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Isaiah’s ‘Just So’ Story: How God’s People ‘Get’ Justice and Righteousness

Monday, 1 December 2014  | Caroline Batchelder

‘Justice and righteousness’ (mišpā and ĕdāqȃ in Hebrew) are much-discussed features of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. As has often been noted, they are among other features of Isaiah which change and develop as the book unfolds.[1] I will briefly review this development in Isaiah’s use of justice and righteousness, and enquire as to the reason for these changes; in particular, what this has to do with the getting of justice and righteousness for the people of God.

Appearing most commonly as a word pair in Isaiah 1-39 (either together or in some form of parallel), the combination mišpā and ĕdāqȃ is often understood to express the single concept ‘social justice’.[2] It characteristically refers to the requirements of tȏrȃ and covenant, and Yahweh’s insistence that Yahweh’s people live accordingly (see Isaiah 1:21, 27; 5:7, 10:1–4, etc);[3] that is, that they behave in a way that reflects the character of their God (5:16). Isaiah’s vision of the ‘fullness of the whole earth’ as the glory of a holy God (Isaiah 6:3) requires that Yahweh’s people live consistently with Yahweh’s holiness; that mišpā and ĕdāqȃ characterise their lives also.

If they do not so live, they will face Yahweh’s judgement (1:27-28).[4] The book of Isaiah opens with Yahweh lamenting, calling heaven and earth to witness, over just this lack of conformity to the character and ‘likeness’ of their God. As the unfolding saga shows, the people’s failure to do mišpā  and ĕdāqȃ (1:21) leads to exile from their land, and the loss of king, temple, and cult—in fact of almost all their principal identifying features. In ‘tongue and deeds’, Yahweh’s people showed their true identity to be ‘against the eyes of his glory’ (Isaiah 3:8).

However, in the second section of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), which appears to address the people in exile, mišpā and ĕdāqȃ always appear separately rather than paired.[5] They are typically used quite differently, often (and perhaps surprisingly, given their earlier pattern of use) expressing ‘the unconditional nature of the covenant promises’.[6] Mišpā in these chapters is characteristically something belonging to Yahweh alone (40:14, 41:1, 51:4), which Yahweh sovereignly gives to Yahweh’s people, as is ĕdāqȃ (and its variants, 42:6, 45:8, 23, 46:12-13). In Isaiah 40-55, mišpā and ĕdāqȃ seem to be about Yahweh’s faithfulness to Yahweh’s own covenant promises.[7] In another component of chapters 40-55, Yahweh’s people, ‘Jacob-Israel’, expect that Yahweh will pay attention to their mišpā (‘my mišpā’, 40:27, 49:4). The people are so-named, perhaps, to evoke their patriarchal forefather, who was ‘exiled’ to Mesopotamia, and whose life was thus preserved.[8]

The third section of Isaiah (chapters 56-66), opens with Yahweh’s commands to ‘keep mišpā!’ and ‘do ĕdāqȃ!’, paralleled with Yahweh’s reason, ‘for my salvation is coming near, and my righteousness is revealing itself’ (56:1). This couplet effectively holds together human and divine righteousness.[9] John Oswalt has suggested that chapters 56-66 act as a commentary on both Isaiah’s preceding sections, providing a synthesis of ‘divine faithfulness and human obedience’,[10] and that the just and righteous living required in 56-66 is not achieved by human exertion, but is ‘a gift of God’, given by ‘His Spirit in them’, (59:21).[11] But what further guidance does Isaiah give its readers in participating in the process of holding together human righteousness with divine righteousness, and human justice with divine justice?

Isaiah goes beyond describing this synthesis, and as a text works to ‘raise up’ its readers as doers of mišpā and ĕdāqȃ, through and by the figure of the Servant.

Thus it speaks to Christians today as inheritors of the covenant and of its charges in relation to the nations, and as disciples of Jesus, in whom the figure of the Servant is fully ‘made flesh’ (e.g. Matt 20:28 [Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ‘in a nutshell’[12]], Luke 3:22 [Isaiah 42:1] and throughout the gospels).  

This ‘raising up’ of Isaiah’s readers as agents of mišpā and ĕdāqȃ is evident throughout Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 40, opening with Yahweh’s voice proclaiming ‘comfort’ to an exiled people, poses what at first seems to be a rhetorical question: ‘Who is like Yahweh?’ (40:18, 25). Indeed, the series of questions that precede this culminating question evokes a double answer: firstly ‘Yahweh’ (‘Who has measured the waters… marked off the heavens… weighed the mountains…?’ 40:12), and in the next breath, ‘surely no one!’ (‘Who has directed the spirit of Yahweh… has instructed him …has taught him the path of mišpā…?’, 40:13-14). And yet, at just this juncture, the first of what have been called the ‘idol polemics’ (that is, short descriptive, even mocking verses about the manufacture of false images), emerge in the poetry. It has been suggested that these were inserted into the poetry from another source, or were provided as light relief to Isaiah’s serious message, or were perhaps part of a misguided contemporary commentary on Babylonian religion.[13] However, in the unfolding logic of Isaiah’s poetry, they function as the wrong answer to chapter 40’s culminating question, ‘Who is like Yahweh?’ The false images do not represent the true God of the whole earth. They clearly represent false gods, and (though Isaiah does not explicitly use this language), they represent a false mišpā which produces ‘nothing’, neither ‘good [nor] evil’ (41:22-24): it is not the mišpā that belongs to Yahweh, and does not produce any kind of righteousness.

This ‘wrong answer’ enables Isaiah’s audience, to see two things: firstly, that the figure of the Servant of Yahweh, the one charged with establishing Yahweh’s mišpā (the charge in which Israel and Judah failed in Isaiah 1-39), emerges in the poetry in contrast to the idols as the right answer to the question of ‘who is like Yahweh?’ (41:28-42:4). Notably, as well as ‘constructing’ the figure of the Servant entirely in relation to Yahweh, with the repeated goal of establishing Yahweh’s own mišpā (42:1, 3, 4), this description also evokes Yahweh as artisan (42:5), in stark contrast to the trembling human artisans who struggle to construct a false image and get it to stand firm (40:20, 41:6-7). Secondly, it progressively—and chillingly (see 43:24)—emerges that Jacob-Israel, Yahweh’s own people, have in fact been a false representation, a false image of Yahweh in the earth. They did neither the mišpā nor the ĕdāqȃ that is characteristic of their God, and that is required of them by covenant. Their concern for mišpā has instead been a concern for their own rights and requirements (see ‘my mišpā’, 40:27), rather than to represent and serve their creator and lord as Yahweh’s likeness before—and now exiled amongst—the nations of the earth.

Though all identifying features might seem lost in exile, ‘likeness’ to Yahweh (Genesis 1:27), given to humanity before dominion, before sovereignties and nations, before (and underlying) the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel, is the fundamental identifying feature of humanity created by God. This is consistent with the conspicuous ‘international’ flavour of Isaiah’s message (see 40:5; 41:1; 42:1, 10; 49:1 and throughout). Isaiah 40-55 seeks to raise up Yahweh’s likeness again in the covenant people, not only as the key to regaining their lost identity, but as a ‘light to the nations’ (40:6, 49:6), looking to the final gathering of the earth’s nations to Zion, the place where Yahweh is Lord (Isaiah 2:2-4). In this restoration of likeness to Yahweh is Jacob-Israel’s ultimate comfort, and the ‘nearness’ of their God (50:8).

So, Isaiah 40-55 develops the figure of the Servant as the true likeness of Yahweh. This figure emerges gradually through four major sections of poetry in Isaiah 40-55 (traditionally called the ‘Servant Songs’),[14] not only as an invitation to exiled Israel to re-learn and re-enact the likeness of Yahweh, and so to become a people fitted to return to Zion, but as a means of re-learning, and so returning. The Servant Songs act as a ‘roadmap’ for the practice of mišpā and ĕdāqȃ in human life and community. The Servant, ‘named’ as the one who serves the Lord Yahweh,  is the one in whom divine justice and righteousness are rightly served in human life, a sign and an invitation to the nations, amongst whom Israel are exiled (Isaiah 56:3-8).

Isaiah pictures the return of Yahweh’s people together with the coming of the nations, amongst whom they were nurtured (49:22-23). This is not only a physical return to Israel’s forfeited land, but is firstly a return to Yahweh as Lord, as a people re-formed in Yahweh’s true likeness before the nations; who rightly ‘answer’ the question of Yahweh’s likeness by doing mišpā and ĕdāqȃ (see 41:28, 50:2), and who are just so fitted for return. As Isaiah makes clear, the Servant only does what he hears Yahweh saying (50:4). The Servant is so aligned with Yahweh that he is described as Yahweh’s own arm (51:9, 53:1, 59:16). The return of the people to Yahweh as Lord, will be through the figure of the Servant, by the ‘way’ charted by his relation to Yahweh, and finally, though it is not the subject of this essay, by the Servant’s offering of his fully just and righteous life on their behalf (Isaiah 53:5, 10).[15] After this offering, the singular noun ‘servant’ in the poetry of Isaiah, gives way to the plural ‘servants’, as ‘many’ are raised up in Yahweh’s likeness (53:11-12, 54:17).

As we travel through the poetry of Isaiah, we as readers are brought to confront our own ‘false imagery’ of Yahweh.  The false images in Isaiah 40–48 are ‘all show’, using the latest technology (as indicated by the specialist words in 44:12-13), and the most gifted artisans (42:6-7), but ultimately are ‘ashes’ in the worshipper’s mouth instead of real food; they are literally ‘cut from the same piece’ as other self-maintaining human endeavours (44:18 – 20). When we are tempted to substitute glossy advertising for daily and costly obedience, to tick the box of ‘worship’ by staging a weekly performance instead of experimenting with and developing the many and various activities of a worshipping community; when we settle for slogans and popular psychology rather than wrestling daily to hear and obey the Word of God, when we adulate the ‘big name’ high-achieving ‘celebrity Christian’ rather than becoming the unnamed, listening, persevering servant: these may seem to grow the church, but will ultimately leave us bowing down to false images, with only ashes in our mouth.

The unnamed Servant demonstrates that the one who ‘brings out mišpā to the nations’, Yahweh’s just and righteous order in the earth (42:1, 3, 4), is firstly faithful in the humble, intimate practices of daily hearing and obedience: taught daily by Yahweh’s word, doing and teaching it daily himself (50:4–9). For those looking for specific examples, Isaiah 40–55 is known for its lack of concrete referents. Indeed, these may have been removed, so that these chapters are ‘directed to the future… almost purely theological’, and so applicable to any age,[16] coming now to us. They challenge us, their reader, to ‘make them flesh’ as servants of Yahweh in our own generation. We who would be part of a just and righteous order under the lordship of Yahweh in the earth, must supply our own concrete referents by our own daily faithful hearing and serving after the pattern of the Servant. This close connection between humble, daily obedience (and perseverance through suffering in carrying it out) and the world-wide task of the Servant in ‘bringing out mišpā’ is one of the most striking aspects of Isaiah 40–55, challenging Christian readers of Isaiah today to be faithful first in humble, intimate things, and trust the God who always has the ‘ends of the earth’ in view.

As we read, let us hear the invitation to be raised up with the faithful Servant as one of ‘the many’ being restored to the image and likeness of our God. Let the poetry give us voice to speak with the faithful Servant the answer for which Yahweh is looking in the earth (50:4–9). We cannot answer the question of the likeness of Yahweh only with words, but must answer as humans and human communities who do mišpā and ĕdāqȃ, humbly and daily, and who just so are like our God. How do I act for justice and righteousness in my family and workplace? How does my family serve God in our street, amongst our neighbours? What issues of justice and righteousness are there in my suburb, and how can my small group act for justice and righteousness? How does my church contribute to justice and righteousness in my city? Just so are our lives to be preserved amongst the nations, and in our return to Zion, as we are ‘like’ Yahweh in righteousness and justice, just so we will bring the nations with us.

Caroline Batchelder is researching the book of Isaiah for her PhD through Morling College, Sydney.


[1] These differences lie behind the reason for the traditional division of Isaiah into three parts, chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. See a brief discussion of the history in Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ed. W.F.Albright and D.N.Freedman, The Anchor Bible (London: Yale University Press, 2002). 41-42.

[2] Thomas C. Leclerc, Yahweh is Exalted in Justice: Solidarity and Conflict in Isaiah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 11.

[3] John N. Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah: A Study of the Function of Chapters 55-66 in the Present Structure of the Book,” in Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition, vol. 1, ed. Craig C. Broyles and Craig A. Evans (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 181.

[4] Cf, Deuteronomy 16:20.

[5] Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah,” 186.

[6] Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah,” 182, my emphasis.

[7] Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah,” 187.

[8] See Genesis 27:41-28:5. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: 194.

[9] See the discussion in Leclerc, Exalted in Justice: 133.

[10] Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah,” 189.

[11] Oswalt, “Righteousness in Isaiah,” 190.

[12] Henri Blocher, The Songs of the Servant  (London: InterVarsity Press, 1975). 16.

[13] See Richard J. Clifford, “The function of idol passages in Second Isaiah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42, no. 4 (1980): 451, and James Barr, “Themes from the Old Testament for the elucidation of the new creation,” Encounter 31, no. 1 (1970): 28.

[14] Arguably Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-12, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12.

[15] On this, see Andrew Sloane, “Justice and the atonement in the Book of Isaiah,” Trinity Journal 34, no. 1 (2013).


[16] Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture  (London: SCM Press, 1979), 326.




Gordon Preece
December 2, 2014, 2:17PM
Terrific piece thanks, Caroline. It acts as an Isaian corrective to both a flattening out of mispat and sedekah as social justice operating independently of God's and humanity's true (but derived) character as God's image and the ACL hierarchy that exalts personal righteousness over social justice. Much to learn for all parties.

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