"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah."
We know when all of this happened. The prophesies contained in this book called Isaiah will cover the reigns of four kings.
Uzziah (Azariah) 783-742
Jotham (co-regent with Uzziah) 750-742
Jotham (king) 742-735
The kings listed span the period from 783-687 BC, that's 96 years. Clearly there is more than one prophet at the heart of these writings, most scholars would reckon there were three. The one writing in these early years is known as Isaiah of Jerusalem. We're told that he began his ministry "in the year that King Uzziah died," 742 BC. And the last datable activity attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem in the book is the invasion of the Assyrians under Sennacherib during Hezekiahís reign in 701 BC. So here we are with a prophetic word of God relating specifically to a section of the Jewish community living within a period of about forty years at the start of the 8th century BC.
The threat of Assyrian conquest loomed ominously over Judah during the entire career of this Isaiah. But it was to the religious attitudes and moral condition of the people in the face of this continuing crisis that Isaiah addressed some of his most impassioned messages. Isaiah constantly found himself at odds with popular theological views prompted by an elaborate system of sacrifices and feasts and Holy Days, and he was constantly arguing against some very dodgy ideas about what it meant to be the chosen people of God. It was Isaiah's job to help his people understand what God was really about, and what it meant to be God's chosen people in the face of changing circumstances - not least the imminent threat from the Assyrians.
Isaiah begins with a summons to "hear". What they are to hear is the torah ("teaching") and "word" of God, that would instruct the people in proper conduct as people of God. Now, this word "hear" is important. In Hebrew, this word has a wider range of meaning than in English. In addition to the physical act of hearing, especially when used in relation to God it expands to include our response to hearing. It is merely aniother word for "obey". Truly to hear the word of God would be to respond to it, in other words, to obey. This is the main concern of the passage: the people need to respond to God, there are serious implications in store for them if they do not hear/obey, but new possibilities if they do.
I referred to this passage a couple of weeks ago when we were exploring Amos together. God says something quite startling through Isaiah, something designed to make them stop and listen.
"When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen."
"Hear this," says God, "because I will not hear you, until you truly hear."
"Hear this, and obey, because I shall not respond to your prayers for safety from the Assyrians until you show me you have really heard by the way you live your lives."
Things have obviously got to a low ebb. What's gone wrong? As I said at the beginning, Isaiah constantly found himself at odds with popular theological views prompted by an elaborate system of sacrifices and feasts and Holy Days, and he was constantly arguing against some very dodgy ideas about what it meant to be the chosen people of God.
Let's take those things one at at time.
First - the feasts and the sacrifices and the holy days and what-not.
What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? Says the LORD. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
"When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies -- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them."
Who requires this of you?
This must have seemed like a strange question. Surely it was God who required it of them? Surely it had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and they were doing as they were told? Surely these things were a fundamental aspect of Old Testament religion. And yet, Isaiah implied that God not only did not want them, but had never even required them .
Isaiah did not stop with the sacrifices. He weighed in against nearly every aspect of Israelite worship. The escalation of his rhetoric continued to underscore the seriousness of the problem. He heaped up outrageous terms to describe various aspects of their sacred religious observance, all required in the Mosaic law codes, the Torah: the offerings are futile, incense is an abomination, the festivals and sacred assemblies are unbearable, hated, a burden, and wearisome to God.
Now, over the years we have been a bit sloppy with our thinking and a bit unfair to the Jews of the Old Testament. We have misunderstood the roots of their sacrificial system. In general, we have viewed it in the most negative terms, and taken worst practise to stand for all practise.
Let me explain. We have too often thought that Old Testament sacrifices were the means to forgiveness, and without which there would be no forgiveness. However, we need to understand that this is the very distortion of the sacrificial system against which Isaiah, as well as other prophets, was objecting. This is not the norm of Old Testament sacrificial theology but was a perversion of it against which there is a consistent voice in Scripture. Sacrifice was not the means by which the nation and the people achieved forgiveness and righteousness before God.
It was only those who misunderstood the sacrifices and perverted them into a form of magical control over God who thought like that. These are the people Isaiah is addressing. Threatened by an external menace against the nation, the people assumed that because they continued offering the sacrifices they were guaranteed prosperity and security by God, that he would hear and answer their prayers for deliverance from Assyria. They saw a direct link between offering the sacrifices and the other religious observances summarized in the Torah, and Godís action on their behalf. If they were right, the sacrifices had control of God.
Yet, the sacrifices and the other religious requirements outlined in the Torah were never intended to present a cause and effect relationship between God and the people. They were to be an expression of worship and celebration of the grace and forgiveness that God had already extended to the people, not least in the Exodus from Egypt. They did not offer the sacrifices in order to be delivered; they offered them because they had been delivered!
Can you see the distinction? There is a huge difference in the idea of carrying out some religious ritual or ceremony because you think that in doing it you will please God and persuade him to protect you, and doing it as an act of thanksgiving, your heart overflowing with joy because you know that God has already done so much for you.
So this is Isaiah's first complaint against the people. Their worship is empty and meaningless because it flows from the wrong place. It flows from ideas of duty, from an idea that it is part of a bargain with God - we'll do this, and you do that. It does not flow spontaneously from a thankful heart because the people have lost sight of the fact that God has already demonstrated his love and his grace to them time and time again. If you like, they have started to take God for granted.
But I said there were two complaints. Here's the second. The people had developed some very dodgy ideas about what it meant to be the chosen people of God.
Isaiah goes for the jugular. A crowd of people who call themselves the chosen ones of God, he addresses as Gomorrah-people, and the leaders who see themselves as chosen by God for their role he calls Sodom-leaders. These two cities of the plain that suffered destruction because of their great wickedness and godlessness had become symbols for Godís judgement on sin. Few names would have stated his case so strongly or succinctly as identifying Israel and Jerusalem with these two cities. By this metaphor, Isaiah has characterized Judah and its inhabitants as evil, corrupt, rebellious, and arrogant .
They had begun to think that to be called the chosen people of God meant somehow that they were God's favourites, that they had been selected for special status, that they were somehow better than the nations around them.
But what is the purpose of the people of God? For what reason are they chosen if not for this: to be a light to the nations, to be a shining beacon blazing out into the darkness a vision of God's love at work in a loving community.
I don't want empty sacrifices, says God. I don't want meaningless ritual. I don't want you to try to twist my arm with demonstrations of your piety. I don't want you to tramp in and out of my church to do your duty.
What do I want? I want a sacrifice of praise! I want to see your lives so filled with joy for the world I have made for you and for the life I have given you that you overflow into song and dance. I want to see you lives so aware of the love I have for you, that you overflow into acts of love and kindness for those around you. I want to see your lives shining out as beacons in the night saying to all those whose lives are empty - come and see how great is the love that our God has for us.
What are two of the most commonly heard complaints about the church today?
"Your worship is boring and lifeless, it is an empty and meaningless ritual - the things you say in church do not reflect the way you live your lives."
"You christians, you think you're better than the rest of us, don't you?"
Might it be that words preached at the start of the eighth century BC might have some relevance to you and I today?