Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
August 11, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this Reading,
but there is available a
This reading, along with vv. 2-9, serves to introduce the major themes of this first section of Isaiah (chs. 1-39). Typical of several prophetic collections (for example, Hosea, Jeremiah), the compositional technique of the book is to place several prophetic speeches or metaphors that encapsulate the central message of the entire book but contain few details at the beginning of the collection. Then the rest of the book expounds upon that major theme or themes. This results in most prophetic books following a theological organization rather than a strictly chronological order.
The superscription of the book (v. 1) provides a time frame for the ministry of Isaiah of Jerusalem, although the book itself spans a much wider period (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). The kings listed span the period from 783-687 BC (see the Chart of Israelite Kings):
Although Uzziah is listed, the narrative of Isaiah's "call" to be a prophet begins "in the year that King Uzziah died," 742 BC (6:1). The last datable activity attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem in the book is the invasion of the Assyrians under Sennacherib during Hezekiah's reign in 701 BC. This provides the range of Isaiah of Jerusalem's prophetic activity.
However, since this passage has been adapted as the thematic introduction to the book, it cannot be dated any more precisely. The section immediately preceding today's reading (vv. 4-9) has as its setting one of the two major Assryian incursions into the land, either in 734/33 BC which would eventually result in the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC (7:1-2, see OT History: Assyrian Dominance, especially Pekah and the Syro-Ephraimitic Coalition), or in 706-701 when the Assyrians attempted to punish Hezekiah for his rebellion against Assyrian rule (36:1, see OT History: Assyrian Dominance, especially the reign of Hezekiah). However, since this material is organized thematically and not chronologically, this provides no help in dating this section. Rather than attempting to find a specific date for this section, it is best to understand it as typical of the entire message of Isaiah of Jerusalem and applicable to the entire time period between 745-700 BC.
The threat of Assyrian conquest loomed ominously over Judah during the entire career of Isaiah (see OT History: The Assyrian Crisis in the Southern Kingdom). But it was to the religious attitudes and moral condition of the people in the face of this continuing crisis that Isaiah addressed some of his most impassioned messages. Isaiah constantly found himself at odds with popular theological-political views fostered by an elaborate cultic system, a distorted sense of election, and an unqualified monarchial theology that all combined to promulgate the idea of unconditional promise and blessing. It was the task of Isaiah and his contemporaries, especially Micah, to reinterpret the national-popular theology in the face of changing historical circumstances. As the account of his summons into prophetic service indicates, he was commissioned to interpret to the people the imminent intervention by God into the affairs of the people (6:11-13).
This reading can also be seen in rather typical prophetic theological structure as moving from (I) opening summary or appeal (v. 10), to (II) recounting of present conditions that need to change (vv. 11-15), to (III) possibility for a different future based on the people's response to God (vv. 16-20). Within this structure, the passage falls rather easily into five sections that mark the movement of ideas. 1) Verse 10 serves as an introduction to the unit. 2) Verses 11-12 are framed by two rhetorical questions that proclaim God's rejection of their sacrifices. 3) Verses 13-15 elaborate on the issue by expanding God' rejection to include all areas of worship and religious observance, concluding with a strong causal statement in v. 15 that provides the reasons for such rejection. 4) Verses 16-17 shift to imperatives that provide the solution for their dilemma of God not seeing or hearing them (v. 15). 5) The final verses, 18-20, are marked by a specific invitation to "come," and by two sets of conditional statements that present consequences of two types of responses to the torah ("instruction") presented by Isaiah.
I. Opening Summary and Appeal (10)
The passage begins with a summons to "hear" (v. 10). The opening verse of this chapter (v. 2) also begins with this imperative, which there introduces a disputation in the form of a court case in which witnesses are called to observe the proceedings (cf. Amos 3:1, Hos 4:1, Mic 1:2). In this verse, however, the implication is slightly different. What they are to hear is the torah ("teaching") and "word" of God, the teaching from God to the people mediated through priest (Lev 10:11, Mal 2:4-7) or prophet (Isa 8:11-15, Amos 5:21-24) that would instruct the people in proper conduct as people of God. This serves here, as the call narrative does later in a different way (ch 6), to authenticate this as God's message to the people.
This word "hear" also provides an important theological connective from this introduction throughout the passage. In Hebrew, this word has a wider range of meaning than in English. In addition to the physical act of audition, especially when used in relation to God it expands to include the anticipated response to hearing and takes on the connotation of "obey." In this verse, what they are called to hear is the "word of God," and truly to hear the word of God would be to respond to it, to obey.
It is this sense that allows prophets to describe disobedience and unfaithfulness as being unable or unwilling to hear (Isa 42:20, Jer 5:21). This lays the groundwork for use of the same term at the end of this passage (vv. 19-20), where many versions translate the word "hear" as "obedient" (for example, NRSV). It is used with the synonym "submit" ("be willing") and in contrast to "refuse" and "rebel." Since this concluding use of "hear" occurs in two conditional statements ("If you hear . . ., but if you refuse . . "), this term serves to highlight the main concern of the passage: the people need to respond to God, there are serious implications in store for them if they do not hear/obey, but new possibilities if they do.
A third significant use of this same term serves to bind the entire passage together and further highlight what is at stake. In v. 15, God states, " I will not hear" the prayers of the people. In the context of these verses as the introduction to the entire first section of the book, we should not read this as a general or absolute rejection of all prayer. This section follows a series of verses that describes a foreign invader decimating the land reflecting the imminent threat from Assyria. It is likely that prayers for deliverance from this threat are what is in view here. That is, the people have no reason to expect God to act on their behalf in this present crisis (I will not hear) if they have not been faithful in hearing (obeying) his instructions for how to live as his people.
This is a radical statement that serves to shock the people with the seriousness of the situation. This declaration that God will not hear when they pray stands in the context of the command that the people hear (v. 10) and the warning of the consequences if they do not (v. 20). Taken together, these three uses of "hear" within the passage are a clear message from God: Hear (obey), because I will not hear (respond to your prayers), until you truly hear (obey). God is not hearing them because they are not hearing God.
A second radical statement grabs attention in this introductory verse. Isaiah refers to these people who see themselves as the holy people of God as Gomorrah-people, and the leaders who see themselves as chosen by God for their role he calls Sodom-leaders. These two cities of the plain that suffered destruction because of their great wickedness and godlessness (Gen 19:1-29) had become symbols for GodÃ's judgment on sin (Deut 29:22-25, cf. Jer 23:14, Zeph 2:9). Few names would have stated his case so strongly or succinctly as identifying Israel and Jerusalem with these two cities. By this metaphor, Isaiah has characterized Judah and its inhabitants as evil, corrupt, rebellious, and arrogant (note 1:2-4).
We can almost hear the response of the people to such an introduction. No doubt they would immediately profess innocence and object that they have been obedient. They have brought sacrifices and offerings, they have been faithful in coming to the Temple, they have prayed, and they have observed the religious holy days. It is as if Isaiah anticipates this response.
II. Recounting of present conditions that need to change (11-15)
Isaiah's accusations escalate in these verses. Two rhetorical questions focus the problem: "What do I care about your many sacrifices?" (v. 11). "Who asked you for this?" (literally "this from your hand," v. 12). Both questions would seem incongruous to a people for whom the sacrifices were a central feature of worship of Yahweh. Sacrifices were required in the Mosaic law codes, attributed to God himself at Mount Sinai, and were a fundamental aspect of Old Testament religion. And yet, Isaiah implied that God not only did not want them, but had never even required them (cf. Jer 7:22).
Isaiah did not stop with the sacrifices. He continued in the following verses to include nearly every aspect of Israelite worship (vv. 12-14). The escalation of his rhetoric continued to underscore the seriousness of the problem. He heaped up outrageous terms to describe various aspects of their sacred religious observance, all required in the Mosaic law codes, the Torah: the offerings are futile, incense is an abomination, the festivals and sacred assemblies are unbearable, hated, a burden, and wearisome.
Here, if we are not very careful we often have a hard time as Christians understanding Isaiah's point here, especially in relation to Old Testament sacrifice. Because of both historical and theological issues in the early Church and as late as the Reformation, Christian theology has tended to place Old Testament sacrifices in apposition to the death of Jesus, reading his death as the equivalent of the Old Testament sin or atonement sacrifice (often developed from the book of Hebrews). Then, because of the development of Christian atonement theology, the Old Testament sacrifices were thought to be understood by Israelites as salvific in the same way that Christians understood the death of Jesus (as sacrifice) to be salvific. The conclusion from the perspective of Christian theology was that the Old Testament sacrifices were the means to forgiveness, and without which there would be no forgiveness. Some priestly passages that emphasize the role of the temple and sacrifices are often quoted as supporting this perspective as the norm of Old Testament thinking about relationship with God (e.g., Lev 4-5; note Heb 9:22).
However, we need to understand that this is the very distortion of the sacrificial system against which Isaiah, as well as other prophets, was objecting. This is not the norm of Old Testament sacrificial theology but was a perversion of it against which there is a consistent voice in Scripture (this raises serious theological questions, then, about using that model for Jesus; but that is another topic). Sacrifice was not the means by which the nation and the people achieved forgiveness and righteousness before God. It was only those who misunderstood the sacrifices and perverted them into a form of quasi-magical control over God that they became primary. This seems to be exactly the situation facing Isaiah and which Jeremiah would later face (Jer 7). Threatened by an external menace against the nation, the people assumed that because they continued offering the sacrifices they were guaranteed prosperity and security by God, that he would hear and answer their prayers for deliverance from Assyria. They saw a direct correlation between offering the sacrifices and the other religious observances summarized in the Torah, and God's action on their behalf. If they were right, the sacrifices had control of God.
Yet, the sacrifices and the other religious requirements outlined in the Torah were never intended to present a cause and effect relationship between God and the people. They were to be an expression of worship and celebration of the grace and forgiveness that God had already extended to the people. The paradigm for this understanding was the exodus as the symbol of God's grace on their behalf, and Sinai as the symbol of the people's proper response to that grace (see Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10 for comments on the covenant formula "I will be your God [grace], and you shall be my people [response].") The Torah that was always linked to Sinai was the "instruction" by which the people were to live out being the people of God, including social and ethical obligations, based on the fact that they had already experienced God's grace in the deliverance from Egypt (see Torah as Holiness: Old Testament "Law" as Response to Divine Grace). They did not offer the sacrifices in order to be delivered; they offered them because they had been delivered!
It is in this context that Isaiah's attack against the sacrificial system makes sense here. He was suggesting that the sacrifices, and in fact the whole range of religious observances that the people valued, had become ends in themselves, as if religious ritual was what God required of them (cf. Amos 5:21-24, Hos 6:6). It is significant that a prominent contemporary of Isaiah, Micah, addressed the same problem by asking nearly the identical question ("What does the Lord require of you," Mic 6:6-8).
So far in the passage, even though there have been hints, Isaiah has given no direct explanation of why God rejected their sacrifices, or what they should do to remedy the situation. While the larger theological issues lie in the background, up to this point there have been no specific reasons given. In a gripping metaphor, Isaiah finally reveals the heart of the problem in verse 15. Using prayer, one of the most sacred acts of worship, as the basis of the metaphor he contrasts what they think about proper response to God with what God thinks of their response. In eastern custom, still observed by Orthodox Jews today, prayers were offered standing with palms outstretched upward to God in a posture of supplication. In one of the most abrasive word images in Scripture, Isaiah pictures the people raising hands to God in prayer, but hands that are stained with blood!
The image of bloodshed or hands stained with blood (v. 15) often describes actual violent physical death or crimes of violence (Genesis 4:10-11). However, in the book of Isaiah, as well as other prophetic books, this expression refers generally to injustice against the poor or oppressed (Isa 59:3, 7, Jer7:6; 22:3, Micah 3:9-10, 7:2-3). Because injustice and oppression against the powerless of society in that culture often became a matter of life or death, the imagery of bloodshed was appropriate (note Hab 1:2-4 where the metaphor of violence serves the same purpose).
The incongruity of a people who think they are pure and holy lifting up hands stained with the blood of injustice to worship the God who had seen the injustice they had suffered in Egypt and had heard their cries as oppressed slaves could not be more devastating. Now, they were the oppressors and yet still wanted God to see their plight and hear their prayers. God's response was to turn away from such an atrocity. God was repulsed by such hypocrisy in the guise of worship, and warned that he would no longer see their offerings or hear their prayers. In light of the impending Assyrian advances, such a proclamation amounted to a death sentence for the nation and people.
III. Possibility for a Different Future (16-20)
As in all prophetic judgment speeches in the Old Testament, such a scathing denunciation of sin and failure does not stand alone without a remedy. In the concluding verses of this section, Isaiah abruptly turned to a series of imperatives that provide the positive dimension of the torah, the instruction, that he brought to the people. This is clearly a call to repentance that holds the possibility of a new future.
Carrying through the metaphor of bloodstained hands that rendered them unfit to stand in the presence of God as his people, the call was for the people to "clean up their act," to wash the stains of injustice from their hands, to stop the evil practices to which they were so accustomed and learn to do the "good" (v. 17). Since their actions had caused God to turn away, the appeal was to remove the evil from his sight so that he might again look upon his people, and by extension, hear their prayers.
Two cautions are in order as we hear the call to repentance. We should not immediately translate this into personal Christian salvation, and therefore understand this as some form of works righteousness. It was not that the people could make themselves righteous by performing certain actions. The call here, in plural imperatives, was to the nation, to the community of Israel (cf. Jer 4:14). Much as the later Isaiah tradition did in defining social justice as the true fast that God requires (58:3-9), here true worship of God was defined in terms of ethical social action. Authentic response to God, as the Creator and Lord of all the Earth who hears the cries of oppressed slaves and acts to bring them deliverance, was defined in terms of how God's people act toward others in day to day living. True worship of God is not measured by the number of sacrifices (cf. Micah 6:6-7) or the devotion to the external trappings of religious observances. True worship of God is a faithful response to God that seeks justice, that rescues the oppressed, defends the orphan, and pleads for the widow. Authentic worship of God is a response in all of life that reflects concern with others in the way that God is concerned with them.
In this sense, these verses are not about personal salvation, but a much larger theological definition of what that salvation entails in terms of responsibility toward God and others. And it is in that sense that the people, indeed, must themselves make some decisions about how they will respond as his people. It is up to them to act out their response to God in certain ways, it is their responsibility to wash the bloodstains of injustice from their hands as they remove the evil and learn the good. They did not earn God's grace, and would not now; but they were responsible for how they responded to it, and what they constitute as worship of God. This may span a shorter or longer period of time. Evil can be removed quickly; learning the good takes much longer. And the warning is clear, a warning that will not be mitigated by Christian emphases on grace alone: if they did not respond faithfully, they would be putting the future of God's people at risk.
Second, we should not read these verses as simply a program of social action, although that is certainly an important aspect here. If we reduce authenticate worship of God to social action, then in effect we have done the same thing that the Israelites to whom Isaiah directed this message were doing. It is not that the people must pick out one form of worship or another, or one way of responding to God or another, and then conclude that whenever they have accomplished it then they have fulfilled all obligations to God. To do so would be simply to replace one kind of ritual with another. Even if social action is a better option than ceremony, as an end in itself it still misses the point.
Rather, the specific social actions listed here are examples to provide a contrast to what the people had decided was central. These social actions do not encompass the totality of their responsibility to God, they only provide illustrations of what their responsibility as God's people entailed. They are examples of a way of thinking about God and their role as God's people in the world, a role that called them to focus outward from themselves and their preoccupation with correct religious observances toward the promise to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3; note Isa 42:6-7). If they were to have a future as God's people, they would have to recover a sense of what being God's people meant; and Isaiah has been very clear that it is not about offering sacrifices, attending festivals, or praying that God will get them out of trouble. Being God's people is about caring for the people for whom God cares.
The final verses (vv. 18-20) contain two significant features that summarize the message both theologically and historically. The first continues the metaphor of sin and failure as a bloody stain and addresses the theological dimension. Some read v. 18 as a question: " . . .can they be like snow?" There is little warrant for doing so, especially if by reading this as a question the implication is doubt whether they can be clean. This would assume a position much like Jeremiah's that the people are so sinful that they will not be able to change (Jer 13:23, 17:1). However, given the strong call to repentance in the preceding verses, the conditional statements that follow, as well as the unfolding of events during Isaiah's ministry, this cannot be the intent here. Even if taken as questions, the answer would be "yes," provided that the conditions in the following verses are met. This is a strong statement that even hands stained with blood can be washed, that sinners can be transformed as they respond to God's grace and choose the good.
The second feature is the pair of conditional clauses that conclude the reading by addressing the historical circumstances facing 8th century BC Israel. The conditions of the statements are clear. If the people would "hear," the nation had the possibility of a new and different future from the bleak one Isaiah would continue expounding in the following chapters. Israel was no match for the Assyrian Empire. As Isaiah would repeat many times, their hope did not lie in military power, but in faithfulness to God. It was a truth many simply refused to believe, as many still do today. But if they refused to hear, the future would track just as Isaiah and Micah, as well as Hosea and Amos before them, had warned. Their only future was in being God's people. But if they refused to be his people, they had no reason for existing as a people.
It is important to note that the tone of the passage, however, is not negative. It does not gloss over the magnitude of the situation, either theologically or historically, and provides no cheap grace as an easy way out of the crisis. Still, the emphasis falls more on the call to repentance than it does on judgment. Even though the passage concludes with a warning, the possibility for a different alternative future is clearly the purpose of the text. This is not a judgment passage. It is a call to change directions with the possibility that changing directions will lead to a future beyond what they can presently envision. In that sense, this passage is about renewal, hope, and possibility.
The Preaching Paths for this passage can follow the contours of the text very closely while addressing different dimensions of the message. As theological instruction, this reading can help bring balance to some basic affirmations about God, his work with human beings, and how we respond to that work (while somewhat necessary in terms of application, the Christian preacher needs to be sensitive in moving the text to a more individual application that s/he does not distort Isaiah's communal message).
Through the centuries since the time of Isaiah, through the teachings of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the work of the Reformers, the Christian church has come to realize very clearly the truth that relationship with God comes as a free gift of grace. God has chosen to act in the world in ways that call all people to himself as his people without qualification and without them having to do anything prerequisite to that call. We do not earn that relationship and we do not deserve it. There is a real sense in which salvation, even on an individual level, is sola gratia, by grace alone. This is implicit even in Isaiah's message here, and is confirmed as the book unfolds, especially in the second section (chs. 40-55).
But with the affirmation of salvation by grace alone comes a danger. It is easy to move to thinking in terms of status, and especially in Christian tradition in terms of salvation on a metaphysical or absolute level, in which the entire emphasis falls on achieving that status of "being" saved or "becoming" Christian. In such a conception, the mechanism of achieving that status, God's grace, then receives a disproportionate amount of emphasis. Interestingly, this emphasis on grace as the means by which righteous status before God is achieved sometimes tends to neglect the purpose for which the relationship with God establishes us as his people, and further neglects the responsibility of the people in response to that grace. Clearly in this text, as in many others in both Testaments, the purpose or mission of GodÃ's people to be a light to the nations (Isa 42:6) is in the foreground, not the mechanism by which they arrive at being God's people.
The danger raised by an exclusive emphasis on grace alone, as important as that might be in some contexts, is the danger of lapsing into the same kind of attitude that characterized Isaiah's day; that religion itself is a guarantee of right relationship with God. As long as the sacraments are observed, the liturgy performed, and the creed read, as long as one can point back to a time and place where there was an experience that marked achieving the correct status with God, then salvation is assured.
The message of Isaiah here is that it is not so. Isaiah's answer to this presumption is twofold. There is more to serving God than fulfilling the correct religious duty; religion and relationship with God as his people are not the same thing. And obedience to God (hearing!) must be lived out in the activity of life; proper worship is not a ritual to be performed correctly, but an all-encompassing lifestyle that expresses God's own self-revelation.
This addresses two extremes that face the church today. On the one hand, the tendency toward formalism and excessive liturgy, or the substitution of social agenda and programs for authenticate worship, threatens to lead people to a point where religion, worship, or programs in the name of the church become ends in themselves, lacking that element of submission and obedience to a higher purpose and calling. On the other hand, the tendency toward experientially oriented religion that emphasizes emotional encounter or manifestations of power threatens to produce a generation of people who are too concerned with their own piety to realize that service to God must be expressed in service to humanity. Isaiah's message to either would be a call back to a more adequate understanding of the priorities of obedience and submission that focus on response to grace in terms of others rather than ourselves.
True worship, for Isaiah as well as many of the prophets and summarized well in the teachings of Jesus, is a response to grace that allows God to transform us from being self centered (note Paul's metaphor in Phil 3:19) to following Jesus in being "the man for others." As Dietrich Bonheoffer went on to say, "The church is the church only when it exists for others." (Letters and Papers from Prison). Any emphasis on grace that does not deal with the theological dimension of transformation to which that grace calls us is not the full message of Isaiah, or of the Gospel.
Another theological dimension that tracks closely to this is the emphasis on human freedom in response to grace. While there are church traditions that Isaiah's commands to "wash yourselves" make uncomfortable because they smack to them of works righteousness, there is really no way to avoid the imperatives in this text without rejecting large portions of the Old Testament (and some of the New Testament!). Here, a dispensational approach that divides up the way God works with humanity into pre-Christian and Christian is simply not adequate. If we reject that solution, then there is clearly an emphasis here on human freedom in how we respond to God. It is not that we earn salvation; but how we choose to respond to God's gift of grace carries tremendous responsibility, both communally and individually.
Again, this carries a twofold implication. On the one hand, we should not be constantly afraid that we do not do enough to maintain our relationship with God. That simply collapses back into a magical view that sees membership in God's family as a matter of merit or performance. On the other hand, how we choose to respond or our failure to respond is not totally disconnected from our relationship with God. There is clearly some responsibility set forth in how we live our lives as God's people. That responsibility would have little meaning if we had neither the freedom to fulfill that responsibility nor had any accountability for how we exercised that freedom.
This simply says, again following Bonheoffer, that discipleship is costly and grace is not cheap. By emphasizing the freedom that God has granted to us as human beings, we also emphasize our active role in the world as transformative agents of God's Kingdom, not content with relaxing in our own righteous status, but intent on living out the Kingdom of God as we assume the responsibility of allowing his grace to work through us into the world.
From this, another dimension of the text can focus on the call to repentance that really lies at the heart of Isaiah's message. There has been a tendency in recent years, and perhaps rightly so, to be embarrassed with the excesses of the revivalist movement, especially in the USA and the inordinate emphasis on emotion and outward experience that often went to the point of outright manipulation and even emotional abuse. And yet there was something dynamic in the revivalist "altar call" whereby people were invited to make a decision before God and the gathered community to begin a transformative response to grace. True, too often the emphasis was placed up front on the "grace" aspect and the achievement of status to the neglect of the transformation. But that is not necessarily a part of a call to make a commitment to God. Even Isaiah's call had two movements: cease to do evil, learn to do good (1:16-17).
In our "no-fault" culture, perhaps a specific call to make a public admission of sin and failure as God's people along with a public commitment to begin the process of transformation again has value. While the technique of earlier generations that painted horrible mental pictures of the gory details of the punishment God has in store for sinners is probably not the best approach for today, perhaps Isaiah's method has value. He simply stripped away the facade of false piety and religious excuses to allow the people to take a good hard look at their own hands to see if they, indeed, were stained. And then he invited them to come into the presence of God as the frame of reference in which they could wash away the stains by choosing to live in God's world as his people.
It seems that many people today do not have much sense of needing to make any confession of sin because they do not really believe that their future can be any different or that their actions really matter. Many have adopted, for various reasons, the idea that what and who they are is the result of factors beyond their control; that they were born a certain way or that the environment in which they grew up predisposed them a certain direction. While we may no longer believe in a world fated by the gods, we have created our own fatalism that has convinced many people that they can never be anything other than what they are, and the best they can do is to cope with that. This text suggests, along with others later in the book that make the point even more forcefully, that there is the possibility of a totally new future that lies beyond the bounds of the present. The future is not fated, but depends a great deal on how we choose to shape it by our decisions. As the later Isaiah tradition boldly declares, God is truly the God of new things (Isa 42:9 43:18-19). Paul confirms this perspective when he speaks of a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17, Eph 4:22-24).
It is perhaps perilous to make too close an application to modern culture from this passage, since often such application takes on the contours of doomsday preaching that is easily dismissed. And yet, there are some inescapable parallels both within today's religious culture and outside. The apathy that seems to mark both can easily be identified from Isaiah's message. Religious people often seem to be content with their religion, and non-religious people think religion is irrelevant. Both often seem to be able to compartmentalize morality and ethics as belief systems from how they actually live their lives on a day to day basis. Isaiah's message says that the two are inextricably interwoven, that if God is really God it is impossible to avoid the responsibility of responding to God or to escape the consequences of how we choose to live.
That again calls people to accountability, not for what creed they profess or reject, or for what doctrine they are willing to fight, but simply how they treat widows and orphans and the oppressed in the world around them, how they choose to allow their relationship with God to permeate every aspect of their lives. Perhaps our modern culture, especially in the USA, simply needs to hear the reverse echo of Isaiah's message that a good economy is not the same thing as being righteous.
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