The Pulpit Commentary

Isaiah 1:1-31 (Isaiah 1:1-31)

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Isaiah 1:16-20 (Isaiah 1:16-20)

THE REQUIREMENT OF GOD AMENDMENT OF LIFE . God, having put aside the worthless plea of outward religiousness made by his people, goes on to declare, by the mouth of his prophet, what he requires. First, in general terms ( Isaiah 1:16 ), and then with distinct specification ( Isaiah 1:17 ), he calls on them to amend their ways, both negatively ("cease to do evil") and positively ("learn to do well"). If they will really amend, then he assures them of forgiveness and favor; if they refuse and continue their rebellion, the sword will devour them.

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Isaiah 1:18 (Isaiah 1:18)

Come now, and let us reason together. God has from time to time permitted man to reason with him ( Genesis 18:23-32 ; Exodus 4:1-17 ; Job 23:3-7 ; Micah 6:2 ); but it is difficult to see that there is any "reasoning" or "controversy" here. Mr. Cheyne translates, "Let us bring our dispute to an end." Though your sins be as scarlet … like crimson ; i.e. "open, evident, glaring." Or there may be an allusion to their blood-guiltiness (see Isaiah 1:15 , Isaiah 1:19 ). They shall be as white as snow. Comp. Psalms 51:7 , which is completely parallel, whether it was written before or after. There can be no better image of, purity than snow (comp. Job 9:30 ; Lamentations 4:7 ). As wool. A weaker illustration than the preceding one, but needed for the parallelism. (The resemblance of falling snow to wool is noted in Psalms 147:16 .)

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Isaiah 1:16-20 (Isaiah 1:16-20)

No return to God's favor without amendment of life.

The outward show of religion, which the Israelites maintained, vain and futile as it was, seemed to indicate that they were not wholly irreclaimable—they did not desire to break altogether with God. The prophet, therefore, assumes that they would wish to know the way by which they may remove God's anger, and enter once more into favor with him; and he proceeds to point out that the one and only road open to them is to amend their ways—to reverse their course of life. This amendment consists in two things: one negative, the other positive.

I. NEGATIVELY : AMENDMENT CONSISTS IN CEASING TO DO EVIL . This is the first thing needed. Men must break off their sins, put away the iniquity of their doings, resolutely determine that the works of darkness shall be done by them no more. The works will be different in different cases. To one man they will be impure acts and words; to another, falsehood, deception, equivocation; to another, profanity of speech; to another, drunkenness; to another, intemperate anger, and so on. To the Israelites at this time, or at any rate to their chief men, who are here specially addressed ( Isaiah 1:10 ), the evil-doing most common, and to which they were most prone, was cruelty and oppression. The chief men acted as judges, held courts, heard complaints, determined causes; but, instead of seeking to do justice between man and man, they sought merely to advance their own interests by means of the office entrusted to them. They accepted bribes from rich suitors to determine law-suits in their favor; they leaned in their judgments against the weak and the defenseless. They were probably a clique, who enriched themselves by playing into each others' hands, and ousting weak persons from their properties and estates by legal artifices. All this whole system of evil-doing they were required, first of all, to put aside, before they could hope that God would look upon them with anything but anger and reprobation.

II. POSITIVELY : AMENDMENT CONSISTS IN LEARNING TO DO WELL . Negative goodness is not enough. God expects each man to glorify him by good actions. Those who have gone astray must not only retrace their steps, but must enter resolutely on the path of virtue. They must "set themselves in some good way." And this must be especially done in the matters wherein they have failed . The Jewish judges had failed in their task of administering justice—they had given unjust sentences, favored oppressors, dealt hardly with the widow and the orphan. Hence the prophet's exhortations to them are "Seek out justice; correct the oppressor; right the orphan; plead the cause of the widow" ( Isaiah 1:17 ). And so it must be with all the varieties of evil-doers. Each must be exhorted to the virtue which is the opposite of the vice that he has indulged in. Each must labor, if he really seeks restoration to God's favor, to do deeds the very opposite of those which he did formerly. If he was a drunkard, he does well to become a total abstainer; if a glutton, to chasten his flesh by fasting; if impure, to give him-serf to the reclaiming of outcasts; if niggardly, "to sell all that he has and give to the poor;" if violent, to suffer wrong, and turn his cheek to the smiter.

From the nature of amendment, the prophet proceeds to its consequences, which are likewise twofold, consisting in—

I. THE CLEANSING OF THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL . Here much is kept back which is revealed later, as

II. A REWARD , EXTERNAL TO THE SOUL ITSELF , WHICH GOD 'S FREE GRACE WILL BESTOW . Here still more is kept back. The reward held out is merely temporal: "Ye shall eat the good of the land." Ye shall live in peace and prosperity, under your own vines and fig trees, and enjoy the fruits of the earth, which God in his bounty gives you. Not a whisper of the eternal reward—the blessedness reserved for man in heaven, the bliss which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive." Probably the Israelites of Isaiah's day were too gross and sensual, too much wrapt up in material things, to have been stirred to action by anything so distant and intangible as the heavenly life, even if they could have formed the faintest conception of it. Here, again, "God has provided better things for us" ( Hebrews 10:1-39 :40), and given us a motive for exertion far beyond any that was presented to his ancient people.

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Isaiah 1:18-23 (Isaiah 1:18-23)

Argument and conviction.

I. THE TRIAL OF THE CASE .

1. God is reason , otherwise he could not be God of justice . And if the nature can defend itself, clear itself from guilt, its plea will be allowed. Just so in Isaiah 43:19 , the imagery of a court of justice is presented: "Let them bring forth their witnesses that they may be justified, and let them hear, and say, It is true." The question is—Can the nation clear itself from the charges alleged against it? If so, the deep fixed stain that now seems to rest upon them shall be taken away, and they shall be white as driven snow or as undyed wool.

2. God appeals to fixed principles of right . These have long been known, are written in the conscience of the people. A willing spirit of obedience to Divine law is assured of blessing; rebellion brings about hostility, invasion, and all those calamities from which the people are now suffering. Have these curses come "causeless" upon the people? Or are they the just consequences of disobedience? Let them answer. A long pause and silence convey the admission of guilt. They have no argument to urge, no cause to show why judgment should be stayed.

II. THE PROPHET 'S LAMENTATION . He, as daysman, or go-between, mourns over the city thus convicted, unable to stand in judgment against Jehovah. He is compelled in this cause to turn witness against his own people. Once loyal and pledged as in the covenant of marriage to Jehovah, the city has become like her who "forsakes the guide of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God." Where once the splendid seat of justice and purity stood, there is now lawless bloodshed. The pure metal of her virtue has been debased; and "as water unto wine" is her moral feebleness now as contrasted with her moral strength then. They who, as rulers, were set for an example of obedience to God, integrity among men, are rebels and thieves' comrades. Instead of withholding their hands from bribes, they greedily clutch after them. Pity and mercy are extinct; the orphan and the widow are thrust aside. The guilt of guilt lies in the use of power without love. Christ, as the impersonation of humanity and of love, points out that the condemnation of evil conduct lies in this, that love is wanting, The splendid temple ritual was naught, because there was no love in it, as their conduct out of the temple so clearly showed. We may never miss a Sunday service or a celebration of the communion, yet for all that be undone. And many who have never been "professed" Christians will be, on other grounds, professed by Christ.—J.

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Isaiah 1:18 (Isaiah 1:18)

Salvation to the uttermost.

"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." The previous verses show that the Jews had mistaken the ideal of Divine services; they had turned them into a correct ritual, to a multitude of sacrifices without purpose. And purpose or motive is the very heart of religion. They were devotional, but cruel. "When ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood." It was all empty ceremony. The solemn meeting even was iniquity. A change must come. And it must bean in character . "Cease to do evil." Yes; but that is not enough. Negation is not salvation. There must be life unto God as well as death unto sin. "Learn to do well." Then come the words of our text. They sound a strange note at first; they speak of what man cannot do and what God can.

I. HERE IS THE GOSPEL IN ISAIAH . Free, full, perfect redemption. We see in these words Gethsemane and Calvary. There God's purpose was fulfilled; but it is in his heart when these words are spoken, for "the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world." It is a glorious gospel—God giving himself for the world. And now, as we read Israel's sins in this record, we may see even then that, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.

II. HERE IS THE REASONABLENESS OF RELIGION . How condescending! Let us—the Infinite and the finite, the immaculate and the evil. Yet so it is. God says, "While you are stained with blood and cloaked with hypocrisy, I can have nothing to say to you or to do with you." It cannot be that light should have fellowship with darkness. That is reasonable surely. But how can the sins of Judah and Jerusalem be purged away? Amendment is not atonement. And God is their Ransom, the high God is their Redeemer!

III. HERE IS THE CHARTER OF THE CHURCH 'S LIBERTY . These words will never be forgotten. They have comforted millions. It is not liberty to sin, but salvation from all sin, and from the punishment of sin. Not from punishment only, but from sin itself, in all its forms, all its depths, all its degrees! For the colors are chosen as the symbols of the most marked and malignant evil—scarlet and crimson. Yet God is able to save to the uttermost. The words are best understood beneath the cross and in the history of redeemed men in every age.—W.M.S.

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Isaiah 1:10-20 (Isaiah 1:10-20)

The prophetic strain.

Isaiah had gone only a very little way in his testimony when he broke into the true prophetic strain. The prophets were God's witnesses against the mere shows and semblances of piety, and for the reality of godliness and virtue; they lived to expose the false and to expound the true, to pierce with keen edged sword that which was hollow and rotten, and to commend with glowing zeal that which was sound and good. Here we have a deliverance which evidently came hot from a heart that burned with fiery indignation.

I. THE UTTER INSUFFICIENCY OF MERE RITUAL TO COMMAND THE DIVINE FAVOR . "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?" etc. (verses 11-13). These various offerings were all according to the commandment, correct, scriptural; but they were unacceptable; they were "vain oblations, "all of them. They were ineffectual, because they came from hands that were unclean, from hearts that were unholy. It is a significant and solemn fact that men may be engaged in doing those very things, using those very words which God has plainly prescribed, and yet they may be utterly failing to win his Divine favor. The services of the sanctuary, the "eating of that bread and drinking of that cup, "the ministries of the pulpit and the study,—all these may be unimpeachably correct, but yet wholly unacceptable. If the heart be not right, if the life be not pure, they are unacceptable.

II. ITS POSSIBLE ODIOUSNESS IN THE SIGHT OF GOD . Those who are rendering an abundance of formal devotion are actually denominated by a term which indicates the last extremity of wrong-doing: "Ye rulers of Sodom," "ye people of Gomorrah;" they are addressed as if they were responsible citizens of those infamous cities. Jehovah not only does "not delight in the blood of bullocks" (verse 11), and not only does not rear , ire this kind of service (verse 12); not only does he call the oblations "vain," but he declares incense to be an abomination to him (verse 13). "Your new moons … my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them" (verse 14). The thought is positively terrible that the very things we are doing with a view to gain God's pleasure may be bringing down upon us his awful anger; that the very means we are taking to avert his wrath may be only adding to its weight. It is certain that the offerings of the hypocrite are of this kind. This prophetic strain is not only applicable to the specialties of the Hebrew ritual; it includes all the ordinary approaches of the human soul to the Divine Father; it embraces that which we call "prayer" (see verse 15). And we have to face the fact that the most devout utterances of our lips, in the most approved or even in biblical phraseology, may be worse than worthless in the sight of God.

III. THE PRIMARY DUTY OF REPENTANCE . "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings," etc. (verses 16, 17). When men are loving and practicing unrighteousness, the first thing they have to do is to "put it away," both from their minds and from their lives. The drunkard must first dash down his cup, the untruthful man must at once give up his falsehoods, the licentious man his impurities, the dishonest man his rogueries; it is a vain and even guilty thing for a man to kneel in prayer or to sit down at the Lord's table when he is deliberately intending to go on in his sin: that is nothing less than mockery; it is defiance assuming the attitude of devotion. "Let the wicked forsake his way," etc. ( Isaiah 55:7 ).

IV. THE READINESS OF GOD TO PARDON THE PENITENT . (Verse 18.)

V. THE ALTERNATIVE WHICH GOD PLACES BEFORE ALL HIS CHILDREN OBEY AND PROSPER , OR REFUSE AND SUFFER . (Verses 19, 20.) They who now return unto the Lord from the state of sin in which they are found—from crime, from vice, from ungodliness, from indecision—and who attach themselves to the service of Jesus Christ, shall "eat the good of the land;" to them shall be granted the sunshine of God's favor, the blessedness of Christ's friendship and service, the hope of a heavenly heritage. But they who remain apart and afar from God, who will not have the Man Christ Jesus to reign over them—they must abide under the condemnation of the Holy and the Just.—C.

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Isaiah 1:18 (Isaiah 1:18)

The magnitude of the Divine mercy.

I. THE FULNESS OF THE DIVINE MERCY . In estimating the fullness of God s grace to mankind, we must include:

1. His patience toward all men, both penitent and impenitent. From the beginning of sin until the present hour God has been forbearing to inflict penalty. He has not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities." The times of long-continued ignorance God overlooked, or did not interpose with special penalty or redemption ( Acts 17:30 ).

2. His pardon offered to the penitent and believing. In the Law we read that he is "the Lord God, merciful and gracious," etc. ( Exodus 34:6 , Exodus 34:7 ); in the Psalms we read that he is "plenteous in mercy," etc. ( Psalms 103:8 , Psalms 103:11 , Psalms 103:12 ); in the prophets we read that "he is merciful and will not keep anger forever" ( Jeremiah 3:12 ; and see text and Isaiah 55:7-9 ; Daniel 9:9 ). In the gospel of Jesus Christ remission of sins is a cardinal doctrine ( Matthew 26:28 ; Luke 24:47 ; Acts hi. 38; Acts 5:31 ; Acts 10:43 ; Acts 26:18 ).

3. The thoroughness of his forgiveness.

(a) The worst kinds of sin—blasphemy, idolatry, all forms of impurity, murder, etc.;

(b) the most criminal condition—long-continued forgetfulness, sin against multiplied privilege, persistent and obdurate rebelliousness of heart, etc.

(a) Penetrating to the most secret thoughts of the mind, to the most inward motives of the soul, to the slightest choices of the will;

(b) extending to the thoughts and things which have been overlooked and omitted, as well as to those which have been entertained and wrought.

(a) Leading to actual holiness—for pardon is the fruit of penitence and faith, and with them in the soul, the scarlet becomes as snow, the crimson as wool, the mind is radically changed, the life is thoroughly transformed

(b) including full restoration, not merely the not exacting penalty, but the actual bestowal of the Divine favor—admitting to the Father's home and table, lavishing upon the accepted child every sign and proof of parental love.

II. THE DIVINE ARGUMENT THEREFROM . God condescends to "reason" with us; he appeals to our sense of obligation, to our regard for our own interests, to our human affections, etc. The argument here is not stated, but it may be easily inferred. If such is the Divine mercy—so large and full and free, then how wise to seek it at once! because of:

1. The blessedness of being right with God henceforth.

2. The uncertainty of the future. Between our souls and its possession may be interposed

3. The immeasurable, issues which are at stake—"everlasting punishment or life eternal."—C.

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Isaiah 1:18 (Isaiah 1:18)

Reasoning with God about our sins.

Conceive a man responding to this appeal, what may we think he would say to God, and what may we suppose God would reply?

I. FIRST PLEA . "Thou art revealed as the great God, inhabiting eternity, whose Name is Holy; who art of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity. I am afraid thou wouldst not concern thyself about the sin, much less about the forgiveness, of such creatures as we are." What is God's answer? "I have a great interest in that little world where you dwell. I have given you many proofs of it. I have hidden my great sun to shine on you, and quicken life and beauty everywhere around you. I am coming down continually in the rains and winds that provide food for you, coming down to attend your steps and ward off evils from you. It is quite true that by me even 'the very hairs of your head are all numbered.' If I take such interest in you, should I not concern myself about your sin, the worst of the evils that gather about you? Do you think I could temper the storms and the sunshine, keep away pestilence and blight, and not strive to take away sin? And there is something more: 'I am merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and of great kindness.' You know that I am Light, Power, Majesty, King, Judge. But you do not really know me till you know that I am Love, and love will spend itself until every stain is cleansed from those whom it loves. My love sends forth streams that wash away sins." When love opens the cleansing fountain, what can we do but

Plunge rote the purple flood,

And rise into the life of God.

II. SECOND PLEA . "I read that thou hast given a great Law, by which thy creatures are to be judged. 'The Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.' Thou hast said, 'The soul that sinneth, it shall die.' I do not see how thou canst keep thy justice and thy truth, and yet blot out my scarlet, my crimson sins." What is the reply? "It is indeed the mystery of mysteries, but love has solved it. I can be just and justifying. I have set forth my dear Son as your Sin-bearer, your Substitute, the Propitiation for your sin. In his righteous life, by his vicarious death, my Law is magnified and shown to be honorable. Not a stain can even seem to be upon it after such an obedience as Christ rendered, if I did gather every sinful creature into my love and heaven. I have myself put such an eternal honor upon Law by permitting my Son to submit to it, that none can ever doubt the transcendent glory of my justice."

III. THIRD PLEA . "But my sins are so great, so aggravated, it seems to me as though such sins as mine cannot even be atoned for; even if atoned for, I think I should never be able to hold up my head for very shame." Some of us know what scarlet sins mean, crimson sins, sins of deepest die. What is God's reply? "I have provided for the uttermost of sin in the infinite merit of my Son. His worth outweighs all sin; it can cover and blot out the deepest crimson stains. His sacrifice sends up such a fragrant incense to me that I can freely pardon all your iniquity. If his robe of righteousness cover you, I shall not see any of those stains; I shall accept you in him."

IV. FOURTH PLEA . "But my sins are not just acts of willfulness and rebellion, they are the habits of my life, the neglectings and self-servings of my life. I hear of rolling sin as a sweet morsel under the tongue, and that is just the way with me. If I were forgiven, I fear I should just go on sinning still." But God answers, "I have provided also for this. I will pour out of my Spirit upon you; and to them that have no might he shall increase strength. He shall be Teacher, Guide, Comforter, Earnest, and Seal. He shall be with you always."

V. FIFTH PLEA . "Even if my scarlet sins are made like wool, and my crimson sins like the snow, I fear I shall never be able to return anything for such grace abounding." What a wonderful reply God makes to you, closing up your mouth and humbling you in the very dust! "Not for your sakes do I this, O house of Israel, but for mine own Name's sake." Truly that is a wonderful answer. It is like God coming to us, opening the fountain of his being, and saying, "Look in, look long, and peer into the depths. I am love ." There is all the secret. Love saves. Love saves even those who never can hope to make worthy returns for love.—R.T.

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