Temple Motifs in Isaiah 1
The book of Isaiah begins with a horrific description of the devastation of the kingdom of Judea, probably alluding to the invasion of the Assyrians in 701 BCE (1:1-9). Because the people have “forsaken Yahweh” (1:4), Yahweh has rejected his temple (1:10-20). The description of this rejection includes a fairly detailed list of some of the major activities that took place in the temple seeking blessings from the Yahweh, and Isaiah’s explanation of why these have failed.
Yahweh proclaims that he has had enough of blood and sacrifice (1:11; cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Ps 50:7-15; Hos 6:6). He no longer wants the people to appear before him and “trample the courts” of his temple (1: 12). Incense has become an “abomination” (1:13), and Yahweh will no longer attend the temple assemblies on the holy days (1: 14). Most importantly, when the people “lift up their hands” to heaven in prayer, Yahweh turns his face away and will not listen, because their uplifted hands are “full of blood” of wickedness (1: 14). The paradox here is that the sacrificial blood required on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:14) has been replaced with the blood of murder and oppression which are instead surreptitiously offered by wicked Israel. Thus, all the standard activities of the temple--sacrifice, incense in the Holy Place, assemblies and prayer--have been rejected by Yahweh.
But, as always, Isaiah, Yahweh offers hope. To be acceptable, however, Israel must undergo both a ritual washing (1: 16a) along with a moral rebirth (1: 16b-17). Alluding to the Day of Atonement Yahweh proclaims “thought your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow” (1: 18b). There is still hope for Israel, but only if they return to Yahweh: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall each the good [things] of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be eaten by the sword [of the invading Assyrians]” (1:19-20). Isaiah thus insists that the outward performance the temple rituals will avail Israel nothing without repentance and righteousness which will allow Jerusalem and the temple again become “the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1: 26b). As we shall see (e.g. 2:2-5, 4:2-6), Isaiah is not here rejecting the temple and its rites as the proscribed means to approach Yahweh, but vacuous temple rites of hypocritical outward performances masking wickedness and rebellion.