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Isaiah 1:21-31

Context
Purifying Judgment

1:21 How tragic that the once-faithful city

has become a prostitute! 1 

She was once a center of 2  justice,

fairness resided in her,

but now only murderers. 3 

1:22 Your 4  silver has become scum, 5 

your beer is diluted with water. 6 

1:23 Your officials are rebels, 7 

they associate with 8  thieves.

All of them love bribery,

and look for 9  payoffs. 10 

They do not take up the cause of the orphan, 11 

or defend the rights of the widow. 12 

1:24 Therefore, the sovereign Lord who commands armies, 13 

the powerful ruler of Israel, 14  says this:

“Ah, I will seek vengeance 15  against my adversaries,

I will take revenge against my enemies. 16 

1:25 I will attack you; 17 

I will purify your metal with flux. 18 

I will remove all your slag. 19 

1:26 I will reestablish honest judges as in former times,

wise advisers as in earlier days. 20 

Then you will be called, ‘The Just City,

Faithful Town.’”

1:27 21 Zion will be freed by justice, 22 

and her returnees by righteousness. 23 

1:28 All rebellious sinners will be shattered, 24 

those who abandon the Lord will perish.

1:29 Indeed, they 25  will be ashamed of the sacred trees

you 26  find so desirable;

you will be embarrassed because of the sacred orchards 27 

where you choose to worship.

1:30 For you will be like a tree whose leaves wither,

like an orchard 28  that is unwatered.

1:31 The powerful will be like 29  a thread of yarn,

their deeds like a spark;

both will burn together,

and no one will put out the fire.

1 tn Heb “How she has become a prostitute, the faithful city!” The exclamatory אֵיכָה (’ekhah, “how!”) is used several times as the beginning of a lament (see Lam 1:1; 2;1; 4:1-2). Unlike a number of other OT passages that link references to Israel’s harlotry to idolatry, Isaiah here makes the connection with social and moral violations.

2 tn Heb “filled with.”

3 tn Or “assassins.” This refers to the oppressive rich and/or their henchmen. R. Ortlund (Whoredom, 78) posits that it serves as a synecdoche for all varieties of criminals, the worst being mentioned to imply all lesser ones. Since Isaiah often addressed his strongest rebuke to the rulers and leaders of Israel, he may have in mind the officials who bore the responsibility to uphold justice and righteousness.

4 tn The pronoun is feminine singular; personified Jerusalem (see v. 21) is addressed.

5 tn Or “dross.” The word refers to the scum or impurites floating on the top of melted metal.

6 sn The metaphors of silver becoming impure and beer being watered down picture the moral and ethical degeneration that had occurred in Jerusalem.

7 tn Or “stubborn”; CEV “have rejected me.”

8 tn Heb “and companions of” (so KJV, NASB); CEV “friends of crooks.”

9 tn Heb “pursue”; NIV “chase after gifts.”

10 sn Isaiah may have chosen the word for gifts (שַׁלְמוֹנִים, shalmonim; a hapax legomena here), as a sarcastic pun on what these rulers should have been doing. Instead of attending to peace and wholeness (שָׁלוֹם, shalom), they sought after payoffs (שַׁלְמוֹנִים).

11 sn See the note at v. 17.

12 sn The rich oppressors referred to in Isaiah and the other eighth century prophets were not rich capitalists in the modern sense of the word. They were members of the royal military and judicial bureaucracies in Israel and Judah. As these bureaucracies grew, they acquired more and more land and gradually commandeered the economy and legal system. At various administrative levels bribery and graft become commonplace. The common people outside the urban administrative centers were vulnerable to exploitation in such a system, especially those, like widows and orphans, who had lost their family provider through death. Through confiscatory taxation, conscription, excessive interest rates, and other oppressive governmental measures and policies, they were gradually disenfranchised and lost their landed property, and with it, their rights as citizens. The socio-economic equilibrium envisioned in the law of Moses was radically disturbed.

13 tn Heb “the master, the Lord who commands armies [traditionally, the Lord of hosts].” On the title “the Lord who commands armies,” see the note at v. 9.

14 tn Heb “the powerful [one] of Israel.”

15 tn Heb “console myself” (i.e., by getting revenge); NRSV “pour out my wrath on.”

16 sn The Lord here identifies with the oppressed and comes as their defender and vindicator.

17 tn Heb “turn my hand against you.” The second person pronouns in vv. 25-26 are feminine singular. Personified Jerusalem is addressed. The idiom “turn the hand against” has the nuance of “strike with the hand, attack,” in Ps 81:15 HT (81:14 ET); Ezek 38:12; Am 1:8; Zech 13:7. In Jer 6:9 it is used of gleaning grapes.

18 tn Heb “I will purify your dross as [with] flux.” “Flux” refers here to minerals added to the metals in a furnace to prevent oxides from forming. For this interpretation of II בֹּר (bor), see HALOT 153 s.v. II בֹּר and 750 s.v. סִיג.

19 sn The metaphor comes from metallurgy; slag is the substance left over after the metallic ore has been refined.

20 tn Heb “I will restore your judges as in the beginning; and your counselors as in the beginning.” In this context, where social injustice and legal corruption are denounced (see v. 23), the “judges” are probably government officials responsible for making legal decisions, while the “advisers” are probably officials who helped the king establish policies. Both offices are also mentioned in 3:2.

21 sn The third person reference to the Lord in v. 28 indicates that the prophet is again (see vv. 21-24a) speaking. Since v. 27 is connected to v. 28 by a conjunction, it is likely that the prophet’s words begin with v. 27.

22 tn Heb “Zion will be ransomed with justice.” Both cola in this verse end with similar terms: justice and righteousness (and both are preceded by a בְּ [bet] preposition). At issue is whether these virtues describe the means or result of the deliverance and whether they delineate God’s justice/righteousness or that of the covenant people. If the righteousness of Israelite returnees is in view, the point seems to be that the reestablishment of Zion as a center of justice (God’s people living in conformity with God’s demand for equity and justice) will deliver the city from its past humiliation and restore it to a place of prominence (see 2:2-4; cf. E. Kissane, Isaiah, 1:19). Most scholars conclude that “righteousness and “justice” refers to God alone (J. Ridderbos, Isaiah [BSC], 50; J. Watts, Isaiah [WBC], 1:25; E. J. Young, Isaiah [NICOT], 1:89; cf. NLT, TEV) or serves as a double reference to both divine and human justice and righteousness (J. A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 51; J. N. Oswalt, Isaiah [NICOT], 1:10; H. Wildberger, Isaiah, 1:72). If it refers to both sides of the coin, these terms highlight the objective divine work of redemption and the subjective human response of penitence (Motyer, 51).

23 tc The Hebrew text has, “her repentant ones/returnees with righteousness.” The form שָׁבֶיהָ (shaveha, “her repentant ones”), as pointed in MT, is a masculine plural Qal participle from שׁוּב (shuv, “return”). Used substantivally, it refers to the “returning (i.e., repentant) ones.” It is possible that the parallel line (with its allusion to being freed by a ransom payment) suggests that the form be repointed to שִׁבְיָהּ (shivyah, “her captivity”), a reading that has support from the LXX. Some slightly emend the form to read וְשָׁבָה (vÿshavah, “and will return”). According to this view, the verb from the first line applies to the second line as well with the following translation as a result: “she will be released when fairness is restored.” Regardless, it makes best sense in the context to regard this as a reference to repentant Israelites returning to the land of promise. This understanding provides a better contrast with the rebels and sinners in 1:28.

24 tn Heb “and [there will be] a shattering of rebels and sinners together.”

25 tc The Hebrew text (and the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa) has the third person here, though a few Hebrew mss (and Targums) read the second person, which is certainly more consistent with the following context. The third person form is the more difficult reading and probably original. This disagreement in person has caused some to emend the first verb (3rd plural) to a 2nd plural form (followed by most English translations). The BHS textual apparatus suggests that the 2nd plural form be read even though there is only sparse textual evidence. LXX, Syriac, and the Vulgate change all the 2nd person verbs in 1:29-31 to 3rd person verbs. It is likely that the change to a 2nd person form represents an attempt at syntactical harmonization (J. de Waard, Isaiah, 10). The abrupt change from 3rd person to 2nd person may have been intentional for rhetorical impact (GKC 462 §144.p). The rapid change from exclamation (they did!) to reproach (you desired!) might be regarded as a rhetorical figure focusing attention on the addressees and their conditions (de Waard, 10; E. König, Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik, 239). This use of the 3rd person could also be understood as an impersonal third person: “one will be ashamed” (de Waard, 10). In v. 29 the prophet continues his description of the sinners (v. 28), but then suddenly makes a transition to direct address (switching from 3rd to 2nd person) in the middle of his sentence.

26 tn The second person pronouns in vv. 29-30 are masculine plural, indicating that the rebellious sinners (v. 28) are addressed.

27 tn Or “gardens” (so KJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV); NAB “groves.”

28 tn Or “a garden” (so KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NRSV).

29 tn Heb “will become” (so NASB, NIV).



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