William Kelly Major Works Commentary
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.Isaiah Chapter 1
The opening appeal of the prophet is to the conscience. No reader can avoid seeing that through Isaiah Jehovah charges His people with ungrateful, enormous, and persistent rebellion. It is the more terrible, because it is expressly general. There were marked differences between Uzziah and Jotham, between Ahaz and Hezekiah yet more and deeper. But the state of His people before the Holy One of Israel all through could not be truly described in terms less scathing. in themselves they were hopelessly evil; and one of the most pious of Judah's kings, prompt beyond all (2 Chronicles 29:3) to care for Jehovah's honour and will, and large-hearted enough to embrace of all the tribes those who humbled themselves before Him Whom they had long despised, gave the occasion for most solemn appeal. Granted that no one can fix a special epoch, or an outbreak of iniquity of peculiar malignity. Even this, however deplorable, is not so desperate as a continuous state of alienation, where their corruption was the companion of despite done to Him Who had ever watched over them with a patience and tender mercy as perfect as His righteousness; His chastenings only preceded revolt more and more. Not even intense misery drew out groans to Him. Israel was utterly insensible to their loathsome wounds and mortal disease at His hands Who loved them, Whose readiness to heal was set at naught by their callous indifference. The body politic, civic and rural, was a disastrous ruin and desolation; and Zion's daughter left as a temporary booth, instead of sitting for ever in royal grace above all rivals as became the favoured of Jehovah. In short, but for Him Whose title is to rule heaven and earth, and Who was pleased to reserve a very small residue, they had been as the doomed cities of the Plain.
But is this the gospel? or is such a national appeal in the least degree according to its spirit, or the revealed examples of those who preached it? Is it not evident from the Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc., as well as the Acts of the Apostles, that the gospel is sent forth by God's grace, on the proved ruin of Jew no less than of Greek, to proclaim God's righteousness in Christ (now that man's unrighteousness is beyond dispute) unto all, and upon all that believe? Here probation still goes on under the law, as the rule of Jehovah's government of His people. Their sins and their sufferings are urgently pressed home, and that mercy which is mingled with His law, as declared in Ex. 32-34, is before the prophet in pleading with the people perseveringly. Yet was he well aware that the mass would still stumble at the word, being disobedient, madly rushing to destruction, and that a very small residue would hear and in the end be blessed and triumph, when Jehovah would intervene for that double issue. This, however, is in no way what the gospel now makes known to the believer, but the display of Him Who is coming to bring in together the acceptable year of Jehovah, and the day of vengeance of our God: not the mysteries, but the manifestation, of the kingdom of the heavens. The judgement of the wicked, and the restoration of the righteous remnant are here joined, which is a state of things wholly foreign to the gospel, as every Christian knows. And our hopes are as different from theirs, as heaven is higher than the earth. They will look for the Messiah to restore the kingdom to Israel in that day of the earth's glory, as He surely will, and from Zion to rule all the nations; but we hope to be with Him in the Father's house, though we shall also reign over the earth. Those who merge both in one, not only defraud the Lord of His earthly reign, and Israel of the promises for them and the land, but lower and lose the heavenly glory of Christ and the church, which is our proper position. And this loss is Satan's aim and success, ever since the apostles were succeeded by men who corrupted the truth.
Here, as elsewhere, we find grave and precious instruction, humbling lessons for the heart of man, and on God's part unfailing pity and long-suffering, but withal solemn and sure judgement of all evil. Everywhere and at all times God's character shines out to the eye of faith, as His glory will to "every eye" in a day which hastens fast. But the only wise God has been pleased to bring out His mind and display His ways in a variety of forms, which create no small perplexity to the narrow mind and unready heart of man. Some are apt to forget the past, as if the revelation of present privilege were all; many more would merge the actual calling of God in a vague amalgam, a truly unintelligent monotony, which confounds Israel and the church, law and gospel, earth and heaven, grace and glory. Here it is national dealing throughout: national apostasy with vain religious self-complacency; as it will be national judgement, and national restoration for a remnant, by Jehovah Himself in the day of the Lord's return.
Doubtless, now that the Son of God has appeared, it is meet that we should hear Him; and it is vain to talk of honouring the law and prophets, Moses or Elias, if He have not the central and supreme place in our hearts. And it is to hear Him, if we believe that the Spirit of truth is come to guide into all truth; much of which even apostles could not bear, till redemption was accomplished and the Son of man ascended where He was before. It is due, therefore, to the New Testament that we should look for our special portion there, the revelation of that mystery which was hid from ages and from generations. But we cannot forget, without dishonour to God and loss to our souls, that there are certain moral principles which never change, any more than God can act or speak beneath Himself, whatever may be His condescension to the creature.
Thus obedience is always the right pathway for the faithful, and holiness is inseparable from the new nature; but then the character of the obedience and the depth of the holiness necessarily depend on the measure of light given of God and the power of the motives He reveals for working on the heart. What was allowed in Levitical time and order is largely out of place now, if we heed the Saviour's authority. And this is at least as strikingly true of the public worship and service of God as of private life and duty. In many measures and in many modes He spoke in the prophets to the fathers; now He has spoken in the person of His Son. Hence unbelief assumes the character of resistance to the fullest love, light, authority, and wisdom, revealed in Him Who is the image of the invisible God - Himself God over all, blessed for ever; while the faith, which has bowed to Him thus displayed, loves to hear the earlier oracles and to reflect the true light which now shines, along with the fainter but equally divine luminaries which pierced through the darkness of man's night; for all the blessed promises of God are now verified in Christ.
The title is, "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (ver. 1). This gives unity to the entire collection, as distinguished from particular dates, as in Isaiah 6:1; Isaiah 7:1; Isaiah 14:28; Isaiah 20:1. In strict accordance with all, the first chapter then has a more general character than any other in the book. It most pathetically accuses the people and the capital and the sanctuary of the grossest ingratitude.
By the prophet before us God is still dealing with His people as a body; and therefore He pleads with them because of their iniquities, setting forth a full, searching, and even minute portraiture of their evil ways. For if prophecy encourages the faithful by the sure word of coming blessing from the Lord, it casts a steady and convicting light on the actual state of those who bear His name; its hopes strengthen those who bow to its holy sentences. Hence, if handled in a godly and reverent manner, it never can be popular, though notions drawn from it and used excitingly may be so. But the Spirit addresses it to the conscience in God's presence, and there is nothing man as such shrinks from more.
If it grieved Jehovah at His heart to behold man's wickedness great in the earth and to blot him out from the face of the ground, what was it now for Him thus to despair of the chosen people full of disease and wounds? For though He smote, they were but hardened, and revolted more and more. And outward disasters completely failed, though He had allowed it so far that only His mercy hindered destruction as unsparing as that which befell the doomed cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. How very small the residue! Compared with the days of David and Solomon, how evil and fallen even now!
Need the details be pointed out in further proof of these remarks? "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for Jehovah hath spoken: I have nourished and brought up children; and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Ah! sinful nation; a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children corrupting themselves. They have forsaken Jehovah; they have despised the Holy One of Israel; they are estranged backward. Why be smitten any more? Ye will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head, there is no soundness in it (or him): wounds, and weals, and open sores - they have not been closed, nor bound up, nor mollified with oil. Your country [is] desolate; your cities [are] burned with fire; your ground, strangers devour it in your presence, and [it is] desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a melon-field, as a besieged city. Unless Jehovah of hosts had left us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have resembled Gomorrah" (vv 2-9).
So the law-giver in his song (Deuteronomy 32:1) called the heavens and the earth to give ear, as he proclaimed the name of Jehovah, and set before the people that searching glance into the future which, through divine power, took in the failure and ruin of Israel. Moses sees Jehovah judging Israel's idolatry, and hiding His face from them, also the call of the Gentiles, but to provoke them to jealousy, not to give them up for ever; and at length His glorious intervention, both to deliver them and the land, and to execute judgement on their adversaries, while in the end causing the nations to rejoice with His people. Isaiah was given to fill up that magnificent outline, bringing in Messiah and His work and His reign in the clearest and richest way for all that have eyes to see. Here it is the dark picture of their sins. What an expostulation from God and for God! Heaven and earth are summoned to hear the complaint against His people. The dullest of their own beasts of burden put them to shame. God's chastenings were as vain as His gracious training. The body politic was utterly diseased and loathsome from head to foot; medicine and remedial measures quite neglected. Country and town a waste and scene of devastation; the ground eaten up by strangers; the daughter of Zion no longer enjoying that holy fortress, but left in distress and isolation like a city besieged. But that Jehovah had left a very little residue, we (says the prophet) had been as Sodom and like Gomorrah. Sudden and complete destruction was their deserved doom. The last chapters of the prophecy, like others throughout, attest the judgement executed by fire on the mass, the remnant also delivered and blessed as Jehovah's servants under His righteous Servant.
It is the Jew, not the church, throughout that is in question. Zion measures the privilege and the guilt of Judah. Nowhere in scripture is it applied to the church, which is Christ's body. In Hebrews 12:22 this is distinguished from Zion; and Rev. 14. sets Zion forth quite distinctly from those already glorified above as the church then is. In Matthew 20:15; John 12:15; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6, the word has its historical sense. And so it is with Romans 11:26. To read the church in any of these instances would yield no right meaning. And these are all the occurrences in the New Testament.
But has not such an appeal to Judah a voice for us? It is not only that the church of God began to be called out and formed when all was a failure: man, Israel, the world, were judged morally in the cross. But besides for us, too, the house of God is in disorder. The last time of many antichrists is long since come. The Christian witness has more deeply and widely departed from God than the Jewish one, notwithstanding immensely greater privileges. What remains but judgement for the mass, with the reserve of grace for those who humble themselves under God's mighty hand? Does this produce hardness of feeling? On the contrary a spirit of intercession is the invariable companion of a holy heed to prophecy, both of them the offspring of communion with God. He loves His people too well to look with indifference on their sins, of all men's; He must vindicate His outraged majesty, and those who are in the secret of His mind cannot but go forth in importunate desire for the good of souls and the glory of the Lord. But real love has no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness; rather does it reprove them. Neither does that love which is of God measure sin as nature does, but feels first and most that which slights Himself, His character, and His word
As to Israel, they were more guilty than the heathen, as bad as the worst. Hence it is no longer the doom, but the abominations of Sodom and Gomorrah. "Hear the word of Jehovah, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith Jehovah: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more vain oblations: incense is an abomination unto me; new moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies, - I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear [them]. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes. Cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken" (vv. 10-20).
There was no lack of zeal in religion, nor did they fail to seek a remedy for the evident gravities of their day; but their remedies were worse than useless. Divine privileges only rendered their moral state more portentous and intolerable. If they approached the doom of Sodom but for Jehovah's mercy, morally they were already Sodom, and, therefore, their sacrifices, feasts, and assemblies all the more odious to Jehovah, Who felt His courts to be profaned by their tread, and refused to hear their multiplied prayers. There was no real repentance, no trembling at His word, but a religious veil over utter and shameless iniquity.
Yet Jehovah deigns to call them to repentance and the fruits suited to it. The language is clearly founded on the ceremonial washings so familiar to the Jews; but moral reality is the point, as is immediately after made plain. God can tolerate iniquity nowhere, least of all in His people. They must therefore cease from evil and learn to do well, proving it in ways of ordinary life. But He adds withal a gracious invitation that He and they should reason together. Soon would they then find where the fault lay, and with Whom is the grace that is willing to wash the foulest clean. The call ends with His promise to help them if they were broken down and obedient, and the threat to devour them by the sword if they refused. In the earlier of these verses there is much which we can freely take to ourselves now, for the immutable principle of God is to ally repentance to faith, and to insist on suitable works and ways in all whom He draws to Himself. Particularly do the words apply to saints who shirk responsibility and trifle with a pure conscience; and we may fairly encourage timid souls by the words "Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." But we necessarily stop there. Vers. 19 and 20 cannot be torn away from the Jewish stock. Christians have ample appeals, and more direct in the later volume of inspiration. For God's moral government as Father follows His grace.
The universal corruption of Jerusalem, and of its rulers especially, is then laid bare. "How is the faithful city become a harlot! she that was full of judgement, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water. Thy princes [are] rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them" (vv. 21-23). Finally Jehovah shows He must deal with His adversaries, as well as Himself restore Zion, when idols and their makers perish together under His mighty hand. Their present state of ruin is contrasted with what it was and what it is to be. "Therefore saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies. And I will turn my hand on thee and thoroughly purge away thy dross, and take away all thine alloy. And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: after that shalt thou be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful town. Zion shall be redeemed with judgement, and her converts with righteousness. But the destruction of the transgressors and the sinners [shall be] together; and those that forsake Jehovah shall be consumed. For they shall be ashamed of the terebinths which ye desired, and ye shall blush for the gardens that ye have chosen. For ye shall be as a terebinth whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water. And the strong shall be as tow and his work as a spark; and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench [them]" (vv. 24-31).
The promise and judgement go far beyond the circumstances before and after the Babylonish captivity. The last fiery trial of Israel is in view, which grace will use for spiritual refining; after which will follow the times of restitution of all things, when the former rule shall come to Zion (Micah 4), the kingdom to the daughter of Jerusalem. It is a comprehensive preface of the prophet to his entire prophecy. But it is in no way the gospel as now, which is grace reigning through righteousness unto life eternal by Jesus Christ our Lord. Here it is destructive judgement executed on the evil, when the repentant remnant of the Jews enjoy God's mercy. This is beyond cavil the bearing of the address, and the only just inference from its terms. What God has thus joined, let not man sunder to suit the present dealing of God in Christianity. Only "in that day" will Jehovah restore the judges and the counsellors of Jerusalem as at the beginning, and the city itself be one of righteousness and fidelity. In that day shall Zion be redeemed with judgement and her converts with righteousness, coincidentally with the execution of Vengeance on the wicked and her idols. It is a victory reserved for Christ's appearing in the consummation of the age. Jerusalem must be purged before God can make her a centre of the nations. It is Christ there in power which accounts for all.
All believers thankfully acknowledge how much is shared by the faithful on earth from the beginning to the end of time. There is but one object of faith for all, though made known in very different measures before and since redemption, and in ways so distinct as the day of the displayed kingdom must be from preceding time and especially from the present. Hence none need cavil at Jerome's calling our prophet evangelical, as compared with his fellows, or wonder at the countless gospel discourses preached from this chapter and many more. But the important thing exegetically is to observe the essential differences which prove that not the gospel but God's ways with His ancient people, strictly speaking, are intended. Thus in the first paragraph (vv. 2-9) the appeal is national, whereas the gospel is strictly individual, though the house may be joined in a spirit of grace to its head. In the second (vv. 10-20) Jehovah declares He will hide in anger from their hypocritical worship. Now, since the grace of redemption, this is never said of the Christian. God did hide His face from, yea forsake, Him Who is our propitiation, and for this very reason when God made Him sin for us; but it was that we might never be thus abandoned. But He did abandon guilty Israel. In the third (vv. 21-31) He promises that "Zion shall be redeemed with judgement, and they that return of her with righteousness." This characterises the redemption which will be, not only as a witness by the blood of the Saviour Who rose again, but with the mighty execution of God's judgement of His adversaries when He with lye purges away Israel's dross. So confirms all the context to the last verse. It is the distinctions, not of course the resemblances, which mark off the varying dispensations or ages one from another.
But no Christian ought to need proof how different is the ground of the gospel from such an intervention of Jehovah as the prophet describes here, and almost everywhere else. For moral probation is closed; law can only condemn those under it. All alike are lost; every mouth is stopped, and all the world under judgement to God. The Lord Jesus, the Son of God, sent as Man in the infinite love of God, has been by all rejected and crucified. Yet the judgement of sins and sinners was then and there laid on Him; and God is so glorified in His sacrificial death that He can and does proclaim to everyone that believes life eternal in His name, remission of sins, justification, and salvation as everlasting as glory. Such is the new state of things under the gospel and for the church, which meanwhile suffers with Christ, and waits for His coming to take us on high; whence He will appear in due time to judge the habitable earth, and introduce His kingdom before every eye here below, and over all nations and lands.
But our prophet, like the rest, predicts that day of His appearing to judge living man on earth, and deliver a remnant, here of Jews, as elsewhere of Gentiles also, for His manifested reign, when no evil will be tolerated but righteousness is exalted under His dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. Divine judgement will not be on Him, as the gospel we know is based on; but then at length, as the new and predominant fact in God's ways, He will judge His people in a way beyond all past experience, and put down the wicked both there and outside them throughout the world, as He alone can, and thus establish His kingdom not only in Zion but over all the earth. It is this of which the chapter speaks, though in the general way which characterises every part of it, each divine communication having that perfect consistency with itself, which is proper to revelation, and in strong contrast with the gospel and the church, whatever be the efforts of popular theology in all ages to identify them, thus losing the distinctive power of both truths.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.
Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.
And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
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.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:
But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.
Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water:
Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.
Therefore saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies:
And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin:
And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellers as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.
Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.
And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the LORD shall be consumed.
For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen.
For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water.
And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.