Isaiah (Part 03): Lament to Disgust (Ch 1:4-15)
I call verses 4 through 9 of chapter 1 God’s lament. In verse 4, we see God as he grieves. He begins calling out “Oh sinful nation.” In that “Oh” we find a Father brokenhearted over the waywardness of his children. The Hebrew is an elongated expression of two words combining the ideas of “alas” and “woe.” That note of grief carries through as God does not simply call Judah names for their evil. His descriptions tie back to the father image he began in verse 2. They are not merely a bunch of evildoers and depraved people, but rather a brood of evildoers and depraved children. Special emphasis is placed on the relational words, which helps us understand not only that God’s holiness is incompatible with sin, but also that the heart of God the Father grieves as his children disregard their relationship with him.
But is this grief in some way disingenuous? After all, he knew that they would sin. His plan of redemption is already set in motion. He knows they need a redeeming Messiah whose death and righteousness would secure reconciliation. But the grief is sincere because although God knew before the world began that Judah would rebel, the fact remains that they did and that has extreme implications for God.
We must remember what we outlined in the previous summary.
- God’s purpose: everlasting love relationship
- God’s plan: reconciliation from the fall and sin
- God’s method (mission): redemption
- Our mission: Support God’s purpose, plan, and method
- Our motivation: God
Everything always goes back to purpose. God created for everlasting love relationship. God’s plan of reconciliation is because God wants everlasting love relationship with his people. And when these people turn from him, he grieves as any parent would. God’s primary concern is relational. Although the master-slave order exists, God’s overall purpose is always in view. Remember Christ’s summary when asked what was the greatest commandment. His answer was relationship: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37-40). All the Law, with its ritual and regulation, and all the prophets’ writings are founded on God’s purpose of everlasting love relationship. What God reveals in his grief in verse 4 is that purpose. The skeptics make much of arguing that the war-like OT God is so very much different from the NT God of love written of by Paul and pictured by Christ. But here we see how wrong that stereotyping is. God’s heart and activity rest on his love.
So then, what specifically is causing his grief? Verse 4 continues with a three-step movement of the Jews away from God. They first abandon the Lord. That word abandon has the connotation of let loose. Then they despise the Holy One of Israel. This is derision with contempt. And finally they turn their backs on him. They become as if strangers to him. This progression is a breakdown of God’s purposed relationship, from letting loose to derision to total estrangement.
Though he is a father grieving, God is not an emotionally prejudiced grandfather unaware of reality and incapable of maintaining the purity of justice and righteousness. And so, God disciplines. But notice his appeal in verse 5. There is frustration and incredulity as God cries out, “Why do you want more beatings?” No parent is without the experience of a child stubborn in self-interest that rebels knowing full well of the punishment explained and previously experienced. And the parent is screaming inside (perhaps outside as well), “Why are you doing this?! You know I have to punish you!” God describes their condition as welted and sore from head to toe from past discipline. And this past discipline is much of the history we discussed in the first Isaiah summary. Judah was facing pressure from Israel and Aram (Syria) to the north and the Philistines and Edomites to the south. And they weren’t very successful at their defense, which compounded problems not only politically but economically as well.
Isaiah continues with God’s message explaining to them the discipline of desolation. Desolation means, in part, physical barrenness. And Judah’s cities had been destroyed and their crops stolen. Desolation also means to be uninhabited or left alone. The cost of war certainly was at issue here. Syria had attacked and crushed Judah from the northeast. Israel, we’re told in 2 Chronicles 28, attacked from the northwest and killed 120,000 of their army. Imagine the devastating losses of perhaps 200,000 men of Judah on top of cities burned and crops stolen and destroyed—and still threats on every border. Certainly Judah was in political and economic chaos. And Isaiah comes to warn and to call back. So the frustration by God, the Father care-giver, to Judah’s continued defiance is understandable.
Isaiah then presents a picture of that desolation using the phrase “Daughter Zion is abandoned” (1:8). Zion stands for Jerusalem. Zion was the name of one of the hills on which the temple was built. The temple, of course, is the place, in the heart of Jerusalem (in the heart of Judah), where God met with the Jews. So Zion abandoned was the forsaking of the place where God met with his people. Notice it is God now that is acting. He is the one abandoning Zion, which causes her discipline.
Notice also that God calls them Daughter Zion. As discussed in our Biblical Egalitarian series, the picture of care-giver to the more vulnerable is a constant theme throughout the Bible. It is a theme necessitated by the sin environment of the world. 1 Corinthians 11:3 tells us: “Christ is the head of every man, and the man (husband) is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.” This is not an authority structure (even though our modern understanding of “head” is often associated with authority). Paul’s head-body imagery is always to reveal the responsibility of care (not control) toward the more vulnerable. Just so does the care-giver/care-receiver concept extend in the frequent exhortations to care for widows and orphans. And so in the Isaiah picture, God uses a feminine form (she is daughter not son) to reflect the care receiver to his own care giving. She is daughter not wife to continue the previous picture of God as father to his children.
And can you imagine a more devastating abandonment than the abandonment of a daughter in a patriarchal society? Without father or husband, an abandoned daughter would surely die. The society was structured for male control in provision of food, shelter, and security. No wonder that the Law was filled with so many regulations designed for the protection of women in the sin-cursed environment of male domination.
The abandonment, Isaiah continues, is like a shelter or shack in the vineyard or cucumber field. During harvest times, little lean-tos were built so that workers could be there at the fields, up with dawn and working until darkness prevented them. So during harvest, the fields and the shacks were places of activity. But after harvest, they were abandoned. People went back to their homes and these little temporary structures were left alone for the greater part of the year.
Isaiah also compares the desolation to besieged cities. This picture is of a city surrounded by an army and cut off from any care giving from anyone else around. So these three images give a full description of desolation—abandoned daughter (heartache), abandoned field shelter (loneliness), and besieged city (helpless facing impending doom).
But verse 9 ends the section with a wisp of hope. A remnant is left. The Lord of Hosts (the Existent One of Might) is the one who has disciplined Judah. That’s why Isaiah does not say that he “rescued a remnant” but rather that he “left us” survivors. If not for that, they would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah—committing the same sin of turning their backs on God—who were left with no remnant.
The idea of remnant should be understood well to maintain a correct understanding of how God interacts with his people. God is a just God. And sin deserves just recompense. We have a tendency to overemphasize this, however, in our OT mindset. That same God is also a God of mercy and love—that is, a God of infinite mercy and infinite love. When God acts, we can’t say that he needs to show his antipathy for sin so that mercy is not important. And we can’t say that saving a small remnant satisfies the display of God’s mercy. If God’s mercy is infinite, why isn’t he saving more than a small remnant? Wouldn’t saving half be more merciful than a few? But still that wouldn’t show infinite mercy. Shouldn’t infinite mercy save them all?
Obviously more is at play here than simply justice and mercy. And this is why time after time throughout the Bible we see an emphasis on faith. God is always the first mover. He interacts with his people through revelation. As he reveals, people respond. They respond either in faith or in rejection and rebellion. God, James tells us, draws near to those who draw near to him. In other words, as Romans 1 also tells us, as we respond in faith, God provides more for us—in revelation and in blessing. As we rebel in unbelief or removal of faith, God withdraws. This revelation-response pattern of God’s interaction is shown from the fall through Revelation. The world, turned away from God, was destroyed by a flood—except for Noah and his family who responded to God in faith. The world followed their own selfish interests, but God promised inheritance (a spiritual city—Hebrews 11:10) to Abraham, whose faith was counted to him for righteousness. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their rebellion—all except for Lot because of his faith. Over and over, the remnant is identified as those of faith. And in Judah’s case, ultimately it was no different. God does impose justice. God also acts in infinite mercy and love. But his interaction with humanity incorporates revelation and response based on faith. And of course this makes sense as we go back again to consider overall purpose. God created for the purpose of everlasting love relationship. And the foundation of relationship is faithfulness. No wonder faith is emphasized throughout the Bible. Faith fulfills the purpose of God. And in that faithful purpose of God is reconciliation and hope.
The next section—Isaiah 1:10-15—is called God’s Disgust. Sin does inflame the disgust of God. Here Isaiah begins by addressing the rulers and people of Judah as Sodom and Gomorrah to both make them understand that their sin is the same and remind them of God’s judgment for such sin.
Perhaps they responded by saying, “But we do keep all the ritual and ceremony! We sacrifice our sheep and bulls and goats! Isn’t that enough?” Or maybe they responded by saying, “Well, we’ll add to those ritual sacrifices. Maybe if we sacrifice extra animals, God will be mollified.” These responses go back to verse 3: “My people do not understand.”
The worship of gods was performed by nations all around Judah. And their sacrifices were thought of as actual sin offerings and meant to appease or gain favor from a god. The focus of pagan ritual was on the deed not the attitude. And Judah began to incorporate that thinking as they performed the ceremonial law that God had laid out for them. But God’s law was not meant merely for the sake of ritual. The ritual was representative. It meant something. It was meant to teach about God and relationship. The focus of God’s ceremony was on the attitude of the worshipper, not on the deed. And God calls out for them in verse 10 to “Listen to the torah (law) of our God.” The whole law was concerned with character, attitude, and relationship.
Psalm 51:17 “The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.”
Psalm 66:18 “If I had been aware of malice in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
In Amos 5:21-27 we read of God’s dissatisfaction with his people’s ritual much as what we have in Isaiah. But Amos also contrasts it with the faithfulness that God desires. And in Solomon’s dedication of the temple, even though sacrifices were a huge part of the ceremony, his prayer emphasized the attitude of the heart (1 Kings 8).
Therefore, God’s attitude of lament in verses 4 through 9 is changed to disgust in verses 10 through 15 because of the nature of the sin. It is hypocrisy—actions meant to identify with God while their hearts were far from him. And as we look through Scripture we find this same disgust whenever hypocrisy raises its head (as with the Pharisees in the Gospels—Matthew 23).
The section ends in verse 15 with God refusing to play to their hypocrisy. They raise hands in prayer, but those hands are bloody, covered by unrepentant guilt of self-motivated interest.