BEHIND THE SCENES Isaiah 1
“Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption” (Isa. 1:4).
In spite of material prosperity and a superficial religiosity, Judah like Israel was in desperate need of a spiritual awakening.
Isaiah was apparently a member of the royal family, and according to tradition a cousin of King Uzziah (Amaziah), Judah’s 11th king. In the course of Isaiah’s ministry he confronted the rebellious Ahaz, and worked closely with godly Hezekiah. He was warned early that he would minister to a people who would not listen until “the cities lie ruined” and “the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken” (6:11–12). Yet Isaiah was also given a glimpse of the splendor that awaits God’s people at history’s end. Isaiah, more clearly than any other prophet, foresaw the coming and ministry of the Messiah. Isaiah, more fully than any other, described the blessing God intends to pour out on Jew and Gentile alike. Tradition tells us that Isaiah was martyred during the reign of Manasseh, the apostate son of godly King Hezekiah. If so this towering Old Testament figure, of whose personal life we know so little beyond what his writings reveal, must have died in hope, sure that God would accomplish the good purposes that He had revealed to and through His servant. Perhaps the most significant thing we know about Isaiah is found in chapter 6. There Isaiah accepted his commission from his holy God, and was told that he must spend his life speaking to a people who would hear, but never understand; who would see, but never perceive. What a burden for anyone to bear! And yet, Isaiah was faithful, not just for a year or 2, but over a 50-year span! Isaiah’s contemporaries would not hear the words Isaiah spoke. Yet his words echo through the centuries, and conjure up images for you and me today that help us know God better, and that deepen our awe of God’s wisdom and His love. When God calls you or me to minister, and others do not seem to hear, or reject our efforts, we can remember Isaiah. His years of rejection bore unexpected fruit. And our faithful service will too. Isaiah’s times. When Isaiah began his ministry in Judah, around 739B.C, both Hebrew kingdoms were prosperous and powerful. Yet Isaiah, like his northern contemporaries, Amos and Hosea, was deeply concerned over evidence of spiritual deterioration. Prosperity saw the development in each kingdom of a wealthy class, which victimized the less fortunate. The court system, which relied on honest judges and truthful witnesses, was corrupted to serve the rich and powerful. Religion was increasingly a matter of ritual observance; less and less a matter of love for the Lord. In the late 730s, the states of Syria and Palestine formed a reluctant coalition to resist Assyria, the great northern power that was putting more and more pressure on the western Mediterranean states. In 722 the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was crushed and its people were deported by the Assyrians. Only divine intervention, in response to Hezekiah’s prayer, turned Assyria back from an intended attack on Jerusalem. During Isaiah’s life, then, Judah gradually declined from wealth and relative military strength to vulnerability. Isaiah’s listeners’ failure to heed his words, and their continued indifference to the Lord, sealed the fate the nation would experience when it was invaded, not by Assyria but by Babylon. Isaiah’s Judah was very much like 20th-century America. Both nations were marked by prosperity and power. Yet in each the fabric of society was strained by moral decline and materialism. The very existence of such forces in society testifies to the superficiality of religion, and no superficial religion can save a nation from disaster. While the charges lodged by Isaiah against Judah speak to us today, so do his words of hope. They remind us that whatever may happen to any nation, God remains in full charge of history. The visions Isaiah shared of God, of the coming Saviour, and of the splendor to be unveiled at history’s end, thrill our hearts, and lead us to worship our sovereign, loving God.
After establishing the setting of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry (1:1), the prophet, speaking in God’s name, launched a vigorous indictment of his society (vv. 2–31).
Understanding the Text
“The ox knows his master” Isa. 1:2–4. “Knows” here, as in other places, implies “responds to.” Even a dumb animal recognizes and responds to its master’s voice. But Judah did not respond to God. Isaiah identified the reason. This was a willful rather than ignorant failure to respond. Note the three descriptive terms: forsaken, spurned, and “turned their backs on.” We may be critical of things the pagans among us do in ignorance. But sins we commit are far worse! We know God’s will, but fail to do it anyway! “Why should you be beaten anymore?” Isa. 1:5–9 Isaiah’s prophecies are not arranged in chronological sequence. These verses suggest chapter 1 should be placed after Assyria had deported Israel. In that invasion many thousands of citizens of Judah were also taken into captivity. God’s warning here is best understood as a cry of anguish. It hurts the Lord to discipline His people. Why, oh why, will we not respond, and free Him from the painful necessity of punishment? “What are they to Me?” Isa. 1:10–17 There is no indication here that the people of Judah violated any ritual regulation. Their fault, a fault which kept God from listening to their prayers, was moral. No one who sins against his fellowmen can be confident of a hearing with God. (See DEVOTIONAL.) “Though your sins are like scarlet” Isa. 1:18–20. God chose scarlet for a simple reason. This bright red color was the most “fast” color known. While other colors might be bleached out, scarlet could not. How powerful the promise, then. Even if our sins, like scarlet, are impossible to remove, God will do it if only we will turn to Him, becoming “willing and obedient.” Sometimes Christians cannot forget their sins. The past seems fixed, forever coloring their outlook. How wonderful to realize that God can—and in Christ, has—purified us, so that in His sight we are “white as snow.” “Zion will be redeemed” Isa. 1:21–31. All things change. The faithful city fell, and became wicked. You and I may fall too. Yet God will not leave us in such a state, any more than He would leave the ancient city or its people. God said, “I will remove your impurities,” and, “You will be called the City of Righteousness.” What a wonderful word of reassurance. You may have failed God. But He will not fail you. He will “remove your impurities” and you will be known for your righteousness!
Right Is Only Half the Story!(Isa. 1)
One comedian has a routine in which he pictures two Christians meeting for the first time. They question each other, gradually discovering that they are both Conservative, Fundamental, Seventh-Day, Separated, Predestinarian Baptists, Great Lakes District. Then the final question is asked. Organized 1912, or Reconstituted 1934? When one answers 1912, the other pushes him off a cliff, shouting, “Die, heretic!” We might resent the routine a little. But it is funny. And it points up a flaw in some of our thinking about faith. A flaw Isaiah saw some 700 years before the birth of Christ. In verses 10–17 the prophet described a religious people whose ritual seems to be according to the Law. These folks had religion down pat, and were absolutely “right.” They went up to the temple for the required festivals. They offered the right sacrifices. They made long prayers. But God called all these things meaningless. He went on through Isaiah to tell these religiously right people to “stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (vv. 16–17). The point, of course, is that what demonstrates a real and vital faith is not that we are “right,” but that our relationship with God has produced righteousness. I suppose it’s good to be concerned about being right. But being right is, at best, only half the issue. What God cares about most is, are we righteous?
To please God, pay more attention to doing right than to being right.