If the second chapter held far-future prophecy of God’s righteous rule, then the third chapter holds near-future prophecy with chilling accuracy of a foreign invasion.
Isaiah now saw a time when foreign nations would invade Judah, and through these invasions—first Assyrian, then Babylonian—God would judge God’s people.
As you and I read what God would cut off, we begin to get a sense of what the people had put their trust in:
The wealth of their own land, a breadbasket
For now the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,Isaiah 3:1 (NRSV)
is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah
support and staff—
all support of bread,
and all support of water—
The nation’s governmental authorities, military leaders, and religious rulers
warrior and soldier,Isaiah 3:2 (NRSV)
judge and prophet,
diviner and elder,
captain of fifty
counselor and skillful magician
and expert enchanter.
Once the leadership was gone, the whole structure of society was going to collapse, with ineffective leaders and a spiraling down of every aspect of their lives.
And I will make boys their princes,Isaiah 3:4-5 (NRSV)
and babes shall rule over them.
The people will be oppressed,
everyone by another
and everyone by a neighbor;
the youth will be insolent to the elder,
and the base to the honorable.
Their own sense of righteousness
God pointed to their sin,
For Jerusalem has stumbled
and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord,
defying his glorious presence.
The look on their faces bears witness against them;Isaiah 3:8-9 (NRSV)
they proclaim their sin like Sodom,
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil on themselves.
It was no secret what the sin of Sodom was, everyone knew it. And the destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah and the other cities of that plain was famous for its commentary on God’s judgment.
It is a sober warning for us today as well, for though we may convince ourselves that we are a righteous people, we are also well aware of where corruption lies among our own leaders, as the news headlines reveal. We know—at least at some level—that our societies still contain many ills, where people on the margins are neglected, ill-represented, misused, and even abused, where the gap between wealth and poverty is increasing at a mind-boggling pace, where homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, debt, prejudice, and joblessness are entrenched.
Woe to them, but perhaps also woe to us, for we bring evil on our own people, too.
Prospect of Hope
God offered encouragement for the faithful who would be living in all of that judgment to come.
Tell the innocent how fortunate they are,Isaiah 3:10 (NRSV)
for they shall eat the fruit of their labors.
God knows who you and I are. And God is concerned with our personal stories, even though the community we are in might be involved in God’s judgement. I remember the first time I really slowed down and read these words. I realized this was what I had been looking for, for years, as God’s answer to my question, “How could you command total annihilation of the Canaanite peoples?”
Rahab and her family were famously saved, but what about all the many more innocents? Now, years later, God was saying to me, Tell the innocents how fortunate they are, for they shall eat of the fruit of their innocence. Like Rahab, and her family, the innocent are noticed and cared for by God.
Woe to the Wicked
Nevertheless, God continued, woe to the wicked, the leaders who led people astray, leaders who oppressed the people
How unfortunate they are,
for what their hands have done shall be done to them.
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;Isaiah 3:11, 14-15 (NRSV)
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.
The wealthy were making themselves rich off the poor, exploiting the poor instead of helping and caring for them.
Isaiah’s oracle from God was revisiting this theme of social justice.
The earliest use of the term “social justice” originates with a Christian author, Luigi Taparelli, SJ, in the early 1840’s. His premise was based upon the scriptural principles of the value of each human life, and God’s concern for the poor and needy. Taparelli felt there are natural laws, a certain social justice principle, that corresponded with what Christians named brotherly love. For Taparelli, social justice was what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the greatest commandment
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
[Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)
Over the one hundred and seventy years since this phrase was coined, both religious and political groups have worked out in practical ways what they think best serves these basic principles.
And there are many ideas on how to bring about social justice, politically, economically, religiously and even militarily.
But that is all secondary to this core principle that you and I are seeing in Isaiah.
The Biblical concept of social justice is
- bringing justice to the court system
- feeding the hungry
- clothing the naked
- caring for the infirm and the incarcerated
- correcting oppression
- defending the cause of the fatherless, and the widow
In fact, you and I can go to a Bible concordance and look up words such as “widow,” “orphan” and “poor” to see how often God speaks on this subject. Jesus picks up the same theme in the gospels, for example, in the judgment between sheep and goats.
What God pointed out next seems to be the enemy of social justice: Consumerism.
In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarfs; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.Isaiah 3:18-23 (NRSV)
This chapter ends with a wretched description of Jerusalem, sacked and humiliated, its young men fallen by the sword, its young women decaying in death.
The oracle’s final depiction describes a people being led into exile.
and instead of a sash, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth;
instead of beauty, shame.
Your men shall fall by the sword
and your warriors in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.
Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying,
“We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes;Isaiah 3:24-4:1 (NRSV)
just let us be called by your name;
take away our disgrace.”
Each of these details, the rope that will tie them each to the next as they are marched away, the shaved heads, the sackcloth, and branding identified the Babylonians as the invaders. Women will be cruelly assaulted. The gates lament, and mourn the departure of the people, as the city sits ravaged, forlorn, and empty.
God removed all the people’s idols, all that they had put their trust in. It was a judgment that purified. When the people would return from exile seventy years later, idolatry would never again be the problem it had been.