28 November 2016Isaiah 1:1-11
“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” (v. 2)
Psalm: Psalm 62
Whilst the ox, donkey and crib of verse 3 might sound comfortably Christmassy (and are referenced in the 8th/9th century AD Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in connection with the Incarnation) there is nothing else cosy about this passage. In it Israel is pictured as a rebel child, a sinful nation, a sick body, a desolate landscape, a besieged city and more. Worst of all, the blood of animals, which has been the basis of the sacrificial system since its foundation (Leviticus 17:11), no longer touches the heart of God; it seems there is nothing the people can do to make amends, for the passage ends with a fierce denunciation of wrong ritual practice.
The first chapter of Isaiah is a little like the overture at the start of an opera or symphony, giving a taste of themes which will be developed in later passages - themes such as sin, judgement, a faithful remnant and hoped-for restoration. Verse 1 is comparable with the opening of other prophetic books, the series of kings named suggests a time frame for this writing around the second half of the 8th century BC. This was a period when the kingdom had already become divided into northern and southern kingdoms, with separate kings. We may want to note something here about terminology; following the division of the kingdom, the southern realm, centred on Jerusalem, where Isaiah lived and prophesied is normally referred to as Judah, with Israel indicating the north. However, there are still occasions, (as in verse 3) where the name Israel is used simply to indicate God's people.
Yesterday's note of universal ignorance is sounded again as Israel is castigated for not "knowing", not understanding the nature and character of God. The language conjures up an imaginary law court in which the heavens and earth (verse 2) are summoned to witness the verdict God is about to announce. Layer upon layer of failings and condemnation are built up; the imagery is strong and the metaphors vivid, with "Alas" perhaps a better translation than "Ah" at the start of verse 4. Prayers sometimes invite blessing to be given "from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head" (v. 6), but here that same expression describes the extent of the sickness from which Judah suffers. The important idea of a remnant, a few remaining faithful, occurs in verse 9. Here, as elsewhere, the 'remnant' can be at once a sign of disaster and a sign of hope. If there is only a remnant, there has clearly been significant destruction, but at least there is a remnant. Otherwise the land would have received the worst indictment of all, it would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah the cities which were utterly destroyed by God in Genesis 19:24.
Perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, in this passage of relentless judgement and condemnation, there is hope to be found in the very harshness of the language. As the writer to the Hebrews would comment centuries later - "Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?" (Hebrews 12:7). The imagery of God as parent (father and mother) of Israel is used in verse 2 as in other instances in Isaiah (Isaiah 30:1; 66:13). If God is still reprimanding Israel, they are still God's loved child.
- There is much in the Bible which makes uncomfortable reading. Is there a sense in which some of this passage could and should be applied to the Church today? If so, how?
- The idea of God as a loving parent is common, but again we often gloss over the need for a parent to discipline a child. Have you ever felt that God was disciplining you? How did that feel?
- Today's Psalm (Psalm 62) repeats an injunction to wait - a strong theme of Advent. Do we need to learn more about waiting for God's restoration? If so, what?