October 25 – Isaiah 1:1-20
Here in chapter 1 Isaiah is introducing his entire book; 1:1-2:5 is basically a summary of his message of judgement and hope. Isaiah informs us that his prophetic ministry happened during the reigns of four different kings in Judah, which you can read more about in 2 Chronicles 26-32 (summary: Uzziah started off alright before a rough end, Jotham was okay, Ahaz was the absolute worst, and Hezekiah was amazingly faithful). As a reminder, at Isaiah’s point in history the nation of Israel had split into two nations, Israel up north and Judah to the south (where Jerusalem is). Things were up and down through this whole period, but here in Isaiah 1 Isaiah has a strong word of condemnation against Judah. That’s because even when these kings were reigning well there was still rampant idolatry in Judah, which had only been getting worse since Solomon first allowed foreign gods to be worshipped in Israel (1 Kgs 11). Of all four of those kings Isaiah lived under, only Hezekiah actively tried to help Judah worship the Lord. So when Isaiah starts off this book with God’s grievances he’s speaking to Judah’s rebellion primarily in terms of their idolatry.
But that’s not all God is addressing here. As Judah abandoned the Lord for idols they also committed themselves to sinful worship, things like visiting cult prostitutes (2 Kgs 23:7) and child sacrifice (2 Chr. 28:3), and sinful practices, like dealing corruptly (Isa. 1:4) and ignoring orphans and widows (1:17). First and foremost God was angry over their idolatry, since Judah had forsaken the God of their salvation for false gods, rejecting the truth that Yahweh alone is God and disobeying the first two of the Ten Commandments. But God draws a direct connection between Judah’s idolatry and their oppression of the vulnerable. Verse 3, “Israel has forgotten their God” is directly followed by verse 4, “a people laden with iniquity…who deal corruptly!” This same connection is true for us—when our hearts are far from God in our worship, they will be far from God in everything else. And as we’ve seen throughout this series, God’s heart is uniquely directed towards the oppressed and vulnerable in the world, meaning our idolatry will only put us in direct opposition with what God wants done in us and in the world.
Another warning straight out of Isaiah 1 is this, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly,” meaning “I cannot endure [the combination of] iniquity and solemn assembly.” This is that section I mentioned above in which Judah’s supposed worship only serves to condemn them, since with their mouths they praise God but with their hearts and hands they turn from him. This is true for any area of our lives: pretending to worship and serve God accomplishes the exact opposite of actually worshipping him. But specifically when it comes to justice, if all we do is post certain things on social media, hold certain meetings, or read certain books without actually seeking justice, correcting oppression, and fighting for the oppressed, then our well-wishing is worthless, and our hypocrisy is evident. Going back to idolatry, if we find ourselves pretending to seek justice without actually doing it (or not even pretending), it’s almost certainly because we’re worshipping some false god. And in our case that god likely isn’t the Baal or Asherah of Isaiah’s day. Whether we’re serving our comfort, or security, or busy striving for wealth, success, or fame, or whatever it might be, the things that hamstring us from worshipping the Lord also cripple us from doing the Lord’s work.
So what can we do about this? The passage proposes two things, the first of which is done for us. Initially we need a solution to the problem of our sin and idolatry, and the passage describes the opportunity to be cleansed of our sin. This alludes to the ultimate solution for sin: Jesus Christ on the cross. Ultimately our injustice towards our neighbor is a sin against God himself (Psa. 51:4), the one before whom we will be held accountable for all sins, so first and foremost we have to be cleansed and made right before God, something we can’t do for ourselves (Eph. 2:1-10). Only then can we do the second thing, which according to Isaiah 1:16-17 is to repent of our idolatry and injustice and turn to obey the Lord (“cease to do evil, learn to do good”). This is the proper orientation—when we are reconciled to God and worshipping him with our whole beings we can then actively work in his world to pursue his priorities. And note all the active verbs in verses 16-17: cease, learn, seek, correct, bring, plead. God’s kingdom has no players on the bench; there are no passive roles for you to play here. This should lead us to pray earnestly that God would use us, lead us, and empower us through his Spirit to obey him in whatever he wishes.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Isaiah 1:1-20 for us?
• When this was written, what was God upset at Israel about?
• Why do you think these things are so important and upsetting to God?
• Look at verse 13, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” What is God saying here?
• Look at verses 16-18. In response to Israel’s rebellion, what does God propose should happen?
• What do you find convicting about this passage?
• What does it mean for us to live in light of this passage?