Isaiah pt. 3: Leadership

the-poor

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.”

 

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mzgindin@gmail.com

Freelance journalist and writer. I have been published in the Forward, the Jewish Independent, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.

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