Isaiah 58 tells us about the importance of justice, the meaning of justice, and how to become people who do it.
Let’s start by looking at verse two, where God describes a particular group of people, who, the passage says, “day after day … seek me out.” The Hebrew Scriptures, when they talk about seeking the Lord, are talking about worship; they’re talking about going to temple and the sacrificial system: prayer and tithes. This is describing people who are diligent; who “day after day [they] seek me out.”
The passage goes on to describe them as people who “seem eager to know my ways.” The language here means to be passionate. In Hebrew it actually says (in spite of the fact that verse one says they’re in rebellion) that “they seek me diligently; they’re passionate to know my laws.” These people want to know how to live. They’re looking at the Ten Commandments. Their personal morality is practically perfect. Their worship—at least their fulfillment of the worship ordinances—is fastidious. And yet, they come to God, and in verse three they say, “Why have we fasted?” They want to know, “Why have we humbled ourselves and you haven’t noticed?” In spite of their moral lives, God is not answering their prayers.
God’s response is startling. He says, essentially, “Let me tell you what a fast is. Let me tell you what worship is. Let me tell you what it really means to seek me. In Isaiah 58:5-7, God says, “Is it not to loose the chains of injustice, to untie the cords of the yoke and set the oppressed free? Is not the fast I chose to share your food with the hungry, to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, to see the naked and clothe him?”
Justice: The Inevitable Sign of Real Faith
God says something astonishing here, and to get the full gist of it we need to look at Matthew 25. There, Jesus not only draws heavily on this passage, but on what’s said throughout the Old Testament, including Proverbs 14:31, where we read, “If you insult the poor, you insult the Lord.” Proverbs 19:17 tells us, “If you give to the poor, you give to the Lord.” In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about Judgment Day, when, He says, the Lord will have all of us standing in front of Him. On one side, He’ll set the people who are saved. On the other side, the people who are lost. And this is what He’ll say to the lost: “If you don’t love the poor, if you don’t love the hungry, the naked, the poor wanderer, the homeless—if you don’t love them, then no matter what you say, you don’t love me.”
A deep social conscience, and a life poured out in service to others, especially the poor, is the inevitable sign of real faith, and justice is the grand symptom of a real relationship with God. If you know Him, it will be there. It may come slowly, but it will come. If it doesn’t, you don’t have the relationship you think you have. Do you understand that this is at the heart of biblical faith? Do you see the importance of justice?
Now, why would God say that a deep concern for justice is the inevitable sign of a love relationship with Him? The second thing we learn here is the meaning of justice.
It’s interesting, when we talk about justice in our contemporary society, we don’t have the same definition the Bible does. Behind the biblical idea of justice is the rich concept of shalom. Look at verse seven; there’s a deliberate paradox there. It says [describing justice], “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter … ?” What is a poor wanderer? The word really means “a stranger.” A poor wanderer, according to the Hebrew commentaries, was an alien, a person from another country who had come into your country with virtually nothing—a refugee. But notice the synonym at the end of this sentence. It says you need to share your food, to provide shelter, to clothe the naked, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood. In this culture, where family meant everything, you were to treat the wanderer as if he were your own flesh and blood. God gives the stranger the status of family.
Shalom and Biblical Justice
God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. It describes a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts are faithfully and fruitfully employed, all under the arc of God’s love.
Here’s an illustration of shalom: If I threw a thousand threads onto the table they wouldn’t be a fabric. They’d just be threads laying on top of each other. Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. The more interwoven they are, the stronger and warmer they are. God made the world with billions of entities, but He didn’t make them to be an aggregation. Rather, He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.
Three examples might help further explain the concept. Physically, when your body’s working properly, every part works with all the others. But if you have cancer, it means a part of your body is at odds with the others. You experience the unraveling of physical shalom. Psychologically, your inner psyche has various parts: thoughts, feelings, and reason. When they’re working together you experience inner shalom, peace. But when your feelings crave something that troubles your conscience, you experience guilt. Which means you experience the unraveling of psychological shalom. Financially, when people have money, resources, and advantages, when they plunge them into the human community—so the parks are great and the schools are great and the houses are great—you have a strong social fabric. You experience social shalom. But when the wealthy ignore the less fortunate, when they hold onto everything, the social fabric unravels.
In the West, when we think of justice, we think of individual rights. We think justice means freeing individuals from the constrictions of the group, freeing them to do whatever they want regardless of what the group says. Biblical justice has a different trajectory. Biblical justice means interwovenness, interdependence, bringing individuals to see that our stuff isn’t just ours.
Bruce Waltke, a Hebrew scholar, adds perspective by helping us understand what it means to be “righteous” and “wicked.” Righteous people, Waltke says, deprive themselves for the sake of the community. Wicked people see their resources as belonging to them, and to them alone. Righteous people see that much of what they have belongs to the community; the wicked say no, it’s all mine. Read through the Bible with those definitions, and suddenly you’re reading a different book. Do you see now what it means to do justice? We do justice when we go where the fabric is breaking down, where the weaker members of society are falling through, where the interpenetration and the interdependence isn’t happening.
Notice that justice is depicted as sharing food with the hungry. The Hebrew commentators point out that this literally means to wait on the hungry. It’s not saying to give money so somebody else can serve the food. It says, literally, to serve the poor. That’s what it means to do justice. It means taking the threads of your life—your emotions, your time, your body, your physical presence, your money—and plunging them into the lives of other people through thousands of involvements.
Justice = Generosity
Fabric, threads, involvements—over, under, around, and through—that’s how you do justice. And notice the logic, notice how verse six talks about loosing the chains of injustice and dealing with the oppressed—and then it says to share your food. If you don’t share, you’re not only stingy, you’re unjust. A lot of people in Western countries say, “Wait a minute, you’re telling me that if I’m not giving, I’m being unjust? How could that be?”
Here’s an illustration. In New York, and in all the cities around the country, children are growing up in communities where—given their family circumstances and their school situation—they’re functionally illiterate. By the time they’re 15, 16, 17 they can’t read or write. When you get to that age and you can’t read, you’re ruined for the market, you’re ruined when it comes to economic and social flourishing. You’re locked into poverty for the rest of your life. That’s happening to hundreds of thousands of people in this city right now. Why?
The liberal analysis says it’s because of unjust social structures. The conservative analysis says it’s because of the breakdown of the family. But nobody says it’s the kids’ fault. Nobody says that a 7- or 8-year-old is supposed to think: “I need to move to a better school district.” No 7- or 8-year-old is supposed to think: “My parents are guilty of malpractice.” Nobody says that 7-year-olds need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And yet, a child born into my family has a 300 to 400 times greater chance for economic and social flourishing than the kids in those neighborhoods. That’s just one example of the way in which the fabric of this world—the shalom of this world—has been broken. If I don’t share the advantages that this unjust world has dealt me, that in itself is unjust, isn’t it?
Isaiah doesn’t just talk about loosing the yoke, but about breaking it. A yoke, of course, is something you put on an ox; it’s a restraining device, a structure that limits the animals’ range of movement. For God to talk about unjust situations, like families and schools that produce illiterate kids—that’s a structure, right? That’s a yoke. These kids are being ground down by the structure. The passage, then, doesn’t simply tell us to get the kids out of the schools; it tells us to change those schools. Change those neighborhoods. It’s not enough to do individual charity; you have to address social structures—that’s what it says.
Identifying with the Poor
As we come to the last point, let’s go back to the question we started with: Why would Jesus say, “If you have a love relationship with me, you’ll care for the poor”?
When you look at Matthew 25 or Isaiah 1 or Isaiah 58 it’s easy to miss the point. It’s easy to think to yourself: Here’s God, Jesus, and Isaiah, and they’re all saying: “Worship ordinances: check. Personal morality: check. Social justice? You don’t have that down.”
“Ah!” you say to yourself, “My list wasn’t long enough. If I add charity, then God will answer my prayers; then He’ll give me the life that I want.”
If that’s what you think, you have missed the point. This is a critique of that kind of religion; it’s a critique of the people in verses two and three who are trying to put pressure on God, who are saying, “We’ve lived a good life and now you owe us.” That kind of thinking does nothing to change the fundamental self-centeredness of the heart. Think about it—if, with that mindset, you do good to the poor, live a moral life, read the Bible and pray, you’re not doing it for God’s sake; you’re not doing it for the poor’s sake. You’re doing it for you. You’re being good out of absolute self-absorption and that doesn’t help a thing. You haven’t changed the heart at all.
How can we get to the place where we obey God, and love the poor, and do good for God’s sake? For the poor’s sake and not for our sake? You have to experience the beauty of it. Let me explain: When Jesus says if you love the poor you love Me; when Proverbs says if you lend to the poor you lend to Me, when you insult the poor you insult Me—what is that saying? It says that God identifies with the poor.
Well, we tend to think, how nice that He empathizes with the poor. But it goes deeper than that. Christianity explains just how far God went to identify with the poor. When God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, He was born in the feed trough. When His parents took Him to circumcision, their offering was two pigeons—the offering that was accepted for those on the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Jesus was essentially homeless. He said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He rode into town on a borrowed donkey. He ate His last meal in a borrowed room. He was buried in a borrowed tomb. He was poor!
And more than that, He was a victim of injustice. Jim Boice, who used to teach at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, explained how Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, lack of defense council, the physical abuse—everything about His arrest and trial, was a miscarriage of justice.
So, when the Lord stands before you, if you say, “Lord, when did we see you naked? When did we see you thirsty? When did we see you a prisoner?” Jesus will be able to say, “Are you kidding? They cast lots for my garments. I was naked. I cried out in thirst. I was beaten.” Jesus Christ literally became one of the oppressed. He literally went under the yoke. And now, because of all that, He says, “I who deserved vindication got condemnation, so you—human beings who have messed up this world, who deserve condemnation—can get justice and pardon.” Jesus Christ plunged Himself into our lives. He took all the threads of His glory, at infinite cost to Himself, and threaded Himself into our lives, saving us from falling through.
That’s the beauty that will get you out of yourself.
When you see what He did for you, your fear is gone. He died for you—what’s there to be afraid of? When you see what He did for you, your pride is gone: He had to die for you, so what makes you think you’re anything but a sinner? When the fear and the pride go away and all we see is the beauty of what He’s done—then we can love Him just because He’s beautiful. Because of all He’s given me, I don’t have to do anything to get anything; I just want Him. I can love the poor for the poor’s sake. I can love God for God’s sake—that’s the beauty that will change your heart. That’s the beauty that will get you out of yourself forever.
Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor in Virginia for nine years, and in 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife and their three sons.
Keller is the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God. He has also authored Ministries of Mercy, The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods.