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Isaiah 1:1-20

Old Testament: Isaiah 1:1-20

Background to the Book of Isaiah

Historical: The following table gives an indication when the prophet Isaiah was preaching. It is worth noting that Hosea in the Northern kingdom of Israel and Micah in the Southern kingdom of Judah were in the same period.

Kings Israel

Kings of Judah


Kings of Assyria

Menahem 748 - 737

Uzziah 769 – 736

Jotham 756 - 741

Hosea 745 Israel

Isaiah 742 Judah

Micah 735 Judah


745 - 727

Pekahiah 737 - 736

Pekah 735 - 732

Hoshea 731 - 723

Ahaz 741 - 715

Isaiah 742 - 701


727 - 722

Fall of Samaria


Hezekiah 715 - 687

Isaiah 742 - 701

Sargon 722 - 705

(The above dates are approximate because you will find slight variation among the scholars)
Isaiah, a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah, had four major periods of prophecy between the years 742 -701 BCE. One of these times was when Ahaz was king of Judah and the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser had initiated a campaign from the north into Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel (738 BCE). In order to combat the Assyrian army Israel had formed a coalition with Syria against Assyria. However, Judah refused to join that coalition having the benefit of some distance from the direct challenge of Assyria. The kings of Syria (Rezin) and Israel (Pekah) sought to replace by force the Judean king, Ahaz, in the city of Jerusalem. Isaiah, sharing with Ahaz the words he heard from Yahweh, made clear that Ahaz was to trust in God alone and not to go down the path of forming coalitions with other countries whether, Syria, Israel or Assyria.

Isaiah was alive when the Assyrians over ran the Northern kingdom of Israel and deported the majority of the ten tribes of Israel to countries which Assyria had defeated and who were in vassaldom to Assyria. There is some reference to this event, but not as much comment as one would expect for such a devastating occurrence. Isaiah prophesied that Jerusalem was safe because the Lord dwelt there in the temple. This was affirmed when the Assyrians were besieging Jerusalem and the people were becoming desperate when suddenly the Assyrians departed in a hurry leaving Jerusalem safe for another 114 years. The Book of Isaiah records this as a miracle of the Lord (Isa 37:36-38).

Literary Background to the Book: The whole book of Isaiah has been divided up into three main sections which appear to reflect preaching from different historical periods. Chapters 1-39 are often referred to as the prophecies from Isaiah of Jerusalem and cover the periods shown in the above table. Chapters 40-55 speak to the exiles, offering forgiveness and a strong encouragement to move back to Jerusalem. It contains some of the most beautiful language and a comprehensive theology of God as creator and redeemer. The remaining chapters 56-66 speak to a later post-exilic situation addressing quite different concerns to those expressed in Isa 40-55.

Isaiah 1-39 has some distinct sections within it. Isa 1 has a collection of oracles which appear to come from different periods of Isaiah's ministry. Isa 2-12 contains a collection of oracles mainly about Judah and Jerusalem, covering the threat from the Israel/Syria Coalition and the section ends with a psalm of deliverance. As each of the major prophets have a section with oracles against foreign nations so Isa 13-23 covers this topic. There are oracles against Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Assyrian crisis and Tyre. We then find in Isa 24-27 a collection of oracles which are called the Isaiah Apocalypse and is reminiscent of material from a much later period in Israel's history. The remaining oracles cover further oracles on the Assyrian crisis and this section finishes with narratives about Isaiah. Isa 36-38 are almost identical with 2 Kings 18-19.

The Isaiah Scroll which was found at Qumran in the caves there (1948) and came from a time (250-68 BCE) before the Massoretes added vowels to the language is almost an exact copy of the Hebrew Text from which we work today. This testifies to the ability of the scribes who copied the Hebrew texts

Context of Isa 1:1-20
sa 1:1 is an expanded version of Isa 2:1 which includes now the names of the kings in whose reigns Isaiah preached. At a later time people who were more distant from the events needed a reminder of the period in which the prophet Isaiah was active. This now becomes the introduction to the whole scroll. The Lectionary reading begins at v.10 after complaints by God that the nation is corrupt, from the very sole of its foot to the top of its head. The description that follows in vv.7-9 paints a picture of a country that has been overthrown by an enemy and left desolate. After a call to the people to be faithful and return to God the final verse ends with a further warning (v.20). The verses following are like an inner musing by the prophet about how the country came to be in its present impasse (vv.21-23). This is followed by a declaration in which God announces through the prophet that restoration and cleansing will occur because it is God's will, both to avenge self on enemies, and to restore those who belong and who are faithful to God's ways. The message continues in Isa 2 after another superscription with the lovely message of hope centred on those who come to Zion and there shall be war no more (Isa 2:4).

Insights/Message of Isa 1:1-20:
After the superscription in Isa 1:1 the units can be set out in the following way:

vv.2-3 = an announcement of Yahweh's accusation against Judah;

vv.4-9 = admonition against wrongdoing;

vv.10-17 = teaching on the right way to worship God; (Sweeney:63)

vv.18-20 = an appeal to see reason with a warning if this appeal is ignored.

The words, "the Lord has spoken" form an inclusio (a bracket) around the unit vv.2-20 which serve to emphasis that what is enclosed needs to be taken seriously and not dismissed. Within this unit it is important to recognise that the teaching in vv.10-20 comes after there has been a speech which reminds them of the fall of the northern kingdom and how little is left of the countryside in Judah around Jerusalem (v.8). The final stanza of v.9 connects closely to v.10 with the repetition of the place names "Sodom and Gomorrah". The story of Sodom and Gomorah is well known and acts as a reminder to those who would act in a similar fashion (Gen 18:16-19:38). The people recognise they could have been like Sodom and Gomorrah (v.9), but v.10 catches them when the writer addresses the rulers and people as though they were Sodom and Gomorrah. God speaks in 1st person telling them precisely what he dislikes about their worship practices - it is all false because they fail to do what is required in v.17. The invitation to reason together is reinforced with the words, "says the Lord" in v.18a and the closure of the unit in v.20 with "for the mouth of the Lord has spoken". Isa 1 acts as a prologue for the whole book in that it sets out the themes which are repeated throughout the scroll - "the punishment of Israel and Judah and the restoration of the people to Jerusalem" (Sweeney: 70)

The particular focus in vv.10-20 concentrate on worship practises which are failing to be lived out in the people's everyday lives. What is the point of sincere piety on the Sabbath and remembering all the festivals when one fails to care for the needy or acts unjustly to the community around. In our own church and community there would be those who say that personal piety should be separate from social justice, BUT this is not the message of the OT prophets. Worship must be lived out in every day life, so evangelism and social justice are both consequences of relationship with God. The prophet is not suggesting that people stop worshipping God, but rather that worship without action is a failure of the relationship with God. On the Island of Iona when I stayed there, it was understood that we worshiped followed by work as the proper expression of what God required of us. In Isa 1:10-15 after God expresses his feelings about the all these offerings it states very clearly in v.16-17 what God requires. It reminds one of Mic 6:8. The way God expresses his feelings in vv.11-15 moves from confrontation (v.11) to a feeling that God is really tired of trying to get the people to understand (vv.12-15). The symbolism of hands covered with blood praying, signifying guilt moves into v.16 with its command to wash so God will now see because they have ceased to do evil, whereas he refused to see their hands in v.15. The symbolism and play on words is very clever. In v.17 we note the particular concern for the fatherless and the widow. These groups of people were extremely vulnerable in the society of the time. God is portrayed as very reasonable in v.18 with the initiation to talk this through together. However, there has to be a willingness on the part of the people to be obedient and live in ways in which justice and care are the dominant traits. The unit ends with consequences if the people refuse the invitation to change their ways. In our time we no longer accept the world view of the OT which speaks of war as a consequence of unjust behaviour, but there are consequences, both personal and corporate, when we live our lives in opposition to the good we know we ought to do.

Resources/Worship for Isa 1:1-20:
Worship: It would be helpful to put vv.10-20 in context before reading them

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Barton, J. Isaiah 1-39. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
Childs, Brevard. Isaiah. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Clements,R.E. Isaiah 1 - 39. NCB. Grand Rapids: Wm.Eerdmans, , 1980.
Hayes, J.H. & Isaiah, His Times and His Preaching, Abingdon,
Kaiser,O. Isaiah 1-12 (2nd ed), OTL, transl. J.Bowden, London: SCM Press, 1983.
Oswalt,J.N. The Book of Isaiah 1-39, Wm.Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986.
Seitz,C.R. Isaiah 1-39, Interpretation, John Knox, Louisville, 1993.
Sweeney,M.A., Isaiah 1-39, FOTL, Wm.Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1996.
Tucker, Gene. 'The Book of Isaiah 1-39'. NIB. Vol VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Watts,J.D.W. Isaiah1-33, Isaiah 34-66, WBC, Word Book, Waco, 1985, 1987.
Wildberger,H. Isaiah 1-12, transl.T.H.Trapp, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1991

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:


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