The first chapter of the book serves as a general introduction to all the writings in the collection, including it in most of the themes of the book. The chapter falls into four sections: the indictment of Israel’s sin, the rejection of their hypocritical attempt at reconciliation, the gracious invitation of Yahweh, and a lament over the state of the nation. The first three sections form a natural unit with a culminating invitation; I would use them as the substance of the message. The fourth section could be a fourth point, or an epilogue, or it could be alluded to and drawn in while discussing the first point (this works pretty well homiletically).
Several things in general need to be made clear about this passage. First, the literary form and vocabulary of the passage is that of a legal context. God is bringing a formal indictment against the nation. The passage invites comparison with other legal texts (especially the so-called rib passages, Hebrew rib [pronounced reev] is a legal dispute or lawsuit). Second, the setting of the passage appears to be a festal gathering when all the people assembled in the area of the Sanctuary to pray to God to protect them from their invading enemies who are closing in on them. We may go so far as to suggest that this gathering was the Feast of Tabernacles, for the passage mentions “booths” (sukkot), the oil of the fall harvest, and begins with a reflection on the way that the Book of Deuteronomy ends—a book that was to be read at the Feast of Tabernacles.11 At such an assembly the people would look for words of comfort from a prophet near the end of the services, but this was not what they got—rather, a stern rebuke and call for repentance. Third, the historical setting seems to be the invasion of Sennacherib of Assyria. The events take place in the last part of the eighth century, B.C. Samaria was destroyed in 722 by Sargon and Shalmaneser.12 Sennacherib invaded the land several times, and according to his account of the third campaign he destroyed 46 cities, carried off 200,000 people from Judah, imposed a heavy tribute on the land, and locked up Hezekiah in the city of Jerusalem like a bird in the cage. This passage certainly offers a picture of such devastation in the land of Judah. So the event may have been the invasion of 701 B.C., or thereabouts, by Sennacherib of Assyria. Isaiah will preach that the nation deserved this catastrophe because of its sin.13
Whenever we study this kind of material we must keep in mind the spiritual situation, otherwise our applications will be off. Israel was a theocracy, the “people of God” as they were called; the whole nation, whether believers or unbelievers, were under the Law of Moses and accountable to it. In the Law there were sections of blessings and cursings that were held out to the people. If there was sufficient sin in the nation, sin persisted in collectively, then the nation would be destroyed and sent off into exile; if there was continued obedience by a sufficient number, then the blessing of God would be poured out on them. We may use the analogy of Sodom and Gomorrah (for Isaiah does). If there had been ten righteous men—sufficient to have a congregation or at least a religious community with a witness—then the cities would have been spared. As it was, there were only a few believers and they were hardly an influence over anyone. So the cities were destroyed. As long as a faithful remnant existed, Isaiah would see hope for the blessing of God.14
Please note, the audience of Isaiah would be made up of true believers who walked with God (and who would then have to suffer because of the sins of others), true believers who were not walking with God (and therefore God’s actions to them would be disciplinary), unbelievers who pretended to be righteous and looked pious on the surface (God’s actions to them would be judgment if they did not repent), and unbelievers who left no doubt about their idolatry and sin and had no intention of repenting (if they did not repent, God would purge them from the nation). I suggest that often you will have all four types in most congregations or groups when you speak; so how should the message be directed? We cannot treat them all the same. So we make separate applications: the Babylonian captivity was a catastrophe: to the unbeliever it was divine judgment that purged them from the earth and began their eternal fate; to the sinful believer it was divine discipline meant to bring them to their knees (if they remained alive); to the believers who had not done anything to warrant this, it was a call to suffer on behalf of others.
This chapter is a call for repentance to all who needed to repent. That would include the last three groups, but probably be focused on the last two mostly, for it is speaking of the reprobate and the hypocrite. Now if you are teaching this passage to a modern congregation made up of fairly devout evangelical Christians, you will have to adjust your application, for they are not reprobates that God is going to purge from the nation. Your message may simply be that we should be proclaiming to the world what Isaiah has proclaimed in this chapter. Or, if you like, you might focus on obedience (at the end of the chapter) as evidence of repentance and as condition for further blessing. But if you still wished to call for repentance, you would probably say that this passage warns even us as to the results of sins persisted in or cumulatively held, and of the worthless nature of hypocritical worship. It can be a call for repentance, but if the audience is a group of covenant members, true believers, the “or else” part of your call for repentance will be different than if they are not believers at all. Their salvation may not be in jeopardy, but their service to and fellowship with God will be. A believer who repents of sin restores a relationship with his or her God; an unbeliever who repents and avails himself or herself of the grace of God finds forgiveness and passes from death to life.
In other words, we must harmonize our exegetical ideas with general theology—the covenant is an eternal covenant, but participation in it requires faith and obedience. Once a person enters covenant with God, that relationship is secure. The problem of sin takes a different approach than with the non-covenant member. So when you read Isaiah and he addresses the nation or the people of God, do not assume he means by that they are all true believers. Most were not. And when you make your applications from such a passage, you will have to specify how the text is to be applied to different types today. In fact, this kind of precision with exegesis and theology and application is just what this experience in Isaiah will require.
In the following discussion of Isaiah 1 I have included my exegetical outline. Note that it is written in historically descriptive sentences that summarize the contents of the verses. In the expositional section I shall demonstrate how I would turn them into expository points. Writing the exegetical outline is important for two reasons: (1) it forces you to stay tied to the text, so that in forming your expository points you will reflect these very ideas; and (2) when you are preaching or teaching a passage, as you turn to the text after introducing your expository point you can use a summary statement like this to begin your comments or analysis of the section. If you do develop exegetical syntheses, no matter how rough, the development of expository points is much easier. Most teachers and study leaders skip this step as unnecessary, and that is a pity because of all the steps it helps you to put in your own words what the section is saying, and that brings clarity to any Bible study.
Here is the exegetical outline of Isaiah 1:2-20 (the first three sections only since they are the critical part of the theology of the chapter).
I. The Indictment: The prophet announces that Israel’s ungrateful rebellion against the LORD has pervaded the nation and brought painful ruin to the land (2-9).
A. God summons the nation to answer for its sins (2a).
B. God charges the nation with complete sinfulness (2b-4).
1. They have ungratefully rebelled against the LORD who brought them into existence (2b,3).
2. They are completely sinful (4).
C. God pleads with the nation to end the devastation in the land (5-8).
1. The prophet portrays Israel as a sick man who is completely ruined by sin (5,6).
2. The entire land has been devastated by an invasion (7,8).
3. Only God’s grace kept the nation from complete annihilation (9).
II. The Wrong Remedy: The Sin of Israel has rendered their frantic attempts to worship and pray to God unacceptable and detestable to God (10-15).
A. God calls Israel to attention again (10).
B. God denounces Israel’s frantic attempts to approach Him for help (11-15).
1. Their sacrifices are purposeless and therefore displeasing to God (11).
2. Their assemblies and celebrations are vain and therefore repugnant to God (12-14).
3. Their hypocritical prayers remain unanswered (15).
III. The Divine Solution: Those who turn from their wicked ways to learn to do what is right will find complete forgiveness and blessing from God (16-20).
A. God calls the nation to turn away from evil and begin doing what is right, i.e., to show true repentance (16,17).
1. They must change their minds and their actions about evil (16).
2. They must learn to do what is right in society (17).
B. God promises complete forgiveness for sin for those who will accept His offer to settle the dispute (18).
C. God promises blessing for obedience and punishment for disobedience (19-20).
Now that we have a workable exegetical outline, the next thing to do is to write a summary of the whole passage in one good sentence. This forces us to condense the ideas in a way that can be easily summarized, but it also forces us to decide where the center of the message will be. Here I will take the third section as the main focus; therefore, the wording of the other two parts will be as subordinate clauses. I simply take the three Roman numeral points, write them together as a sentence, and condense. My exegetical summary of 1:2-20 is as follows:
Having announced the painful ruin that Israel’s sinfulness has brought, and having rejected the hypocritical worship they frantically tried to offer, the LORD offers to all who will truly repent complete forgiveness for sins and blessing for obedience.
Now, it is a fairly simple step to take the summary and the exegetical points and transfer them into more useful expository points. This means they will be worded as timeless truths, and not historically descriptive statements. But the wording must be true to the original context as well as to our situation. So in the following discussion of the verses I have inserted a workable expository outline. I say workable because it can always be improved, or it may be worded differently depending on the situation—but it always must fit the original setting as well.
So you see, this kind of a point is not talking about people back there, but about a principle that still applies. And by wording it this way I have brought the modern audience in to hear what the prophet said to the ancient audience. I could leave in the catch-word “Indictment” but that will come out in the exposition anyway, since this is a legal dispute. My exposition will explain what their sinfulness and their ruin was, and then show in other times, including ours, the kind of sin and the kind of pain that must be remedied.
The passage begins with God’s summons of the nation to judgment with an indictment against them for their ignorant and ungrateful rebellion against Him. In these verses there are a few things that need comment.
Verse 2 is the call to judgment. Israel is accused, God is the Judge and the Plaintiff, and “heaven and earth” is witness. This last expression is a merism for the whole universe. Everything in creation will witness this. Compare Deuteronomy 32:1 as well as Psalm 50.
The general statement at the outset is that they have “rebelled.” Pasa` is the critical word here; it warrants a word study because it seems to summarize the charge against them. It often describes a political or military rebellion. So it describes sin that is open aggression, wilful rebellion. It is, by the way, the same word David uses in his great confession of sin in Psalm 51.
The contrast is with the beneficence of God who reared and nourished them as children (the figure of hypocatastasis is being used); the verbs gadal and romam could also convey “made great” and “exalted.” They were dependent; God had brought them up. But they rebelled. In addition to their sins we may add the sin of ingratitude as well.
Verse 3 shows that their sin was ignorant. The parallelism of this quatrain is beautifully balanced: the two halves are antithetical, but the two parts in each half are loosely synonymous. The ox and the ass contrast with the people of God who do not “know” (yada’) or “consider” (bin). It is significant that the words “owner/creator” (qoneh)15 and “master” (ba’al) are juxtaposed with the animals, not the people, as if to say they have rejected their creator and lord (a fact to which all creation will witness).
Verse 4 is the full catalog of the “rebellion” of Israel. I would note that there are here seven expressions for their sin, signifying how complete or all-consuming it was.16 The main words for sin are used here. “Sinful nation” uses hata’, missing the mark; “people laden with iniquity” uses ‘awon, the term for departing from the standard or turning aside (and including the other metonymically derived ideas of guilt and deserved punishment); “seed of evil-doers” makes use of the word ra’, the word that portrays the pain that sin causes; and then there is the expression “children who are corrupters,” the key word being shakhat, corrupting, ruining, destroying—a term used for God’s destruction of Sodom. The other three expressions are clear enough: they forsook Yahweh, they provoked the Holy One (qadosh, a critical term in Isaiah), and they have gone back, spiritually as well as politically and economically.
Their sin was all-consuming and corrupting. Their various acts fit all the biblical descriptions of what sin involves. But in your exposition you will have to specify. The way to do that in this chapter is to look at the last part and see what Isaiah is telling them to do (such as, take care of the widow and the orphan); those will indicate what these general terms are getting at that they had not been doing.
Verses 5 and 6 give us a personification of the land as a beaten and bruised man. The reality of this description will be the devastation described in verses 7 and 8. I would not spend a great deal of time here, other than to explain what the verses mean. I would note, though, that there are again seven descriptions—an introductory clause and then wounds, bruises, sores, and then three negative descriptions of not being pressed, not being bound, and not mollified. It is a complete ruin. It is also worth pointing out that a word like “sick” (holi) again shows up in Isaiah 53 where the LORD removes infirmities vicariously.
Verses 7 and 8 stress the theme of devastation (shamam used twice) at the hands of foreigners (zarim used twice). The effect of the invasion is expressed in three similes that describe the ruin left over: the villages17 are like a booth, a lodge, and a besieged city.
Verse 9 introduces the image of “Sodom and Gomorrah” into the oracle. The figure is simile; the effect of the simile is an allusion to Genesis 19 in which the cities of the plain were wiped off the face of the earth. God did not permit that for Jerusalem. See the historical books to understand why.
This section describes the frantic worship of people in crisis, but they are unrepentant people and so their efforts are hypocritical and therefore totally loathsome to God. In this section we learn that the sinners Isaiah has just described are actually present in the sanctuary trying to call on God for help.
In verse 10 Isaiah calls the leaders of the people of Israel “rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah.” The figure is hypocatastasis, making an implied comparison between the two. The Hebrews are no different. This chapter does not limit the sin of Sodom to social injustice, although that was part of their sin. All the terms in this chapter describe the people of Israel and the people of Sodom alike—they were corrupt and corrupting, self-indulgent and indifferent, perverting and perverse. Genesis 19 focuses on what manifestation such an attitude takes: if one’s quest is self-gratification, then the responsibility of righteousness is jettisoned for self-gratification.
Verse 11 affirms that their offerings are unprofitable. The threefold description is that they are useless (“What to me?”), have no purpose (“vain,” a term used in the Decalogue), and give God no pleasure. The rejection is cast in the form of a rhetorical question to begin with, an erotesis, the name for rhetorical questions.
Verse 12 states that their very attendance in the service was not welcome. The verb “trample” (ramam) is literally “stampede”; “Who required you to stampede my courts?”—like a bunch of wild animals. “Stampede” is an implied comparison again; and the question is another erotesis.
Verse 13 details the rituals they perform as hypocritical and therefore detested by God. Their minkhah is vain (shaw’, worthless, vain, to a false purpose); their incense (a metonymy of adjunct for prayer) is an abomination (to’ebah, off limits, a tabu); about their assemblies the text quotes the LORD as saying, “I cannot - “ and gives no completion for the sentence. Cannot what? The figure is aposiopesis, the sudden silence, sudden breaking off of the sentence because of intense emotions and frustrations. He concludes by saying it is all iniquity; here the word is ‘awen. But note that hypocritical worship is not merely worthless—it is iniquity.
Verse 14 describes their feasts as wearying to God and hated by Him. The verb “hate” (sane’) includes both the ideas of rejecting and feeling dislike for something. To say “my soul” hates is to say this feeling and decision comes from deep down inside. It enhances the hatred.
Verse 15 completes this section with a note that their prayers will not be answered. The four cola include two that are figurative and two that are literal. “Spread out your palms frantically” is the metonymy of adjunct; the reality is prayer. “Hide my eyes” is the anthropomorphic expression; will not answer is the reality. The reason? Their hands (metonymy of cause) are full of blood (metonymy of effect or adjunct). Their activities have destroyed other people and so their prayers and presence are unacceptable. Violent sin cannot be overlooked by fervent acts of ritual and worship; God will not tolerate hypocritical acts of ritual.
These verses need less work in the exegetical studies than most of the preceding ones did, for they are rather clear, painfully clear to most readers. They make the offer of full forgiveness, but the offer is based on genuine repentance, that is, a change of attitude and action, turning from sin and learning to do good. Positive acts of righteousness are called for because they will indicate whether or not there is true repentance.
Verses 16 and 17 give nine admonitions to the people. But they use parallelism and they include figurative and literal expressions, so the nine can be condensed: “wash you, make you clean” are taken together as the general summary for the repentance and forgiveness (“wash” is the hypocatastasis, and “make clean” is the metonymy drawing on Temple ritual from Leviticus); “put away the evil of your doings, cease doing evil, learn doing good” is the threefold call for the change of life that follows forgiveness (“good” is that which enhances, protects, and promotes life; it is the opposite of “evil” which brings pain and ruin to life); and the last four admonitions are specific calls for how to promote and protect life: “seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge [vindicate] the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow.” Such instructions of championing justice in society were common in the ancient world, for they depicted both justice and mercy. These would be examples of a change toward righteousness. One thinks of various biblical examples, such as Zachaeus, who restored far more than he defrauded—that was evidence of true repentance. So these commands are clear; but you need to correlate other passages where they are mentioned, or where such acts of righteousness are also meant to display a change of heart.
Verse 18 tells how this life-changing forgiveness will take place. God will change their lives if they truly repent and confess to Him. The verse is one of the most beautiful in all Scripture. We need to look at it closely:
“Come now and let’s settle this dispute, says Yahweh,
leku-na’ weniwwakehah yo’mer YHWH
Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow
‘im yihyu khata’ekem kasshanim kassheleg yalbinu
“though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”
‘im ya’dimu kattola’ katstsemer yihyu.
The order of the verse reads literally like this:
“though / they be / your sins / like scarlet /
like snow / they shall be white;
though / they be red / like crimson /
like wool / they shall be.
Here we have the repetition of two similes to stress the point being made. In addition, the word order makes the contrasts within these lines more glaring: the two nouns which form the contrasts meet in the middle, and the first and last cola use “they will be” while the second and third use the Hiphil forms of the verbs of color.
The emotional and intellectual connotations of the words used are striking. The “scarlet” (shani) refers to the highly prized brilliant red color produced from the Kermococcus vermillio Planch to produce the famous red dye (Sanskrit krmi; Persian Kerema, kirm; Pahlevi kalmir; Hebrew karmil; and our “carmine” and “crimson.” See also Persian sakirlat and Latin scarlatum). There is great symbolism in the Bible for colors. In the Book of Revelation, for example, the Great Whore is in purple and scarlet while the Saints are in white. Why does Isaiah use red for sin? Dreschler suggested it meant bloodshed—a blood stained garment enwrapping the sinner. Delitzsch interpreted it as a fiery life that was selfish and passionate, a life characterized by wild tempestuous violence. These ideas may well have been in Isaiah’s mind. At least we may say that red signifies that which is most conspicuous and glaring.
In contrast to the scarlet and crimson is the whiteness of wool and snow. Not only do these terms represent purity from the cleansing from sin, but they convey the sensations of softness and freshness. The emotional overtones of peace and tranquility offset those of violence and passion.
Verses 19 and 20 conclude the call for change with the alternatives for their responses—blessings and curses. If they turn and obey they will “eat” the good of the land; if they refuse and rebel they will be “eaten” by the sword. The idea of eating is first literal, although it would be metonymical for eating and dwelling with the best that God gives; it is then figurative for death by the sword, a hypocatastasis.
Now that we have a good idea of the meaning of the message in the original setting, and have worked out the wording of the expository points, we must develop the entire exposition, determining what needs to be discussed and how much discussion on the important points is necessary. In adapting it to our modern situation, we do not want to leave the original context behind. The main theological ideas always must fit the original situation as well as our modern setting. So exact exegesis must be properly explained and correlated with the New Testament.
It is important that you be able to state your theological idea in an effective expository affirmation—in one good sentence. This sentence will be drawn from your summary statement of the passage (joining the major points into a paragraph and condensing them to one sentence), but in the process must be turned into a clear statement. Why do this? It forces you to be focused in your message. It forces you to be contextual in your message. It forces you to be clear in your message. It forces you to decide what the main point (of the three) is and how the others are to be subordinated to it. For this passage something like this will work: Genuine repentance, and not hypocritical worship, brings God’s complete forgiveness for any and all sin. Now, as you speak you can keep the central point of the passage in sight and make sure everything contributes to that end.
Note, even if you do not teach, you should be able after a Bible study to express what the passage is teaching in a clear and direct way. This skill will help you to become an articulate Christian.
Correlation with other Scriptures and specific applications will now be more easily developed because you know what your passage is teaching. Now you can write a conclusion and an introduction to it, because you know what the chapter is all about, and how you want to use it.
It will be fairly easy to correlate the New Testament with this passage, because it presents the basic doctrines. I could use a few clear teachings of Jesus here.18 For the first part on sin, I could use, “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.” For the second part on worthless worship, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (—straight out of Isaiah anyway). And for the third point, with a little definition I could use, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
My application would then specify what they should believe about sin, about the provision of grace, and about the futility of works of righteousness without forgiveness. What should they do? Repent (defined as turning away from evil and toward good) and seek God’s forgiveness.
If I am speaking to a predominantly Christian group, I might have a different application, focusing on the good works that will bring blessing to those who have been forgiven. Titus 3:1-8 works very well here, for it explains that we were sinful as they, but we have been washed, we have been sanctified, and now must demonstrate our faith by good works of righteousness. All the major motifs of Isaiah 1 can be found in that passage.
Corney, R. W. “Isaiah 1:10.” VT 4 (1976):497-98.
Culver, Robert Duncan. “Isaiah 1:18—Declaration, Exclamation, or Interrogation?” JETS 12 (1969):133-141.
Honeyman, A. M. “Isaiah 1:16.” VT 1 (1951):63-65.
Jones, Douglas. “Exposition of Isaiah One Verses Ten to Seventeen.” SJT 18 (1965):457-71; “Exposition of Isaiah One Verses Eighteen to Twenty.” SJT 19 (1966):319-327; “Exposition of Isaiah Chapter One Verses Twenty-One to the End.” SJT 21 (1968):320-329.
Marshall, Robert J. “The Structure of Isaiah 1-12.” Bib Res 7 (1962):19-32.
Rignell, L. G. “Isaiah Chapter 1.” Stud Th 11 (1957):140-158.
11 Of course, most modern critical scholarship does not believe that Deuteronomy was written or available until 621 B.C.; some might say its contents were being preached earlier.
12 Sargon was the king of Assyria who invaded the land. He died while the siege of Samaria was in full force in 723/722 B.C., and Shalmaneser succeeded him and finished the job.
13 Subsequent oracles will be from earlier times in Isaiah's ministry, even when the northern kingdom is still in existence. So this oracle was selected as the introductory one because it hit all the major themes of the collection.
14 See the work by Gerhard Hasel, The Remnant. This is a doctrine we shall have to look at seriously in these prophetic oracles.
15 This word is difficult for there are two homonyms in the language, one means possess and the other create. Since they are spelled exactly alike, the context must determine which it is.
16 See John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology, A Basic Study of the Use of Numbers in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968).
17 Jerusalem is the Queen City; the daughters of Zion are the villages all around. So there is an implied comparison between daughters and villages.
18 By "clear" I mean passages that I could quote in conjunction with Isaiah and not have to spend time explaining them.