Just as Isaiah’s first prophetic utterance commenced with “Hear”, “give ear” in a way reminiscent of the first Prophet Moses and his song recorded in Deuteronomy 32:1, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth”, so here in verse 10 he arrests the people’s attention once again. Picking up on the idea introduced in verse 9, Isaiah issues a stinging rebuke of both leaders and people, holding them all accountable for their sin against God and his law. “There could have been no more severe or cutting reproof of their wickedness than to address them as resembling the people whom God overthrew for their enormous crimes.” Barnes’ Notes
The sins of Sodom were enormous, sufficient for God to eradicate the twin cities and their inhabitants from the face of the earth and make their names synonymous with evil. Ezekiel 16:49-50 lays out the specific evils for which God condemned them: “pride, lust of the flesh, and unmerciful conduct [at a time of prosperity], were the leading sins of Sodom, and of these, the rulers of Jerusalem, and the crowd that was subject to them and worthy of them, were equally guilty now.” K & D These are the sorts of sins which have their root in a corrupt heart and can easily be present while the individual is externally conforming to the letter of God’s laws, particularly with regard to worship.
A. Hypocrisy rebuked v. 10-15
Pharisaism is nothing new.
From the outside everything looked fine. They went to worship, they paid close attention to meeting the sacrificial requirements by bringing burnt offerings, they made sure the incense was properly blended and burned, they observed all the special sabbaths and yearly feasts. To all appearances they were doing it by the book, scrupulously, …mechanically.
What was the problem? Quite simply, there was a lack of alignment between hand and heart, between action and motive, between their intent in worship and God’s intent for worship. This is an age-old problem, dating back at least to the time of Cain and Abel. At issue is the principle that the worshiper and his sacrifice cannot be separated; it is the sin of the worshiper that is borne by the sacrifice, but only in the presence of faith. Hebrews 11:4 tells us that it was “by faith” that Abel brought his sacrifice and God found it acceptable, better than that which Cain brought. In Hebrews 11:6 the writer goes on to say that “without faith it is impossible to please God”.
Even though the people of Judah were going through the right motions, they were doing it without faith and with unrepentant hearts, exactly as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did. For that, God rebuked them and told them to stop bothering him, offending him, with their useless worship. In fact, God goes so far as to tell them that he would refuse to look at them or hear them regardless of how persistent in prayer they might be, all because of their willful sinfulness. How tragic that though they offered countless sacrifices, in theory for forgiveness from sin, that shedding of blood failed to remove the blood-stains of guilt from their hands because of their faithless impenitent hypocrisy.
What a potentially chilling thought is expressed here that impinges on us even today: without faith that comes from an upright heart it is impossible to please God especially in worship. May Judah’s plight not be true of us but instead may we come into our Sovereign’s presence with repentant hearts, believing that if we turn from our sin and confess it to Him, he will forgive us, believing that the blood of the Lamb will wash away the blood of sin-guilt from our hands.
B. Plea for repentance v. 16-20
Turn from your wickedness and enjoy blessing again.
How unlike us is God in his gracious pleading with the covenant people. We tolerate someone’s bad behavior or disregard for our well-meaning and insightful advice for just about so long, then we write them off …permanently. “See if I ever give them (fill in the blank) again; I’ll never do it.” But God doesn’t treat Judah that way; instead he pleads with them to turn from, to repent of their sinful behavior and enjoy his smile of favor once again.
In a series of staccato-like bursts, God issues instructions to his people what their course of action should be.
1. Wash up
2. Clean yourselves
3. Remove evil from my sight
4. Stop sinning
5. Learn to do right
6. Promote justice
7. Correct oppression
8. Defend orphans
9. Advocate for the widow
Here we see in detail the practical outworking of Judah’s sinfulness – evil-doing, injustice, oppression, neglect of the defenseless – all areas in which they could improve their behavior whether regenerate or not. Yet in order that there be no misconceptions about their abilities, God put three commands at the beginning of his list that Judah was powerless to meet.
Remember, God has just finished rebuking them for their offensive worship; that puts these commands in the context of worship, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Even for their impeccable attention to ceremony and detail, they were still unclean and unforgiven in God’s view; yet he commands them to remedy that, all the while knowing they are unable to do so even if they so desired. Why? To impress upon them yet again their need for God and his divine intervention in their lives.
Yahweh, the Covenant God immediately commands his people to “Come”, followed by “please”, commanding yet inviting them graciously and lovingly to take advantage of his offer of cleansing and forgiveness. It is as though God said to them, “Think about it; I, your covenant Lord am where I always have been, faithful to my covenant with you. I am ready to forgive, to cleanse you, to do all that is necessary that you cannot do for yourselves so that you can be reconciled to me. Think about it: if our relationship is broken, where must the fault lie?” God’s willingness to pardon left the blame lying squarely on them.
The words God uses for Judah’s sins indicate a dye that is colorfast, one that no amount of washing will ever dilute or remove. But He describes them as if precisely that had occurred, that every last trace of sin’s stain had been removed just as he had previously commanded them to remove their evil deeds from his sight. In each case God is the only one who can accomplish what is required; only he can remove sin and its accompanying stain, only he has the power to declare the individual innocent by virtue of having his sin transferred to the spotless Lamb of God. Once again the Lord places before his people the choice to follow his ways and be blessed, or continue in rebellion and experience His judgment.
C. Social and moral decline v. 21-23
Things lead to things.
Just as Jesus 700 years in the future would weep and lament over Jerusalem, so the Father here exclaims over the tragic state of affairs to be found there. The city once faithful has become unfaithful; the center of justice has become a place where justice cannot be found. In her unfaithfulness, God is referring to the declension in worship; although the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, worship there had become little more than idolatrous motions since the hearts of the people were bound to something other than God.
God’s people did not wake up one morning and for no apparent reason decide to forsake him and go their own way. It was a process over time during which their sinfulness increased gradually as they drifted away from truth and true worship. What was once pure, refined to remove impurities, had slowly transitioned into those very impurities becoming worthless; in another picture, what was once pure and refreshing had gradually become diluted so it no longer resembled its original condition.
Just as this decline in social and moral practices occurred gradually as God’s people drifted away from proper and acceptable worship, so it began with the leaders and worked its way down through the social ranks. Those who had the responsibility to do what was right, to maintain the cause of right, had become contributors to the problem as they both practiced injustice and failed to maintain justice in the city. Those charged with the task of acting as God’s agents to guard and nurture his people were doing just the opposite, acting as adversaries rather than allies of God himself.
D. God’s planned restoration v. 24-31
Divine power is required for change.
Since the trend has been in the wrong direction (no great surprise there!) God must intervene in order to restore his people and their city to its former state of splendor and obedience. While the outcome will be glorious for sure, the path to get there is a painful one: God will deal with his adversaries, he will see that justice is done, he will remove their impurities once again. So there will be no mistaking who it is that brings these purifying calamities on the covenant people, God identifies himself as the Master, the self-existent covenant God who sovereignly rules the armies of heaven, the almighty God who is the true God of Israel.
Although God’s indictment and plans will have fearsome consequences, yet there is a promise of hope embedded in the prophet’s message – it is a promise of restoration and redemption, after a time of barrenness. The Holy City, the church, will be restored to its former position of favor and obedience, a place where righteousness and faithfulness will be the order of the day once again. Those who continue in their rebellion and try to resist will be destroyed; but, a remnant will be preserved as the Holy One of Israel judges his enemies and redeems his true covenant children.
Here we see a message for our own day as well as that of Isaiah’s: those who repent will be redeemed while rebels and sinners will be destroyed. It was obvious to the pious contemporaries of Isaiah that the righteousness required for redemption was not something they possessed. Somehow, from some source still mysterious to them, it must be given to them as well as the accompanying repentance, both a gracious gift from God. As Isaiah continued his prophetic ministry, more of the details would be revealed making it plain that the Promised One, the Messiah would be their means of redemption.
May the Sovereign Lord of the universe keep us faithful to him, that we not drift away from him and come under judgment as his ancient people did.