Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
This week’s reading from the book of Isaiah invites us to ponder the relationship between worship and ethics. But before we examine that emphasis, we need to consider the audience to which the book addresses the reading.
The first chapter of Isaiah progressively narrows down the intended audience of our passage.
The superscription (1:1) says that Isaiah was active in Judah, and particularly in Jerusalem, during the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The contents of the book indicate that his ministry took place primarily during the years that Ahaz and Hezekiah ruled. So, we have a general idea of when Isaiah engaged in his prophetic ministry.
The verses leading up to our passage narrow the addressees down further by reflecting a setting in which Judah has suffered great devastation. While many scenarios could fit that description, the best candidate is the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 BCE during Hezekiah’s reign. We can read about that invasion in Isaiah 36-37 (which largely reproduces material found in 2 Kings 18-19). We also have Sennacherib’s account of the campaign on the Stele of Sennacherib in which he says he conquered forty-six cities in Judah and shut Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage” in Jerusalem. Isaiah 1:7-8 depicts a similar scene: “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.”
Isaiah 1 has thus far narrowed the audience addressed by our passage down to the city of Jerusalem that has been left standing but isolated following Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah. Our Scripture passage narrows the addressees down even further to “you rulers of Sodom” and “you people of Gomorrah” (verse 10). These designations are here used symbolically to refer to the leaders and people of Jerusalem. This address immediately follows the statement, “If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah” (verse 9). This juxtaposition implies that the leaders and the people of Jerusalem risk destruction if they do not change their ways. Later verses make the needed changes and the looming risk explicit.
One question the preacher needs to ask is how the words of the lectionary text address our listeners today. How do the people of the church need to hear the challenges presented in the words of this week’s reading?
The challenges (verses 11-17)
We can divide the challenges of the text into two related and connected categories.
- Worship with integrity (verses 11-15)
Isaiah calls his listeners (and eventually his readers, including us) to carry out acts of worship in ways that reflect genuineness and integrity. On a first reading, Isaiah seems to say that God rejects the entire worship system. He says that God disregards and dismisses every type of worship act in which the people engage, ranging from sacrifice to prayer.
But the keys to Isaiah’s meaning are embedded in his words. First, the prophet quotes God as saying, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13). Second, he says that God declares, “Your hands are full of blood” (verse 15). So, it is not worship per se that God rejects. It is rather worship that is carried out with no regard for ethics. Acts of worship, even if performed correctly and abundantly, cannot compensate for the mistreatment of people, especially of the weak and oppressed.
In the next section, Isaiah spells out what kinds of unethical behavior his audience is guilty of. In doing so, he challenges them to practice justice.
- Practice justice (verses 16-17)
Isaiah has told his audience that their hands are full of blood (verse 15). On one hand, this may recall the many sacrifices that the people have been offering and that God has rejected (see verse 11). The people’s hands are indeed filled with the blood of sacrificed animals. But that is not the point that the prophet is making. The people’s hands are full of blood in the sense that they have been mistreating people. They have not been practicing sound ethics in their dealings with the oppressed and vulnerable.
Isaiah’s summons to the people to wash themselves means more than that they are to cleanse themselves ceremonially. They are rather to wash the blood of injustice from their hands. The prophet first names general ways in which the people can do this. They can “cease to do evil” (verse 16), which has the sense of something that can be done immediately. They can also “learn to do good” (verse 17), which has the sense of something that takes place over a longer period of time. The prophet then names more specific ways that the people can “seek justice”—they can “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (verse 17).1 In so doing, they will turn away from the sin of Sodom (verse 10), which the prophecy of Ezekiel defines as having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease” while failing to “aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
The invitation (verses 18-20)
Isaiah has already summoned his audience to turn away from their unethical dealings and to turn toward justice. He now invites them to accept the good that can come to them if they repent. The verb translated “let us argue it out” in NRSV is rendered elsewhere as “let us settle the matter” (NIV) and “let’s settle this” (CEB). Those alternate translations seem to better capture the sense, since what needs to happen is not up for debate or negotiation. The prophet calls the people to agree with and accept God’s evaluation of their situation, and to change in light of it. The imagery of sins that “are like scarlet” and that are “red like crimson” could reflect the previous statement that the people’s “hands are full of blood” (verse 15). Their sins becoming “like snow” and “like wool” (verse 18) could be the result of the people’s washing themselves (verse 16). Despite the fact that Judah has been devastated and Jerusalem has been left isolated, the people’s repentance can lead to their experiencing the blessings of the land that God intends them to have. Failure to repent, on the other hand, will lead to further judgment.
We have been dealing with our Scripture passage by trying to understand how Isaiah’s original listeners might have heard it. In that context, Isaiah addresses the people in light of their situation of recently experienced devastation and of possible further future devastation. He summons them to repent, offering them the possibility of restoration marked by the undertaking of ethical treatment of the vulnerable and oppressed. We might also approach the text in light of how the exilic and post-exilic audiences of the book of Isaiah might have heard our passage. Having experienced the devastation and exile brought about by the Babylonians, that audience may have heard our passage as an ongoing call to repent and as offering an ongoing hope for corporate restoration and ethical renewal.
Chances are good that our listeners need to hear the same calls that all of Isaiah’s audiences needed to hear. What kinds of corporate devastation has the church experienced? What kinds of renewal do we need? What ethical failures do we need to address?
- Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1–39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 62-63.