Isaiah pt. 3: Leadership

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What is a Biblical idea of leadership? As you might expect if you’ve been reading my previous posts on Isaiah, it is different than some might think. In the 32nd chapter of the book of Isaiah he begins to spell out a vision of leadership:

 

See, a king will reign in righteousness,

   and princes will rule with justice.

2 Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,

   a covert from the tempest,

like streams of water in a dry place,

   like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

 

Isaiah’s vision of a leader is centered on “righteousness and justice” (tsedek u’mishpat) and results in the leader being a dramatically safe place of refuge for the endangered. S/he is pictured as saving from wind, tempest, desert and deadly exposure.

 

3 Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed,

   and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.

4 The minds of the rash will have good judgment,

   and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.

5 A fool will no longer be called noble,

   nor a villain said to be honorable.

 

When the leader embodies these virtues the people suddenly acquire the ability to hear, see, and speak clearly. Villainy and nobility are called by their true names. Jeremiah (5:21) uses the same image of having senses but not using them to castigate those who don’t perceive the presence of God in nature and recognize his presence and power. The common theme here is not recognizing the reality of God and responding appropriately. Those who do recognize the reality of God are those who can use their eyes and ears to see what is right in front of them. What Isaiah thinks is the proper response to recognizing God’s power is laid out in the next verse first by negative example:

 

6 For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity:

to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD,

to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,

   and to deprive the thirsty of drink.

7 The villainies of villains are evil;

   they devise wicked devices

to ruin the poor with lying words,

   even when the plea of the needy is right.

8 But those who are noble plan noble things,

   and by noble things they stand.

 

What is it to practice “ungodliness”? What is it to “utter errors concerning the LORD”? It is to “leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied and to deprive the thirsty of drink”, to “ruin the poor with lying words”. Isaiah’s assumption here is that recognizing the reality of God entails feeding the hungry and being a refuge to the endangered, defending the just cause of the poor and protecting them from being defrauded and exploited.

The Psalms use this same image of ears and eyes to refer to idols who cannot see or hear (115:6; 135:17) and warn that those who worship idols will become similarly deaf and blind. Those who worship dead things- money, possessions, land- will themselves become spiritually dead and insensitive.

There is only one idol whose “worship” is allowed in the Bible, and that is the idol of other human beings. In the Genesis creation account this is hinted at by the word used to describe the human being (ha’adam). The human is created “b’tselem elohim”, in the image of God. The Hebrew word used here, tselem, is used several times elsewhere in the Bible to refer to idolatrous statues (Numbers 33:52, 2 Kings 11:15, Ezekiel 7:20, etc) . The tselem in Genesis is the icon, the idol, of God. The only thing in Creation which images God in this sense is the living human being. Those who love idols become themselves dead. Those who love human beings, whether neighbour or stranger, love God and do his will (Leviticus 19:18, 19:33).

Who are the noble, the leaders? Those who “plan noble things, and by noble things they stand”. Their recognition of the reality of God leads them to plan noble things, and by these noble things they themselves stand in life- they live before God.

There is a barometer here not only for those of us who seek to recognize “godly leaders” but also for our lives. The degree to which we have ears that hear and eyes that see, mouths which speak truth and hands that work to defend the endangered is the degree to which we are really, truly recognizing the reality of God and not just worshiping what’s created by the “idol factory of the heart”. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To meet God is to change.”

 

Refuge (Isaiah pt.2)

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Into the 21st chapter of the book of Isaiah, this luminous and unsettling book continues to speak about the current crisis. Presaging the multiple religious voices calling to accept Syrian refugees (Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish) Isaiah says to Israel:

 

Shelter the outcasts;

do not reveal the fugitive;

let the outcasts of Moab

sojourn among you;

be a shelter to them

from the destroyer

(Isaiah 3:4 ESV)

 

Moab was related to Israel (through Lot, Abraham’s cousin) but also frequently in tension with, if not in outright conflict with, Israel. Yet God here enjoins Israel to shelter their refugees. Later on in the series of “oracles” concerning the nations surrounding Israel Isaiah prophesies destruction coming on the Arabs. God here calls out to those who will find the refugees lost in the desert:

 

The oracle concerning Arabia.

When you lodge in the scrub-brush of the dessert,

O caravans of traders-

To the thirsty bring water;

meet the fugitive with bread,

Those who live nearby.

For they have fled from the swords,

from the drawn sword,

from the bent bow,

and from the press of battle

(Isaiah 21:13-15, ESV modified).

 

Speaking of the recent reaction of US Republicans, no one said it better than Stephen Colbert: “How do you tell if someone is a Christian? Jesus said, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was cold and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you ____.’ If they fill in the blank with anything other than ‘welcomed me in’ they are either a terrorist or they are running for president.”

 

Terror (Isaiah pt.1)

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The thing to fear is not others, and not fear itself, but ourselves.

I recently sat down to read the book of Isaiah. The book opens with Isaiah calling Israel to task for its rebellion and estrangement from God. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master, but Israel does not…..(1:3) Isaiah prophesied at a time of great political vulnerability and danger. Israel was surrounded by imperialist, rapacious civilizations whose tactics make ISIS look restrained. Isaiah warns Israel of the horrific danger they face. What’s interesting is what God, speaking through Isaiah, doesn’t say. He doesn’t say:

 

Know this, Israel: Babylon is evil, and Assyria a ravening lion

Idolaters and lovers of violence

they are what you should fear, their cities you should hate!

Defend yourself with spear and chariot

ride with me to purge the earth.

 

That’s not what God says. What he does say is this:

 

Bring no more futile sacrifices…

The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies

I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.  

Your New Moons and your appointed feasts

My soul hates…..

When you spread out your hands,

I will hide My eyes from you;

Even though you make many prayers,

I will not hear.

Your hands are full of blood. (1:13b-15).

 

God had advice for Israel:

 

Cease to do evil,

Learn to do good;

Seek justice.

 

How is Israel to do that? The next verse explains:

 

Rebuke the oppressor,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow (1:17).

 

What else is God angered about?

 

Their land is filled with silver and gold

and there is no end to their treasures;

their land is full of horses,

and there is no end to their chariots.

Their land is also full of idols;

they worship the work of their own hands

That which their own hands have made.

People bow down

And each man humbles himself;

Therefore do not forgive them. (2:7-9).   

 

God’s warning is not about the Babylonians or the Assyrians, the Egyptians or the Philistines, the remaining Canaanites or the Amorites. God’s warning to Israel is about the Israelites. What is God angry about? The overwhelming message of Isaiah is that God is angry that the Jews are failing to defend the weak and vulnerable among them. “The orphan, the widow” are the most economically vulnerable members of society. Isaiah also rebukes the Jew for thieving from each other, taking bribes to be unjust, and amassing wealth. Isaiah reports God’s word, where God presents himself as standing up in court for the poor like a public defender:

 

The Lord stands up to plead,

And stands to vindicate the people.

The Lord will enter into judgement

With the elders of His people

And His princes:

“For you have eaten up the vineyard;

The plunder of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing My people

And grinding the faces of the poor?”

Says the Lord God of Hosts (Isaiah 4:13-15, NKJV modified).  

 

God’s warning to Israel is, in one sense, about the surrounding cultures and their violence. God warns, repeatedly, as in other prophetic books, that if Israel does not “seek justice” than God’s blessing will be withdrawn and Israel will be vulnerable to attack from their neighbours. God’s advice is not to invest more in their military or to make pre-emptive strikes. God’s advice is: “Do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, him you will sanctify: Let him be your dread (8:13).”

 

If there is one thing about the history of classical Israel that stands out it is surely this: the remarkable nature of their self-understanding. Israel was defeated, brutalized, exiled, tortured, and slaughtered. Throughout there is one consistent theme is the way Israel assigns blame: the blame is assigned to themselves. This consciousness continues past Biblical times at least into the Talmud, where frequent reference is made to “the enemies of Israel”. Who are the enemies of Israel? This phrase is a Rabbinic euphemism for Israel itself.

 

All of this should call us to wonder. Israel was guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. They were also estranged at heart from God. One thing they were not was members of “the wrong religion”. They were religious Jews, very much so. Yet being outwardly religious Jews was far from enough, in fact it was a righteousness God compared to filth (Isaiah 64:6).  

 

What of us? Here is North America our society is guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. Most of us are estranged at heart from God. The truth is that we are far more guilty than ancient Israel. We know more. We have better resources than they did. Our crimes are also not just against the poor of our country, but against the poor of the entire world. Our crimes are not just against humanity but against nature and millions of animals every day. Most grievously our crimes against the climate and the land, water and sky are not just against our generation but against future generations. It is remarkable, by any estimate, that God has been as forbearing with us as He has.

 

In the wake of the horrific violence against the civilians of Israel, Paris, Lebanon, and elsewhere it is easy to stand up and declare “our enemy is Islam” or “our enemy is Jihadism”. Yet in saying that Jihadis are our enemy, or that dealing with them is a political priority, we risk misleading and endangering ourselves. We face very great dangers today, yes, but they mostly come to us in the shape of ourselves. Climate change is in every way a massively bigger problem than Jihadis. Our communal spiritual state is the barometer of our strength. If we do not “learn to do good, seek justice” than we will be weak and without God’s blessing. That is a scary place to be. In times past when the community faced violence or danger the response was repentance. Maybe it’s time, in the face of ISIS and the other threats that face us, to relearn that careful art.