Is Isaiah really that difficult to understand? The challenge with this book is mostly to do with historical context. We are not familiar with the geography and customs of his day so we miss most of the references. Just imagine if someone 3,000 years from now picked up a book from today and had to try to understand references such as Yugoslavia, dog-days of summer, WiFi or selfie. It is not that Isaiah is complicated, the problem is we need a guide to understand his references. The bottom line is, there is no getting around having to put in some effort to learn the references. Fortunately, there are lots of scholars who have done all the homework for you. But this begs the question, why is Isaiah so much more difficult than other Old Testament books that also require historical context? The reality is, few people properly understand anything in the Old Testament because of a lack of detailed study. This lack of study is what produces creationists who think genesis 1 is talking about the formation of the universe. At least, that is my opinion.
I am going to take a look at the first chapter of Isaiah with the hope that, if you can get past the first chapter, you will see that the book is not so difficult after all. In fact, I suspect that most people who claim Isaiah is difficult to understand have never actually read more than a few random verses.
1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.
4 Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.
5 ¶ Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.
6 From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.
7 Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.
8 And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
9 Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
10 ¶ Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
Vain Outward Performances
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
12 When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
13 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Promises and Warnings
16 ¶ Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:
20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
This Behaviour Cannot Continue!
21 ¶ How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.
22 Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water:
23 Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.
24 Therefore saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies:
25 ¶ And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin:
26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.
27 Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.
Your Destruction Will Be Your Own Doing
28 ¶ And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
29 For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen.
30 For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water.
31 And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.
The chapter starts by introducing the author and when he lived. The events in the book date from between 750 and 690 BC when Israel was divided into two nations: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Isaiah served his ministry in the southern kingdom of Judah.
He begins his first discourse by saying in essence “pay attention everyone everywhere, God has given everything to guide and protect the nation of Israel but despite all He has done for them, they still rebel.”
In fact, even dumb animals know who their masters are but Israel just does not seem to get it.
He tells them how dreadful they are: sinful, laden with iniquity, evildoers, corupters; then he provides a list of transgressions that the people of Israel are committing. Always pay attention to lists in scriptures and see how they can relate to you:
- They have forsaken the Lord. To forsake means to desert or abandon.
- Have provoked the Holy One to anger. Intentionally defying Him.
- Are gone away backward. Do the opposite of what God says
To drive home the point of how concerned he is for their welfare, he provides four images to demonstrate their sinful condition. First he uses graphic imagery of comparing Israel to the human body. It is clear from reading these verses there is nothing good about them at this point. They are morally and politically sick from their head to their toes, both the outward appearance and their innermost thoughts. They are in a really bad way, and they are there willingly and knowingly.
Next he employs imagery of a devastating genocidal war. It is likely also a reference to their pending Diaspora which will in fact leave the land virtually desolate when their people are carted off to Babylon which is where Daniel lived in exile.
I love the third image of the small shack in the middle of the farmer’s field, all alone. It reminds me of a great hall just after the party has ended and all the guests have left. The laughter, music and food have all evaporated and all that is left is broken dishes, torn decorations and toppled chairs. Off at the other end of the hall is someone with a broom sweeping up the mess for a party they were not invited to attend.
The fourth image is that, save it be for a few who still believe, Israel would have been as Sodom and Gommorah. References in the bible to these two cities is a reference to obliteration. There were no survivors. Sodom and Gommorah, as you recall, was utterly destroyed by fire and brimstone after angels came to retrieve Lot and his family. Lot’s wife longed for the wicked lifestyle that they left behind and as she turned to look back, she was turned to a pillar of salt.
After listing off their sins and advising of their impending doom, he expresses God’s disappointment in the hypocrisy as His people perform all the ordinances, sacrifices and festivals of the Law of Moses but completely miss their purposes. They go to the temple on Saturday to pray, and they meet up with the prostitutes on Sunday. He is telling them that no amount of rituals, if done for the wrong reason, will save you. No more vain oblations is what God says to the wicked rulers and citizenry.
In verses 16 to 20 we have another list:
- Wash you make you clean
- Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes
- Cease to do evil
- Learn to do well
- Seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow
And then we have one of the most quoted passage from Isaiah:
Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
Scarlet is a deep purple dye, and is great imagery for blood. In short he is saying that, despite all of the dreadful things you have done, if you come unto me your sins will be forgiven. No matter what you have done, no matter how far you have stayed, all will be forgiven when you return.
Then this warning – if you are willing and obedient, you will be blessed, if you refuse and rebel, you will be cut off.
He now compares the people and their leaders to harlots, murders and thieves. He condemns them for ignoring the orphans and the widows, warning that they will get their just reward. From past references to Sodom and Gomorrah, we know that they will be utterly destroyed except for a very small remnant (v9). And of course, this came to pass with the invasion of Assyria in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and later the invasion of Babylon in the Southern kingdom of Judah.
He explains why this destruction will occur. He plans to purge the nation of their wicked leaders, to restore the righteous judges and councilors so that Zion can be redeemed.
To wrap up his sermon, he is narrowing in on the pagan practice of worshiping the terabinth tree in their gardens that were designed for idol worship. Mention of an oak tree may seem confusing. Why should we be ashamed of the oak tree, and why would desiring an oak tree be a bad thing? In Isaiah’s time, they would have understood perfectly well that he was warning that their worshiping of these false idols would be their own undoing. These gardens will turn to kindling, igniting a fire that will consume them. God will not destroy them, but rather he will withdraw himself from them, and they will destroy themselves.
I don’t know if this helped at all, but my hope was to show that once you ponder the imagery, the message is not that complicated. At least that is the way I see Isaiah.