How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! (Isaiah 1:21)
The city is the community of God’s people. When God speaks about ‘the city,’ he clearly has something more than the individual or personal in view. We live in an individualistic culture, so it’s natural for us to hear what God says in individual or personal terms. We think of the Bible as God speaking to me. While it is wonderfully true that God speaks to ‘me,’ you don’t need to study the Bible for long before you see that God also speaks to ‘us’.
The great mission of God is to gather a people for himself. This great company will be gathered from every tribe and nation. God had this in view from the beginning. He began with one man, Abraham, and he said to him, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven… and in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 26:4).
This is why the focus of the entire Old Testament is on God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. That’s important to understand if you’re reading the Bible for the first time. Why all this focus on the people of Israel? Because God made a covenant with them and made them his people. These were the people through whom God would bring blessing to the world. Israel was the Lord’s servant. It would be through them that God’s work would get done.
As you read through the Bible story, you quickly find that God’s people cannot fulfill their calling. However much they are blessed, the impulse of sin remains in them, and they cannot bring blessing to the world. The Old Testament story demonstrates beyond question that none of us has the capacity to do what God requires of us. We need God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves; we need God to put in us what we do not have in ourselves.
That’s what we learn from the Old Testament story.
The Old Testament demonstrates how much we need the Redeemer. Faithful and repentant people looked forward to his coming as their hope. But now, living on this side of the cross, faithful and repentant people find their hope in looking back to the coming of Jesus Christ into the world and all that he accomplished on our behalf. He is the center of human history.
Jesus Christ is the hope of Israel as he is the hope and joy of the church.
These verses at the end of Isaiah 1 are addressed to the community of God’s people. I want to apply what we learn in these verses today to the church. That is why our series is called
180: How God Changes His People and His Church.
Profile of an Unfaithful Church
The faithful city has become a whore (Isaiah 1:21).
1. An attractive appearance that masks a disappointing reality
Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water (1:22).
Dross is the scum that rises to the surface when silver is refined. When the dross dries, it forms a rough metal that is silver in color, but worthless. God says, “Your silver has become dross.” Something of great value has been changed into something worthless.
God uses a second picture: “wine mixed with water.” This wine still has its color, but it loses both its taste and potency. So in both these pictures you have the same thing: Something that looks like the real thing, but on closer inspection it proves disappointing.
We saw last week that if you had visited the temple in the time of Isaiah you would have seen large crowds offering multiple sacrifices. You would have experienced a relentless schedule of feasts, festivals, and convocations. Conferences is the world we would use today. At first sight, it would have looked impressive. But what looked like silver, Isaiah says, was actually dross, and what looked like fine wine was actually wine mixed with water.
What is the silver entrusted to God’s people? It is the Word of God: “The words of the LORD are… like silver refined in a furnace… purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). And our Lord Jesus speaks of the gospel as being like ‘new wine’ that needs to be put into new wineskins (Mat. 9:17). The great trust that is given to the church lies in the silver of God’s Word and in the wine of the gospel. That is the sacred deposit that has been given to the church.
But in an unfaithful church, the silver gets turned into dross, and the wine gets mixed with water. While the first impressions of an unfaithful church may be positive, you soon find that knowing God, and being reconciled to him, and learning to live for his glory – irrespective of the cost – have been replaced by something else. It’s about ‘how to do life’ or about ‘becoming all that you can be.’ The thing that is of supreme value has been lost. There may be a form of godliness but there is no life changing power.
In an unfaithful church, the pure silver of the Word gets traded for rampant pragmatism. The fine wine of the gospel gets diluted with the water of affirmation and self-help. Leaders who may once have had a passion for knowing God are guided more by the latest books on sociology and business management than by the Bible. It happens.
2. A ‘what’s in it for me?’ culture
Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts (1:23).
A bribe is a payoff that a person demands before doing something that he or she should already be doing. The ‘princes’ here are government officials, people who should have the public trust. If you go to an official to get some permit, she says, “Sure we can get that done for you, but it would help if you did something for me first.”
This was how it was among the people of God, and it was like this with ‘everyone.’ The primary question among God’s people on any issue was ‘What’s in it for me?’ This spirit is all around us, but if it settles into the minds and hearts of God’s people, it will become deadly, and the church will soon become faithless. Everyone looking for ‘How I can get what I want around here,’ and asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the very anti-thesis of love.
3. Insulation from immediate needs
They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them (1:23).
Why would the widow ever bring her cause to people who were really only interested in themselves? They had an attractive appearance that masked a disappointing reality, a ‘what’s in it for me’ culture, and they were insulated from immediate needs.
The astonishing thing is that Isaiah is describing God’s people: “The faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers” (1:21). Jerusalem was the ‘faithful city’ where God had put his name. The city of God had at one time been ‘full of justice.’ This was the city where the smoke of God’s immediate presence had come down, with all the promise that held for immediate communion between God and his people.
But now look what has happened: The faithful city has become a ‘whore,’ selling that which is sacred. Murderers have taken the place of the righteous. If you read these verses and try to take them seriously, you wonder, How could this disaster have happened to these people?
There is something important here and very timely that I want all of us to grasp today: Those who have been most blessed by God often become the worst of all, if they rebel against him.
Too often we have to endure the pain of hearing about leaders in the church who have fallen into gross sin. You may wonder how it is possible that someone in ministry would get to a place of doing things that are sometimes worse than you would usually find among unbelievers. Your mind reels and you say, “How can that possibly be?”
Those who have been most blessed by God often become the worst of all, if they rebel against him. You see this, for example, in the sons of Eli. Eli was a priest who gave himself to the service of God. He had two sons named Hophni and Phineas. Here are two boys who were raised with the knowledge of God, but Hophni and Phineas were as bad as they came. They were corrupt and lived in a pattern of sexually immorality that was far worse than you would expect, even among people who had no knowledge of God.
Eli had to go to them and say, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people” (1 Sam. 2:23). The word was out. People knew what was going on. It was a scandal and a disgrace.
You will have seen something like this… some extraordinary evil is committed, and when the life story of the person who did it is traced, you hear that the person went to Sunday school as a little boy. You scratch your head when you hear a story like that and you say, “How is that possible?” He had some knowledge of the truth, and he rebelled against the light he’d received. The force of that rebellion took him into the darkest place.
This is what you see in Judas. The one who committed the darkest deed of all was a person who, for three years, had given himself to vocational ministry. Coming near to God will either make you better or it will make you worse. If you sin against the light that you’ve received, the light of God’s Word, you dull your own conscience. And if you keep doing that, a great darkness will overtake you. You may find yourself in greater darkness than many who never walked with Christ in the first place.
Jesus said to them, “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you” (John 12:35). If there is a rebellion in your heart today, I urge you to come to the cross and deal with it. If you don’t deal with it, it will grow in power. And you have no way of knowing, if you allow that to happen, where it will take you.
The Scriptures gives us serious warnings, but they also give us wonderful hope. How can faithless people be made faithful? How can self-absorbed people learn to love? What hope is there for God’s people when the silver has become dross and the wine has been watered down? What hope is there for the wrecked life of the person who has given himself to sin and now finds himself in great darkness?
How God Restores His People
1. A gracious intervention
“I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy” (1:25).
Hope begins with an intervention from God. The situation with God’s people was so serious that an organizational change could not turn it around. Only God can restore his people, but
he can do it, and he says here that he will.
Notice that verse 25 takes us the theme of dross again. God says, “I will purge your dross.”
In verse 22, God said that the silver had become dross. So the promise here involves a miraculous change of nature. Only God can turn dross into silver, and that is what he says he will do! He can take the person who has traded away the most precious gift and he will make that person anew.
When David came to God to seek restoration, he asked God to cleanse him: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). That’s Isaiah 1:18. But he didn’t stop there.
David knew that there was a deep-seated corruption in his own heart that had led him into sin and unless that changed he would soon be back in the same place again. So he said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Change my nature. O God, I need more than cleansing.”
God can change your heart, and that is what he promises here, “I will smelt away your dross.”
2. The gift of godly leadership
“I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning” (Isaiah 1:26).
Remember, these verses speak first about how God restores the community of his people.
Wise and godly leaders who are willing to serve are a gift of Christ to his church. We should never take them for granted. When you see a board member, a life group leader, or a Sunday school teacher today, thank them for serving. Remember to pray for them and do it with thanksgiving. As it is with the leaders, so it will be with the church.
Isaiah saw a leadership restoration in his own lifetime. He prophesied in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (1:1). Ahaz was among the worst, and he was followed by Hezekiah who was one of the best. But the promise here reaches further than anything that was fulfilled in the time of Hezekiah. God says he will restore judges “as at the first,” and counsellors, “as at the beginning.” What’s that all about?
The beginning here refers to the time of David. It was under David that Jerusalem first became the capital city (2 Sam. 5:6-9). Israel was never so blessed as they had been under the rule of their greatest king. God says, “The blessing that came to God’s people under the rule of David is going to be multiplied under David’s greater Son.”
Alec Motyer comments, God sovereignly “plans to bring David back to reign over a perfected city.” That’s the trajectory of the whole bible story. God will restore his people through a great intervention. A new David will be set on the throne to lead the people of God.
3. The work of the Redeemer
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness (Isaiah 1:27).
When David’s greater Son comes into the world, he comes as the Redeemer. A ‘redeemer’ is a person who purchases something by paying a price. That is what God did in Jesus Christ, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice.”
How will God’s people be restored? The Redeemer will come. He will purchase people from their sins and their failures for God at the price of his own blood. The stroke of divine justice for the sins of God’s people will fall on his only Son. He will die, the just for the unjust, and this Redeemer will bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18).
4. People who repent
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness (Isaiah 1:27).
Not all in Zion repent. It is possible to be among the people of God and never repent. Hophni and Phineas never repented. Never. Judas chose to take his own life rather than repent. Restoration, if it happens, is a miracle of grace. But God speaks here of “those in” Zion “who repent.” That means, by his grace, restoration is possible.
And here’s how it happens: It happens through the intervention of God in your life. It happens when you come in repentance at the feet of Jesus. It happens when you humble yourself before him as your judge, submit yourself to him as your counsellor, and crown him as your sovereign king.
Restoration happens when you cast yourself on the mercy of this righteous Redeemer, who loved you and gave himself for you, who is able to cleanse you and make you anew.
In a world where in many places the church has become unfaithful, we should be thankful every day for a congregation where the Word of God and the hope of the gospel is prized like pure silver. Never take that for granted!
If Satan could turn the faithful city of God in the Old Testament into a den of corruption and self-interest, we should not be surprised if we see the same thing happening sadly and tragically today.
“Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:26).
That is a description of the true people of God, the people who repent. This is the true future of the people of God. You’re going to be called faithful and righteous, so commit yourself to living this way from this day forward.
© Colin S. Smith
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 Compare to Isaiah 3:4-7, where few are willing to serve in leadership and leadership is thrust upon people who are not yet ready to bear it.