When I volunteered to take over the leadership of a proposed young adult Bible study at St. John, I got a little more than I asked for. I naturally thought of Isaiah because I hadn’t studied it in depth. When I took Old Testament in college, I was all wore out by the time we got to the prophets, and we didn’t spend much time on Isaiah. Isaiah is well known because of how often it is quoted in the New Testament, but as I have gotten into the text, I have found so much more there.
Isaiah comes to Israel at a time not unlike our own. Dr. Luther notes, that while Isaiah 1:1 puts the prophet himself It was 190 years since the split of the two kingdoms, even longer since the time of David. In the intervening years, most of the kings of Judah have been good, although there was still incense being offered in the high places. Judah probably puffed up its chest during these two hundred years. After all, they had the temple and a Davidic king, and their cousins to the north were involved in mass idolatry and constantly changing monarchs. It would have been easy for Judah to be lulled into a false sense of spiritual security.
But even still, they didn’t do all that God had commanded them. Dr. Stephen Stolhmann, my Old Testament professor, told our class that, given how exuberantly the Passover was celebrated in Hezekiah’ time, it likely wasn’t celebrated that often.
And this is how Isaiah come to Israel: in the first chapter, the prophet laments, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Is. 1:3 ESV) The notes in the Lutheran study Bible make the interpretation clear: even animals have natural knowledge of who their masters are, in spite of their limited brains. Israel has a book of the law, the whole thing spelled out in front of them. They read it, and they have no clue what it means because their consciences have been harden.
And it is from this point that Isaiah moves on to Israel’s source of security: their temple worship. “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” (Is. 1:13 ESV) This to me is the real art of Isaiah 1:2-20, the prophet denouncing the people who are trusting the means over the messenger.
Here we must note an important distinction: while the means of grace God gives can save us, it is merely an unworthy mask to what is truly behind us. I remember an Issues Etc. interview (sadly, the name of the guest escapes me), where the pastor noted that Jesus, while critical of the Pharisees’ behavior, he does observe the temple rituals and festivals, because of its position. But while those means are good, they are just that: means. God’s grace and favor is something else.
This situation presents itself in many ways in our modern society. There are religious sects, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim Christ, but add to the teachings of Scripture. These bodies have amassed quite the following and public fascination, and the secularist like to lump them in with the true church, but the scripture makes it clear what they are.
And even in our own church, there are those who go to church every Sunday, but who often go off and serve other gods. We must guard our hearts, so that we do not allow sin and such contempt to creep into them, and run constantly to our Lord and Savior for his forgiveness and mercy. Amen and Amen.