Updated: Feb 4, 2022
In this blog, I'm often addressing problems and issues in our world and as well as faith in the United States. After all, I started blogging on Isaiah when I noticed that the problems of Isaiah's time seem eerily familiar to today.
And yet, there is much good to focus on.
I am encouraged by recent movements in Christianity to reset our focus on justice, to bridge the gap between the false dichotomy of fundamentalist beliefs that emphasize the worthlessness of this world such that the only task is to proselytize for the next and secular social justice perspectives that seem to lose the "why" behind the activity.
I am reminded of an academic conference that I attended where there was an optional Lutheran service held before the start of each day's activities (Lutheran due to the hosting school's denominational affiliation). In the middle of the service, we read from Isaiah and then were invited to share our immediate thoughts with those sitting next to us. I don't remember the exact passage, but it was one that emphasized freedom for captives and making wrongs right in a social justice-y kind of way. Much like Isaiah 42:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged til he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope....to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord; that is my name!
The conference attendee that I turned to said, in a thick southern accent, "I don't know about that. I don't think that's really in the Bible. I'll have to check with my pastor on that."
Um....a strong emphasis on justice is absolutely in the Bible, and the Hebrew word for it is often mišpāṭ, as we see here in Isaiah 42. While modern Christianity has emphasized the courtroom metaphor for God's justice, with an emphasis on punishment as the main way that God metes out judgments, there is more to right judgment than punishment.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary on the studylight site says this regarding mišpāṭ:
The English word "judgment" is a natural but misleading translation of the original, and we must dismiss at once the idea of judicial sentence, which it suggests. The Hebrew is "mishpat," which means, among other things, either a single statute, or the complete body of law which God gave Israel...not so much the actual body of statutes given to Israel, as the principles of right or justice which they enforce. In one passage it is given in parallel to the civic virtues "righteousness," "truth," "uprightness," but...it is these viewed not in their character as virtues, but in their obligation as ordained by God. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/isaiah-42.html)
That is, these are not optional virtues we put on if we're being good Christians. The justice of God and its connection to these civic virtues are ordained by Him and are therefore required of any who would follow Him. Fundamentalists of any flavor who see their role as purifiers of the earth are way off base. The evil is actually within, and what we are called to do with the outside world is to humbly work to promote what is fair and right. This is a pretty important concept, especially in Isaiah, where it appears 42 times!
It's all about right order. And we have the perfect model to follow for what this looks like. Isaiah 42 doesn't waste any time in telling us who this model is: the Servant of the Lord (hint: it's Jesus!). The NIV Application commentary for Isaiah 42 has this to say about mišpāṭ and the ministry of this Servant:
[T]hat ministry is above all to restore God's right order in the world. This point is made three times in short order. This should remind us that to suggest that the cross of Christ is only about forgiveness of sins is unwarranted. To be sure it is about that, but it is about much more. It is about dealing with all the effects of sin in the world and about restoring God's work on all levels of society.
Oswalt goes on to say,
This Servant brings God's right order into the world not from a position of strength but of weakness. He does not break the already-bent reed...
The apostle Matthew quotes this passage in Matthew 12 to emphasize that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. By the way, I'm totally picturing the Matthew from The Chosen (https://watch.angelstudios.com/thechosen) now as I read the painstaking detail in his Gospel.
I'm so thankful that Jesus didn't break the bruised or bent reeds when He was on earth, and that God doesn't break us now. Unlike some of His followers, He proclaims and works justice with kindness and gentleness. His is indeed the model to follow.
As the Forming Faith blog says in the article, "Waiting for Mishpat,"
How can someone who is quiet, gentle, and deliberate (v. 2-3) bring about justice in a world that is based on injustice? Doesn’t that require a revolution, upsetting how everything is done? It does. However, justice and peace cannot be established through violence. When you try, you lose the essence of both justice and peace. No, this revolution must be accomplished through non-violence. Justice must be founded on love, service, and self-sacrifice. And, love cannot come through force. Love, service, and self-sacrifice? Sounds like a certain Messiah I know.
Everyone admires leaders like Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King, Jr, who actively tried to implement this teaching directly. We somehow admire them and then don't emulate them.
Yet, as Gregory Rawn, concluding the blog referenced above writes,
As we are waiting for God’s Servant to come and establish the justice our world so desperately needs, God expects us to act. We believe Jesus is the promised Servant, but we are called to be the Body of Christ in the world. It is our mission to bring mishpat where we can through acts of love and by standing up against injustice. Let us be of the same mind as Jesus and act as he would act. However, we must still wait for Jesus to return, establishing justice for the whole world.
God expects us to act. This is part of His ordinances for us. He requires more of us than being more righteous and holy than others around us. Jesus openly tells his disciples in Matthew 5 that they need to be more righteous than the most self-righteous group that existed at that time--the Pharisees. We need to do the same, but not through out-fasting, out-praying, and out-church-service-attending compared to others. These things are essential for spiritual growth but can then be paired with an active focus on the right ordering that God desires. Rawn's description of acting in love and standing up against injustice is a perfect start.
If we are to model the Servant in Isaiah 42, promoting spiritual, physical, and emotional freedom is part of the work of Christ and is therefore our work as well. He died on the cross and He also was continuously bringing life and light through healing and teaching. His disciples are called to do this as well.