Honest Bible

What Does the Book of Isaiah Teach Us? Things We Don’t Like! See Isaiah 1 For Example.

What does the book of Isaiah teach us? Do we care? We choose which teachings of the Bible to feature in our thinking. You can’t prioritize all of it! We choose what to love.  And it shapes us.

What Does the Book of Isaiah Teach Us?I think we should want to know, at least in general  – What does the book of Isaiah teach us?


Sadly, Isaiah, though quoted in the New Testament more than all the other “Old Testament” prophets, is studiously ignored by Bible-toting political agitators – except at Christmas, where the parts quoted in Handel’s “Messiah” are heard. But even those have strong political and economic justice components that are freely ignored – not even noticed – or if noticed, denied by those who do notice.

Here’s an example of how this works: I found this in an online article dealing with the value of Isaiah: “If I am being honest, trying to derive any meaning from this book has also been one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever endured.”

Why is the book of Isaiah so hard to understand? There are reasons of history and language, and the prophetic books’ habit of switching topics fairly regulary – sorta like bloggers. Those things are problematic. But they are not fatal. In places the intent is very obvious. Isaiah Chapter 1 is one of those places.

Why is the book of Isaiah so hard to understand? The reason I most frequently encounter (truly!)

is that they  – many of those trying to derive meaning from Isaiah (or many other Biblical sources) – don’t want to listen. They want to hear what they’ve already decided are the most important Bible teachings. So if a Bible source does not speak as they expect they are profoundly puzzled. Well, not too profoundly. Not puzzled enough to listen directly and carefully to the passage in question, even where it ignores their own preferred teachings.

What DOES the Book of Isaiah teach us?  This chapter, and several more in Isaiah, are a lot less ambiguous, much more relevant to today’s big sins, much more in line (this is very important!) with Jesus’ character, service, and teaching, than the few verses used today against women, or LGBTQ+, or in favor of guns, or of the promotion of  violence and domination of many kinds.

[ See Also at PublicChristian:
What If Christians Don’t Listen to Jesus? See 5 Very Short, Very Important Stories from Matthew 7 ]

II. WHERE’S THE BEEF? What does Isaiah chapter 1 mean?

A Brief Outline – this clarifies nicely the actual intent of the chapter

God says:

  1. You people are a mess.
  2. I hate your religion. I hate your brutal, oppressive ways.
  3. We could work this out.
  4. Things will be lovely some day; but before that you (and your religion) are going to be terribly, terribly, brutally embarrassed.

It’s not so inscrutable is it? God’s language is pretty clear, pretty blunt, pretty scary. Maybe THAT’s why some of us find it so difficult to find any meaning in Isaiah? We DON’T LIKE the obvious meanings.

 A Longer Outline

(by paragraph breaks in the NIV)

  1. Introduction (time and place).
  2. The LORD’s complaint about being ignored, rebelled against.
  3. Woe (great sorrow or distress) upon “a people whose guilt is great.”
  4. You are already severely damaged.
  5. There’ll be nothing left unless “the LORD Almighty” intervenes.
  6. You are very much like old Sodom and Gomorrah (enough to call you by their names).
  7. I hate your religion! I don’t listen to your prayers.
  8. We could work this out; things could turn around.
  9. You were once on the right track; now you’re just a mess.
  10. I will cleanse you (and it will be unpleasant).
  11. Someday you will be beautiful again.
  12. You will be ashamed of your past (current) behavior.
  13. But before that – disgrace and destruction. (Answers the question: What did Isaiah prophecy? – often unpleasant things.)

Thus, what did Isaiah prophesy? Well, among other things, lots of damage and destruction.  OF COURSE we don’t want to take this kind of message seriously, or apply it to our own situations. So we find it largely meaningless.

Things we don’t have to know.

We don’t have to settle questions of Isaiah’s authorship.  It was already a single document more than a century (at least) before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Whoever wrote its components, whoever put it together in its present form (which is also its ancient form) was, or were, quite intelligent, purposeful, spiritual, and strongly motivated by the dangers they saw and are explicit about.

We don’t have to be experts on the presence and use of particular Hebrew words. We don’t have to understand all the historical background issues. We don’t have to have an opinion about how the book, or even this particular chapter, is organized.

We have good translations that pay attention to all that.

We need to read and listen to the good translation(s) we have! If nothing comes clear, then move on to another passage that might be more clear.

(You may see the full text of Isaiah 1 here:  NIV (the version I regularly use on this site)    NRSV(Updated)    CEB      CEV )

But I think that by using some attention-with-integrity very important things will come clear. The obvious intent of the author(s) will be clear!

I see chapter 1 as a brief but intense introduction to the book of Isaiah. If it was not intended that way, it still functions like that pretty well. Remember, this “Isaiah” that we have is not a recent invention. It was all deliberatley assembled, by the author(s) or others, several generations before the birth of the Christian Messiah. It’s been around, and very highly regarded, for some time.

There was intelligence behind it, and considerable savvy about what was going on in the society and economy, and even foreign affairs. So let’s take it seriously as being an

  • intentional,
  • morally profound,
  • spiritually deep,
  • religiously brutal,
  • politically and economically astute,
  • blunt critique

of the society Isaiah (or these writers and editors) found himself living in. It’s real life, not theological theory.

What do you think about these statements?!  (all from chapter 1)

  • “The LORD has spoken!” (v2)
  • Why should you be beaten anymore?” (v6)
  • “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Why do you persist in rebellion?” (v10)
  • “Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being.” (v14)
  • “Even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (v15)

Did you know God talked like THAT about His “chosen people”? Does that mean God is sometimes anti-Semitic by some of the standards in use today?  Would God speak like that about us American Christians? Would that mean God is un- or anti-American? Would God speak like that a

listen to Jesus

bout contemporary Israel?

I strongly recommend that we try to avoid having God feel like that about us.

To remedy that  problem (of not finding meaning) may I recommend a few things?

  1. Read the chapter several times, in your native language. This works remarkably well if you read it once or twice on 6 or 7 successive days. That works!
    1. That spread of time can become very fertile. This can be a powerful exercise for understanding a Bible portion (or other literature) – become aware of what it actually says, over a bit of a time span. It takes a tad of discipline, but really pays off.
  2. Go for the apparent intent.
    1. Don’t get bogged down in history, ancient culture, language (translation) issues, presumed connections to other parts of the Bible (most of which had not yet been written). Don’t get wrapped up in arguing such things. It can all be interesting and sometimes important – BUT NOT AS IMPORTANT as seeing honestly what it obviously says. Go for the obvious intent! Accept the obvious intent. Then maybe Isaiah’s meaning won’t be so hard to derive – unpleasant perhaps, but fairly clear.
  3. Accept the specific complaints
    1. – even though they do not echo the way your church (or political party) teaches – accept that they are actually primary concerns of the prophet, and of his God. This step is hard.
  4. See chapter 1 as a deliberate introduction to the whole book.
    1. That’s what we should expect from such a good writer and careful seer. This was, after all, deliberately constructed generations before Jesus was born, by an intelligent writer(s) or editor(s). Let’s give him (them) credit for that and listen carefully before we dismiss.

This respectful, attentive approach to Isaiah 1 (and other Scripture portions) brings some sobering realities into focus. And they clearly apply to today, to many of America’s churches, to many of America’s leaders.

III. So? What Did Isaiah Prophecy? What Does the Book of Isaiah Teach Us – Especially Chapter 1? Additional Observations:

1. This God – and Isaiah – are emotionally worked up!

The bulk of this chapter is not about the specific sin, complaints by God. It’s about the damage they are doing to themselves, and the further damage and embarrassment coming. God, and Isaiah, CARE about this stuff. They are emotionally involved.

2. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah

Ezekiel picks up this idea of Isaiah’s, of calling his own super-religious people “Sodom,” and intensifies it. He also explains the specific sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, sins that are explicit and implicit in the Exodus accounts. This is no doubt the substance of Isaiah’s complaint as well.

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogantoverfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-56)

You know, that might even be a description of much of American Christianity.

[ See Also at PublicChristian:
6 Anti-Gay Clobber Passages – Biblical Authority (Mis)Used Against People. Ouch!

3. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God, as some insist, then we’d BETTER listen to Isaiah

Have you noticed that when “they” want to enforce their opinions about inerrancy, they pick a few really unclear or historically irrelevant passages to focus on? What’s up with that?

If you believe – and ENFORCE – the idea of inerrancy, then surely you should put primary emphasis on really clear passages – like, maybe, Isaiah 1.

[ See Also at PublicChristian:
Abusive Use of the Bible – a la Speaker Mike Johnson – is Fraud. But Popular, & a Handy Weapon.

4. It’s not about a personal “plan of salvation.”

It’s a vigorous, brutal moral criticism, with strong threats, aimed at a whole nation.

There’s nothing here about Jesus, or believing in Jesus.

UNLESS, of course, believing might have to do with respecting and listening to the One Jesus called Father. Then boom!  We’re back at the economic criticisms of this chapter – Isaiah’s introduction to his life’s work. It’s a criticism from the very God we say came among us as Jesus.  So, do we believe in Jesus or not?

5. The moral issues have entirely to do witih economic oppression.

Did you see that?

“Your hands are full of blood! … [violence against their own people, literally resulting in death – violence generated by greed and lust for security or dominance,  but justified by blaming the victims for their suffering]

“Wash and make yourselves clean.
“Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
“stop doing wrong.  [STOP!]
“Learn to do right; seek justice. [Jesus is very much  about justice, believe it or not. Go check it out. So were the prophets.]
“Defend the oppressed.
“Take up the cause of the fatherless; [those born into very difficult situations through, obviously, no fault of their own]
“plead the case of the widow.“ [maybe, today, those having to live without social support because so many of the men are locked up by the dominant culture, also those, female or male,  living without economic opportunity because the dominant culture makes sure those opportunities are largely available only to themselves]

[ See Also at PublicChristian:
Micah 6:8 – He Turns Us Toward a Beautiful Life After His Anger
Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public. Why Resist It? Is It Possible We Hate Loving Our Neighbors?
Was Social Justice Part of Jesus’ Message? Oh Yes. 4 Scriptures. ]

6. It will take some training, self-training, actual REPENTANCE, to turn things around.

“Stop doing wrong. LEARN to do right.”  May be difficult, but we’d better get to work on it.

7. Let’s notice: You can’t “defend the oppressed” when you are being very careful to not even see them

– or when you do see them only to explain why they are not really oppressed, or why it’s all their own fault.

IV. YOU CHOOSE.  What Does Isaiah Chapter 1 Mean?

We each choose which Scripture passages or (alleged) teachings to embrace and emphasize.  If we choose to just accept what some preacher or church teaches us, that is still OUR OWN choice. God sees that.  Often “the inerrant word” is treated quite contemptuously by its promoters.

  1. Will you emphasize the misinterpreted and misapplied “clobber passages” to despise gay persons?  Or similarly misused passages to subjugate women? Or those totally absent passages that elevate abortion – or us rejecting state management of women’s decisions – to the highest place in the list of “Christian” offenses? Misinterpreted and misused passages (or non-passages) are used very effectively for political purposes so certain people can grab great power over the rest of us.
  2. OR WILL YOU CHOOSE to honor the very clear intent of many, many passages like Isaiah 1 – whose clarity, and frequency and length, make them obviously the word of God, no matter how studiously ignored? It is quite clear, after all.

Should Christians follow the Old Testament?

When it’s speaking to US we should – and sometimes it surely is.
What will we choose to honor? God or politicians on the make?  God or mammon-loving preachers? How many Bible passages that are clear, whose intent is very obvious, will we choose to dismiss?
OR will we choose to honor the service and teaching of Jesus – and of those he admired and quoted?
Surely if there IS God, then God sees our choices,
and the Bible makes clear that this God CARES about our choces.

Isaiah 58 Gives us Much-Coveted Hopes – After Accusations. It’s Beautiful. 
Jesus Named Wicked Ways (9 Examples) – We Can’t Hide
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