I’m still doing the cover-to-cover thing, and started Isaiah recently.
“Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (1:2b-3).
Isaiah goes on to mourn for Israel, because it is weighed down with sin, has forsaken God, and is completely sick and wounded as a result.
For me this is both a compelling and a threatening image. Compelling because it touches the heart to be called “sons,” and because it’s an outrage that God’s own people, whom he created, whom he loves and has only done good to, should forsake and reject him, and because mourning over sin-sickness is more appealing than judgment and condemnation. Threatening, because it’s the same language a so-called “benevolent dictator” might use in his propaganda — trying to make me think my rebellion is not the pursuit of freedom and truth, but an abandonment of my rightful protection (captivity) and true calling (enslavement). How easy it is to be confused, to think that our flight from God is right and good, and to think that we can find anything right and good apart from him who made us and loves us.
In verses 11-15, God says he’s had enough of sacrifices, because Israel’s religious doings are tainted with their sin. In 16 and 17 he tells them to wash themselves and make themselves clean, particularly in terms of social justice. In 18-20 he promises that if they obey, their sins will be forgiven.
The whole point of the sacrificial system was to provide for the forgiveness of sins. No one can possibly be righteous, so all must make atoning sacrifices in order to be cleansed. How can God then tell them the sacrifices are worthless, and that they should make themselves clean first, by obedience? If they could do that, they wouldn’t need sacrifices.
The Old Testament seems to have two standards for righteousness. One is the righteousness that would come from the law if anyone could really live by it. The other seems to be a righteousness by faith, by a readiness to repent, by a heart that is in tune with God’s. My guess is that this passage is asking Israel to repent, to love righteousness even though it’s not completely attainable in this life, to make sacrifices together with a repentant heart and a desire and effort to do good, and not thinking that sacrifice is a license to sin.
“And many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us concerning his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (2:3-4).
I had to stop after verse 4 and think a lot. I admit that my first inclination is to suspect that Christians who talk about social justice are missing the ultimate point. Not that social justice is unimportant, but that God’s ultimate goal is something greater, so much greater that we can’t really make justice a cause without also making it an idol.
And yet there are so many places in Scripture where the language clearly emphasizes social justice. So I read this passage and I have to ask, what part does social justice really play in God’s agenda? When Isaiah speaks of “his ways” and “his paths” and “the law,” is he primarily talking about God’s will for this earthly life and the way nations and people live with one another?
Then I went on to read verses 5-8, which lists Israel’s idolatries: they have borrowed forbidden religious practices from other nations and made wooden figures to worship — and they have accumulated wealth and power in the form of treasures and horses and chariots. What is wealth and power doing in a passage about idolatry? You could say that injustice flows from the worship of wealth and power, so it is just as much an idolatry as the worship of little wooden figures covered with silver or gold. Both idolatries break the relationship with God, and set something or someone else in God’s rightful place.
While it’s crucial for me not to neglect justice, I think it’s also important for more liberal Christians not to make it an idol. The greatest evil is not injustice, but forsaking the Lord, which can lead to injustice as well as many other evils. The greatest good is not justice, but loving the Lord, which leads to loving our neighbor as ourselves and many other goods.
“My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And he built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it; then he expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones. ‘And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?'”(5:1b-4).
Just this morning I was reading through the various blogs I frequent, and found that David Mobley at A Physicist’s Perspective linked to Tim Challies’ post on Open Theism, something I hadn’t heard of, so I followed the link and read the article. Apparently, one of the tenets of Open Theism is that God doesn’t know the future, so he takes risks and changes his mind.
Funny then that this afternoon I should read this passage in Isaiah, which has language that seems to support the Open Theism view. God is saying that he expected one thing and got something else. That seems to indeed suggest surprise. What does it mean that God expected the vineyard (Israel, or more broadly, humanity) to produce good grapes (right living, including right worship), if it doesn’t mean that he was surprised when people sinned instead? Is it possible for God to expect something and yet know that something else will occur instead? Can “expect” in that case be a declaration of God’s will, his holiness, his righteousness, without casting doubt on his power to make it happen, and without casting doubt on his right to choose not to make it happen?
Don’t parents and teachers also “expect” in this way? They declare what they want their children or students to do, and yet they are realistic enough to know that not all the children or students will do whatever it is all the time or all the way.
As for “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it,” the easy answer is this: Get rid of the tree! Send Satan further from heaven than earth! In other words, remove temptation. Why did God put the tree and Satan in the garden? Could it be that he intended sin to happen? (Isn’t this as bad as me putting the cat in the hamper, shutting it, and shaking it up, so that she’d be so grateful to me when I rescued her from it later? (I was little.)) If God intended sin to happen, shouldn’t he not hold us responsible for it? If he intended sin not to happen, does our free will trump his sovereignty? And why do I keep coming back to this conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism? (How can anyone be really convinced of either camp?)