The Vision of Isaiah
Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
You have heard it said over and over, so much so that while you may not be able to recite the text verbatim you can complete the sentence. Try it with me. …”but those who wait for the Lord shall (renew their strength), they shall mount up with wings (like eagles), they shall run and (not be weary), they shall walk (and not faint). Here is what I want to highlight. You have just recited a text written twenty-five centuries ago recorded in the prophetic work known as Isaiah. Is it not an amazing thing that your faith is stirred again today in just revisiting this text?
The influence of the prophet Isaiah is amazing. In 1959 the then Soviet Union presented this bronze sculpture to the United Nations Building titled “Let us beat our swords into ploughshares.” The image for this sculpture is taken from the lips of Isaiah. In the great theme of hope that runs throughout his vision Isaiah sees the day when God “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
In the early sixteenth century the German painter Matthias Grunewald painted the Annunciation as part of a larger Altarpiece. The scene depicts the angel Gabriel’s arrival. Mary has a bible open in front of her turned to the page that has Isaiah 7:14 written on it. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In the top left hand corner the prophet Isaiah can be seen looking on with great interest. It is hard for us to imagine Christmas without the words of Isaiah: “a virgin shall conceive” and “shall call his name Immanuel.”
Think too about our saying “as pure as driven snow.” The connection of snow as a metaphor for purity is common among us. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet King Claudius has his brother’s blood on his hands and wonders, “Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? This metaphor of snow for purity is in Israel’s consciousness before Isaiah. In one of David’s Psalms he prays, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51.7) While the image may not originate with Isaiah, the prophet amplifies it. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.”
I was once asked the hypothetical question, if you were on a deserted Island and could have one book and one piece of music what would they be? My answer: a Bible and Handle’s Messiah. The first two parts of Handle’s Messiah are made up almost entirely of direct quotations from Isaiah brilliantly woven together with other passages of scripture. When you next hear the alto solo “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” you are listening to Isaiah 40:11; or the soprano aria “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace” you hear Isaiah 52:7.
Professor John Sawyer in his book on Isaiah The Fifth Gospel makes this observation about Handel’s musical interpretation of Isaiah. Handel wrote the Messiah at a very low point in his life. “The progression from despair to hope, captivity to freedom, death to life, which is an integral part of Isaianic tradition, cannot be entirely divorced from Handel’s own personal circumstances. This becomes clear from the overture, which was in some ways perhaps the most original part of the music. Overtures hitherto were by convention intended to do little more that attract the audience’s attention and give them time to settle in their seats. They usually had no thematic connection with what followed. But the overture to Handle’s Messiah emphatically breaks with that tradition. It has been described as representing ‘a mood without hope’, first in a slow sighing, mournful elegy, then in an allegro passage which expresses ‘the violent, fruitless upward striving of the oppressed’. It is hard to imagine a more perfect, more appropriate context for the opening words of Isaiah 40: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God’.
The book of Isaiah is comprised of preaching that spanned two, and perhaps three, centuries of Israel’s faith life. The first section (1-39) is largely the work of an eighth century BC prophet named Isaiah who preached and wrote during the decline of Judah, the southern kingdom. It reflects the time of the rise and fall of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The second part contains Isaiah’s vision applied to the period of Israel’s captivity in Babylon (40 - 66). Some see a third section from chapter 56 – 66 as Isaiah’s vision preached during the period of the return from exile. In the Hebrew and Christian Bibles Isaiah is placed at the head of the prophetic books—this is not a chronological arrangement but an arrangement that reflects the importance of Isaiah’s vision for Israel and the church.
1. The book of Isaiah is far more often quoted or alluded to in the Gospels, Acts, Paul and Revelation that any other part of scripture (with the possible exception of the Psalms). One estimate gives the total number of passages in which Isaiah ‘seems obviously referred to’ as 250. The range of contexts and subjects for which the earliest Christian writers found a relevant quotation from Isaiah is astonishing; they include the nativity, John the Baptist, the healing miracles, the parables, the passion, the resurrection, prayer, preaching, mission, salvation, forgiveness, the temple, faith and the last judgement.
So why does Isaiah have such prominence in early Christianity? I believe that it was Jesus himself who was responsible for this prominence. Recall that day in his hometown synagogue when he read scripture and preached. Luke tell us that “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:17-21)
The essence of Jesus’ sermon was that this text was being fulfilled in him. Jesus takes this word as speaking of his ministry now unfolding before them. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me;” Jesus means himself. Jesus finds his mission articulated in prophet Isaiah. It wasn’t just on this day that our Lord refers to Isaiah. In a work by theologian Richard Longenecker he lists all the quotations from the prophets attributed to Jesus himself, over half come from Isaiah.
We must keep in mind that it would be custom for learning scripture for Jewish people that the entire Bible was committed to memory. It would not be the case that every last Jewish person could recite the whole canon; aptitude for memorization varied among people then as now. So while many would know much of scripture those who went on to be Rabbi’s, like Jesus and Paul, would know the whole. So when they cited a particular passage from Isaiah this means that the whole book was remembered and interpreted in that light. Our Lord understood Isaiah to have much to say about his unfolding ministry.
Following that exciting moment when Peter, speaking for the disciples, answers Jesus’ question about his identity—you are the Messiah, the son of the living God—Jesus begins to teach them “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) The evangelist Mark tells us of two more occasions when Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. (Mark 9:31; 10:33-34) Mark wants us to understand that this became a staple of his teaching for his disciples following his confirming with them that he is the Messiah.
We hear this teaching again on the lips of our resurrected Lord as he meets with his disciples. On the road to Emmaus with two despondent disciples Luke tells us, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Later that same day he met the rest of the disciples in the room where they were gathered and said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”
When Jesus read the Bible he knew (our Old Testament) he understood it to teach the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering and death. Where would he understand this from? What we know as Isaiah chapter 53 would surely be among the texts he pointed out to his disciples. “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. … Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
When I reflect on our Lord’s embracing of this suffering aspect of mission for our sakes, for my sake, the words of the Apostle Paul come to mind—the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Such love constrains the believer.
2. We read today from the first chapter of Isaiah and this theme of God’s judgement of his people smacks us in the face, a theme that we find in many places in Isaiah. God announced that he had enough of their worship and sacrifices because they were not accompanied by deeds of justice—in fact the land was filled with injustice. The people treated the worship like it was to perform magic and keep God satisfied. The announcement of Isaiah would be akin to a preacher announcing that God is sick and tired of meaningless communion and hymn signing. Indeed, if we say that we love God and then do the opposite of what God loves our worship is worthless.
First, let me ask a question. Have you not found a timely rebuke to be helpful in life? I have. When a good friend was willing to point out what I refused to see, though I bristled at the time, I came to be very grateful for the correction that aided in avoiding much pain.
Secondly, God’s rebuke of his people isn’t God throwing them overboard. It is God’s steady opposition to all that diminishes the life of his people. God is always for us. Everything that the Son of God has done during the entire span of his life from incarnation to crucifixion was for us. God is always for us—just as he chose us in Christ* before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. So even in rebuke he is for us. Even as he appears to stand against his people this is because he is for us—first, last, and always.
Maybe you can recall as a child thinking that your parents had taken a position of hating you because they would not allow you to take part in something you though yourself—in your 12 or 13 year old mind—completely capable of involving yourself in. I remember a four-year old son with clenched fist taking a swing at me to indicate what he thought of one of my judgements.
Think on a more serious note of our revulsion to things that destroy life. When we see how drug use uses up the strength and vitality of a young person’s life such that they are shell of what they once were and robbed of all that they could be. If we had a loved one consumed by such things would you not feel like busting a few drug pushers’ heads? Can we then understand that God’s steady opposition to all that destroys life to be something borne of his steadfast love?
If we want to know how to read Isaiah then we need only listen to our Lord’s teaching. Jesus taught us (today’s reading) “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Here in this first chapter of Isaiah God is not throwing his recalcitrant people away. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” Here we are reminded that forgiveness is God’s doing; only God can rescue us from the penalty and power of sin.
In early paintings of the Nativity—this one is in the Grotto at Shepherds’ Fields near Bethlehem—you will see a donkey and an ox included in the animals. Why? Isaiah 1:3 “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.” Isaiah opens with reminding Israel of the One to whom she belongs. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Amen.