Isaiah Opens with Covenant Lawsuit: the Wickedness of Judah

 Introduction and Subgenre

            Isaiah is the Paul, Hebrews and James of the Old Testament.[1] All three of these attributes are seen in the opening oracle of Isaiah (1:2-20). The first five chapters of Isaiah set the stage for the climatic prophets call in chapter six and the rest of the book. Isaiah is called to warn Judah of the exilic consequences of their rebellion in chapters 1-39 and then in chapters 40–66 Isaiah gives specific promises about the return from exile and the ultimate victory of God through the messiah. Isaiah is so broad in scope that other than the Psalms he is one of the most quoted Old Testament writers in the New Testament. Jesus cites Isaiah several times[2], in promises like “… he brings justice to victory …”[3] and judgments like “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;”[4]

This oracle serves as an open accusation of Judah’s infidelity and it falls into the subgenre of judgment, most specifically covenant lawsuit and oracle of woe. It can be broken down into subsections: The court is called to witness that the children have rebelled (2-3), all has been corrupted (4-6), the land is desolate (7-8), they are not totally destroyed by the grace of God alone (9-10), all their sacrifices are tainted with evil (11-14), their deeds are what stain them and it is time to turn and do what is right (15-17), The LORD Calls for a return (18-20).


            Using the kings mentioned in Isaiah the writing of the book of Isaiah is dated to between 811 – 699 B.C.[5] Making the reasonable assumption that the book is in the chronological order that it was written in means that this oracle would have probably been written before king Hezekiah. The climate of Judah and Israel at the time would be of conflict with Assyria and this is possibly reflected in the oracle where the Lord says, “Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire.”[6] During the time of Isaiah the prophet, the people of Judah would witness the carrying away of Israel by the armies of Assyria. The oracle seems to be focused on the events going on around Judah at the time and making the case that God is righteous to bring these events against the rebellious children.

Literary Overview

            The whole oracle is written with progressive parallelism and has a hint of chiastic structure. As each section of the oracle starts with a statement and the progressive sentences make the argument against Judah. A prime example of this is verse four, “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly,”[7] each section builds on the idea of a sinful nation. The hint of chiastic structure comes from the fact that the oracle starts with the LORD’s call and ends with the LORD’s call: “Lord has spoken”[8] and “says the Lord[9]. It is only partially a chiastic structure, however, unlike the Song of Moses. The next literary feature of note is the imagery. Examples of this imagery are heavens and earth, oxen and donkeys, hands covered in blood, and wounds that need bandages.

The Theology

            This Oracle is about the unseeing and unhearing rebellion of the children of Israel. Wim Beuken said it like this, “… it is clear that the people’s unwillingness and incapacity to hear, to see, and to convert cannot be understood without the preceding series of accusations …”[10] The passage is dealing with what the creature owes the creator, even the heavens and earth know that children are to know their Father and be obedient to Him. However, even in judgment, there is redemption. By asking “Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?”[11] the implication is that if the rebellion went away the judgement would be removed. Could Israel have repented and avoided the consequences, is an irrelevant question, because they would not. Which is why the prophet follows right up with “Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence.”[12] The judgment was not some far off happening; there was danger was right in front of them, yet still they would not. Even in their sacrifices they were not acceptable because there was no turning or repentance. “The Lord said, Bring no more vain offerings”[13] rather “remove the evil of your deeds”[14]. This theology is directly consistent with James and faith being dead without works.[15] Overall we see an indictment of sin, a call to repentance and a promise of redemption that is by the Lord. Looking across scripture there is a sense of completion in both sense of this text, Israel would not be “willing and obedient”[16] so Babylon did come and they were destroyed. However, those that “… have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”[17] received the promises that “you shall eat the good of the land.”[18]

Application for Today

            The greatest theologians of the day missed Jesus. This is a sobering fact. God does not care about theology; He wants orthodoxy that drives orthopraxy. That of course is a theological statement. There is no getting away from theology, but there is a right way to do theology. In order to seek the proper application, and keep from being theologians that miss Jesus, understanding the role of the Prophet is essential. Theodoret, Bishop of Kyros, said “All the inspired prophets compiled not only the events of Israel, but were also inspired to foretell the salvation of the nations.”[19] There are three applications for this text in the light of Theodoret’s words; one, to be a record of God’s work in relation to Israel, two, to remind the reader that good actions without good heart are, as James said, dead, and three, salvation comes from turning from evil and to good, that good which is Christ. The reader of this text, should they be in Christ, needs to be ever so grateful for all the blessings that they enjoy in Christ. There, but for the grace of God, go we.




[1]. J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 21.

[2]. Michael Barret. 2014. “The Danger of Heartless Religion: An Exposition of Isaiah 1:2-18.” Puritan Reformed Journal 6, no. 2: 5-15. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed May 9, 2018). 6.

[3]. Matthew 12:20, ESV.

[4]. Matthew 15:8, ESV.

[5]. Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 47.

[6]. Isaiah 1:7, ESV.

[7]. Isaiah 1:4, ESV.

[8]. Isaiah 1:2, ESV

[9]. Isaiah 1:18, ESV

[10]. Wim Beuken. 2004. “The manifestation of Yahweh and the Commission of Isaiah: Isaiah 6 read against the background of Isaiah 1.” Calvin Theological Journal 39, no. 1: 72-87. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed May 9, 2018). 73.

[11]. Isaiah 1:5, ESV.

[12]. Isaiah 1:7, ESV.

[13]. Isaiah 1:13, ESV.

[14]. Isaiah 1:16, ESV.

[15]. James 2:17, ESV.

[16]. Isaiah 1:18, ESV.

[17]. Revelation 7:14, ESV.

[18]. Isaiah 1:19, ESV.

[19] Anton C. Vrame. 1989. “Theodoret, Bishop of Kyros as an Exegete of Isaiah 1: A Translation of His Commentary, with an Introduction.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 34, no. 2: 127-147. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 10, 2018). 134.

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