Wednesday, November 09, 2005

RELIGION VERSUS REASON: Isaiah 1

Tol-ah, the 'crimson worm' referenced in Isaiah 1:18
Who was Isaiah? His name (Yeshayahu in Hebrew) means "The Lord is Salvation." He is commonly thought to be a cousin of King Uzziah, the first in a series of kings who ruled in Judah (the southern of the two divided kingdoms of the Israelites) during Isaiah's lifetime. Thus being a part of the royal family mean he had some degree of prestige and prominent position.

Isaiah's book of prophecy jumps right into the meat of the subject and not much is said how Isaiah initially became a prophet. We can surmise that he was largely silent against his cousin, Uzziah, even though the latter (who was primarily a king of virtue in Judah) made some serious mistakes toward the end of his life, sins that in fact cost him his reign and ultimately his very life.

So, interestingly, it wasn't until after Uzziah died that Isaiah had the magnificent vision recorded in the sixth chapter, in which he "saw the Lord." One gets the impression that God almost had to get Uzziah out of the way, that he may have been an obstacle in Isaiah's life to the prophet really getting down to the business to which God was calling him. We'll talk more about this when we get to Isaiah 6.

Meanwhile, chapter 1 sets the tone immediately for the whole book, summarizing the message of Isaiah to Judah. (For, while Isaiah also prophesied about and to the nations around Judah, including Israel, it was primarily Judah herself, and Jerusalem, with which he was concerned.)

The introduction to chapter 1 says it is a "vision" given Isaiah by the Lord. But it really does not seem so much a vision (in the sense of seeing something extraordinary), as a message. It is wholly different than the vision in Isaiah 6, where the prophet tells what he sees in his vision (in addition to delivering the words given to him to deliver). It really is strictly a letter of warning, and Isaiah is the postman who delivers it.

Chapter 1 makes clear who Isaiah is talking to ... it is God's very children, the ones he set aside for a special relationship with himself, the children of Israel. Judgment always begins at home. Chapter 1 highlights the unfaithfulness and horrific rebellion of God's children.

Many parents know the special sting of children who rebel. You pour your heart and soul to bringing a new life into the world. That cuddly, sweet, lovable child at some point in time turns into a horrible monster and treats you worse than the meanest stranger. If this is you, then take some comfort from the fact that God knows exactly what you're going through! No one knows more acutely the pain of rebellion than the Creator God who gave us life and then gave us a choice to either love and obey him, or to walk away and die. We chose to walk away.

So, the choices for those who rebel are simple. It's a pretty commonsense proposition:
18 "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.

19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;

20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The people of Israel have been practicing "religion." They go through all the motions. But God points out that their religion has little to do with real life. What counts are ACTIONS. All the religious practice in the world won't help you if you are committing injustice. I guess you could say this is the triumph of behavior over theology.

There is one truly amazing thing in this chapter which it is easy to totally miss if you're not reading this in the original language (Hebrew). In verse 18, the word for "crimson" is "tol-ah". Tol-ah is quite literally a type of worm, the "crimson worm," coccus ilicis. This worm infests certain types evergreen Mediterranean oaks. The mother would fasten her body to the bark, manufacturing a hard protective casing overhead before giving birth to her young. This was her final act. The young would begin to grow and would burst the casing, which was a bright crimson color. The crimson stain would run down the side of the tree. After a time the body of the mother would turn to a waxy, white substance which would flake off and flutter to the ground like snow.

Hence the beautiful word picture invoked by the prophet, sins like crimson becoming white as snow!

People in the Middle East still do as has been done for thousands of years ... they scrape the destroyed bodies of the Tol-ah from the bark of these trees, crush them and produce a brilliant crimson dye, very useful for dying wool or other fabrics.

It is this process of crushing the tol-ah that reveals another very astonishing discovery from the pages of Scripture, this time in Psalm 22:6 ...

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.

Psalm 22 is considered a messianic psalm, specifically foretelling the agonies of Jesus' crucifixion. It begins with the same words Jesus quoted as He hung on the cross: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" It tells the story of how the body of Jesus was broken, his crimson blood staining the sides of a wooden cross, so that you and I might be forgiven of our sins, made white as snow.

The word used for worm, in Psalm 22:6 is "tol-ah."

If that doesn't send chills up and down your spine, I don't know what does. Psalm 22 gives highly specific details about the manner of the Messiah's death ("they have pierced my hands and my feet"), hundreds of years before crucifixion was even invented!

On the cross Jesus truly became "a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people." And the most amazing thing of all is that He did so willingly, driven purely by His love for you and me: He "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:28) He was the embodiment of Isaiah's name ... "the Lord is Salvation!"