2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the LORD;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8 Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.
9 Unless the LORD Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.
We enter the courtroom where God calls heaven and earth as witnesses against his people. God’s indictment of Israel is aimed at persuading them to turn back to him. He has acted as a good Father towards his people, raising and feeding them. But they have spurned his love, rejected his protection and rebelled against him.
As readers we are meant to say, “Unbelievable! Outrageous! How could they do this to God?” Even domesticated animals know not to bite the hand that feeds them. Donkeys and Oxen know that their master keeps and protects them– they know what’s good for them. But God’s own people, his own children, have refused him.
Then we notice a distinction between God’s children in verse 3. It is ‘Israel’ that is particularly in focus here. Israel, the northern kingdom that would not embrace Rehoboam and David’s lineage, who preferred lower taxes and self-determination under Jeroboam (1 Kings 12); Israel is called ‘the sinful nation’ and ‘a brood of vipers’ (v3-5). Already they have refused to turn back to God as a result of all that their nation has suffered. The warnings have been given. Israel is sore and bruised, their country is desolate and their cities in flames. But they will not turn back to God.
Only ‘Daughter Zion’ remains among the carnage– Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. As the last recognisable remnant of God’s kingdom– sticking out like a shed in paddock, alone like windmill in an empty desert– the temple hill of Zion in Jerusalem remains. But the people of Jerusalem have no cause for complacency. Zion remains, but only as a few ‘survivors’. Survivors are those whom have endured or escaped something terrible. Judgment has been visited on Jerusalem too, it’s just that some there have come through it. “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom…”, utterly destroyed and completely abandoned. God’s heritage remains, but only by his grace.
So why has God’s Christian church endured? Why are we any better than Israel or Judah? From an earthly perspective, the story of God’s people continues to be soaked with shame, scandals and sin. My local church, full of people whom I love, is part of this narrative. We are blind to our own errors, insensitive to our faults wrapped in a culture that has rejected God. God’s heritage remains only by his grace. It is God’s patient kindness that affords us the opportunity of repentance and reformation and renewal.
Isaiah 1 is described as a present state of affairs. In this overture to the full declaration of the book, the theme of impending judgment is introduced. Israel and Judah are in dire circumstances. But it is not too late. Even as King Hezekiah found out, God may yet delay his judgment. Condemnation may yet be overtaken by grace (1 Kings 19:14 – 20:6). Isaiah calls for true repentance from sin: honest, gritty, heartfelt and earnest. As God’s people in the present day, we do well to heed his call. And all the more, because we know what happened when Isaiah’s words were ignored. And doubly so, because we know the extent of God’s grace in Christ.
Gracious God, my sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what my lips tremble to name, what my heart can no longer bear, and what has become for me a consuming fire of judgment. Set me free from a past that cannot be changed; open to me a future in which I am changed; and grant me grace to grow more and more in your likeness. Amen.