Bible Commentary: Isaiah 1

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Isaiah 1

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Introduction to Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah was contemporary with Hosea. They delivered their prophecies during the reigns of the same four kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1; Hosea 1:1). Hosea also mentions a king of Israel during Uzziah's reign, perhaps because the primary focus of Hosea is the people of the northern kingdom. Isaiah's message is directed toward Judah and Jerusalem, and those nations that interact with them. Yet sometimes, it should be noted, Jerusalem is a reference to all 12 tribes of Israel, as they were at one time united under it. In any case, although the message was relevant for the people of Isaiah's day, it was also written as a prophecy for the end-time nation of Judah, Israel and the other nations of the world.

Isaiah's actual calling appears to be recorded in chapter 6, and occurs in the final year of Uzziah's reign. The first five chapters serve as a long introduction to the book. The name "Isaiah" means "The Eternal Saves" or "The Eternal Helps" and the deliverance of Judah and Israel, as well as the gentile nations, is a central theme of the book. Isaiah is called the messianic prophet for an obvious reason—his many wonderful prophecies of the coming Deliverer, the Messiah, and the Messiah's coming reign over all nations. That Messiah would, as all professing Christians understand, be revealed as Jesus Christ. Speaking of Jesus, John 12:41 says that Isaiah "saw His glory and spoke of Him." (Isaiah is quoted or referred to 85 times in the New Testament—from 61 separate passages.)

Isaiah is referred to 13 times as the son of Amoz, which may suggest that his father was a man of some prominence. According to Jewish rabbinic tradition in the Babylonian Talmud, this Amoz was a brother of Judah's King Amaziah. If so, this would make Isaiah first cousin to King Uzziah, and a grandson of King Joash—and thus a man of the palace, being of royal blood. Growing up in such an environment, he would have been familiar with international relations and other affairs of state. According to the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, Isaiah was martyred when King Manasseh, apostate son of Hezekiah, had him fastened between two planks and "sawn asunder" (to which Hebrews 11:37 appears to refer).

"Critical" scholarship—that based in the view that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God nor written when it claims to be—has denied Isaiah's authorship of chapters 40-66. Instead it attributes this section to a later unknown author it calls "Deutero-Isaiah," i.e., "Second Isaiah" though not actually named Isaiah. Others have argued for a third author (Trito-Isaiah) for chapters 55-66. The New Testament, however, quotes from all three sections of the book, attributing each quote to the one biblical prophet Isaiah himself (compare Isaiah 1:9 and Romans 9:29; Isaiah 53:1 and Romans 10:16; Isaiah 65:1 and Romans 10:20).

Why do critics try to post-date Isaiah? Mainly because Isaiah accurately prophesied future events. (For example, Isaiah names the Persian ruler Cyrus 200 years before he came to power, Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1.) So the critics have a choice: either they must admit that a power and intelligence greater than their own human mind had inspired these prophecies, or they must find some other way to explain them. They took the latter solution and redated the prophecies. They attempted to shove the date of composition forward a few centuries—so that the prophecies appear to have been written after all of the prophesied events had already occurred. That has been true of higher criticism for most prophetic books.

But with Isaiah, resolution is not achieved by merely pushing the date forward. The critics have had to distort the book—attributing various parts of it to the fraudulent writings of between two and five authors! Why are so many authors needed by the critics? To understand, we must remember the "fundamental axiom of criticism." Having decided that a prophet cannot foretell the future, it is essential for the critics that the 'pseudo-author' be writing for his own generation. Starting with this assumption, the scholar then looks to history for a historical context into which each prophet can be fit. But that alone doesn't work with Isaiah, as there is no historical situation into which the book as a whole can be squeezed (i.e., Isaiah appears to have been writing across multiple generations and periods). The answer? Isaiah had to be sawn asunder! Applying literary criticism, a "first Isaiah" is supposedly distinguished from a "second Isaiah"—and a "second" from a "third"—solely on the basis of changes in writing style.

But writing style isn't the real crux of the matter. Nothing definite can be determined by counting particles, articles, conjunctions or any other "characteristic traits" of a person's writing. The fact is that an accomplished author's writing style will change over the years, and with the subject matter—so evidence based on writing style is tenuous. To illustrate the problem, modern computer-based literary analysis has mistakenly claimed that Ian Fleming didn't write James Bond, and that the works of the 20th-century writers Graham Greene and G.K. Chesterton had "more than one author." So literary variation can't legitimately be the main reason for the critics' determination. Clearly, the real criteria for breaking Isaiah down into sections are the fulfilled prophecies it contains. No one, they assume, could have written them as "prophecies." And anyone who wrote them as "histories" had to have been present in several eras of Israelite history.

"Though Your Sins Are Like Scarlet…"

As the book opens, we see in the first chapter God's utter exasperation with Judah and Jerusalem. The message here is directed primarily to the southern kingdom of Judah, as only Jewish kings are mentioned (verse 1), the "faithful city" (Jerusalem) is reprimanded (verses 21-26) and the sacrificial temple system is discussed. The sacrificial system has ceased to serve its purpose of focusing the people on God and the need for righteousness (compare Micah 6:6-8). Indeed, the people display a form of religiosity—yet it is form without substance (compare 2 Timothy 3:5).

Those with antinomian—anti-law—mindsets often twist verses 13 and 14 to support their contention that Jesus Christ came to earth to abrogate God's laws. They would interpret these verses to mean that the observance of God's Sabbath and festivals were never worth much in the first place. But such a misinterpretation contradicts much of the rest of the Old Testament and New Testament. The point here is that the character of the people has degenerated to the point that the manner in which they keep the Sabbath and religious festivals has become offensive to God. Their attitudes and approach had so degenerated that the Holy Day observances were hardly recognizable to God as having originated with Him. They were no longer His feasts, but the wayward people's feasts. Indeed, besides observing God's true festivals in a wrong manner and attitude, Israel had even instituted its own substitute holidays and participated in pagan observances. And the people of the modern nations of Israel have followed in the same course—both in practice and attitude. Note the combination of "iniquity" (lawlessness and evil) and "the sacred meeting"—what incongruity, hypocrisy and blasphemy!

Because of the people's defiance, we see that God has ceased listening to their prayers. This is a theme echoed through many of the prophets. Neither the leaders nor the general populace are properly executing righteous judgment and relieving those who are oppressed. God will not accept such hypocrisy.

Such conditions exist even today. In the United States, for example, spirituality is widely sought—yet most of those seeking it pursue everything but God's actual truth and live in increasing disobedience to Him. Yet God pleads with His people to change—and promises that someday, whatever it takes, they ultimately will.

The word pictures of Isaiah 1, as in much of Isaiah, are powerful and memorable. The metaphors of an owner (verse 3) and of sickness and injuries (verses 5-6), and the similes of total forgiveness (verse 18) are famous passages, although most of the world has not responded to the important lessons.