Isaiah (Part 04): Focus on Justice (Ch 1:16-31)
The fourth section of Isaiah 1 is contained in verses 16 through 20. These verses speak to the call of Judah. Here God calls his people not only to dutiful obedience, but to a reasoned choice of faith. The outline or structure of development in chapter 1 so far has not been haphazard. It is not mere chance movement from complaint to lament to disgust to call. The flow is very much similar to what even non-Christian psychologists understand of emotional sequence. According to Robert Plutchik and his wheel of emotions, the eight basic emotions are joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. Picture them in a wheel and you find that in this order, joy stands opposite to sadness; trust is opposite to disgust; fear’s opposite is anger; and surprise stands opposite to anticipation. Beyond these emotions, human feelings (the results of emotions) are organized. Again, picturing these emotions as a wheel or as an eight-segmented pie, joy is next to trust. These two result in the human feeling of love. Trust is followed by fear. Trust and fear together result in submission. Fear is followed by surprise. Fear and surprise yield awe. And as we work our way around the wheel, surprise and sadness produce disappointment, sadness and disgust produce remorse, disgust and anger produce contempt, anger and anticipation produce aggression, and finally anticipation and joy result in optimism. The wheel is actually more complex than this, adding additional levels. But my point in bringing this out is that we can see Isaiah 1 essentially following the basic emotions. God’s complaint is based on an anthropomorphic surprise of God. From surprise, the next emotion on the wheel is sadness, and indeed Isaiah’s next section correspondingly is God’s lament. Sadness is followed by disgust and then anger. Both disgust and anger are evident in Isaiah 1’s next section of God’s disgust. Next, the emotion wheel turns to anticipation, which relates to our current Isaiah 1 section of God’s call. The call places the choice of following God or abandoning God before Judah, and upon that choice anticipation rests. Therefore, the organization of Isaiah 1 is the development of emotion. More precisely, we follow God’s emotion as he reacts to Judah’s sin. The structure beautifully pictures a God who not only interacts, but does so with emotionally involved care.
Verses 16 and 17 list several admonitions that begin God’s call to Judah. By a quick read through the list we may simply understand God to be tossing out several similar phrases that project two basic ideas—remove sin and act in goodness. But these are not merely redundant phrases. The first phrase calling on Judah to “wash yourselves” gives the main point—the removal of sin. But the next three admonitions go deeper to emphasize the complete eradication of sin. They are to “cleanse” themselves—a reference to what to do as a result of past sin; they are to “remove” their evil deeds from God’s sight—a reference to present activity; and they are to “stop” doing evil—a resolve for the future. Thus, the washing of sin concerns past, present, and future eradication.
The fourth admonition transitions from removal of sin to performance of good. “Learn to do what is good” God through Isaiah tells the people. Again he begins with the main focus: “seek justice.” The seeking of justice extends to three areas: correct the oppressor, defend the rights of the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause. The Hebrew here is a bit vague. I believe the KJV and NIV have the right idea in the first of this triplet to read it rather than as instruction of action toward the oppressor to be instruction of action for the oppressed. In other words, a better translation here would be relieve the oppressed. Likewise, rather than “defend” the fatherless in the second phrase, we regularly understand the Hebrew word as “judge.” The three statements, then, are (1) relieve the oppressed, (2) judge the fatherless, and (3) plead the widow’s cause. We notice that these three actions are what may normally transpire in a court scene, albeit in reverse order. The cause is pled; the case is judged; and the oppressed is then relieved. God reverses this order to focus on the result—the goal: relief for the oppressed. This is the goal of justice. It is also the goal of mercy. It appears that the Jews were not paying much attention to the more vulnerable of their society, allowing those who were weak, unloved, unwanted, and not valuable to be ignored and, by that rejection, unable to receive justice or mercy. So God’s admonition in putting away sin to take up goodness speaks directly to this notable inequity regarding justice that was in the framework of Jewish society.
God calls the people to the table to discuss this. But this is no give-and-take demand-and-compromise negotiating session. This session is bounded on the front end by God’s call for discussion, but ends with God saying, “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The Lord here is translated from Yahweh—the Existent One, the One who IS, the great I AM. That statement is intended to denote the strength of what God tells them. Rather than negotiating, God lays before them a choice. They may follow God in faith (be willing and obedient), which will result in security in the land, or they may abandon God, in which case God will abandon them. Notice the contrast: Abandon God, and he will abandon you. Have faith in God, and…(not “he will be faithful to you,” but rather) you will be secure in the land. Why does God place security in the land as a synonym for God’s faithfulness to them?
Land has always been used in the promises of God as symbolic of his presence, pleasure, and faithfulness. As far back as the Garden of Eden we see this relationship. Eden means pleasure. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he was placing him in the land of his good pleasure. When that first couple sinned, they were removed from and barred from that land of his good pleasure. When Christ returns and judgment is done, we who belong to him will be placed by God in the new (resurrected) earth (Is 65 and Rev 21). Abraham was promised land, and Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham recognized the important part of that promise was the connection of land to God’s presence and faithfulness as an abiding city whose foundation was of God (Heb 11:9-10). Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land, which Hebrews again tells us is recognized not by the dirt of the ground but by the rest in it from God. Hebrews 4 tells us that that promise—the inheritance of a Promised Land “remains” (Heb 4:1). The Israelites who lacked faith never “entered the land (rest)” (compare Numbers 14:22-23 (land) to both Psalm 95:10-11 and Hebrews 4:3 (rest)). Recognizing that God himself is the inheritance of God’s people—all those (both Jew and Gentile) of faith—ought to help us keep a handle on what the land promises ultimately indicate.
In verse 21, we enter a new section of the chapter. Verses 21 through 23 are God’s lament over Jerusalem. Notice that God’s covenant people are no longer termed Judah, but are now called Jerusalem (or Zion). This change is so that God may present an additional aspect to the relationship. In the first half of the chapter God dealt as a father with his children. The main purpose there was that the children did not learn from their father. They did not know God and his ways of justice and righteousness. They obeyed legalistically in duty, but God was fed up with their mindless, heartless ritual. He wanted them to learn who he is and act accordingly. In the second half of the chapter, God shifts the highlight from relational disregard to relational unfaithfulness. For that he changes images from father/child to husband/wife. The obvious change of children to wife is a change of plural to singular. Accordingly, God’s image changes from Jews of Judah to the city of Jerusalem as representative.
The sin of the Jews hasn’t changed. God is still reproving their injustice. It is the perspective of attitude of the sinners that has changed focus. The faithlessness is not now seen as blind, mindless, untaught ritual as with the child perspective. Rather it is now seen as a striving after self and injustice to promote self—an abandonment of faith. Thus, calls the formerly faithful city an adulteress. She looks for gain and pleasure for herself rather than for the united marriage. But the result is that both wealth and pleasure are lost: “Your silver has become dross” (economic ruin) and “your beer is diluted with water” (pleasure gone). Note particularly the errors of the rulers: they (1) rebel and are friends of thieves, (2) they love graft and chase after bribes, and (3) they don’t defend the rights of the fatherless and they don’t hear the widow’s case. In other words, (1) they rebel against God’s structure of justice (righteousness), (2) they seek self interest and gain, and (3) they disregard the oppressed because it brings them no gain or promotion.
Verses 24 through 26 show God’s purging of Jerusalem. In this passage both elements of judgment and restoration are presented, but the emphasis is on restoration. God is called Lord God of Hosts and the Mighty One of Israel. The multiple names of power ought to give the people pause. He is literally the Master, the One Who IS, the One of Power, the Might of Israel. From that power base he calls out judgment on sin, burning the dross completely and removing all impurities (1:25). Through this act of God, the city (his people) will be known as righteous and faithful. Although we tend to think of this condition as an end-of-the-world image, that description actually has been accomplished in Christ. Christ has removed all impurities from his people, and he has given them his own righteousness so that they may be called faithful. We must understand this already-but-not-yet aspect of this predictive promise.
Finally, in verses 27 through 31 God presents judgment on Jerusalem. Again both elements of judgment and restoration are presented, but the emphasis this time is on judgment. First, God mentions that the repentant ones will be redeemed. But then for the final verses he speaks of the unrepentant ones—unfaithful Jerusalem. Verse 28 mentions rebels and sinners in contrast to the repentant ones of verse 27. This does make the imagery a bit tricky since he moves from the division of the faithful and rebels (plural) back to the singular (unfaithful Jerusalem). Therefore, verse 29 begins with the plural (they) but quickly switches it to the singular (you). It is the rebels who will become both ashamed and embarrassed at that in which they have placed their faith.
The “sacred trees” of verse 29 should be understood as the rebellious rulers who were acting in injustice. The Hebrew there is usually translated as a strong leader rather than as a tree. (The tree imagery comes about only in comparison—that a strong leader is as strong as an oak.) That tree/garden imagery for a strong leader and the society he encourages continues in verse 30. That strong leader that previously is compared to a strong oak will actually turn out to be a withered tree, and the society he encourages (his garden) will also shrivel up and die. That tree will be be burned like tinder (v.31) in God’s judgment.