Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Commentary2017-03-22T04:46:11+00:00

Biblical Commentary

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

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Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

COMMENTARY:

THE CONTEXT:

It is no accident that the book of Isaiah was placed first among the books of prophecy.  It is the longest book of prophecy and the most important.  The New Testament frequently quotes or alludes to this book, which includes a number of messianic texts. The lectionary uses more texts from it than any other book in the Bible other than Luke—a remarkable statement given the primacy given to the Gospels by those who follow the lectionary.  The book of Isaiah not only tells us of the condition of God’s people in Isaiah’s time, but also informs us of our condition—of our sin and our need of salvation.

ISAIAH 1:1.  THE VISION OF ISAIAH THE SON OF AMOZ

1The vision (Hebrew: hazon) of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

“The vision (hazon) of Isaiah son of Amoz” (v. 1a).  Chapter 1 introduces the entire book, and this verse introduces this chapter.  It first establishes that this is a vision (hazon).  It is not a vision that came to Isaiah from “out of the blue.”  hazon suggests that this vision is a revelation given by Yahweh.  As such, it is not a private vision for Isaiah’s edification, but is instead given so that he might edify his people who are on the verge of disaster.  As the steward of this God-given vision, Isaiah must warn his people of the looming disaster, which is a consequence of their sins.  However, he is also to tell them of the potential for their forgiveness and salvation.  The key to their salvation is faith in Yahweh—something that has been missing from their lives.

Yahweh gives the vision to Isaiah, whose name means “The Lord is salvation” or “The Lord saves.”  Isaiah’s name, therefore, summarizes his message.  Whenever people call Isaiah by name, they hear his sermon coming from their own mouths—”The Lord is salvation”—”The Lord saves.”

We know little about Isaiah other than what is revealed in this book.  We are told that he is the son of Amoz, but we know little about Amoz.  Jewish tradition suggests that he was the brother of Amaziah, the eighth king of Judah and the father of Uzziah, but that is far from certain.  Some people have confused Amoz with the prophet Amos, but Amoz and Amos are different names and different people.

“which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 1b).  This third person reference to Isaiah makes it clear that he is not the author of this verse.  This introduction to the book was written by “scribes who copied and saved the book” (Tucker, Preaching, 363).

There is no indication that Isaiah saw his whole vision at one sitting.  Instead, it is a vision given by God that continues to unfold over time.

Judah was one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and occupies most of the territory between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.  At the time that Isaiah writes, the twelve tribes have coalesced into two kingdoms—Israel to the north and Judah to the south.  In 721 B.C., during Isaiah’s lifetime, Assyria will conquer the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and disperse its people, leaving Judah as the sole remaining covenant people.

Jerusalem is Judah’s capital and only important city.  It is the holy city—home of the temple—the place where people offer ritual sacrifices.  Given what Isaiah has to say about sacrifices in verses 11-15, it would seem that this vision concerns Judah generally but Jerusalem specifically.  This vision puts Jerusalem under a microscope, and what is revealed there is not a pretty sight.

“in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (v. 1c).  Uzziah (also known as Azariah) reigned from 783-742 B.C., and was generally a good king, although he was afflicted with leprosy because of his failure to remove the high places where people practiced idol worship (2 Kings 15:1-7).  Isaiah saw a vision “in the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), which tells us that Isaiah’s ministry began in 742 B.C.

Jotham, Uzziah’s son, became co-regent with Uzziah in the latter years of Uzziah’s reign and sole regent at Uzziah’s death in 742 B.C.  He followed his father’s policies, which were, for the most part, good.

Ahaz, Jotham’s son, became co-regent with Jotham in 735 B.C. and sole regent in 732 B.C. at his father’s death.  He was one of the worst kings of Judah, worshiping pagan gods and initiating vassalage to Tiglath-pileser of Assyria.

The dates of the reign of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, are less certain but appear to have spanned 716 B.C to 687 B.C.  While hampered by the vassalage to Assyria established by his father, Hezekiah turned out to be one of Judah’s best kings.  He sought to free his people from the requirement to worship Assyria’s gods, and he also did away with idol worship and re-established temple worship.  However, against Isaiah’s advice, he allied himself with Egypt, which led to an Assyrian siege of Jerusalem and Hezekiah’s capitulation to Assyria.  Jerusalem survived another siege because “the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies” (2 Kings 19:35).

Hezekiah became seriously ill in 701 B.C., but Yahweh instructed Isaiah to give Hezekiah this message:  “Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city” (Isaiah 38:5-6).

We know, then, that Isaiah began his ministry in 742 B.C. (“the year that King Uzziah died”) and continued it at least until 701 B.C. (the year that Hezekiah became sick)—probably longer.

ISAIAH 1:2-9.  NOT INCLUDED IN THE LECTIONARY READING

While this passage is not included in the lectionary reading, a brief summary is in order.

Verses 2-4 express Yahweh’s frustration at having raised children who turned out to be rebellious.  Yahweh complains, “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib; but Israel doesn’t know” (v. 3).  Verse 4 is a lament over “people loaded with iniquity… who are estranged and backward.”

Verse 5 asks “Why should you be beaten more?” and verse 6 catalogs the nation’s bruises, sores and bleeding wounds.  Verse 7 notes the nation’s desolation and verse 8 its vulnerability.

Verse 9 notes that it is only by Yahweh’s grace that a remnant has survived and it also introduces the idea that there is a kinship between the holy city of Jerusalem and the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, an idea that is picked up in verse 10.

ISAIAH 1:10-15.  WHAT ARE THE MULTITUDE OF YOUR SACRIFICES TO ME?

10Hear the word of Yahweh, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the law (Hebrew: to·ra) of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11“What are the multitude of your sacrifices to me?,” says Yahweh.
“I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams,
and the fat of fed animals.
I don’t delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs,
or of male goats.

12When you come to appear before me,
who has required this at your hand, to trample my courts?

13Bring no more vain offerings.
Incense is an abomination to me;
new moons, Sabbaths, and convocations:
I can’t bear with evil assemblies.
14My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts.
They are a burden to me.
I am weary of bearing them.
15When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.
Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.”

“Hear the word Yahwah, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the law (to·ra) of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” (v. 10).  In verse 9, Yahweh noted that Jerusalem would have suffered the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah if it weren’t for Yahweh’s grace.  Now Yahweh likens Jerusalem’s rulers to the rulers of Sodom and Jerusalem’s people to the people of Gomorrah.  In other words, he is telling them that, far from being the best of the best, they are the worst of the worst.

Genesis 18:1 – 19:29 tell the story of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and their total destruction by God’s judgment.

Listen to the law (to·ra) of our God” (v. 10b).  “teaching here is probably ironic, for the word being translated is to·raor ‘law.’ …Isaiah is saying that the instruction which God gave Moses did not have chiefly to do with cultic prescription and legalistic righteousness.  Rather, God’s to·ra has to do with character and attitudes and relationships” (Oswalt, 96).

“What are the multitude of your sacrifices to me?” says Yahweh.  “I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed animals.  I don’t delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of male goats. (v. 11).  “One of the most notable and original features of the teaching of the Hebrew prophets is their repeated insistence that the Lord is more concerned with men’s behavior in their social relationships than with the formal worship offered to him” (Scott, 170).

The to·ralaw prescribes animal sacrifices as offerings to atone for sin (Leviticus 1; 4-7; 16; 22).  Nothing in the book of Isaiah suggests that the people should not have obeyed these laws and made these sacrifices.  The problem is not that they have made the sacrifices, but that they have given sacrifices as a substitute for giving Yahweh their hearts and their obedience.  It isn’t their sacrifices that Yahweh really wants, but their hearts and obedience.  Their sacrifices should be an expression of the devotion of their hearts and should result in obedient service.  Because these people have not given Yahweh their hearts and obedience, he takes no pleasure in their sacrifices.  He is “up to here” with their sacrifices—sick of their sacrifices.  Rather than reminding Yahweh of their devotion, their sacrifices remind him of their rebellion.

A modern-day analogy would be an unfaithful husband who tries to buy his wife’s acquiescence with expensive presents.  A vulnerable woman might tolerate her husband’s misbehavior for a time, but a secure woman would kick the scoundrel out of her house.  Expensive presents are no substitute for faithfulness and love.

Yahweh is not vulnerable.  He has no need of sacrifices except as an expression of genuine devotion.  The fat and blood bring him no pleasure apart from the devoted heart of the person making the sacrifice.  The sacrifices, therefore, have lost their meaning. (See Numbers 29:6; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Ezra 3:5; Psalm 81:3; Ezekiel 46:6 for similar sentiments).

“When you come to appear before me, who has required this at your hand, to trample my courts?” (v. 12).  The offering of animal sacrifices is a messy business.  It requires bringing large animals into the temple, slaughtering and rending them, pouring their blood around the altar, and burning the meat on the altar.  One would imagine that Yahweh would prefer a neater, cleaner sort of worship, but he prescribed this method as a way of helping Israelites understand the seriousness of their sins.  However, the thing that gives Yahweh pleasure is not the offerings themselves but rather the faithful devotion of the one making the offering.  When that faithful devotion is missing, the offering becomes a trampling of Yahweh’s courts—a profanation—something that reminds Yahweh of the emptiness of the person’s heart.

“Bring no more vain offerings.  Incense is an abomination to me;” (v. 13a).  Offerings given without faithful devotion give no pleasure to Yahweh and provide no reward for the one making the offering.  Without faithful devotion, their offerings become simply a matter of going through the motions.  Yahweh regards the offerings as an abomination—an object of disgust.

“new moons, Sabbaths, and convocations: I can’t bear with evil assemblies.” (v. 13b).  The new moon, sabbath, and convocations are times of worship prescribed by Torah law (Leviticus 23).  Yahweh desires this worship, but it has no meaning apart from the devotion and faithful obedience of the worshiper.  Worship is a holy activity that honors Yahweh’s holiness and helps to move the worshiper in the direction of holiness, but “evil assemblies ” fail utterly to accomplish these purposes.

To understand the depth of Yahweh’s disgust with empty rituals conducted by unrepentant sinners, imagine how disgusted you would be with a coworker who merely went through the motions so that you had to do his/her work.  Imagine your disgust if your child’s teacher simply went through the motions and failed to help your child learn.  Imagine your disgust if your child were desperately ill and the physician just went through the motions instead of providing competent medical care. It is that kind of disgust that makes these empty rituals unendurable to Yahweh.

“My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts.  They are a burden to me.  I am weary of bearing them.” (v. 14).  The worship that should give Yahweh pleasure becomes a burden when conducted without faithful devotion.  It is worse than no worship at all (see Revelation 3:15-16), because it is an abomination to Yahweh (v. 13a).

“When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.  Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear.  Your hands are full of blood” (v. 15).  The stretching out of hands is an attitude of prayer.  God not only refuses to honor the offerings of people who are merely going through the motions.  He also refuses to listen to the prayers of those whose hands are full of blood—i.e., who are guilty of violence. Some scholars have suggested that the reference to blood in this verse has to do with the blood of offerings, but most scholars agree that it has to do with blood-guilt incurred by deeds of violence.

ISAIAH 1:16-17.  WASH YOURSELVES, MAKE YOURSELVES CLEAN

16“Wash yourselves, make yourself clean.
Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes.
Cease to do evil.
17Learn to do well.
Seek justice.
Relieve the oppressed.
Judge the fatherless.
Plead for the widow.”

“Wash yourselves, make yourself clean.  Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes.  Cease to do evil” (v. 16).  Verses 10-15 have spelled out the problem.  Now verses 16-17 spell out the solution.  The fact that Yahweh, who is completely disgusted with these people and their empty rituals would consider a remedy is a tribute to his love and grace.

The first step in effecting a remedy is to wash to “make yourself clean.”  It is interesting that Yahweh, who is disgusted with their rituals, would prescribe a cleansing ritual as the first step toward correcting the problem.  However, to hear Yahweh’s rebuke (vv. 10-15) and to submit to a cleansing ritual would force these people to acknowledge their sins and their need for cleansing.  That acknowledgement is really the first step in effecting a cleansing.  Only when they realize that they are in the wrong will they be willing to take the steps to right the wrong.

The washing ritual (and the underlying repentance) can remove the evil from before Yahweh’s eyes, but that will mean little if the people continue in their evil ways.  They must “cease to do evil”—pursue a righteous path—aspire to true holiness.

“Learn to do well” (v. 17a).  An educational process is required.  They mistakenly thought themselves to be doing good things already.  They considered sacrificial rituals to be all that was required.  They thought that the death of their sacrificial animals cleansed them from sin and exempted them from spiritual death.  They had no clue that anything more, such as a faithful heart, was required.  They failed to understand the importance of service to the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow.  They must, at least figuratively and perhaps literally, go back to spiritual elementary school and re-learn the lessons that should have been crystal clear to them from childhood.

“Seek justice.  Relieve the oppressed.  Judge the fatherless.  Plead for the widow.”

(v. 17b).  Yahweh spells out in four different ways what it means “to do good.”  The first is to “seek justice.”  God is just (Deuteronomy 32:4), so it behooves his people to be just.

This applies both to rulers and to the community at large (see verse 10, which addresses “you rulers of Sodom” and “you people of Gomorrah”):

• Rulers have an obligation to render impartial justice (Job 34:17-19) and to guard the rights of the poor and needy (Psalm 82:3; Jeremiah 5:28).

• But ordinary people are also obligated to seek justice (Micah 6:8).  Concern for the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, and other vulnerable people is at the forefront of Yahweh’s (and Christ’s) call for justice (Ezekiel 18:5-9; Matthew 25:31-46).  Rulers can effect justice on a broad scale by passing just laws and enforcing them justly, but all people have the power to act justly on a personal level and to push for justice in their community and nation.  With God’s help, even ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results in the pursuit of justice.

ISAIAH 1:18-20.  THEY SHALL BE AS SNOW

18“Come now, and let us reason together” (Hebrew: niwwaḵeha),
says Yahweh :
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.
Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword;
for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.”

“Come now, and let us reason together,” (v. 18a).   “Come” is an imperative, but “Come now” softens it, making it an invitation.  It is an invitation to discuss the charges that Yahweh has made against Jerusalem, the possibility of cleansing (v. 18c), and the choices that lie before the people (vv. 19-20).

“says Yahweh” (v. 18b).  “Yahweh is the only truly personal name of God in Israel’s faith….  The name consists of four consonants, YHWH (known as the tetragrammaton)….  The English form ‘Jehovah’ arose by a Latinized combination of the four consonants (YHWH) with the vowel points that the Masoretes used to show that they meant the reader to say ‘Adonai’…when reading the tetragrammaton….  In Ex. 3:14f. God declares that His name is ‘ehyeh ‘aser  ‘ehyeh.  The verb ‘ehyeh is… obviously linked to the tetragrammaton, as v. 14f. make plain.  Of the two possible sense for it, ‘I am who/what I am’ and ‘I will be who/what I will be,’ the latter is preferable” (Bromily, Vol. 2, 506-507).

In the NRSV and many English translations, YHWH is often translated “the Lord”—in part because the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament uses the Greek word kyrios (Lord) to translate the Hebrew YHWH into Greek—and in part because post-exilic Jews, considering YHWH too holy to say aloud, substituted Adonai (Lord) for YHWH in public readings of the scriptures (Myers, 1074).

The fact that the invitation to discuss comes from Yahweh gives it immeasurable weight.  To decline Yahweh’s invitation would be to miss the possibility of forgiveness (v. 18c) and prosperity (v. 19) that Yahweh is offering.

“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.

Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (v. 18c).  Scarlet, red, and crimson symbolize sin.  The whiteness of snow and wool symbolize purity.  This is Yahweh’s promise that although they are thoroughly stained with sin now, they shall receive cleansing and forgiveness.  The implication is that they must first devote their hearts to Yahweh and change their actions so that they accord with the requirements of verse 17, and Yahweh will then cleanse and forgive them.  The next two verses make it clear that verse 18c is not an unconditional offer.

“If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land” (v. 19).  Yahweh outlines their two options in words so stark that everyone can understand what is at stake.  He is giving them a choice between blessing (v. 19) and curse (v. 20)—between life (v. 19) and death (v. 20).  If they “are willing and obedient,” they will enjoy prosperity.

“but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword;” (v. 20a).   But if they continue in their present rebellious course, they will die.

“for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken” (v. 20b).   This phrase seals the promise of verses 19 and 20.  It is like the signature on a legal document that lends the authority of the signer to what has been said.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.  The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament.  The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-JRevised (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)

Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion:  Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)

Limburg, James, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary:  Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text.  The First Readings:  The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)

Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)

Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)

Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)

Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39); Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible:  Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1956)

Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)

Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge:  Trinity Press, 1994)

Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)

Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas:  Word Books, 1985)

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Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan