The prophets often condemn Israel's hypocritical worship practices. Israel brings sacrifices instead of justice (Amos 5:21-24), attempts to use sacrifices to curry God's favor (Psalm 50:7-15), or, as here, brings not gifts but sins to lay upon God. Thus, we get here something that sounds like the typical prophetic judgment oracle: because Israel had burdened God, God delivered the people to "utter destruction" (v. 28). There is a surprise, however, in the middle--not judgment, but forgiveness: "I will not remember your sins" (v. 25). Just as Israel was not to remember the former things (see Isaiah 43:16-21), neither will God. A new work is afoot.
The odd sequence, with forgiveness in the middle, reflects the poetic structures of Hebrew poetry. The argument here is not linear, but concentric. The accusations and the judgments are at the outer limits of the text, but God's forgiveness anchors things in the middle: You have brought me sins instead of sacrifices (vv. 22-24); your ancestors sinned and were justifiably punished (vv. 26-28); but now, as the center of all things, "I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake" (v. 25). The structure is this: sin, forgiveness, sin--with the God of forgiveness established as the center of all things.
The wordplay on "burdened" in vv. 23-24 uses the same root as the verb "to serve," so important in Second Isaiah. I have not enslaved you ("en-servanted you") with burdensome requirements, says God, but you have "enslaved" me with your sins--that is, laid on me a burden, a barrier that has prevented me from acting fully for your good. Now, God must remove the burden of sin in order to be the God of deliverance. Proper servanthood is what Second Isaiah is about: Israel is called to be God's servant in doing God's work and glorifying God (41:9; 49:3, and often in the book); for the sake of Israel and the nations, God does the same work that is allotted to God's servant (compare 42:1-4 and 51:4-5). Properly, Israel and God serve one another in love and faithfulness. But though God will serve, God will not be enslaved. God will break that bond in order to deliver.
Later, we hear how the one called to be servant does the central work of God described in this text: God is the one who "blots out your transgressions" (43:25); the servant will bear "the sin of many" and make intercession "for the transgressors" (53:12). Forgiveness is seen as God's primary identifying work: "I, I am He who blots out your transgressions."
22 Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
23 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt-offerings,
or honoured me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
24 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.
25 I, I am He
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
26 Accuse me, let us go to trial;
set forth your case, so that you may be proved right.
27 Your first ancestor sinned,
and your interpreters transgressed against me.
28 Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary,
I delivered Jacob to utter destruction,
and Israel to reviling.
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
10 February 2011