Justice in II Isaiah

Day Thirteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

I found the reference to the development of the idea of justice in Isaiah. It was in a review by Eryl W. Davies in The Journal of Theological Studies (59:1, April 2008, p. 230) of the book Rhetoric and Social Justice in Isaiah by Mark Gray (London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2006). Davies writes that

Mark Gray

This guy: The Rev Dr Mark Gray, the Minister at Bannside Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland.

Gray argues that scholars who have rather blandly asserted that the establishment of justice was Isaiah’s mission to the world have been too naively idealistic and have failed to pay sufficient attention to the nuances of the text. While it is true that passages such as Isa. 1:16–17 may imply that the prophet was a great advocate of justice, Gray argues that he was able only to ‘discern and denounce what was wrong in society’ but, due to the ‘under-development of the concept of social justice in the traditions on which he was drawing’ (p. 49), he did not come close to proposing measures that would rectify the situation of the poor. Turning to Isaiah 58, on the other hand, Gray is struck by the way in which this chapter develops and deepens the concept of social justice presupposed in Isaiah 1, for in the former passage there is a pronounced emphasis on the importance of solidarity with the poor, the significance of suffering on behalf of others, and the imperative to give generously to those in need.

Fascinatingly, Gray

argues that the text of the later chapters of Isaiah is more pondering and questioning than has often been allowed, and he suggests that the justice of the divine punishment announced in Isaiah 1–39 is subtly called in question in the rest of the book as doubts are raised about the benevolent nature and character of God. In this regard, Gray succeeds in bringing to the fore dimensions of the text that are often overlooked and in doing so he demonstrates that the text of Isaiah 40–66 is more nuanced and subversive than is usually supposed.

This sounds like a book I should order, eh? Let’s have a look at Isaiah 58. It starts with a condemnation:

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.      – Isaiah 58.1

But then it notes that it is not the case that they do not care about God or righteousness.

2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’    – Isaiah 58.2-3a

The issue of fasting, in response to having committed sin, is raised, but it is not enough. Why does not God honour their humility? Yahweh responds:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?    – Isaiah 58.3b-5

Screenshot 2019-12-13 at 17.29.22This type of fasting and humility is manipulative and fruitless. Instead, Yahweh requires true fasting:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isaiah 58.6-7

This action, which we anachronistically but correctly label “social justice”, results in action from God.

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.     – Isaiah 58.8-9a

You will recall in chapter 6 God calls to Isaiah and he replies in Hebrew: הִנְנִ֥י “Hi-nen-ni”, which I always want to translate as “Yo!”, but is more conventionally “Here I am.” Now Yahweh says, “Here I am” and acts to restore the people of Israel.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.                – Isaiah 58.9b-12

The benefit of social justice is light, guidance through the wilderness, and the restoration of Jerusalem and Judah. This is not a libertarian view, but communal. It is the responsibility of the whole people of God to satisfy the needs of the afflicted and feed the hungry.

The chapter concludes with a passage about the Sabbath.

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.           – Isaiah 58.13-14

This might strike us as curious, except that the commandment about the sabbath is to do no work, which means it is a day of rest not only for the wealthy, but everybody in the household, even the animals:

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.         – Deuteronomy 5.12-15

Thus, the words about the Sabbath in Isaiah 58 continue the theme of justice.

How is this a development from what we saw yesterday in chapter 1 of the Book of Isaiah? From a close reading of the text Gray (channelled through Davies) concludes that

Previous commentators have not adequately captured ‘the depth of pain that will be involved in enacting the prophetic message, the sense that embarking on a course of behavior characterized by generosity towards the poor (58:7, 9b– 10a) will not result in the warm glow of self-satisfaction or the commendation of wider society for performing good deeds, but the deep cry of anguish’ (p. 100). In this way Isaiah 58 challenges the conventional wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, for it refuses to accept wealth and poverty as inevitable phenomena in the natural order, and rejects the Wisdom notion of prudence as the best guide to human behaviour. True justice can only be established at a cost, and that cost involves a feeling of solidarity with the poor and a readiness to embrace their pain.

Justice in II Isaiah is probably connected with the idea of Israel as the suffering servant of God (we will get to the theme of the Suffering Servant next week). Commitment to God involves a commitment to justice on a communal and individual level, and this can be expensive. Gray emphasises that this is a kind of fast, which is costly.

Christians, of course, see Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that in the century or two before Jesus the Book of Isaiah was being read messianically. The theme of justice, then, developed in Isaiah and continued to influence varieties of First Century Judaism. When Jesus talks about social justice in Matthew he is continuing the prophetic message of  Isaiah:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  – Matthew  25 .35-40

Homeless Jesus

The dedication of “Homeless Jesus” by Canadian artist Tim Schmaltz, at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

If anyone is a follower of Jesus, social justice is not an option, but a necessity. And if any nation claims to embody values influenced by Jesus and Isaiah, then care for the most vulnerable is a political imperative. Good news for dark days.

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.
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