The Idea of Justice in First Isaiah

Day Twelve of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

So far I have really been looking at the possible historical origins of the Book of Isaiah, but today I want to look at a basic theme in the book and how it develops, namely, justice.

Isaiah Doré

“Isaiah”, wood engraving by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) from “La Grande Bible de Tours“, 1843.

The beginning on Isaiah in chapter 1 is one of condemnation:

2 Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
4 Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!             – Isaiah 1.2-4

It is clear that this is not a problem of the wrong sacrifices being offered in the Temple:

12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch 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.     – Isaiah 1.12-15

So what is the problem? The problem is with the people and their leaders. The prophet, speaking the word of God to Jerusalem and Judah, says:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.                   – Isaiah 1.16-17


23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.     – Isaiah 1.23

Described here, justice is “doing good”, imagined in negative terms, such as not taking bribes, not committing murder. It concerns the marginalized – the oppressed, and the orphan and widow. When the princes ally themselves with thieves, nothing can redeem the worship of the Temple.

The failure of leadership also is noted in chapter 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!   – Isaiah 10.1-2

Chapter 2 describes other problems:

For you have forsaken the ways of your people,
O house of Jacob.
Indeed they are full of diviners from the east
and of soothsayers like the Philistines,
and they clasp hands with foreigners.
7 Their land is filled with silver and gold,
and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
and there is no end to their chariots.
8 Their land is filled with idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their own fingers have made.        – Isaiah 2.6-8

There is idolatry, there is the arrogance of wealth and military power, there is the use of soothsayers, and they rely on alliances with foreigners.

The injustice of certain property owners is delineated in chapter 5:

8 Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!           – Isaiah 5.8

Those who eat, drink, and are merry also are identified as subject to God’s wrath:

11 Ah, you who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine,
12 whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands!           – Isaiah 5.11-12

And those who identify their practices with those of Yahweh, seeing themselves as the favoured ones, are also condemned:

18 Ah, you who drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood,
who drag sin along as with cart-ropes,
19 who say, ‘Let him make haste,
let him speed his work
that we may see it;
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfilment,
   that we may know it!’
20 Ah, you who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21 Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes,
and shrewd in your own sight!
22 Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine
and valiant at mixing drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!    – Isaiah 5.18-23

And so what will God do? In chapters 1 and 2-12 Isaiah proclaims judgement on Judah and Israel. Israel ultimately is destroyed by the Assyrians, and its people taken into exile. The same might happen to Judah. And, in fact, it does come to pass, only the identity of the conquerors is different – the Babylonians in this case. Isaiah then foretells that a remnant will be gathered up and return, and the anointed one of God – the Messiah – will rule over them with righteousness.

2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.    – Isaiah 9.2-7

As noted in other posts, scholars have posited this anointed one as Hezekiah or Josiah, and there may be good reasons for doing so. However, after the destruction of the Temple and the double exile of Judah in the early 6th century BCE, these passages came to read in a different way.

We live in a very different world from that of Isaiah, his disciples, and the immediate generations following.  Of course we see injustice in accepting bribes, judging unfairly, failing to protect the most vulnerable, and in the arrogance of exploitative wealth and power. Indeed, we might even read it into the politics of our present situation. The condemnation of divination and idols seems less important, but only because we are products of a secular society where religion is seen as private and possibly frivolous. However, we live in a very different situation.

  • We do not believe in the divine right of kings, of the right of a particular family to rule (pace the House of Windsor, which as a monarchist I see as a useful constitutional device, not something God given) – yet the ideology of Isaiah is that it is precisely from the House of David that rule and salvation will come.
  • We have the right to engage in political processes – but only a small minority of Judah could do so.
  • We assume that government is there for the benefit of the people, but, as absolute monarchies, the realms of the ancient Near East were very much about “might is right”. Benevolence was a part of propaganda, to keep the peasants from revolting too often.
  • The understanding of suffering in Isaiah is very simple: “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.” If you are suffering, you must have done something bad to deserve it. This is also the theology in the Deutronomic History, and only gets challenged in some of the wisdom literature of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and especially the Book of Job. As well, apocalyptic literature called into question this theology, and developed the idea of the coming of the Son of Man and the General Resurrection of the Dead as ways of redeeming those righteous individuals who undeservedly suffered.
  • We do not normally see the hand of God in political events, but Isaiah sees everything in the control of God. Indeed, as II Isaiah says,

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.  – Isaiah 45.5-7

There is no sense here that God is opposed by evil powers or Satan – that is a later development in Jewish theology which Isaiah did not understand. Here, God is absolutely in charge. There is no sense of justice apart from God’s will.

  • For Isaiah the people and the king are one, and so they all suffer together. We would see this as unfair.
  • There is no sophisticated process of justice as would be  developed by the Rabbi’s in the Talmud, or in the civil law and common law traditions of Europe.

So, this is not exactly our understanding of justice today. Isaiah, speaking for God, is pretty clear on what he does not like. As a scholar (whose name I cannot remember) said, he is less clear on how to fix it. However, II Isaiah does develop the notion of justice a bit, and we’ll look at that tomorrow.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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