Along with Psalms, Isaiah is the Old Testament book most quoted and alluded to in the New Testament. As one of the major prophets, Isaiah is a brilliant literary work full of poetry and imagery. The book revolves around divine accusations of rebellion and unbelief, warnings of national judgment, and calls for repentance. The book also features messages of hope and of the coming messianic King, the day of the Lord — a day of global judgment against God’s enemies but of peace and rest for His people.
Because of these themes of sin and salvation, Isaiah is often called the fifth Gospel and the Romans of the Old Testament. Here the plan of God for the world and for His people is clearly revealed.
Context and content
The scope of Isaiah’s message spans from the historic city of Jerusalem — corrupt, defiled, and eventually destroyed — to the future eternal city, the New Jerusalem, and the cosmic renewal of all creation (chapters 1-66). Isaiah reveals God to be the Holy One of Israel who is the only true Creator, Judge, and Savior of the world.
Ultimately, Isaiah reveals the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the holy and anointed King who establishes God’s kingdom in righteousness (chapters 40-55). The book is the recipe for understanding the New Testament, who Jesus is, what He came to do, and why. We must heed its message of hope and warning of judgment.
Isaiah is a large book, but this article focuses on just the opening verses. Here we’ll learn who God is and who we are. We will learn the character and content of sin, its condition and consequences, and the judgment and mercy of God. Finally, these themes will lead us to Paul and Romans 3, where the themes of Isaiah 1 (and the whole book) are understood in light of God’s work in Christ.
Though we’re confronted and convicted of sin, God’s true purpose is to correct our misguided course. It is not to leave us with guilt and fear but with forgiveness and transformation.
Character and content of sin (Isaiah 1:2-4)
“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!” (v. 2). Isaiah’s message begins by calling on all creation to bear witness of God’s testimony against His rebellious children, the nation of Judah. Though Isaiah addresses unbelieving nations as well, his message is primarily directed toward his people. The church of God does well to hear this as a message to other nations and, more importantly, as a word of revival that begins by confronting us with our sins.
“The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know . . . [or] consider” (v. 3). As the people of God, they should know God, but they have become willfully ignorant. They act as if they don’t know God or what He’s done for them. The Lord compares them to barnyard animals. They know the master and follow Him to the barn for food and water, but Israel wanders from one false master to another. In these verses, sin is portrayed as contrary to nature. It is mindless and irrational!
“Alas . . . They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel” (v. 4). Isaiah laments with an expression of doom. “Alas” (NKJV) is translated as “woe” in other translations — a word of strong judgment associated with wicked gentile nations (10:5; 18:1). But here first, it is said of God’s own. They are children meant to reflect their Father, but they are corrupted and corrupters.
Isaiah does not spare the truth about Israel; his words cut deep. Rather than determining to be with God and be holy like Him, Israel has “forsaken . . . the Holy One of Israel,” deliberately turning her back on Him.
“Holy One of Israel” is among Isaiah’s preferred names for God (found twenty-five times, Isaiah 1:4 — 60:14). This divine title describes God’s very nature as completely pure — the total opposite of sin. When Isaiah was confronted with a “Holy, holy, holy” God, he cried out, “Woe is me!” (6:3, 5). These themes — the holy reality of God and our right response to Him — are in the opening chapters of Isaiah.
In this section of Isaiah 1, the holy God graciously gave Himself to Israel, and yet she has despised His holiness. She turned away from Him, becoming like the pagan nations to whom she was called into covenant with God to be a light and witness.
Israel is not just corrupted; she is rebellious. That word is a good summary of the nature of sin: rebellion against the good and holy God.
Condition and consequences of sin (Isaiah 1:5-8)
“Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more” (v. 5). As Isaiah’s lament over the people of God continues, we find not only the nature of sin but also its condition and consequences. Isaiah depicts sin as a sickness. Israel is bruised and wounded, but she does not recognize her need. She suffers an all-encompassing inward and outward condition. “The whole heart faints,” Isaiah writes, and from head to foot she is stricken. Worst of all, there is no remedy, no healing for this condition.
Isaiah warns next of sin’s ultimate consequence: God’s judgment of it. The nation is desolate and burned with fire. Strangers have devoured her. Israel is likened to an abandoned garden. But thanks to God’s grace, that is not the end of the story.
Judgment and mercy of God (Isaiah 1:9, 18)
“Unless the Lord of hosts had left to us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah” (v. 9).
After exposing Israel’s rebellion and confronting her with the consequence of sin, Isaiah reminds her of God’s mercy. Isaiah is saying, “If God’s people were left on their own to fulfill their natural and sinful desires, without divine intervention, their fate would have been just like Sodom and Gomorrah’s.” They would have deserved it! Deliberate rebellion calls for the unmitigated wrath of God and eternal damnation.
This is what every sinner deserves. But here is where the unmerited mercy of God enters for the remnant that will see their sins, and God’s grace, and accept it. Like Israel, we are not spared destruction because of our power, merit, or wisdom, but solely because of God’s grace.
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool’” (v. 18).
This is just the first chapter of Isaiah. There is so much more, but we note already in Isaiah’s message of sin and judgment, of hope and salvation, the themes that would come to full revelation in Jesus Christ and the New Testament.
Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Romans 3)
Take Romans 3, for instance. In this epistle, apostle Paul sets forth the good news that the sin and salvation described in Isaiah has been dealt with and delivered to us through Christ. Two key words in Romans 3 describe what God has done in His Son.
Paul explains that in the sacrificial death of Jesus, God has brought redemption and propitiation (vv. 24, 25). Redemption is the price paid to cancel the debt, securing freedom from slavery to sin. Propitiation refers to the removal of sin and its stain through atonement. Both of these words explain how God deals with the problem of sin while declaring His gracious love toward those lost in it.
The concepts of redemption and propitiation draw our attention to the justice and love of God. In Christ, He graciously sets sinners free by taking His own demands of holiness upon Himself. The divine penalty for sin — death — was meted out, and the Lord paid that price on the cross (redemption). Divine wrath against sin had to be satisfied, and the Lord bore that wrath on the cross, satisfying the condemnation of sin in Himself (propitiation).
This is good news for us. We know the debilitating sickness of sin and its ultimate end in death (Romans 6:23), and it’s easy to focus on it: lust for possessions, sex, power, selfishness in general. No wonder marriages and families are falling apart; that depression, addiction, and suicide abound; that God’s basic design for human sexuality and family is being abandoned. Isaiah would admonish us to not focus on the outside world but on the inside — ourselves.
The same sin sickness is inside the church. Believers! Do we treasure and saturate ourselves in God’s Word, or have we turned back? Do we despise God’s truth in practice, if not in word? Do we treat each other and our worship together as optional or boring and wonder why our children don’t love the church or God’s Word? We, too, can suffer the effects of sin.
May we all remember that God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10). May we return to the Lord, confess our sins, and find the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Death and judgment do not have to be our fate. Jesus gives us a new fate — freedom — if we will accept His gift.