Although many scholars argue that the book of Isaiah begins in 1:2-20 with God's lawsuit against Israel (see "Trial Speeches" among the Introductory Issues), the tone of God's address in these verses is more lament than anger, more exhortation than condemnation. God mourns the rebellion of children who have been given loving parental care (vv. 2-3) and wonders (through the words of the prophet) why Israel seeks further punishment, much in the same way the lament psalms wonder why God does not intervene on Israel's behalf. Whereas the psalms speak of God's forsaking Israel, now God laments Israel's forsaking of God (v. 4). The recognition of this tone is essential to how one reads the opening chapters of the book. God's word of judgment is strong throughout this section, but that judgment should be read as coming through the divine tears of these opening verses, rather than in a divine fierce delight over retribution at last.
Since earliest days, Christian artists, noting that the ox and the donkey know the "master's crib" (v. 3), have regularly included the ox and ass in their depictions of the manger scene at Jesus' birth.
The reference to children that have "rebelled against me" (v. 2) is echoed word for word in the final verse of the book (66:24), forming an inclusio around the whole. The book ends with a warning against those who fail to respond to the words of judgment and promise that Isaiah pours out to try to restore Israel to God. The first verses make clear that God's desire for Israel is life rather than death.
2 Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its masters crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
4 Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
5 Why do you seek further beatings?
Why do you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
6 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.
7 Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
8 And daughter Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.
9 If the Lord of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org