RPM, Volume 15, Number 34, August 18 to August 24, 2013

Purging the Dross

Isaiah 1: 21-26

By D. Marion Clark


What we come to the Bible for is content. We value the Bible for what it has to reveal to us from God. But then there are times when you just can help but admire the way it is written. Isaiah is the acclaimed writer among the prophets not only for the content of his vision, but for the sheer skill in which he wrote. We see that skill at work in this passage.

Bible commentator, Alec Motyer, shows the carefully balanced pattern of this poetic prophecy.

A. The Collapse of the Faithful City
21 See how the faithful city
has become a harlot!

B. Past and Present Contrasted: Justice Replaced by Murder
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!

C. Metaphor: Values Turned to Dross
22 Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.

D. The Corrupt Rulers
23 Your rulers are rebels,
companions of thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow's case does not come before them.

D. The Sovereign God
24 Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty,
the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
"Ah, I will get relief from my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies.

C. Metaphor: Dross Purged
25 I will turn my hand against you;
I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.

B. Past and Future Identified: Justice Restored in True Judges
26 I will restore your judges as in days of old,
your counselors as at the beginning.

A. The Restoration of the Faithful City
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City."

In contrast to the corrupt rulers who will not take up justice for the weak, God will act justly against the wicked and the corrupt rulers. He will purge away the dross. He will restore just judges in place of the murderers. Jerusalem will again be a faithful city to God.

Another commentator, Derek Kidner, notes the intentional use of metaphors. "The theme is vanished glory; even the metaphors for it tail off from the tragic to the trivial (wife…silver…wine.)

And then note the larger pattern of the chapter up to this passage. In verses 2-9, there is a look only to this past — God's preservation; in verses 10-20, there is a future, but one which could go for good or ill based on the people's response; in verses 21-26, we are given a glorious future. Israel goes from barely surviving to a possible good future to a certain good future.


That's good news for Judah and Jerusalem, but, meanwhile, let's consider the concern of God regarding his nation. His concern is about justice, or rather, the lack of it. Justice is what is missing and is what God wants.

Jerusalem is a harlot because she is no longer a dwelling place for justice. The silver and wine are defiled because of unjust rulers. She will be called a Faithful City after God restores to her just judges.

What is God thinking of when he thinks about justice? He could pick out any number of unjust acts. Here what he focuses on is the failure to defend the cause of the unprotected, viz., orphans and widows.

17 Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.

23 They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow's case does not come before them.

Note the term "fatherless." An orphan, by definition, was one who was fatherless. Even if the mother is still living, he is still regarded an orphan because of the protection removed from him.

The problem was not a lack of laws to protect the widows and orphans:

22 "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:22).

17 Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:17-21).

28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied (Deuteronomy 14:28,29).

These provisions for the orphans and widows show the difficult position they were in. Israel was an agrarian society. One's provisions and income were primarily earned through working land. Orphans and widows inherited the land of their fathers and husbands, but they generally lacked the physical ability to cultivate the land properly and the wherewithal to handle the business transactions involved in selling and buying. They were easy marks for the unscrupulous.

They also were physically defenseless. Remember, there was no police force. You protected yourself from thieves and assailants. And if an injustice was committed against you, you either exacted vengeance yourself or you personally took your case to the local judge. Again, orphans and widows were in a weak position to do either. They were not going to take back what was taken from them. All they had left were the magistrates. The magistrates or rulers were to be their defenders.

That's exactly what they were not doing. Why? Greed.
23 Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves;
they all love bribes and chase after gifts.
The widow next door has some nice property to develop, and she want accept your generous offer for it? Take it anyhow. Move the boundary markers or make up a false deed. She threatens to go to the judge? No problem. A secret bribe makes sure it is inconvenient for him to even hear her case.

God despises this. The commentators I've read consider the reference in verse 21 to refer to real murderers. I'm not so sure. I am of the opinion God considers such rulers and judges who do not defend the orphans and widows to be murderers. One may kill without taking life, and many may have actually died because of their livelihood being taken away.

God is just the opposite. He shows compassion for the needy and weak, and he is fair.

14 To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:14-18).

Note that the issue is justice, not mercy. God's complaint against the rulers is that they do not carry out their responsibility to be just. He does not complain that they fail to side with the orphans and widows, but that they fail to defend and hear their cases. God is one who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He is not calling on the leaders of his people to be generous, rather, to be just. If they are, then the weak will be properly cared for.


What are we to make of this? We must take seriously what God takes seriously — the welfare of those who are vulnerable in society — widows and orphans, but also anyone who, by virtue of their status, is in a weak position to defend themselves from injustice.

The church historically has understood this. In pagan societies, it has been Christians who have founded orphanages, set up care for widows, rescued rejected infants from death by exposure, started schools, and other such institutions and programs. Christian missionaries and churches have often endured attacks precisely because they became voices for the weak. In the early church and still in non-Christian countries, it is the Christian church that has "cornered the market" for justice for the needy.

In light of God's Word, we need to examine how well we are doing in the area not only of providing care for the needy, but of defending their cause and seeing that their voice is heard.

We need to examine how proactive we are in promoting justice. In verse 17 God's complaint is not that the wicked were going after the orphans and widows, but that they were not coming to their aid.

We are, as much as we would like not to have to be, our brothers' keepers. We don't have to be greedy to want stay out of other people's problems. We just want to avoid the trouble we may get ourselves into. But God wants a city, a church, of justice; and by that he means one filled with just judges and counselors, i.e. people exercising justice for others.

So, there is that unsettling lesson to learn, but there is also a lesson of comfort. Our God is just. What he is against is always what is unjust; it's not a matter of his personal pet peeves. And he always acts with justice, even in salvation — especially in salvation. With a God who is just, how could any of us be justified? Who is without sin? Who without failure has always promoted justice? But our comfort is that through justice God was and is able to show mercy to those who are most helpless, even ourselves.

21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).


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