Updated: Nov 13, 2020
The Jews had a problem, and they wouldn't acknowledge it. They thought they kept God happy by performing their weekly worship rituals. But God was much more attentive of their unjust and selfish behavior during the rest of the week. Isaiah is going to take us on a sweeping journey of human failure, God's faithfulness, and an unbelievable plan for salvation.
What's the most impressive (oppressive) book you know? Bonus points if you've actually read it. What's the most epic novel you have read, and what made it so "epic"?
Here are some epic novels:
What makes a novel "epic"? Everybody has their own definition, but I think about . . .
Covers sweeping historic events.
Involves heroes/heroic action.
Uses many words.
Evokes many emotions.
Did I mention long?
So, this made me curious about the Bible. Warning: rabbit hole!!
Genesis 32,046 1,533 50 many
Exodus 25,957 1,213 40 few
Numbers 25,048 1,289 36 40
Psalms 30,147 2,527 150 n/a
Isaiah 25,608 1,291 66 60
Jeremiah 33,002 1,364 52 42
Ezekiel 29,918 1,273 48 22
Matthew 18,345 1,071 28 33?
Luke 19,482 1,151 24 33?
Acts 18,450 1,006 28 33
Revelation 9,851 404 22 all?
That's interesting! I've never thought about this before. We can remove Psalms from the discussion (because it's a compilation). Considering the scope, Genesis is probably the most epic of the books of the Bible. Exodus and Numbers are very sweeping, but rather confined. Of those three major prophets, Ezekiel (although mind-blowing) covers the smallest piece of history (all three poke into the end of time). That leaves Jeremiah and Isaiah as the most "epic" of the books of the Bible. And they are truly epic in every sense of the word.
Caveat: There's no question that the life of Jesus is the most important, sweeping event in human history. Similarly, we know that the birth of the church had a much bigger impact on history than the Assyrian or Babylonian Empires. And Revelation is just absurdly epic. So I guess I'm just talking about the Old Testament here.
[Pointless aside: just because I'm a nerd, I'll point out that Moby Dick has 209,000 words; Gone with the Wind has 418,053 words; War and Peace has 587,287 words(!). Isaiah isn't so bad, huh? But: Bible as a whole: 782,815 words. And it literally covers the entirety of time. Take that, Tolstoy.]
All About Isaiah
As with all introductions, my goal is to give you more than you would need or want to share in a class. This is partly to do a little teaching of my own, and partly because between the Lifeway materials, anything I share, and your own study Bible, something will stick in your mind that helps you remember the purpose and setup of Isaiah.
I'm going to lean on a book that an early seminary professor of mine wrote: The Prophets As Preachers, by Gary V. Smith. He imagines the different sections in the prophets as sermons; that helped me better grasp the power within them. His theme for Isaiah is "Can you trust God?" and he explains the book in terms of the politics behind it.
Isaiah grew up during the reign of Uzziah, a good king who feared God. During his reign and his son Jotham's reign, Judah was very prosperous, leading people to be self-centered and materialistic.
When Jotham's son Ahaz took over, conditions deteriorated quickly. Oppression was rampant, and Ahaz worshiped foreign gods. The first major section of Isaiah (chs. 1-12) includes the warnings God sent to this corrupt government.
The major historical event of Ahaz's reign was the Syro-Ephraimite War. God's punishment on Ahaz was an attack: King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel. Ahaz appealed to King Tiglath-pilesar of Assyria who gladly obliged. He conquered both Syria and Israel . . . and also took heavy, heavy tribute from Judah. By trying to escape God's punishment, Ahaz made things far worse for Judah.
Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, was mostly a good king. He quickly undid the religious sins of Ahaz and set the country on a path toward God. The second major section of Isaiah (ch. 13-39) focuses on God's encouragement to Hezekiah to stay true to his reform.
The major historical event of Hezekiah's reign was the catastrophic attack by King Sennacherib of Assyria, who conquered all of Judah except for Jerusalem. Hezekiah trusted God (Isaiah was the spokesman) and God defeated the Assyrian army.
The final king in Isaiah's lifetime was Manasseh, a very wicked king. Manasseh submitted to the Assyrians and assimilated parts of their religion and culture. The third major section of Isaiah (chs. 40-66) is directed to the people -- a message of hope to them that one day God would punish these traitors and usurpers.
The major historical event of Manasseh's reign was the rise of Assyria as a world power. Jews lost hope that Judah would survive (spoiler: they didn't), but some took this to mean that God had lost power. Isaiah corrected that falsehood.
In other words, a lot of the conflict we read about in Isaiah is political (timely, eh?) -- groups is Judah that were pro-Egypt and anti-Egypt, pro-Syria and anti-Syria, pro-Israel and anti-Israel, pro-Assyria and anti-Assyria. Unfortunately, they cared more about the effects of political relationships than their relationship with God.
We will talk more about those conflicts as we get further into Isaiah.
About Isaiah the Person
In Jewish tradition, Isaiah's father Amoz was the uncle of King Uzziah. This has been used to explain how Isaiah seemed to have such quick access to kings. His wife was a prophetess (8:3) and his children had prophetic names. That's really all we know. There is also a Jewish tradition that says Isaiah was one of those "sawed in two" (Heb 11:37) during the reign of Manasseh.
Isaiah's messages applied to kings and commoners and included an intimate knowledge of temple life and activity. He used drama, metaphor, double meanings, and rhetoric. His messages connected to themes from creation to exodus to covenant. This was an intelligent, connected, and trained man who was not an insider. He really can't be pigeonholed or pinned down. Perhaps we can say that Isaiah began life in the royal upper class, but God gave him a holy discontent. Soon enough, Isaiah found himself on the outside, which is when (maybe why?) God chose him to be a prophet to Ahaz. He was brought back to the "inside" during good King Hezekiah's reign, but then back out for Manasseh. This made him strong and connected him with the common people.
Outline of Isaiah
I like Smith's approach, giving each section a "sermon title"
Trusting God or Trusting Yourself (1-6)
Trusting God or Testing God (7-12)
Trusting God's Plan for the Nations (13-27)
Trusting God or Other Nations (28-39)
Trusting God for Deliverance (40-48)
Trusting God for Salvation (49-55)
Trusting God for Restoration (56-66)
Here is how "The Bible Project" summarizes Isaiah:
Isaiah the Messenger: Isaiah sees God and is purified. God appoints Isaiah as a prophet and tells him to warn the people of Israel about their impending judgment.
Judgment and Hope: God gives Isaiah various prophecies and visions about judgment for Jerusalem and the nations. But God's Kingdom will one day rule, righting the evil of the world.
Hezekiah's Faith: Assyria threatens Judah as prophesied, but God answers King Hezekiah's prayers and defeats them. Hezekiah falls deathly ill, but God remembers him and heals him.
A Holy Seed: God's servant is shown rising from Israel's burnt stump. He is rejected and killed but is resurrected, and his death pays for the sins of everyone.
New Heaven and Earth: Isaiah prophesies that the servant will rule God's Kingdom, creating a new Jerusalem. The wicked are expelled and the righteous stay, and all nations are welcome.
A handy trick about Isaiah: there are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. The numbers match the 39 chapters in the first part of Isaiah and the 27 in the second. If you can remember that Isaiah 40 has the amazing verses about comfort and hope, you can remember that there are 39 books in the Old Testament.
And finally, here's some information from me. I'm a timeline guy. Here's a timeline I created showing the kings, prophets, and events surrounding Isaiah -- *and* where you read about them in the Bible. Download the pdf of this graphic to see the details.
Some things to be aware of:
Chronology. You'll notice that Isaiah was not necessarily compiled in chronological order. And that's fine. That doesn't change the themes or the prophecies.
The similarities between Isaiah and Micah. They ministered at basically the same time, so you should expect to see a lot of common complaints.
The similarities between Isaiah and Amos. For those of you at First Baptist, who just finished a sermon series on Amos, you'll notice a lot of familiar themes. Amos warned the north of their sins, and the south followed in their footsteps.
World-changing events. Isaiah ministered during the fall of the Syrian Empire, the fall of Israel, and the rise of the Assyrian Empire. These are events that changed the lives of God's people forever, so, yes, the dramatic flair is real.
Co-regency. You'll notice overlap in the dates of the reigns of some kings. That can be confusing. Often, a king's son would "take the throne" while the king lived and the two would "rule" together. This was code for "the son has taken over".
Question about Time and "Multiple Isaiahs"
Here's something that looks squirrelly in my timeline (I hope you noticed it!): I have Isaiah ministering through 680 BC, well into Manasseh's reign. But Isaiah himself does not mention Manasseh in 1:1. So, what gives? This gets into authorship questions. The last historical event mentioned is Sennacherib's defeat in chapter 37 (701 BC). Starting in chapter 40, the tone and content dramatically shift to messages of hope and deliverance using terms that would be familiar with Jews in exile in Babylon (something that wouldn't happen for another 100 years). That has led many scholars to claim that someone else wrote the last part of Isaiah sometime during or after the Exile in Babylon (see below). We will spend more time with this when we get to those chapters, but for now know that I believe that there are strong linguistic arguments for a single author of the book.
My professor made the argument that Isaiah received all of these words during the timeframe given, but he wrote down or edited the final chapters later, well into the reign of Manasseh when it because very clear where things were heading. That's how he explains the sudden change in tone at chapter 40. Hence, I have chapters 40-66 marked at 680 BC with a question mark.
I am not taking the liberal-critical approach to Isaiah which says that Isaiah was written by 2, 3 or more individuals over multiple centuries. Here is a common summary of that view:
Isaiah lived from 750-700 BC and wrote chapters 1-35.
Chapters 36-39 share a lot of material with 2 Kings 18-20, so it must have been copied from 2 Kings after it was completed in 562 BC.
Chapters 40-55 were written during the Exile and Restoration, so between 550-450 BC.
Chapters 56-66 were written in the reestablished nation, so after 450 BC.
Scholars who hold that view often believe that Isaiah means that same thing that we think it means. The difference is that they don't believe that Isaiah could have been able to so accurately predict the condition of the nation in exile, and so it must have been written by someone who lived through the Exile. I believe that God is quite capable of giving someone an accurate view of the future, so I reject that reasoning. Like many Christians, I believe that Isaiah was written by one human, though over a very long period of time and about a long period of time.
Think of it this way: if some of God's people have already been carted off into exile, and the writing is on the wall that it's not looking good for the rest of them, then wouldn't that give people cause for doubt in God's power and control? And wouldn't the easiest way to put those fears to rest be to explain in detail what was about to happen, demonstrating that God was sovereign even over the destructive actions of other nations?
It's just like what Jesus did with His disciplines, predicting His own death and the difficult days to follow. If the world killed Jesus, that would be devastating to His movement. But if He knew exactly what would happen and allows it to happen because it was a part of God's master plan, then His followers' faith should not be shaken.
In other words, I think it makes sense that God would be so clear about the future in Isaiah. But, more about that when we get to those chapters.
Themes in Isaiah
We are going to read a lot about:
God's Nature. Isaiah presents the clearest view of God in the entire Bible - His transcendence, His holiness, His dependability, His love.
Sin. Sin is clearly presented as a rebellion against God or a denial of the nature of God.
Salvation. Isaiah presents a clear, easy-to-understand view of salvation as deliverance. People were seeking political alliances for deliverance from death, but only God's grace can give a true, lasting deliverance from death.
Servanthood. Placed in direct contrast with sin/rebellion, servanthood is elevated to the highest ideal a human can pursue.
Messiah. Isaiah also presents the clearest view of the Messiah in the Old Testament - the model servant, the model king, the model judge, the model human - and thus the key to human salvation.
Isaiah and Jesus
The Bible Project and Lifeway both champion how connected with Jesus this book is. Isaiah is ultimately a prophet of hope because his messages tell us about God's plan for solving the real problem in the world: not political balance but alienation from God.
As we go through Isaiah, you just need to be aware of how intimately connected the messages of Isaiah are with the socio-political condition of the kingdom. Some skeptics have proposed that multiple people wrote Isaiah over many decades. No, it was just one person who wrote over decades of massive change. Micah ministered longer, and Jeremiah experienced greater catastrophe, but Isaiah is considered "the" major prophet.
At FBC, David has just finished a series on Amos, so our people really don't need to be reminded about the role of prophets or the nature of their messages.
Part 1: Empty Rituals (Isaiah 1:10-15)
10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “What are all your sacrifices to me?” asks the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who requires this from you— this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing useless offerings. Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons and Sabbaths, and the calling of solemn assemblies— I cannot stand iniquity with a festival. 14 I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.
You really need to read the first 9 verses of Isaiah to get the best sense of what's going on. We learn that Isaiah considers the book one giant vision that stretches over decades. (See my note above about the absence of Manasseh from the list of kings.)
Note that we see Isaiah dial it up to 11 in his imagery and clever wording. In verse 3, Isaiah (speaking the words of God) makes Israel less intelligent than basic farm animals.
Israel: refers often to the northern kingdom, capital in Samaria, but sometimes to all of the people of God (eg. "Holy One of Israel")
Judah: refers to the southern kingdom, capital in Jerusalem
Zion/Jerusalem: refers sometimes to just the city, and sometimes to the nation
If you thought being unfavorably compared to an ox and donkey was bad, Isaiah takes it up another notch in verse 9. The country is already suffering the ravages of war, and it's only the grace of God that prevents them from ending up destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, so they may as well be Sodom and Gomorrah! (Read Genesis 19.) (Again: God is comparing them/Jerusalem with Sodom and Gomorrah because of the destruction left by the war happening all around them. And the reason that destruction is happening is as a consequence of their ongoing sin of rebellion against God.)
[Aside on chronology: My seminary professor viewed chapter 1 as an out-of-sequence attention-getter (kind of like how in documentaries they often start with a clip of something important but late to draw in the viewer). He believes it comes from the reign of Ahaz when Judah had really gone downhill and were under siege from Syria and Israel. I'm quite comfortable with that. It wasn't until much later in history that people became obsessed with "chronological order".]
For our FBC members, a good challenge would be to identify the parallels between Isaiah's warnings here and Amos's warnings. Remember that Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom at a similar stage in Israel's decline.
We talked at great length about the failure of Israel's worship. At best, they were going through the motions without any care or commitment. At worst, they were doing so believing they could manipulate God. In any event, they were better off not pretending to worship at all than to continue with their terrible motives.
The wording here is intentionally shocking to the Jews. God gave the sacrificial system! God gave the festival calendar! Now He tells them to stop?!?
Now, ask yourself the most important question: did God really want them to stop worshiping?
No. God wanted them to get it right. They were better off not doing it at all than doing it wrong.
Have you ever been there with a group? Maybe as a teacher or a coach? The kids were so far off-base that all they were doing was reinforcing bad habits and motives. The only way to fix it was to stop everything completely and only come back to it after enough time had passed that motives could be reassessed.
Everything about what the Jews were doing was wrong. During the week, they were rotten sinners. They "trampled" God's courts. They performed "iniquity". Their hands were "covered in blood". But then they came to offer sacrifices and join in the festivals as if everything were hunky-dory.
I mentioned that there are a lot of parallels between Isaiah and Micah, being written at about the same time to the same people. Consider Micah 6:6-8:
6 What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the offspring of my body for my own sin? 8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
I am personally drawn to how Jesus explained this in Matthew 23:23:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others."
In other words, the worship is good and appropriate, but it loses its meaning and value when unaccompanied by a life that reflects the values of God.
This should lead to an awful lot of introspection on the part of every church member.
What's my mentality in worship?
What am I thinking about during church services?
Am I concerned about being a "Sunday-only" Christian?
Whose preferences am I more concerned about: mine or God's?
[I'm speeding things up because we spent so much time in the introduction.]
Part 2: True Followers (Isaiah 1:16-17)
16 “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. 17 Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause."
Do you want to know how to solve the worship problem? Here's how. And it has nothing to do with church services.
This is something that happens today: churches get into a rut; churches sense spiritual apathy; churches stop connecting with new people. What's the gut reaction? We need to change the style of music! We need to change the style of preaching! We need to redecorate the sanctuary! Stuff like that. And sometimes that's true -- sometimes those changes do need to be made. But those changes won't mean anything if the people's hearts of the church are far from God and they are not living daily for God.
The first thing every church needs to do when it senses spiritual decline is return to the basics of walking with Jesus. Prayer. Bible study. Family worship. Christian fellowship. Acts of service. Being personally right with God.
That's exactly what Isaiah say here. The ritual washings in Judaism were symbols of repentance and a commitment to purification. Well, we don't need those rituals today. We can simply repent!
Isaiah gives us a tremendous definition for repentance:
Stop doing evil. Do what is good.
We, of course, realize now that it is more complicated than that. There is a spiritual and heart issue at play. Repentance means to turn from our sin and turn to God for forgiveness and guidance. Not just behaviorally, but spiritually.
What I like most about verse 17 is it is simple, but not easy. It gets to your heart. "Doing good" is not a checklist. Neither is "pursuing justice". Those are lifestyles.
The rest of the verse clarifies what's gong on the country that is making God so upset: oppressed . . . fatherless . . . widow. These were the segments of society easiest to ignore. Treating them well mirrors how God treated us when we were helpless and unable to repay Him for His kindness in any way. Treating them poorly . . .
[Translation note: in the Hebrew, the difference between verb tenses is often in the pronunciation of the word / vowels. But written biblical Hebrew had no vowels! So, "oppressed" and "oppressor" are actually spelled exactly the same way. The Jews who added the vowels to the Bible made this word "oppressor". But you will notice that many English translations change it to "oppressed" to match the parallelism.]
Again, I'm speeding things up here, but look at that list in verse 17. Put yourself as the recipient as each command. Are you doing them?
If you think your group can handle this topic, I would bring up the most timely and controversial example we have in our country right now: the Black Lives Matter movement.
What is your response to this movement? Is it "all or nothing"? Or is it thoughtful and nuanced?
When God calls us to "seek justice" and "defend the oppressed", are you willing to apply that to this situation? Or do you immediately point out the hypocrisy within those who have leveraged the movement for their own personal advantage (those with an agenda for socialism, government regulation, or just an easy way to get money) and reject all of it?
Where there is injustice, all of the people of God are to speak out against it. But if we reject the notion that injustice is happening, we are being exactly like the upper class of Jews that Isaiah was railing about in our passage! They didn't think there was a problem. But there was a problem.
Are we willing to thoughtfully and prayerfully investigate accusations of injustice?
Part 3: Repentance Required (Isaiah 1:18-20)
18 “Come, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are crimson red, they will be like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. 20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
And then what a tremendous way to conclude the lesson. Unlike the people, God is no tyrant. Unlike the people, God will forgive. Unlike the people, God will always be reasonable.
After all of the terrible things the people of Jerusalem had done, God was still clear and upfront about their options. Turn from their wicked ways, go back to living as His people, and all would be forgiven. God wanted to bless them again. If they would be willing to repent and return, they would be restored. If they persisted in their sin, they would be destroyed by their enemies.
You know which option they chose.
What a tragedy. And how unnecessary! We all know people who could have done the right thing, but for reasons you will never understand, chose to do the wrong thing. And it ruined their life.
Now, think about your life. What decisions are you making that are taking you further away from God? What attitudes do you have that don't reflect the attitude of Jesus?
And what are you going to do about it?
On our website, we have a list of measures -- those qualities and actions that we believe represent the kind of people Jesus wants us to be.
Take a look at them and evaluate yourself. As our passage this week reminds us, God offers forgiveness to us. Unlike the people in Isaiah's day, we understand that the blood of Jesus was the acceptable sacrifice giving us once-for-all forgiveness. The colors in Isaiah 18 make so much more sense knowing what we know about Jesus -- the perfect lamb of God, who blood was poured out for the forgiveness of many. That's good news!
Pray -- thank God for our salvation, and ask for help in walking away from your sins and toward and life closer to Jesus.