Abruptly the voice of the Lord broke in upon the ears of men who prided themselves on their religiousness and trusted in their formal observance of the legal ritual: “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.” There is something sublime in the very simplicity of this challenge to obedience. Heaven and earth, ever subject to His will, were called to witness the base ingratitude of Jehovah’s people. The objects of His solicitous care from their childhood in Egypt, they had never as a nation given Him the loving obedience that was His due. Individual faithfulness there was; but nationally, as later in the case of the church viewed as a collective body, failure had come in almost at the very beginning and there had never been recovery.
“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” because of his care for them, but Israel did not know their Master. May we not well challenge our hearts as to how far we really know our Owner? To what extent do we sanctify Christ as Lord? Other lords have had dominion over us, but He is our Owner now. Only by Him will we now make mention of the ineffable name. The kingdom of God for us is that of the Son of His love. To the crucified One we owe unswerving allegiance.
Our Master’s crib is the Word of God, a part of which we now have before us. Do we really know it? Does hunger ever drive us to it? Or are we often found foolishly sniffing the desert air, following the wind like the wild ass? Have we turned our backs on God’s well-filled storehouse, vainly seeking a satisfactory portion in the world we have professed to repudiate? These are solemn questions, not to be evaded or ignored. They are to be faced in the presence of the Lord lest a day come when of us too He will have to say, “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.”
There is no breach of relationship suggested here. Judah was still owned by God, but her moral state demanded discipline. Yet she had despised that discipline until it seemed useless to chasten her further. The sore seemed too deep to be healed; the whole head was sick and the heart faint. Everywhere the evidences of inward corruption were obvious. There was no soundness in Judah. Their hearts had not turned to God so that He who had smitten might bind them up in His grace and longsuffering.
Prophetically, Isaiah beheld the sad result of all this coldhearted indifference to the message he brought. The country was soon to be desolate and the fair cities of Judah were to be destroyed by conflagration. Strangers would dwell in their land and only a feeble remnant would be left—like a workman’s hut in a vineyard or a keeper’s lodge in a cucumber field. The prophet spoke in the present tense of things not yet seen, for faith’s eye can see all that God has declared as though it has already been fulfilled.
Isaiah prophesied, “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.” Those significant words were quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:29. Only that remnant could be acknowledged by God, but because of it, He would not utterly cast off His people. We will observe that throughout the balance of the book of Isaiah, the remnant is given the place of the nation.
The rest of the people were already rejected as “children in whom is no pleasure.” In Isaiah 1:10-20 it is this evil majority who were addressed by God, but He did not acknowledge any relationship with them. Comparing them to Sodom and Gomorrah, He called them to repentance. Rulers and people alike were evil and in their unholy state they had no right to approach Him. For such unregenerate people to offer sacrifices was to mock and insult His holiness. God found no delight in their offerings, nor could He complacently behold them treading His courts.
What a scathing rebuke of anyone who professes to draw near to God by sacramental observances while not born of His Spirit and while not broken before Him! Ritualism is an offense; religious exercises are filthy in His sight if the participants have not recognized their guilt and their need of the atonement whereby iniquity may be purged. From all Judah’s solemn feasts and sacred seasons, Jehovah turned away in disgust. He said He would hide His face and close His ears to their prayers, for the proof of their defiled condition was in their hands.
What was needed? The application of the Word of God to heart and conscience. Such obedience would be evidence of genuine faith and would result in purged ways and clean lives. “Wash you, make you clean,” He cried. “Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”
Observe the order here. There is no promise of gospel blessing until the Word of God be bowed to. Grace is not contingent on works, nor is salvation dependent on human effort or advancement in righteousness, but God has no blessing in either time or eternity for the man who persists in sin and refuses to judge himself in the light of His revealed Word. Where faith is truly present, there will be contrition for sin, and amendment of conduct will follow inevitably.
It is to the self-judged therefore that the glorious Word comes in power: “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.” No more blessed proclamation of full amnesty is found in the Bible. In this verse is the offer of full judicial cleansing for every repentant soul, no matter how grievous his record may have been. Well may Isaiah be called the evangelical prophet. A wondrous gospel pervades all his pages, though warnings of judgment are constant.
Once cleansed and forgiven, the delivered soul is called to tread the path of obedience and subjection to the One who has justified him from all things. Dispensationally, justification had to await the revelation of the glorious gospel announced in New Testament times, but every soul in every age who heard the Word in faith was cleared of every charge.
The obedience and reward here indicated were of a decidedly legal character, befitting the age of law: “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.” In this age of grace there is a land unknown to sight, but seen and enjoyed by faith; through the Spirit’s gracious ministry, each subject soul eats the good fruits of that land in abundance.
On the other hand, when the Word of life and blessing is refused, and in place of contrition and brokenness a rebellious spirit is displayed, the sword must devour the gainsayer. In Isaiah the sword is that of a human enemy; in the New Testament the instrument of destruction is more clearly identified as the sword of divine judgment.
Isaiah 1:7-20 is a deeply instructive passage; every reader should weigh it carefully in the light of eternity, “for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” As Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”
This passage has in view Jerusalem, once “the faithful city,” but now corrupt and adulterous. Isaiah saw the city as the exemplification of all the evils that afflicted the land, and in dirge-like measure he bewailed its fallen state. But the Spirit of grace still distinguished a remnant, so the prophet sang of both mercy and judgment.
The city in whose devotedness Jehovah had once found such delight, the city that had once borne the name of the holy, had become a harlot, following after other lovers who could not save. Once full of discretion and the home of righteousness, Jerusalem had become a lodging place for murderers. Her silver (which spoke of atonement—see Exodus 30:11-16) had been replaced by the dross of complacent self-sufficiency. Her wine of joy had been diluted with the foul water of earth’s broken cisterns. The leaders of the people, who should have set an example of subjection to the Word of God, were now rebellious bribe-lovers. Righteous judgment was forgotten in the wake of the base desire for gain.
Because of all this, the Lord Himself would awake to judgment and would pour out His vengeance on those who, though posing as His friends, were in reality at enmity with Him. But unmixed judgment it could not be, for the rebels in Judah were His covenant people still and He would correct in measure. His discipline would have the effect of removing the unjust and unholy. After purging the nation from its dross, sin, and all that was base and unpleasing to God, He would restore their judges and counselors. Then, “redeemed with judgment,” Zion would once more be called “the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Other Scripture passages show us that this will be their final blessing after the long years of dispersion and the bitterness of the last great tribulation have come to an end.
Isaiah foresaw that the suffering would continue until the unrepentant transgressors and willful sinners were utterly destroyed. Those that remained—a weak but faithful remnant—would loathe themselves for their past sins and be ashamed of the many false gods who had allured them as a nation away from the God of their fathers. We see this spirit beautifully exemplified in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 (three ninth chapters in three “remnant” books), where faithful men confess their people’s sin as their own sin, but from it turn with abhorrence to seek the Lord with all their hearts.
Isaiah warned that all who did not repent would be consumed together by the fierce anger of Jehovah. They would be like a withered oak, a waterless garden, and tow that would burn when the Lord applied a spark.
Isaiah 1:21-31 was not written for the Jew alone. The passage was also written for our admonition in this age. The failure of the professing church has been even greater than that of Jerusalem because we have sinned against greater light. Soon the Holy and the True, disgusted with such corruption, will vomit out of His mouth all that is unreal and opposed to His Word. But He stands knocking at the door, and whenever there is reality and a heart devoted to Himself, He will come in and dine there in hallowed, blest communion, though the doom of guilty Christendom is so near (Revelation 3:20).