I. God's Threatened Court Case Against His People (1:1-31)
The way a book or letter begins gives the reader a hint about its contents. Although one usually views the first paragraph of a letter as the first thing written by the author, the introduction to this commentary and the opening chapter of many other books will be written after the author finishes writing the rest of its contents. Authors do this because they do not know everything that they will write at the beginning of the process; consequently, they are not able to prepare the reader properly for what is to come in the rest of the book. Once the research is completed and the results are written, then the author can provide an informative introduction.
The evidence presented below suggests the prophet Isaiah wrote this introductory chapter very late in his lifetime, probably after he had finished writing most if not all of the book. Now he is able to reflect back on what God told him to say to the people of Jerusalem over the last years, and now he knows how they responded to God's words. At this point he can properly prepare his future readers to understand some of the key theological themes of the book and explain more about God's plan for the nation. This introduction is also a motivational attempt to convince his readers to acknowledge what God says and repent so that their sins can be forgiven (1:18-20). Why should they suffer any longer under God's discipline like those described in the pages of this book? Is it not more appealing to enjoy the day when God will bless his people and turn Jerusalem into a "City of Righteousness, the Faithful City" (1:26)?
GENRE. Some conclude that the literary background of this introductory chapter is patterned after the general characteristics of a covenant lawsuit, a literary form that drew upon the vocabulary and cultural background of a trial at court. Since this chapter has several deviations from the normal pattern of other covenant lawsuits (cf. Mic 6; Hos 4), it seems more accurate to conclude that this chapter might be compared to the negotiations that take place before a trial (similar to an arraignment), rather than a court trial itself. Accusations are brought against the defendant (1:2b-9), and the defensive reasoning of the accused is refuted, similar to what one might expect at an arraignment (1:10-15). But then come unexpected exhortations on acceptable behavior (1:16-17), and one party offers to resolve the case (1:18-20), making known the consequence of both a positive or negative response (1:21-31). By using the general literary framework of a trial arraignment to structure his theological message, the prophet communicated the seriousness of Judah's sinful rebellion in a logical way that clearly demonstrated to the reader why God would judge the nation. The past evidence of the case against the accused people of Judah proved that there was a guilty party. Therefore, the people of Judah in the audience needed to confess their sins and transform their behavior if they wanted to avoid further punishment. The clear portrayal of what God would do if they do not change gave Isaiah's sermonic appeal to "reason together" (1:18) strong persuasive power. They could respond positively to God and be blessed or reject God and suffer under his destructive power along with the wicked (1:19-20).
HISTORICAL SETTING. In order to understand the reason for God's threatening arraignment, it is essential for the modern reader to know something about the historical setting of this speech. When was it given? Why was it necessary? What was the prophet trying to accomplish? The interpreter can suggest a date for this message by noticing the setting of the audience. At this time, many people were in rebellion against God and despised the Holy One of Israel, God himself (1:2-4). Not long before this sermon, the nation suffered a major military attack by some enemy (1:5-7), and only Jerusalem was spared (1:8-9). Some people in Judah were busy offering sacrifices (1:10-15) but many of their hearts were not right with God. In fact, many of these people were offering detestable sacrifices, shedding innocent blood, and not upholding justice (1:15-17). In the past Jerusalem had just rulers, but now the city was characterized by murder, robbery, bribery of judges, pagan worship, and injustice toward the poor (1:21-23, 28-29).
Although the date of chap. 1 is not stated, it needs to fit somewhere shortly after a major military event when its rulers were leading the nation away from God. Four possible dates should be considered for this sermon: (a) Y. Gitay believes the book of Isaiah is arranged in chronological order, so he suggested that the battle in 1:5-9 was the Syro-Ephraimite War (734-732 BC) when Israel and Syria attacked Judah to force Judah to join their coalition against Assyria (cf. Isa 7; 2 Kgs 16; 2 Chr 28). This setting fits the military situation required, for the rebellious king Ahaz was ruling Judah and the nation did survive this war as a weak vassal of Assyria. It was also a time when pagan worship infiltrated Jerusalem (2 Kgs 16:1-5, 10-18). Nevertheless, it is hard to determine who the earlier righteous king was (1:21) when the city had a faithful ruler, unless the author was referring all the way back to the time of David. (b) H. Wildberger and most others suggest that the historical situation was during the 701 BC attack on Judah by Sennacherib, when the whole nation of Judah was destroyed except Jerusalem (Isa 36-37; 2 Kgs 18-19; 2 Chr 32). This was a time of restored worship of God at the temple (2 Chr 30-31), but since Hezekiah was a righteous king, it is hard to fit the negative comments about the evil leaders or pagan worship in the temple into this time frame. (c) C. R. Seitz suggested a date in the reign of Manasseh, a few years after the 701 BC attack by the Assyrians. This view has the advantage of identifying Hezekiah's reforms as the period when righteousness characterized the city and the early reign of Manasseh (cf. 2 Kgs 21; 2 Chr 33) as the time of wickedness described in 1:4, 21-23, 27-29. If one hypothesizes that Isaiah's message was given when Manasseh was a coregent with his father Hezekiah (just before Hezekiah's death), this would explain why Manasseh's name was not mentioned in 1:1. In this scenario, Isaiah was warning the nation not to reject the godly ways of Hezekiah for the worship of trees and idols that were promoted by Manasseh (1:29-30). (d) Finally, E. J. Kissane concluded that this was a prophecy about the future fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Since Jerusalem did not escape this conquest (1:8-9) and chap. 1 seems to describe a present problem (not a future one), this suggestion seems an unlikely interpretation.
The third view satisfies the various factors outlined in the setting of chap. 1. If this dating is accepted, it naturally leads to several conclusions: (a) this was not Isaiah's first sermon; it was not composed at the beginning of his ministry but near the end; (b) Isaiah most likely added chap. 1 when his sermons were collected, edited, and put in their present form; and (c) chap. 1 serves as something of an introduction to the collection of prophecies attributed to Isaiah.
STRUCTURE. The structural position of this chapter at the beginning of the book causes it to serve as an introduction to the rest of his messages. Although this chapter is not a summary of the total content of the book, it does introduce some of the main points addressed in chaps. 2-66. Commentators have noticed a strong connection between the vocabulary and themes in chap. 1 and chaps. 65-66. This verbal connection suggests that there was a purposeful attempt to tie the whole book together when chaps. 65-66 were written. L. Liebreich, R. Lack, M. A. Sweeney, D. M. Carr, and A. Tomasino identified these linguistic connections as:
|"Heaven and earth"||1:2||65:17; 66:1, 22|
|People "rebelled/transgressed"||1:2, 28||66:24|
|Structural order of topics||1:10-20||66:1-6|
|"I have no pleasure/delight"||1:11||66:4|
|Sacrifices, incense, bulls, lamb||1:11, 13||65:3, 7; 66:3|
|Abomination||1:13, 17||66:3; 65:4|
|"Hear the Word of the Lord"||1:11||66:5|
|The woman Zion||1:21, 26||66:7-13|
|Blessings and curses||1:27-28||65:9-12|
|Abuse of the cult||1:29-31||65:3; 66:3, 17|
|Wicked put to "shame"||1:29||65:13; 66:5|
|You have "chosen"||1:29||66:4|
|Wicked burn in fire||1:31||66:15-16, 24|
|"Fire not quenched"||1:31||66:24|
In light of these common ideas, there is enough evidence to suggest that the final publication of Isaiah's oracles was purposely designed to provide a literary connection between the first and last chapters. This design could be employed to argue for the position that the same author wrote the first and last chapters, or at least that chap. 1 was placed before 2-12 in the final edition of Isaiah to form part of an inclusio with chaps. 65-66. These connections unify and draw the messages in the book together.
Although some interpreters consider 1:1 as the title of chaps. 1-12, in light of the literary connections between chaps. 1 and 65-66, it is better to understand 1:1 as the introduction to the whole book. The appearance of another superscription in 2:1 suggests that a new section begins there. This second superscription serves to reintroduce Isaiah as the author of chaps. 2-12, the first major unit in the book.
The structure of chap. 1 is fairly clearly demarcated by the repetition of key phrases. The first section of this sermon is addressed to the people and rulers and is marked by the introductory "for the Lord has spoken" in 1:2, and the concluding, "for the mouth of the Lord has spoken" in 2:20. Within this section are three smaller paragraphs marked by:
The second section of this sermon (1:21-31) focuses on the city of Jerusalem and its rulers with words of lamenting accusations (1:21-23) and first person statements about the consequences of the refiner's fire (1:24-26). The second section ends the chapter (1:27-31) with a clear choice for the righteous (they will be redeemed) and the wicked (they and their idols will burn with fire).
THEOLOGY. This sermon wrestles with the issue of how God will deal with his disobedient covenant people. Though they were his children through the covenant (1:2), they are now in rebellion against God (1:2-4) and do not worship him in an acceptable manner (1:10-15). God has already disciplined the people of Judah severely for their sins (1:5-9), so his people need to change course and repent of their sins (1:17-20). If they continue in rebellion, they will become the enemy of God (1:24) and he will destroy them (1:20, 31). Isaiah explains that God deals with sin in two ways. He can remove the stain of sin, if people are willing to repent (1:18-19), or his refining fire can remove the sinner, so that the nation is purified and redeemed (1:25-27). In the end, God's plan will result in the establishment of a righteous and faithful nation. The question is: Will this audience respond to God's call and repent of their sins or will it stubbornly continue in its sinful ways and suffer the consequences of their choice? This is still the fundamental question that every nation and person today must answer. The prophet clearly outlines what one must do to be among the redeemed (1:27).
1. Superscription (1:1)
1 The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
The book of Isaiah begins like most other prophetic books with an identification of (a) the nature of the material in this scroll; (b) the audience; (c) the name of the author of these words; and (d) the date of his preaching. It differs from several other prophetic superscriptions by its failure to associate Isaiah with a specific location (Mic 1:1; Nah 1:1), by omitting his former occupation (Amos 1:1 says Amos was a shepherd), and by not explicitly stating that he received "the word of the Lord" (cf. Hos 1:1; Mic 1:1; Jer 1:1). Although there is no way to determine when the superscription was added to Isaiah's messages, D. N. Freedman observed that the names of the kings in 1:1 reflect the longer orthographic spelling of the pre-exilic period, so he hypothesized a date during the reign of Hezekiah. This overlaps with the initial co-regency of Manasseh, the date suggested above.
1:1 The superscription begins by announcing that the content of this book was derived from "insight, a vision" (ḥăzôn) by the prophet. This "visionary" qualification of the message was extremely important, for it gave divine authority to what Isaiah said and distinguished the divine truth that he spoke from the false illusions that some people followed (8:19; 30:10-11; 44:18-20). God's knowledge was marvelously transferred to the prophet in such a way that he was able to confront his audience from the divine perspective. Isaiah faithfully communicated God's message in order to transform the thinking and behavior of those who would listen (cf. Rom 12:2) and to confirm the fate of the wicked people who were unwilling to listen (6:9-10). Although some prophets had elaborate visions containing images of people, places, and symbolic animals (Dan 8:1, 2), the term "vision" (ḥăzôn) frequently refers to the general reception of a "divine revelation" of words, without any accompanying visual pictures (Obad 1; Nah 1:1). The decision to describe the content of what follows as a "vision, divine revelation" makes it unnecessary to state that these were the "words of God."
The inhabitants of "Judah and Jerusalem" were the primary audience for Isaiah's messages, though many times his messages seem specifically aimed at the kings and rulers of Judah (1:10, 23; 3:1-15; 7:1-17; 30:1-5; 36-37) or some specific group of people (3:16-4:1). Sometimes the audience was a righteous king (36-37) but at other times it was a wicked king (7:1-17). Isaiah spoke to the proud and powerful during periods when people were wealthy (2:6-22; 3:16-4:1), but he also addressed the national leaders in a time of military fear and defeat (7:1-17). In some oracles he warned the wicked and at other times he encouraged the righteous. The oracles against the foreign nations (13-23) were designed to teach a Judean audience something about God's plan for these nations; they were not delivered to warn or convert the foreign nations Isaiah spoke about. Since Isaiah addressed many different groups, different kings, and people living in very different economic and political situations, it would be a mistake to imagine that he was speaking to the same audience throughout the book.
The person officially identified as the author of these words was Isaiah, though there is a great deal of speculation among scholars that later authors/ redactors wrote or edited parts of the book long after the death of Isaiah. Isaiah is not described as a prophet or seer in this verse (cf. 37:2; 38:1; 39:3). His father Amoz should not to be confused with the prophet Amos. Archaeologists found the name Amoz on a seal in Jerusalem, suggesting that this person was a scribe, but there is no way to accurately date this seal or prove that it referred to Isaiah's father. According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah's father was the brother of King Amaziah, making Isaiah a member of the royal Davidic family. In light of Isaiah's literary skills and his recording of the history of two Israelite kings (2 Chr 26:22; 32:32), it appears that he had scribal abilities. Although nothing can be proven from this data, it fits what one would expect of Isaiah's status, background, and training.
The date of Isaiah's ministry is circumscribed by the reigns of four kings—from Uzziah through Hezekiah. During these years, Judah was prosperous and powerful in the time of Uzziah (2 Kgs 15:1-7; 2 Chr 26:1-23), weak and under Assyrian control for much of the reign of Ahaz (2 Kgs 16; 2 Chr 28), and then free again in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-19; 2 Chr 29-32). This period covers the time from about 746 to 686 BC. Since Manasseh, Hezekiah's evil son, was coregent with him for the last few years of his life, some of Isaiah's writings may reflect the beginning of Manasseh's reign (2 Kgs 21; 2 Chr 33). In the "Historical Setting" section above it was suggested that chap. 1 (including this superscription) was written near the end of Isaiah's life when Manasseh had rejected his father's religious reforms and was leading the nation into rebellion against God by worshiping other gods.
Superscriptions are important resources that help readers orient their interpretation to a time period and a specific kind of literary production. The reader's attitude toward this text would be totally different if the superscription said this was a lament, a song, or a gospel. A vision to Abram before the revelation of the law would be handled differently than a revelation to Daniel in the exilic period. Interpreters would treat a word from an Assyrian king different from an inspired vision from God. This superscription informs the reader that the words contained in this vision require attention so that one will interpret each passage according to its historical setting, as well as its literary character. A message from a divine source should also circumscribe the audience's theology and have an impact on their behavior. No one should read this revelation from God dispassionately, for it cannot be read without accountability.
2. God's Accusations of Rebellion against Judah (1:2-9)
2 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner's manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."
4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people loaded with guilt,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with oil.
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8 The Daughter of Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a field of melons,
like a city under siege.
9 Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.
Isaiah's actual sermon begins in v. 2. He does not overtly announce a "legal case" (rîb) against his audience like in Hos 4:1 or Mic 6:1, but the call for witnesses in 1:2 is reminiscent of similar calls for the heaven and earth to witness what God is doing (Deut 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Ps 50:4). The structure of a legal court case is only vaguely followed, so this may be a more personal warning of an impending case, more like an arraignment. Isaiah gave the audience insight into what charges God would bring and what the consequences would be if the people did not repent. If Isaiah could persuade his audience to change immediately, there would be no need for an official covenant lawsuit and the nation would avoid any further divine judgment.
This first paragraph is made up of two parts:
|God charges his sons with rebellion||1:2-3|
|An appeal to heaven and earth||2a|
|A charge of rebellion||2b|
|A comparative metaphor||3|
|Questions about the foolishness of more suffering||1:4-9|
|A lament over sinfulness||4|
|Questions about Judah's condition||5-6|
|Lamenting total destruction||7-9|
1:2 The prophet begins by announcing God's appeal, "hear, pay attention" (šimʿû), to the heavens and earth, which draws on theological themes in the covenant traditions from Deuteronomy. The heavens and earth served as a witness to the blessings and curses that God gave to Israel. The personified heaven and earth knew what marvelous privileges God offered to his people. The continual reception of these blessings or God's curse of judgment was directly related to the people's love or rebellion against God (Deut 30:15-20; 31:28). There was no way for the people to claim ignorance about what God desired, or for them to change the theological terms of God's relationship with them. The truth was known and firmly established. Thus the heaven and earth served as a silent witness to the facts of past covenant history, but at this point they were not yet called on to testify in a lawsuit about Israel's sinfulness. God is the speaker, and he brings the charges against Israel.
The accusation explains the charges based on the people's surprising response to God's gracious action (this paragraph also ends with a recognition of God's grace in 1:9). God faithfully and tenderly cared for his adopted "sons/ children" (cf. Hos 11:1-2), a reference to the nurturing of Israel (Exod 4:22) in its early days (notice he avoids the father imagery for God). These metaphors starkly contrast the divine care, blessing, and "raising up, exaltation" (rwm, also in 23:4) of Judah with their willful opposition to God and rebellious refusal to submit to his authority.
1:3 In light of everything God did, this rebellious attitude was inexcusable. With proverbial skill, Isaiah claims that even dumb animals like the ox and donkey know (yādaʿ) better than to behave like this. Isaiah used farm animals that the listeners could identify with to make this logical point from common experience more persuasive. The comparison probably drew a smile on people's faces, because almost everyone in his audience could tell stories about being unable to handle a stubborn ox, or how stupid their idiot donkey was. Yet everyone also knew that these dumb animals were smart enough to realize that they needed to come home at night if they wanted to eat. Although these animals were sometimes unwilling to submit to authority (just like Israel), they maintained their relationship with their owner. In contrast, the dumber Israelites who were "my people" (ʿammî) did not seem to "know" (yādaʿ) that they needed to maintain their covenant relationship with God. Unfortunately, there still are some religious people around who make unwise sinful decisions that make the average donkey look like a genius. This analogy about the failures of God's chosen people should cause "church people" today to ask the question: Have we ever acted like the rebellious people Isaiah is talking about (1:2-4)?
1:4-9 Having made this accusation, Isaiah breaks out with a brief lament: Some limit the lament to the "woe oracle" (hôy) in v. 4, but it seems best to view the prophet as lamenting all the way from v. 4 through v. 9. Laments and woe oracles often contain questions that ask why something bad is happening (Amos 5:18, 20; 6:2; Hab 1:2-3; Ps 13:1-2) and usually have a section describing the terrible trouble the person or nation is enduring (5:9-10; 28:7-8; 29:1-4). In this lament, Isaiah grieves because of the bruised condition of the punished nation of Judah. He identifies with his audience's condition in order to show them that he cares (an emotional appeal) and that there is a way out of their difficulty.
1:4 The woe oracle laments the spiritual cause of Judah's problems. Total depravity is emphasized in this cry of despair. The flurry of negative descriptors concentrates on the fact that the people are sinful, guilty, evildoers, corrupt, and that they have forsaken, spurned, and turned their backs on God. They are called a sinful "nation" (goy), a term usually used to define pagan nations, rather than the "people" (ʿam) of God. There is no doubt about why these difficult days have fallen on Judah. The prophet points to the seriousness of the situation by saying the people are "loaded/burdened" with guilt (as opposed to just a few sins) and have "forsaken/divorced" and "spurned/scorned" (as opposed to having just a minor difference with) the Holy One of Israel. This unfathomable rejection of the almighty, glorious, holy, and just covenant partner who loved them was tantamount to a rejection of his covenant love, a repudiation of his importance in their daily lives, and a denial of his divine character. These terms for sin do not indicate what the people replaced God with after they rejected him, but in other passages in the Old Testament these terms are sometimes connected to serving other gods (cf. 1:21-31; Deut 31:20; 32:19).
1:5-6 Isaiah laments this situation and asks the question any friend or parent would ask: Why are you doing such foolish things that cause you to get into so much trouble? The implication is, if you will address the root cause of your problems, the terrible consequences you are suffering will end. Judah is pictured as a person who was brutally beaten over her whole body (1:6). She is covered from head to toe with open bleeding wounds and ugly bruises that have not had any medical treatment.
1:7-9 This is a symbolic representation of a nation that was almost completely defeated in a war. This refers to the Assyrian attack by Sennacherib in 701 BC when he captured and desolated all the major cities of Judah except Jerusalem. In this case, the foreigners and strangers mentioned in 1:7 would refer to the Assyrian army that devastated the land. The Daughter of Zion was the only city left, and she was in a weakened state all by herself, like a lonely little temporary hut out in the field. The Daughter of Zion is a theological reference to the inhabitants of the glorious city of Jerusalem (a political term) who lived on the sacred mountain where God dwelt in his holy temple. Ironically, Zion looked more like the devastated cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9; Gen 19) than the majestic city of the great King (Ps 48:1-2)—a shocking comparison that purposefully raised painful comparative issues (the wickedness of both nations) that most Israelites would not want to recognize. The only difference between these cities that Isaiah mentions is that God graciously intervened and allowed a few survivors in Zion, while he totally destroyed Sodom (except Lot and his family). The distinction between Sodom and Jerusalem is not in the behavior of the people, but in the marvelous grace of God in miraculously delivering them from the Assyrian army (Isa 36-37).
3. God's Call for Reconciliation, Not Useless Worship (1:10-20)
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 "The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?" says the Lord.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
17 learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
18 "Come now, let us reason together,"
says the Lord.
"Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in 1:10 creates a natural connection with 1:9, but in these verses the theme changes dramatically to focus on the temple worship of the people in Judah. It is unclear why temple worship is addressed at this point, but the covenant lawsuit in Mic 6:6-7 also discusses the people's unacceptable worship. In Micah, someone in his audience tried to defend himself against Micah's accusations by proclaiming that the people sacrificed often and did everything God asked of them. This assertion is then followed in 6:8 with God's statement of what he actually required of them, thus demonstrating that God was not pleased with just a multitude of sacrifices. It is possible that Isaiah's audience also objected to Isaiah's accusations, claiming that God should not punish them since they were bringing him sacrifices. If someone in Isaiah's audience made such a claim, Isaiah's response in 1:10-15 would be a fitting answer.
The structural organization of this paragraph falls into three interrelated topics:
|1. What does not please God||1:10-15|
|2. What does please God||1:16-17|
|3. How to resolve these differences with God||1:18-20|
This critique of Judah's worship is unique in its form, but some phrases resemble other prophetic condemnations of unacceptable worship (Hos 6:4-6; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-25; Mic 6:6-8; Jer 7:1-12, 21-22). This was not a rejection of the sacrificial system of worship, but of the inadequacy of repetitious religious acts without appropriate confessions of sin, rejection of evil, and a commitment to live according to God's revealed standards of holiness and justice. If Manasseh was starting to introduce foreign worship into temple services around this time, that would explain why these religious acts were so detestable.
1:10 The transition from 1:9 to 1:10 is eased by the common reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in both verses, but the flow of thought is interrupted by a new imperative exhortation to "hear" (šimʿû), by a new "word of the Lord" (similar to 1:2), and by the identification of a more specific audience (the rulers). These factors indicate the beginning of a new paragraph. The comparison moves from a physical comparison of differences in 1:9 (Sodom did not survive, but by God's grace Jerusalem did) to an astonishing comparison of similarities between the rulers of both nations in 1:10. But how are the rulers and the people of Jerusalem like the terribly sinful rulers of Sodom? The answer is found in the two kinds of sins addressed: oppression of the weak and unacceptable worship. Ezekiel 16:49-52 mentions that the people of Sodom did not help the poor and needy (1:15-17 applies this problem to Jerusalem), while Jer 23:13-14 and Isa 1:10-14 describe their harlotry with idols and detestable sacrifices. Second Kings 21:2-5, 9, 16 reports that Manasseh followed the detestable practices of the Canaanites, built pagan altars in the temple courts, shed innocent blood, and did more evil than any earlier inhabitants in the land (including Sodom). The prophet's strong words from God did not have a modern "enlightened" pluralistic view that focused on the toleration of all religious practices. God views some acts as unacceptable abominations.
1:11-15 In defense of Isaiah's audience, one might claim that a major difference between the people of Sodom and Jerusalem was that the Hebrews offered sacrifices to Israel's God. Nevertheless, God's evaluation of his people's temple worship was entirely negative. God was not pleased with the large numbers of sacrifices that the rulers and people brought (1:11; see also 1 Sam 15:22). These were "your sacrifices," not God's. God was not "pleased" (ḥāpāṣtî) with what they were offering, though sacrifices were supposed to be "an aroma pleasing to God" (Lev 1:9, 13, 17). In God's mind there was a big difference between appearing before him at the temple and destructive "trampling" of his courts (1:12). Trampling does not simply refer to many people walking around in the temple; it describes an act of disrespect and the destruction of something (see 5:5). God does not want "false, deceptive" sacrifices (better than niv's "meaningless" in 1:13), "detestable, abominable" incense, or "evil" assemblies. Many commentators believe God was simply unhappy with a ritualistic religion that had no true heart relationship with God, but these sacrifices were "false," "abominations," and "detestable," terms normally saved for pagan sacrifices like those instituted by Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:2, 11). Wildberger correctly says, "it is really a heathen 'abomination' which Israel has appropriated for its own use." Not only did Isaiah oppose meaningless Hebrew ritual, he also opposed the repetitious pagan ritual that had infiltrated and polluted Hebrew worship.
In strong emotional terms God reveals that his very essence, his soul (napšî), hates their appointed feasts and he cannot bear to put up with them any longer (1:14). This statement represents the conclusion God has come to; he will "hide his eyes... will not listen" (1:15) because their hands were full of blood (cf. 1:21; 2 Kgs 21:16) from murderous acts of violence. The people must repent or God will refuse to listen to any of their prayers. This principle applies to all worshipers. Everyone who wishes to worship God should ask the question: "Is my worship acceptable to God, or has sin kept God from accepting my praise and prayers (1:10-15; 59:1-2)?"
1:16-17 This paragraph ends with a series of nine imperative exhortations that show what pleases God. The prophet is persuasively and forcefully calling on his listeners to change the way they live. Seven of these are positive things one should do; two (16b) call for the audience to stop doing something they were already doing. It might appear that there is an abrupt shift to a discussion of social ethics in v. 16 because the prophet does not appear to connect any of these phrases to temple sacrifices. Nevertheless, in 52 out of 73 cases, "wash" (raḥăṣû) refers to cultic cleansing and the hithpaʿel reflexive "make yourself clean" (hizzakkû) usually refers to what people do as part of their cultic responsibility, not to what God does (a passive verb would be required). Therefore, God is encouraging an internal change of the heart that is revealed in the symbolic outward action of washing. Contextually, to "take your evil deeds from my sight" instructs the people to remove the pagan detestable worship from before God's presence in the temple. The most natural flow of thought from vv. 10-15 to vv. 16-17 would be to interpret the cleansing of v. 16 as part of the solution to the problem of improper worship in vv. 10-15.
The implications of a changed life are not limited to following proper practices at worship. Acceptable behavior extends to all areas of life and particularly how leaders treat the weak and vulnerable in society (1:17). Such behavior requires that everyone in a position of authority should learn the principles of justice from the laws of God (Exod 20-23) and learn how to put those principles into practice. Shedding the innocent blood of the weak is unacceptable (1:15; 2 Kgs 21:16). Instead, God is pleased when rulers act justly and defend the widow and orphan from the unscrupulous ways of their oppressors (Deut 10:18; 24:17). In 66:3-4 the prophet makes the same point; proper worship and judicial ethics go hand in hand for those who desire to please God.
1:18 Although the situation may appear to be hopeless, Isaiah refers to the possibility of settling the conflict between God and Judah before this problem causes a complete separation between these covenant partners (1:18-20). Isaiah quotes another word from God ("says the Lord" in 1:18) that (a) informs the audience of an opportunity to resolve the accusations against Judah and to request God's forgiveness of sins (1:18), and (b) explains the implications of either accepting or rejecting God's ways (1:19-20). This invitation has a persuasive quality to it because it is not demeaning, demanding, or closed to Judah's positive response. The door is open for resolution and restoration.
The verb root ykḥ, which is in a cohortative form, encourages or requests action. The term sometimes is rendered "enter a lawsuit" or "let us test each other," but the basic meaning of the term is "to determine what is right." The imperative "come" requests a meeting of the parties "to determine what is right" in order to restore the relationship between God and his people. The spirit with which God desires to enter this discussion is not to argue whether Judah has sinned, nor to re-evaluate the legitimacy of people's worship, nor to reassess whether justice was provided for the widow or orphan. "Though your sins are like scarlet" assumes that Judah's sinfulness is an irrefutable fact; there is nothing to argue about. Instead, God offers grace through forgiveness to restore the relationship if Judah is willing to change. God does not have an agenda to end the relationship with punishment.
The nature of what is proposed in the second half of 1:18 is controversial, based on how one interprets the second half of each conditional sentence. Some take these words as questions: "shall they be as white as snow?" or "can they (then) pass for white like snow?" These commentators reject the common "they shall be as white as snow" because it appears to be an unconditional promise with no need for repentance. An alternative is to opt for a subjunctive or modal use of the verb ("they may/can become as white as snow") or a jussive translation ("they must become as white as snow") because these translations recognize the conditional nature of God's forgiveness. It appears that the modal "may/can" is the better way of understanding these conditional clauses.
The metaphor of sins as an indelible scarlet/red/crimson sign of guilt from a bloodstain (cf. 1:15; 63:1-3) is contrasted with the unstained pure white color of snow and wool that symbolizes forgiveness of sins (cf. Ps 51:7, "Wash me and I will be whiter than snow."). Verse 18 does not explain how that transformation was possible through atonement; all it suggests is that God can bring about this change. The imagery employed conveys the idea that through atonement God removed the sins and their stain; he did not just cover them up or hide them (Ps 103:12; Mic 7:19).
1:19-20 A resolution and restoration of fellowship between God and his people is dependent on God's ability to remove the stain of their sins (1:18) and the people's willingness to turn from sin and rebellion against God to faith and obedience to God. Verse 19 deals with the human choice to submit and follow God, while v. 20 addresses the choice of selfish rebellion against God's will. There are no other choices, for people must either serve God or reject God. The consequences of the people's choice will consist of divine blessing ("you will eat," ʾākal in the active voice) or divine cursing (lit. "you will be eaten/devoured," ʾākal in the passive). This covenantal way of thinking clearly laid out the future and "determined what was right." In the New Testament Jesus is just as clear and uncompromising when he says that people will either serve God or their own desires (Matt 6:24). People have to choose, and their choices will determine their eternal fate.