We have all seen it before. A movie starts with a future dramatic scene – A prologue of destruction that is to come.
That is what the first five chapters of Isaiah lays out. Written in the reign of Uzziah, a particularly successful and peaceful time in Israel’s history. But, there are storms on the horizon and Isaiah has been sent not just to warn but also tell why this future will happen.
The Book of Isaiah starts with a simple explanation that this is a vision Isaiah had and the vision is a first person view of God Himself talking:
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
In the last blog I talked about how the very fact that Israel existed as a nation up until this point in history was not because of the law of domination by power but rather by many acts of faith that God used to demonstrate his power. This idea that when sin entered the world it brought with it an unintended consequence and used the metaphor of how nuclear waste became a problem only after the knowledge of the nuclear age. With this concept in mind, it is easier to understand what God is saying here in His appeal to the ‘heavens and the earth’ – His created material universe that also is unwillingly under the same curse brought on by humanities sin of pride.
God sees Israel as His own children for one reason, they were born through the faith of their father Abraham and continued on in the faith of their ancestors. Now, though, they are rebelling from that faith thinking that they could continue on their own without God’s help (and rules) any more. This attitude began with Uzziah who was a very successful king of Israel. He was smart (he invented weapons of war) and was greatly feared by the other nations. He became dominant because of this and also, Isaiah says, because God blessed him as ‘he did what was right in the site of God’, But, his success (and dominance) went to his head and God allowed him to get leprosy to humble him.
An ox and donkey are domesticated animals. They are not wild,they do not struggle for dominance or even their own sustenance. They rely solely on their master for food and protection. They would die if they were released into the wild to fend for themselves. This is a metaphor for the nation of Israel; God has protected her and sustained her through the ages by miracles activated through faith. She should have been destroyed by the dominate societies around her many times over like a poor defenseless, tame donkey getting ripped to shreds by wild animals. And that is exactly what Isaiah says is coming down the pipe should Israel continue out on its own. Picture in your mind a helpless but stubborn donkey leaving the safety of it own pen and pasture, venturing out into the wilderness thinking in its mind that it is stronger than anything outside. (kind of reminds you of Pinocchio). But then, it finds out the hard way and is attacked violently leaving it bloody and beaten hanging on to life.
4 Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.
The metaphor is then explained and the vision turns to an ominous picture of what really is to come in the near future.
7 Your country lies desolate;
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
foreigners devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
8 And the daughter of Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.
God then goes on to explain how Israel has gotten/will get into this predicament – They have become like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Ezekiel 16 helps explain what this means…
49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.
Their pride from their success has turned them into a lawless and selfish nation. Sodom and Gomorrah was a symbol of those two extremes – lawlessness and selfishness. This is how far Israel has fallen morally that God compares them to the most extreme case of wickedness and godlessness in the history of mankind.
And then God says a very interesting thing and brings to light a concept that transcends (is above) the law. Up until now, the Israelites have been sacrificing animals to cover their sins as Moses has taught them, but now, all of the sudden, that doesn’t satisfy God any more. What used to be a sweet smell to Him now is an ‘abomination’ to Him. In fact, God doesn’t even want to listen to prayers. So, the question is what does He want? What could be more legitimate than sacrifices and keeping His laws?
11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
God wants something that Jesus echoed 2000 years later in the Sermon on the Mount – that righteousness has a certain reality to it. One can appear to be righteous on the outside but in reality they are a fake, and are just going through the motions to try to keep God happy enough that He won’t smite them – they are hypocrites.
All the laws of a society will mean nothing if the foundations of those laws are not goodness and justice – How does God define this?
That those who are stronger and more dominant must use their strength and dominance to protect those under them who have, by nature, been dealt a hand that leaves them lower on the dominance hierarchy. The logical conclusion is that everyone has the same right to justice no matter where they exist in that society. The greater the power, the greater the power should be to do good.and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Not only is this concept important to this tiny nation of Israel it is also the cornerstone of Western civilization.
Newton gave us gravity, Einstein gave us nuclear power but Isaiah and the prophets gave us the idea of human rights and that all people are created equal. They gave every person intrinsic value.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
And then God says something that is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. Like a Father reasoning with a rebellious son or daughter, He makes a deal that they would be crazy to not accept – If they turned around now. If they, like the donkey returning to its own pasture and stable, would return to God, He would erase their sin from eternity. This is a new concept for the people of Israel. They understood what their sins like scarlet and red like crimson meant because of the bloody sacrifices they had to make but this idea that they could be made pure once again. A reset button, a start over. A way to change the futile cycle of struggle for dominance then death, dominance then death that had been placed on humanity and the whole universe.
There is a concept even deeper at work here, though, and that is that God uses reason to appeal His case for why sins need to be forgiven. He is saying that it is in accordance with reason. It is reasonable to believe that we as humanity cannot save ourselves from our own evil. We cannot fix ourselves as a race and we need help from somewhere else. From something outside of us, something transcendent.
We can see ourselves being fixed and living life in peace in stories, songs and poems but we cannot achieve that state in our own lives.
They whole deal comes with a warning, though, if they refuse this offer they would be ‘eaten by the sword’ or remain in the dominance cycle forever.
18 “Come now, 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 become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Note: they had heard this concept at least once before from King David in Psalm 32:2
Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.
The narrative then pivots and talks about the city of Jerusalem. The seat of power and the Kingdom of Israel. This is saying that the problem goes all the way to the top. Everyone is involved. The leaders used to be where the people looked to for an example of how to live but not now. Now, don’t go to them for help if you are in need.
See how the faithful city
has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.
23 Your rulers are rebels,
partners with thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.
A stunning turn of events has occurred in verse 24 and one that should have placed fear into the hearts of the listeners to this message. Those who used to be called His children only 23 verses above are now called ‘enemies‘. And not just any enemies but enemies of God – enemies of all that is good, of all that is righteous. They have become a threat to humanity itself. They are a cancer, an impurity and they must be removed if the patient is to survive. This is the damming prognosis of the doctor. They are beyond repair, they must be cut out like a tumor and thrown away. Then they will regain health, but not until then.
24 Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
“Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies.
25 I will turn my hand against you;[b]
I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.
26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City.”
27 Zion will be delivered with justice,
her penitent ones with righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
and those who forsake the Lord will perish.
The chapter then ends with a cryptic metaphor that everything man does or worships other than God will not last. The sacred oaks and gardens that were part of their idol worship and superstition are no more. But even more than that, this is for every human..
Everything he makes, the effort of his hands (his work), the space ships he designs, the skyscrapers he erects, the cities he builds, the computers he invents; like his own body it will all be destroyed in the heat death of the universe and there is no man (or men) big enough and smart enough to stop that… Time will burn everything away eventually.
29 “You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks
in which you have delighted;
you will be disgraced because of the gardens
that you have chosen.
30 You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
like a garden without water.
31 The mighty man will become tinder
and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
with no one to quench the fire.”