events underlying them.  No foreign nation is mentioned in these early chapters, apart from a passing reference to the Philistines in Isa 2:6.  Accordingly, says Motyer, they can be viewed as offering general truths that provide a backdrop to the main part of the book.

However, if these chapters act as a kind of ‘overture’ to the whole, we seem to look in vain the Messianic theme.  And yet there are hints of this in the very first words of the prophecy: for ‘Judah’ is the subject of the prophecy in Gen 49:10, and ‘Jerusalem’ is, of course, the city of David, whose ‘greater son’ would set up the very kingdom of God.  What we can say with some confidence is that chapters 1-5 do introduce the major themes of judgment and hope.

‘The list of kings indicates that he prophesied for at least forty years, from about 740 bc, the last year of Uzziah (cf. Isa 6:1), until some point after the Jerusalem siege of 701 in the time of Hezekiah, whose reign continued to 687/6.’ (NBC)

‘This was a tumultuous half-century that witnessed the rise and dominance of the Neo-Assyrian empire, which was eventually responsible for the northern kingdom invasion, the fall of Samaria and massive destruction in Judah. Isaiah’s commission coincided with the beginning of this renewed Assyrian threat.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

‘While the vision concerns a specific city and nation in the eighth century BC, we shall see when we get to the beginning of chapter 2 that this is merely the vantage point from which the prophet looks out.  The vision is in fact breathtaking in its scope, embracing all nations and reaching to the very end of time.’ (Webb)

Of the details of Isaiah’s life we know virtually nothing.  We can conjecture that his easy access to kings made him of noble, even royal, blood.

The vision – Cf. v2 – ‘the Lord has spoken’.

Obedience, not Sacrifice

1:2 Listen, O heavens,
pay attention, O earth!
For the LORD speaks:
“I raised children, I brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me!
1:3 An ox recognizes its owner,
a donkey recognizes where its owner puts its food;
but Israel does not recognize me,
my people do not understand.”
1:4  The sinful nation is as good as dead,
the people weighed down by evil deeds.
They are offspring who do wrong,
children who do wicked things.
They have abandoned the LORD,
and rejected the Holy One of Israel.
They are alienated from him.
1:5 Why do you insist on being battered?
Why do you continue to rebel?
Your head has a massive wound,
your whole body is weak.
1:6 From the soles of your feet to your head,
there is no spot that is unharmed.
There are only bruises, cuts,
and open wounds.
They have not been cleansed or bandaged,
nor have they been treated with olive oil.
1:7 Your land is devastated,
your cities burned with fire.
Right before your eyes your crops
are being destroyed by foreign invaders.
They leave behind devastation and destruction.
1:8 Daughter Zion is left isolated,
like a hut in a vineyard,
or a shelter in a cucumber field;
she is a besieged city.
1:9 If the LORD who commands armies had not left us a few survivors,
we would have quickly become like Sodom,
we would have become like Gomorrah.
1:10 Listen to the LORD’s word,
you leaders of Sodom!
Pay attention to our God’s rebuke,
people of Gomorrah!
1:11 “Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?”
says the LORD.
“I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices
of rams and the fat from steers.
The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats
I do not want.
1:12 When you enter my presence,
do you actually think I want this—
animals trampling on my courtyards?
1:13 Do not bring any more meaningless offerings;
I consider your incense detestable!
You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and convocations,
but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations!
1:14 I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies;
they are a burden
that I am tired of carrying.
1:15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I look the other way;
when you offer your many prayers,
I do not listen,
because your hands are covered with blood.
1:16  Wash! Cleanse yourselves!
Remove your sinful deeds
from my sight.
Stop sinning!
1:17 Learn to do what is right!
Promote justice!
Give the oppressed reason to celebrate!
Take up the cause of the orphan!
Defend the rights of the widow!
1:18  Come, let’s consider your options,” says the LORD.
“Though your sins have stained you like the color red,
you can become white like snow;
though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet,
you can become white like wool.
1:19 If you have a willing attitude and obey,
then you will again eat the good crops of the land.
1:20 But if you refuse and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
Know for certain that the LORD has spoken.
A complete sermon

  1. The Lord has spoken, v2
  2. Sinners addressed, v4
  3. Their disease diagnosed, v5f
  4. Offerings rejected, vv11,15
  5. Repentance commanded, v16f
  6. Pardon announced, v18
  7. Warning of judgment, v20

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students, adapted)

Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth – This chapter describes a courtroom scene.  Heaven and earth are summoned to hear God’s lawsuit against Israel.  The language recalls that of Deut 4:26.

“I reared children and brought them up” – hence God’s pain and distress at their rebellion.

Rebelled – This is the first of the major charges levelled against the nation.  The other charge is of corruption (v4).  ‘Rebellion’ is ‘a particularly appropriate word for the theology of apostasy expounded in the Vision. It fits the parent-child analogy as well as it does the king-subject pattern. It reflects the deep emotion of the problem and its effects on relationship. It shows the deliberately willed nature of the issue: the unwillingness to recognize the nature of the relationship to God as parent or king and to draw the consequences of that relation and the dependence that it implies.’ (Watts)

‘The adversaries have been summoned in the title verse. They are Judah and Jerusalem. The witnesses have been called. Yahweh is the plaintiff; his children are in rebellion against him.’ (Watts)

v3 Sin is stupid.  Humble domestic animals learn to recognise their owners, but Israel does not know her Father and King.  ‘Unreasoning beasts exhibit more sense and appreciation than unthinking Israel (cf. Jer 8:7).’ (EBC)

Sin is unnatural.  To love and obey God should be as instinctive as as the behaviour of the ox and donkey.  As Motyer says, the focus of human rebellion is the mind: they do not ‘know’ or ‘understand’.  This is not to say that they lack information, but the proper understanding of it.

‘Pseudo-Matthew 14 tells of the ox and the ass worshiping Jesus in Bethlehem’s cradle and calls them a fulfillment of this part of Isaiah’s prophecy…The apocryphal gospel has correctly seen the meaning of the parable in Isaiah. Ox and ass are credited with recognition and discernment which men do not display.’ (Watts)

God’s primary complaint against his people is that they do not ‘know’ him.  Practical consequences flow inevitably from this, both in terms of their behaviour and his judgement.

v4 Ah – The underlying word is not simply an exclamation, but an expression of impending judgment: “Woe!”

Motyer notes the four nouns of privilege: a unique ‘nation’, redeemed ‘people’, a ‘brood’ (or ‘seed’ [of Abraham, cf. Isa 41:8]), the Lord’s own ‘children’.  But note too the fourfold indictment: they are ‘a sinful nation’, ‘loaded with guilt’, ‘evildoers’, ‘given to corruption’.

A people loaded with guilt – ‘The idea…is very striking – that of a nation – an entire people, bowed and crushed under the enormous weight of accumulated crimes. To pardon iniquity, or to atone for it, is represented by bearing it, as if it were a heavy burden. Ex 28:38, Ex 28:43, ‘That Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things.’ Lev 10:17 : ‘God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation.’ Lev 22:9; Lev 16:22; Num 18:1; Isa 53:6 : ‘Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ Isaiah 53:11 : ‘He shall bear their iniquities.’ 1 Pet 2:24 : ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.’ ‘ (Barnes)

Children – lit. ‘sons’.  They were God’s adopted sons, with all the privileges of that status, but had given themselves to corruption.

The Holy One of Israel – This term is limited almost completely to Isaiah, occuring 12 times in chapters 1-39 and 13 in chapters 40-66.

Turned their backs on him – means, or at least implies, that they have reverted to what they were before they were redeemed by the Lord.

v5 Two figures are used to illustrate the parlous state of the nation: here in v5f the picture is of a brutalised body that has been left untended, and in v8 it is of an abandoned hut in a harvest field.

Why should you…Why do you…? – ‘Their continuance in sin, like all rebellion against God, is utterly irrational.’ (EBC)

Why do you persist in rebellion? – ‘Where the heart is right with God, the tendency of affliction is to humble it, and lead it more and more to God. Where it is evil, the tendency is to make the sinner more obstinate and rebellious.’ (Barnes)

v6 The nation has utterly crippled itself: from top (head) to bottom (foot); both outwardly (head…foot) and inwardly (heart).

‘The body politic is like the victim of a savage mugging’ (Motyer).  Israel has subjected itself to such a flogging that there is nowhere on the body that is not an open sore.  The body has been completely flogged, and yet Israel asks for more.

‘The picture in vs 5–6 is not of a sick man, but of someone flogged within an inch of his life, yet asking for more.’ (NBC)

‘From the human point of view, the nation was prospering; but from God’s point of view, the nation was like a wretched victim that had been beaten from head to foot and left to die (Isa. 1:5–6). The wounds had become infected, the whole body was diseased, and nobody was doing anything to help. The false prophets and hypocritical priests of that day would have challenged Isaiah’s autopsy of “the body politic,” but the prophet knew that his diagnosis was true. In spite of the optimism of Judah’s leaders, the nation was morally and spiritually sick; and judgment was inevitable.’ (Wiersbe)

Referring to v5-6, Barnes says: ‘With great skill he first reminds them of what they saw and knew, that they were severely punished; and then states to them the cause of it. Of the calamities to which the prophet refers, they could have no doubt. They were every where visible in all their cities and towns. On these far-spreading desolations, he fixes the eye distinctly first. Had he begun with the statement of their depravity, they would probably have revolted at it. But being presented with a statement of their sufferings, which they all saw and felt, they were prepared for the statement of the cause. To find access to the consciences of sinners, and to convince them of their guilt, it is often necessary to remind them first of the calamities in which they are actually involved; and then to search for the cause.’

Barnes adds that these verses are often adduced to prove the doctrine of human depravity; but in fact they describe the effects of the punishment of sin.  The moral condition leading to this punishment is described in vv10-14.

v7 The awful figurative language of v5f gives way to the equally horrible historical reality.  The ravages of war have left the countryside devastated.

The important thing here, says Motyer, is not what historical invasion is reflected here, but the fact that history is seen as the arena of God’s moral judgment.

‘In setting the scene for his ministry, Isaiah starts with what must have been obvious – even if the people will not accept his diagnosis, they cannot quarrel with the facts!’ (Motyer)

Verses 7-8 give the reality that verses 6 & 7 had been alluding to.  Judah is laid waste with only Jerusalem (Zion) left standing.  This appears to describe the situation after the invasion of Sennacherib, 2 Kings 18:13; Isa 37:30–32.  The Taylor Prism records the capture of 46 walled towns, along with innumerable villages.

Watts thinks that ‘in view of the description of Israel’s problems given in vv 4–7b, the period under discussion must come during one of Assyria’s incursions into the land before the final fall of Samaria in 721 b.c. The language of this verse describes Jerusalem’s isolation when the emperor’s marauding armies were in the neighborhood. The specific horror of siege will be described later.’

v8 The Daughter of Zion – Jerusalem.

Shelter– a ‘field-worker’s or watchman’s shanty, a forlorn relic of the harvest.’ (NBC)  It is ‘is a familiar Near Eastern sight. The ripening fruit cannot be left unguarded against human theft or the invasion of animals or birds. The guard needs protection from the sun. So a booth of branches is made for him, elevated to enhance his field of vision. It will only last a season, but often remains long after the watchman is no longer needed.’ (Watts)

‘The harvesters are gone, and the winter winds have blown away most of the odds and ends used to build the hut.  That is what Israel is like.’ (Oswalt)

‘Small huts were built in fields so that watchmen could stand guard over the fruit that was ready to be harvested. At the end of the harvest these huts would be abandoned and left desolate in a field stripped bare of its produce. So Jerusalem is portrayed as vacant and deserted with nothing left to protect.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

A city under siege – Such fortified cities were built to protect the borders.  But the land has been so over-run that Jerusalem herself has become like one of those isolated cities: still standing, but under threat.

v9 ‘If only they would turn back to the Lord, he would gladly restore the blessings he had formerly showeed on them.  But it is a sign of their rebellion that even with the evidence of judgment all around them, they will not turn back.’ (Oswalt)

It becomes clear that the devastation that has just been described is the Lord’s judgment.  ‘For these people the judgment of God was no mere theological abstraction, or something that existed somewhere else or might be experienced at some future time…It was a very present, painful reality.’ (Webb)

Isaiah’s hearers would have felt shocked and insulted by any comparison with Sodom and Gomorrah. (EBC)  See Isa 3:9; Gen 18-19.

Glorious Zion had come within a millimetre of being wiped out, as Sodom and Gomorrah had been.  Nevertheless, there is hope.

Some survivors – God judgment is shown in the fact that most had been killed or imprisoned, and his mercy in the fact that a remnant had been spared.

This verse is quoted by Paul (Rom 9:29) to show that God had not forsaken Israel.

‘What did the leaders think when Isaiah said only “a very small remnant” would survive? After all, God had promised Abraham that the nation would multiply like the dust of the earth and the stars of the heavens (13:16; 15:5). The doctrine of “the remnant” is important in the message of the prophets (Isa. 6:13; 10:20–22; 11:11–13, 16; Jer. 6:9; 23:3; 31:7; Micah 2:12; Zech. 8:12). Paul also referred to it (Rom. 9:27; 11:5). In spite of the apostasy of the nation, a remnant of true believers would be spared so that God’s work could be accomplished through the Jewish nation.’ (Wiersbe)

Reviewing vv1-9, Oswalt suggests that it is essentially about rebellion which brings about certain consequences and failure to see the connection between the two.  God is the Holy One, Creator, covenant Lord and Father, but they have forgotten all of this.  In the physical world, actions (and inactions) have consequences: a gravely injured body will die if left untended, and a shed in the middle of a field will collapse if not maintained.  So it is in the spiritual realm: if we rebel against our Lord, Maker and Father, spiritual corruption, social collapse and ultimately death will ensue.  ‘As intelligent human beings, we should be able to work that equation.  Animals seem to know what is best for them, yet humans do not.’ (Oswalt)

Oswalt remarks that we often seem happy for other people’s behaviour to have consequences (“She can’t get away with it!”) but not our own.  We want justice for them, and mercy for ourselves.  We accept that if we break physical laws (the law of gravity, for example) there will be consquences, but often fail to see that there are consequences when we break spiritual and moral laws.  We imagine that we can sleep around, or endlessly accumulate material goods, without these things having any serious consequences for ourselves or others.  We prize personal freedom, choice and autonomy above everything else.  But Isaiah tells us that God has set standards for our behaviour.  These standards are not arbitrary.  There are good reasons – reasons deeply connected to our own happiness and well-being – why marital fidelity and a certain simplicity of living are to be valued.  And if we violate those standards there will be consequences.  We understand that to drive a railway train off its tracks is not some infringement of its ‘basic rights’; rather, keeping it on its tracks is fundamental to it achieving its true potential, and fulfilling the purpose for which it was made.  We can understand that no society can last long where everyone lies, so why should we regard absolute truthfulness as restrictive and inhibiting?  God does not lay down standards for our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour because he wants to restrict us, or make us miserable, but because he loves us and wants us to reach our full potential.

It comes down to the biblical doctrine of God.  ‘Is there a being in the universe who has the right in his essence (the Holy One), his nature (Father), his actions (Creator), and his relationships (covenant Lord) to define the terms of our life?’ (Oswalt)  If so, our rebellion is not just an expression of our self-determination but an offence against who we are and what we were meant to be.  But we are not called to some mindless, robotic obedience.  God has not prescribed everything that we must do.  What he has done is to lay down principles to guide us and to set the outer limits beyond which we may not go without hurting ourselves.  ‘Live creatively within the general limits the Creator-Father has defined for you and there will be health, productivity, and joy.’ (Oswalt)

v10 After describing the national devastation, but before dealing with the social situation, Isaiah comments on the religious state of the nation.  ‘The kernel of every national problem is how people relate to God. They cannot be right anywhere if they are wrong here. Religion determines everything.’ (Motyer)

The prophet describes two alternative ways of dealing with the national crisis: by hypocritical religion, v10-15, or by repentance and reformation, 16f.  The first will lead to disaster, the second to blessing, 18-20.

Sodom…Gomorrah – ‘To be addressed as Sodom was virtually charge and sentence in one. As a disaster site, Sodom meant all that Pompeii or Hiroshima have come to signify to us.’ (NBC)  The people are like Sodom and Gomorrah in their godlessness; v9 has already stated that they came within a hair’s breadth of suffering the fate of those two cities.

Law means, first of all, ‘instruction’, and it is the instruction of a wise and loving Father.

v11 Ironically, these people who have rebelled against God are assiduous in their worship.  They offered all kinds of sacrifices, v11, attended the temple, v12, observed monthly and weekly holy days, v13f, and prayed fervently, v15, and but their hearts were not right with God and so their worship was utterly unacceptable.

The people might well have asked why, ‘since they did so much for him, the Lord seemed to be doing nothing for them. But that is just the point: their religion was “what we do for God” and not “how we enter into the grace he offers to us”.’ (Motyer)

‘The standing error of the ritualist is that if all depends on performing the ceremonial act, then the more you do it the better. (Motyer)

‘Sacrifices alone can never please God; for along with the outward observance, God wants inward obedience (1 Sam 15:22), a broken heart (Ps. 51:17), and a godly walk (Mic 6:6–8).’ (Wiersbe)

No amount of religious observance can make up for a lack of concern for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.

Watts points out that the language of worship used in vv11-16 is comprehensive: it covers all kinds of worship occasions.

“The multitude” – ‘Hypocrites abound in outward religious observances just in proportion to their neglect of the spiritual requirements of God’s word; compare Mt 23:23.’ (Barnes)

“Your sacrifices” – Their worship was, as Watts remarks, something that they had chosen, rather than engaged in in heartfelt response to the call of God.  Earlier generations used to refer to ‘will-worship’, and this is something similar.  The rejection of this kind of worship is referred to again in Isa 66:3f.  God is looking for a people who are ‘willing and obedient’ (Isa 1:19).

‘God here replies to an objection which might be urged by the Jews to the representation which had been made of their guilt. The objection would be, that they were strict in the duties of their religion, and that they even abounded in offering victims of sacrifice. God replies in this and the following verses, that all this would be of no use, and would meet with no acceptance, unless it were the offering of the heart. He demanded righteousness; and without that, all external offerings would be vain.’ (Barnes)  See also 1 Sam 15:22; Jer 6:20; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-24.

We are not to conclude, from these verses, that Isaiah is calling for ‘morality with religion’.  Rather, he is asserting that religion without morality is a travesty; it is worse than useless.  The people had rent asunder what God had joined together: religious practice and upright behaviour.

v12 Appear before me – The wonderful privilege of access to God has been turned, by bad attitude and bad behaviour, into an unacceptable presumption.

Who has asked this of you? – ‘It was indeed the duty of the humble, and the sincere, to tread those courts, but who had required such hypocrites as they were to do it? God sought the offerings of pure worshippers, not those of the hypocritical and the profane.’ (Barnes)

v13 ‘Their gifts are worthless, their incense an abomination, and their worship services evil…If God’s people intend to take the way if increased religiosity as the way of solving their problems, they are taking a dead-end street.’ (Oswalt)

New Moons – the first day of each (lunar) month was marked as the equivalent of a Sabbath.

v14 I am weary of bearing them – ‘There could be no more impressive statement of the evil effects of sin, than that even Omnipotence was exhausted as with a heavy, oppressive burden.’ (Barnes)

v15 Even prayer is useless – an affront, even – if divorced from love of justice.

Your hands are full of blood – God is outraged, not by any lack of worship, but by the lack of justice.  The one without the other is an abomination.  The blood of sacrifice has been mingled with the blood of innocent people.

The uselessness of religious practice without heart-obedience is spelled with utter clarity in Psa 51.

‘The sentiment is, that because they indulged in sin, and came, even in their prayers, with a determination still to indulge it, God would not hear them. The same sentiment is elsewhere expressed; Psa 66:18 : ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me;’ Prov 28:9 : ‘He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination;’ Jer 16:10-12; Zec 7:11-12; Prov 1:28-29. This is the reason why the prayers of sinners are not heard – But the truth is abundantly taught in the Scriptures, that if sinners will forsake their sins, the greatness of their iniquity is no obstacle to forgiveness; Isa 1:18; Mt 11:28; Lk 16:11-24.’ (Barnes)

v16 We have, in 16f nine commands which together hold out the prospect of repentance and restoration.  The first three have to do with making themselves pure before God.  The second three have to do with a reordering of personal life (‘stop’, ‘learn’, ‘seek’).  The third group concerns transformation of society (Motyer).

‘Now reproach gives way to command, in eight thunderous calls to have done with evil (16) and get busy with good (17). This is repentance at full stretch, unsparingly personal, ungrudgingly practical (cf. Dan 4:27; Mt 3:8; Lk 19:8). But these searching demands prepare for the offer of unmerited salvation which immediately follows.’ (NBC)

Wash and make yourselves clean – There is a close connection with the previous verse, where hands were covered with blood.  Cf. Psa 51:2; Jer 4:14.

The same law that lays down the requirements for acceptable sacrifice also demands love for one’s neighbours.  To do one without the other is simple hypocrisy.

v17 ‘The prophet’s words imply that the reclaimed sinner needs a course of instruction in the ways of God. This teaching process begins in the call for social justice and defense of the fatherless.’ (EBC)

Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow – The most vulnerable members of society are often the most in need of protection and justice.  Cf. Ex 22:22; Deut 14:29; 24:17; Job 24:3,21; Psa 68:5; Jer 49:11; James 1:27.

Then, as now, true discipleship is defined by our attitude and behaviour towards others, rather than our religious practice.  See Jn 13:35; 1 Cor 13; Gal 5:22f.

v18 “Let us reason together” – Remarkably, there is an echo of the law court in this offer (“Let us reason together” = “Let us argue our case”).  ‘God must have frank confrontation; but, given this, he can change the unchangeable and delete the indelible (the scarlet and crimson were not only glaring; they were fast colours); only so can the call, Washyourselves (16) be anything but a mockery.’ (NBC)

‘The Lord calls his people to the bar of his justice where, of course, they can only be found guilty. But it is there that they hear words of free pardon based on the substitutionary death of a divinely appointed sacrifice. The Lord’s pardon, like all his actions, accords perfectly with his justice.’ (Motyer)

‘God is challenging us to do our best thinking.  If one way of acting (rebellion and stubbornness) brings destruction (v20) and another (submission and changed living) brings not only forgiveness and restoration (v18) but all the blessings of life (v19), which choice makes the best sense?  It seems as though even an ox or a donkey could figure that out (cf. v3).’ (Oswalt)

Scarlet – Some (such as Motyer) link this with the guilt of blood-shedding (cf. v15).  Others suggest that it was known as a particularly fast dye: ‘Neither dew, nor rain, nor washing, nor long usage, would remove it. Hence, it is used to represent the fixedness and permanency of sins in the heart. No human means will wash them out. No effort of man, no external rites, no tears, no sacrifices, no prayers, are of themselves sufficient to take them away. They are deep fixed in the heart, as the scarlet color was in the web of cloth, and an almighty power is needful to remove them.’ (Barnes)

Expositors debate whether vv18-20 constitute an offer (as in NIV), or a rejection, of forgiveness.  If the latter, the sense is, “If your sins are like scarlet, shall they be white as snow…?”  Either would be a valid translation; but the former is supported by the context, which holds out a prospect of hope.

‘At the very point when judgment is expected, grace intervenes.  The divine judge reasons with the accused, and makes an offer which is truly amazing in its generosity: nothing less than total pardon!’ (Webb)

v19 The people had offered plenty of sacrifices, but what God desires is (not grudging but) willing obedience.

v20 There is a stark choice: they can ‘eat the best from the land’, v19, or they can be ‘devoured by the sword’.  God is gracious, but not to be trifled with.

‘On these points God proposed to reason; or rather, perhaps, these principles are regarded as reasonable, or as commending themselves to men. They are the great principles of the divine administration, that if people obey God they shall prosper; if not, they shall be punished. They commend themselves to people as just and true; and they are seen and illustrated every where.’ (Barnes)

v21 Although forgiveness has been offered, this section (vv21-23) implies that there has been no change of heart.  But the surprise here is that ‘the judgment is described in terms which imply purification rather than annihilation.  Even in judgment, the Lord remembers mercy.’ (Webb)

Socially, Jerusalem is degenerate.  Note the series of contrasts between what God intended and what he got.  ‘He intended faithfulness and got harlotry; he intended righteousness and got murder.  Instead of silver he got dross; instead of pure wine, tasteless dilution.  Instead of rulers he got rebels, instead of defenders of the helpless, takers of bribes.’ (Oswalt)

‘As in a funeral dirge (‘How the mighty have fallen!’, 2 Sa. 1:25; cf. the ‘How—!’ of Isa 14:12; Lam 1:1, etc.) the theme is vanished glory; even the metaphors for it tail off from the tragic to the trivial (wife … silver … wine). Only the moral loss is lamented; not David’s empire or Solomon’s wealth, simply their justice. V 23 presents in miniature the same progression from spiritual revolt to social injustice which was traced between vs 2 and 17.’ (NBC)

The faithful city – Jerusalem ‘is represented here under the image of a wife – once faithful to her husband; once a devoted and attached partner. Jerusalem was thus once. In former days, it was the seat of the pure worship of God; the place where his praise was celebrated, and where his people came to offer sincere devotion. In the Scriptures, the church is often represented under the image of a wife, to denote the tenderness and sacredness of the union; Hos 2:19-20; Isa 62:5; Isa 54:6; Rev 21:9.’ (Barnes)

Has become a harlot! – The metaphor of marital infidelity is used once elsewhere in Isaiah (Isa 23:15-18).  The breakdown of the relationship with the Lord has led to a breakdown in moral principles (‘justice’, ‘righteousness’) and in actual moral behaviour (‘murderers’).  ‘When commitment to the Lord goes, breaching the ‘first table’ of the law (harlotry), the breach of the ‘second table’ follows (murder).’ (Motyer)

‘The unfaithfulness of the people of God, particularly their idolatry, is often represented under the idea of unfaithfulness to the marriage contract; Jer 3:8-9; Jer 5:7; 13:27; Jer 23:14; Eze 16:32; 23:37; Jos 2:2; 4:2.’ (Barnes)

‘What were some of the sins that the nation needed to confess and put away? Isaiah named murder (v. 21), robbery, bribery, and exploiting the helpless (v. 23), as well as the worship of heathen idols (v. 29). Because of their idolatry, the once-faithful wife was now a harlot; and because of their unjust practices, the pure silver had become dross.’ (Wiersbe)

v22 Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.

Silver…choice wine – These could refer respectively to the hire and the debauchery of the harlot (Watts).  Alternatively, they could refer to the wealth and high living of the rulers (EBC).  The latter is supported by the reference to justice in the preceding and following verses.

v23 Metaphorical description becomes literal description.

They all love bribes and chase after gifts – ‘No more distressing condition of a people can be conceived than this, where justice could not be secured between man and man, and where the wicked could oppress the poor, the widow, and the orphan, as much as they pleased, because they knew they could bribe the judge.’ (Barnes)

v24 Therefore – Watts regards this as a major structural signal, announcing the beginning of a fresh section.

The Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel – This set of names and titles asserts the Lord’s absolute power in contrast to the relative and derived power of the ‘rulers’ (v23).

“My foes…my enemies” – As Motyer says, this contrasts with the platitude that ‘God hates the sin but loves the sinner’.  This would have stung the people, who prided themselves on being God’s favourites.  ‘God had chosen them and promised to bless them.  Indeed, he had blessed them.  They had risen from a nation of slaves to become one of the significant empires in the ancient world.  They had God’s law, God’s temple, God’s city, god’s land.  God had a special commitment to protect them from any and all enemies.  How it must have stung when Isaiah said that they were not God’s favourites by his enemies, on whom he would be avenged.’ (Oswalt)

v25 Judgment is not the last word.  Wonderfully, God’s vengeance goes hand in hand with his restoration, by way of purging and purification.  He does not intend to destroy them, but to refine them.  A menacing act – “I will turn my hand against you” – becomes a work of mercy (Motyer).

v26 I will restore your judges…your counsellors – This probably refers to the time after the return from exile, and to the activities of men such as Ezra and Nehemiah.

‘The counselors were responsible for helping the king to formulate and carry out policies. The judges were responsible for helping the king to formulate and enforce law. National policy and the justice system are under indictment here.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

v27 Hope remains, that one day Jerusalem will once more be a city of righteousness.  God will redeem, and his people will respond with penitence.

Redeemed – The word is sometimes used broadly, for any kind of deliverance, or more strictly, for rescue by the payment of a ransom price.  It is likely that the former, more general sense is meant here.

With justice – in a righteous manner; in a way consistent with his nature and his character; in fulfilment of his ancient promises.  ‘That is how he always acts, and how he acted supremely in the cross of Christ.  Redemption and judgment are inseparable; the one can come only through the other. (Webb)

Her penitent ones with righteousness – ‘The prediction is, that the character of the nation would be reformed Isa 1:26; that it would be done by means of this very captivity; and that they who returned would come back with a different character from the nation at the time that Isaiah wrote. They would be a reformed, righteous people. The character of the nation was greatly improved after the captivity. Their propensity to idolatry, in a particular manner, was effectually restrained; and probably the character of the people after the captivity, for morals and religion, was not inferior to the best periods of their history before.’ (Barnes)

v28 ‘God’s line between friend and foe, the redeemed and the broken, runs right through Zion; not between Jew and Gentile but between penitent ones (i.e. lit. those who ‘turn’) and rebels.’ (NBC)

‘One of the characteristics of Isaiah is that no matter how promising his oracles of salvation may be, he never lets them give his audience a false comfort.  The good news is only available to those who make a radical turnaround.’ (Oswalt)  The offer of grace is no excuse for continuance in sin.

v30 Oak…garden– may ‘stand here for human strength and organization, which one is tempted to trust.’ (NBC)  But they are trees without water, and are therefore just tinder.

Alternatively, noting the reference to ‘sacred oaks’ in v29, we may see here an allusion to pagan worship: ‘Sacred trees played an important part in the Canaanite fertility cult (cf. Deut 12:23; 2 King 16:4; Hos 4:13), for deciduous trees like the oak or terebinth may well have symbolized the death and rebirth of the god. The “gardens” may be groves of these trees, or, alternatively, places of sacred springs or wells.’ (EBC)

v31 ‘There is a modern ring to the warning that man’s very skill can be his undoing, the spark (31) that sets off the conflagration.’ (NBC)  EBC agrees: ‘destruction may come on us from the very thing our sin has brought into being.’

‘The ambition of one man is the cause of his ruin; the sensuality of a second is the cause of his; the avarice of a third is the cause of his. These passions, insatiable and ungratified, shall be the occasion of the deep and eternal sorrows of hell. So it means here, that the crimes and hypocrisy of the nation would be the real cause of all the calamities that would come upon them as a people.’ (Barnes)

Both will burn together– Both the spark and the flame which it ignites.  ‘The meaning is, that the nation would be punished; and that all their works of idolatry and monuments of sin would be the occasion of their punishment, and would perish at the same time.’ (Barnes)

Looking back over vv21:31, Oswalt notes that Isaiah conceives of true religion in the same way as Deut 10:12f, Mic 6:8, and James 1:27.  It consists of two main elements – the relational and the practice.  We must be in a right relationship with God, and that must express itself in care, especially for the most needy and vulnerable.  Judgment is intended to remedial, and not an end in itself, cf. Psa 30:5.  God will defer judgment for as long as possible.  He will put every warning and barrier in the way.  And when he does punish it will be corrective rather than punitive.  We should not presume on God’s love and patience.  We should not use the hope of good things to come to lull us into complacency.  True prophets will tell people what they don’t want to hear in order to protect them against this danger.

Evangelicals may rightly react against the so-called ‘social gospel’ that sought to improve society without addressing questions of atonement and salvation.  But we ourselves are in danger of neglecting the social implications of the gospel.  As we have increased in prosperity our giving, and our attempts to help the needy and secure justice have not kept pace.  Historic revivals have always been characterised by a recovery both of the gospel message and of its practical outworking.  (See Oswalt’s discussion)

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