Isaiah (Part 06): Justice and Judgment (Chs 3-4)
Isaiah 3 begins with a call to the people to “Observe!” The Lord God of Hosts (read that, Sovereign Master) grabs their attention so that they will focus on his words. He is turning now from the general descriptions of the previous chapter to specifics. The support structure of their society was being eroded by their sin. God tells them that he will now completely remove that support. Through the next several verses we learn what that support is. God has in mind the leadership of the nation. But this is not just the king to which he refers; it is all those who provide leadership. Verses 2 and 3 contain several groupings (usually pairs) of leaders that are synonymous within the grouping:
Defenders = Hero and Warrior
Arbiters = Judge and Prophet
Advisors = Fortune-teller and Elder
Directors = Commander of 50 and Dignitary
Orators = Counselor, Cunning Magician, and Necromancer
Confusion of translation makes some of these categories a little more difficult to see than others. The cunning magician is translated in the NIV as skilled craftsman. The Hebrew can be understood for either. Additionally, the fortune-teller would probably here be better translated as a sage—someone whose wisdom could help in guiding toward desired outcome. Likewise, necromancer has at its root the idea of one who enchants or charms. In the last grouping then, the counselor (or, literally, one who faces others), craftsman, and charmer should be understood as a person who speaks before a group with persuasive skill, charming them with his charisma toward acceptance of his topic. Thus, God clearly has in mind all those leaders who influence the conduct of society.
These leaders had failed miserably (as we learned in chapter 2). God then was about to turn society upside down. He would remove any semblance of order and justice from the leadership and in its place establish the inexperienced and unbalanced (3:4). These youths would act with arrogance toward their elders, and worthless leaders would violate the honorable. So unstable would their whole nation become that they would grasp at anything as qualification for leadership (3:6), although no one would want the burden of leading irredeemably broken society (3:7).
In the next few verses (8-12), Isaiah reiterates the point that the fault for this debacle lies with the people. They had “spoken and acted against the Lord” (3:8). Words and actions reveal the motivation of the heart (Mt 12:34). In John 14, Christ appears surprised by Philip’s request to see the Father. He is surprised because Philip should have recognized the Father by the Father’s words and the works proceeding out of the life of Jesus (John 14:10). It is the reverse situation, however, with Judah. Rather than following their God, they have disregarded him and by their opposing words and works have actually defied God’s glorious presence (3:8).
What is God’s glory? God’s glory is in the perfection of who he is. God is not just love; he is love. He is justice, mercy, and love. Therefore, his glory shines as perfect love, justice, mercy, etc.
The defiance of Judah certainly helps our understanding. The text emphasizes Israel’s sin of injustice (1:17, 23, 26, 27) and pride/selfishness (2:4, 11-17). We have already discussed that the pride/selfishness continued the loss of the creation ideal relationship of humanity with God. We also talked about the sin of injustice continuing the loss of the creation ideal relationship of humanity with humanity. So as Israel sins against relationship, we see that they were “defying His glorious presence” (3:8). In the NT God shows us again how tightly biblical glory is tied with relationship. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 speaks almost entirely about union first of Jesus and the Father, but then also of the disciples and all believers. Jesus refers to this union as glory (John 17:1-5, 22-23). The contrast of God’s presence with the Jews is made clear in the next verse. Isaiah 3:9 speaks of the haughty “look on their faces” revealing their lack of glory in arrogance and self-interest.
Verses 10 and 11 let us know that though the nation and society crumble, it will go well with the righteous. Who are the righteous? Are there some Jews that had no sin? Of course not. All have sinned. But the contrast in these chapters has shown us an arrogance of selfish interest in some versus those who, despite their sin, still recognize and hope for God. These hopeful—these faithful—are those for whom God will continue his care.
Verse 12 sums up this section. Youths oppress, and women rule over them. This is not a sexist statement. In this patriarchal society, the youths and women were those who were most dependent—most vulnerable—and, because of that, most inexperienced. Their vulnerability should have brought out the care-giving in those less vulnerable who had their eyes on God. But because injustice, pride, and selfishness reigned, God would turn their society on its head, and the inexperienced (youths and women) would be in charge. Following this summation, God presents a formal, courtroom-type charge in verses 13-15, accusing the leaders of their injustice.
With verse 16 the focus shifts. God has finished his accusation and description of judgment on the leaders. Now he turns to the people themselves. The people are represented as “daughters” of Zion because people, in relation to their leaders, are the more vulnerable party, just as children are the more vulnerable in relation to parents, and women in the patriarchal society are the more vulnerable in relation to the men. These women, we are shown, take pride in what they’ve attained through the treachery of the society caused by the leaders. These are women proud of their jewelry, perfume, riches, and fashion beauty. But God says they will lose it all (3:17-25). Verse 25 speaks of their men losing in battle—a picture of loss of security as care-givers are removed. In verse 26, the gates lament. Of course, reference to the gates shows us that we are not specifically talking about some women, but rather the society itself. The gates—the places where the judges of the city would sit—will be to them only a place for mourning because of the corruption of leadership.
In chapter 4, verse 1 a scene of desperation is shown. Just as in 3:6 where the leadership judgment results in desperation for leaders, so here the judgment shows the people desperate to remove this disgrace on them all. But still they reach out in their pride to humanity to resolve the problem rather than looking to God, the care-giver.
The rest of chapter 4 (verses 2 through 6) describe the contrasting goodness for the righteous—“whoever remains in Zion” (4:3). Again, these are not righteous in themselves, but are the faithful who still trust in God. Notice that God uses the land imagery again in verse 2 to describe the blessing. There is cleansing for the “daughters of Zion” (men too, as this continues the figurative image emphasizing God as care-giver to the vulnerable). The cloud and fire canopy is also an image of care-giving. The cloud and fire pillar was, for the Israelites, the symbol of God’s presence during their journey to the promised land. It rested over the tabernacle, the point where God met with his people. Here still it is meant to picture God’s care-giving presence which, as a canopy, now covers all, showing in this prophecy of the New Covenant that we all are the temple of God.