Commentary on Isaiah

Isaiah 1:1-31

  1. The Judgments of God (1:1-35:10)
    1. Coming Judgments and the Deliverance of Zion (1:1-6:13)
      1. The condition of God’s people (1:1-31)

These are the visions that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. He saw these visions during the years when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah.These kings reigned from 792 to 686 bc.


2Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth!

This is what the Lord says:

“The children I raised and cared for

have rebelled against me.

3Even an ox knows its owner,

and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—

but Israel doesn’t know its master.

My people don’t recognize my care for them.”

4Oh, what a sinful nation they are—

loaded down with a burden of guilt.

They are evil people,

corrupt children who have rejected the Lord.

They have despised the Holy One of Israel

and turned their backs on him.

5Why do you continue to invite punishment?

Must you rebel forever?

Your head is injured,

and your heart is sick.

6You are battered from head to foot—

covered with bruises, welts, and infected wounds—

without any soothing ointments or bandages.

7Your country lies in ruins,

and your towns are burned.

Foreigners plunder your fields before your eyes

and destroy everything they see.

8Beautiful Jerusalem stands abandoned

like a watchman’s shelter in a vineyard,

like a lean-to in a cucumber field after the harvest,

like a helpless city under siege.

9If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies

had not spared a few of us,

we would have been wiped out like Sodom,

destroyed like Gomorrah.

10Listen to the Lord, you leaders of “Sodom.”

Listen to the law of our God, people of “Gomorrah.”

11“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”

says the Lord.

“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams

and the fat of fattened cattle.

I get no pleasure from the blood

of bulls and lambs and goats.

12When you come to worship me,

who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?

13Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;

the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath

and your special days for fasting—

they are all sinful and false.

I want no more of your pious meetings.

14I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.

They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!

15When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.

Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,

for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.

16Wash yourselves and be clean!

Get your sins out of my sight.

Give up your evil ways.

17Learn to do good.

Seek justice.

Help the oppressed.

Defend the cause of orphans.

Fight for the rights of widows.

18“Come now, let’s settle this,”

says the Lord.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,

I will make them as white as snow.

Though they are red like crimson,

I will make them as white as wool.

19If you will only obey me,

you will have plenty to eat.

20But if you turn away and refuse to listen,

you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.

I, the Lord, have spoken!”

21See how Jerusalem, once so faithful,

has become a prostitute.

Once the home of justice and righteousness,

she is now filled with murderers.

22Once like pure silver,

you have become like worthless slag.

Once so pure,

you are now like watered-down wine.

23Your leaders are rebels,

the companions of thieves.

All of them love bribes

and demand payoffs,

but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans

or fight for the rights of widows.

24Therefore, the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,

the Mighty One of Israel, says,

“I will take revenge on my enemies

and pay back my foes!

25I will raise my fist against you.

I will melt you down and skim off your slag.

I will remove all your impurities.

26Then I will give you good judges again

and wise counselors like you used to have.

Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice

and the Faithful City.”

27Zion will be restored by justice;

those who repent will be revived by righteousness.

28But rebels and sinners will be completely destroyed,

and those who desert the Lord will be consumed.

29You will be ashamed of your idol worship

in groves of sacred oaks.

You will blush because you worshiped

in gardens dedicated to idols.

30You will be like a great tree with withered leaves,

like a garden without water.

31The strongest among you will disappear like straw;

their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire.

They and their evil works will burn up together,

and no one will be able to put out the fire.


Notes

1:1

visions.—The Hebrew khazon [TH, ZH2606] is singular. Goldingay (1998) points out that elsewhere the term is used only of a single vision, and he suggests that it applies here only to the first chapter. Further, he suggests that 2:1, rather than introducing the next chapter, is a colophon to the opening chapter.

1:2

Listen, O heavens.—The entire universe is called as witness to God’s indictment of his people (cf. Deut 30:19; 31:28; 32:1).

1:3

Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care.—In vivid and striking language, the rebellious and obtuse people of Judah are compared to animals.

but Israel doesn’t know its master.—God’s people did not spiritually recognize or acknowledge their Master (cf. Hos 2:10; 4:1). Even the instincts of such creatures as oxen or donkeys exceed those of the spiritually obtuse Judahites.

1:4

sinful nation.—The contrast with God’s holiness highlights the sick condition of the people.

children.—The concept of the covenant people as God’s children is also found in Deut 30:9; 32:5; Hos 2:1; 1 Chr 29:10 and elsewhere. Israel calls God “Father” in Isa 63:16 and 64:7. In Jer 31:8 and Mal 1:6 God calls himself the Father of Israel.

rejected the Lord.—“Rejected” translates the Heb. ʾazab [TH, ZH6440]. This customary word for “divorce” is used twenty-five times in Isaiah.

the Holy One of Israel.—Isaiah’s preferred name for God occurs twenty-six times in his book and only six times elsewhere in the OT.

1:8

Jerusalem.—The literal “daughter of Zion” (so nlt mg) personifies the city of Jerusalem and her inhabitants.

1:9

This verse is quoted by Paul in Rom 9:29, where it is linked with Isa 10:22-23.

the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. —Heb. yhwh tsebaʿoth. Traditionally, “the Lord of hosts” (kjv, nrsv, nasb, esv, cf. njps, reb) but with variations in new versions: “the Lord Almighty” (niv, tev); “the Lord All-Powerful” (ncv, cev); “the Lord of Armies” (gw). This Heb. term for armies or hosts is used of both earthly and heavenly forces. It is often translated in the lxx by pantokrator “Almighty,” a word found in the NT in Rev 1:8; 4:8; 11:17 and elsewhere.

1:10

Sodom... Gomorrah.—The covenant people of God would have been deeply offended at being compared with these perverted Gentile cities. Isaiah’s mention of the two infamous cities no doubt reminded his hearers of the reference to them in Deut 29:23. Sodom is mentioned again in Isa 3:9 and in Ezek 16:46, 48-49, 55-56.

1:11

fattened cattle.—Refers to cattle developed by special feeding for special use.

1:13

new moon.—The reference is to the New Moon festivals that were celebrated on the first day of each month with special sacrifices.

1:14

annual festivals.—These celebrations included the Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

1:15

I will not look.—The same imagery of God lit. “hiding his eyes” is also found in 8:17 and 59:2. Hypocritical worship is repulsive to God.

blood of innocent victims.—This could refer to the sin of murder (cf. 1:21) or even to the mistreatment of widows and orphans (1:17) that resulted in their loss of life.

1:17

orphans.—Lit., “fatherless” (yatom [TH, ZH3846]). This reflects the family structure of ancient Near Eastern society. Orphans, along with widows, were among the weak and exploited elements of society.

1:18

scarlet... crimson.—This refers to blood shed by the hands of murderers. Scarlet and crimson are two shades of deep red, symbolic of sin that leads to bloodshed and death. Apparently sin is never described as black in the Bible.

white as snow... wool.—These symbolize cleanliness, purity, and innocence (cf. Rev 1:14).

1:24

the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the Mighty One of Israel.—This stacking of names stresses God’s authority and introduces the verdict of judgment.

1:25

remove all your impurities.—This imagery of purifying fire is also found in 4:4 and 48:10, as well as in Zech 13:9; Mal 3:3; 1 Pet 1:7. The smelting process was designed to purify.

1:29

groves of sacred oaks.—This refers to sites where pagan sacrifices were offered and sexual immorality took place (cf. 65:3; 66:17).

Commentary

The opening chapters of Isaiah describe the condition of the Judahites (1:1-31). Among other indictments, they are called a fruitless vineyard (5:1-30). Nonetheless, hopeful words about the coming kingdom are also included (2:1-4:6). The section closes with an account of the prophet’s commission (6:1-13).

The opening words identify Isaiah as the son of Amoz (not Amos) and as the recipient of visions concerning the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. These visions also include references to other nations that shared history with Judah. The Hebrew word for “visions” used here also introduces the prophecies of Obadiah, Micah, and Nahum. The opening verses also place Isaiah historically by identifying the kings of Judah who were his contemporaries: Uzziah (792-740 bc), Jotham (750-732 bc), Ahaz (735-715 bc), and Hezekiah (715-686 bc). The historical background has already been discussed in the Introduction.

The introduction is immediately followed by a message to a nation that is rebelling against its Lord. These opening words are in the form of a lawsuit against God’s people and, in a very general way, are a preview of chapters 1-39. The people are said to be even more obtuse than animals, since other creatures know better than to ignore the hand that feeds them (1:3). The people of Judah are described as evil, corrupt, and “loaded down with a burden of guilt” (1:4). Isaiah’s message repeatedly focuses on the sin of rebellion as the root of the nation’s illness and problems, and their condition is vividly described in terms of a sick body covered from head to foot with “bruises, welts, and infected wounds—without any soothing ointments or bandages” (1:6). As a result of their attitude and conduct, the nation is plundered and lies in ruins; it is vividly compared to an abandoned “watchman’s shelter” after the harvest is finished (1:8).

In 1:10, the wicked people are compared to the sinners of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah and admonished to “listen to the law of our God,” a law that is both moral and ceremonial. The rebels had maintained their ceremonial observances in various external practices but had disobeyed the more basic moral laws. Instead of their offered incense being an aroma pleasing to the Lord as originally intended, it had become disgusting and repulsive to him (1:13). Eventually the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, said of their religious practices, “I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!” (1:13-14). God further warned the people that the sin they accommodated in their lives would affect their prayers and therefore said, “When you lift up your hands in prayer I will not look” (1:15).

In addition to observing the law, the people were to “Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows” (1:17). The Lord’s people were instructed to help each other at a time long before governmental social agencies existed to address such needs. The good news for these sinful people was forgiveness—the Lord promised that “though your sins are like scarlet,” they could become “as white as snow” (1:18) on the condition that they would “only obey me” (1:19). On the other hand, if they turned away and refused to listen, they would be destroyed by their enemies (1:20). The prophets often depicted Jerusalem as a prostitute in pitiful condition (1:21). Jerusalem had been unfaithful to her covenant Lord and had gone after other lovers. In another graphic image, Jerusalem’s former “pure silver” had now become “worthless slag,” and her former purity had deteriorated into “watered-down wine” (1:22). The city’s leaders had associated with thieves taking bribes, but had refused to come to the aid of orphans and widows (1:23).

The spiritual and moral condition of the people could only provoke the wrath and judgment of the Holy One of Israel. “The Lord, the Lord of the Heavenly Armies, the Mighty One of Israel” would give vent to his holy wrath and pour out his fury on them, calling them his “enemies” and “foes” (1:24). God starkly said, “I will raise my fist against you” (1:25). However, the Lord would never totally destroy his people; a remnant would always remain. This remnant motif appears repeatedly in Isaiah, especially in chapters 1-12 and 28-29, but it began in Genesis with Noah and Lot (Graham 1976:217ff). The purpose of this judgment on God’s covenant people was to melt them down, skim off their slag, and remove their impurities (1:25).