“Let Us Set Matters Straight”
1, 2. To whom does Jehovah compare the rulers and the people of Jerusalem and Judah, and why is this valid?
THE inhabitants of Jerusalem may feel inclined to justify themselves after hearing the denunciation recorded at Isaiah 1:1-9. They no doubt would like to point proudly to all the sacrifices they offer to Jehovah. However, Isa 1 verses 10 through 15 give Jehovah’s withering reply to such attitudes. It begins: “Hear the word of Jehovah, you dictators of Sodom. Give ear to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah.”—Isaiah 1:10.
2 Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not only for their perverted sex practices but also for their hardhearted, haughty attitudes. (Genesis 18:20, 21; 19:4, 5, 23-25; Ezekiel 16:49, 50) Isaiah’s audience must be shocked to hear themselves being compared to the people of those accursed cities.* But Jehovah sees his people just as they are, and Isaiah does not soften God’s message in order to ‘tickle their ears.’—2 Timothy 4:3.
3. What does Jehovah mean when he says that he has “had enough” of the people’s sacrifices, and why is this the case?
3 Notice how Jehovah feels about the formalistic worship of his people. “‘Of what benefit to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says Jehovah. ‘I have had enough of whole burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed animals; and in the blood of young bulls and male lambs and he-goats I have taken no delight.’” (Isaiah 1:11) The people have forgotten that Jehovah does not depend upon their sacrifices. (Psalm 50:8-13) He does not need anything that humans may offer him. So if the people think that they are doing Jehovah a favor by presenting their halfhearted offerings, they are mistaken. Jehovah uses a powerful figure of speech. The expression “I have had enough” may also be rendered “I am satiated” or “I am glutted.” Do you know the feeling of being so full of food that the very sight of more is repulsive? Jehovah felt similarly about those offerings—utterly repulsed!
4. How does Isaiah 1:12 expose the emptiness of the people’s attendance at the temple in Jerusalem?
4 Jehovah continues: “When you people keep coming in to see my face, who is it that has required this from your hand, to trample my courtyards?” (Isaiah 1:12) Is it not Jehovah’s own law that requires the people to ‘come in to see his face,’ that is, to be in attendance at his temple in Jerusalem? (Exodus 34:23, 24) Yes, but they come there out of mere formalism, simply going through the motions of pure worship, without pure motives. To Jehovah, their numerous visits to his courtyards amount to mere ‘trampling,’ accomplishing nothing more than wearing away the floor.
5. What are some of the acts of worship performed by the Jews, and why have these become “a burden” to Jehovah?
5 No wonder that Jehovah now adopts even stronger language! “Stop bringing in any more valueless grain offerings. Incense—it is something detestable to me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of a convention—I cannot put up with the use of uncanny power along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your festal seasons my soul has hated. To me they have become a burden; I have become tired of bearing them.” (Isaiah 1:13, 14) Grain offerings, incense, Sabbaths, and solemn assemblies are all part of God’s Law to Israel. As to “new moons,” the Law simply directs that these be observed, but wholesome traditions have gradually grown up around the observance. (Numbers 10:10; 28:11) The new moon is treated as a monthly sabbath, when the people would desist from work and even gather for instruction from the prophets and priests. (2 Kings 4:23; Ezekiel 46:3; Amos 8:5) Such observances are not wrong. The problem lies in doing them for mere show. Moreover, the Jews are resorting to “uncanny power,” spiritistic practices, right along with their formal observance of God’s Law.* Thus, their acts of worship to Jehovah are “a burden” to him.
6. In what sense has Jehovah become “tired”?
6 How, though, could Jehovah feel “tired”? After all, he has an “abundance of dynamic energy . . . He does not tire out or grow weary.” (Isaiah 40:26, 28) Jehovah is using a vivid figure of speech to enable us to understand his feelings. Have you ever borne a heavy burden for so long that you were weary to the very bone and just longed to throw it off? That is how Jehovah feels about his people’s hypocritical acts of worship.
7. Why has Jehovah stopped listening to the prayers of his people?
7 Jehovah now addresses the most intimate and personal of all acts of worship. “When you spread out your palms, I hide my eyes from you. Even though you make many prayers, I am not listening; with bloodshed your very hands have become filled.” (Isaiah 1:15) Spreading out the palms, holding the hands outstretched with palms upward, is a gesture of supplication. To Jehovah, this stance has become meaningless, for this people have hands full of bloodshed. Violence is rampant in the land. Oppression of the weak is commonplace. For such abusive, selfish people to pray to Jehovah and ask for blessings is obscene. No wonder Jehovah says, “I am not listening”!
8. What error does Christendom commit today, and how do some Christians fall into a similar trap?
8 In our day, Christendom has likewise failed to win God’s favor with her ceaseless repetition of vain prayers and her other religious “works.” (Matthew 7:21-23) It is of vital importance that we do not fall into the same trap. Occasionally, a Christian lapses into a practice of serious sin, then reasons that if he just hides what he is doing and increases his activity in the Christian congregation, his deeds will somehow counterbalance his sin. Such formalistic works do not please Jehovah. There is only one cure for spiritual sickness, as the next verses of Isaiah show.
The Cure for Spiritual Sickness
9, 10. How important is cleanness in our worship of Jehovah?
9 Jehovah, the compassionate God, now shifts to a warmer, more appealing tone. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the badness of your dealings from in front of my eyes; cease to do bad. Learn to do good; search for justice; set right the oppressor; render judgment for the fatherless boy; plead the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16, 17) Here we find a string of nine imperatives, or commands. The first four are negative in the sense that they involve the removal of sin; the last five are positive actions that lead to receiving Jehovah’s blessing.
10 Washing and cleanness have always been an important part of pure worship. (Exodus 19:10, 11; 30:20; 2 Corinthians 7:1) But Jehovah wants the cleansing to go deeper, into the very heart of his worshipers. Most important is moral and spiritual cleanliness, and this is what Jehovah refers to. The first two commands in Isa 1 verse 16 are not mere repetition. A Hebrew grammarian suggests that the first, “wash yourselves,” refers to an initial act of cleansing, whereas the second, “make yourselves clean,” refers to ongoing efforts to maintain that cleanness.
11. To combat sin, what should we do, and what should we never do?
11 We can hide nothing from Jehovah. (Job 34:22; Proverbs 15:3; Hebrews 4:13) So his command, “Remove the badness of your dealings from in front of my eyes,” can only mean one thing—to cease doing bad. That means not attempting to conceal serious sins, for doing so is a sin in itself. Proverbs 28:13 warns: “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.”
12. (a) Why is it important to “learn to do good”? (b) How may elders in particular apply the directives to “search for justice” and “set right the oppressor”?
12 There is much to learn from the positive actions that Jehovah commands in verse 17 of Isaiah chapter 1. Notice that he does not merely say “do good” but “learn to do good.” It takes personal study of God’s Word to understand what is good in God’s eyes and to want to do it. Further, Jehovah does not merely say “render justice” but “search for justice.” Even experienced elders need to make a thorough search of God’s Word in order to find the just course in some complex matters. Theirs too is the responsibility to “set right the oppressor,” as Jehovah next commands. These directives are important to Christian shepherds today, for they want to protect the flock from “oppressive wolves.”—Acts 20:28-30.
13. How might we today apply the commands regarding the fatherless boy and the widow?
13 The final two commands involve some of the more vulnerable of God’s people—orphans and widows. The world is all too ready to take advantage of such individuals; this must not be so among God’s people. Loving elders “render judgment” for the fatherless boys and girls in the congregation, helping them to receive justice and protection in a world that wants to take advantage of them and corrupt them. Elders “plead the cause” of the widow or, as the Hebrew word can also mean, “strive” in her behalf. Really, all Christians want to be a source of refuge, comfort, and justice to the needy among us because they are precious to Jehovah.—Micah 6:8; James 1:27.
14. What positive message is conveyed at Isaiah 1:16, 17?
14 What a firm, positive message Jehovah conveys through these nine commands! Sometimes those involved in sin convince themselves that it is simply beyond their power to do right. Such notions are discouraging. Moreover, they are wrong. Jehovah knows—and wants us to know—that with His help, any sinner can stop his sinful course, turn around, and do right instead.
A Compassionate, Just Plea
15. How is the phrase “let us set matters straight between us” sometimes misunderstood, and what does it actually mean?
15 Jehovah’s tone now takes on even greater warmth and compassion. “‘Come, now, you people, and let us set matters straight between us,’ says Jehovah. ‘Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18) The invitation that opens this beautiful verse is often misunderstood. For example, The New English Bible says, “Let us argue it out”—as if both sides must make concessions to reach an accord. Not so! Jehovah bears no fault, least of all in his dealings with this rebellious, hypocritical people. (Deuteronomy 32:4, 5) The verse speaks, not of a give-and-take discussion between equals, but of a forum to establish justice. It is as if Jehovah here challenges Israel to a court trial.
16, 17. How do we know that Jehovah is willing to forgive even serious sins?
16 That may be a daunting notion, but Jehovah is the most merciful and compassionate Judge. His capacity for forgiveness is unparalleled. (Psalm 86:5) He alone can take Israel’s sins that are “as scarlet” and cleanse them away, making them “white just like snow.” No human effort, no formula of works, sacrifices, or prayers can remove the stain of sin. Only Jehovah’s forgiveness can wash sin away. God grants such forgiveness on terms that he sets, which include genuine, heartfelt repentance.
17 So important is this truth that Jehovah repeats it in a poetic variation—“crimson” sins will become like new, undyed, white wool. Jehovah wants us to know that he truly is the Forgiver of sins, even very serious ones, as long as he finds us genuinely repentant. Those who find it hard to believe that this is true in their own case do well to consider such examples as Manasseh. He sinned horribly—for years. Yet, he repented and was forgiven. (2 Chronicles 33:9-16) Jehovah wants all of us, including those who have committed serious sins, to know that it is not too late to “set matters straight” with him.
18. What choice does Jehovah put before his rebellious people?
18 Jehovah reminds his people that they have a choice to make. “If you people show willingness and do listen, the good of the land you will eat. But if you people refuse and are actually rebellious, with a sword you will be eaten up; for the very mouth of Jehovah has spoken it.” (Isaiah 1:19, 20) Here Jehovah emphasizes attitudes, and he uses another vivid figure of speech to drive his point home. Judah’s choice is this: Eat or be eaten. If they have an attitude of willingness to listen to and obey Jehovah, they will eat the good produce of the land. However, if they persist in their rebellious attitude, they will be eaten—by the sword of their enemies! It seems almost unimaginable that a people would choose the sword of their enemies over the mercy and abundance of a forgiving God. Nevertheless, such is the case with Jerusalem, as the next verses of Isaiah show.
A Dirge Over the Beloved City
19, 20. (a) How does Jehovah convey the sense of betrayal that he feels? (b) In what way has ‘righteousness lodged in Jerusalem’?
19 At Isaiah 1:21-23, we see the full extent of the wickedness of Jerusalem at this time. Isaiah now begins an inspired poem in the style of a dirge, or lament: “O how the faithful town has become a prostitute! She was full of justice; righteousness itself used to lodge in her, but now murderers.”—Isaiah 1:21.
20 How the city, Jerusalem, has fallen! Once a faithful wife, she has now become a prostitute. What could more powerfully convey the sense of betrayal and disappointment that Jehovah feels? “Righteousness itself used to lodge in” this city. When? Well, even before Israel existed, back in Abraham’s day, this city was called Salem. Over it ruled a man who was both king and priest. His name, Melchizedek, means “King of Righteousness,” and it evidently suited him well. (Hebrews 7:2; Genesis 14:18-20) About 1,000 years after Melchizedek, Jerusalem reached a peak, under the kingships of David and Solomon. “Righteousness itself used to lodge in her,” especially when her kings set the example for the people by walking in Jehovah’s ways. By Isaiah’s day, though, such times are a distant memory.
21, 22. What is signified by dross and diluted beer, and why do Judah’s leaders merit such a description?
21 It seems that the leaders among the people are a large part of the problem. Isaiah goes on with his lament: “Your silver itself has become scummy dross. Your wheat beer is diluted with water. Your princes are stubborn and partners with thieves. Every one of them is a lover of a bribe and a chaser after gifts. For a fatherless boy they do not render judgment; and even the legal case of a widow does not get admittance to them.” (Isaiah 1:22, 23) Two vivid word pictures in quick succession set the tone for what must follow. The smith at his forge skims the scummy dross from the molten silver and throws it away. Israel’s princes and judges are like the dross, not the silver. They need to be discarded. They have no more use than beer that has been diluted with water and lost its flavor. Such a beverage is fit only to be poured down the drain!
22 Isa 1 Verse 23 shows why the leaders deserve such a description. The Mosaic Law ennobled God’s people, setting them apart from other nations. It did so, for example, by mandating the protection of orphans and widows. (Exodus 22:22-24) But in Isaiah’s day, the fatherless boy has little hope of any favorable judgment. As for the widow, she cannot get anyone even to hear her case, let alone strive in her behalf. No, these judges and leaders are too busy looking after their own interests—seeking bribes, chasing gifts, and serving as partners to thieves, evidently protecting the criminals while allowing their victims to suffer. Worse yet, they are “stubborn,” or hardened, in their course of wrongdoing. What a sorry state of affairs!
Jehovah Will Refine His People
23. What feelings toward his adversaries does Jehovah express?
23 Jehovah will not tolerate such abuse of power forever. Isaiah continues: “Therefore the utterance of the true Lord, Jehovah of armies, the Powerful One of Israel, is: ‘Aha! I shall relieve myself of my adversaries, and I will avenge myself on my enemies.’” (Isaiah 1:24) Jehovah is given three designations here, emphasizing his rightful lordship and his vast power. The exclamation “Aha!” likely signifies that Jehovah’s pity is now mixed with determination to act upon his wrath. There is certainly reason for this.
24. What refining process does Jehovah purpose for his people?
24 Jehovah’s own people have made themselves his enemies. They fully merit divine vengeance. Jehovah will “relieve,” or rid, himself of them. Does this mean a complete, permanent obliteration of his name people? No, for Jehovah goes on to say: “And I will turn back my hand upon you, and I shall smelt away your scummy dross as with lye, and I will remove all your waste products.” (Isaiah 1:25) Jehovah now uses the refining process as an illustration. A refiner in ancient times often added lye to help separate the dross from the precious metal. In a similar way, Jehovah, who does not see his people as completely wicked, will ‘chastise them to the proper degree.’ He will remove from them only the “waste products”—the stubborn, undesirable ones, who refuse to learn and obey.* (Jeremiah 46:28) With these words, Isaiah has the privilege of writing down history in advance.
25. (a) How did Jehovah refine his people in 607 B.C.E.? (b) When did Jehovah refine his people in modern times?
25 Jehovah did indeed refine his people, removing the scummy dross of corrupt leaders and other rebels. In 607 B.C.E., long after Isaiah’s time, Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants led off for the 70-year exile in Babylon. This in some ways parallels an action God took much later. The prophecy at Malachi 3:1-5, written long after the Babylonian exile, showed that God would again do a refining work. It pointed to the time when Jehovah God would come to his spiritual temple accompanied by his “messenger of the covenant,” Jesus Christ. This evidently happened at the end of World War I. Jehovah inspected all of those claiming to be Christians, sifting the true from the false. With what result?
26-28. (a) What initial fulfillment did Isaiah 1:26 have? (b) How has this prophecy been fulfilled in our time? (c) How might this prophecy benefit elders today?
26 Jehovah answers: “I will bring back again judges for you as at the first, and counselors for you as at the start. After this you will be called City of Righteousness, Faithful Town. With justice Zion herself will be redeemed, and those returning of her, with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:26, 27) Ancient Jerusalem experienced an initial fulfillment of this prophecy. After the exiles returned to their beloved city in 537 B.C.E., there were once again faithful judges and counselors like those of the past. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the priest Joshua, the scribe Ezra, and the governor Zerubbabel all served to guide and direct the faithful returning remnant to walk in God’s paths. However, an even more important fulfillment occurred in the 20th century.
27 In 1919, Jehovah’s modern-day people emerged from the period of testing. They were delivered from spiritual bondage to Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. The distinction between that faithful anointed remnant and the apostate clergy of Christendom became clear. God again blessed his people, ‘bringing back for them judges and counselors’—faithful men who counsel God’s people according to his Word and not according to the traditions of men. Today among the diminishing “little flock” and their increasing millions of “other sheep” companions, there are thousands of such men.—Luke 12:32; John 10:16; Isaiah 32:1, 2; 60:17; 61:3, 4.
28 Elders keep in mind that they do, on occasion, act as “judges” in the congregation in order to keep it morally and spiritually clean and to correct wrongdoers. They are deeply concerned with doing things God’s way, imitating his merciful, balanced sense of justice. In most matters, though, they serve as “counselors.” This, of course, is a far cry from being princes or tyrants, and they make every effort never to give even the appearance of “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance.”—1 Peter 5:3.
29, 30. (a) What does Jehovah pronounce for those who refuse to benefit from the refining process? (b) In what sense do the people become “ashamed” of their trees and gardens?
29 What about the “dross” mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah? What happens to those who refuse to benefit from God’s refinement process? Isaiah continues: “And the crash of revolters and that of sinful ones will be at the same time, and those leaving Jehovah will come to their finish. For they will be ashamed of the mighty trees that you people desired, and you will be abashed because of the gardens that you have chosen.” (Isaiah 1:28, 29) Those who revolt and sin against Jehovah, ignoring the warning messages of his prophets until it is too late, do indeed “crash” and “come to their finish.” This happens in 607 B.C.E. What, however, do these references to trees and gardens mean?
30 The Judeans have a persistent problem with idolatry. Trees, gardens, and groves often figure in their debased practices. For example, worshipers of Baal and his consort, Ashtoreth, believe that in the dry season, the two deities are dead and buried. To prompt them to awaken and mate, bringing fertility to the land, the idolaters gather to carry out perverted sexual acts under “sacred” trees in groves or in gardens. When rains and fertility come to the land, the false gods receive the credit; the idolaters feel confirmed in their superstitions. But when Jehovah brings the rebellious idolaters to their crashing finish, no idol-gods protect them. The rebels are “ashamed” of these impotent trees and gardens.
31. What do the idolaters face that is worse than shame?
31 Idolatrous Judeans face something worse than shame, though. Shifting the illustration, Jehovah now likens the idolater himself to a tree. “You will become like a big tree the foliage of which is withering, and like a garden that has no water.” (Isaiah 1:30) In the hot, dry climate of the Middle East, this illustration is apt. No tree or garden can last for long without a steady supply of water. Dried up, such vegetation is especially vulnerable to fire. Hence, the illustration in Isa 1 verse 31 follows naturally.
32. (a) Who is “the vigorous man” referred to in Isa 1 verse 31? (b) In what sense will he become “tow,” what “spark” will ignite him, and with what result?
32 “The vigorous man will certainly become tow, and the product of his activity a spark; and both of them will certainly go up in flames at the same time, with no one to do the extinguishing.” (Isaiah 1:31) Who is this “vigorous man”? The Hebrew expression conveys the sense of strength and wealth. It likely refers to the prosperous, self-assured follower of false gods. In Isaiah’s day, as in our own, there is no shortage of men who reject Jehovah and his pure worship. Some even seem successful. Yet, Jehovah warns that such men will be like “tow,” coarse fibers of flax so frail and dry that they tear apart, as it were, at the very smell of fire. (Judges 16:8, 9) The product of the idolater’s activity—whether his idol-gods, his wealth, or whatever he worships in place of Jehovah—will be like the igniting “spark.” Both spark and tow will be consumed, wiped out, in a fire that no one can extinguish. No power in the universe can overturn Jehovah’s perfect judgments.
33. (a) How do God’s warnings of coming judgment also indicate his mercy? (b) What opportunity is Jehovah now extending to mankind, and how does this affect each one of us?
33 Is this final message compatible with the message of mercy and forgiveness in Isa 1 verse 18? By all means! Jehovah has such warnings written down and delivered by his servants because he is merciful. After all, “he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) It is the privilege of every true Christian today to proclaim God’s warning messages to mankind so that repentant ones may benefit from his generous forgiveness and live forever. How kind it is on Jehovah’s part to give mankind a chance to “set matters straight” with him before it is too late!
According to ancient Jewish tradition, wicked King Manasseh had Isaiah executed, sawn asunder. (Compare Hebrews 11:37.) A source says that in order to bring on this death sentence, a false prophet used the following charge against Isaiah: “He has called Jerusalem Sodom, and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem he has declared (to be) the people of Gomorrah.”
The Hebrew word for “uncanny power” is also rendered “what is hurtful,” “what is uncanny,” and “erroneous.” According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Hebrew prophets used the word to denounce “evil caused by the misuse of power.”
The expression “I will turn back my hand upon you” means that Jehovah will shift from supporting his people to chastising them.