Sometimes a song gets stuck in your head. It might be out of pure repetition, or it might remind you of a person or experience. Sometimes it’s just fun and catchy. Sometimes a song captures something emotional within us.
Isaiah 42:10 calls us to make a new song to the Lord: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.” The book of Isaiah is a long prophecy of God. As you experience God through the book of Isaiah, you can have a new emotive response to who God is. This what happened to George Frideric Handel. In 1741, Handel took 24 days to study the book of Isaiah. It’s been said that he had such a vision of who God was, that he could do nothing other than to create a new song to God’s glory. We know it as Handel’s Messiah.
In the first 35 chapters of Isaiah, there’s the looming threat of Assyria, a super power who threatened the the tribes in the northern Kingdom of Israel. The two southern tribes of Israel had survived. In chapters 36-39, King Hezekiah deals with the threat of Assyria as well as the threat of Babylon. In chapters 40-66, the nation is in exile and the words of Isaiah are filled with words of hope and comfort.
The book of Isaiah gives a vision of God. It encompasses both His majesty and His mercy. In today’s culture, we tend to reduce God to something tangible for our comprehension. But there is a picture of God that is so much greater than what we typically have. And there’s also a picture of God that is incredibly gracious and merciful despite our consistent failings. The first chapter of Isaiah provides an introduction of God and His people under three headings.
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. Isaiah 1:2
God is like a parent who has raised children who rebel. The nation, built by the God of Israel, had rebelled. They were no longer interested in God’s standards or rules. They wanted to do things their own way. We see in Isaiah 1:3 that even animals know who takes care of them by obeying their owner, “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” The issue is found in verse 4: “Woe to the sinful nation… children given to corruption!” The issue is sin through willful rebellion that turns further into corruption. Sin is just a missing of the mark, but rebellion is a willful choice to ignore the standard. Corruption takes it even further by twisting the truth. As a group of people, the nation of Israel was sinful, rebellious, and corrupt.
The first 10 verses speak to the relativists in today’s society – someone who considers themselves to be spiritual but not religious. They want the comfort and consolation of a God who loves me, but don’t want anyone to have authority over me. They want to do, what they want, when they want, with no constraints placed by anyone. Isaiah identifies this as the essence of sin – desiring God without being fully devoted.
The rebellion is a serious thing. As you read through Isaiah, you see that God takes sin much more seriously than we often take sin. Israel as a nation was getting further and further away from God’s ideals. This happened not only in Isaiah’s day, but it’s also happening in ours. Ray Ortlund, author of Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, writes about it this way:
To forsake the Lord is to treat Him as the last resort, rather than the fountainhead. To despise God is to dis-relish Him. It’s to discount Him while valuing other things.
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord.… Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. Isaiah 1:11,13
In the passage from Isaiah 1:10-15, God compare Israel to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – cities destroyed because of their rebellion to God. He describes their outward religious actions as meaningless because in their inward heart they were uncaring to their own. They thought their rituals made them acceptable just like the ritualists in today’s society. There’s a sense that we can do whatever we want all week as long as we show up to worship on the weekend or do something to give a nod to God. It may just be based on baptism or confirmation or some based service. In Isaiah 1:15, we see that religion is not helpful: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.”
In today’s culture, people tend to see God in one of two ways. They see God as all law and feel that if they meet His standard, they will be okay. For others, there is a God of all acceptance and there is no sense of a need to follow a standard. Isaiah immediately tackles both of these. We have a God who is majestic with standards and He is simultaneously full of grace and mercy.
Our worship isn’t just coming and singing to God. Worship is our entire presentation of ourselves. To come and sing without dealing with our own sinfulness, hypocrisy, and injustice is ultimately offensive to God. Ray Ortlund captures it this way: “It might not occur to us that the soul of what God hates is burdened and wearied by the worship we offer Him if it is not in repentance. The worship that He is regarding as His own authorized levitical worship, is not some ludicrous human invention.” You might be worshiping in the right ways, but not worshiping with the right heart. The majestic God takes our worship more seriously that we do.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” Isaiah 1:18-20
We read nine command in Isaiah 1:16-20. The first three are related to our hearts to God, the next three related to our own hearts, and the last three related to society. This section concludes with a picture of the merciful God. Even though you have rebelled against me and I take your sin more seriously than you do, I will make you white as snow. Even though you have religious activities that are full of ritual and I take your worship more seriously than you do I will make you white as snow.
This is not a pass to ignore God’s precepts. God is acknowledging that He knows you will fail. The motivation do things that are pleasing to God is in understanding that despite our failure, He is merciful and will make us white as snow. It’s a future reference to a greater day in court to a greater sacrifice –the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ, will be given on behalf of the people. When red is seen through red, it is no longer seen. The red of your sin is seen through the red of the blood of the lamb, which is completely pure, completely white, without blemish.
God even sees righteousness more seriously than we do. He does not call us to try harder or to do more. Instead, he is the one who makes you clean. When you understand this, it produces a new song. It brings gratitude that Jesus has done this on your behalf. If you turn, you can experience the good of the land. “But if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” Isaiah 1:20. It is by God chastening us that He actually restores us. Sometimes hardship is grace because He is preparing you to be restored. But it takes coming to a point of acknowledging that you are not innocent, you have rebelled, and you have brought inappropriate worship to God
I wrote this prayer years ago:
Father—the truth about me is that often I choose sin:
Sometimes I choose hatred.
Sometimes I choose slander.
Sometimes I choose envy.
Sometimes I choose greed.
Sometimes I choose pettiness.
Sometimes I choose lust.
Sometimes I choose gossip.
Sometimes I choose pride.
Sometimes I choose self-reliance.
Sometimes I choose self-righteousness.
Sometimes I choose self-aggrandizement.
Sometimes I choose dishonesty.
Sometimes I choose unkind words.
Sometimes I choose to ignore the obvious needs around me.
Sometimes I choose to hoard my resources.
Sometimes I choose to neglect Your command to share the gospel.
The list of things I wrongly choose could go on and on. And sometimes I act on these things in ways that are darker than I even care to state. Each time I make such a choice, I choose death (Romans 6:23). Today, I ask that You would breathe life into my soul afresh And enable me to choose life—to choose You and Your ways.
When you take what you have done and bring it to the cross, God will make you innocent. He will make you pure. He will make it as though it never happened. You will always be running from God instead of running to God as long as you are trying to make your own rebellion okay and make your own rituals enough. God is a God of majesty who deserves all your allegiance. But He is a God of mercy who makes right what you can’t.