The Need For Purification (1:21-26)
The first section of this part of Isaiah’s prophecy is about the nation’s need for purification. Verses 21-23 paint the sad picture of a righteous nation becoming full of sin. The faithful city has become a prostitute. The nation full of justice and righteousness is full of murderers now. The Lord is praising the past but lamenting the present. The Lord contrasts what he intended and what he received. He intended faithfulness but received prostitution. He intended righteousness but received murder. One of the interesting observations we need to make is how infidelity to God leads to infidelity toward people. When we are not faithful to the Lord and his commands the result is the mistreatment of other humans. People become self-serving and live for their own personal advantages. Verses 23 reflects the social situation in the nation. 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 but the financial impact for ourselves. If I can make more money then I will do it without any regard for the impact it has on other people. Verse 23 continues to describe the lack of justice to the orphans and the failure to uphold the cause and needs of the widows. They are seeking possessions and wealth at any cost. There is a blatant disregard for the innocent. They ignore the needs of the people and do not care about who is hurt.
We must feel the similarity of circumstances from Isaiah’s day to our day. 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. People run these things. Neighbor will raise his hand against his neighbor because there is no ethical or moral standard. Therefore, as verse 22 describes, there is total degeneration. The people are not pure but are completely tainted by sin. Their silver has become dross. Their best wine has been mixed with water. There is nothing good. There is nothing pure or right in their actions. Social justice cannot take place through legislation. Social justice will only be effective when hearts and lives are faithful to the Lord.
Verses 24-26 describe 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. They were supposed to be God’s people but they have become God’s enemies.
After reading the charges of verses 21-23 and reading the firm, angry resolve of the Lord in verse 24, what would 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 our long-standing sins. God is able to recreate our 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 that impurities. What we see is that in one act God is able to accomplish two things. The discipline of the Lord brings purification and restoration. The declaration of judgment also brings the proclamation of salvation. God will restore the people so that they can be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city again. They will be restored to what they were at the first, likely a reference to the Davidic kingdom and Davidic promises. Amazingly, even though the people had become his enemies at this point, this fact had not changed God’s ultimate purpose. God is going to refine the people and remove their impurities. We learn that God is not pleased with the current condition. We are a mess. We are faithless. We have acted in self-serving and self-satisfying ways rather in godly ways. Listen to what God is going to do and what God expects of his people. This is how the Lord will restore Zion.
The Restoration of Zion (1:27-31)
God does not redeem his people by lowering his holy standards. This is important to recognize. There has been far too often a false dichotomy 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. I hope that we have seen in our study of the prophets that God has always been full of grace. The apostle John made the same point in John 1:16 that we have received grace upon grace already given. Grace had been given before Moses and under the Law of Moses. A greater overflow of grace has been poured out by our Lord through Jesus. God does not change his standards in his effort to restore his people. The people are going to be redeemed by justice and by righteousness. God is going to redeem the people and the people are going to 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 back the people from their sins and make them his own.
Who are those who will be redeemed by the Lord? Verse 27 tells us that those who return to the Lord will be redeemed. The ones who come back to the Lord are those who repentant hearts are the redeemed of God. Verse 28 tells us who are not the redeemed. Rebels are not going to the redeemed. Those who forsake the Lord are those who will be consumed in judgment. Then time went by as Israel waiting for the Lord’s redemption. Listen to the prophetic words of Zechariah who was filled with the Holy Spirit when the forerunner to Jesus was born:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…” (Luke 1:68-70 ESV).
When Jesus died, we read about two men who are walking who are disappointed because, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Hope of redemption and the restoration of a relationship to the Lord was the long awaited hope of the people.
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 NIV 2011)
The scriptures call us to holy living because you 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. God has paid a tremendously high price to set us free from our sins. The people of God would be redeemed by the Lord. Restoration would be offered to the people through the blood of Jesus. 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 Corinthians 6:19–20 ESV)
Peter and Paul are communicating the message of Isaiah in this part of his prophecy. 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 have been purchased by God and belong to him. This is a glorious blessing. If we refuse to be God’s possession then the word of the Lord has spoken in Isaiah 1:28. Those who forsake the Lord will be consumed. Rather than be consumed, we can belong to the Lord. He has paid an enormous price so that we can be restored to him and belong to him. Therefore, glorify God with your body.
This call to restoration is to turn away from false gods. False gods are like a tree with withering leaves and like a garden without water (1:30). There is no strength in them. There is no life in these gods. They cannot provide for you. They cannot redeem you. They cannot give you the life you need. There is no reason to rely on them. The mighty think they are strong because of their gods they rely upon. But they are tinder and a spark. God can buy you back from the useless, empty way of life. He can take the dross from your life and refine you 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.