Editor’s Note: This article is part of our “Through the Bible” initiative in which we offer articles that outline & explain every book of the Bible.
When studying the book of Isaiah, the first five chapters can give you whiplash as they go back and forth from the present (relative to the prophet) and the future. Judah is sinful in one verse then seems to be sacred in the next. That is the sense you get from reading these chapters. Isaiah keeps switching between judgment and salvation.
All of this fast movement between judgment and salvation is meant to shape a beautiful storyline, not breed confusion. The storyline begins with judgment in chapter 1 as we read, “For the Lord speaks, ‘Sons I have raised and brought up, but they have revolted against Me’” (1:2). But even within the first chapter is the anticipation of restoration, “…you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:26). This pattern of judgment and salvation is continued in the rest of the book. After all, the central message of Isaiah is the good news of the gospel. And what is good news without the bad news? Judah had revolted (bad news) but they can be forgiven (good news). Isn’t that how evangelism works?
Another important theme emerges in this first section that relates to the gospel— the lawsuit. The King of Heaven takes His people to court and calls on witnesses in Isaiah 1:2, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.” He brings charges of treachery, rebellion, injustice, and sin. These are crimes worthy of execution. In fact, they do not even need to be executed; they will die of their sins because their whole body is sick and deteriorating just from the effects of sin (1:5–6).
But the King offers a plea bargain if they plead guilty: “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet they shall become as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa 1:18). This is the imagery that Revelation uses to speak of the saints in the tribulation who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
If Judah takes the plea bargain and repents, instead of foreigners coming to devour their land (1:7), the nations will stream to Jerusalem (2:2) so that they can learn about the King of Israel, their God (2:3), because God Himself will dwell among His people as He did in Exodus: “Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy” (4:5).
But Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time could not attract the nations to itself. God was not in their midst. Instead of being filled with the glory of God, the people of Judah were filled with idols (2:7–8). Instead of God being high and exalted in Jerusalem, the people exalted themselves and put idols in the place of God. So, God vows to undo that pride one day (2:17ff). And part of humbling them involves letting the enemy ransack Jerusalem and exile God’s people (3:1–26). Jerusalem was like a proudly adorned woman, but the Lord would take away all of her jewelry and let her sit on the ground, emptied of all her pride (3:18–4:1).
Yet, all the suffering that Jerusalem would go through is for the sake of cleansing. Isaiah 4:3–4 says, “And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.” Salvation is painful because it follows purification. This is indeed what Isaiah experiences in his vision (6:7).
Chapter 5 describes what kind of purification is required by showing the nature of the problem. Isaiah sings a song about God and His vineyard. God does everything for the vineyard to produce fruit (5:2), only to find wild grapes (5:4)—worthless fruit that only a desert plant would produce. The domesticated vineyard acts like a wild one that had no farmer who showed any care whatsoever. So, God will leave it for the wild (5:5–6).
How does this show the nature of the problem and purification? The idea of producing fruit touches on something very intrinsic to the nature of the tree. Orange trees produce oranges because they are orange trees. The same goes for vines. So, the bad fruit say something about the vines themselves. Didn’t Jesus use similar imagery to describe the same problem in Matthew 7:16–19? The choice vines (5:2) became so corrupt that they no longer acted true to their nature to produce good grapes. This means the farmer has to do much more than clear out stones. He must clear out the internal disease that is killing the vines. That is a painful process as chapters 2 and 3 describe.
The rest of chapter 5 pronounces woes upon the corrupted, sinful people of Judah who were producing worthless, sour fruit of unrighteousness (5:8–24). So twisted was their sin that they call evil good and good evil; they inverse light and darkness (5:20), so God will turn the lights off on them (5:30). They were to walk in God’s light (2:5), but they will scramble in darkness. These woes form a prelude to the woe of Isaiah himself who sees the Lord and says, “Woe is me!” (6:5). Even the prophet needs purification. They needed light—true and blazing light. That’s what we see in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:2 declaring, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
Thus, begins the lawsuit of the King against His people. They have sinned and the evidence is great against them. The verdict is death and darkness. Yet, the King will come to them in a Son and make them new again (9:6). That is the King whom Isaiah beholds in chapter 6, which is the subject of the next article in our journey through Isaiah.