Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Comments on Isaiah 1:1-15

This post concerns the prophets and their message. In LaSor's book, Old Testament Survey, mention was made of the prophets not only telling the future, but speaking within the framework of the culture as well. This point is emphasized when he says, “A careful study of the prophets and their messages reveals that they are deeply involved in the life and death of their own nation.” (Old Testament Survey, 229) It is not that the prophets never foretold the future; it is simply that most of the messages involved present-time preaching to Judah or Israel.

I found the interpretive rules set forth to be enlightening. Especially of note is the rule that instructs to examine the passage as a whole unit. It simply will not do, for instance, to read Isaiah 4:4-6 and proclaim a message found therein. The interpreter must locate the beginning of the message (or “oracle”) being delivered, as well as the end, in order to determine the theme of the message. Once the theme is developed, another rule comes into play: the literary context. As with the rest of Scripture, one cannot pick and choose verses in combination to create his/her own text and the meaning. The placement of the oracle itself may be indicative of the continuing theme. For example, in Isaiah 1:1-15, the theme is clearly the sinfulness of the people of God, whereas in verses 16-31 the theme concerns an appeal by God himself to be reconciled from that sin.

The next rule of note that will affect a prophetic hermeneutic is that of the historical context. It is impossible to grasp fully the implications of a prophetic oracle without any consideration for the context in which the prophet delivered his message. One may argue that with respect to actual future-fulfillment passages, the prophet’s historical context is moot. This, however, would be faulty. There is usually a “near” fulfillment for the people of Israel as well as a “far” fulfillment for each prophetic oracle. This rule, though controversial, helps to make sense of a literal hermeneutic (without which we cannot hope to achieve objective understanding of a text).

The passage is Isaiah 1:1-15. It is clear the oracle begins in verse 2 (with verse 1 as a historical setting). Isaiah uses metaphorical language from the beginning, calling for the earth to “hear” and the heavens to “give ear.” This immediately takes the reader back to Genesis 1:1—“heavens and the earth” encompasses all of creation. This announcement therefore is very important. Other comparisons include “seed [or offspring] of evildoers,” (v. 4) “wounds, bruises…and sores,” (v. 6) and others.

It seems contrasting parallelism is used in verse 3 with the phrase:
            The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib:
            But Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

Isaiah uses the metaphors of illness and weakness for God’s people, explaining the whole or complete of the body is sick; there is no part of them unaffected by sin. The pictures he uses are in regards to a lone cottage in a vineyard, and a city surrounded in a siege. The picture is of a people cut off from help. The prophet then engages in a startling bit of irony in referencing Sodom and Gomorrah (vs. 9-10). While explaining that without the Lord’s mercy, the people of God in Judah and Jerusalem would be wiped out like Sodom, he then proceeds to refer to Judah as Sodom! This surely would have felt like a slap in the face. That God’s chosen people would be set up as sinful Sodomites sends the message Judah is more like the villain of the story than the hero. The question, after the shock, is why?

Isaiah does not hesitate to tell them. “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting....when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.” (vs. 13, 15) The prophet clearly illustrates through parallelism and poetry that Judah’s sin is so putrid it is an abomination, as was Sodom’s. He need not worry about at least grabbing the hearer’s attention!

As an application to the modern church, this passage reflects God’s attitude towards sin. While we go about our daily business, doing our rituals in church attendance and good services with music and church fellowships, God finds our lack of holiness appalling. I am reminded of 1 Samuel 15:23, in which it says “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Especially in the American church, we believe if we go through the motions of Christianity, God may be fooled. Verse 11 reminds us that such activities have a purpose or meaning. That purpose is not an end unto itself. Isaiah’s call for Judah rings true for our churches today. We must repent, but we cannot do that without recognizing our own sinfulness.

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