Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

The first verse of the book of Isaiah invites the reader to hear the prophecy in the context of the eighth century BCE.

August 8, 2010

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Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The first verse of the book of Isaiah invites the reader to hear the prophecy in the context of the eighth century BCE.

The scholarly consensus is to hear at least chapters 1-12, along with other portions of Isaiah 1-39 (especially chapters 20, 28-33, 36-39) as eighth-century material (First Isaiah or Isaiah of Jerusalem), usually between the years 742 (see 6:1, “the year that King Uzziah died”) and 701, when the Assyrian army suddenly called off its siege of Jerusalem (see chapters 36-39).

To be sure, chapter 1 makes sense in an eighth-century setting. The general characterization of the people as rebellious and unfaithful coheres with other eighth-century prophets; 1:7-9 seems to make particularly good sense in relation to the events of 701; and the criticism of worship in 1:11-15 also has parallels among other eighth-century prophets (see Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24).

Even so, other points of view are possible. For instance, it has been suggested that the original core of Isaiah was chapters 6-39, and that chapters 1-5 and 40-66 were added in the postexilic era. And some scholars have suggested that chapter 1 may function as an introduction to the whole Isaiah tradition, or perhaps even as an introduction to the larger collection of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve). Certainty is elusive, but in any case, whether or not any author or editor ever intended it, Isaiah 1 does serve as an admirable point of entry into the canon of the Latter Prophets.

For one thing, chapter 1, including 1:10-20, highlights the crucial importance of justice and righteousness, both of which are key words/concepts in the prophetic books. It is frequently and rightly concluded that prophets functioned as something like the conscience of the monarchy. The kings were entrusted above all with the enactment and embodiment of justice and righteousness (see Psalm 72, especially verses 1-7). But, of course, the kings seldom did what they were supposed to do; and so the prophets called them and the people to account, employing frequently the key words “justice” and “righteousness.”

In the case of Isaiah 1, the word “righteousness” occurs three times (verses 21, 26, 27); and the Hebrew root shpt, which means “judge, establish justice,” occurs six times (“justice” in verses 17, 21, 27; “defend” in verses 17, 23; “judges” in verse 26 — notice that every verse that includes “righteousness” also contains a form of shpt). As for 1:10-20, the two occurrences in verse 17 (NRSV “defend the orphan” would be better translated “establish justice for the orphan”) stand out in the definition of what it means to be “clean” (verse 16) and “to do good” (verse 17). Indeed, given the beginning of the passage in verse 10, one might rightly conclude that the essence of God’s “word” or “teaching” (Hebrew torah, often translated as “law”) is justice.

Such a conclusion would cohere with a key biblical text like Psalm 82, in which the God of Israel dethrones the gods and goddesses precisely because they fail to do justice and righteousness. In short, what defines true divinity is the establishment of justice and righteousness. Not surprisingly, like Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 82:3 mentions “the orphan” as particularly standing in need of justice (see also Isaiah 1:23). In other words, the existence of justice and righteousness is to be measured by whether the weakest and most vulnerable members of a society are being attended to and provided for (see also Psalm 72:12-14, which portray the shape of the justice and righteousness that the king is responsible for enacting).

A second way that Isaiah 1 serves as an admirable point of entry into the canon of the Latter Prophets is its juxtaposition of indictment/judgment with promise/hope. For instance, the words of judgment in verses 24-25 are followed immediately by words of hope in verses 26-27, while verse 28 returns to judgment. As it turns out, this pattern of juxtaposing judgment and hope is characteristic of the prophetic books in their final forms. The effect is to communicate that God is essentially gracious and merciful, not wrathful and vindictive. To be sure, there will be destructive consequences of rebellion and injustice, but God’s will is never simply to get even or to punish. Rather, God wills to set things right (see previous two Sundays’ commentaries on Hosea 1 and 11).

This divine intent is evident in 1:10-20. Although the indictment of worship dominates the passage (verses 11-15), and although the warning about destructive consequences for persistent rebellion is clear (verse 20), God’s intent is not to punish. The imperatives of verses 16-18 invite transformation, and they culminate in verse 18a with a final invitation that might be translated, “Come now, let us correct the situation,” a possibility that is grounded in God’s willingness to forgive.

The stinging criticism of worship in verses 11-15 is not an indictment of worship in general. Rather, it is an indictment of worship that serves as a cover-up for “evil” (twice in verse 16); including violence (see “hands full of blood” in verse 15) and deflection of attention from the crucial mission of establishing justice (see Isaiah 58 for a similar criticism of liturgical activities devoid of the pursuit of justice and righteousness).

A pressing question for contemporary pastors and congregations is this: Is our worship acceptable to God? We like to think so, of course, but Isaiah 1:10-20 is an unsettling reminder of how easy it is for worship to become “an abomination” (verse 13). What makes worship acceptable to God is not the motions we perform in the sanctuary, but the mission we pursue in the world — in a word, justice (see next Sunday on Isaiah 5:1-7 for further elaboration on what justice means in practice). In the ancient setting, there were voices to the contrary; and there still are. Earlier during the week that I was writing this essay, a well-known television personality, Glenn Beck, called for people to quit participating in churches that mention “social justice” or those that pursue economic justice. It is not clear which Bible Beck is reading, but it apparently does not include the book of Isaiah!