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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 1

Verses 1-20

INTRODUCTORY PROPHECY

Isaiah 1:1-31

Editor’s Superscription (1:1)

This verse by an early editor identifies the author and gives his date by Judean kings of the second half of the eighth century B.c. Since Isaiah’s call to prophesy came in the year that Uzziah died ( 6 : 1 ), the earliest prophecies are probably not before that date (about 734 b.c.; see Introduction). The prophecy is here called a “vision.” In 2:1 the editor calls it a “word” which the prophet “saw.” The prophets were primarily concerned with the “word” of the Lord which is heard. An age-old understanding of the manner of divine revelation in the biblical world, however, was that the gods made themselves known directly in dreams and nocturnal visions. In Hebrew prophecy the visionary and auditory terms have simply become a technical language for direct revelation. Even when “vision” is used, the content is nearly always a word spoken and heard.

Verses 2-20

The Indictment of the Nation (1:2-20)

Prophetic books frequently begin with a direct quotation of the message the prophet has received from the divine court, unless a biographical or autobiographical statement of the circumstances of the prophet’s call precedes the prophecy itself. Here we are provided with one of the great statements of the prophetic message. Verses 5-9 indicate that the country had been laid waste by an enemy before the words were spoken. This suggests that the invasion of the Assyrian conqueror, Sennacherib, in 701 b.c. had taken place. Nevertheless, the passage is placed first because it states so eloquently what the prophet was called upon to speak in God’s name to his people.

In verses 2-3 the words of God’s indictment which the prophet has heard are quoted. As witnesses of this charge God calls the “heavens” and the “earth,” meaning all of God’s angels in heaven who were thought to be his ministers in his government of the world and all the inhabitants of the earth. The form of speaking is very old, going back to international treaties of the second millennium between an emperor and a vassal. The gods of the two parties were given as witnesses of the covenants, and the listings of divine names often concluded with the summarizing terms “heaven and earth,” referring to all the gods of the two regions. When a treaty was broken, the divine witnesses were called to hear and to sustain the accusation against the vassal.

It is from this background that Israel derived the form which Isaiah here poetically uses. It means that God’s Covenant with Israel has been broken, and God summons the witnesses to his treaty to hear his indictment: “Sons have I reared . . . but they have rebelled . . This is an action of supreme folly; it is contrary to nature; it is simply beyond rational understanding. Animals know their owners and the stables where they love to go for food and care, “but Israel does not know . . (vs. 3).

Having quoted God’s solemn and frightening indictment, the prophet in verses 4-9 laments his people’s present situation and explains the reason for it. “Ah” (vs. 4) here translates the Hebrew word used in a funeral lament, which may also be rendered “alas” or “woe.” That is, a tragic situation exists which is to be deeply lamented: “a people laden with iniquity . . . have despised the Holy One of Israel.” The last phrase is a title for God which is a favorite one with both First and Second Isaiah. In verses 5-8 the devastated nature of the country is described; it is a badly beaten and wounded body. The inference is clear: the rebel people have been punished for their breach of a most solemn treaty. God mercifully saved the lives of some; otherwise the nation would have been wiped off the face of the earth as Sodom and Gomorrah had been in Abraham’s time (vs. 9; Genesis 18-19).

In verses 10-20 the prophet quotes in more detail the words of God’s indictment. Do the people not know that God is disgusted with their worship in all its forms? He wants no more of their sacrifices and offerings; he can no longer endure their services of worship, for they weary him; he will no longer listen or hearken to their prayers because of their bloody hands. If they wish God to pay attention to their religious rites and to find their worship pleasing to him, let them wash themselves. Let them remove their evil, seek justice for the weak and defenseless of their society, learn the good, and cease the many forms of oppression whereby the strong enlarge themselves at the expense of the weak.

The traditional understanding of verse 18, as though it were a promise of mercy, can no longer be made to fit into the structure of the divine indictment. The context is the explanation of God’s will and purpose for Israel and his conditions for blessing and for safety in the land. If they obey their Ruler, they will indeed prosper; but if they rebel, they will suffer. This is God’s decree; this is the way of safety. In this context verse 18 is to be understood as follows: “Come, now, let us present our cases as though we were in a court of law [such is the meaning of “reason together”]: If your evil deeds are like scarlet, are they going to be judicially deemed to be white as snow? If they are as red as crimson, can they be white as wool?”

The background and basis of this prophetic declaration is Israel’s understanding of what God wanted in the Covenant society and of his reasons for forming the nation of Israel and giving her a land as her responsibility. These involved the whole life of the nation as a people of God and under God. Whether it was political, economic, or social life, every phase of it must reflect their commitment to God’s will. Since the people of Israel had once been slaves in Egypt, they understood God’s righteousness as involving a special love and concern for the defenseless and poor of the nation. Hence Israel’s whole social and economic life could be said to be a response to God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

God’s indictment, however, is that Israel’s society is in violation of the very reason and purpose of its existence in the world. In such a situation do the people think that their various rites of worship are going to make their history safe for them? It is characteristic of mankind to elaborate a great religious cultus, participate in it actively, and then assume that the divine world should respond by providing security and prosperity in the earth. Yet in Israel, God will have none of this kind of worship. Temple rites and services are good in themselves, but God finds them acceptable only when used by sincere people whose other actions and the society they have created reflect their commitment.

Verses 21-31

Concerning Jerusalem (1:21-31)

The remainder of chapter 1 consists of the declaration of God’s judgment against Jerusalem. Verses 21-23 are a lament over the city’s moral condition, and verses 24-26 present God’s decision to be a refining fire, after which she will be restored indeed as “the city of righteousness.” The door to hope is only through the purifying fire. The theme of judgment continues in verses 27-31. Verses 29-30 contain a play on words: certain paganizing rites are referred to with regard to oaks and gardens, and the people of Jerusalem are going to be like an oak or a garden without water, so that it withers.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/isaiah-1.html.