Isaiah was a prophet to four kings in Judah. His book is, in our modern version, 66 chapters long, the same as the number of the books in our Bible. Some have called it a microcosm of the whole Bible. Indeed, we can find many of the elements throughout the Bible in this one book, so studying it gives a chance to hit many of the highlights God wants us to discover throughout His Word.
Heavens and earth are called to witness the declaration. Creation has been an innocent witness to and victim of man’s rebellion from the time of the fall. Romans 8:18-25 details the correct attitude of believers, that of understanding that suffering is part of true service to God, because sin is not good and pleasant and enjoyable, but produces misery and anguish. Creation has longed for purging from the effects of sin ever since it entered the natural world.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Romans 8:18-25, NASB)
This should have been the attitude of the Children of Israel in Isaiah’s time, but the truth was that they, instead of acting like sons raised up to love and serve their father, God, they revolted. They weren’t just indifferent or apathetic, they actively rebelled.
Trained domestic animals know better than these people about who to serve and obey. How can these people be ignorant? Sinful as a whole nation, burdened by all of that wickedness, generational guilt and corruption. Abandoning, despising, and turning away from God.
This has to be true because if the traditions were maintained, Jewish children were educated in the Law from an early age. They knew better, from the three methods God has always used:
1. the witness of creation,
2. the witness of His Word, and the message of the prophets. By this time they had numerous books of the Bible
3. plus teachers and prophets like Isaiah.
“There is no room for another mark.” Tars Tarkas said in the John Carter movie, speaking to his daughter Sola. Sola was punished for disobedience against her green Martian tribe by being branded each time she was caught. She had been punished so many times there was no space left on her body for the signs of her rebellion.
Whether this punishment in this movie was just or not isn’t the point. It illustrates the condition of the people of God. He had disciplined them for their true and unquestionable rebellion until there was no space that did not bear “bruises, welts, and raw wounds.” (Isaiah 1:6, NASB)
Put aside your socially-conditioned shock over corporal punishment, please. Even in our permissive society we reach a point where we have laws to try to correct wrongdoing. These were God’s attempts to lawfully correct His people’s wrongdoings. He just didn’t have any place left to administer correction.
From head to toe these people bore the marks of stubbornness and rebellion. The fact that they were untreated (raw) and “not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil” means that they were like sheep who wouldn’t even let a shepherd take care of the injuries sustained as part of the sheep’s natural tendency to wander and get itself injured or corrected with the rod. They’ve run from the tender aftermath where the father who had to discipline would love to take the rebel into His arms and administer comfort and display love.
The man-curated portion of creation also bears witness to rebellion. His structures created from God-supplied building materials are burned. His crops are stolen by invaders, as happened often throughout the book of Judges. These marauders devoured this food right in front of the Israelites. Desolation by strangers. A terrible fate.
This makes it clear that it wasn’t God who wanted to rob them of safety and sustenance. Enemies took the opportunity to swarm in because the people had trampled on God’s walls of protection. They smashed through those loving arms reaching out to defend them and embraced instead false gods and practices. In doing so they also invited in pain, misery, and loss.
All that was left was a little shack in an empty field, the place where someone was supposed to look after the crops as they grew. But there was nothing left to tend or protect. A besieged city will eventually run out of supplies and come to the end of its food and water. Israel had allowed itself to be surrounded and cut off from God’s help. Only a few survivors would remain because of God’s enduring mercy. They could have been wiped out, as Sodom and Gomorrah were, but God did not desire that.
How do we know that they were probably still following the traditions of teaching their children? Because they were following others, the sacrifices, the attendance at the Temple. We know this because God said they were sacrificing, but instead of enjoying the “sweet aroma,” as He has described it elsewhere, God said “I take no pleasure” calls them “worthless” and says “incense is an abomination.” He says “I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” It’s as if you invited and important guest to dinner and served the garbage disposal scraps along with the real food. What were the Israelites thinking?
Just as the people were burdened with their sins in verse 4, God was burdened by their hypocritical sacrifices and growing weary of having patience, seeking true repentance in verse 14. That’s what sacrifices were supposed to be for, to show evidence of being sorry, turning away, and seeking forgiveness.
That’s not what these sacrifices were, though. When the Israelites prayed, they couldn’t even see that they were raising up bloody hands, stained by the innocent blood God says elsewhere that people were guilty of shedding. From evil kings all the way down to mothers who killed their own children, God recounts over and over again the horrors His own people were capable of committing. God will not, cannot, listen to the prayers of polluted people when they never give a thought to confessing and forsaking their sin but just feel like they have to carry out a ritual.
“Tradition!” shouts the cast of Fiddler on the Roof in the famous production number of the same name, but these traditions were empty of truth and meaning to those people in Isaiah’s time.
God begged and pleaded that they would see their sin, acknowledge it, and be cleansed from it. They needed to learn what the traditional education was supposed to be impressing on them, the basics of right human behavior.
These were such simple precepts. Stop doing evil. Learn how to do right. You don’t have to have superpowers to become a champion of justice. Tell bad people they are wrong. Stand up for children with no parents. Defend women left without husbands.
Did you think God was only interested in emotion, in mysticism? Then why does He invite us in verse 18 to reason together with Him? Because true belief isn’t weird. It isn’t mysterious and impossible to think through and understand.
God gives an object lesson. If you spill blood on something, it will stain. Just so, the people had stained themselves by killing the innocent. But blood can be washed out, even out of something pure white, like wool, and then it will be bright, clean, and shining pure again.
But of course He isn’t talking about literal blood or wool here. He’s talking about sin and its remedy. Sin is the destruction of innocence. People do murder innocents when they abort babies or leave newborns in a toilet or leave children in a cardboard box someplace because they didn’t want to protect them. The same goes for women who are attacked, molested, raped, or murdered because they are deemed easy prey.
In the days of Isaiah there were human sacrifices, usually children, but women were also victimized, used and discarded as temple prostitutes or subject to other monstrous mistreatment. Anytime we fail to value and protect life we are guilty of innocent blood.
Again, God appeals to simple reason in verse 19. Consent to obey, and you will have the best. Refuse and rebel, and the sword is coming to kill you. You have been warned, just as you are warned about the consequences of misbehavior when you accept a job.
If you keep abusing your position, stealing from your employer (so many ways to do that and no one can pretend they don’t know many ways to betray an employer’s trust) vandalizing his property, mistreating fellow employees, you could end up worse than fired. You could go to prison, at least. This is what the people were doing to God.
How does a person go from faithful to unfaithful? Just to unjust? Righteous to murderer? How does this happen in the heart of a man or woman today? A bride and groom do still sometimes exchange vows, including a pledge of fidelity. Believe it or not, this is still a thing in many marriage ceremonies, even nowadays.
Yet married couples betray each other by adultery, mistreat each other by hiding or misspending income, abuse each other with physical violence, and even murder a spouse, sometimes with the added horror of committing suicide afterwards. This can happen in other areas of life as well, following a pattern of initial faithfulness devolving into downward steps that end in some kind of terribly unnatural death.
Instead of maintaining valuable currency we have, like ancient Sparta, become satisfied with coinage worthless outside our own tiny circle. We can’t get anything but watered-down beverages because we don’t protect the value of things. We are led by the rebellious and form friendships with people who think stealing is just getting what you’re owed or the only way to get ahead. You can pay people to make you falsely successful. Nobody listens to the cries of the real needy, the orphans and the widows. They’re too busy chasing false success for themselves.
These people are adversaries of God. They oppose Him, and He will treat them like enemies in battle. He won’t put up with impurities like the dross in silver. Get ready for the lye soap, you dirty sinner. You will become pure by God’s washing and it won’t be comfortable or make you feel loved, since you didn’t want to be loved when you had the chance.
How do we get back to righteousness? Let God restore it. Stop rebelling. Give in to His wisdom in the choice of judges and counselors. He chose them in the time of the Judges, just to name one example. Wow! Would we have chosen Samson or Jephtha? God’s ways are not our ways, but He asks us to trust Him and to be obedient, not understand or know everything. “Trust and Obey” is far more than a song for children in Sunday school. It’s a life principle.
Only in that way can faithfulness be restored. God does it. We don’t do it. Our efforts fail and so do our sinful hearts. “Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it.” But how do we get redeemed? By sacrifices? By struggling with our own version of righteousness? Nope. Once again, God does it. Verse 27 doesn’t say Zion redeems herself. It says she “will be redeemed.” How? By repentance.
What’s repentance? Simple. It’s when I’m walking that way, the way of sin, doing that thing that is opposed to God, and suddenly I say, “No. I’m going to walk the opposite way, and do the opposite thing!” You say and think the same thing about sin that God says. “No more! I oppose it! I turn my back on it.”
After all, transgressors, that is, people who turn off God’s path, ignore His signs so they can do things ‘way worse than walking on the grass, end up in the trash compactor. Hear that awful din when the garbage man comes with his big truck and those claws grab your can and hoist it into the air, emptying it into the maw of the crusher? Hear the roar and squeal and the grinding of the compactor mashing your trash into … yeah. That’s the fate of the sinner. You don’t want to be in God’s compactor. You don’t want to know what it means when God says these people will “come to an end.” (v. 28)
Why would you be ashamed of trees? Embarrassed by gardens? (v. 29) Maybe you don’t understand the Bible because you don’t see how the cultural applications are relevant today. Ever hear of a Zen Garden? Japanese and other Buddhists create these as a place where they can meditate. It’s a form of worship. False worship.
These trees, these gardens, mentioned in Isaiah, are places to worship false gods. You should be embarrassed if you are worshiping idols. Oh, you don’t worship any false gods? People throw around terms from other religions today, like feng shui, yoga, even mindfulness, claiming they are ways to get healthy, get focused, be more successful. They don’t see the idolatry. Or they don’t want to. These are obsessions with physical things that cross over into supposed spiritual benefits.
God uses parallels to visualize the fate of idolaters. Love to worship at that sacred tree? Watch the leaves wither and fall. Sitting and meditating in that mystical garden? It dries up without water. Who puts life into a tree or gives water to a garden? Look to the Source of life, God, and stop worshiping the mere life itself.
Not only are the tree and the garden temporary, not only do they die off, they dry up and so do the people who worship them. A man might seem strong and successful as he practices techniques of eastern mysticism, but if the focus is on the mere physical, something so temporary, when it dries up it could become just something to spark a fire. It could burn up. In fact, God says the idolater will burn up, no matter how strong he appears. No one can put out a fire that God starts, and He will start one, to do away with the idol and the idolater.
Questions for Further Study, Discussion, or Thought
1. Why is Creation a good witness for God to call upon?
2. How do we know that Israel should have known better than to rebel?
3. How should children respond to their father’s discipline? Why would they not respond correctly?
4. Why did God hate their sacrifices? What is the real purpose of sacrifice?
5. List some ways married couples can be unfaithful, and how this is a picture of man’s relationship to God.
6. Explain the meaning of repentance.
7. Share some cultural examples of idolatry that people may not realize they practice. What is their justification for doing these things?
Image Credit: Isaiah Bible Card from the Providence Lithograph Company, 1904. thebiblerevival.com Wikimedia Commons