Just as Isaiah’s first prophetic utterance began with “Hear”, “give ear”, so here in verse 10 he arrests the people’s attention once again. Picking up on the idea introduced in verse 9 that they would have been utterly destroyed but for God’s grace, Isaiah issues a stinging rebuke of both leaders and people, calling them to account for their sin against God and his law. Nothing Isaiah could have said would be any more shocking or politically incorrect than to address his people as if they were residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. He couldn’t go any lower than that.
The sins of Sodom were enormous, sufficient for God to completely eradicate the twin cities and their inhabitants and make their names synonymous with evil. Ezekiel 16:49-50 lays out the specific evils for which God condemned them: “pride, excess of food, prosperous ease, unmerciful attitudes and immoral behavior.” These were the sins of Sodom and the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s day. They are the sorts of sins which have their root in a heart that is far from God and enamored of self. They are sins which can easily be present while the individual is outwardly conforming to the letter of God’s laws, particularly with regard to worship.
A. Externalism rebuked v. 10-15
Sunday-Christians or Cultural Christians are 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.
What was the problem? Quite simply, there was a lack of connection between hand and heart, between action and motive, between their intent in worship and God’s intent for worship. This is an ancient 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 transferred to 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, attending all the church services out of habit, they were doing so without faith and with unrepentant hearts. For that, God rebuked them and told them to stop bothering him, offending him, with their useless worship. God goes so far as to tell them that he would refuse to look at them or hear them regardless of how persistently they prayed, all because of their willful sinfulness.
How offensive to the Holy One of Israel – people in need of holiness, apparently unconcerned with their lack of holiness, play-acting at worship, thinking they could come with impunity into the sanctuary of God because they were following the formula. We can almost hear their thoughts: I’m bringing my sacrifice, my tithe, I’m here on the right day, God has to accept me regardless of my attitude and actions the rest of the week. How tragic that though they offered countless sacrifices in hope of forgiveness from sin, that shedding of blood failed to remove the blood-stains of guilt from their hands.
The principle still applies: If we expect God to not look the other way, to not stop his ears when we come to worship, we must 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, committed to living righteously all seven days of the week.
B. Plea for repentance v. 16-20
Turn from your wickedness and enjoy blessing again.
How unlike us God is 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 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 is the day-to-day evidence of Judah’s sinfulness – evil-doing, injustice, oppression, neglect of the defenseless – all areas in which they could improve their behavior regardless of spiritual condition. Yet in order that there be no misconceptions about their abilities, God put four commands at the beginning of his list that Judah was powerless to meet.
Despite their attention to ceremony and detail, they were still unclean and unforgiven in God’s view; yet he commands them to change that, to clean themselves up and stop sinning. All the while God knows they are unable to do so even if they wanted to. So why the commands? To impress upon them yet again their need for God and his divine intervention in their lives. Without God’s help, they can in no way meet his expectations but they must seek his help.
Yahweh, the Covenant God 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 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. 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. 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 and become 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, 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, 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 in the prophet’s message – 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.
There is a message here 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 faithful remnant of Isaiah’s day that the righteousness required for redemption was not something they possessed. Somehow, from some source still mysterious to them, righteousness as well as accompanying repentance must be given to them as 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.
On this side of the cross, we recognize the Promised One as Jesus. May God give us repentant hearts and a desire to come to him for forgiveness, to ask him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. May God bind our hearts to him, that our worship not be merely external but rather the expression of hearts filled with love and gratitude for our Heavenly Father.