No justice, no peace? Isaiah 1-6
October 16, 2010
Isaiah 1-6, phew, that’s a lot to take in. Highlights include the old favourites; “they shall beat their swords into to ploughshares” (2:4); “Here am I; send me!” (6:8) and of course the Sunday morning favourite “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Each of these verses deserves a treatise of its own, each of them have blessed and will bless me and you and us. But to cherry-pick these 21st century friendly (if any Bible verse can be called such) lines would really not reflect the ambience of the chapters as a whole, would it?
Here’s the general drift: God is angry. Majorly angry. Wrathful, if you will. As with huge swathes of the Bible (see recent posts on Job and Joshua) it all seems a bit harsh on first reading. Most striking to me is the vitriol against the “haughty” daughters of Zion; “the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.” Oh matron! Sorry, serious times are going on down in Zion, this is not the time for Carry On references…
The truth is that I find it hard not to make jokes about verses like that. I feel compelled to somehow defuse my middle-class, western, liberal (oooh I hate that word!) discomfort with these verses of desolation. So I’ll write “swords into ploughshares” in nice writing and put it up somewhere and forget the slightly threatening tones of the song of the unfruitful vineyard (5:1-7).
Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Thankfully, my eyes were opened to the ferocious appetite for social justice that lay within the biting words of Isaiah – especially by great Christian campaigning groups like SPEAK. I used to find “righteous anger” a bit of oxymoron, and I would read passages like Isaiah 1, which describes the desolation and degeneracy of Judah as if it said “God has punished you so now you’re like this” rather than “look what you’ve done! now you’re like this”. But prophecy is truth-telling’. The people of Judah wonder why everything’s gone so wrong and Isaiah’s not afraid to tell it to them straight; you accumulate with no view to the future, you neglect widows and orphans, you live in opulence and take from those who have nothing. So greed begets greed, violence begets violence, oppression begets oppression. From Exodus to the gospels God is the God of the oppressed; when you become the oppressor it’s very hard to stay in tune with Him! So in Isaiah God’s turning that great old break-up line on its head; “it’s not Me, it’s you!”
This is heart-breakingly apparent in the song of the unfruitful vineyard when the gardener asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” The voice of God, like a forlorn parent regarding their misguided progeny. It’s been almost 3000 years but still the alarming revelation that blessing, security and even salvation don’t guarantee a faithful heart, or a people dedicated to compassion. See also the Conservative party front bench (oh no she didn’t!).
5:8 incisively illustrates how one can be isolated by ones own greed:
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!
This could be a message for any Western nation in the days of climate change and decreasing bio-diversity
So though I’m left rather shell-shocked by it all, I’m glad it’s in there. Sometimes it seems that social justice is on the fringes of the Church. In fact I once heard a ‘celebrity pastor’ (now there’s an oxymoron) from the US say that if your church teaches social justice issues you should leave it. I’m not sure what Bible he was reading! Maybe the Tea Party Translation (oh no she didn’t!)
And it’s also nice to know that along a good, and very necessary, telling off there’s also hope. More on that next Saturday I’m sure (for unto us a child is born!) But for now “swords into ploughshares” ain’t bad…not bad at all…