This is the text of a pair of essays submitted as part of my course at Spurgeon’s College for the module ‘Reading and Using the Bible’. The first part is an exegesis, the second part has application with children’s activities.
The first part was formative (not for credit), the second part was my grade for the module and gained a mark of 77 (high first).
Exegesis of Isaiah 1:21-31
Isaiah stands as a signpost at a junction. One way leads to ruin and destruction, the other to restoration and blessing. Which would they choose?
David’s once-great kingdom had been split by civil war two hundred years earlier. The two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, had spent the years since drifting into apostasy as they forgot their side of God’s covenant with them. They were still God’s people, but was the Lord still their God?
Isaiah is the first of the major prophets, this denoting not only the order of his book in the Bible, but also his place as the archetypal Old Testament prophet. Isaiah thunders judgement on rebellious nations. He proclaims, ‘Thus says the Lord God’. He whispers quiet words of comfort to despairing repentants.
Isaiah’s ministry started ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’, about 740BC., Israel under attack from the local superpower – Assyria. Within a couple of decades, Israel’s capital, Samaria, would fall. The kingdom would be dissolved, their cites over-run, their people deported.
Isaiah watched this happen from Jerusalem and warned Judah that their fate would be the same if they did not mend their ways, replacing their sham religion with true worship. This is one of the periods referred to by Motyer when he speaks of sacrifices being used as replacements for obedience, instead of a gracious means of redemption for lapses.
Our passage comes in Isaiah’s first oracle and is part of a longer passage denouncing the unfaithful practices of Judah. The message starts earlier in chapter 1, where Isaiah expresses God’s abhorrence of the empty religious rituals that he ‘cannot endure’. The people of Judah are substituting lip-service for obedience, thinking that the ash of a burnt offering would scrub their hands clean of bloodguilt. But Judah’s sins are like scarlet – dye that will not wash out.
In our passage we move to different metaphors. The first section, verses 21-23, describes Judah as a harlot, watered-down wine or impure silver alloy. The remedy for these ills is hard to swallow. It will seem as if God is against his people. ‘I will turn my hand against you’, he says, but not to destroy, rather to restore them.
This is a severe purification. It is smelting, purging and cleansing with lye – which we use today as a drain cleaner. But it will bring about the redemption that we see offered in the third section, verses 26-31, although only to those who respond. There are two outcomes – one for those who choose to undergo the treatment, leading to a city ‘redeemed with justice’. The other is for the unrepentant who cling to their idols and their sin – ‘they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them’. 
These references to fire, drought and being broken in verses 29-31 would have been particularly powerful for Isaiah’s first audience. They heard news of the cities and nations around them, Edom, Damascus and then Tyre falling to the Assyrians. Isaiah’s words spoke of a conquered city – burned, the people left without water, the walls broken. They knew they were next. Isaiah’s message was that this was not the random act of an expansionist emperor, but God using Sennacherib as his tool of judgement.
Other accusations struck rather closer to home. Debased silver and watered wine may refer to the dishonesty of the officials and the actual practices of the tradespeople. Matthew Henry points out that while some people regard these as referring to literal debasement, ‘it is rather to be taken figuratively’. That is, Isaiah was probably not making an economic statement so much as using this physical dishonesty as another illustration of Judah’s spiritual dishonesty.
While counterfeit coinage looks real and adulterated wine retains its colour, when tested they prove false and worthless. Similarly, Judah’s religion looked fine on the outside – they were making all the right offerings. But when tested by fire it was base metal, not silver, and just as worthless.
The ESV Study Bible notes regard this baseness as applying to the nation as a whole. The dross which is to be removed by smelting is equated with the ‘rebels and sinners […] and those who forsake the Lord’, while that which is left, the pure metal, is the remnant who are penitent and are redeemed with righteousness and justice.
Matthew Henry, additionally, speaks of these verses as having further applications. Firstly, the restoration promised to the ones who repent (or ‘returnees’) has immediate fulfilment in the reforms of Hezekiah, later in Isaiah’s ministry. Secondly, the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BC gave the exiles a new focus for Isaiah’s words. They saw the restoration fulfilled in the renewing of the temple, which came with Ezra and his reforms. A third parallel, according to Matthew Henry, is that of ‘the gospel-kingdom’ by which he meant the Christian church, established at Pentecost as the new, righteous, Jerusalem.  The fourth fulfilment is at Christ’s return, when a city of righteousness shall be established, in which there will be ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain’.
Application of Isaiah 1:21-31
The situation in which I will be using Isa. 1:21-31 is a children’s group at a church weekend away. I will consider the core meaning of the passage and apply it in age-appropriate ways to various groups of children. I will outline a range of activities that illustrate the key concepts and suggest discussions that could grow from these.
Isa. 1:21-31 is the text for the adults’ talk, and the children’s work is following suit. The children range in age from 4 to 14 and are, to some extent, familiar with basic Christian concepts. There are around twenty children with four helpers. All the work is in one large room with access to the outside in good weather. There are no children with additional needs.
The activities can be spread over several sessions with recreational activities between. We will start by reading the passage aloud in a suitable version.
Using the Bible with Children
This passage makes heavy use of metaphors and, when dealing with young children, it is important to recognise that metaphors may be very poorly understood. Vosniadou’s study with six-year-olds shows their marked tendency to understand metaphors literally, particularly when reasoning verbally. For this reason I feel it is important to engage primary-age children in visual and physical activities that illustrate the metaphors in terms that they can grasp. The helpers must be sure to explain to the children what the metaphors, such as washing, stand for.
Another point to consider is the Bible translation. This group of children includes pre-readers, weak readers and competent readers. The average reading age of the group is about 9, whereas the reading ages for various translations of the Bible vary wildly, from 17 for the KJV down to 8 for the NIrV.
Popular translations used in church, such as the NIV and NEB, have reading ages of around 13, which are beyond all but the most competent in our group. Even the Good News Translation, often used in children’s work, has a reading age of 12. I recommend using the New International Reader’s Version or the New Century Version, both of which have a reading age of 8.
The latter translation also has the advantage of rendering ‘prostitute’ in verse 21 as ‘no longer loyal’, which has two significant benefits. It circumvents any awkwardness and makes explicit the meaning of the metaphorical language which, while shocking in its power for the original audience, would have little relevance or resonance for a group of four-to-fourteen-year-olds. For those reasons I recommend using the New Century Version in this context.
This passage is part of a series of complaints by God against his people. Isaiah laments that the leaders of Jerusalem are corrupt and that the city (standing for the people of Israel as a whole) is impure. Isaiah then delivers God’s message of judgement followed by restoration, but notes that there will different outcomes for the penitent and impenitent. According to Webb, judgement’s purpose is not to annihilate but to remove the ‘dross’, leaving a pure people.
While this message is rooted in the history of Israel, it has many parallels for the contemporary Christian life. God is still utterly righteous and holy and we, his people, are still piteously frail and fallible. So it is not surprising when the words spoken to God’s people of the Old Covenant still ring true when heard by God’s people of the New Covenant.
There are three main ways in which these concepts could be applied. The first is social justice. The second, an illustration of salvation through the sanctification of Jesus Christ. The third is to our daily choices between right and wrong. I will explore all three in the activities described below.
Activities – Justice
Older children are becoming aware of the problems of life and starting to engage with a world that is not fairy-tale perfect. As a lead-in to a discussion on God’s reaction to the corruption described in verses 21-23, I will play an unfair game of Jenga with the children.
I play the umpire and split the children into teams. I have sweets to reward the teams for successful moves. As the game progresses, I reward some people more than others and adjust the rules during play. (E.g. one team may hold the tower, but the other may not). I allow teams to use sweets to ‘buy’ their way out of tricky moves. This should quickly descend to cries of “it’s not fair!” as the richer team bribes me to allow them privileges.
We discuss our feelings at being either the poor or the rich team, and think about how God feels about the injustices in the passage. We can discuss similar practices today and our response as Christians. We will consider other Bible passages that relate to justice and ask how we can apply those principles today.
This activity will help older children to consider how their lives and their society measure against God’s righteous requirements, and God’s attitude to injustice.
Activities – Purifying
These activities look at the images of cleaning found in verses 22 and 25. Many translations use ‘soap’ in verse 25. Motyer has detergent. However, these gentle words fail to convey the kind of cleaning intended. Other translations, such as the NRSV, use ‘lye’ or ‘bleach’, and these indicate the harsh compounds that were used in Bible times for cleaning wool and purifying metals. I am not suggesting that we allow children to play with drain unblocker (a modern use of lye), but an activity involving a lot of scrubbing would illustrate how hard it is to get rid of sin.
Children often love playing with water, so we can use this in some very tactile activities to help them grasp the concept of purifying. For an indoor activity I will let them scribble on a cloth. We can talk about how the scribble spoils the cloth and ask the children to think about things that spoil us as people. Then I will show them how to scrub the cloth clean with soap. While we are doing this, we can talk about how God wants to wash us clean, but on the inside, not the outside.
For an outdoor activity, I will let them draw a heart with permanent marker on plywood and colour it in with dark wax crayons while we talk about the wrong things that we all think and do. We can call this having a dirty heart, but it’s not a dirt that washes off with water.
Then the children can try to wipe the wax from the wood with cold water and cloths. We can talk about how difficult it is to fix what is on the inside of us. It is hard to wash our hearts!
Finally I will let the children scrub their wax hearts clean with hot soapy water and nail brushes, while talking about God’s promise to purify us with a powerful cleaner.
These activities will help children to understand that cleaning is a difficult thing, and to appreciate that the metaphorical language of the passage is not talking about physical dirt.
Activities – Decisions
I will help the children to explore the people’s choices in verses 27-31. I will explain that the gardens and trees do not mean a play park, but that some people made idols of wood and worshipped them in special gardens. God said that those people were as worthless as dried up leaves – only fit for burning.
I will be careful to explain, especially to young children who often take things very literally, that ‘those who have left the Lord will die’ in verse 28 does not mean that God will strike the people dead. I would explain the original context and that not trusting God’s plan led to them being conquered. I will refer to The Message, which explains it’s “a dead end for those who walk out on God.” It is important not to alter God’s word to make it palatable, but we need to consider the way children think, and use language appropriately.
To explore decisions, I will set out a Galton board of cones or chairs – six cones spaced out in a row; five cones above them, in the gaps; four cones above them and so on to make a large triangle. Each child starts from the top and must decide whether to go to the right or left of the cone. This will take them to the second-row cones where they must make another decision and so on until they reach the bottom. Most children should end up somewhere in the middle. The various destinations have prizes or forfeits.
We will then discuss making choices in life; some good, some bad. The choices we make lead to different consequences (the prizes and forfeits). We will link this to the passage, where people had made bad decisions, but God gave them a chance to change and make good decisions. We can confess that we all go wrong sometimes. We will relate this to Jesus, and talk about forgiveness and new starts.
This activity will help children to understand that they have choices and that some of these choices have consequences.
Activities – Summing Up
Finally, I will act out the overall court-room scene in verses 21-25a and the surprising outcome in verses 25b – 26. Capable readers will play prosecutor, Isaiah, and judge (two children). The rest are the people of Jerusalem and act out mini-scenes of the sins mentioned in the charge sheet (verses 21-23). Dirty cloths can represent dirty hearts.
The prosecutors read the charge sheet, while the people of Jerusalem act out their mini-scenes. As they do wrong, they hang the dirty rags on themselves.
Isaiah introduces the judge with verse 24a. The reader-judge speaks 24b and 25a while the actor-judge looks angrily at the filthy rags. The people fall on their knees.
The mood changes. The reader-judge continues with verses 25-26 while the actor-judge moves around the people, removing the rags and bringing them to their feet.
This activity will emphasise the merciful nature of God as dramatically portrayed in the passage, restoring the city at the end to what it should have been at the beginning.
While this passage initially looks an unpromising choice for children’s work, with closer examination there are eternal themes that are very applicable. The metaphorical language and strong images (prostitution, death) need careful handling, particularly with younger children. However the key concepts of justice, purifying and decision-making are central to the Christian gospel, and age-appropriate study of these will, with God’s help, be of use in his kingdom.
All Bible quotes, unless otherwise stated are from the NRSV
Bibliography for first section
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Anglicised Edition) (Student Study Bible ed.). (London: Harper Collins, 2011)
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984)
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised Edition). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Alexander, David, & Pat Alexander (Eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible. (Tring: Lion, 1983)
Barton, John, & John Muddiman (Eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary. (Oxford: OUP, 2001)
Fee, Gordon D., & Donald Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014)
Grudem, Wayne (Ed.), ESV Student Study Bible (notes). (London: Collins, 2011)
Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. (np, 1706). Retrieved from Bible Study Tools: <http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/> [Accessed 14 April 2016]
Motyer, A, ‘The Prophets’, In David Alexander, & Pat Alexander (Eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible (Tring: Lion, 1983). pp. 370 – 375
Schippe, Cullen, & Chuck Stetson, The Bible and Its Influence. (BLP Publishing, 2006). Retrieved from Google Books: <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u58DyaEIZk4C&pg=PA113> [Accessed 17 April 2016]
Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC). Retrieved from Wikipedia: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(587_BC)> [Accessed 16 April 2016]
Sodium Hydroxide. Retrieved from Wikipedia: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_hydroxide> [Accessed 16 April 2016]
Tyndale House. Life Application Study Bible (notes). (Illinois: Tyndale, 1991)
Bibliography for second section
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Anglicised Edition) (London: Harper Collins, 2011)
The Holy Bible, New Century Version (Fort Worth: Worthy Publishing, 1987)
The Holy Bible, New International Reader’s Version (London: Thomas Nelson, 2005)
The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised Edition) (Cambridge: CUP, 2007)
Peterson, Eugene, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002)
Barile, Margherita and Eric W Weisstein, Galton Board<http://mathworld.wolfram.com/GaltonBoard.html>%5Baccessed 7 May 2016]
Barton, John and John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: OUP, 2001)
BBC, Newsround<http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/13927399>[accessed 7 May 2016]
Bible Gateway, What are the reading levels of the Bibles on Bible Gateway?<https://support.biblegateway.com/entries/186624-What-are-the-reading-levels-of-the-Bibles-on-Bible-Gateway->%5Baccessed 5 May 2016]
Clegg, Brian, Royal Society of Chemistry – NaOH <http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/podcast/CIIEcompounds/transcripts/NaOH.asp>%5Baccessed 9 May 2016]
Fee, Gordan D. and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014)
Grudem, Wayne, ed., ESV Student Study Bible (notes) (London: Collins, 2011)
Keil, Johann and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament Vol 7 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866-91. Reprinted Hendrickson, Massachusetts, 2006)
Mitchell, Alison, Starting out in Children’s Ministry (The Good Book Company, 2016)
Motyer, Alec, Isaiah, TNTC (Leicester: IVP, 1999)
Patch, James A, ‘Refiner; Refining’ in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr and others (1939)<http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/R/refiner-refining.html>%5Baccessed 5 May 2016]
Translation Reading Levels, <http://www.christianbook.com/page/bibles/about-bibles/bible-translation-reading-levels>%5Baccessed 5 May 2016]
Tyndale House. Life Application Study Bible (notes). Illinois: Tyndale, 1991
Vosniadou, Stella and Andrew Ortony. Testing the Metaphoric Competance of the Young Child (Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1984)
Webb, Barry. The Message of Isaiah, BST (Nottingham: IVP, 1996)
 Ex. 6:7
 Cullen Schippe & Chuck Stetson, The Bible and Its Influence. (BLP Publishing, 2006). Retrieved from Google Books:<https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u58DyaEIZk4C&pg=PA113>%5BAccessed 17 April 2016]
 Isa. 7:7
 Isa. 6:1
 David Alexander & Pat Alexander (Eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible. (Tring: Lion, 1983), pp.374-375
 A. Motyer, ‘The Prophets’, In David Alexander, & Pat Alexander (Eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible. (Tring: Lion, 1983). pp.370 – 375
 Isa. 1:13
 Isa. 29:13
 Isa. 1:18
 Isa. 1:25
 Sodium Hydroxide. Retrieved from Wikipedia:<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_hydroxide>%5BAccessed 16 April 2016]
 Isa. 1:27
 Isa. 1:31
 2 Chron. 32
 Compare God’s use of Cyrus, Isa. 45:4-5
 Isa. 1:23
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. (np, 1706). Isa.1.21-Isa.1.30 Retrieved from Bible Study Tools:<http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/>%5BAccessed 14 April 2016]
 Isa. 1:15
 Wayne Grudem (Ed.), ESV Student Study Bible (notes). (London: Collins, 2011)
 Isa. 1:28, 27
 Isa. 1:27, footnote NASB
 Isa. 36:7
 Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC). Retrieved from Wikipedia:<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(587_BC)>%5BAccessed 16 April 2016]
 Rev. 21:4
 Stella Vosniadou and Andrew Ortony. Testing the Metaphoric Competance of the Young Child (Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1984).
 Translation Reading Levels, <http://www.christianbook.com/page/bibles/about-bibles/bible-translation-reading-levels>%5Baccessed 5 May 2016]. Bible Gateway, What are the reading levels of the Bibles on Bible Gateway?<https://support.biblegateway.com/entries/186624-What-are-the-reading-levels-of-the-Bibles-on-Bible-Gateway->%5Baccessed 5 May 2016].
 Verses 21-23 are stylised lament. John Barton and John Mudiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: OUP, 2001) p.439.
 Barry Webb. The Message of Isaiah, BST (Nottingham: IVP, 1996) p.44.
 Alec Motyer, Isaiah, TNTC (Leicester: IVP, 1999) p. 49.
 Johann Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament Vol 7 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866-91. Reprinted Hendrickson, Massachusetts, 2006) Isa. 1:25.
 Lye: AMP, CEB, CJB, ESV, EXB, LEB, NASB, NRSV, RSV. Bleach: GW, NOG. Bible Gateway. Patch, James A, ‘Refiner; Refining’ in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr and others (1939)<http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/R/refiner-refining.html>%5Baccessed 5 May 2016].
 Brian Clegg, Royal Society of Chemistry – NaOH <http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/podcast/CIIEcompounds/transcripts/NaOH.asp>%5Baccessed 9 May 2016].
 Psalm 51.
 Compare Isa. 29:13, Mark 7:6-7, 20-23.
 Webb p. 45.
 NCV. Variously ‘perish’, ‘come to an end’ or ‘be consumed’ in other versions.
 Isa. 7:4-17, Motyer p. 20.
 The Message, Isa. 1:24-31.
 Alison Mitchell, Starting out in Children’s Ministry (The Good Book Company, 2016) pp. 38, 76.
 A board of pins in a triangle through which balls roll to divisions at the bottom. Margherita Barile and Eric W Weisstein, Galton Board<http://mathworld.wolfram.com/GaltonBoard.html>%5Baccessed 7 May 2016].
 Motyer pp. 43, 49.
 Isa. 1:18, 64:6.
 Verses 21 and 26 form an inclusio.
 Mitchell pp. 65-66.