Isaiah 59 is the perfect sermon.
It begins with a "hook"-- Do you think that suffering and injustice occurs because God is unable to do anything?
Then it moves to explanation. In this particular case, God says to His people Israel that He is currently not listening to their requests because they absolutely need to change their behavior first.
Isaiah is speaking in the second person, calling people out: "you, your." Then he moves to third person: "their deeds, they."
And then it switches to first person:
justice is far from us.
we grope along the wall.
our offenses are many in your sight.
It was time to identify with the people, who needed to repent. It's pretty bad, bad enough for Paul to quote this passage in Romans 3:15-16, in his famous "there is no one righteous" section.
As always, though, willing your way to being a better person is doomed to result in failure. Instead, we have here an early instance of the armor of God, famous in Christian circles in the magnificent Ephesians 6 passage. Here in Isaiah 59, we have the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation (v. 17), same as in Ephesians. But--get this--this is God's armor. Who's putting them on in Isaiah 59? God Himself.
How amazing is it that when Christians are later told in Ephesians 6 to put on the armor of God...it's literally God's armor. It's like our Dad is allowing us to dress up in His clothing. These are incredibly valuable items of protection, and He is giving them to us.
Another important image in this passage is the highway motif that reappears, only this time Isaiah is describing the crooked paths of his listeners. As John Oswalt writes,
Verse 8 gives us the catalog of the major words for "highway," "path," and "road" used so frequently throughout this book. In contrast to the highway of holiness that God will prepare for his people (35:8. Note: see my blog post on this here: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/highway-of-holiness) or to the level highway on which he will come to deliver his people (40:3-4), these "roads" are "crooked," and those who embark on them will find destruction and distintegration, not the wholeness the "peace (shalom), that God offers (52:7; 57:19)
One of my favorite things about studying Isaiah is his tendency to describe the righteous life as a journey. As Oswalt says, this chapter contrasts the more common positive passage with what the unrighteous way looks like. A particular phrase jumps out at me: the "way of peace" which, we're told, the unrighteous do not know.
Early Christians called themselves the followers of "The Way." I love that. They took this phrasing from books like Isaiah as well the overall halakha (way of life) from the Torah. See an excellent article on this here: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/the-way-two-millennia Doesn't it seem that this is the right time right now for us to hearken back to earlier conceptualizations of Christian faith? Rather than fight to be part of a formalized power structure in the United States, why not see ourselves as exiles and sojourners (both Biblical concepts for Jews and Christians), traveling on The Way or The Way of Peace?
Back to Isaiah's pronoun switch. The prophet is aligning himself with the people in his confession of their offenses. This is an important switch. Arguably, every movement of revival in Christianity had confession and repentance as a hallmark. Many are arguing for repentance right now in the United States, but here's the thing. You can't strong arm God via fasting and prayer to make other people repent. To do so smacks of Luke 18:9-14, where the Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving that he is "not like other people--cheaters, sinners, adulterers." Our alignment with those who need to repent is essential. We can't call in a request that others repent. We need to repent.
John Oswalt says this about the prophet's confession and repentance in Isaiah 59:
It would have been easy, becoming so intimately allied with the holy God and being aware of just how terrible the sin of the people was, to consider oneself above such things. But if the prophet was closely allied with God, he was also still inextricably part of his human community. Tragically, any member of that community, if left to himself or herself, is capable of the worst sins imaginable. The mark of the truly great prophets was that they did not forget the latter in their absorption in the former. This confession is one of a person who has reflected deeply on the human condition. This is not a little regret over a few "unfortunate slip-ups." Rather, it is a recognition of the profound incapacity of humans to produce the very conditions on which "justice" and "righteousness," the things God called for in 56:1, depend.
Do we agree with this? Is there a "we" in our appeals to God, or do we somehow think that we have no part in the moral decay in our society? It's very easy to fall into this if the only moral decay we consider is philosophical (i.e. increasingly "liberal" views) or a particular behavior (same-sex relationships) and all other deviations from what we see in Scripture are morally neutral.
Let's take injustice for starters, since injustice is another significant theme throughout the book of Isaiah and it appears yet again here as one of the key areas of sin among the returned exiles. They showed injustice prior to exile, and now they're doing the same sorts of things (although more pathetically...how sad is it when those who don't even have much try to prevent others from having even the most basic of needs met?). Oswalt has this to say about the injustice here:
[T]he prophet makes it plain that the reason injustice and unrighteousness are such serious sins is not that they are first of all crimes against humanity but sins against the Creator who made us. They are acts of "rebellion" against the Lord of the universe. That is why they are terrible sins. If there were no Creator to whom we are responsible, no one can logically say that the strong snatching resources for survival from the weak is a bad thing. In fact, evolutionary theory would suggest that this is a necessity...But Isaiah will not have it, for what we do to one another are heinous crimes against God. Having revolted against God and thereby denying the "truth" of our existence, there is no truth in any of our relationships to the extent that those who take a stand against "evil" become the target to be attacked.
And so, repentance is needed. In his commentary on this chapter, Oswalt refers to the revival at Asbury College in Kentucky that helped start the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In this documentary on this revival describes (https://youtu.be/aGTU64TbiDA), confession and repentance kick-started the revival. This article also describes this revival: http://yalestandard.com/current-topics/lives-transformed-in-asbury-revival/
As described in the documentary, this all occurred in the midst of a series of cultural circumstances that bred mistrust among people, political unrest, and the turning of the peaceful hippie movement into a trap of homelessness and drug addiction for some. Moral decay and cultural/political unrest. The buttoned-down students of Asbury weren't at fault for the political unrest of their day nor were they living drugged-out on the streets in the Bay area. And yet, they had things that they needed to repent for, and this repentance was a little flame that helped to spark a nation-wide movement.
Do I become disproportionately incensed regarding injustice or unfairness toward me and my loved ones compared to how I react when others experience gross injustice? Do I feel at least the same amount of anger when I am at fault toward others? Does my dissatisfaction with minor slights loom much larger than my thoughts about the plight of people worldwide who suffer from injustice? As a man in the above documentary says, do we really think that we will be able to solve world hunger or human trafficking without people's hearts changing? We can put up many government regulations as well as hospitals, clinics, and organizations to help others, and we should absolutely be doing these things. However, until people's hearts change, these efforts will prove to be unsustainable. And if our eschatology views this world as being doomed anyway, that there's nothing we really can ultimately do to help about anything, and the main solution is the punishment of the evil, then we are not co-participants with the Lord in helping to bring about His kingdom. We are ignoring what we are taught in both the Old and New Testaments in light of watered-down theology and populist political diatribe.
As a sweet woman in the documentary says, God requires us to respond. And it starts with our repentance.
This wonderful sermon in Isaiah ends in a climax: the Redeemer.
The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord. “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. We repent of the violence in our nation (vv. 3, 6-7), a culture of deceitfulness and untruth (v. 3), our ignoring of injustice (v.4), our rebellion against the Lord in our efforts to foment oppression and revolt (vv. 12-13). Even if I have not directly participated in the worst of these offenses, my failure to intervene (v. 16) means that I am complicit. Lord, forgive us. We have been blinded by our own needs and our own concerns and have not been concerned about what You say is important. Please give us your righteousness and salvation, and we are so thankful that as believers we can wear this armor as our own. We need you to equip us to be able to stand up with this armor on, to participate with You and join what You are doing in the world today. Please help me to be part of Your Way of Peace rather than part of the problem. We ask You, Father, for forgiveness. We ask You, Redeemer, for your presence. We ask you, Spirit, that You do indeed come upon us and be in our very mouths. Amen.