Isaiah 1:16-17: What not to do and what to do


The Verse of the Day for January 5, 2014 is from Isaiah 1:16-17:

16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;

17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Here we find a series of imperatives from the Lord God expressed by Isaiah, the Prophet, given to Judah and Jerusalem. God indicates His displeasure with their offerings and their sacrifices which are no longer acceptable. Recognizing that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, and correction,” here we find a series of corrective measures that should be implemented. We can arrange the series of commands into nine directives as to what should be done. According to E.W. Bullinger, the number nine represents judgment which certainly comes into play in this series.

1)      Wash you

Three of the purification rituals practiced in Judaism include ablutions or washings: Washing of the hands, (2) washing of the hands and feet, and (3) immersion of the whole body in water. God’s desire is for “clean hands and a pure heart” among his people.

2)     Make you clean

God’s intention is that His people “clean up their acts” and “come clean.”While not found in Scripture, the reminder that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is certainly applicable with this directive from God.

3)     Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes;

Followers of God are also commanded to “put away your evil ways.” As the New Living Translation puts it, “Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways.” Even more colloquially, it is as if God is saying, “Get out of my face with your lowdown evil ways.”

 4)     Cease to do evil;

This command brings to mind a comment from writer John Bunyan, who recognizes that individuals must become guardians of “every gate that opens in our heart.” Howard Morgan speaks of “gates” in this way: “They are the places that we have to monitor diligently so that we allow only that which is positive and healthy into our lives.” Three such gates are the “ear gate,” “eye gate,” and “mouth gate.” The picture of the three wise monkeys also comes to mind to remind us that we must consciously seek to “hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.” In the case of the passage from Isaiah, we should “do no evil” as well.

5)     Learn to do well  

Instead of doing evil, those to whom Isaiah speaks should learn to do well, that it may be well with them. The Psalmist declares:

It is good for me that I have been afflicted that I might learn your precepts (Psalm 119:71).

Those who desire to learn God will teach.

6)     Seek judgment

In addition, Isaiah instructs readers to “seek judgment” which is also translated “seek justice” in some instances. In discussing the occurrences of the word “justice” (Hebrew, mishpat, with the related verb shaphat, “do justice”) in the Old Testament, James Limburg notes that most of the contexts where the Hebrew noun or verb is used involve some of the same groups of people: the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

7)     Relieve the oppressed

This exhortation is to “cease the oppression and provide relief for the oppressed.” God’s desire is to “let the oppressed go free.” Psalm 103:6 states: The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” Similarly the people of God are not to impose further oppression upon the oppressed, but they are to seek to “relieve the oppressed.”

8)    Judge the fatherless

God, who is described as “father to the fatherless,” encourages followers to “defend the rights of the fatherless” or “hear the fatherless in right judgment”; this directive is also expressed in this way: “defend orphans in court, take up the cause of the orphan!”

9)     Plead for the widow

Another descriptor of God speaks of His being “husband to the widow,” whereby He makes known His concern for the woman who has neither husband nor support. The exhortation is to “plead the widow’s cause, plead the widow’s case or plead for the widow.” This idea is also expressed this way: “Defend the rights of the widow!  Plead the case of widows and protect the widow.”

According to Jim Limburg, in this final section of the passage Isaiah calls his hearers to be an advocate for those without power or the powerless: meaning the widow (who has no husband), the orphan (who has no parents) and the poor (who have no money).

While this passage from Isaiah 1:16-17 is not specifically addressed to believers today, we can certainly learn about God’s expectations for His people. We are reminded:

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4).

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