Isaiah’s opening lines draw us into a vast courtroom framed by the heavens and the earth. God is both Judge and Prosecutor, but even more so, the Lord is the grieving parent lamenting over God’s people, and how far gone they are, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly. They have forsaken the God Who loves them, have even come to despise the Holy One of Israel! They are utterly estranged.
What is to become of them?
What is Sin, Anyway?
Different cultures and different circles have their own lists of what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable—you and I could surely survey a culture on the other side of the world to us and discover many of their customs seem not only strange, but repugnant. Yet, if they were to interview us, they would surely recoil as well.
So, how can we tell what is universally right and wrong? Does that not make the issue of morality relative? Could it really be simply a matter of cultures?
If so, then the morality proscribed for a culture of thousands of years ago could hardly be expected to apply to any of us today, could it?
In fact, anthropologists and sociologists have been researching this very question of ethics and morality for nearly a hundred years. As can be expected, they concentrate on how human beings adapt themselves to living in clans, communities, tribal connection, and even nations. How did cities develop? What did humans need to do become a cooperative? What keeps violence and aggression at bay?
And unless the researcher knows something of the scriptures (and believes them to be inspired by God), answers tend to run towards the evolving of the human brain to tendencies such as compassion, empathy, agreeableness, and the like.
But the Apostle Paul actually gives us the answer to what sin is.
Suppression of the Truth
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.
So they are without excuse;
for though they knew God, they did not honor [God] as God or give thanks to [God],
—but they became futile in their thinking,
—and their senseless minds were darkened.
—Claiming to be wise, they became foolsRomans 1:19-22 (NRSV)
So, at its core, sin is the rejection of God, which in turn moves to rejection of God’s word and way. This sort of wholesale rejection of God results in a corruption of the mind and heart leading to futility, senselessness, and foolishness.
That last phrase in Paul’s explanation was understood in his day to refer to all the Proverbs that describe fools. It is not the light-hearted word we often think of today. It means someone who has decided to reject wisdom, who wants to do wrong, who is obtuse and obdurate.
Transgressing God’s Law
Paul traced the progression from fool to debauchery to degradation to degeneration to dissolution.
In such extreme cases, Paul wrote,
Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
—They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness,
—They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful,
—inventors of evil,
—rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
—They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.Romans 1:29-32 (NRSV)
It seems somewhat hard to take, does it not? What about that culture we interviewed earlier? Could Paul really say they know God’s decree? How?
It Is A Matter of Conscience
Paul wrote that even cultures who have never heard of the God of the Bible, let alone read the Bible, still have something innate that guides them to know right from wrong, good from bad, according to God’s way of seeing.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law,
And all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
When Gentiles [Read “those who do not know God’s Law”], who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness;
and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.Romans 2:12-16 (NRSV)
That is absolutely stunning.
We all have this sense within us!
This is all part of what it means to be human, to have been formed in the image of God, and to have received the breath of life from God.
Deep down inside each human being is an innate sense of what is right.Therefore, whether we call it “sin,” or not, we also know what wrong is.
Pulverized by Sin
And God’s people were experiencing all the horrors of sin’s ultimate end.
Why do you seek further beatings?
Why do you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and bleeding wounds;
they have not been drained, or bound up,
or softened with oil.
Your country lies desolate,Isaiah 1:5-9 (NRSV)
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And daughter Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.
It is such a desolate scene.
Why? God asks. Why do you seek further beatings? The ones you’ve already sustained have left you bruised from head to foot, with open and running sores. Look, God might have said to the people then, look at the smoke slowly curling up from your burned fields, look at the tortured branches of your torched orchards. Look at the ruins of your once-beautiful cities.
Why would you continue to rebel, after all this?
The land itself was an open wound, the environment utterly destroyed, their fortresses and ramparts now rubble, vulnerable to human, animal, and insect invaders. Aliens devour your land, God said, it is desolate.
And look at that last line,
daughter Zion is leftIsaiah 1:8 (NRSV)
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
Like an abandoned hut in a field that has long since been picked clean, Jerusalem now faced isolation and collapse. It seems very poetical, and certainly it is.
But it is so much more.
This tragic and forlorn prophecy was fulfilled thirty-eight years later, when Sennacherib led the Assyrian army into Judah and the whole country became a ravaged battlefield. Only Jerusalem was spared.