Justice and Righteousness

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  October 4, 2014

            It is part of our human experience. Hopes, time, money, energy, sweat, and tears are invested into something which is believed would yield great blessings. Then, in the midst of what was thought to be a sure thing, calamity and bitter disappointment dash all hopes.
In spite of our most faithful efforts and heart-felt prayers, things fall apart, go the way least desired, or simply explode in a fury of unexpected backlash and consequence.
Sometimes the marriage fails, the beloved child becomes caught up in the throes of addiction, the trusted investment goes bankrupt, the dream job is downsized, the cancer returns with a vengeance, or the long-anticipated retirement plans are cut short. Life frequently takes us down paths we never desired or anticipated.
In connecting with that common human experience, the prophet Isaiah compares the human feelings of great disappointment to God. In the opening chapters of Isaiah, the prophet expresses God’s displeasure with religious corruption. The sacred religion had become arrogant and distorted. Then, in the fifth chapter, Isaiah equates God’s joy with creating and blessing Israel and Judah to the euphoria of a lover preparing for marriage and the hope of a vine grower joyously preparing the fields for a beautiful crop of the most delicious grapes.
Yet in the poetic words of Isaiah, the lover’s hopes are dashed as the anticipated vines turn out to be wild. They do resemble the desired grapes but the distinctively smaller fruit is bitter and harsh. It can only mimic the crop it was hoped to be and its bitterness makes it unsavory and impossible to enjoy.
In the original Hebrew poetry, the prophet vividly illustrates God’s anguish. God intended justice (mishat in Hebrew) and only found bloodshed (mispakh in Hebrew). God sought righteousness (tsedaqah in Hebrew) and received only an outcry for help. Much like the difference between good and wild grapes, the subtle difference between Isaiah’s use of these Hebrew words is significant.
The Bible repeatedly calls for justice—God’s justice. Yet frequently people abuse the idea of Biblical justice to seek revenge, punitive retribution, hate filled violence, and unholy condemnation, all in the name of justice. The Bible repeatedly calls for righteousness—God’s righteousness. Yet frequently people distort the idea of living right in terms of strict adherence to doctrines, beliefs, and traditions that only serve to oppress, discriminate, and subjugate people to less-than-human status.
When the church does more to destroy life and create disharmony than bring wholeness to this fragmented world in which we live, it is not practicing justice. When the church does more to injure people and destroy their sense of self-confidence, it is not practicing God’s righteousness. The presumed righteousness and justice may look like grapes, but are merely a wild, distorted version of God’s will. Much like the devastating wild grapes of Isiah’s prophetic warning, punitive justice and arrogant righteousness only give the illusion of God’s desires while actually disappointing God’s desired outcomes with bitterness.
The prophetic warning from Isaiah 5 speaks across time and generations to remind the church of 2014 of how important it is to do God’s work in this world. It is a work that the prophet Micah exemplifies as simply seeking God’s justice, loving kindness, and walking in humility with God. We are to be ministers of God’s love, grace, and peace in this world.