In a lot of senses, the passage that we just heard read is a microcosm of the whole book of Isaiah. It starts out by proclaiming a judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem but it ends with a promise from the LORD to redeem his faithful people, cleanse them from sin and establish Zion as the mountain where all the nations will bow before the Almighty.
Isaiah is a meaty book. There’s lots to it, and we can’t hope to cover it all but what we will do over the next ten weeks is look at some of the broad themes and some of the key passages in working out what God’s warning is to Israel, what his warning is to us, and catch a glimpse – well more than a glimpse, really – of God’s plan of salvation for a wayward people.
Firstly we need to set our feet firmly in some history.
In around about 1000BC, King David came to the throne of Israel and ruled for about 40 years. His son Solomon succeeded him. Solomon was a man of great wisdom, and he presided over the most prosperous and influential period in Israel’s history. He built the great Temple of the Lord in Jersualem. But he was, in the end, led astray by his foreign wives. Upon his death the kingdom split in two – Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. For the next two hundred years there was a succession of kings in both kingdoms, most of whom rejected the LORD and led the people of God toward idolatry.
According to vs 1, Isaiah received his visions during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.
Uzziah became king of Judah in around 792BC and he was a godly king. His reign was fairly prosperous and peaceful. He was succeeded by his son Jotham who also did what was right in the eyes of the LORD. But the people of Judah continued their corrupt practices despite the faithfulness of these kings. Ahaz son of Jotham then became king in 735 BC, but he did evil and worshipped foreign gods.
During this time the major power in the area was Assyria, to the north. Israel and Damascus put pressure on Ahaz to join them in a rebellion against the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III. Ahaz refused, but instead of remaining neutral as Isaiah advised him he sought an alliance with Assyria to protect Judah from Israel. He offered vast sums of money, including some of the treasures from the Temple to buy Assyrian favour. (MAP) In response, Tiglath Pileser invades Damascus and then the northern kingdom of Israel as far south as Galilee. When Tiglath dies he is succeeded as king of Assyria by his son Shalmaneser V. Israel decides to ally itself with Egypt, but this backfires when Shalmaneser invades Samaria and exiles the northern kingdom. This occurs in 722BC. Israel is scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire and from then on there is only Judah.
In around 715BC Hezekiah becomes king of Judah. Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah does what is right in the eyes of the LORD. He still pays tribute to Assyria, but he doesn’t enter into the worship of foreign gods. Eventually, the new king of Assyria, Sennacherib, wants to further his expansion and invades Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem. That event is the subject of Isaiah 36-39 which we’ll get to in a few weeks.
Isaiah himself is speaking to the southern kingdom of Judah, and the first chapters are mainly concerned with the reign of Ahaz, this king who sold the Temple treasures to bribe the Assyrians. He also sacrificed his own child to Molech, and we’ll see later that he treats Isaiah’s advice with disdain. So that’s the spiritual context to which Isaiah is writing.
Outwardly, Judah may have appeared a prosperous and religious nation. They were under the protection of the great power, Assyria. They made the sacrifices, they observed the holy days and the festivals. But they were rotten in their hearts. They were morally corrupt.
Let’s have a look at some of the descriptions of them in Isaiah 1:
ISA 1:2 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
ISA 1:3 The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."
ISA 1:4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people loaded with guilt,
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.
These were the specially chosen people of God. The children of God whom God raised and protected and taught. But they have rebelled. They are worse than animals – at least an animal knows who its master is. But Israel have forsaken the LORD. Even though foreigners occupy their land, even though they are effectively enslaved, beaten and afflicted, their cities burned and desolate – they persist in rebellion.
Prophecy in Isaiah is not always recorded in chronological order, and the references to desolation and beatings in vss. 5-7 may refer to the condition of Judah after the exile of Israel and after the siege of Jerusalem. But whatever the case, Judah knows suffering and yet still ignores God.
When I was doing some reading in preparation for this sermon, I came across a number of talks on this passage written by preachers from America. And I had to cringe at the way American preachers constantly compared America to Israel as if the United States is now God’s chosen holy nation. God has blessed American like he once blessed Israel one article proclaimed. But apart from this dodgy comparison, their ultimate points were all the same, and it can also be applied to Australia. Because Australia is a nation fundamentally founded upon Christian principles and faith in Christ, hence why our constitution is centred upon God’s sovereignty and prayer is an integral part of our parliaments. But where are we now? We are in rebellion, aren’t we? We have turned our backs upon God and instead pursued pagan idols, sexual immorality and made drunkenness a national past-time.
It’s not just Australia as a whole, though. As I said, to compare Australia or America to Israel in Isaiah’s time would be to misunderstand the new way that we are to relate to God through Jesus. But what’s perhaps not quite as inaccurate is to compare the faithlessness of Israel to the faithlessness of the church. And not just the big institutional church – I could rattle off example after example of corruption and false teaching - but the little, local meetings of God’s people at a house in Peakhurst, or school in Mortdale, or church building in Lugarno. Because we are the chosen people of God. We are now Israel, the children of the LORD and wow betide us if we forsake him.
For what is the nature of their rebellion in Isaiah 1? And are we too at risk? Look with me at vs 11
ISA 1:11 "The multitude of your sacrifices--
what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
ISA 1:12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
ISA 1:13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations--
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
ISA 1:14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
No doubt the people of Judah thought they were doing the right thing as they followed the traditions of sacrifices, festivals, pilgrimages. But what does God think of them? He’s had enough! When they come they are trampling on his temple courts. The offerings are meaningless, the incense is detestable, the meetings are evil. Not only are the people wasting their time performing these rituals, they are in fact inflaming the wrath of the LORD by continuing to come before him! And why is this? - continue reading from vs. 15:
ISA 1:15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
ISA 1:16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
ISA 1:17 learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
God says he will refuse to listen to their prayers. When they lift up their hands to him, their hands are covered in blood, and not the blood of the sacrifice but the blood of the injustice and the oppression and evil that they are perpetrating. Because, friends, we need to be pure to approach God – otherwise our approaches are defiled and will be rejected.
Are our prayers, our rituals, an offense to God? Do we think all we need to do is come to church, do our religious duty, and then go on living our lives in idolatry and evil? The fact is that many churches are filled with people who are unknowingly making offerings that are inciting God’s wrath. People go to church and sing the songs and pay their tithe, but are they pleasing God? Roman Catholics attend mass, go to confession the requisite number of times and genuflect before the alter, but are their actions meaningless?
The people of Judah and many church-goers of today look as if they are doing right by God. But God is not impressed. Jesus quoted Isaiah in Mark 7:
MK 7:5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with `unclean’ hands?"
MK 7:6 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
" `These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
MK 7:7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ Is 29:13
MK 7:8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
Jesus isn’t impressed by false religiosity, the sort of false religiosity demonstrated by the Pharisees of his time, and by the people of Judah during the time of Isaiah and, dare I say it, by my church-goers in 2006 AD.
What does God want? He wants you to do right, not just look right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the fatherless. Do we do that? When we see injustice, do we make a noise? When we see refugees being oppressed are we silent? Do we hide behind excuses of due process or national security, in the end thinking more about ourselves than those who are hurting? When we see workers being exploited by their employers, do we hide behind our philosophising, our protestant work ethic, our blind commitment to free-market capitalism?
Henry Thoreau was a nineteenth century writer and anti-slavery activist in America. He wrote a famous essay on civil disobedience which partly inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. Thoreau once went to jail rather than pay his poll tax to a state that supported slavery. His good friend Ralph Emerson hurried to visit him in jail and, peering through the bars, exclaimed: “Why, Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “No, Ralph, the question is, what are you doing out there?”
Do we seek justice, or are we too ensconced in our own comfortable middle class world to care too much. As Isaiah told Judah – stop doing wrong, learn to do what is right. Seek justice.
A command to do the right thing is not the end of the story – or even the end of this prophecy, however. As I said at the beginning, chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the whole book and in it we can see the way God not only warns Judah but also gives his people a message of hope, a hope ultimately more powerful than the judgment he will bring down upon them.
The beginning of chapter 2 tells us that whatever is occurring to the nations of Israel and Judah now, there will come a great and glorious day of the LORD when he will restore his holy hill, Mount Zion, Jerusalem to be a place where nations will come together in peace, where the ways of the LORD are taught and from which will come the word of God. That is the picture we look forward to in the beginning of chapter 2
But the hope is not simply a political unification. The hope is not about getting rid of the Assyrians and reestablishing the dominion of Judah. It is about dealing with rebellion. As we were told in vs. 15, the men of Judah have blood on their hands, so much blood and injustice and sin that their prayers and offerings are not heard and not accepted. But God has a message of reconciliation:
ISA 1:18 "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 as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
ISA 1:19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
ISA 1:20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
You can feel the change in tone of God’s message. It’s an invitation to work this out, coupled with an offer of amnesty. Our sins are like scarlet, as red as crimson. Of dyes for clothing in old testament times, scarlet was almost impossible to remove. It stained for good, there was no getting rid of it. So there is this crimson blood guilt staining the hands, the hearts, the souls of Judah, this irremovable stain – God says ‘I will take it away’ – they shall be as white as snow. White, pure, clean, guilt-free. To accept this forgiveness you just need to be willing and obedient. And along with this amnesty, a stark reminder of the choice facing Judah, and facing us – if you resist and rebel you will be devoured by the sword.
We’re not told exactly how this amnesty will work in chapter 1. We don’t know how God is offering us this washing and this purification. But we do get a glimpse of Jesus and when we read the rest of Isaiah and the New Testament it unfolds into a magnificent picture of the gracious heart of God and his amazing plan to cleanse and renew his people. What is Judah experiencing now? In vss 5-7: they are beaten, injured and are covered in welts. And those are the exact same words in Hebrew that we see in Isaiah 53:4-5 when we’re told that God’s suffering servant who we know as Jesus will be smitten and suffer infirmities and wounds for our sake. The suffering of God’s people is transferred to him. The punishment for the rebellion is transferred to him.
And therein we find a delicious irony. For though we have blood on our hands and are stained scarlet, how is it we are washed white and clean? – it is by the blood of Jesus shed for us. Our red stain is washed clean by his red blood. That great crimson river flowing from the Son of God, flowing for the forgiveness of sins.
As you know I love poetry and I’ve quoted this poet before, but let me end with a poem by John Donne which, in it’s middle English way, I think really captures the stain of our sin and cleansing of Christ.
Oh my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned
By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion;
Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turne to whence hee is fled,
Or like a thiefe, which till deaths doome be read,
Wisheth himselfe delivered from prison;
But damn’d and hal’d to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;
But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?
Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne;
Or wash thee in Christs blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red soules to white.
- John Donne
Stained with Blood
Isaiah in miniature
Historical background – Israel, Judah and Assyria (1:1)
Children in rebellion (1:2-4)
The nature of rebellion (1:11-17)
Hands covered in blood
Mount Zion (2:1-4)
The amnesty – blood washed by blood (1:18-20)