One of the problems we face reading prophecy is that we have an outsider’s perspective. We have watched things fall apart for the people of God over several hundred years. We are quick to list every one of their sins, because we have the record of their failures. The long, slow fall surely felt different for the people involved. Many were still bringing offering and sacrifices to the temple, observing the Sabbath and festivals, and keeping other tenets of the law. But God’s perspective as presented by Isaiah exposes their emptiness.
The people of God are now like terminally ill, estranged children. God loves them dearly but they have continually run from a care-giving relationship with Him. And now their sins have reached the point of no return. Their rebellion has metastasized (1:5-6). They are rotten to the core.
Their worship is empty. The actions of their hands are not connected to the desires of their hearts. I see their empty worship in 1:11-15 as either 1) ignoring the fact that they are sick and sinful or 2) they are trying to fix their problems by any means other than the one that will work.
The Lord calls these “vain offerings” 1:13. Vanity is care and worry about the superficial. This is the same sin that religious leaders are accused of by Jesus. They wash the outside of the bowl while the useful inside part remains dirty. They are painted tombs, beautiful on the outside but full of death inside.
Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause. “Come, let us 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. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. (Isaiah 1:16-19 CSB)
The bad must be set aside and the good must be picked up. But while doing evil comes naturally, doing good is something that must be learned. It’s progressive. This will only happen with willing obedience. Willingness is intention and desire. It shows that our affections are properly placed. We want God’s will to be done in our life. Obedience is the follow through when our will lines up with God’s will. Obedience in spite of our own doubts and possible negative consequences shows genuine faith. For the people of God, Soul cleansing comes progressively through God-centered affection and consistent actions.
The importance of justice is tied to personal righteousness here. It is a theme throughout OT prophecy, but it is still striking. It’s listed as something good and acceptable to God in 1:17. Lack of social justice is weighed against the people in 1:23. And justice is the avenue of redemption for Zion in 1:27 – “for those who repent, by righteousness.”
What Isaiah doesn’t make clear is that this righteousness that leads to repentance and redemption will come from someone other than themselves. But he does make clear that those who continue to rebel and forsake YHWH will be consumed by a destruction of their own making (1:31).
Father, thank you that it is not my just deeds that redeem me. You have brought your full justice on my unfaithfulness. But my sentence was served by another. Jesus, I repent of my attempts at righteousness and accept your righteousness. Thank you for paying my debt to God in full. Holy Spirit, teach me how to do good. Help me to seek justice, correct oppression, come to the aid of single moms, children in the foster system, orphans everywhere, and women in need of support and encouragement.