RPM, Volume 15, Number 41, October 6 to October 12, 2013

Court in Session

Isaiah 3:8-15

By D. Marion Clark


We are in the midst of a gloomy section of judgments and analyses of Jerusalem's and Judah's condition that began with 2:6 and will run through 4:1. Really, from the beginning Isaiah's message has been one of criticism of their condition and warning of judgment with a scattering of hopeful words (1:18,26,27) and one section of promise (2:1-4). This is the kind of stuff John's disciples appreciated. Our passage presents another analysis of Jerusalem and Judah, and gives us more insight into the political and social condition.

The Situation

Isaiah cries out: 8 Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling. The nation is going down for the count. Or perhaps a better imagery is that of a drunk staggering on the street, about to collapse in a stupor.

What's the problem? It's the same as Isaiah opened his book with: they have rebelled against me [God] (1:2). Their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence. Now, Isaiah has already explained some of these "words and deeds." They include hypocrisy in worship, violence, oppressing the needy, not providing justice, idolatry, practicing divination and the occult, and pride. We know these things are bad, and Isaiah has already labeled them as rebelliousness, but here he presents them in the harshest light: they defy the glorious presence of the Lord.

Remember who the people of Judah and Jerusalem are? They are members of the covenant nation of God. Jerusalem is the home of God's temple, God's dwelling place. Judah is supposedly God's kingdom on earth. It is the holy land, the place of God's presence. And he dwells not just in the land, but among the people. They are to be a kingdom of priests, a people who mediate before God on behalf of everyone else. They possess the Law of God. They are supposed to model before the world the kind of people who follow the one true God. They are supposed to declare his glory to the world.

Instead, they live just as the world does, and in many ways worse than the world. Thus, instead of magnifying the glorious presence of the Lord, they are defying it. They are making the statement: we will live for our own glory.

Verse 9 points out their arrogance again. They are brazen about their rebelliousness; they act proud about their offense:

9 The look on their faces testifies against them;
they parade their sin like Sodom;
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
They have brought disaster upon themselves.

They are not like the Pharisees, that's for sure. They do not bother to appear to be pious. They would not have blatantly defied God, but their demeanor and actions show clearly that the religion of the covenant have no place in their hearts.

Note Isaiah's dire conclusion: Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves. Their own sins will bring judgment. They will not escape. God will not be mocked; he will not allow sin and injustice to go unpunished. And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Now, I had mentioned that in this gloomy section of doom and criticism are words of hope and encouragement. Verse 10a presents one: 10 Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds. You can imagine the concern of those few people who do follow the Lord when they hear these words of impending doom. Are they too to be caught up in the judgment? Yes and no. Yes, they are living in a land that will be destroyed, and, yes, they will get caught up in it. But they will not share the worse fate of the wicked — the perishing of their souls.

11 Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them!
They will be paid back for what their hands have done.

That is a more awful word than we realize. Our earthly minds run like this. We think of punishment and reward in earthly terms. On a side note, that's why Scripture uses earthly language and we in turn misinterpret it. We see only the judgment and reward that takes place in this life, neither of which carries the full force intended. The judgment to come on the wicked is not merely that their homes will get knocked down, or they will lose their land, or even that they will be killed. The disaster upon them is the loss of their souls. The sins, remember, defy the glory of God. The penalty for such a crime is damnation.

Likewise, the reward of the righteous is not merely good health or protection from invading armies. It is the very salvation of one's soul. The fruit they will receive is the fruit of salvation; it is entering into the glorious presence of God. The righteous, the truly righteous, remember, may come before the righteous God. Isaiah is saying to them, "Take heart; it will be well with you."

But back to the situation at hand.

12 Youths oppress my people,
women rule over them.
O my people, your guides lead you astray;
they turn you from the path.

Youth gangs have not taken over; rather, the leaders act as inexperienced and cocky youths. Their bad leadership is oppressive and oftentimes they outright mistreat the people under their care.

Again, women have taken leadership either. Probably Isaiah is alluding to the harem of the king and suggesting that his many wives and concubines are the ones really running the show. He also may be saying that the rulers are not acting in their masculine role of leadership. They behave as women of vanity and weakness.

The problem is bad leadership. O my people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path. The leaders who are to be models of righteousness, leading their people in the ways of the Lord, and instead models of rebelliousness, turning their people from his path. Whatever indignation the Lord has for the people who have rebelled against him, be sure that it is worse for those who use their leadership to lead others astray.

So God holds court to pronounce judgment. Lawyers know that how they present their case depends much on knowing the judge. Some judges are known to be strict, while others to be lenient. Judges are more severe with some crimes over others. A lawyer defending a known criminal hopes for a judge with a lenient disposition. Isaiah makes it clear that you do not want to be the lawyer defending the elders and leaders of his people.

13 The LORD takes his place in court;
he rises to judge the people.
14 The LORD enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:

God has already judged in the sense that he has seen the rulers' sins and understood them for what they are. The judging he is doing in the court is the kind a judge does when he has made his decision and is now rendering his verdict formally.

Here is the verdict:

It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.

You, the rulers, are the criminals. God is going to talk more about the vineyard in chapter 5. His vineyard is his covenant nation. These rulers have ruined it. I would not want to be standing in their shoes before this judge. It gets worse. They have plundered the poor. The poor! How low can you go? They not only fail to help and protect the poor; they plunder their meager possessions! And they were brazen enough to leave the evidence in their houses.

It is the next lines that convey God's anger. You can tell what kind of verdict a judge is about to render when he impresses upon the defendant the nature of his crime.

15 What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?"
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

Crushing my people…grinding the faces of the poor — God is not too happy. Catch the personal tone. These rulers had ruined my vineyard; they had crushed my people. You certainly don't want to find out that the family you terrorized happened to be that of the judge. God takes the crimes personally. The last phrase is the most ominous — declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty. Isaiah concludes with a reminder of the greatness and power of the Judge. The sovereign God (the Lord) is the Covenant God of Israel/Judah, who is the Almighty. You don't want to mess with him, and you don't want to mistreat his people.

Our Situation

We can easily apply this passage to government leaders. They need to realize that they are responsible before God to govern with equity, justice, and compassion. They need to realize that they hold greater accountability because they are models and guides. Occasionally you will hear a public official complain that his "indiscretions" are scrutinized more closely and judged more harshly simply because he is a public official. Well, yes. With authority comes responsibility, and the greater the authority, the greater the responsibility.

But the most appropriate application to be made is in the church. God's complaint is against the rulers of his people. He is concerned with the state of his covenant people. Under the New Covenant, that is his church.

The crimes. There are church leaders who literally plunder their people. They steal church money and use money given in faith for their selfish gain. They will be held accountable before God for plundering his people.

There are church leaders who lead their people astray through the teaching of a false gospel. Some teach the health and wealth gospel. They teach that God wants his church and his people to be rich; that lack of wealth or health indicates lack of faith. Thus they crush the spirit of God's people who go through trials and who are called to righteous living in the midst of ill health or a less-than-rich lifestyle. They lead their churches astray believing that the sign of a church favored by God is a church that is wealthy; that buildings are the real indicators of success. They lead their people astray from living in the service of God to living for their own welfare or for the welfare of the leaders.

Some teach a Christ-less gospel. Jesus is not proclaimed as Lord and Savior. He is not proclaimed to be the Son of God incarnated. They rob their people of the only hope they have for redemption. They receive the condemnation Jesus made of the teachers of the Law: Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering (Luke 11:52).

Some lay upon their people heavy burdens. They teach that salvation must be earned by keeping rules and doing good works, both of which are made more and more strict. They teach their people to live in constant fear of losing their salvation, if they do not keep these rules and follow all the teachings and commands of the leaders. They also will receive the same judgment that Jesus rendered against the teachers of the Law: Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them (Luke 11:46).

Leadership in the church is not a position to take lightly. The responsibility is great because the accountability is great. And yet, so is the reward. Of what greater reward can there be than to shepherd God's people? What greater blessing is there than to minister the Word of God to his people? As surely as there is judgment for wicked leaders, so is there blessed fruit for the righteous who lead their people along the path of the gospel.

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