Isaiah 1


When we read scripture, whether by ourselves in personal devotion or corporately as part of a Bible study or sermon, we do not experience it in the way the original audience did. Isaiah’s audience was illiterate, and, besides, there was no mechanism to mass publish a written document, let alone an internet to publish his message on a web page, or have his own radio or TV show! He delivered his message to the masses orally by speaking it live and in person.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Isaiah like a Sunday morning preacher, delivering a weekly sermon to his congregation. While Isaiah did have disciples that he taught on a more formal basis (Isaiah 8:16-17), the recipients of many, of not most, of his message were often less willing subjects.

Isaiah 1 is one such message. Rather than a preacher in a suit and tie delivering a Sabbath message from a pulpit, we have Isaiah, as an ecstatic prophet, invading the temple grounds and delivering a damning message rich in rhetorical complexity. (see note on Prophets).

The prophets were an eccentric bunch

Rhetorical Analysis

The key to producing an outline of Isaiah 1 is to look closely at who is speaking, who is being spoken too, and who is being spoken about. Verse 1 is the heading for the whole book, and so isn’t part of this particular message (AKA oracle).

vv. 2-4

Isaiah starts out by addressing creation rather his audience directly, giving an oracular introduction (v. 2a): "for the LORD has spoken", and quoting God complaining about Israel (vv. 2b-3), then Isaiah himself laments Israel’s sinfulness.

Some commentors see Isaiah 1 as a lawsuit. There are some elements of a lawsuit here. We can see Isaiah as a prosecuting attorney presenting God’s case against Israel to creation. Too much shouldn’t be made of this approach to understand the chapter since it isn’t actually creation that is judge of Israel, but God.

vv. 5-9

Now Isaiah shifts is focus to addressing Israel: "Why should you be beaten anymore?...". We can picture this eccentric ecstatic prophet wondering through the temple courtyard, seemingly speaking to himself, then suddenly making eye contact the the stares he is attracting and addresses them with violent and disturbing language.

vv. 10-20

Verse 10 is another dramatic shift. After invoking the image of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as the narrowly averted fate if Israel, Isaiah turns to the leaders (either secular or religious authorities or both would often be present in the temple) and calls them the "rulers of Sodom" in another oracular introduction. The following verses are horrific words of God speaking directly to Israel through Isaiah. "I will hide my eyes from you... I will not listen".

vv. 21-23

The last line of verse 20 terminates the previous oracle. Now, we have Isaiah once again speaking for himself. In verse 21, he appears to be addressing no one in particular, or perhaps, creation again. Then in verses 22-23 he addresses Israel with a lament that segues into another oracular introduction in verse 24 ("Therefore the Lord...declares:")

vv. 24-31

In this pronouncement from God that Isaiah recites, a message of hope is given. This sort of structure is often seen in prophetic work: after a message of doom and destruction, a message of hope afterwards is given.

In the middle of this passage are two verses, vv. 27-28, that the NIV does not include in the quotes. They shift from addressing Israel in the second person to talking about Israel in the third person. There is also a reference to God in the third person. It would seem to be Hosea addressing creation again. The interruption would fit the eccentric image of the prophet.

After the interruption, Isaiah goes back to addressing Israel with the threat of judgement that will happen if they don’t repent.

The Lord’s Lawsuit Against The Nation

The Bible Knowledge Commentary suggests that this passage has the overall form of a lawsuit. It is outlined as follows:

a. The Lord’s accusation that His people broke the convenant (1:2-9)

b. The Lord’s instructions on how the nation should deal with her guilt (1:10-20)

c. The Lord’s lament over Jerusalem (1:21-23)

d. The Lord’s declaration of the sentence (1:24-31)

The problem with this is that in verses 2-9, the LORD does not actually address the people. He is quoted in verse 2b-3, but those words are words spoken to by the LORD to Isaiah, and then quoted by Isaiah in addressing the heavens and earth. Perhaps. if we are going to view it that way, we should view Isaiah serving as sort of attorney for the plaintiff, and the heavens and earth as the jury, as Isaiah certainly seems to be speaking on the LORD’s behalf here, delivering the LORD’s accusation and citing evidence.

However, this trial metaphor is not perfect, as it is not the heaven’s and earth that judge, but God himself. Implicit in verses 10-17 is a defense by the people that they are very religious and strict in their obedience to the ritual law. God strikes this defense down before they can even make it.

Continuing the trial metaphor, verses 18-20 are a plea bargain. The charges will be dropped if they would just reform. Verses 21-23 are the attorney’s closing comments, and verse 23-31 are the passing of the sentence by the Plaintiff/Judge.

Verse By Verse

Is 1:1
Historical Context

During this time, the people of Israel are divided into two nations, a northern Kingdom of Israel ruled from Samaria, and a southern Kingdom of Judah ruled from Jerusalem. It was during Hezekiah’s reign that Assyria conquered and deported the people of the northern kingdom, in 721 BC. Chapter 6 seems to indicate that Isaiah received his call at the end of Uzziah’s reign, thus we may date Isaiah’s ministry to the second half of the 8th century BC.

Is 1:2-3
Hear, O Heavens!

Here, Isaiah is addressing no one in particular. Instead he is addressing all creation delivering a complaint by God against his people. Though Isaiah is not addressing anyone in particular at this point, in addressing creation, he is intending for the people present, the accused, to use the lawsuit metaphor, to overhear.

Note how the pairs of lines are perfect examples of parallelism that is the mark of Hebrew poetry. Each line is either point-counterpoint, or point-restatement.

v. 2

The juxtaposition of heavens and earth seem to invoke the idea of all of creation. Compare with Genesis 1:1. The parallel line is contrasting. Instead of creation, it’s God, and instead of listen it’s speak.

The second pair of parallel lines are also contrasting. I (God) contrasts they (the children, ie, Israel), and the positive rear and brought up contrast the negative rebel.

v. 3

This verse, on the other hand uses synonymous parallelism. There is no subtle point to find in the difference between knowing the master vs the master’s manger. The point is that the ox and donkey know their place, where as Israel (my people) do know know or understand. What is it they do not know or understand? Their master, God, and his manger! Once cannot help but wonder if this is intended as an allusion to Jesus’ manger, although the original audience would have been unaware of such foreshadowing.

Even the ox (or bull), an animal dangerous enough that the Mosaic code had strict laws for dealing with it goring people (Ex 21:28–36), knew its master (and thus knew better than to disobey). And even the donkey, stubborn and contrary as it is, will at least come for food. But not Israel, who God graciously refers to as his children.

Is 1:4
They have forsaken the LORD

In this verse, Isaiah is still addressing Creation, but the words are his own as he laments the sins of the nation (note the shift to third person reference to the LORD). He is clearly incensed by Israel’s sin. In fact, later, he goes so far as to declare to God, "do not forgive them" (Is 2:9)!

v. 4

Synonymous parallelism is used throughout. Nation parallels people, and brood parallels children; sinful parallels guilt, evildoers parallels corruption. Note that not only is each pair of lines using parallelism, but the pairs are and extended parallel with each other.

This is followed by a less common triple line parallelism. The LORD is the Holy One of Israel. They have forsaken, spurned, and turned their backs on him.

Is 1:5-9
Why should you be beaten anymore?

Now Isaiah abruptly turns and addresses the people directly. The two stanzas deal first with their persons, then with their land. The implication is that their torment is the result of their corruption.

Historical Context

What is the historical context here? One possibility frequently suggested is that it is the aftermath of Sennecherib’s invasion of Judah during the reign of Hezekiah. (EBC, BKC, etc). Against this however is the wording of verse 7, "laid waste as when overthrown by strangers", and of verse 8 "like a city under siege" which is using simile (as, like) rather than more direct language. (Note that some more paraphrasic translations gloss over the use of simile here). Further the allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah may also indicate that a natural disaster rather than foreign invasion, providentially brought about by God in either case, is the background here.

Amos 1:1 mentions an earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, which would date to a few decades before Isaiah’s ministry. It is not impossible that this is another such incidence.

That this is chapter 1 would also point towards the historical context being an event early in the career of Isaiah. However it does not make it certain. Prophetic books are not written cover to cover by the prophets. The prophet composes individual oracles over the course of his career, then these get written down by scribes and collected by disciples into the final collection. Note the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel which date individual oracles frequently. They are approximately in chronological order, but there are numerous deviations too. Note also Isaiah 8:16 where Isaiah refers to his own disciples preserving written material.

v. 5

The first pair of lines are parallel only in that they are both questions: why? They are beaten because of their rebellion. The second pair of lines parallel head and heart with word of referring to damage (injury and disease). One is tempted to see in head and heart hear the ideas of intellectual and emotional parts of man, but this would be an anachronistic understanding. The head is never regarded as the seat of intellect in the Hebrew language.

v. 6

This verse continues the injury and disease motif. The first pair of lines don’t have parallelism, but set the stage for the following lines: the totality of their effect on the individual. Wounds and welts are injuries that would be cleansed and bandaged if taken care of properly, and the parallel open sores should be soothed with oil as treatment. Thus these lines, in addition to their internal parallelism, are also parallel with the last two lines of verse 5.

Of course, this language, being poetic, shouldn’t be taken to refer to the state of the actual individual Israelites. It is referring figuratively, and rather graphically, to the people as a whole: the Daughter of Zion of verse 8.

v. 7

The pairing of country and cities establishes the totality of the disaster. Nether escaped. Simile is being used in the word picture of the land being invaded: "as overthrown by a besieged city". This may tell against the situation being a foreign invasion, such as the one by Sennacherib in Hezekiah’s reign, but rather a natural disaster much like the earthquake in Uzziah’s reign.

v. 8

The reference to the shelter or hut is to a temporary structure from which a worker would guard the crop before it was harvested, then abandoned. Cottage (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia).

Israel here is likened to precarious, temporary structures, and to a besieged city.

v. 9

As if verse 8 wasn’t insult enough, Isaiah now invokes the memory of Sodom and Gomorrah. To this day, Sodom and Gomorrah are bywords for evil and decadence. If a geological or meteorological disaster is the historical background here, the comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah must have been especially chilling.

Is 1:10-20
Hear the word of the LORD

Now Isaiah delivers the word of the LORD to the people and their rulers. The abruptness is startling. In his first likening to Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 9, he didn’t get really personal. He even used the first person plural:

we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.

Now he gets personal. It’s no longer "we would have become like", but "you are". The people and their rulers certainly didn’t see themselves as residents of New Sodom and Gomorrah. They offered their sacrifices, held all the right feasts and convocations, prayed all the right prayers, but all of that was external form and lacking in substance.

Isaiah now quotes God directly to the people. Unlike in verses 2-3, where the quoted words of God are spoken about Judah to Isaiah, here the words of God are spoken directly to Judah through Isaiah.

While verse 9 foreshadows verse 10 with its reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, there is also a sharp contrast that has tremendous dramatic effect. In verse 9, the devastation is compared to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, but with little hint of moral implications. Verse 10 on the other hand likens the morals of Judah to those of Sodom and Gomorrah.

v. 10

Here, the poetic parallels are inter-pair instead of intra-pair of lines. That is Hear parallels listen, word parallels law, LORD parallels God, rulers parallel people and Sodom parallels Gomorrah.

vv. 11-14

Compare with the following passages.

1 Sam 15:22-23
Ps 50:7-21
Proverbs 21:3
Ecc 5:1-2
Is 58:6-9
Jer 7:21-26
Dan 4:27
Hosea 6:6
Amos 5:21-27
Micah 6:6-8
Mt 9:13
Mt 12:7
Mk 12:28-33

People often approach salvation as if it were a magic incantation. Say a few words, so some symbolic act, kill an animal as sacrifice, go to church every week, take communion, sing in the choir, or whatever. And all this stuff is fine and good, but it is not righteousness.

Note the negative language used to describe acts of worship. God takes no pleasure in the sacrifices. Israel’s "coming to church" is just trampling his courts. Their gatherings in his name are evil assemblies and a burden to him. This pairing of acts of worship with disgust on God’s part is terrifying.

v. 15

In this verse, God’s responses are paired with Israel’s acts of worship. In response to a visible act, the spreading of hands, God responds by not looking, and in response to a auditory act, prayer, God refuses to listen. How terrible an image to be cut off from God in this way.

vv. 16-17

Now we see what God really wants of his people. Compare with James 1:27 and Mk 12:28-33. Living your life in just relationships to everyone, God and man, is what God really wants, not just sin all week and go to Church on Sunday to ask for forgiveness.

vv. 18-20

Forgiveness is always available. Earlier, God said he would not listen to Israel’s prayers or watch over them. But this was because their prayers were not sincere. They were not willing and obedient, but rather merely going through the actions of religion, not actually being religious in the sense He means.

God’s using the first person plural at the beginning of this stanza comes across as being very tender. He’s verbally meeting them at their level. This is balanced by the end of the stanza where severe punishment is promised if they "resist and rebel". Here, he very much on a different level: "For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The colors red and white are used in the poetic parallels here to represent sin and innocence. Scarlet,red, crimson, vs. white, snow, wool. Note the parallels across vs. 19 and 20. Willing vs. resist, obedient vs. rebel, and especially the active "you will eat" vs. the the passive "you will be devoured". They go from being the subject of eating to being the object.

Is 1:21
The faithful city has become a harlot

This verse would seem to be Isaiah speaking again. He doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, perhaps all creation as at the beginning.

Is 1:22-23
Your silver has become dross

Abruptly Isaiah turns again to the people and berates them for their evil. Note the use of opposite pairs: silver and dross, wine and water, rulers and rebels.

Dross is the stuff left over after purifying metal. An alchemaic transmutation of elements is not what is being talked about here though. Silver and wine are metaphors for the justice and righteousness that once dwelt in the city (v. 21), and dross and water are metaphors for the current situation, which is detailed in vv. 22-23.

Their rules are the opposite of what they should be. Note the use of poetic parallels: rebels and thieves, bribes and gifts, fatherless and widows.

The theme of defending orphans and widows is frequent in scripture:

Ex 22:22,
Job 24:3,
Jer 49:11, and especially
James 1:27.

Is 1:24-26
I will get relief from my foes

Again Isaiah delivers words form the LORD to the people. The build of titles is extremely dramatic. More so in the original Hebrew, which doesn’t have the repeat of the word Lord. LORD, in all capitals, is actually Yahweh (or Jehovah in the KJV). "the Lord -- Jehovah of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel" Young’s Literal Translation.

Verse 25 turns back to the metaphor of silver and slag, only here God is going to purify Israel, smelting away dross as one would clean dirt away with lye (See NASB95. NIV paraphrases by interpreting the "with lye [or potash]" as "thoroughly".

Note the overall structure of verses 21-26. It opens with a description of how Jerusalem once was and what they have become, then the metaphors are reversed, Israel is purified and becomes the Faithful city again. Note even the order of the words Righteousness and Faithful are reversed in the last verse.

Is 1:27-28
Zion will be redeemed

Both Israel (i.e. Zion) and God (the LORD) are referred to in 3rd person here. Isaiah would seem to be speaking to creation again, contrasting the fate of the righteous and the unrighteous.

Is 1:29-31
You will be ashamed

Here, the people are once again addressed. The NIV encloses these verses in quotes, indicating that Isaiah is quoting someone, presumably the LORD. They could be Isaiah’s own words, but their sternness would seem to demand that they are spoken with divine authority.

Note that "Zion" is parallel to "penitent ones", while "rebels and sinners" are parallel to "those who forsake the LORD". The term Zion has a broad range of meaning, ranging from the ridge where Jerusalem is located, to the city, its environs, its people, and even the whole people of Israel. Whatever of these meanings is meant in any given passage, it almost always occurs in a context emphasizing the holiness of the location or people, as it does here. "It seldom refers to the political capital of Judah, but much more often stands for the city of God in the new age." Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.

The reference to sacred oaks and gardens is to pagan high places. Compare with Isa 57:5, Ho 4:13-14. This may be related to the Asherah pole, a device of uncertain nature used in the worship of the goddess Asherah. There is archaeological evidence that Asherah was worshipped as a consort of Yahweh by some Israelites.

Note how Isaiah takes these shameful symbols of paganism and turns them around on the Israelites: they will be like an oak loosing its leaves (in the fall?) and like a wilting garden that doesn’t get watered. They will be bankrupt of sustenance, physical and spiritual, because of their sins.

The image is carried further: the mighty men will become dried, dead wood and his actions a spark that sets in on fire. This is both a metaphor (the literal transmutation of elements of flesh into wood is not the intent), and an image of Hell.