Crisis of Identity
Lost in the land of forgetfulness. If you drive in Ireland along a narrow country lane lined with hedgerows, you may find the way blocked by a herd of cows ambling home after a crunchy meal.
Even if no herdsman is with them, they will go to their owner’s barn.
They will know where, and to whom, they belong.
If a small boy in a store gets separated from his mother and yells, “I’ve lost my mommy!” he may not know exactly where he is, or where his mother is, but amid a sea of mothers walking through the store, he will know the one mother who, alone, is his own.
Sad to say, unlike even those Irish cows (much less the little lost boy), the Judaeans forgot that they belonged to the Lord, their heavenly Lord, and thus lost their true identity as the covenant people. “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:2, 3, NRSV).
This week we’ll take a look at God’s work to restore His people to Himself.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 2.
The book of Isaiah briefly introduces itself by identifying the author (“son of Amoz”), the source of his message (a “vision”), and his topic (Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, during the reign of four kings). The topic also identifies Isaiah’s primary audience as the people of his own country during the time in which he lived. The prophet spoke to them concerning their own condition and destiny.
By mentioning the kings during whose reigns he was active, Isaiah narrows down the audience and ties the book to the historical, political events of a certain period. This time frame directs us to the accounts of 2 Kings 15–20 and 2 Chronicles 26–32.
Notice how Isaiah’s message begins with the words “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth” (NRSV; compare Deut. 30:19, Deut. 31:28). The Lord isn’t implying that heaven and earth, themselves, can hear and understand. Instead, He does it for emphasis.
When an ancient Near Eastern king, such as a Hittite emperor, made a political treaty with a lesser ruler, he invoked his gods as witnesses to emphasize that any violation of the agreement would surely be noticed and punished. However, when the divine King of kings made a covenant with the Israelites in the days of Moses, He did not refer to other gods as witnesses. As the only true God, He called, instead, for the heavens and earth to fulfill this role (see also Deut. 4:26).
The same hands that offered sacrifices and were lifted up in prayer were “full of blood”; that is, guilty of violence and oppression of others (Isa. 1:15; Isa. 58:3, 4). By mistreating other members of the covenant community, they were showing contempt for the Protector of all Israelites. Sins against other people were sins against the Lord.
Of course, God Himself had instituted the ritual worship system (Leviticus 1–16) and designated the Jerusalem temple as the appropriate place for it (1 Kings 8:10, 11). But the rituals were intended to function within the context of the covenant God had made with these people. It was God’s covenant with Israel that made it possible for Him to dwell among them at the sanctuary/temple. So, rituals and prayers performed there were valid only if they expressed faithfulness to Him and His covenant. People who offered sacrifices without repenting from unjust actions toward other members of the covenant community were performing ritual lies. Thus, their sacrifices were not only invalid—but they also were sins! Their ritual actions said they were loyal, but their behavior proved they had broken the covenant.
God has provided powerful evidence that the Judaeans, the accused, are guilty of breach of contract (Isa. 1:2–15), and He has appealed to them to reform (Isa. 1:16, 17). This appeal suggests there is hope. After all, why urge a criminal deserving execution to change his ways? How could a prisoner on death row “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (NRSV)? But when God says “Come now, let us argue it out” (Isa. 1:18, NRSV), we can see the Lord still seeking to reason with His people, still seeking to get them to repent and turn from their evil ways, no matter how degenerate they have become.
The Lord says to them that “Your red sins shall become white.” Why are sins red? Because red is the color of the “blood” (blood guilt) that covers the hands of the people (Isa. 1:15). White, by contrast, is the color of purity, the absence of blood guilt. Here, God is offering to change them. This is the kind of language King David used when he cried out to God for forgiveness for his sin of taking Bathsheba and destroying her husband (read Ps. 51:7, 14). In Isaiah 1:18, God’s argument is an offer to forgive His people!
Notice the logical structure in Isaiah 1:19, 20: If the people choose to be willing and obedient to God, they will eat the good of the land (Isa. 1:19). By contrast, if they refuse His offer of forgiveness and restoration and rebel against Him, they will be eaten by the sword (Isa. 1:20). The choice is theirs. These verses, then, contain a conditional blessing and curse.
Isaiah 1 reiterates and applies the words of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 at the time when the covenant with the nation of Israel was set up: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses” (NRSV).
These words of Moses summarize the series of warnings, blessings, and curses that conclude the formation of the covenant in Deuteronomy 27–30 (compare Leviticus 26). Elements of this covenant include (1) the recounting of what God had done for them, (2) conditions/stipulations (commandments) to be observed in order for the covenant to be maintained, (3) reference to witnesses, and (4) blessings and curses to warn people what would happen if they violated the covenant conditions.
Scholars have found that these elements appear in the same order in political treaties involving non-Israelite peoples, such as the Hittites. So, for establishing God’s covenant with the Israelites, He used a form they would understand and would impress upon them as forcefully as possible the nature and consequences of the mutually binding relationship into which they were choosing to enter. The potential benefits of the covenant were staggering, but if Israel broke their agreement, they would be worse off than ever.
God says in the next verses: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste” (Isa. 5:5, 6, NRSV).
When we sin, God does not immediately cut us off from Himself by removing His protection and destroying us. He patiently gives us an opportunity to receive forgiveness (see 2 Pet. 3:9). He does not cut off anyone who responds to Him. He appeals as long as there is hope for a response. He does not immediately take no for an answer, because He knows we are ignorant and deceived by sin. But if He gets nowhere with us, He ultimately acknowledges our choice and lets us remain the way we have chosen to be (see Rev. 22:11).
If we persistently reject God’s appeals through His Spirit, we can eventually pass the point of no return (Matt. 12:31, 32). Turning away from Christ is dangerous (Heb. 6:4–6). There is only so much God can do, because He respects our free choice.
Further Thought: In the context of Isaiah 1:4, Ellen White wrote: “The professed people of God had separated from God, and had lost their wisdom and perverted their understanding. They could not see afar off; for they had forgotten that they had been purged from their old sins. They moved restlessly and uncertainly under darkness, seeking to obliterate from their minds the memory of the freedom, assurance, and happiness of their former estate. They plunged into all kinds of presumptuous, foolhardy madness, placed themselves in opposition to the providences of God, and deepened the guilt that was already upon them. They listened to the charges of Satan against the divine character, and represented God as devoid of mercy and forgiveness.”— The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 1137.
Summary: When God’s people forget Him and take His blessings for granted, He reminds them they are accountable to their covenant with Him. Mercifully, He points out their condition, warns them about the destructive consequences of abandoning His protection, and urges them to allow Him to heal and cleanse them.