(Isa 1:11-20 ESV) 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
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 like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
What was required for the readers of Isaiah to repent? Well, to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” This is a plea to the nation of Israel, which is now known as “the church.”
Hence, merely voting for the more compassionate presidential candidate or paying your taxes doesn’t quite meet this standard. To some extent, the burden of caring for those in need may well be handled by the government — just as the Israelites’ tithes went, in part, to support the poor. But it’s a mistake to think that the government is enough. After all, the deepest poverty is spiritual poverty — and we can hardly argue that the government does a terrible job with its welfare system (it does) and then argue that the church has no role to play.
(Jer 5:27-28 ESV) 27 Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; 28 they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. …
(Jer 6:15-19 ESV) 15 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,” says the LORD. 16 Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ 17 I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’ 18 Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19 Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not paid attention to my words; and as for my law, they have rejected it.
This is actually a very familiar passage to those of us who grew up in the Churches of Christ. “Ask for the ancient paths” (v. 16) was taught over 100 years to mean “conduct worship services according to the pattern found in the silences of the NT.” In fact, it means “Honor the Torah’s commands” (5:28; 6:19). Again, I could fill the Internet with similar passages.
In short, the Exile resulted from a lack of faith in God, from idolatry (which is a product of lack of faith), and from Torah violations, especially disregard for the vulnerable and poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the sojourners (also a product of a lack of faith).
The Messiah to come
Thus, sometimes the Messianic pronouncement speak in terms of correcting the sins that led to Exile.
(Isa 11:1-5 ESV) There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
Isaiah promises a King who will provide justice for the poor and the meek.
(Isa 29:19-20 ESV) 19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. 20 For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off,
(Isa 9:6-7 ESV) 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
(Eze 37:22-24 ESV) 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 23 They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 24 “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes.”
As we’ve already seen, the various passages that speak of hearts being circumcised or softened by God by the Spirit say that the result will be Torah obedience. The same is true of the Messianic passages.
So when a prophet appears just before the arrival of Jesus and announces, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is a hand!” what would his Jewish listeners, raised on the Law and the Prophets, have heard “repent” to mean?
Well, have faith in YHWH, give up idolatry, and obey the Torah, especially its commands regarding the treatment of the poor and other vulnerable members of society.
I mean, notice how rarely the prophets speak of mistakes in how the Temple ceremonies are conducted or how many elders a village must have or the countless picayune issues that the Pharisees focused on. Rather, they tend to speak in big-picture terms, and while they never declare the sacrificial system over or to be rejected (not yet), they emphasize that love for our neighbors is far more important.
(Psa 51:16-17 ESV) 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.