Community Bible Study -- Isaiah

Text of Presentation, Lesson 1, Isa 1:1-31

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God's Denunciation, Appeal, and Promise
"No More Rotten Religion"

The first verse of the book of Isaiah reveals that Isaiah's prophesy is a vision, given from God during the reigns of four Jewish kings. Their reigns covered 97 years, but according to the bible and Jewish tradition, Isaiah's ministry covered 56 years. Hence this vision - this prophesy - was given over more than 50 years, but less than 97 years.

I mention this because although the ancient Jews always considered Isaiah to be one book by one author, most modern scholars believe it has two or three authors, extending more than 200 years after the death of Isaiah. Such a claim is strictly speculation, based on linguistic differences between chapters 1-39 and 40-66 - and/or because certain scholars don't believe in prophesy. A minority of scholars - supported by the evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls - continue to support the Jewish tradition of a single author, and attribute stylistic differences to the fact that Isaiah's vision occurred over a long lifetime . . . and anyone who don't change as we mature probably isn't learning anything. This study follows the latter view: that the book of Isaiah is prophesy, written (or dictated) by Isaiah ben Amoz over his long lifetime.

The opening nine verses introduce the judgment-hope theme prevalent throughout the book. It begins with God's charges against the people of Judah for rebellion (1:2) and corruption (1:4), which have resulted in desolation. The prophet compares the situation to Sodom and Gomorrah, concluding (1:9) that except for God's mercy, the people would have been destroyed long ago.

The comparison of 8th century Jews to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah must have really stung. Recall the first patriarch of the Jews was Abraham, who lived over 1000 years before Isaiah. During Abraham's time, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became so evil that God wiped them off the face of the earth with a rain of fire and brimstone. The story is in Gen 18-19 . . . but the important point is that in Jewish tradition, Sodom and Gomorrah represented extreme evil and extreme punishment. By making this comparison, Isaiah emphasizes just how bad the people have become!

Isaiah illustrates the rebellious character of humanity by comparing and contrasting man (under God's dominion) with animals (under man's dominion). An ox or an ass at least knows where the barn is. But by contrast, the Jews persistently turn their backs on their good Master, even when turning away results in great pain. We observed last week that for years the Jews have followed pagan gods and practices, but rather than increasing in wealth or power, they are much weaker than at the time of David and Solomon; and they are about to come up against an Assyrian military juggernaut, intent on conquering the Middle East. Isaiah compares the Jews with a bruised and wounded body that is left unattended (1:5-6). But the Jews can't put two and two together and realize that if only they would turn back to the Lord, he would gladly restore the blessings He formerly showered on them. And now rebellion is so ingrained in their character that - even with the evidence of judgment all around them - they refuse to return to God.

In other words, Isaiah's indictment is for rebellion and ignorance: rebellion that brings consequences . . . and ignorance because they fail to see the connection between what they are doing, and how they are suffering.

In 1:4 Isaiah introduces a term that is a theme of his book: God is "the Holy One of Israel." Isaiah uses this term 28 times (vs only 9 times elsewhere in scripture). God is the only real deity in the universe. God is the Creator, who set up both the physical laws of the universe and moral laws for man. God's law establishes boundaries for mankind out of love, just as a Father does for his children (1:2), whom he loves and cares for. The idols worshiped by the pagans around them are only man-made objects.

It seems easy to criticize the 8th century Jews for their failure to follow God . . . but perhaps we should cut them a break and look in the mirror. Most people in this once-Christian nation don't get the picture either. We know the consequences of trying to break God's law of gravity; we know what happens when we jump off a forty-story building. But the consequences of breaking God's moral laws are less clear . . . in fact, we often feel there are no consequences. A Jaguar ad on TV makes this point very graphically: as a Jaguar XJ8L does it's thing, the "7 deadly sins" are flashed on the screen one by one . . . until we come to #8: the Jaguar XJ8L . . . the 8th deadly sin. What's the message? Sin is fun! Sin is a reward to the rich and powerful. Maybe the whole concept of sin is outdated today. And the clearest message is: don't worry about the consequences of sin . . . if they exist. But Isaiah says God's moral laws are just as real as the laws of physics . . . and so are the consequences of violating them.

Today's Christians need to emphasize this truth. We live in a society characterized by deep-seated and pervasive hostility toward moral absolutes. Everything is relative; even the idea that there are such things as "good" and "evil" are questioned today. We are so surrounded by this philosophy that we and our children and grandchildren are in constant danger of buying in to it. We've got to tell ourselves again and again that there is an absolute "good," which represents the character of God, who created us and gave us moral laws . . . and the Holy One did not create the laws of murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting any more arbitrarily than He did the law of gravity; these laws describe the way God made us to function. Furthermore, God promises we will be blessed with health, productivity, and joy if we live creatively within the guidelines of His laws . . . but that if we fall into sin, we lose.

In the midsection of chapter 1, Isaiah presents two ways of dealing with his people's alienation from God: a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way is hypocritical ritual, described in 1:10-15; the right way is repentance and changed living, described in 1:16-17. These alternatives are summed up in 1:18-20: the right way leads to blessing; the wrong way, to destruction.

In 1:10, Isaiah addresses his people as the "rulers of Sodom" and "people of Gomorrah." This makes a subtle yet important point: the Jews think they are immune from judgment for their sin because they are God's chosen people, but Isaiah says if their behavior is no different from that of the pagan world, their fate will be no different either.

The Jews think they deserve God's favor because they follow God's proscribed rituals of animal sacrifices and offerings, but in 1:11-15, God ridicules that idea. God doesn't want any more sacrifices and takes no pleasure in them (1:11). Their gifts are worthless, their incense an abomination, and their worship services are evil (1:13). In fact, their worship has become too much for God to bear any more (1:14), and He won't even listen to their prayers (1:14). Why? In 1:15 God says: "Your hands are full of blood" . . . the blood of the innocent, whom they have abused. God will not hear their prayers because their prayers are not matched by godly lives. The same part of the Bible which addresses the sacrificial laws also requires ethical treatment of one's neighbors. It is not possible to have the one and not the other. The people cannot expect sacrifices and offerings to deliver them from the consequences if they persist in evil deeds.

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not to procure God's favor; it was a means whereby those who kept God's covenant could continue to enjoy God's blessing despite unintentionally falling short of perfect performance. Sacrifices did not cover intentionally breaking the covenant. 8th century Jews thought they could use the ritual of offerings and animal sacrifice to manipulate God . . . to be in control of their relationship with God. It's the attitude of social climbers who are nice only to those more powerful than they - who can help them or hurt them. They thought that by being nice to God in this way, He would overlook the sins they committed against others. But they are wrong.

In 1:16-17 God makes clear He expects right and just behavior, especially toward those who are helpless to demand such behavior: the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow. Anyone can perform rituals. But God wants man - created in His image - to seek to take on His character . . . to enter into a life-changing relationship with Him, as we modern Christians seek to do by trying to be like Jesus. This is the true evidence of a follower of God.

In 1:18-20 the Jews are challenged to use their God-given powers of reasoning to figure this out for themselves. Rebellion and stubbornness bring destruction (1:20); submission to God and a changed life bring forgiveness and restoration (1:18) . . . and God's full blessing (1:19). Which to choose? Destruction or blessing? Hmmm?

It's not hard to see how this all applies to 21st century Christians! We don't offer sacrifices or (in most cases) burn incense in our worship services . . . but Isaiah's points about sacrifices and offerings apply to all ritual worship. It includes those in traditional churches who think the act of performing a ritual brings them a blessing . . . to those in so-called "grace-based" churches who think "holiness" comes from following strict behavioral rules and other legalisms . . . to anyone who thinks he earns points with God by going to church regularly, reading the Bible frequently, praying often, tithing. All of us who follow the external practices of whatever church we attend and don't commit adultery or engage in substance abuse . . . we might think God is impressed by our devotion; the non-believers around us don't do this. But behavior is no substitutes for real biblical faith, which lies in surrender and obedience to God and is demonstrated by how we treat one another, as Jesus says in John 13:35: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." As with the 8th century Jews, our worship practices and religious activities are supposed to be only symbolic of deeper realities.

We talk about "eternal security," meaning once we have gone through the ritual of admitting to our sin and asking Jesus into our hearts, we are promised forgiveness of past, present, and future sin. But Isaiah says we can't manipulate God with ritual.

Ancient Jews were required to treat the poor justly and rightly because of God's covenant with them. If they were to experience the blessings God promised them, they had to treat one another in ethical ways. This expressed God's nature and character, and if God's people wanted to walk with him, they had to act like him. Today we are under the new covenant written on our hearts . . . but it also calls on us to emulate the character of God. If we are to receive God's favor, we must be in the right kind of relationship with God . . . and that won't happen if we refuse to walk in God's way.

Isaiah is telling us God only cares about our heart attitude . . . and we demonstrate that attitude by the way we treat those less fortunate than we are. If we can appear religious and claim obedience to God, yet live a self-centered life . . . God knows this . . . and He knows we are really in rebellion against Him! To experience God's favor, we must show evidence of His life within us. Religious and cultic activity in the absence of a changed life is not such evidence. Unless we show we have Jesus in our hearts by changed lives and an attitude to help the less fortunate . . . we have no right to expect God to treat us any differently than non-believers who behave the same way we do!

Chapter 1 concludes with a call to repentance . . . Isaiah describes the present (1:21-24) and enumerates the consequences in the absence of repentance (1:25-31). Again Isaiah juxtaposes "hope" with "judgment": unrepentant sinners will be burned like tinder, but the coming judgment will have a purging and renewing effect on the nation as a whole.

The prophet describes the present situation in a series of contrasts between what the Lord expected and what he got. God expected faithfulness and got harlotry, as his people worshiped idols; He expected righteousness and got murderous behavior. God expected offerings of silver, but He got worthless base metal . . . He expected pure wine and got dilution. God expected those in authority to be responsible to care for the helpless . . . but He got rebels . . . takers of bribes, who failed to defend the helpless, and used positions of trust to enrich themselves.

God's people think they are in a position of privilege. God chose them and blessed them. Through God's power they rose from slavery to become a significant power in the ancient world. They have God's law, God's temple, God's city, God's land. But Isaiah says they are God's enemies, on whom He will be avenged (1:24)!

Nevertheless, God's judgment is not intended destroy his people, but to refine them. As the silver is melted in the crucible, so God intends to melt down the Jewish nation to "remove all your impurities." The fires of judgment will be terrible and painful, but God is not abandoning his people; He will use those fires to restore to Israel the kind of leadership they once knew, so Jerusalem will indeed fulfill God's intention and become "the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City" (1:26). Perhaps this is Isaiah's first bit of Messianic prophesy, because these conditions most likely will only happen with Jesus.

Isaiah talks about individual salvation in 1:27. Judgment will come to the entire nation, but those who repent and return to God will be crowned with righteousness, as God accomplishes the ultimate redemption of Zion. But such salvation is only available to those who make a radical turnaround. Those who persist in rebellion will be destroyed (1:28); those who forsake the covenant they made with the Lord will have no hope. The proud rebels may think they are like towering trees, but they are trees without water . . . tinder waiting for a spark to ignite and destroy them in a moment. The future promise for Zion offers no comfort for those who will not repent.

True religion involves two components: a relational one and a performative one. It's not enough to go through the ritual of asking Jesus into our hearts . . . we must have a love relationship with God that separates us from the world and changes the way we live, especially in respect to how we treat the helpless. Second, God's judgment is not vindictive, but is designed to have a positive effect; as it says in Hebrews 12:7: When we are subjected to God's discipline, God is treating us as children, whom He loves.

Third, Isaiah emphasizes the danger of God's people having a false sense of security - read this "eternal security - because they are God's people. This is the first instance of a recurring theme in Isaiah. God will keep his promises to the descendants of Abraham and not let them be erased from the earth . . . but God's promise to his people collectively is no guarantee for any individual; each must repent from his sins, or forfeit any part in those promises. The same is as true for modern Christians as for 8th century Jews.

In conclusion, I want to make a final point about Isaiah's emphasis that Godly people help the less fortunate. Religious practice sometimes seems like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another. Jesus preaches the only sure way to reform society is to save individuals - one by one. In the last half of the 19th century Christians focused on personal holiness and spiritual experience. But this failed to address social ills . . . and the reaction to this was the "social gospel," which came to fruition in the 1920s and 1930s and reigns supreme in mainline churches today. The "social gospel" ignores personal evangelism and one-on-one aid to the poor, and focuses on changing sinful structures of society through political activism . . . in which Christians often ally with "strange bedfellows" and lose their unique identity.

Isaiah says both extremes are wrong. But although the modern church has lost much of it's real mission and focus, we shouldn't be wringing our hands and crying, "All is lost." God is still in charge. And we are called to work toward remaking the church in the mold of what Isaiah preaches . . . recapturing it's central purpose to help the less fortunate, rather than giving this task over to government programs and bureaucrats. We're overwhelmed with information in the 21st century . . . and the data show faith-based initiatives are significantly more efficient, financially, than government programs. And personally, we should each look inward at our own lives and outward at a lost and broken world, confident God does not intend to harm us but aware he demands purity, selflessness, and love in all our relationships. We should live courageously and sacrificially, knowing the church will survive, and not discouraged when difficulties come. If hard times are ahead, God's good purpose is not to destroy us but to purify us. And if we are faithful to God, He will be faithful to us.

Next week in Isa 2 we get a glimpse of God's victory, when the proud are brought down.