Isaiah Week 2

A Tale of Two Cities: Isaiah 1:2–4:6

By Bo Lim

Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 1:2–4:6


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Isaiah’s Central Character

Besides God, who or what is the central focus of the book of Isaiah? Is it Isaiah the prophet? Is it the Messiah? Is it the Servant? Nope. Isaiah appears occasionally in Chapters 1–39, but is completely absent in Chapters 40–66. Similarly, mention of a Messianic figure in the form of a Davidic king appears in Chapters 1–39, but hardly thereafter. The servant of the LORD, most well known as one who suffers (Isaiah 53), appears only in Chapters 40–55. So who or what is the central character in the book of Isaiah? Jerusalem. Also known as Zion. The book of Isaiah is about a city.

In Isaiah, “Jerusalem” appears 49 times and “Zion” 47, and these references are distributed throughout Isaiah’s 66 chapters. Jerusalem is referred to as “the city of righteousness” (1:26), “the faithful city” (1:26), “the valley of vision (22:1), “Ariel” (29:1–2), “the City of the LORD” (60:14), “Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (60:14), “My Delight Is in Her” (62:4), “daughter Zion” (62:11), “Sought Out” (62:12), and “A City Not Forsaken” (62:12).

Isaiah 1:1 cues the reader that the prophecy is concerning Jerusalem, and in Chapter 1 we read of the misfortunes of “daughter Zion” (1:8). Chapter 2 places the city in high relief, the important vision of Chapter 6 takes place in Jerusalem, and in Chapters 9 and 11 the messianic king reigns from the holy Mount Zion. The apocalyptic prophecy of Chapters 24–27 is centered on Jerusalem, and, in Chapters 7–8 and 36–38, Jerusalem is threatened by foreign invasion and Yahweh protects his city.

In Chapters 40–62, Yahweh returns to redeem the desolate and forsaken city of Jerusalem, to rebuild her walls, and to reestablish her former glory. The vision of Isaiah ends with the climactic vindication of Zion, the final purification of God’s holy mountain, and the celebration of the establishment of the new Jerusalem, the new heavens and earth (Isaiah 65–66). Folks, it’s about a city.

But from the outset of the book we are introduced not to one city but to two: the present Jerusalem full of corruption (1:2–20), and the future Jerusalem, redeemed and righteous (1:21–2:5). Why such emphasis on a city? The city represents a holistic expression of God’s intentions for creation and humanity. God did not merely create individual souls, and, therefore, he is not in the business of redeeming just individual souls. God creates, and redeems, societies as well.

In our mobile culture today, we may not be attached to a particular city or town. But if you are or have been a long-term resident of Detroit, formerly an industrial powerhouse and a mecca for rock ’n’ roll, you may be saddened to see it fall on hard times. Or perhaps you live in an area that has seen a lot of foreclosures, and now the whole neighborhood is in decline. In such cases, your own welfare is bound up with the revitalization of the community. In Isaiah, God is not interested in investing in one or two properties, but rather he is a developer with a master plan for a whole city.

Jerusalem Full of Corruption

Jerusalem has become so wicked that it is associated with the “sin cities” of Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9–10), suggesting that its destruction is imminent. Isaiah begins with an indictment against Israel in which the heavens and earth are summoned as witnesses (1:2). Calling heaven and earth to testify against Israel recalls the language of Deuteronomy, where heaven and earth are invoked as witnesses of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh (Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28).

Add to that the exhortations to “hear the word of the LORD” and “listen to the teaching of our God” in 1:10, and we observe the conventional language of a lawsuit. In a similar manner, today if we heard someone say, “You’ve been served,” we would know we’re being sued. Now it’s one thing to be dragged into court by another human; it’s another thing to be prosecuted by the Holy One of Israel. In Chapter 1, Isaiah announces that Israel’s status as God’s elect and covenant people is in jeopardy and their sin has cosmic ramifications.

Cosmic? As in outer space? Not quite. I mean cosmic as in cosmos, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the world or universe as an ordered and harmonious system.” For God’s people, the cosmos includes the seen and unseen, the individual and the social, the economic and the political, the physical and the spiritual, Israel and the nations, the heavens and the earth. Although Isaiah’s vision is focused on Jerusalem, it has the whole cosmos in view. In fact, the book ends with a vision of a new earth and new heavens (65:17; 66:22).

God’s prophet is deeply committed to cosmic justice, not just heavenly justice or earthly justice. That is, in Isaiah, God is not concerned merely about a final judgment, nor he is focused solely on the immediate. Yahweh cares for both the present and the future. In addition, while God’s sense of justice is legislated for Israel in the Torah, it is not exhausted there. In Chapter 1, Isaiah does not cite violations of Mosaic laws; rather, he lists sins that need little explanation. Israel rebels against and forgets God, does evil and deals corruptly, conspires in court, commits violence, and neglects the most vulnerable in society. Both religious and social sins are listed; there is no distinction between crimes against humanity and crimes against God.

Rather than cleanse themselves through cultic observances, Yahweh calls on Israel to desist from its unjust actions and to initiate acts of mercy (1:16–17). “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean” is the language of the cult, yet Isaiah applies it to social ethics. The “oppressed,” “orphans,” and “widows” in Isaiah are paired with the “poor” (Isaiah 10:2), so we ought not to parse who counts as oppressed, or quibble about who is most in need.

Jerusalem Redeemed and Glorified

A consistent assumption throughout the book of Isaiah is the belief that Jerusalem is central to God’s redemption of the nations and creation. One can speak of a Zion theology that apparently originated in God’s covenant to David to grant David an eternal dynasty and kingdom in 2 Samuel 7:4–17. In addition to these promises, Yahweh appoints Jerusalem as a special place, where his people will be secure from their enemies (2 Samuel 7:10), and on this site Solomon constructs the Temple and it is filled with the glory of the LORD (1 Kings 8:1–12).

In 2:1–5 we read of a vision regarding Jerusalem’s future that stands in stark contrast to present Jerusalem described in Chapter 1. Whereas Jerusalem sits abandoned and threatened by foreigners in Chapter 1, in Chapter 2 Zion stands tall and secure among the nations. This vision of Jerusalem features prominently in Israel’s understanding of its future (see also Micah 4:1–3), so it is important to observe the features of this prophecy. Jerusalem’s future involves the following:

  1. The “mountain of the LORD’s house” becoming high and exalted
  2. The nations traveling to Zion in a pilgrimage
  3. Yahweh’s word going forth from Jerusalem
  4. Nations submitting peacefully to the rule of God

Whereas violence, warfare, and enmity characterize the Jerusalem of the present in Chapter 1, Zion’s future destiny is one of peace, security, and harmony. A great reversal has taken place. The key agent of Yahweh’s intervention, whether it be in the form of judgment (1:17) or of salvation (2:3), is the word of the LORD.

Jerusalem must be redeemed. But in order for that to happen, its evil must be extinguished. This involves God’s people repenting of their evil ways (1:15, 19), but it also requires God to deal once and for all with evildoers (1:20, 28). The glorified new Jerusalem cannot coexist with the presence of sin and evil in Israel and among the nations.

One of Isaiah’s favorite names for God is “the Holy One of Israel,” a phrase that occurs 19 times in Isaiah and only three times in the rest of the Old Testament. In Isaiah’s vision of God in Chapter 6, it is God’s attribute of holiness that is featured. Isaiah’s God is holy and therefore cannot coexist with the unjust and unrighteous. In 4:2–6, we again hear of this future Jerusalem. We are told that its inhabitants are holy precisely because God has cleansed them of their filth and bloodshed.

The book of Isaiah is an explanation of how we move from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2. That is, Isaiah tells the story of how God redeems a degenerate city and transforms it into a faithful one. In this regard, 1:27–28 serves as a summation of Isaiah’s message:

Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.

The pervasive presence and persistence of sin and evil ought not to be underestimated, and Isaiah describes Yahweh’s unrelenting determination and mighty power to triumph over evil.

Jerusalem Haughty and Humiliated

In Isaiah 2:6–22, Isaiah describes the coming Day of the LORD. This expression occurs frequently in the prophets and speaks of a future occasion in which God will judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Since this announcement is double edged, it is crucial for God’s prophets to define which “edge,” so to speak — judgment or salvation — his audience ought to expect. Isaiah makes it clear that the inhabitants of present-day Jerusalem are to expect judgment. Because of their idolatry and particularly their hubris, God is taking them down.

Repeated throughout this passage is the language of “proud” (2:12), “lofty”/high”/”exalted” (2:11–14, 17), “haughty” (2:11, 17), “lifted up” (2:12–14). Isaiah is a book about dramatic reversals, so it is not surprising that “the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day” (2:17). It is God alone who is high and lofty (6:1), and humans can achieve such status only by the act of God. In order for Jerusalem to be exalted in the future (2:2), the present Jerusalem must first be humbled. A dark side to Zion theology exists where Israel will be judged just as the other nations, should it fall into the same wickedness.

In Isaiah 3:1–4:1, Isaiah focuses God’s judgment on Israel’s corrupt leadership and self-absorbed wealthy. The leaders among Jerusalem, listed in 3:2–3, will be taken captive by a foreign power, anarchy will follow (3:4), and in the vacuum of leadership those who would normally be viewed by current rulers as unfit or undesired to lead — boys, babes (3:4), and women (3:12) — will now rule over them.

Isaiah 3:16–4:1 ought not be taken as demeaning toward all women, but rather it describes particular wealthy women in Jerusalem who care nothing more but for their own lavish lifestyles. I refer to these kinds of women (see also Amos 4:1–3) as the “Real Housewives of Zion,” an allusion to the TV show “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which glorifies the vain behavior of women living in opulence. A great reversal will take place for these Real Housewives of Zion, such that they will be stripped of their finery and they will find no suitors able to restore their fortunes.

By the end of Chapter 4, we read that Jerusalem’s immediate future is one in which the men are dead or captured, all security and sustenance are lost, and women and children wander its streets competing with one another for survival.

Live the Future Now

So how are God’s people to respond to these two Jerusalems? Is Israel merely to wait it out? Is Israel to be resigned to the fact that judgment is imminent and the redeemed Zion is nowhere in sight? Embedded in these chapters are invitations to respond. In 1:18–19, the willing and obedient are invited to receive God’s announcement of forgiveness. In the future, this invitation will be made to all peoples:

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths (2:3).

In 2:5, this same invitation to live out the reality of the new Jerusalem is made to the present, corrupt Jerusalem: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” The new Jerusalem is an open possibility for all those who choose to follow the instruction of Yahweh. So I invite you, “Come let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In our text for today, what are some of the ways particular individuals, or groups of individuals, have contributed to the decline of Jerusalem? What similar or dissimilar attitudes, behaviors, or actions do you observe in our contemporary culture? Where do you see yourself in this list?
  2. Isaiah describes the tension between God’s love for Jerusalem, and his aversion for sin and evil. In what way does the metaphor of Israel being rebellious children (1:2) or an unfaithful wife (1:21) illustrate the relationship between love and holiness? What does this metaphor teach us about God or our calling as disciples?
  3. The Lectio writer notes that Isaiah’s central character is a city, and in these opening chapters we see the city (Jerusalem) in two differing states. What attitudes, behaviors, and actions might mark a faithful response to the prophetic word they are given?
  4. Reread Isaiah 2:1-5. Spend some time reflecting on the realities of this call to worship and the kind of lifestyle it lifts-up. In the days and weeks to come, what might it look like for you and your respective communities to “walk in the light of the LORD?”

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