29 November 2016

Isaiah 1:12-20

"Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (vv. 16-17)

Psalm: Psalm 63


Today's passage follows immediately from yesterday's and again evokes the scenario of a court of law, where God's people "come to appear" (v. 1) before God. If possible, read the passage aloud and hear the different voices in which God speaks - first as judge, stating the accusations and the remedy, but then (in verses 18-20) more as arbitrator, offering reconciliation and restoration, although still with a sting in the tail for any who "refuse and rebel" (v. 20).

There are passages in the Old Testament where God condemns Israel for adopting the pagan religious rites of other tribes and nations (eg Jeremiah 5:18-19). This is not what is happening here - if anything, this is even more serious, God is declaring as futile the very practices and rituals which God ordained for Jewish worship. It is not offerings, incense, Sabbath and appointed festivals which are wrong, for how could God ever denounce prayer or the Sabbath? Rather it is the way in which they are being conducted; misuse is the heart of the problem. So there is a two-fold warning here; firstly against complacency, even the people of Jerusalem are not faultless in their worship, but also against having a false understanding of what religious practice can achieve. Strong language is used in the denunciation; meaningless, detestable, burdensome, unbearable… God is not mildly irritated by what is going on, but thoroughly disgusted. As we move through the season of Advent and begin to make our preparations for Christmas, both in our homes and in our churches, maybe there is a warning here for us as well?


Just as the accusation is clear, so is the remedy, given in verses 16-17. It is graphically introduced with the idea of hands being stretched out in worship and prayer but in vain, for those same hands are "full of blood" (v. 15). Not the blood of sacrifice, which builds relationship with God, but the blood of oppressed people, which destroys it. Cleansing is needed - not merely, we understand, the many rituals for washing hands, clothing and utensils which formed part of the Jewish practice, but a deeper cleansing, inextricably linked with a change of behaviour. There follows a cry from the heart of God for the people to "cease to do evil [and] learn to do good". This "good" is defined as seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow. In other words, showing holiness by taking practical action against injustice.

In grace, God now steps between the accuser and the accused and offers a way through. Forgiveness is available, mercy is on hand, the 'cleansing' of verse 16 can take place for scarlet sins can become white as snow, red can be turned to wool-white. All that is now required is for the people to be both willing and obedient. It is an appeal from the lover to the beloved.

To Ponder

  • Do you ever feel that you or your church is abusing religious practice? How does that happen?
  • Holiness and Justice, the theme set for this year by the President and Vice-President of the Conference is particularly relevant to today's passage. If you have time this week, watch again their passionate addresses from the opening of Conference in June by clicking the links above.
  • "Willing and obedient" (v. 19) are both words which challenge our will, our motivation, our mindset. Ponder the words today and ask God for the grace to become more willing and more obedient.

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at www.northoftheborder.wordpress.com and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.