Justice and the Hope of Mercy, Reflections on the Beginning Chapters of Isaiah

The opening verses of Isaiah, describe a nation that has stumbled mightily. The people of Jerusalem, no longer live in accordance to God’s commands, and instead are depicted as living a life in rebellion of the One who called these people His children. The people were called to strive to live lives of holiness, as established in the book of Leviticus. From that point on there formed a distinct contrast between clean and unclean. While the first six chapters of Isaiah do not necessarily directly use the clean/unclean vocabulary, there is no doubt that Isaiah sees the drastic contrast between the Holiness of God and the uncleanliness of Judah.

As the book begins, Isaiah immediately begins rebuking the people of Judah for their rebellion against God (1:2-ff). Isaiah 1:10-20 suggests that worship lies at the heart of the problem. Barry Webb suggests that their worship has been corrupted, and that the worship that is described in verses 16 and 17 have been simply ignored, that they have been “divorced from justice, the fatherless and widow had become the chief victims” (43).Yet, despite this uncleanliness there is still a message of hope found in verses 18-20. There is a promise of the cleansing of sin, that those who are obedient shall eat the good of the land, while those who rebel shall perish. The beauty of this option, or ultimatum as Webb puts it, is that even though judgment is just and expected, God provides grace. God’s holiness completely outweighs the uncleanliness of His people. So once again, worship is at the heart of the problem, the people have the option to turn to God and receive His grace, or to continue in their corrupt worship and face the coming judgment.

Another indication of the power of holiness over uncleanliness comes in the imagery of the mountain of the Lord, and the idea that the judgment due will be purifying (45). Further, Isaiah describes a mountain that brings people of all nations to worship the Lord. The coming kingdom of God allows this because of the reality that God’s holiness is greater than the impure hearts of man.

Webb’s argument of human arrogance being central to the issue accurately describes the root of rebellion against God in almost all circumstances. Human pride resulted in the fall of mankind in the garden, and it is human arrogance that leads the people of Judah feel entitlement even though they themselves have succumbed to the customs and practices of rivaling nations. More importantly though, despite the reality that the impending judgment is just, there is a continual message of mercy and grace, that brings hope. Hope in the reality that despite human brokenness, despite our impurities, despite the fact that we have all rebelled against God and deserve the judgment that comes with that uncleanliness; there is still the reality that God’s grace is greater. The question then is how we respond to that grace. The people in Isaiah had the option to respond and refocus their worship to the God who delivered his people out of slavery. We have the opportunity to respond to God’s grace in his offering His Son as an atonement for our uncleanliness.

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