In Isaiah 1, God speaks as a man. By that I mean he speaks in the language we use. He uses our words, and his meaning is clear.
God’s tone (verses 1-8) is the tone of one who is grieving, as a father grieves his wayward children. He speaks not as an authoritarian–not as a lofty God of might who issues decrees with thunder and lightning. His tone is pleading, almost as though he has put himself down at our level.
Nevertheless, judgment is coming, but God’s call is ever for his people to repent. God’s first-ever recorded words to Cain urged him to repent:
… And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?
7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (Gen 4:4-8 ESV)
In response to God’s graphic description of the people’s sinfulness in verses 1-8, the first person plural voice of verse 9 acknowledges that they had sinned.
Isaiah 1:9 If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah. (Isa 1:9 ESV)
Nevertheless, it is God who acts in verse 9. It is he who did not (note the past tense, as though the speaker is recording after-the-fact) completely wipe out his people, as he had done when he passed judgment on the wicked towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here is the FIRST mention in Isaiah of those whom God “left,” or spared. Here, so early in the book, Isaiah introduces this group of people whom God addresses throughout the full length of Isaiah: those who repent and remain under his wing. The other group comprises those who do not.
Still in verse 9, the verbal phrase, “had not left us,” in the Septuagint contains the root (lemma) of the Greek word for “remnant,” which Paul announces in Romans 9:27, where he quotes from Isaiah 10, a few chapters later. Then, in Romans 9:29, he quotes this verse from Isaiah. The “remnant” whom God spares from judgment play a critical role in Isaiah. The ESV calls them, “a few survivors,” again in verse 9. In the Septuagint, the Greek word for “survivors” is “seed,” which my analytical lexicon labels as singular. God left a remnant, a leftover seed, whom he did not destroy. From Paul again, we recall that Christ is Abraham’s “seed,” singular (Galatians 3:16). I surmise that here in Isaiah 1:9, the seed are the remnant of the faithful, from who Messiah comes. The other group of people, for want of a better word, I call the “bulk,” the bulk of the people. As Isaiah progresses* through the reigns of four kings, a very long time, we find that he alternately addresses each of these two groups. We will watch for that.
If we were not sure that God is angry, verse 10 makes that abundantly clear. The speaker of verse 9 says, “If…, we would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah.” But with God there is no “if.” We know that he is speaking to the “bulk” group now, because he directly addresses them as though they are Sodom and Gomorrah:
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! (Isa 1:10 ESV)
And then, in verses 11-15, God speaks in the most personal of terms about how he does not want their forms of hypocritical worship–their false obedience to his law. In 16-17, he lists what he does want: his heart seeks justice for the fatherless, the widow, and the oppressed. Sins against these are the ones God notices.
Verses 18-19 are a direct call to repentance, along with a description of the blessings which will ensue. Verse 18 speaks the FIRST promise of cleansing in the book. Verses 18-20 offer the two choices: repent and be blessed, or continue rebelling and be punished.
In tragic terms, God describes in verses 21-23 how low the once beautiful city has fallen, how mismanaged and corrupt it has become. But in verse 24, he, the “Lord” and “LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel,” vows, “I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes.” This also is tragic, because verse 25 reveals that these enemies and foes are his own people. We know this from the text because he names his foes and enemies as, “you” and refers to them with the word, “your.” There is no doubt of whom God is speaking–his own people.
24 Therefore the Lord declares, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes. 25 I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. (Isa 1:24-25 ESV)
Verse 25 reveals, however, that his intention is to purify. He continues to describe the restoration of Zion by means of justice and righteousness in verses 26-27. But the closing verses switch back again to the “rebels and sinners,” and their end in verse 31 sounds a lot like hell. This causes the reader to go back and reread vs. 24-25, where the likelihood emerges that the group there who receives the cleansing are the remnant, while the rest of the chapter describes the bulk who will be destroyed.
I was first struck by the love of God and how he makes himself so accessible. His heart is that his people should repent and receive his blessing. Nevertheless, he, as the Sovereign Lord, judges wickedness. He will have none of it. But the pleading for repentance is strong here, as throughout the rest of the book. It is not God’s desire that any should perish.
As I read the descriptions of those who displease God, I could not help but think of our own country, America, right now, especially as we travel through this election season. As I look around the dark landscape our country has become, it seems as though Isaiah’s words directly describe us as a nation. How tragic that is. And what about the church? Is God wholly pleased with us?
Personally, the sins of my life are scarlet. In meditation, I rehearse these sins before the Lord. My only hope is that I will be one of the ones who continuously turns to God in confession and repentance. I am assured that God has loved me in the past, and if I remain humble and dependent upon him for my cleansing, I am sure he will love me to the end. Lord, help me to do my part. Lord, may it be so.
* It is true, this is not the first time I have read or studied Isaiah. I studied it many years ago, and discovered the concept of the remnant at that time. What is a surprise to me here, is that the remnant is named as early as v. 9 of chapter 1.