Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
— Isaiah 1:2–3
The courtroom is a crucible. Guilt or responsibility is determined after evidence is presented, sifted and weighed. In the prophet Isaiah’s vision, as elsewhere in the prophetic literature, the courtroom is no earthly venue but rather a cosmic one.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, creation itself — heaven and earth — will bear witness. That which God created prior to humanity — and which, by its presence, bore witness to God’s grace and goodness first toward humanity in general, then toward Israel in particular — will sit in judgment of this case. This is fitting because a jury of Judah’s peers cannot be found among the peoples or nations of the world. Nor, apart from God, does anything precede the creation of heaven and earth that would thus be sufficient to sit in judgment of the charges brought. In the crime scene that is this world, heaven and earth have seen it all — the good with which we are capable and the evil with which we are too often culpable.
As with any trial, the charges against Judah are read at the outset. Judah has rebelled against God, and its people are burdened with iniquity. They are corrupt in their dealings. They have turned from God. They have become like Sodom and Gomorrah, two ancient cities laid waste for their wickedness and injustice. In the observance of their religious rites and ceremonies, they come before God, faithful in making sacrifices and burnt offerings — prayerful even — yet with blood on their hands.
In the midst of this litany of iniquity, a plea bargain is offered. If the people will make themselves clean and cease to do evil; if they will learn to do good and seek justice; if they will rescue the oppressed and become again willing and obedient to the claim and call of God, their sins will be forgiven, and they shall again “eat of the good of the land.” If they reject the plea and continue instead to rebel, they will face continued destruction and desolation, a judgment all too familiar to the people of Judah, living as they did in the shadow of the Assyrian empire.
This injunction to educate ourselves in that which is good and to seek justice implies their existence independent of our will and desire. We are not to invent or to create something new out of whole cloth but rather to discern that which is at the very foundation of the order of creation established by God. Justice is not something we measure and define. Rather, justice measures and defines us.
Lest we lose ourselves in abstractions, the movement in Isaiah’s vision of this cosmic trial is from that which is general — doing good and seeking justice — to specific examples of the same — rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow.
In Isaiah’s day, the fundamental economic and social unit was the extended family. Widows and orphans, who could not claim such an extended family, enjoyed neither economic support nor someone to speak on their behalf in court. As a result, they were among the most vulnerable members of society and, therefore, ever at risk of being exploited. Likewise, we, no less than people of Isaiah’s time, are compelled to correct oppression and to seek justice for those on the margins of our society, who have neither access to nor influence with those in power.
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The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.