Isaiah 1:15-20 - “Be Reasonable!”
(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)
Author Gordon MacDonald provided some insight into the term repentance: “’Repentance’ is not basically a religious word. It comes from a culture where people were essentially nomadic and lived in a world with no maps or street signs. It’s easy to get lost walking through the desert. You become aware that the country side is strange. You finally say to yourself, I’m going in the wrong direction. That’s the first act of repentance. The second act of repentance is to go in an alternate direction. It implies that you not only do this but you admit it to your companions.”
My family will tell you I have a real dislike for turning around and going back the way I came. This comes up especially on family trips where we’ve ended up going in an unintended direction. I prefer moving forward so thoroughly that I will go out of my way and/or figure out an alternate route rather than go backwards.
That kind of stubbornness is deadly when it is manifest in one’s spiritual life. Sin turns us around; it puts us on a course away from God. When that happens we need to be quick to repent which involves doing an about-face and returning to God.
CONTEXT: God spoke through Isaiah to address the sin of His people Judah. Verse four of this chapter sets the stage by utterly condemning the people of Judah for having turned their backs to God. Isaiah has been empowered to tell them to turn to Him.
True repentance is required for godly living. It is a paradox of faith that godly living is both something you do for God and something God does for you.
1. Godly living is something you do for God. (vs. 15-17)
Be warned: God does not acknowledge the prayers of hypocrites. (v. 15) It is human nature to want to be in control. One place this desire is evidenced is in religion. We hope to exercise control of God by putting in our time and expecting His blessing in return. We fall into hypocrisy, legalism, and merely external religious acts. Though we would never say so, we believe God ought to be grateful for what we give Him.
Historically, we see this cycle: the Lord gives humanity a revelation/does a new thing. Then, over the centuries, we paint layers of formality over it until the original becomes difficult to recognize.
Even the Old Testament system of formal religion was not given to be observed merely outwardly. The sacrifices were to be a means of approaching God to receive inner cleansing from sin. But according to Isaiah, the people of Judah - if they made the sacrifices at all - did it outwardly without any inner commitment to God. The sacrificed without repenting.
Their hands were FULL OF BLOOD in two ways identified in this chapter. There is a reference to THE BLOOD OF BULLS AND LAMBS AND GOATS in verse eleven. These were the animals they sacrificed in their legalistic/hypocritical pretense of worship. Religion that is not spiritual as well as material is powerless to save anyone.
In verse eighteen it is written their SINS were LIKE SCARLET, RED AS CRIMSON, the colors of freshly-spilled blood.
In their practice of prayer, hands were raised to God, palms up, not folded as is our practice. This, then, is a graphic image of blood-red palms being uplifted in prayer, an obvious act of gross hypocrisy.
As “bloody hands” need washing, we must sincerely repent. Verses fifteen to seventeen tell us to WASH AND MAKE YOURSELVES CLEAN. This expression represents regret over our sins. What have we done for which we ought to feel regret? If nothing else, we ought to regret the consequences of our sins, which distance us from God, from one another, and have toxic effects on our health and circumstances. Washing was required in the Law of Moses as a means of preparation for worship and for meals. It was a big deal in their faith; the Pharisees faulted Jesus and His disciples for not washing in Mark 7:1 ff.
After regret, repentance requires us to turn away from sin and toward God. As is often the case in the prophets (i.e., Hosea 6:6-10, Amos 5:1-5; Micah 3:9 ff), turning toward God is revealed more in acts of justice than in conformity to the Law of Moses. Isaiah gives three examples of God-ward directions in life.
TAKE YOUR EVIL DEEDS OUT OF MY SIGHT! The most complete repentance involves a hatred of the sin that we had committed.
STOP DOING WRONG, LEARN TO DO RIGHT! We study the Bible to learn God’s moral code so we know what is right and what is wrong.
SEEK JUSTICE, ENCOURAGE THE OPPRESSED…
FATHERLESS… WIDOW. Seeking JUSTICE requires actively looking for opportunities to come to the assistance of disadvantaged persons.
It takes humility to admit you are wrong and moral courage to ask for forgiveness: this is no less true in our relationship with God than in our relationships with one another.
Notice this section of Isaiah is full of verbs: WASH… TAKE… STOP… LEARN… SEEK… ENCOURAGE) so we need a reminder that we do these things as we are repenting. We do not do these things in an attempt to earn God’s favor, but out of love and gratitude.
2. Godly living is also something God does for you. (vs. 18-20)
Use your head - reason is a path to godliness. (18) There are several court room expressions used in this passage. The word picture is that of Judah being on trial for her sins. REASON is supposed to be the means of reaching just decisions in court.
Rely on God to forgive your sin and cleanse you completely. (18) Don’t make the mistake of allowing regret to lead you into attempting to make amends.
The contrast of colors conveys the completeness of God’s forgiveness. SCARLET to WHITE AS SNOW is the same language used in Psalm 51:7. CRIMSON to WOOL (white). The red dye used at that time was absolutely colorfast, so the prophet is saying that God can make white what is humanly impossible.
Obedience is required on our end of partnership with God. (19-20) This passage holds each person responsible for their outcome. We cannot blame God for our sins or their consequences. If we, by faith, choose obedience, a full and abundant life is the outcome. If we choose any way other than God’s, death is the outcome.
Blessings are promised to those who obey God. (19) In this case, the blessing takes the form of a promise of a full belly: YOU WILL EAT THE BEST FROM THE LAND. This has a symbolic side to it: it is not only materialistic, but is symbolic of spiritual and material prosperity.
Curses are threatened on those who RESIST God and REBEL against Him. (20) In this case, the curse is the threat of a violent death: YOU WILL BE DEVOURED BY THE SWORD. As with the blessing, this should be taken generally and symbolically but also seriously. As Paul wrote in Romans 6:23, THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH.
This combination of blessings and curses are found frequently in Proverbs (2:21) and elsewhere in the OT. They are positive and negative incentives to seek God and do right by Him.
These truths did not come from Isaiah; the LORD HAS SPOKEN. (20) This assurance is one final incentive to obey, as the Lord’s warning is not to be taken lightly, nor are His promises. He will do as He says. Historically, we know that these curses did come to pass because the people of Judah refused to repent.
True repentance is required for godly living.
I’ve been reading a book entitled Extravagant Grace by Barbara R. Duguid. It’s a summary of the teaching of John Newton – the pastor who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton believed that a maturing believer took responsibility for his or her own sins, but was never paralyzed by guilt. We can be encouraged to know that God’s grace is so powerful he can use even our sins to bring about increased spiritual maturity. Specifically, he identified three virtues typical to a maturing believer’s life.
Humility – True humility is an accurate view of self. People who ignore their guilt and people who obsess over it are both being self-centered & mistaken.
Tenderness – Seeing one’s self honestly allows one to see others in a true light and show mercy on their human weakness. As Jesus taught in Matthew 7:3-4, tenderness is seeing the speck one’s own eye before fussing over the log in another’s. In a word, not legalistic.
Spirituality – This virtue can be confused with being religious, but it is actually not putting one’s affections or trust in anything or anyone in this world. Spirituality is a matter of focus. Our focus should be on Jesus.
To the degree that these three things are true of any of us, we are receiving the spiritual maturity God wants of us. Duguid’s point is that God’s grace is not going to be thwarted by our sin. As Isaiah made plain, sin has serious consequences, but frustrating God’s plan is not among them. This truth should cause us to both relax and be more vigilant at the same time. In this life we continue to struggle against sin. We can relax in the sense that there is no sin a believer can commit that will cause a loss of salvation. We want to be more vigilant because we love the Lord and one another as we love ourselves and sin does cause a separation from those we love. So we prefer the virtues of humility, kindness, and spirituality to all the vices the world has to offer. Find happiness in being virtuous.
The Daily Study Bible Series, Isaiah, Vol. 1, John F. A. Sawyer
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, G. W. Grogan
Zondervan Bible Commentary, David F. Payne
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Gleason L. Archer
Extravagant Grace by Barbara R. Duguid