Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Justice

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”  Isaiah 35:3-4

Reading those words of Isaiah is like eating a piece of fish and finding an unexpected bone in it! One minute we are enjoying a tasty meal of encouragement about “strengthening weak hands” and “making firm feeble knees” .

What are feeble knees? It’s a reference to those who stumble in their walk with God. It can also mean those who are caste down or bereaved because of the loss of the sense of God’s presence. And at the time of writing the people of Israel who had turned their backs on God felt what it was like to be abandoned with many people being carried off into forced exile in Babylon—they and the country realised their loss. They had come to their senses and discovered what life was like without God. It’s something I believe we are going to discover as a country at some point.

And the “weak hands” go along with the “feeble knees”. Weak hands are those that can’t hold anything or are strong enough to carry out the work that needs to be done. Put together—weak hands/feeble knees—it’s a people who are helpless without God. Which is all of us. But as St. Paul reminds us “when I am weak” it’s “then I am strong” in the Lord (2 Cor 12:10)

So one minute we are enjoying these words of encouragement along with the promise that God will come and save such people, and next, right in the middle, is the word “vengeance.” What is that doing there? It jars us and it feels so out of place. But before we set it aside, ignore it or pretend it isn't there as sometimes people do, we need to ask if it has a purpose.

First of all we must understand the word in its context. This is key to interpreting what the Bible means. The context is 6th century BC Israel—2600 years ago—in a culture and a language that is very different to our own. When we think of vengeance we see it very much in a negative way, often associated with anger and the need to get even. For example its very easy to look at what is happening in the news with ISIS and the beheadings of two journalists and feel that you want to get back at them in some way. But in the Old Testament 'vengeance' was very much associated with justice.

Second, we must understand it alongside the other word “recompense”. In the previous chapter the two are side by side where Isaiah talks about “the day of the Lord’s vengeance . The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8). So vengeance is seen alongside the word recompense. The two go together and speak about the fullness of justice in terms of the punishment fitting the crime or the guilty getting their "just deserts” the "reward" for their wrong-doing.

And third, here as in Isaiah 34:8, vengeance is wholly associated with God. It is He, ultimately, who will judge and dispense justice. He will ensure that the guilty will receive their “just deserts”. In the end only God is able to do this as He, unlike us, possesses all the facts.

And so putting all this together we can see that any promise of peace and security, any offer of help and encouragement must have an element of justice built into it. To quote one commentator:

“The world cannot be put to rights and the era of peace brought in without both the banishment and punishment of the wicked and the blessing of the people of God.” (David Payne: Pickering Bible Commentary: Isaiah) 

When faced with the invasion of a peaceful neighbour, the systematic destruction of a people, culture or a religion, the shooting down of a neutral passenger plane with the loss of everyone on board or the sexual exploitation of over 1400 children,  it is not enough to strengthen those who have been abused or bereaved, you also at the same time have to work and pray that justice is done. Because justice is the other side of the same coin that is marked love. In fact justice—doing what is right—is part of love.

So “vengeance” - by which we mean the justice of God—is actually not really a bone at all, but all part and parcel of the same thing we would call a fish.

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