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I. INTRODUCTION CHS. 1-5
The relationship of chapters 1-5 to Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 is problematic. Do the first five chapters describe the prophet’s ministry before he received his call-is the order chronological-or do they constitute an introduction to the anthology of prophecies that follow Isaiah’s call-is the order literary? The commentators take both views. My preference is to view these prophecies not necessarily as the first ones Isaiah delivered in his ministry but as those he placed here to form an introduction to his whole book. They present in a succinct way the problems that the rest of the book deals with. They are typical of many of Isaiah’s succeeding prophecies and set forth his major emphases. Isaiah’s call (ch. 6) is the most concise statement of the solution to the Israelites’ problem, and the chapters after that one spell it out in more detail. Probably Isaiah, or whoever arranged these prophecies in their final form, put these prophecies here to set before the reader the situation facing Israel that Isaiah addressed in the rest of the book.
A. Israel’s condition and God’s solution ch. 1
As chapters 1-5 introduce the whole book, so chapter 1 introduces the rest of the introduction to the book (chs. 2-5). It presents the situation in Judah in the second half of the eighth century B.C. and reveals God’s will for His people. This chapter summarizes all of Isaiah’s characteristic and essential teachings. Judgment from the Lord had to come on the people of Judah because they had sinned against Him. This judgment would purify and perfect them because God had a future for them. God’s indictment of His people is similar to a covenant lawsuit (i.e., a rib oracle).
"True prophets are like good doctors: They diagnose the case, prescribe a remedy, and warn the patient what will happen if the prescription is ignored." [Note: Ibid., pp. 13-14.]
1. The title of the book 1:1
The book claims Isaiah as its author. His name summarizes the revelation of the book, namely, that it is Yahweh who saves. Obadiah was the only other writing prophet who described his book as a vision. This unusual title stresses that what Isaiah wrote reflects reality accurately; he saw it. This word does not mean that everything that Isaiah wrote is what he saw in one or more visions. Though unstated, this vision (the prophecies that constitute this book) came from God. According to Jewish tradition Isaiah’s father, Amoz (not the prophet Amos), was the brother of King Amaziah, Uzziah’s father, which would have made Isaiah King Uzziah’s cousin. Isaiah ministered in and to the people of Jerusalem and Judah, but he saw them as the real Israel since they lived under the Davidic kings, in contrast to the residents of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The kings of Judah mentioned ruled from 792-686 B.C.
God Himself charged the Israelites with their sin. He called the heavens and earth to witness His indictment against His people (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19; Deuteronomy 32:1). His people had not only violated His covenant but common decency and good sense. Isaiah’s references to the Mosaic Covenant were less explicit than Jeremiah’s were, though both men viewed the covenant as the basis of Israelite life.
It was unthinkable that children should revolt against a loving father who nurtured them. Even stupid oxen and donkeys know their master, but the Israelites did not realize who cared for them. The Israelites made animals look intelligent.
2. Israel’s condition 1:2-9
Israel was guilty of forsaking her God and, as a result, she had become broken and desolate.
The prophet amplified God’s charge and proved it by referring to Israel’s condition. He lamented that Israel’s state was the logical outcome of her behavior.
"The interjection ’ah’ [Isaiah 1:4] (the Hebrew word [hoy] is sometimes translated ’woe’) was a cry of mourning heard at funerals (see 1 Kings 13:30; Jeremiah 22:18-19; Amos 5:16). When Isaiah’s audience heard this word, images of death must have appeared in their minds." [Note: Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Handbook on the Prophets, p. 15.]
God’s people had forsaken the Holy One of Israel, "the transcendent God, who is wholly separate from the frailty and finiteness of Creation (his majesty-holiness), and wholly separate from the sinfulness and defilement of man (his purity-holiness)." [Note: Gleason L. Archer Jr., "Isaiah," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 609.] Israel was consequently experiencing the destructive results of her sin in national disease and in political and social catastrophes (Isaiah 1:5-6; cf. Isaiah 53:4-10; Deuteronomy 27-30). It was customary in Isaiah’s day for people to squeeze the puss out of a wound, to pull a cut together with a bandage, and to pour olive oil on sores to aid healing. [Note: Young, 1:51-52.]
Isaiah moved from describing Israel as a sick and injured body to a desolate, conquered land (Isaiah 1:7-9; cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-29). The description "daughter of Zion" (Isaiah 1:8) emphasizes that God feels about His wayward people as a father feels about his daughter. He loves her, has committed himself to protecting her, and takes pains to guard her from all evil and danger.
Many Israelite families lived in villages but built little shelters in their fields and camped there during the harvest season. After the harvest these little shacks looked pitiful, abandoned, useless, and deteriorating. Unless the LORD of armies had preserved a few faithful in Judah, as He preserved Lot and his family, He would have destroyed the nation as He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10; cf. Genesis 19; Romans 9:29).
All the writing prophets except Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah used the title "LORD of Hosts" ("LORD Almighty") to stress that Yahweh has numberless assistants who are ready and able to carry out His bidding (cf. 2 Kings 6:15-18). This is also the first reference in Isaiah to the remnant, the faithful few in Israel who formed a distinct group within the apostate nation. This remnant constitutes a significant group and motif in the book.
Even though God had not yet destroyed Jerusalem as He had Sodom and Gomorrah, the city was like those corrupt towns in that the people and their rulers had turned from God’s holy standard. The people needed to heed the instruction (Heb. torah) of their God.
Ritual contrasted with reality 1:10-17
3. God’s solution 1:10-20
The prophet laid out two alternatives for the people to choose between in relating to God in their pitiful condition. They could continue to rely on religious ritual (cult) to manipulate God (Isaiah 1:10-15), or they could change their ways and live morally and ethically pure lives (Isaiah 1:16-17). The choice was theirs (Isaiah 1:18-20).
The Israelites tended to fall into a pattern of thinking that religious ritual and their pagan neighbors’ worship encouraged. They thought that going through the motions of worshipping God exactly as He specified satisfied Him. They forgot that God intended their ceremonies to be symbolic of their attitude toward Him. Their attitude to Him was more important than their flawless performance of worship rituals. Even their prayers would be ineffective if their attitude to God was not right (Isaiah 1:15). We have the same problem today. This passage repeats descriptions of the Israelites’ worship so often that the reader gets tired of them, just as God did. Hands full of bloodshed (Isaiah 1:15) is a figure of guilt for abusing others. [Note: Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah , 1:95.]
Having shown what God does not want, Isaiah now told the people what He does want (cf. Isaiah 66:1-4; Isaiah 66:17). His demands are short and simple in contrast to the elaborate rituals described above (cf. Deuteronomy 10:12-13; Micah 6:8). Three negative commands relate to the past and five positive ones to the future. Washing (Isaiah 1:16) is symbolic of repenting (cf. Acts 2:38; Acts 13:24; Titus 3:5).
"The passage clearly reveals a concern over the social injustices of the time. Such social injustices, however, could only be corrected by a change of heart upon the part of individuals." [Note: Young, 1:74.]
The wisdom of obeying God 1:18-20
The Lord now challenged Israel to a formal trial. In the light of Israel’s condition (Isaiah 1:2-17), there was only one reasonable course of action. The Israelites could continue as they were and be destroyed, or submit to God’s will and be blessed. If they were disposed to consent and obey, God would again bless them with fertility (cf. Isaiah 1:3). If they decided to refuse and rebel, He would allow their enemies to defeat and destroy them. Behavioral change, the fruit of repentance, needed to demonstrate an attitude of repentance. It always does.
The depth of Judah’s apostasy 1:21-23
Spiritual rot had penetrated even the capital of Israel, and what marked Jerusalem characterized the whole nation. The people, seen in the personification of their capital, who had formerly been devoted to the Lord, had become unfaithful to Him by pursuing other gods. Former glories were now tarnished, and what was once strong was now weak. The leaders of the nation, who formerly had been pure and valuable, were now adulterated and cheap. Rather than serving the people, they served themselves. Idolatry had led to social injustice, as it always does unless checked.
4. Israel’s response 1:21-31
While God’s invitation to repent was genuine (Isaiah 1:16-20), the nation had so thoroughly departed from Him that repentance was not forthcoming and discipline was inevitable. The prophet bemoaned the depth of Israel’s apostasy and announced that the Lord would have to purify His people in the furnace of affliction before they would become what He intended them to be. The structural form of Isaiah 1:21-26 is palistrophic, with Isaiah 1:23-24 forming the center and focal point of the chiasm.
The announcement of judgment 1:24-26
Isaiah’s unusual three-fold description of God as the sovereign (Lord) God of armies (hosts), who is the Mighty God of Israel, boded ill for Judah. Isaiah crowded together more names of God in Isaiah 1:24 than he did anywhere else (cf. Isaiah 3:1; Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 10:6; Isaiah 10:33; Isaiah 19:4). The specter of God arising to judge His people for their sins just mentioned is a fearful prospect (cf. Hebrews 12:29). God judges sin wherever He finds it, among pagans and among His own people.
"Any facile statement that God always hates the sin but loves the sinner needs to be countered by Isaiah’s insistence that those who transgress are my foes and my enemies." [Note: Motyer, p. 49.]
God would subject His people to fires of adversity, but only to purify them, not destroy them. Just rulers would emerge and the city would once again enjoy a reputation for righteousness and faithfulness to God. This is the first allusion in Isaiah to a coming Judge who will establish justice and create righteous conditions, about whom the prophet revealed much more later. The restoration described here will find fulfillment in the millennial reign of Christ.
The fate of the wicked 1:27-31
Even though Zion (a poetic synonym for Jerusalem) will experience redemption by God’s justice and righteousness (Isaiah 1:25-26), the Lord will destroy individuals who continue in their sins and do not repent. This is the first occurrence of "redemption" as well as "Zion" in Isaiah, both of which received considerable attention from this prophet. The Israelites had turned to objects of idolatry ("oaks") and places of idolatry ("gardens," Isaiah 1:29), and in doing so had forsaken the Lord. God had chosen Israel, but Israel had chosen a tree! It is impossible to turn from the Lord and not turn to an idol. God’s people would feel betrayed because of their choice one day (cf. Isaiah 29:3; Isaiah 45:7; Psalms 34:5; Psalms 119:6). Those who consider themselves strong and self-sufficient, as oaks and gardens, but rely on the creation rather than the Creator to sustain them-will wither and dry up (Isaiah 1:30). Both they and their works will inevitably burn in the fires of God’s judgment, like felled trees.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany