The Evangelical Prophet
Isaiah 1: 1 – 31
THE EVANGELICAL PROPHET
By Elie Nessim, June 14, 2003
We are looking at the book of Isaiah – Isaiah, the evangelical prophet. Just a few interesting facts about Isaiah, there are sixty-six chapters in the book of Isaiah, the same number as the books in the Bible. The first thirty-nine chapters have been related to the Old Testament, and the last twenty-seven to the New. And right in the middle of the last twenty-seven is Isaiah 53, which speaks about the sufferings of the Messiah.
The Prophet, like his compatriots, begins with a word of warning, and a word of rebuke, and he ends with a promise. This happens several times in this book. The first section is chapters 1 through 4, which begins with rebuke for sins, and ends with promise of blessing. And then the next section begins in chapter 5 with a rebuke, and ends in chapter 12 with blessing, and so on. As we go through this book, we’ll find that there are sections to this book, not really literal sections, but we can conveniently sub-divide the book of Isaiah.
We begin with God’s confrontation with His people Israel in chapter 1.
“The vision 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. Hear O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider. Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward.””
We’ll pause there in the reading of God’s indictment of His people. Isaiah’s ministry probably spanned about fifty years. “…Concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This great man of God spoke to his people for about fifty years. In verse 2 through 4, God opens His case against His people and He begins by rehearsing in their ears that song that He had taught Moses. When we go back to Deuteronomy chapter 31, and verse 16, we hear God speaking to Moses and telling him:
“And the LORD said to Moses: “Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.” Verse 19: “Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.”” And this is what God is saying here through His servant Isaiah.
“Hear O heavens…” When we go on in Deuteronomy chapter 32, this is indeed how the song begins – “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak.” This is God who is speaking here. “And hear, O earth, the words of My mouth. Let My teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, as raindrops on the tender herb, and as showers on the grass. For I proclaim the name of the LORD: Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He. They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish; a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus deal with the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father, who bought you? Has He not made you and established you?” This was the song of Moses, and God said, ‘Put it in the mouths of My people and they will teach their children.’ And it’s literally true, that they still remember it today.
I was visiting an Orthodox Jewish man in his shop many years ago here in Vancouver, and he was able to quote it from memory, the song of Moses. It is an indictment against Israel. Here is God now, through Isaiah, seven hundred years later, and seven hundred years before Messiah came, repeating these words in their ears.
“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me.”” The LORD, in the prophet Jeremiah also says, “How can I put you among the children because of all your sins?” It is especially grievous to a parent, when the children push away with hard, unfeeling hands, the care and the love of their father or of their mother, when they spurn their parents, when they reject the loving ministry of their parents. And God says, “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me.” Their ingratitude and their disloyalty are not even to be found amongst the brute creation.
Verse 3: “The ox knows its owner (the ox acknowledges its master) and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel…” (And here He uses the name, which means “Prince with God.”) “But Israel…” who should be a princely people, the descendants of Jacob whom I renamed at the ford of Jabok, and said, “You name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” – Prince of God. “Israel does not know, My people do not consider.” These animals in their way are unswervingly faithful to their masters.
Do you have a pet? Do you notice how that pet loves you? And how it depends on you totally? Trusts you implicitly? Loves you unfailingly? God is saying here, ‘the animals are more loyal and loving to their owners who use them sometimes in a harsh way. They are more loyal than My people, who should be princes in this earth. “Israel does not know.” Disloyalty by contrast! Their behaviour was worse than that of the brute creation.
In Jeremiah chapter 8, God contrasts their behaviour to that of animals.
Jeremiah 8, verse 7: “Even the stork in the heavens knows her appointed times; and the turtle dove, the swift, and the swallow observe the time of their coming. But My people do not know the judgment of the LORD.” There’s a sad note there as God says, “My People.” He still loves them even though He is speaking against them. As He says later on in Jeremiah, ‘since I spake against them, I earnestly remember them still.’ Here is injured love, angered love, but unfailing love as well.
“My people do not know…” This is how He describes them – four ways in verse 4: “Sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters!” Once they were favourable epithets – nation, people, brood, children. These were all to describe God’s relationship to His people, but now it was the contrary. Remember in the Song of Moses? “Is He not your Father, who bought you? Has He not made you…?” That is the sense in which He is their Father.
What have they done? Three things – “they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward.” The word “corrupters” is later used when speaking about the sufferings of the Messiah. “His visage was so marred more than any man.” We’ll be coming to that eventually. In chapter 52 and in verse 14, the Messiah, for the corruption that sin had made in His people, was corrupted for them. His visage was so marred more than the sons of men. His form was marred – corrupted. He was so mutilated, so disfigured; they could not see what He must have looked like before His tormentors mutilated Him. That’s the picture here, God’s case against His people.
And then in verse 5 through 9, the consequences of it – the consequences of sin, and this surely applies to all those who put God behind their backs, or who turn their backs upon God. We cannot get away with it. Verse 5: “Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; they have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment.”
They were incorrigible, He says, “Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more.” The picture is that of a body that is diseased from the head to the feet. It’s an apt picture of one who is consumed by the plague of leprosy. “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. They have not been closed,” that is; the wounds haven’t been pressed together. They didn’t have stitches in those days, so when there was an open wound, they pressed the two pieces together to try and close the wound. God says, ‘there’s no soundness. We cannot close those putrefying wounds.’
And then, now explaining the analogy in verse 7 through 9, the LORD says, ‘this is what I mean: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence.” We see the country, the cities, the land being described. That’s Israel, her towns and her land.
In the days of king Ahaz, who is mentioned as one of the kings, during whose reign Isaiah prophesied, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Assyrians, the Syrians, they all attacked; north, south, east and west. They all attacked the nation of Israel, and God says, as a result, “your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence, and it is desolate.” And then He describes what they look like now. Verse 8: “…As a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.” Three things! Isaiah puts things in three’s in this passage here.
“A booth in a vineyard.” Well, what is a booth in a vineyard? There were agricultural thieves, and the owner of the vineyard would erect a booth, or a shack where the watchman could dwell, to shield him from the sun, and to shelter him from any rain that might fall. The watchman dwelt in that little shack which was made of branches and leaves. And he would guard the vineyard until its grapes had been harvested, then he could go home; he was paid off and he went home. What’s happened to that structure of branches and leaves? They left it to fall down; it rotted into the ground. It collapsed under the heavy winter rains that came. And God says here, that is how the daughter of Zion is – like a little shack that has collapsed, “a hut in a garden of cucumbers.” It’s the same picture, but then He says, “as a besieged city” – a city in its last desperate condition before finally surrendering to the enemy – starvation, disease, death in the city. Dying defenders! That’s the picture drawn here.
And then verse 9, God’s merciful reprieve: “Unless the LORD of hosts had left to us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah.” That’s sheer grace that God left some. It’s not as though they were better than the rest. It is the LORD who left them. God said to Elijah, “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” God reserved a remnant for Himself.
In the next five verses, from 10 to 15, God describes their vain religion, and their false worship that has brought them to this. And in doing so, He is underlying the fact that what we believe affects directly on how we live. If there is ungodliness in a nation, no wonder there is ungodliness and unrighteousness and crime. Ungodliness inevitably gives rise to the evil fruit of wickedness, breakdown of society, lawlessness, etc. That’s what God is describing. ‘Your religion,’ He says, ‘is a false one. It’s even worse than that of Sodom and of Gomorrah, because they didn’t know as much as you do.’ Vain religion! False worship!
Verse 10: “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah.” They were an unheeding people. He says, ‘you’re very religious on the outside.’ That was the paradox. They were going to the temple, offering their sacrifices, saying their prayers, chanting, as Amos the prophet puts it, chanting or quavering to the sound of the viol, but God says, in verse 11: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats.”” Sacrifices without righteousness are of no avail. God says, ‘I’m glutted with your sacrifices.’ Even the fat of fed cattle, those were the best quality; the ones that were fed with grain – grain-fed cattle. He says, ‘I’m glutted with the best sacrifices, but they don’t impress Me. When a self-righteous sinner appears before God, and thinks that when they put a handsome sum in the offering plate, that they have bought God off. God says, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Take it back; it stinks! That’s how God speaks to the self-righteous.
He says, in verse 12: “When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts?” And in using that word, He is describing the way the animals trample. They brought their sacrifices, and you hear the clatter of their hooves on the pavement of the court of the temple. God says, ‘your footsteps are like the clatter of the hooves of those animals.’ He says, in verse 13: “Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me.” He puts it more vividly – it’s an incense of abomination. ‘Your incense is an incense of abomination.’ Verse 14: “Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates.”
Amos, chapter 5, verse 21 through 24, also says the same thing, and he was just a little before Isaiah. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savour your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Then He challenges them, He reminds them that even when they were in the desert marching to the Promised Land they were worshipping idols. Now they were doing it openly. They were worshipping God ostensibly, and at the same time they were worshipping idols. That’s why God says, in verse 15: “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.”
In the prophet Jeremiah, He spells it out. He says, ‘You commit child sacrifice, and then you come into My house to pray?’ In those days, the people of Israel thought that in order for them to have uninterrupted prosperity, they had to sacrifice their children to their idols. They had their idols and they burned their babies in the fire to their idols. Living sacrifices to their idols, so that they could have rain from those idols! They thought that the idols were the ones that gave them their rain for their crops, and as a result of getting the rain, their crops would grow and they would be prosperous.
We have not changed one little bit. Today, this society still sacrifices children to the mammon of prosperity. Why do people abort? Why do people murder children even after they have been born? Because they are a financial liability! That’s mostly the reason. ‘I cannot afford to have any more children, kill it, so that I can live a better lifestyle, so that I can have a higher standard of living. Kill the child.’ What Israel was doing seven hundred years before Messiah; we’re doing today two thousand years after Him. Well, it’s a painful subject but abortion, as some of our Christian leaders have told us, is pure murder. It’s an unpopular message but that’s where it is.
What is God saying now to His people? Your hands are full of blood. Some of these people who abort, go to Church on Sunday. They pick up the hymnbook. God says, ‘the hands that you use to pick up that hymnbook or that prayer book, are bloodstained in My sight.’ God is not, however, content just to leave it at that. Whenever God rebukes us, He never leaves it at that. He always points the remedy. In His mercy and in His grace, He offers us the better way. And in verse 16 through 20, Here He is offering them mercy. What are they to do?
“Your hands are full of blood.” ‘Well then,’ verse 16: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil.” There’s the negative. First of all, the first step of repentance is to wash. Remember what Naaman’s servants told him? “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘wash, and be clean?’” It’s so simple. ‘Wash you.’ That’s the first step in repentance. And then secondly, “Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.” And third step, “Cease to do evil.” No going back. If you repent, that should be it. There are those who repent of their repentance. The LORD says, ‘No, that will not do. If you repent, let it be thorough repentance, unswerving repentance. That distinguishes between true and false religion.
Positively though, verse 17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Here is the first fruit of repentance – emphasis on learning something altogether new and different. “Learn to do good.” Not remember to do good, but learn to do good. There’s a rebuke even in that command. They didn’t know. It’s not something they had learned and forgotten. This is something they never had done. “Learn to do good.” And then another lack supplied, “Seek justice.” Then thirdly, straighten out the wrongdoer – “Rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless.” That is, show concern for the helpless. False piety always says, ‘what’s in it for me?’ True piety always says, ‘how can I pass on the blessing?’ “Defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” There’s concern for the defenceless.
Job was a righteous man in God’s sight. He says, ‘I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I was like a father to her; I looked after her; I cared for her, I comforted her, I supplied her needs.’ “Plead for the widow.” And how is this to be achieved?
Verse 18: “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the LORD, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” A promise that, ‘if you heed My reproof, though your sins are like scarlet, red like crimson, they shall be like snow or as white as wool.’ And the fruit of that is, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” Gracious promises following. True repentance. It doesn’t matter how vile we have been; repentance wipes the slate clean. That’s a marvellous thing that God underlines in the book of Ezekiel. ‘None of his sins which he has committed shall be mentioned to him.’ We can look forward, those who have been forgiven, those who have repented; we can look forward to the day of judgement without fear. We know there’s no calling up again of the past. It is all forgiven. God says, “I will not remember your sins.” That’s the offer to His sinful people that we have here in this first chapter.
But the alternative is fearsome. Verse 20: “But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword,” for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”” In verse 21 through 23, God pinpointed Jerusalem as the sinful city against whom He is declaiming.
“How the faithful city has become a harlot! It was full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers.” He describes their silver. It’s not good silver anymore. It has become dross; their wine has become insipid; the princes are easily bribed and perverted from doing that which is right. It’s interesting how in Isaiah, he uses words that have assonance. That is to say, words that sound alike. “Thy princes are rebellious.” In Hebrew, “Sariak saw’ rarim” – “Your princes are rebellious.” Thieves! Companions of thieves – the leaders who should be above these things, who don’t need these things, who are wealthy enough; they are not poverty stricken that they should be tempted by bribes. Still they are, says God.
Then in verse 24 to 27, God says, ‘because your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water, I am going to do something about it.’ He has given them the opportunity. If they are not going to take it, He is going to act. From verse 24 to 27: “Therefore the LORD says, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, “Ah, I will rid Myself of My adversaries, and take vengeance on My enemies. I will turn My hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy.” He is called “the Mighty One of Israel.” When Jacob was blessing his sons, in Genesis 49, he referred to “the Mighty One of Israel.” Jehovah! The Mighty One! And the word he uses is “Avir.” – the word that is used here in verse 24 is also found in Genesis 49, verse 24.
God says, ‘I will take you in hand.’ ‘If you do not take yourselves in hand, I will.’ Even with the believers, that is true. The letter to the Corinthians says, “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”
And the result will be – verse 26: “I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her penitents with righteousness.” Justice executed! But it is for those who return. God says, ‘I will return and deal with you, and as a result, those of you that return because of My dealings with you, I will redeem you with righteousness.’ Hosea the prophet said much of the same thing. “I will betroth thee unto Me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness…” What happens to the contrary part?
Verse 28 through 31 – destruction for the unrepentant! “The destruction of transgressors and of sinners shall be together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.” There are two categories here – not only the outright sinner, but the apostate. Transgressors and sinners are those who have never made any profession of following God, who have defied Him to His face. But when He speaks about those who forsake the LORD, He is describing those people that we read about in Hebrews chapter 6: “…Those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come…” and have fallen away – these are the ones the LORD is speaking about. The apostate! Those who forsake the LORD, together they shall be consumed. Verse 29: “For they shall be ashamed of the terebinth trees which you have desired.” They had their idolatrous shrines in the most beautiful place.
In Haifa today, you look up the main thoroughfare, with your back to the sea, looking east. What do you see? Beautiful gardens – gardens upon gardens going up the mountainside, and at the top of it, a shrine! It is the Baha’i temple, and the Baha’i gardens. They look beautiful, stunning. It’s like Butchart Gardens transplanted into Haifa, beautifully kept, well tended, a delight to the eye, but not worshipping God. Another system of religion! Man-made religion! And the same thing was what the people of Israel were doing in Judah and Jerusalem – making beautiful groves around their shrines. He says, ‘one day you will be ashamed of all of these.’
Verse 30: “For you shall be as a terebinth whose leaf fades, and as a garden that has no water. The strong shall be as tinder, and the work of it as a spark; both will burn together, and no one shall quench them.”
There’s chapter 1. We took time to look at it because it sets the tone for the whole book of Isaiah. In fact we can say the whole book of Isaiah is summarized in this first chapter. It’s like a synopsis of the whole message of the prophet – a warning to the sinner, an offering of mercy, and then judgement on those who refuse that mercy. A solemn message indeed, but then in chapter 2, immediately follows the promise of a better day, that there is a better day coming – the Kingdom of the Messiah.
God willing next week, we will look at this second chapter and see what its message is for us.