Perhaps few sections of the Bible seem as foreign as the prophetic books of the Old Testament. These books often include chapter after chapter of judgment, and the theme of judgment fills Isaiah 1-5.
The temptation we have is to skip or ignore these chapters of the Bible. To do so, however, is to follow, at least in practice, the second-century heretic Marcion, who claimed that the Old Testament wasn’t really from God. If God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6), then we neglect these chapters at our peril. By seeing how God responded to the situation of Isaiah’s day, we learn the character of the eternal God.
Since Isaiah’s call doesn’t come until Isaiah 6, we can think of Isaiah 1-5 as a prologue to the rest of the book. In the very first verses, the Lord compares His people to Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:9-10, 3:9). Although they had great wealth (2:7, 15-16; 3:18-24; and 5:8) and religious devotion (1:11-15), the Lord promised to ignore their devotion and replace their wealth with abject poverty (3:24-26 and 5:9-10). He describes His judgment of them in ways that foreshadow the Lord’s teaching about hell (Isaiah 1:31 and Mark 9:43).
Why did the Lord promise such severe judgment? First, they had exploited the weakest in their society (Isaiah 1:15-17, 23; 5:7, 23). God was, therefore, sending an enemy to destroy them, and He highlights His judgment on the women who flaunted their opulence at the expense of the poor (3:18-4:1). Second, since they had combined their religious acts to the Lord with idolatry (1:29; 2:8, 20), the Lord promised to destroy their city with fire (1:31).
Third, since the leaders had used their leadership for selfish gain (1:23, 3:12), the Lord promised to replace those disobedient leaders with much less qualified leaders (3:1-5). Fourth, since the people were arrogant (2:11-15 and 5:21), the Lord promised to humiliate them by revealing His glorious splendor (2:11, 17; 5:15). Fifth, they committed what we could call “moral inversion” by calling what was good evil and what was evil good (5:20). The section concludes with the promise of impending doom (5:26-30).
These judgments and punishments alone would be sufficient to make Isaiah 1-5 relevant today. Church members can take advantage of the weak and smugly combine their devotion to church with the idolatry of greed. Church leaders today, moreover, can try to devour the Lord’s vineyard (Isaiah 5:7).
In the midst of these passages of judgment, however, the Lord gives promises of hope almost as beautiful as any in the Old Testament (Isaiah 2:1-4 and 4:2-6). Despite the failures of His people, all nations will come to the mountain of the Lord, hear His teaching, and beat their swords into plowshares. The branch of the Lord (the Messiah) would grow into a glorious, magnificent tree, bearing fruit and sheltering His people.
On the basis of those promises, a choice was before people then as now. On the basis of God’s promises, will we “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:5)? Will we repent and have the stains of our sins washed as white as snow, or will we remain in sin awaiting judgment (Isaiah 1:16-20)? What Isaiah doesn’t explain is how repentance can lead to forgiveness. If “the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:17, ESV), how can He simply forgive unrighteousness? Only the cross shows how God remains just and we can find forgiveness (Romans 3:21-26).