Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment (Chapters 1-35)
When this takes place:
Opinions vary, but it appears that Chapter 1 is written near the end of Isaiah’s ministry and is placed at the start of the book as both an introduction and a summary. “This introduction is also a motivational attempt to convince [Isaiah’s] readers to acknowledge what God says and repent so that their sins can be forgiven” (Gary V. Smith, New American Commentary, Isaiah 1-39, p. 93). Possibly, this chapter is written some time after the 701 B.C. attack by the Assyrians.
Isa. 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool” (NASB).
“Chapter 1 is God’s solemn call to the universe to come into the courtroom to hear God’s charge against the nation Israel” (J. Vernon McGee, Isaiah Vol. 1, p. 17).
Although Isaiah is identified as the prophet (v. 1), God is the source of the message. Note how God speaks throughout the chapter:
- “the Lord has spoken” (v. 2).
- “Hear the word of the Lord … listen to the instruction of our God” (v. 10).
- “‘What are your sacrifices to Me?’ asks the Lord” (v. 11).
- “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (v. 18).
- “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 20).
- “Therefore the Lord God of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, declares” (v. 24).
God’s case against Judah (Isa. 1:1-9)
Isaiah begins by telling us what we are about to encounter: one vision, concerning two locations (Judah and Jerusalem), delivered during the time of four kings (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah). A powerful new nation has arisen to the north. Assyria is about to take the northern kingdom of Israel captive, and does so in 722. B.C. Later, God asserts that the brutal Assyrian invaders will not take Judah. Rather, He is raising up another kingdom, Babylon, to judge the southern kingdom, but until then He is giving Judah one more chance to repent. Isaiah’s book is called a vision, suggesting that the prophet “saw” mentally and spiritually as well as heard what God communicated to him. The word “vision” also introduces the prophecies of Obadiah, Micah, and Nahum. The term “vision” (hazon) frequently refers to the general reception of a divine revelation, without accompanying visual imagery; Isaiah’s use of the word “vision” implies that what he is about to say comes from God.
God calls heaven and earth into the courtroom to hear His case against Judah. The language in verse 2 is similar to the way Deut. 32 begins. Having delivered the Jews from Egyptian bondage, the Lord laid down the conditions under which His people would inhabit the Promised Land and called heaven and earth as witnesses. If they failed to obey God, especially by engaging in the worship of false gods, then Yahweh had the right to chasten them even to the point of removing them from the land. It was happening to Israel. Judah was next.
The Lord uses satire in verse 3. He tells the Jews that two of the dumber beasts of burden, oxen and donkeys, know their masters and understand who feeds them, but the Jews live in oblivion to the Lord’s providential care.
Verse 4 lays out God’s description of who the Jews are and what they have done. They are a sinful nation, a people weighed down with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, and depraved children. They have abandoned the Lord, despised the Holy One of Israel, and turned their backs on God.
God has been chastening Judah according to Deut. 28-29 and asks, “Why do you want more beatings? Why do you keep on rebelling?” (v. 5). Despite the Lord’s correction and gracious invitation to return to Him, the Jews will not repent, so the time for expulsion from the land is drawing nigh.
“Isaiah first used the figure of a person who had been beaten and was bruised over his entire body (Isa. 1:5-6). Though these untreated wounds … welts, and open sores characterized the nation’s spiritual condition, Isaiah was also speaking of her condition militarily. They were beset on all sides by hostile forces and were losing some of their territory to foreign nations (v. 7). They should have realized that these terrible problems had come because of their spiritual condition” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary).
Isaiah depicts Jerusalem’s inhabitants as being like a shelter in a vineyard or a shack in a cucumber field – temporary structures built to shade the sun from persons hired to guard the crops against animals and thieves. Such huts were solitary and easily attacked. If not for a remnant of faithful Jews, Isaiah says, Judah already would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah, totally devastated.
“I have had enough …” (Isa. 1:10-17)
From a human perspective, the Lord’s words in these verses convey exasperation with His people’s empty religious rituals. D.A. Carson comments, “Of all prophetic outbursts at religious unreality …this is the most powerful and sustained. Its vehemence is unsurpassed, even in Amos, and the form and content build up together. First, the offerings are rejected, then the offerers (11-12); but while God’s tone sharpens from distaste to revulsion, his specific accusation is held back to the lurid end of v 15: Your hands are full of blood” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Section Is. 1:10).
The Lord is not abolishing, or even minimizing the importance of, the sacrificial system or the feasts by which His people could approach Him and enjoy His fellowship; rather, He is refuting their assumption that sacrifices and religious observances, without pure motives and repentant hearts, could atone for their sins.
Immediately following this thunderous rebuke are nine calls to repentance (vv. 16-17):
- Wash yourselves.
- Cleanse yourselves.
- Remove your evil deeds from My sight.
- Stop doing evil.
- Learn to do what is good.
- Seek justice.
- Correct the oppressor.
- Defend the rights of the fatherless.
- Plead the widow’s cause.
J. Vernon McGee comments: “God has spelled out His charge against them. They are guilty of spiritual apostasy. It led to moral awfulness and to political anarchy in the nation. God has called Israel into court and has proved His charge against them. Israel is like a prisoner standing at the bar waiting for the sentence of judgment. God can now move in to judge them” (McGee, p. 25).
“Let us reason …” (Isa. 1:18-20)
While some see chapter 1 as a courtroom setting, it’s probably more accurate to see it as an arraignment, where the Lord states His case against His people, anticipates their defense and refutes it. Essentially, He tells Judah as well as all who witness His words that there is overwhelming evidence to secure a conviction. But rather than go through with a trial, conviction and sentencing, God gives the Jews a chance to settle their case out of court.
The term “let us reason” is sometimes rendered “enter a lawsuit” or “let us test each other,” but the basic meaning of the term is “to determine what is right.” Some translators favor the term “to settle out of court.” There is graciousness here on God’s part, as well as an opportunity for the Jewish people to “reach a settlement quickly” with their adversary (Matt. 5:25). The blessings of repentance and the curses of rebellion are clearly laid out: “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword” (vv. 19-20).
God’s use of the word “scarlet” is significant. The Hebrew word means “double-dyed,” emphasizing the deep-fixed permanency of sin in the people’s hearts. But there is hope. The color of Jesus’ robe when bearing our sins was scarlet (see Matt. 27:28). So was the color of the cord that spared the life of Rahab and her family (Josh. 2:18), as was the color of the thread tied to the scapegoat. The rabbis say that after the high priest confessed his sins and the people’s sins over the scapegoat, the thread turned white. The miracle ceased, they say, 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem, coinciding with the crucifixion of Christ (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Isaiah 1:18).
“I … will burn away your dross” (Isa. 1:21-31)
Verses 21-26 describe a theological cycle for Jerusalem. First, the city was faithful (v. 21a). Now it is in rebellion (vv. 21b-23). God will purge the evil from Jerusalem with His refining fire (vv. 24-25). Finally, the city will return to its faithfulness (v. 26). God compares Jerusalem in its faithfulness to silver and wine but says the silver is now dross and the wine is diluted with water. Sin has been welcomed into the city and into the hearts of its inhabitants and has corrupted both. The Lord spares no rebuke when he calls the leaders rebels, friends of thieves, and lovers of graft (v. 23).
Therefore, God is determined to purify the city. He will satisfy His holiness (v. 24b), remove impurity (v. 25), and restore His city (v. 26). His promise to Jerusalem is an encouragement to faithful believers everywhere and at all times when they suffer through life at the hands of sinful and selfish leaders. Gary V. Smith writes, “A day will soon come when God will transform this world, remove all sin, replace all evil leaders, and rule his kingdom in righteousness and justice. This passage is also a warning to every leader. You will be held accountable for how you lead the people God has called you to serve” (p. 114).
Isaiah argues that God deals with sin in one of two ways. He removes the stain of sin if His people repent (1:18-19), or he removes the sinner with His refining fire so His nation is purified (1:25-27). Does Judah repent? No, and as a result, she is carried away into Babylonian captivity a century later. Will we as God’s people repent of our sins or face chastisement? That is the fundamental question that nations and people must continue to answer.
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips