A. Surprised by Trouble
As a child, I once came cheerily into the house, only to be confronted by my parents. They clearly were upset with me. My mother said, “Well, it looks to me like he is ready for a spanking!” I do not remember what wrong I had done. I do not even remember what happened thereafter. However, I do remember vividly that my heart began pounding and my toothy grin dissolved. I came in thinking everything was great; but suddenly I was surprised by trouble. In today’s text, Judah is also surprised by trouble. Isaiah had a message from the Lord that was
designed to wipe the grins off their smug faces, as though saying, “It looks to me like they are ready for punishment.” Isaiah 1 is a vision de-signed to move people to repentance.
B. Lesson Background
Isaiah 1:1 allows us to date Isaiah’s lengthy prophetic ministry between 740 and 680 BC. Last week we saw Hosea, an older contemporary of Isaiah, tell the northern kingdom of Israel to re-pent and recommit their ways to the Lord. Sadly, they refused. Within a few years after Hosea’s ministry, the northern kingdom was defeated and dispersed. That happened in 722 BC.
Isaiah’s ministry to the southern kingdom of Judah had only slightly better prospects. The Lord told Isaiah that his preaching to Judah would also fall on deaf ears. But though they would also be taken into exile, the Lord would preserve a small remnant (Isaiah 6:9-13).
Isaiah’s book contains glorious passages of this restoration of Judah, one of which is the text for next week. Apparently the original readers latched on to the good news and ignored the warnings and calls for repentance. They mistook the miraculous deliverance from the Assyrian army in 701 BC as a sign that God would never allow Judah to fall. By seeing the temple as something of a good-luck charm, they deviated from true worship (compare Jeremiah 7:4).Isaiah 1:2-31 introduces the entire book of Isa-iah. Therefore it was probably written after 701BC, when the people clearly had failed to under-stand the Lord’s message. So the Lord presents toIsaiah a vision in a form of a lawsuit.
Ancient law courts were different from mod-ern ones, but many roles are similar. It is impor-tant to identify the role that each character mayrepresent (judge, plaintiff, defendant, witness,etc.) and the purpose for the scene (to levelcharges, to prove guilt, to announce a verdict, toimpose a sentence). Within the drama of thetrial, both the Lord and the prophet may takesnore than one role. When the prophet steps outof the drama, he speaks to the reader.
Isaiah 1:10-20 forms the central part of thetrial scene. The author seems to interrupt thetrial drama wills interludes, something like a re-porter may do. Here is one possible way to iden-tify the back-and-forth of Isaiah 1:
In verse 10, where we begin today, the defen-dants are called to trial. Charges are leveled inverses 11-15. Then the trial motif takes an un-usual turn: the offer of a chance for a stay of sen-tence in verses 16-20.
I. Defendants Subpoenaed(Isaiah 1:10)
10. Hear the word of the LoRn, ye rulers ofSodom; give ear unto the law of our God, yepeople of Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah are used figuratively forJudah. These cities were destroyed because ofextreme wickedness (Genesis 19). The referencesto both the rulers and the people show the sameto be true of Judah. The Lord threatens punish-ment because His chosen people are sinful at alllevels of society. The word of the Lord is parallelto the law of our God, both referring to the spe-cific charges in the next section.
As I get older (don’t we all!), more and moreinfirmities come my way. 1 won’t bore you withthe whole organ recital, but a recent concern hasbeen my hearing. I still believe my hearing isgood. No family member, friend, or medical pro-fessional has suggested I need a hearing aid. Cer-tain loud noises, however, give me a headache,and I avoid them.
Another problem is background noise. Thiscan take the form of road noise in a car, conver-sations at adjacent tables in a restaurant, or evenother conversations during a social gathering. Allthis can prevent me from really hearing what aperson is saying. I sometimes have to say, “I’msorry; I can’t hear you.” But technically, that’s amatter of definition. In the sense that the soundsbeing made are registering on my eardrum, I actually can hear the other person. But I can’t deci-pher these sounds sufficiently to understand thewords being used. It helps to remove the distract-ing noise and concentrate on the speaker.
The same applies in the spiritual realm. Whenthe Lord speaks to us, there sometimes are somany other background noises that we do not hearwith enough clarity for the message to register inour consciousness. We may then need to eliminatethe distracting noises and concentrate on thespeaker. “Hear the word of the Lord!”
II. Plaintiff Reads Charges(Isaiah 1:11-15)
A. Disgusting Sacrifices (vv. 11-13a)
11.To what purpose is the multitude of yoursacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full ofthe burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fedbeasts; and I delight not in the blood of bul-locks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
The Lord begins His testimony with a rhetori-cal question—a question that actually makes astatement. The exact expression in Hebrew (liter-ally, “for what to me?”) occurs only two othertimes in the Old Testament: Genesis 27:46 andJob 30:2. In all three cases the phrase has to dowith importance or value.
The problem is not the number of sacrifices (amultitude of them) nor the type of sacrifices (burntofferings prescribed in the law). Neither is thequality of the animals at issue. The phrase fedbeasts is merely descriptive of the good quality ofthe animals (compare 2 Samuel 6:13; 1 Kings 1:9).It must shock the readers to learn that eventhough they offer sacrifices that are plentiful,correct, and good in and of themselves, God isnot pleased. When the Lord says I am full, it is asif He is saying, “Your offerings make me sick—Iam fed up!” (Compare Proverbs 28:19.) !Seequestion #2, pdge 3661
12.When ye come to appear before me, whohath required this at your hand, to tread mycourts?
To appear before refers to the offering of thesacrifices mentioned in verse 11. The Lord issaying that He has not demanded them to treadHis courts. The treading may be that of the ani-mals, but more likely it is the unfitness of theworshipers themselves.
13a. Bring no more vain oblations; incense isan abomination unto me.
Oblations is a general terns for sacrifices, bothgrain and animal. The adjective vain is the sameword used in the Third Commandment (Deu-teronomy 5:11) in connection with the use of God’s name. Incense can refer generally to spices(Exodus 30:1, 7-9) or to specific sacrifices. ButIsere it probably refers to sacrifices generally (asin Psalm 66:15) that are supposed to be as pleas-ant to the Lord as incense.
The nation’s offerings are useless; worse, theyare all an abomination to the Lord. He is dis-gusted with theist all.
B. Insufferable Gatherings (vv. 13b, 14)
13b. The new moons and sabbaths, the call-ing of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniq-uity, even the solemn meeting.
Observances of new moons and sabhaths,along with various other assemblies, were estab-lished by God himself (Exodus 20:8; Leviticus23; Numbers 10:10; 28:11, 14). These are variousreligious gatherings under the Law of Moses.Even though God had established these obser-vances, He now says I cannot away with; (Isis ex-pression means that the Lord cannot bear, abide,or endure the way His people conduct theseevents. In short, it is iniquity! The Lord cannottolerate any sacred assembly that is character-ized by wrong motives and evil intent.
14. Your new moons and your appointedfeasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble untome; I am weary to bear them.
The blistering indictment continues withstrong statements of the Lord’s contempt. Hehates the appointed feasts. Such feasts have hecome a source of trouble to Him. The Lord isweary of enduring these gatherings. On pageafter page of Scripture, we can see the Lord’s pa-tience. But His patience has limits.
C. Disregarded Prayers (v. 15)
15. And when ye spread forth your hands, Iwill hide mine eyes from you: yea, when yemake many prayers, I will not hear: your handsare full of blood.
To spread forth your hands refers to the visiblecomponent of prayer, the physical postures. Herethe arms are extended, probably to Heaven or tothe most holy place, with palms up, as in a pleato receive from God. But no matter the physicalposture, the Lord intends to hide His eyes.Does it surprise you that the Lord doesn’t al-ways heed prayer? The Lord explains that thepeople themselves are the problem: your handsare full of blood. This can inean the guilt for vari-ous kinds of killings (Deuteronomy 19:10; 22:8).Here it probably refers more broadly to all kindsof injustice that harm others (compare Isaiah33:15; Ezekiel 9:9; Nahum 3:1).
All their acts of worship (sacrifices, religiousgatherings, prayers) are detestable because thepeople are guilty of sin against others; theyrefuse to connect ritual with obedience. They ex-pect God somehow to have “selective vision”—seeing their pious sacrifices while ignoring thedaily injustice they practice. Such arrogance!I
III. Judge Offers a Chance(Isaiah 1:16-20)
A. Stop the Bad (v. 16)
16. Wash ye, make you clean; put away theevil of your doings from before mine eyes; ceaseto do evil.
The verse offers specific commands to thepeople. To wash can be used of simple bathingor of ceremonial washing. The context requiresthis to refer to the ceremonial. We see ceremo-nial washing in the New Testament in Matthew27:24; John 13:1-17; etc.
Make clean has a moral sense in the Old Testa-ment. Thus wash refers to more than mere ritualwashing; moral cleansing must be involved (com-pare Luke 11:39). God’s faithful people will ac-tively pursue both a genuine inward and outwardrighteousness because they love their God andwant to be like Him.
B. Start the Good (v. 17)
17. Learn to do well; seek judgment, relievethe oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for thewidow.
The Lord now gives five positive commandsconcerning the character of the true worshiper.These move from general to specific, the last three being applications. To do well may mean”to be pleasing,” “to be skillful,” or “to do what ismoral or ethical.” The context of unethical be-havior makes clear that the Lord means the lat-ter. Learn implies growth. The readers aresurprised by trouble because they are very shal-low in their understanding of what it means torelate to God. Changing one’s moral fiber is goingto involve will and effort.
The word judgment often makes modern read-ers think of condemnation. Though the word canmean this, in the King James Version it refersmore broadly to setting things right according toGod’s standard, as in “work for justice” or “pro-mote justice.” The people of Judah are to promotejustice in dealings with one another. Deu-teronomy 16:20 insists that the people are to pro-mote that which is “altogether just” as a conditionfor inheriting the land.
The application relieve the oppressed seemsclear enough, but another translation is possible.The Hebrew word translated oppressed occursonly here in the Old Testament, though the sameroot occurs in one other place, namely Psalm71:4: “Deliver me, 0 my God, out of the hand ofthe wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteousand cruel man.” There this root occurs behindthe word cruel. This fact leads some to believethat relieve the oppressed here in Isaiah 1:17 maybe translated something like “rebuke the oppres-sor.” Surely the Lord expects both!
The next two applications involve the protec-tion of the powerless of society: judge the father-less (again judge means “to show justicetoward”) and plead for the widow (make surethey get justice as well). When we see cases ofinjustice in today’s society, God’s faithful peoplewill seek to deal ethically with all people andpursue justice. Christians may not be able torectify all wrongs. Yet we are to seek justice forall and protection for the defenseless at everylevel of society. This is a continuing battle.
Johann Wichern (1808-1881) was a Germanminister who was moved by the suffering of chil-dren in the impoverished sections of the city ofHamburg. Convinced that something ought to bedone for them, he helped organize the RoughHouse as a home for boys in 1833. This was sim-ilar to an orphanage but based on the principlesof family education to provide for both spiritualand physical needs.
Under Wichern’s expert organizational skills,the Evangelical Church in Germany formed the
Inner Mission in 1848. It supervised 1,500 vari-ous charitable activities of the German Protes-tants. Ultimately this Inner Mission includednursing centers, prison reform activities, orphan-ages, and homes for those afflicted with mentalretardation. Before the Nazis closed down thesystem in 1938, there were 3,800 institutionsunder the umbrella of the Inner Mission.
Similar to Wichern is the story of GeorgeMueller (1805-1898), a German who came toLondon in 1829. In 1832 he established an or-phanage in Bristol that ultimately cared for morethan 2,000 children. These are just two examplesof the kind of thing God pleads for through Isa-iah: “relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless,plead for the widow.” They are examples thatspeak to us—and convict us—yet today.—J. B. N.
C. The Only Chance (so. 18-20)
18a.Come now, and let as reason together,saith the Lord..
Properly understanding this well-known verserequires that the reader remember that the Lordis still speaking in His role as judge. When Hesays to Judah, Come now, and let us reason to-gether, He does not mean to invite these peopleto sit down over coffee and doughnuts to discussthings. This is not a give-and-take negotiation.Rather, the Lord is challenging them in court toconsider the truth of what He has been saying, torealize the peril in which they find themselves!
18b.Though your sins be as scarlet, theyshall be as white as snow; though they be redlike crimson, they shall be as wool.
After confronting His people with the reality oftheir sin, the Lord now holds out the hope of thegood they may experience. He then lays out thecondition for that good (v. 19) and warns them ofthe punishment for failure to repent (v. 20).The colors scarlet and crimson are synonyms.Scarlet may be used positively, as in parts of thetabernacle (Exodus 25:4; 26:1; etc.), of good qual-ity clothing (Proverbs 31:21), or even the color ofbeautiful lips (Song of Solomon 4:3). It may beused neutrally simply of thread (Genesis 38:28,30). However, scarlet thread also is used in a pu-rification ritual (Leviticus 14:4, 6, 49, 51, 52;Numbers 19:6) and may also have the suggestionof sin, as it clearly does here.
Yet there is good news: the scarlet color of sincan change to be as white as snow! Snow is usedhere to describe the degree of whiteness, as asymbol of moral purity that also is found inPsalm 51:7. Likewise wool is used as a descriptorof whiteness parallel to that of snow in Daniel7:9 and Revelation 1:14.
Though not named, it is clear that only theLord can transform the impure into pure. Underthe new covenant, the purity is first and foremosta righteousness that the Lord declares and pro-vides (Romans 3:21-26). This results in the trans-formation of our lives (Romans 12:1, 2). The Lordoffers hope for true renewal. However, the Lordleaves a vital part for us to play: choice.
19.If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eatthe good of the land.
The conditions for blessing are that the peoplebe willing and obedient. The willingness involvesconsent to obey the Lord.
The phrase out the good of the land occurselsewhere only in Ezra 9:12. Both there and hereit means “to live well from the land, to prosper.”This blessing from the Lord is that the Judeansremain in the land of promise. Their role, asGod’s chosen people, is to bring the Messiah intothe world. All the punishments that Isaiah hasbeen preaching can be avoided if they repent.Sadly, we know from history that this repen-tance didn’t happen. The people had to go intoexile in Babylon. Yet even after that exile is fin-ished, Ezra 9:12 reaffirms this promise. God is aGod of second chances!
20.But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall bedevoured with the sword: for the mouth of theLORD bath spoken it.
To refuse and rebel is the opposite of beingwilling and obedient. To refuse the Lord’s willhas serious consequences! Notice what hap-pened after Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel wor-ship (Exodus 12:29). The idea of refusal is foundnumerous times in Jeremiah. Most refer to the re-fusal of the people to admit their sin or repent
The word rebel should remind the readers ofboth Moses and Aaron not being allowed to enterCanaan because of their respective rebellions(Numbers 20:10-12, 24; 27:14). Very commonly,the idea of rebellion is applied by the prophets toGod’s people (examples: Isaiah 3:8; 63:10).The opposite of “eat the good of the land” inverse 19 is to be devoured with the sword. Judahwas delivered niiraculously from Assyria in 701ac. It had seemed like certain disaster. Now theLord is warning them that unless their ritual isaccompanied by a heart that proves its love forHim, they will suffer even greater devastation inwar. They can prove their love by obedience intheir personal lives and in their behavior towardothers. The threat is real because the Lord bathspoken it.
A. A Show of Real Reality
The rage on television these days is the “real-ity show.” The idea is to show people in states ofraw emotion by placing them in very stressfulcircumstances. Other than that, though, this typeof show has very little to do with what we maycall everyday reality. But even everyday reality isnot the same as ultimate reality. The sacrifices,gatherings, and prayers that the people of Judahwere participating in were “real” in the sensethat they happened. But these things were notgenuine or sincere.
God’s people today must be genuine. Givingmoney to good causes (even to the church), goingto church, and praying do not prove that a per-son has a genuine relationship with the Lord.Real relationship means that these actions willbe accompanied by a heart and lifestyle consis-tent with the character of God himself. The Oldand New Testaments both bear witness to thefact that God is not mocked; no person can ma-nipulate the Lord to get into Heaven.
Dear Lord, we thank You for counting us aspurer than snow. We love You because You firstloved us. May our love for You drive us to exam-ine honestly our deepest thoughts and motives,that in the end our scarlet lives may becomewhite as snow. At all times we rely on Yourgrace to save us in spite of our shortcomings. Inthe name of Jesus our Savior, amen.
C. Thought to Remember
“To obey is better than sacrifice”(1 Samuel 15:22).