My normal practice each summer is to live within only one book of the Bible.
For a few years, I read and re-read the book of Judges from May to August. Then it was the Psalms. Then it was the Book of the Twelve. I find that an extended study of one particular book helps me better grasp the book’s overarching structure and themes. It helps me familiarize myself with an author, his audience, how the entire text fits together, and how it might have been understood originally.
Admittedly, I have not done that this summer. I’ve gotten too wrapped up in creating video lessons for my youth group, as well as other covid-related study projects, to slow down and pay deeper attention to one text.
Better late than never. This post is an attempt to summarize what I am beginning to learn from my repeated readings of the book of Isaiah. It’s likely that I will be posting several more blogs about this book in the coming weeks or months as God’s prophet continues to teach me what he will.
Isaiah’s Israel (a bit of history to ground the study)
During the reign of David and Solomon, Israel experienced an age of wealth, prosperity, and relative peace. However, and following the death of Solomon in the 930’s B.C., that golden age abruptly ended.
The idolatry that Solomon introduced into the land was multiplied sevenfold.
And under Solomon’s son, the kingdom split into two. The northern kingdom, often referenced as simply “Israel,” retained most of the land. The southern kingdom, often referenced as “Judah,” retained Jerusalem. And there was much quarrelling between the two.
In the 800’s B.C., the nation of Syria was the superpower in the ancient Near East. Both Israel and Judah lived in fear of invasion. But, the warlord people of Assyria rose to power and began putting immense pressure on Syria. And as a result, both Syria and Assyria were weakened for a time. This created a power void in Palestine, which enabled both Israel and Judah to regain some of the wealth they had once experienced in their first golden age.
However, there was no king like David to make sure that the northern and southern kingdoms followed Torah any longer. And so, while both Israel and Judah enjoyed trade relations with Phoenicia and Edom, their dealings in the marketplace were often unjust. It was a time where the rich got richer off of the backs of the exploited poor, and syncretistic hollow religion was utilized to justify and whitewash such actions.
Isaiah the prophet seems to have ministered from 740-700 B.C.
That means he prophesied towards the end of this second golden age. And at that time, Assyria was rising in power once again. They had successfully crippled Syria and had begun to take more and more land. And both Israel and Judah were right in the way of Assyria’s path to conquer Egypt. The nation(s) had a choice. They could side with Assyria and make a political pact, which was forbidden (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Judges). This would enable them to retain control of their land and some of their wealth as long as Assyria thought favorably of them. Or, they could follow God’s law, embrace biblical justice, and trust the Lord for their national security.
As the book of Isaiah progresses, we are able to see which of these two choices both Judah and Israel make. Related to such, we also witness many strong calls for justice and a return to Torah.
Let’s look at one now…
The book of Isaiah starts off with a bang.
After giving us a small contextual detail in 1:1 that helps us locate which time-period Isaiah’s oracles were delivered within, we are immediately faced with harsh rebuke. God’s prophet invokes all of creation itself (the “heavens and the earth” are often used as a synecdoche in the Old Testament) to bear witness to the nation’s oath breaking. God’s people had forgotten who their Master was. They had abandoned Torah.
How had they done this? By committing social injustices and by participating in hollow religion. These two interconnected sins are spoken against in 1:11-17. But they are also repeated often throughout the book. Let’s look at a few examples:
- 1:17 – It seems as if Judah wasn’t caring for the poor, the widows, or the orphans in their land.
- 1:21-23 – Judah’s rulers take bribes and participate in thievery. They also do nothing to help the lowly in society.
- 3:13-15 – The elders of Judah (judiciary leaders and other wealthy public figures) steal from the poor.
- 3:18-26 – God will bring swift judgement on the individuals who had been subjugating others to make a profit.
- 5:1-12 – Instead of justice in the land, God only finds violence and bloodshed. Those who buy more fields to add on to their already large estates (monopolizing territory) will be judged. Those who excessively consume alcohol without care for their character will be judged.
- 5:16 – In the end, God will be exalted for His justice. Judah and Israel might not.
- 5:20-24 – Many were calling evil practices good. Many were justifying their unrighteousness. Many were champions at drinking excessively. Many were allowing guilty criminals to pay off their crimes with bribes but denying any sort of justice to the innocent.
- 10:1-4 – Jewish legislators were making laws that only benefited them and harmed the poor and oppressed. They created decrees to enlarge their pockets at the expense of the vulnerable.
- 11:4 – God will slay the wicked who have been oppressing the poor.
- 29:20-21 – Those who wait to do evil, or delight in taking advantage of others, will be cut off.
- 30:11-12 – Judah has been relying on deceit and oppression to get by. Isaiah declares that such practices are about to collapse upon their heads.
- 32:7 – The pleas of the needy are justified. But they aren’t being heard by the “scoundrels” who use wicked methods to exploit them.
- 1:11-17 – Sacrifices, religious festivals and feasts, and prayers are meaningless when injustice runs rampant.
- 24:14-16 – Judah shouts praises to God. But Isaiah explains that these praises are meaningless when they accompany treachery and betrayal of Torah.
- 29:1 – Jerusalem was continuing to hold their religious festivals. They were hypocrites in doing so.
- 29:13 – Proper worship practices offend God if proper social concern doesn’t accompany them. These worship practices become only a hollow way to control God or to gain His favor when utilized this way.
At least according to Isaiah chapter 1, these were the reasons that God was not answering the people’s prayers (1:15). When they spread out their hands, God hid His face from them. When they went before Him with supplications, He closed His ears. Their hands were full of the blood of meaningless sacrifices. Their hands were full of the blood of the innocent, the poor, the widow, and the orphan (1:15c). And if they did not change their ways, there would be severe consequences (1:16-17).
A Deeper Look
What allowed the leadership of Isaiah’s day to participate in such activities?
There’s not an easy answer to that question. But it might have been because they had begun to see their relationship with YHWH as transactional.
It was normal in the ancient Near East to pick-and-choose which deity you worshiped depending on your needs in the moment. For example, if your city needed protection from an invading army, it was commonplace to begin worshiping the gods of your allies along with your own so that you might receive double protection. If you had a bad crop yield, you might begin to worship a deity connected to water. If you wanted to create a new relation with a different tribe or nation, you’d adopt some of their religious customs and idols and sacrifice before them as a sign of good will.
This way of worship was all about the individual. It focused on your needs, your security, your preferred way of worship, your comfort, and what you wanted to see accomplished.
And Israel, as we see through the Solomon narrative, had very much begun to adopt this way of thinking. Despite all the ways that YHWH had proved to the Israelites that He alone was the One true God sovereign over all, foreign alliances and the abandonment of Torah tempted the king into idol worship (1 Kings 7:4-7). He set up high places in Israel for Chemosh and Molech, and he bowed down before these deities in worship.
After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel followed suit by building golden calves in Shechem and other unprescribed high places (1 Kings 12:25-33). Rehoboam, the first king of Judah, did similar by building altars to Asherah (1 Kings 14:23-24). We shouldn’t read these events as complete abandonment of YHWH worship, though. The nation(s) still worshiped YHWH, but they also added on other deities when they felt it was necessary to do so for safety or comfortability.
But what happens when religious practice is conducted in such a way for hundreds of years? What happens when an individualized, transactional, picking-and-choosing-type of worship becomes the accepted way of worship?
For Israel and Judah, nothing good.
It was likely this framework that allowed religious leaders to compartmentalize their worship to YHWH away from their care for the poor. It was likely this way of thinking that enabled them to pick-and-choose what they wanted to follow from Torah and abandon what they didn’t like.
But it was also that which brought judgement upon the land and forced God to shut His ears to their prayers.
We are still doing similar things today.
Like Israel and Judah, the American church is also very good at compartmentalizing the gospel and viewing our relationship with YHWH as only “personal.”
For example, this way of thinking was what enabled white American Christians to enslave, rape, and kill black Christians a few hundred years ago. To them, Jesus laid claim on our “hearts.” But Jesus teachings about our bodies, or the bodies of others, were ignored.
But even now, there is a way of worshiping God that makes it all about the individual’s spiritual experience. Oftentimes, the songs we sing in church contain only singular pronouns (“I”, “you,” “me”). This creates the illusion that one’s relationship with God is primarily individualistic and cultivates a selfish faith. The way we normally take Communion would be foreign to the early church too. Instead of seeing it as a corporate meal in which believers from all different socio-economic and ethnic classes come together as equals under Christ’ lordship, we’ve reduced it to quiet reflection and crackers and juice with Jesus.
Like Israel and Judah in Isaiah’s day, we have been trained to express our religion as transactional and individualized. Because of this, we have little imagination for ways in which Jesus is might be calling us to help the widow, orphan, and outcast in our midst. In fact, even when we do participate in forms of justice, they’re often through this hollow individualistic framework. When injustice takes place in our midst, we know how to express frustration. We’re able to somewhat empathize with victims. But we struggle actually stepping up, partnering with the abused, and truly confronting the injustice head-on. That’s because expressing our feelings, and even praying to God about such injustices, is still a mostly individualistic endeavor.
Israel and Judah were worshiping God with bloody hands (Isaiah 1:15c). Their hands were bloody from their worthless sacrifices, and bloody from poor they were ignoring and exploiting.
But we should examine our own hands.
Are we truly looking past ourselves to the poor in our midst? Are we truly caring for those less fortunate than us? These aren’t merely suggestions for us to do in scripture. We need to truly listen and respond to the cries of the needy around us.
Because if we shut our ears to them, we run risk of God shutting His ears to us.
 John Nugent, “Israel’s Prophet History,” Old Testament 2 Class Notes, 2011.
 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 42.