Sunday, August 21, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Isaiah

Isaiah's a book of prophecy to Israel, and it's about 2/3rds stern warnings and 1/3rd hopeful looking toward the far future. Prophets didn't just tell the future--they spoke the words that God gave to them, plenty of which were about then-current events. Isaiah preached to Israel for about 40 years, so he had a lot to say, and his book is one of the longer ones in the Old Testament.

Chapter 1 starts off with Isaiah delivering God's message to the Israelites about their constant disobedience. They absolutely refuse to listen to God's commands, and yet they have the audacity to keep sacrificing animals to him, as if they were perfectly pious. The old sacrifices were intended to help take away the sins of the people. But since they were actively pursuing a lifestyle of sin while offering sacrifices on the side... Well, in my mind, what the Israelites were doing could be compared to having a son who goes off to college, blows his scholarship, spends all his allowance money on beer, racks up a large gambling debt, then comes home for the weekend and helps you mow the lawn. It's not that helpful. God outright says in chapter 1 verse 11--"I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs". All these sacrifices mean nothing because God doesn't want the Israelites' stuff--he wants their hearts. And their hearts are bent on doing evil at the moment: "When ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood" (1:15).

And it's not as if God's main requests are all that difficult to follow. He says, "relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (1:17), in other words, stand up for the rights and the needs of those who are weaker than you. Don't let another person hurt or rob from the innocent. But the Israelites weren't interested in showing mercy to their fellow man.

In chapter 6, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne in the temple. Isaiah is overcome with his own failings and inadequacies, and God purges him of his uncleanness. Then the Lord asks who will become his messenger to Israel, and Isaiah replies with the famous line: "Here am I; send me". Isaiah definitely takes his calling to heart and he says everything that the Lord gives him to say.

The next chapters up through 39 deal with judgement and future troubles. But then there's a big shift in tone at the start of chapter 40 which continues through the end of the book: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God" (40:1). Comfort? I thought the Israelites were getting punishment and judgement for their evil deeds? Well, yes, they are and they did. But the comfort comes afterward, because God still loves his people. And a lot of these verses are messianic in nature, meaning that they deal with the future Messiah who will come and save his people from their sins. In Judaism, these passages are often called the Songs of the Suffering Servant and are thought to be about the sufferings of Israel as a nation, but in Christianity, the servant is seen as Jesus, particularly in chapter 53, which reads like this:

53:3: He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4: Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5: But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This perfectly describes Jesus' suffering, taking all of humanity's sins upon himself so that we could be reconciled with the Lord. Isaiah is a difficult book to read in many ways, because it's not always easy to sort out the historical context from the future prophecy, but it's very dear to my heart, particularly the messianic parts.

You can read the King James Version of the first chapter of Isaiah HERE

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