The first section of Isaiah’s prophecy is about the nation’s need for purification. Isaiah 1:21-23 paints the sad picture of a righteous nation becoming full of sin. The faithful city has become a prostitute. The nation, once full of justice and righteousness is full of murderers. The Lord praises Israel’s past but laments the present. The Lord contrasts what he intended for the nation against what he received. He intended faithfulness but received prostitution. He intended righteousness but received murder. Infidelity toward God has led to infidelity toward the people. When we are not faithful to the Lord and his commands the result is the mistreatment of one another and become self-serving living for our own advantages. The princes are rebels. They are friends with thieves. All the people love a bribe and run after gifts. There is no concern about others, only the financial impact for themselves. They lacked justice to the orphans and failed to uphold the cause of the widows. They sought possessions and wealth at any cost. There was blatant disregard for the innocent. They ignored the needs of the people and did not care who was hurt.
The circumstances of Isaiah’s day sound similar to our time. When we reject God as our ethical standard, there is nothing to stop us from committing all kinds of atrocities against each other. This is the critical failure of atheism or any removal of God from our society and from our government. If God is not the reason for constraining my actions, then what reason is there to constrain my desires? If there is no God or judgment, then why can’t I rip you off? Why can’t I steal from you? Why can’t I mistreat you? Why can’t I harm you? Moral and ethical degeneration explodes when we reject the will of the Lord. If I do not answer to the Lord, then I answer to myself and I will do whatever I want. Government, corporations, and businesses will exploit people because they consist of people. Therefore, as verse 22 describes, there is total degeneration. The people were impure, completely tainted by sin. Their spiritual silver had become dross. Their virtuousness described as the best wine had been watered down. God’s words show that social justice cannot take place through legislation. Social justice will only be effective when hearts and lives are faithful to the Lord.
The Need For Purification (1:21-26)
Isaiah 1:24-26 describes the coming purification. God is determined to have a purified people. Notice the powerful self-declaration of the Lord in verse 24: “The Lord, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel.” The word translated “hosts” in most translations refers to a host of armies. This is a declaration of the power of the Lord, the Lord who commands heaven’s armies, the Mighty One of Israel. The powerful Lord is going to act. He is going to get relief from his enemies and avenge himself on his foes. Please consider who the enemies of God are in this prophecy: the people of God! Judah and Jerusalem are the foes. They are the enemies of the Lord because of their sinfulness.
After reading the charges of verses 21-23 and reading the firm, angry resolve of the Lord in verse 24, what would we expect God to do? Rather than total annihilation for sins, God promises redemption. Rather than turning his hand against the people in hostility, the Lord describes the coming restoration. The Lord is going to thoroughly purge his people of the dross that has corrupted their silver. God has the cleansing agents needed to remove the deep stains of long-standing sins. God is able to recreate lost purity, removing the dross, and making us pure again. The removal of dross from metal implies putting the metal through extreme fire to melt away the impurities. What we see is that in one act God is able to accomplish two things: purification and restoration. The declaration of judgment brings the proclamation of salvation. God will restore the people so that they can be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city again. Amazingly, even though the people had become his enemies, God had not changed his ultimate purpose. As with the people then, before God acted we were a mess; we were faithless; we acted in self-serving and self-satisfying ways rather in godly ways.
The Coming Restoration (1:27-31)
God does not redeem his people by lowering his holy standards. Too often a false dichotomy is made between the nature of the Lord in the Old Testament and the New Testament. God was not full of wrath under the Law of Moses but full of grace under the covenant of Christ. God has always been full of grace and we are seeing that grace as he promises to restore his people. But God does not change his standards in his effort to restore. Instead, God will redeem his people by justice and by righteousness and the people will respond with repentant hearts. This is an awesome promise. God is going to pay a ransom price for his people. He is going to buy them back from their sins and make them his own through Christ.
What God promised through Isaiah has been fulfilled in us. God both purified us and restored us. Our challenge is to live as redeemed people. Listen to Peter’s words:
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” 17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:14–20)
The scriptures call us to holy living because we were redeemed from this sinful, futile life through the blood of Jesus. We are redeemed at a cost to God that we can hardly understand. Therefore, the apostle Paul would write this clear instruction:
You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
God has come with restoration to those who will return to him. He has paid the price to set us free from our sins. Therefore, we belong to him. However, those who forsake the Lord will be consumed (Isaiah 1:28).
This call to restoration is for us to turn away from false gods. False gods are like a tree with withering leaves and like a garden without water (Isaiah 1:30). There is no strength in them. There is no life in these gods. They cannot provide for us. They cannot redeem us. They cannot give us the life we need. There is no reason to rely on them. The mighty think they are strong because they rely upon their gods. But they are tinder and a spark. God can buy us back from the useless, empty way of life. He can take the dross from our lives and refine us into silver. He can restore us to the relationship we were meant to have, but was severed because of our sins. Turn back to God and find forgiveness. Forsake your reliance on false gods. Through Jesus you will be redeemed if you will give your life to him.