Judgment and Mercy: Isaiah 1
Today’s reading: Isaiah 1-4.
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” Abraham Lincoln
Christians, at least the vocal ones, are too quick to hand down judgment and too slow to offer mercy. Not so with God. Though he is sure to judge, his judgments for his people come only after warnings, and are always followed by mercy. That’s a major theme of the whole book of Isaiah and the prophet places it front and center in the first chapter.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:15-18
As Isaiah writes the Assyrians are crushing the northern kingdom of Israel. In one hundred years Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians. He writes for the Holy One of Israel, his particular name for the LORD, telling forth God’s word and will for the disobedient people of Judah and Jerusalem. He speaks to their present situation, exhorting them to follow God’s path now, but includes descriptions of a hopeful future when God will redeem them from their rebellion. He drops the hammer of God’s judgment, but then almost immediately applies the balm of God’s mercy.
“I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” Isaiah 1:25-26
Between the judgment and the mercy lies the Day of the LORD. It is a day that looms large in the imagination of all the prophets, like an “All Traffic Must Exit Here” sign at the end of time. Isaiah sees it this way:
- Proud men are brought low; God is exalted
- Men try to hide from God’s judgment in the rocks and caves
- God shakes the earth
- Men abandon their idols
But after the Day of the LORD, mercy comes. Isaiah calls him the Branch, for he is the offshoot of David’s line. He will wash away the filth and blood and bring back the spirit of the LORD. He will be “a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain.”
And what of you, Christian? Will you pronounce judgment and withhold mercy? Our judgment is often condemnation instead of discernment, and our tone lacks hope for restoration. We need to follow the LORD’s example and offer as much care as criticism. Jesus said “judge not that you be not judged” and “neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more.”
Image by Dennis Wong on Flickr, CC by 2.0