The Pride of Judah
God's Case Against Israel (Chapter 1)
The Condition of Israel (1:2-9)
The first five chapters of Isaiah serve as a summary of the entire book. These chapters stand alone in what one scholar calls a “mini-book.” This book captures all the major themes of Isaiah (Baylis 288) .
This section does not explicitly reveal the time in which is written. However verses 1:7-8 indicates it was a time when Judah was surrounded by foreign armies, standing alone amidst the destruction around her. Most likely, this section reflects the time when the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria and had been led into exile.
In this context, God is trying to reason with the remaining southern kingdom, presenting His case against them and asking why they persist in their sins when they have seen the destruction around them.
God Presents the Case Against Israel (1:2-3)
The book of Isaiah opens with the Lord presenting his case to the heavens and the earth (1:2a). As God lays out Israel's sins, all creation will serve as a witness against his people.
The accusation from God is that his children have rebelled against him (1:2b). This is not some cold, impersonal judgment of a distant God against some foreign nation. This is a personal offense. These are the His children whom He has reared. These are His people whom He has nurtured.
God condemns His people for their stupidity. Even the ox and donkey know its master and from where their next meal comes (1:3a). The Israelites long considered the ox and the donkey to be among the most stupid of animals (Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1 - 39) . However, God's people do not know their master and they do not understand from where their provision comes (1:3b).
God is showing that the condition of His people is not the result of some arbitrary judgment on His part. This is personal, and their current condition is the natural result of their ignorance of the Lord's special relationship and care for His people.
Isaiah Describes the Condition of Israel (1:4-9)
In verse 4, the voice changes from God's accusation in verses 2-3, to Isaiah's description of Israel's current condition. A tone of lament is set immediately as if Isaiah begins with a heavy sigh: “Ah!” Connecting with the metaphor of the ox and donkey in verse 3, Isaiah describes the sin of the people as a burden weighing them down.
Their sin is not just some random foolish acts, but is a personal act of betrayal against the Lord , the Holy One of Israel. The first name for God ( Lord ) is the personal name of God given to show the close relationship between God and His people. The second name reminds them that their God is the one and only god, the transcendent creator. Both of these names make their betrayal all the more heinous.
In verses 5-6 Isaiah describes the results of this betrayal with a metaphor of a sick body. The heart is faint and there are bruises and sores all over the body. The nation is compared to a wounded body. This anticipates the bruising and wounding of our savior that will be described in Isaiah 53 as he takes on our iniquities.
In verses 7-8, the description becomes more literal as he shows the desolation of the land as Judah stands alone amidst the destruction of the invading armies. The chosen people of God would have been completely wiped out just as Sodom and Gomorrah were in Genesis 19, except that the LORD of hosts allowed this remnant, Judah, to remain. The phrase “of hosts” is a military term, and could also be translated, “ LORD of the heavenly armies.” It emphasizes that the destruction and the leaving of the remnant was not the doing of human armies, but was directed by the heavenly general, the Lord .
The Contrast of Religion and Repentance (1:10-20)
To compare Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah would have been a highly inflammatory comment to Isaiah's readers, especially as he repeats the accusation in verse 10. It is as if Isaiah is intentionally provoking the people so they will listen to the voice of God in the coming verses.
The people cannot see their own sin because they are very religious people. They must be wondering, "How can we be compared to Sodom when we are so devout in our religious practices?" God will show them by demonstrating the difference between religion and repentance.
God Rejects Hypocritical Religion (1:10-15)
The people of Judah were very religious. They practiced all the temple rituals and rites. They brought their sacrifices to God. They celebrated religious festivals. They prayed to God. They kept the Sabbath.
However, these practices were merely external acts without any accompanying change of heart. The sacrificial system was designed by God in the Torah to represent the forgiveness of sin offered by God. They serve as a symbol of their inward repentance. However, Judah had turned the symbolic act of sacrifice into something sacramental. That is, they came to believe that it was the physical act of sacrifice that resulted in the forgiveness, not the heart of repentance that the sacrifice symbolized.
In a modern day context, this would be like being baptized without truly giving your heart to Jesus. The physical act of baptism does not mystically cleanse us of sin. It is a symbol of the cleansing that comes through internal faith we place in Christ.
This is the primary difference between religion and repentance. Religion seeks to win God's favor through some external physical act: be it animal sacrifices and religious festivals or be it going to church, giving money to charity, baptism, and communion. Religion seeks to manipulate God into doing what we want through some external show. Religion is trying to get God to act according to our will. Repentance is God getting us to act according to His will.
Attending a worship service when our hearts are not prepared to worship truly only mocks God. Giving money to the church without a heart of thanksgiving is merely an attempt to bribe God. Participating in the Lord's Supper without being in communion with God and your brothers and sisters in Christ invites judgment from God (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
This does not mean that we should forsake the external manifestations of our faith. God is not asking the people of Judah to cease making sacrifices and praying. Instead, he is asking them to cease trying to appease God through empty actions and instead to repent in their hearts. Likewise, there is great value in baptism, communion, church attendance, and giving when it is an expression of our heart. But if we are doing these things to win God's favor we dishonor Him and fool ourselves into thinking we are right with God when we are not.
God Pleads for True Repentance (1:16-20)
The practice of religion without repentance is an act of arrogance. It is an attempt to earn salvation through our works. However, salvation is not by works, so that we might boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation comes through humble repentance. It comes through admitting our sinful state before God.
Furthermore, when we recognize our own humble state before God, then we will also seek justice for others who are humble. We will seek to care for the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17). When we admit that we are needy people, then we will actively seek to meet the needs of others. This is, according to James 1:27, “true religion.”
When we stop trying to manipulate God and humbly recognize our sinful state before Him, then we find forgiveness. God pleads with us to think about this simple truth.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord .
Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall become like wool.
(Isaiah 1:18 ESV)
The Coming Judgment (1:21-31)
After laying out their sins, Isaiah then foretells the coming judgment of God. This is not a vindictive judgment, but a means by which God will transform his people into His faithful followers again.
The Unfaithful City to be made Failthful (1:21-26)
Isaiah begins by showing the depths to which Judah has fallen. Jerusalem was the faithful city, but now she is a prostitute. She used to be righteous, but now she is a murderer (1:21). She has become polluted, as silver becomes polluted with dross and wine becomes diluted with water (1:22). The rulers are motivated by greed, taking bribes and not protecting the weak and the helpless (1:23).
As God brings judgment, he seeks to right these wrongs. Whereas they have become like polluted silver, God will now smelt away the dross and remove the impurities among them (1:25). Whereas the rulers are unjust, God will restore the judges and counselors (1:26a). As a result, the city likened to an unfaithful whore will become faithful again, and the city characterized by murder will be called the city of righteousness (1:26b).
Justice and Judgment will come to Zion (1:27-31)
How one perceives this refining of Jerusalem depends on whether you have a humble heart of repentance or an arrogant heart of rebellion. To the penitent, this refining will bring justice and redemption (1:27). However, to the rebellious, they shall be consumed (1:28).
God will take “the oaks that you desired” (1:29) and will turn it into kindling (1:31). Idol worship often took place amongst the oak trees (Ezekiel 6:13, Hosea 4:13).
Idolatry is the ultimate unfaithfulness to God. It is for this reason that Jerusalem is compared to a prostitute (1:21). This impurity in the silver, then, is the idolatrous practices of the people. Only when this is removed will justice and redemption come to the people.
The Futility of Faith in Humanity (Chapters 2-4)
Isaiah saw his share of poor leadership amongst the nations of Israel and Judah in the eighth century BC. The northern kingdom's last decades were characterized by a series of military coups and kings who were poor diplomats. In the southern kingdom, Ahaz made a series of foreign policy blunders that nearly bankrupted the country, both economically and spiritually.
In the midst of this political and economic chaos, Isaiah reminds the people that putting their trust in political leadership or economic well being is futile.
While human leadership and human provisions cannot be trusted, God will usher in a kingdom with perfect leadership and perfect provision. The descriptions of this coming kingdom in 2:1-5 and 4:2-6 serve as bookends to this section of the book as a way to contrast the futility of human political and economic systems with God's coming kingdom.
Futility of Human Glory (2:1-22)
The Coming Rule of God Over the Nations (2:1-5)
Isaiah 2:1 clearly marks a transition from chapter 1, declaring this to be a new Word that Isaiah saw regarding Judah and Jerusalem.
The events described will come “in the latter days,” which is a common phrase in biblical prophecy. It is used both of the first and second advent of Christ. In this case, it appears Isaiah is describing events in the second advent of Christ where He will establish his earthly kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem.
In this new kingdom, Jerusalem will be the center of political and economic power. Christ will legislate new laws from here (2:3) and render judgment between the nations (2:4a). His authority shall usher in an era of peace and prosperity as war is abolished and peace reigns (2:4b).
In light of this hope, Isaiah calls on Israel to “walk in the light of the Lord ” (2:5).
The Futility of Trusting in Foreign Nations (2:6-22)
In the midst of the chaos in Israel and Judah at this time, it was probably very tempting to look at the power and success of the nations around them and envy the stability and peace there. Judah was a backwards third world nation in those days, and it would have been easy for God's people to desire the glory of Assyria.
Isaiah describes this in verses 2:6-8. The people looked longingly at Assyria's riches and their military might (2:7). Therefore, they were tempted to trust in Assyria's gods as well (2:8).
Isaiah will make the case that it is futile to trust in the foreign gods and the wealth and power of foreign nations. Why should Judah be envious then if the nations will someday bow down to Israel (2:1-5), if God will bring down the lofty (2:11-18) and if they themselves will give up on their own gods in favor of the Lord ?
First, verses 2:1-5 already have shown that God will bring a kingdom with greater peace and prosperity than they can ever achieve by trusting in foreign leadership.
Secondly, the terror and majesty of the Lord is greater than Assyria's military might and glory (2:10). In that latter day God will bring down the lofty pride of men and He alone will be the exalted one (2:11, 19).
Isaiah goes into great detail in the following verses, as he describes how all the admirable things of men will be brought low. The cedars of Lebanon, the oaks of Basham (2:13), the mountains (2:14), the towers and fortified walls (2:15), and their ships (2:16) will all be nothing compared to the splendor of the Lord's majesty.
Thirdly, in the end, these high and mighty people will be reduced to hiding in caves as they face the terror of the one true God (2:10, 19, 21). In that day, they will give up on their own gods (2:20).
Finally, Isaiah summarizes his argument by imploring them:
Stop regarding man
In whose nostrils is breath,
For of what account is he?
(Isaiah 2:2 ESV)
God is the one who breathed life into the nostrils of man. Why then should you admire or trust in man rather than God?
Futility of Human Leadership (3:1-4:6)
As the northern kingdom was running through kings rapidly and the southern kingdom dealt with the incompetence of King Ahaz, Isaiah warns the people not to put their hope in human political solutions and human leaders. To do so invites disappointment when people fail to live up to their political responsibilities. Instead, we should put our hope in the coming Messiah who will be the perfect king in a perfect coming kingdom.
The Futility of Trusting in Human Leaders (3:1-15)
This 15-verse section begins and ends with the name of God, “the Lord God of hosts.” Literally, this name means Master or Sovereign Yahweh of the heavenly armies. God is the true sovereign and is and should always be recognized as the true king of Israel. The human kings on the throne are merely vassals of the true heavenly king.
However, now because of the incompetent leadership of Judah's government, Sovereign Lord of hosts will be taking away his support (3:1) and his presence (3:8) from “Jerusalem and Judah.” God will depose the current leadership, including leaders in all arenas and all ranks. Military leaders, civil leaders, and religious leaders will all be deposed (3:2), as will men of rank down to “the captain of fifty” (3:3).
As these leaders are deposed, the people will be desperate to find anyone to lead. Boys will become the princes (3:4) and anyone with even the slightest wealth will be asked to rule (3:6-7). The result is anarchy and oppression (3:5).
What Isaiah is describing here is the strategy employed by the conquering empires of the day. In order to exercise dominance over a conquered territory both Assyria and Babylon would take into exile the governing nobility of the vanquished nation. An example of this is found in Daniel 1, when Nebuchadnezzar conquers Judah in 601 BC and he hauls away to Babylon the brightest young men of Judah (including Daniel), leaving Judah with incompetent leadership.
The removal of the presence of God from Jerusalem and Judah (3:8) is not merely a metaphorical removal. In Exodus 40 and in 1 Kings 8, the glory of God came and filled the tabernacle and the temple respectively. God's special presence was found to be in the temple located in Jerusalem. The failure of Judah's leadership is to mock the glory of God dwelling with them in Jerusalem. For this reason, he will remove his support from the city and the kingdom.
Now, with leadership gone and without the support of their God, Judah will decay into anarchy. People will no longer even hide their sins (3:9). They will now have to face the natural consequences of their evil (3:10).
With the normal male leadership deposed, those posts will now fall to infants and women (3:12). Isaiah is not making a case against female leadership here. In the culture of that day, women were rarely called upon to lead. Instead, he is just describing the reality of the leadership vacuum taking place.
In the midst of this anarchy, the Lord himself will come into this leadership vacuum and he will judge the elder and princes for crushing His people and “grinding the face of the poor” (3:13-15).
The Futility of Trusting in Human Possessions (3:16-4:1)
The incompetence of King Ahaz was not just a foreign policy crisis, but it led to economic ruin for the nation as well. To keep Assyria at bay, Judah had to pay an exorbitant tribute. To balance the palace treasury Ahaz burdened the people with taxes that decimated the economy.
However, there were some haughty “daughters of Zion” who had placed their trust in materialism. These women, with outstretched necks, wanton eyes, would walk around Jerusalem daintily with “tinkling feet” (3:16). They had put their hope in shopping for clothes, jewelry, and perfume.
In the coming judgment, however, their possessions will be unable to save them. God will take away their new hairdo and give them bald scabbed heads. God will take away their clothes and reveal their secret parts.
Instead, their beautiful clothes and jewelry will be replaced with garments of captivity.
- Instead of perfume, there will be rottenness
- Instead of a belt, a rope
- Instead of rich robes, sackcloth
- Instead of beauty, branding
As the men are killed off in war or led off into captivity, the ratio of men to women will become out of balance. “Seven women shall take hold of one man,” seeking to find a husband to protect them.
The Coming Leadership of the Messiah (4:2-6)
In the midst of this political and economic chaos, there will arise a hope. “In that day,” speaks of the same “latter days” described in 2:2ff. As a bookend to this section, Isaiah describes again the coming kingdom of God.
This kingdom will come with the rise of “the branch of the Lord .” This is most likely a reference to the coming Messiah (Jeremiah 23:5). The incompetent human leadership described in 3:1-15 will be replaced with the beautiful and glorious leadership of the Messiah.
This kingdom will also be characterized by “the fruit of the land,” in contrast to the economic ruin described in 3:16-4:1.
However, the coming kingdom brings not just political and economic freedom. The Messiah will also bring spiritual freedom. The remnant that survives in Jerusalem will be declared holy (4:3), their sins and bloodstains having been washed away (4:4).
Whereas God withdrew his presence in 3: 8, in this day, the Lord will dwell again on Mount Zion, with his glory showing like a cloud in the day and fire at night. This is a clear reference to the manifestation of God's glory revealed in the Exodus (Exodus 13:21-22). Furthermore, in contrast to God's withdrawal of support in 3:1, now God will be a shelter for His people.
Just like Judah, today, we may be tempted to put our trust in charismatic leaders, political parties, or economic well being. Isaiah's warning here is that human leadership and human prosperity is bound to disappoint and will fail. Politics is incapable of creating lasting peace and justice. Economics is incapable of creating lasting prosperity. The only political party or economic policy to which we should wholly devote ourselves is the coming King, the Messiah, who will reign with justice and bring in true peace and true prosperity.
Isaiah's warning to Judah should resonate with us as well. Putting your trust in human leadership is futile. Put your trust instead in the true King.
The Judgment of Israel's Sins (Chapter 5)
Love Song of the Vineyard (5:1-7)
Chapter 5 begins with what is titled “the love song of His vineyard.” According to many commentators, this is one of the most beautiful and lyrical poems in all of Hebrew literature. Unfortunately, when poetry is translated, it loses much of its beauty. Poetic devises such as alliteration and meter, cannot transcend the translation from the original Hebrew into English. Instead, we are left trusting in Hebrew scholars that this is a beautiful love song that very likely Isaiah put to music in order to communicate in a memorable way the love that God has for his people Israel.
In this song, the Lord has planted a vineyard, Israel. He put the vineyard in a very fertile hill, ideally situated to produce grapes. He cleared the land, planted the vines, and nurtured the vineyard. He built a watchtower to protect it and a wine vat to enjoy the fruit. However, instead of a beautiful vineyard, all it yielded was wild grapes.
Therefore, God asks the people of Judah what he should do (5:3). What do you do when your beautifully cultivated vineyard does not produce? What more could he have done (5:4)?
All that is left to be done is to abandon the vineyard. He removes the hedge and the wall around the vineyard (5:4). He stops watering the vineyard and lets the land go fallow (5:6).
Then, in case his listener did not get the metaphor, Isaiah tells them bluntly. Israel and Judah are the vineyard (5:7). Instead of producing justice, they produced bloodshed. Instead of producing righteousness, they produced an outcry.
Here is an example where the power of the poetry is lost to the English reader. In the Hebrew, the words for justice and bloodshed sound alike, and the words for righteousness and outcry sound alike. This poetic devise just further drives home the God's disappointment over his vineyard.
The Five Woes (5:8-23)
Isaiah moves from a beautiful love poem to another literary device, the lament. The lament expresses a series of six “woes,” as he describes in great detail what the nation will look like as he pulls his protection away from his beloved vineyard.
The first woe is for the real estate developer (5:8-10). Those who build houses and cultivate agricultural land will find that their real estate no longer generates any income. Their new housing tracts will sit empty. Their new fields will not produce crops.
The second woe is for the revelers (5:11-17). They get up early to start drinking and the drunken party continues long into the night (5:11). They play music and dance in their parties, but they never consider the God who produces the wine and the music they so enjoy (5:12). Because they do not know who provides for them, they will be led off into exile, and their partying will not satisfy them (5:13).
As the real estate developer and the reveler are brought down, the glory of Jerusalem and her admirers will also go down (5:14). These arrogant men will be humbled (5:15). But the Lord will be exalted (5:16), and he will provide for the poor and the unprotected (5:17). In contrast to the unsatisfied appetite of the reveler, the lambs will have ample food in the pasture. In contrast to the real estate developer and farmer, the nomads will find riches amongst their ruins.
The third woe is for false teachers (5:18-19), who proclaim falsely that the judgment of God will not come. When Isaiah declares the coming judgment of the Holy One of Israel, they mock him saying,”let's see it!”
The fourth woe is for those who have perverted good and evil (5:20). They confuse light with darkness and bitter with sweet. They take what is immoral and turn it into a virtue.
The fifth woe is for those who are wise in their own eyes (5:21). This would be descriptive of both the false teachers and those who twist the truth in the previous two woes. Skepticism about God and confusion about morality is often hidden under the guise of scholarship and academics. As the intelligence doubt God's Word and twist morality, they pat each other on the back in a self-congratulatory way for their insight and wisdom.
The sixth woe is for the unjust leader who are heroes at drinking wine, showing courage in their alcohol intake, but who lack the courage to proclaim justice. They let the guilty go free for a bribe and they wrongly punish the innocent.
The Coming Destruction (5:24-30)
Because of these injustices, God will remove his protection from the vineyard. Because they have despised God's Word, now his judgment will come like a wildfire through the land.
God will raise a signal fire so as to let the foreign nations know that Israel is ripe for plunder (5:26). The invading armies will be girded up with their armies ready (5:27-28). They will come like a roaring lion attacking its prey (5:29-30).
Judah has failed to see the coming judgment of God. They are two proud and arrogant to see that they have rejected their God. They have deceived themselves into thinking that they are all right. They are religious. They have leaders who have their own schemes to protect the nation. They have material goods and real estate investments. They are living the good life, enjoying their wine and their music. They have convinced themselves what they are doing is moral and that the Word of God is not true.
Where have you put your faith? In political solutions? In economic solutions? In your religious practices? In the wisdom or skepticism of men?
Isaiah warns the people of his day and to us that we have put our trust in all the wrong places. Religion, politics, and money will all fail us. The only thing that can truly rely upon is the Holy One of Israel. All he requires is that we admit our foolishness and our sin. If we humble ourselves, he will forgive us and we will find peace and prosperity in His kingdom. However, if we do not, they will face destruction.