Judah’s Good Works Adjudged Sinful

Studies in and preaching from the prophecy of Isaiah should be essentially exegetical. If we follow the plan of reading out what is written in this portion of the Word of God, we will give little or no space to so-called “critical” interpretation. Our efforts will rather be that of the expository preacher. In this way we will avoid any waste of time and space on the intellectual dust of “higher criticism.” True, criticism, indeed, is not only commendable, but is necessary. That is, we most constantly make judgment on every form of error which is repugnant to the Word. But it is only misplaced effort, vainly expended, to impeach the truthfulness of this prophecy, to shred and dismember it of its authenticity, to enervate it of its power in sovereign grace. We, as believers, may be grateful that the question as to what parts of the Book of Isaiah are genuinely his, need not be left to the tortuous treatment of Teutonic criticism, nor to the subjective opinions of German unbelief. We may justly pour contempt on these conceited reveries of Modernism. For they are at best but the crumbling ruins of exploded errors accruing from academic curiosities.

The sinful condition of men is clearly terrible in the deepest sense of the word. Man’s heart is totally corrupt, and “wholly gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil,” so that he is enmity against God, and his imaginations are only evil continually. This is true also of God’s own people. They are by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest.Their perverseness is vividly set forth in this context. They take up their own weapons of warfare against the Lord. They are denominated rebels, evil doers. Their condition is culpable. But it is also pathetic. “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider” (Is. 1:3). Israel had gone away backward. Iniquity and sin multiplied everywhere, and “the knowledge of the Holy One” seem perished. There were many men of Belial, men of Sodom. This does not mean that Israel was not as “religious” as heretofore. If anything, he was even more religious. There was strict attendance to the ceremonial observances. They were careful to bring the proper sacrifice. Appointed Sabbath gatherings and assemblies were carefully observed. Yet their lives were filled with hypocrisy, greed, oppression and murder, in that order.

Is. 1:14, “Your new moons and your appointed festivals My soul hateth; they are upon Me a cumbrance. I am wearied to exhaustion to lift them up.” These words are directed to the rulers and citizens of the nation. Their worship is no longer acceptable to God. It is an abomination to Him. Though it was performed with outward devotion, He hated the whole of it. They had a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof. They no longer saw the spiritual meaning of their sacrifices and ceremonies. They no longer saw Christ in them. Thus they denied Christ and His atoning blood. They had only the mere shell of religion. All the rites, rituals and dead formalism of modern worship may appeal to the senses. Outward performances do not require much thought, and so are popular with the majority, much more popular than a doctrinal faith, more popular than anything spiritual. But the Lord, to speak very humanly at this point, is sick and tired of it all. He can never set His seal of approval upon it.

Is. 1:15, “And in spreading out your palms, I will hide My eyes from you; also, as ye add supplication, I will hear nothing (of if). Your hands are full of bloods.” Hands are the figure of actions, deeds. But back of the hands is the whole man with the will, desires, and intellect. The heart is the ethical center of man’s being, and from which are all the issues of life. The charge then means, “Your whole being, hands, lips, mouth, tongue, mind, will, desires and heart, as to its nature is full of blood, that is, spiritually and morally totally corrupt.

The blood on the hands is the figure of murder. However, not only murder, but every form of transgression of God’s commandments. This is not hard to see. Hatred is murder, essentially. He who hates, murders, even though he does not allow his hatred expression in word and deed. Hence the man who steals commits murder; for in stealing he is motivated by hatred for God and man: and hatred is murder. The same is true of adultery, or the sin of having other gods before God’s face (spiritual adultery). So of the taking of the Lord’s name in vain, or of desecrating the Sabbath. The impulse is always hatred of God and man; and hatred is murder. It is evident, then, that blood stands for (1) all manner of transgression of all the law; and (2) the total spiritual moral pollution of man’s moral nature.

Take notice of the fact that God says, “Your hands arefull of blood.” That is, there is not a spot on your hands, however infinitesimal, that is not covered with blood. No wonder the word is bloods, plural! Your whole nature is corrupt. Apart from grace, there is not a spark of goodness in you.

Israel was sacrificing unto God a multitude of sacrifices, appearing before God’s face in His holy temple, and there lifting up their hands in the regular Jewish custom of the palms turned upward in prayer, yet doing so with hands full of blood. They tried to make their piety and religion a cloak for their hatred and murder. For those same hands when engaged outside the temple in their life’s work were employed in breaking the poor in pieces. Therefore their worship was merely the cloak of covetousness. They made a false profession to hide their malicious aims.

The exponents of the theory of “common grace” would maintain that apostate Israel in sacrificing and appearing before God, and in making many prayers were performing truly good works in the sight of God. But take notice of God’s appraisal of man’s so called good works. He says, “I am full of the burnt offerings and rams. I delight not in the blood of bullocks. Who required of you this treading of My courts? (with hands full of blood?)” The implication is, I did not require this of you. For My soul hateth your new moons. They are a trouble to Me. I am weary to bear them. I hide My eyes when you pray. Your vain oblations, in a word, your entire worship, is an abomination to me. It is iniquity. Such is God’s appraisal of the so called good works of ungodly men.

Is. 1:16, “Wash you, make ye clean; make depart (the) evil of your works from before My eyes; cease ye to do evil.” Here the Lord does not simply denounce these degenerate men, but at the same time He requires of them obedience. But this the wicked cannot tolerate. They hate the idea of obedience to God. Nevertheless, God demands it. Not that man can of himself obey. That he cannot. He is dead in sin. And as dead he can do nothing good. He is free to do but one thing, that is, to continue to decay and putrify. However, God holds him responsible to obey. Man, to be sure, has lost his ability to perform it; but God has not thereby lost His sovereign right to demand perfect, personal and perpetual obedience. For the command, “Clean yourself!” does not imply the ability in man to do so. Rather, by this means God reveals to man his utter helplessness and inability, and his inclination to all evil. The sinner must be brought to see this, and be cast alone upon the Divine Savior. All other ground, though it be man’s fine endeavors, is sinking sand! In the elect, obedience is the evidence of a good confession. So they “leave off evil.” This is exactly what the ungodly do not intend to do. Yet they are responsible, nonetheless, to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and strength, and soul and mind. They never will; but God, just the same, demands it of them. So only the Lord’s people— 

Is. 1:17, “Learn to do well; search for judgment; make to go straight the oppressor (or, the oppressed). Judge the orphan; plead the cause of the widow.” How can the believer do this? put it into practice? Only as he by faith pleads cleansing in the sovereign balm of Christ’s blood. This is no doctrine of being saved initially by grace alone, and then being kept saved by works of our own. No, this is life emanating from the pardon side of the cross. The cross itself tells that it is not enough to cease to do evil. We must learn to do well. So the cross Would teach us. It is not enough, for example, not to commit actual murder. “Thou shalt do no murder,” saith our Lord. But that entails the doing of positive good to our neighbor; and not the mere prevention of doing him any evil. For we are not only to do nothing to harm his being, but must seek his well being. This we must learn to do; for it is not in us by nature. Is not this the teaching of the cross? Doesn’t the forgiveness of our sins imply this? Then we must take pains to secure knowledge of what the Lord requires of us. We must search for opportunities to do good. We cannot sit off by ourselves in a corner and say, “Well, I will not hate my neighbor today.” No, we must look for the opportunity, and take it, to do him good. If we have sinned against any, we must seek his pardon, and make matters right to the best of our ability. If any are burdened, we must seek to ease them of their burdens. If it is in our power to help those who are oppressed, that is our business. We must be ever ready to speak for those who do not know how to speak for themselves. In this way only do we show that we know that to obey is better than sacrifice, and that faith without works is dead.