Justice and Righteousness in Isaiah

Final paragraph updated at 1:30 pm on 12-8-15.

Isaiah, like many of the prophets, is bringing charges against Israel. Israel has gone back on her word. She promised faithfulness and now she has become like a harlot. She made vows, but she broke those vows. Isaiah’s main charge against Israel is that she fails to uphold justice and righteousness. In Isaiah 1:21-23 he says this:

How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

In Isaiah 5:7 he says this:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! 

Here is a longer passage from Isaiah 59:1-14:

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear…The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom…For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the LORD, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. 

One of the promises seen throughout Isaiah is that God will send One who will establish justice and righteousness. The coming of Jesus means that justice and righteousness will now be found among his people. This begins in Isaiah 1:24-27 where the Lord says:

Therefore the Lord declares, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes. I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness

It continues in Isaiah 9:6-7:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. 

And in Isaiah 11:3-5:

And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 

The word “judge” in the above passage is linked to “justice.” Here is another example from Isaiah 16:3-5:

Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. When the oppressor is no more, and destruction has ceased, and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land, then a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness.” 

Is Isaiah 42:1-4,which promises the Messiah’s coming justice is mentioned three times:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 

And later in Isaiah 59:15-17 we see the answer to 59:1-14 above:

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. 

If you read through Isaiah you will find more examples like this. Isaiah is often called the gospel in the Old Testament. Now of course, all the OT books contain the gospel. Jesus is there among the sacrifices, the Exodus, Joshua, the life of David, and Nehemiah. But the New Testament’s frequent use of Isaiah is a signal to us that this book contains some of the clearest references to the coming Christ in the Old Testament.

Therefore it is worth noting that Isaiah sees the coming of Christ as bringing in justice and righteousness. When Jesus comes things are set right, justice is done, and righteousness flows like a river. If you read passages such as Isaiah 1:10-23, 5:1-24, and 59:1-8 you will see what injustice and unrighteousness look like: Greed, murder, love of bloodshed, pride, idol worship, hypocritical worship, crushing the weak, especially orphans and widows, lying, deceit in business dealings, rulers who take bribes, rejecting God’s Word, especially his word about coming judgment on sins, inverting evil and good, and debauchery. What is the result of all this? Isaiah 59:9-10 tell us that it leads to darkness, blindness, stumbling, and deadness. Isaiah 5:25-30 says a failure to be just and righteous leads to God’s judgment upon Israel. When there is no justice and righteousness there is only judgment.

Here are several loosely connected thoughts on these passages.

-Without Jesus there is no justice or righteousness. This plays out in numerous ways. Individuals cannot do justice and be righteous without faith in Christ. Communities and nations cannot do justice without some reference to Christ and His law whether in nature or Scripture. The world cannot know what true justice and righteousness is without the preaching of Jesus Christ. We cannot live righteous lives without the work of Christ’s Spirit, His Word, and His people.

-Along those same lines, without Christ’s death on the cross there is no justice or righteousness for us sinners. In order for there to be true justice our sins had to be taken by the sinless One. He had to become our substitute in order for God to be just and the justifier (Romans 3:26).  Righteousness comes only through trust in Christ crucified.

-We are nation obsessed with justice. Righteousness not so much. Justice is hip. Righteousness not so much. But for the Christian they are synonyms. Look at Isaiah 59:15-17. God sees there is no justice. But he doesn’t bring justice. He brings salvation and righteousness. Connecting justice with righteousness will help us better understand what it is Jesus came to do and what we should be doing.

-Justice and righteousness are linked with obeying God’s commands, especially the Ten Commandments. There can be no true justice and righteousness without the basics, worship of God, a refusal to murder, respect for authorities, respect for property, monogamy within marriage, and speaking the truth, especially about our neighbor. It feels like justice is such a fleeting subject, so hard to nail down. Sometimes that is the case. But often justice and righteousness are just a matter of getting the basics right.

-Isaiah castigates all sins. He does not choose sides. The sins of the left and the right political pundits and the conservative and the liberal churches are all exposed. He denounces theft, bribes, taking advantage of the poor, politicians who can be bought, and pastors who look the other way. Justice requires proper use of money in the private, religious, business, and civic realms. He also denounces sexual immorality, bloodshed, love of violence, dreaming up ways to do evil, laziness, debauchery, praising of drunkards and the immoral, greed, idolatry, hypocrisy in worship, inversion of good for evil, rejection of Scripture, and pride. It is difficult to read Isaiah and see anything ahead for America and her compromised churches but judgment.

But there is an answer. It is the same answer it has always been. Repent, turn from our sins, and believe in Jesus.