Isaiah 1

Introduction: Isaiah prophesied during the reign of four kings from around 740-680 BC. Jewish tradition say that he was killed during the reign of Manasseh by being sawn in half. It could be that the writer of Hebrews refers to this in 11:37. Isaiah means “Salvation is of the Lord.” Indeed, that is one of the main themes of the book referring to salvation by 11 metaphors (e.g. “wells of salvation 12:3;”Joy of salvation,” 25:9; “salvation for walls and bulwarks” 26:1; “everlasting salvation,” 45:17; “Day of salvation,” 49:8; the beauty of the one who “proclaims salvation,” 52:7; “the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God,” 52:10; “His own arm brought salvation,” 59:16; “a helmet of salvation,” 59:17; “clothed me with the garments of salvation,” 61:10; “her salvation as a lamp,” 62:1). Contributing to the contours of salvation, the word “righteousness” appears 51 times, often in contexts virtually synonymous with salvation (59:16, 17; 61:10; 62:1, 2.).

Some critical scholars have sought to argue that the book, for differences in style and apparent perspective of the text, is the product of two different writers (others say maybe three). One writer, so the theory goes, wrote 1-39 and another wrote 40-66. The New Testament, however, treats passages from both sections as the work of “Isaiah, the prophet” (e.g. Matthew 15:7-9 and 12:17-21). A prejudice against the possibility of purely revelatory predictive prophecy governs the reasoning of some of these critical scholars.

The book is introduced with the claim of a “vision.” This is what he saw, as a revelation, and was assured of. It should be believed because the prophet saw it; he did not deduce it from his own observations (2 Peter 1:20, 21) though plenty of evidence for the relevance of these revelations was present. God broke in to reveal the meaning of the present frivolous response to increasing calamity. Isaiah spoke, and then wrote, what was revealed from God. So it was with John on Patmos, he had a revelation of Jesus Christ, signified by an angel, and John “bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw” (Revelation 1:2) Prophets had their full rational faculties engaged and through a mysterious combination of perfect intelligibility, senses, and mental imaging [imagination?] received revelation of God’s immediate involvement and purpose in present events as well as future purposes of judgment and redemption. When John wrote 1 John, he wrote according to what he had heard, seen, gazed upon, and handled. The confirmation of that which was revealed (“that eternal life which was with the Father”) by that which was “seen and heard” gave John confidence that the message was from God and was for the eternal benefit of those to whom he wrote (1 John 1:1:4). Even so did Isaiah see and hear (6:1ff),and proclaim for the eternal benefit of those who would listen.


I. Chapter 1:1-9 consists of a dirge for the aggressive and lamentable unfaithfulness of Judah and Jerusalem, the people of the earth chosen and blessed by God.

A. (Verses 2, 3) – In spite of God’s lovingly paternal actions toward them, they have chosen an unnatural path of rebellion. God calls the entire universe to witness the rebellion of this people. Their rebellion shows that their intelligence and their spiritual perception has sunk beneath that of the brute beasts. Instinctual affection is greater than that shown by the Israelites. Donkeys and oxen have greater stability and respond with greater fidelity to their owners and managers than the nation does to its God who redeemed them from slavery and blessed them with a land, with true worship, and everything to make this life prosperous and life after death sure and joyful.

B. (Verse 4) – God shows their disregard for his revelation of law and their consequent rejection of him. The Lord spares no language in making clear that they have violated and hated every privilege of divine revelation and law that had been their grace to receive. Note the quick delineation of the various ways in which God’s law has been violated, disregarded, and eschewed. This nation, these people have attributed to them these words: “Sinful, iniquity, evildoers, act corruptly, abandoned the Lord, despised the Holy One, turned away from him.”

C. (Verses 5, 6) – These verses show the effects of God’s discipline toward them. No part of their being has been free from the Lord’s manifestation of displeasure toward them and his pressing of them toward repentance and righteousness. Nothing remains to afflict—“Where will you be stricken again?” The head and the heart—appeals to the intellect and to the affections have failed—and the entire body from foot to head has been disciplined. No part of their nation has been free from discipline, they bear the results of it, and yet they do not turn.

D. (Verse 7) – Judah has almost been brought to non-existence by invading forces. The nations around them have been picking off the cities and the fields of crops one by one. Soon the nation will be ripe for the invasion of Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Even with this destruction of different cities, they refuse to turn.

E. (Verses 7-9) – So diminished are they from their former glory that they are like a little hut in a vineyard or a cucumber patch to protect the harvester from the heat of the day. As long as they feel safe, they care little about what is happening elsewhere. Only grace, unmerited preservation, left them with survivors. Had God rewarded their evil according to merit, they would have suffered utter annihilation like Sodom and Gomorrah. Only God’s larger purpose of grace has served to preserve a remnant. Mathew Henry commented, “It is God’s work to sanctify and save some, when others are left to perish in their impurity. It is the work of his power as the Lord of hosts. Except he had left us that remnant, there would have been none left.”

On April 30, 1863, in Baltimore, Maryland, Richard Fuller preached on a “Day of National Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.” He began, “My friends, I utter no paradox, I speak only the sentiments of my calm conviction, when I tell you that your sins alarm me less than your days of humiliation and prayer.” Pointing to the war raging at that moment, Fuller preached, “This scourge, in it most cruel form, is at this moment drenching the land in fraternal blood; and again we are here before the great and dreadful God, to humble ourselves and implore his clemency.” He continued, that in place of heart-felt repentance and deep sorrow for sin, he observed “on all sides the sounds of revelry and mirth. There never was a season of more unbounded sensual gratification in the ball room, the theatre, the haunts of pleasure and debauchery. On this solemn fast day God hears in the city and country not the voice of weeping, but of merriment and festivity. To a devout mind, nay to a mind not infatuated, how deplorable such a spectacle. O my countrymen, ought these things to be? Does he regard God, or love his country, who can thus make light of these calamities? Is this a time for feasting and dancing, for the viol, and tabret, and harp, and wine, and strong drink, when the judgments of God are abroad, when the avenging heavens above and the gore-sodden earth beneath are calling us to mourning and lamentation and woe?” Fuller Sermons, 2:177.


II. Chapter 1:10-17. God renews his calls for repentance and inserts a word of promise and remedy. This section begins with “Hear the word of the Lord,” and the next section ends (20) with “Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The prophet has no doubt that he is a mouthpiece for the Lord in his oral proclamation and in his written communication.

A. (Verse 10) – Having introduced the image of Sodom and Gomorrah in the preceding verse, Isaiah now addresses Judah and Jerusalem by the names of those cities of utter godlessness (Genesis 13:13). He calls them to listen to God’s word. This would include the words of the prophets and also the law of Moses. “Give ear” means to listen with the intent of turning the content of what one hears into productive action. It means, “Take this to heart.” Obedience to the law always required the heart and not mere perfunctory conformity. These words come not only as reprimand and warning, but as grace. Though they deserved immediate destruction, God granted a way of repentance and restoration.

B. (Verses 11-13a) – The Lord rebuked them for the vanity of their sacrifices.

  1. In Malachi the offerings were not according to the physical standards required (Malachi 1:7, 8, 13, 14). This reality obviously indicated that the post-exilic offerings were also lacking in heart, but these during the time of Isaiah were purely ceremonial, done according to time and physical standards and of the best livestock “The fat of fed cattle.” They were not disobeying the specific requirements for the sacrifices but, were in fact, exuberant in their offerings and abundant in free-will offerings {(“your multiplied sacrifices.” So frequently did they appear that god rebukes their hypocritical show of piety “Who requires of you this trampling of my courts?”)
  2. As God multiplied the language of verse 4 to indicate the deep perversity of their actions, both in required religious practices and in their unjust social lives, so now he multiplies the phrases that indicate his absolute holy hatred of their sinfully executed worship. “I have had enough, . . . I take no pleasure, . . . Worthless offerings, . . . an abomination to me, . . I cannot endure, . . . I hate, . . . They have become a burden, . . . I am weary of bearing them, . . . I will hide my eyes, . . . I will not listen.”
  3. They omitted the central issue stated so poignantly by David: “For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; you do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16, 17). David continued in verse 19 that God would receive the offerings when they reflected a worshiping, repenting, and believing heart.

C. (Verses 13b- 14) – God also hates their appointed festivals. The solemn assembly, which was supposed to indicate genuine repentance of the entire nation, was a mere show of religiosity. Many people show up at church for a few weeks after a calamity, but soon their heat for divine intervention and safety cools and life returns to godless pursuits. The appointed feasts required by God himself in the law were a burden to God, for the recognition of his mercy and grace to them indicated by those feasts had vanished from their hearts. In addition to the Sabbath contained in the Ten commandments, God had appointed the feast of firstfruits, the feast of weeks, the feast of trumpets, the day of atonement, and the feast of tabernacles (booths). Each of these involved extra sabbaths and sacrifices (Leviticus 23). Any time we substitute activities, even those required in the framework of growing in grace, for true ongoing repentance, mortification of the flesh, forgiveness of others, and gratitude for measureless mercies, we establish idols of our activities and forget the true worship of the true God.

D. (Verse 15) Even their prayers, their postures of supplication and their words of approach to God would not be heard. The person who hides sin, perversity of heart, and injustice behind a show of prayer will not be heard and will soon find God as a wrathful being zealous for his holiness and deeply offended at our supercilious condescension of faux religiosity. Jesus told of a haughty self-serving prayer that availed nothing but condemnation for the pretentious worshiper (Luke 18:9-14). At the same time, he described the heart with which one must approach God, both as sinful suppliants for grace and as utterly dependent children (Luke 18: 13 and 16, 17).

E. (Verses 16, 17) – Having laid before them both their deep sinfulness and God’s utter disgust, a word for recognition, repentance, and righteousness comes.

  1. (Verse 16) – They must recognize that they are filthy and polluted with sin and seek to be cleansed. Based on the revelation of God concerning standards of true righteousness, true love of God and true love of neighbor, they are admonished to cleanse themselves from their evil—both the religious hypocrisy and their public rapacity and injustice—and cease from this impious and destructive way of life.
  2. (Verse 17) – The Lord continues the call by instructing them to learn what is truly good, to repent of the evil and turn toward good. When an inquirer after eternal life addressed Jesus as “good,” Jesus asked him why he used that word; none is good but God (Luke 18:18-23). Jesus did not disclaim deity, but used the question to point the inquirer to the absolute standard of the Ten Commandments. True goodness would mean an unwavering and conscience-bound obedience to those commandments, free from any spirit of covetousness. To sell all and then distribute the proceeds from the sale to the poor would indicate a love of neighbor as oneself; then to follow Jesus would mean to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, for this truly “good” teacher would be the only answer to his question about eternal life. The command, “Learn to do good,” is loaded with the full revelation of gospel truth.
  3. Four manifestations of repentance defined specific standards of righteousness for these people. They must seek justice. They must be impartial before the law in executing the law, preferring neither the rich nor the poor but only the purity of revealed righteousness. They must, therefore, reprove the ruthless who seek to gain personal advantage by pressing their way to riches at the expense of others. In doing this, the society would take up the cause of the helpless who suffer for lack of any righteous advocacy. Widows were mistreated and the well-being of the orphan was ignored. No society can thrive for long if it ignores the necessity of compassion and allows the rich and powerful to enrich themselves by refusing advocacy for the defenseless. The single most egregious violation of goodness, justice, and compassion in our society is the practice of abortion. It is an unconscionable attack upon both God and man, an infinite evil of disobedience to both tables of the commandments. It destroys the image of God counting it as trash to be disposed of for profit; it represents the most exquisite hatred of neighbor in snuffing out the life of those who have not offended and have no means of defense.


III. The prophet now delivers the Lord’s promise in announcing the first evangelical word with which this book is so rich. The promise is followed by the corresponding personal responsibility implied in the promise.

A. Sin can claim no right to forgiveness. God told Adam, “In the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” The only rational and moral recompense for sin is death: “The wages of sin is death.” This promise, therefore, comes as a great mystery (and explains why even a remnant remains of such an ungodly and ungrateful people, 9a), which will be given more substance in later chapters and will culminate in the cross of Christ. Scarlet sins somehow will be completely purified of the bloody guilt and be made to look like uncorrupted snow; the crimson stain of wrath invoking moral perversity will be given the appearance of wool washed white. This mystery will be fully revealed in the person of Christ and in his work of redemptive grace. John saw this in its fulness when he saw the risen Lord as “Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5).

B. If they consent to the righteous standard of cleansing redemption, and obey the call to righteousness their land will be restored. The reception of forgiveness implies an admission of guilt and a resolve to “cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice.” Paul at his conversion found righteousness to be so beautiful that he sought it in Christ alone and then made the goal of his life the pursuit of Christ’s conformity to God’s law (Philippians 3:9-11).

C. A refusal of forgiveness and cleansing means that one is completely satisfied with evil. They refuse the proffer of cleansing for it would mean an admission of filthiness. They continue, therefore, in the way of unrighteousness and injustice and can look forward to the judgment of the sword.

D. God has spoken and none of his words shall fail. Sin will be judged, while God still will be glorified in redemptive grace. Isaiah summarized the message of these verses in 1:27, 28: “Zion will be redeemed with justice and repentant ones with righteousness. But transgressors and sinners will be crushed together, and those who forsake the Lord will come to an end,”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts