Student Life

Justice in Context: What Does Isaiah 1:16-18 Really Mean?

Dr. Elaine Phillips received her Masters of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary and her Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from The Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia. She has since continued teaching and studying Old Testament texts, and has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Gordon College between 1993 and 2020. The Gordon Review was delighted to host a speaker event with Dr. Phillips this past November to announce the theme of the Fall 2022 print edition.

“Plead the Cause” is a phrase found in Isaiah chapter 1:16-18. Here the Lord commands:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Dr. Phillips focused her presentation around this passage, working to guide the audience through exegesis of the original Hebrew text and the concept of biblical justice.

She first invoked two important questions that should be asked when reading the passage: for whom is the reader called to “plead the clause,” and to what end?

There is a series of steps laid out in the verse that precedes the pursuit of justice. As Dr. Philips said, “I know there’s a backstory going on because Isaiah is admonishing his audience to get clean.” We must acknowledge our own condition before we seek to plead the cause of others.

Dr. Philips explained that, in the context of the time the texts of Isaiah were written, “justice” refers to the “judicial process of settling disputes” and “arriving at something that is right and full of integrity.” Justice actively seeks an end goal that is oriented toward the complete “rightness” of a holy God. It seeks results that reflect His redemption in the midst of a broken world.

Righteousness and justice involve action, but this does not warrant dependence on either personal righteousness and social justice. These constructs actively separate both concepts from their original context in scripture. As Dr. Phillips said, “It creates a dichotomy that is not a biblical dichotomy.”

“We as a community need to be righteous and just,” she explained. Only then is it an effort “full of integrity” that honors the Lord and holds fast to his commands. This looks more practical than we might expect. For example, “restoring fractured relationships is doing justice and practicing righteousness.”

We can practically pursue what is right through the act of prayer. Many consider prayer a passive response to the brokenness of the world, but we serve a God who tells us that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). He knows the tears and He desires to wipe them away. He knows the injustices that seem unconquerable and promises to make them right.

However, prayer is not just an individual endeavor.

“Something we can do day by day…is to pray with other people,” Dr. Phillips said, there is “intercession at these various levels: parents, families, agencies, officials in the judicial system.” By interceding at these different levels, we are able to effectively plead the cause of our neighbors in need.

To better explain and establish the pursuit of justice laid out in Isaiah chapter 1, Dr. Philips brought the attention of the audience to Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Yes, this verse calls us to do justice, but we often neglect the other two equally important exhortations. Our doing must be centered on more than ourselves. Acting justly is not mutually exclusive from loving mercy and devoting ourselves to the “unfailingly unconditional covenant love” of God. Justice does not reach its complete integrity if it is not rooted in the mercy extended by God to His people. However, the only way to simultaneously do justice and love mercy is to continually walk with God. According to Dr. Philips, walking with God is the most important part of the process, for this “will then infuse those first two things.”

This is how we truly plead the cause: by never separating a love for mercy and a passion for doing justice from walking humbly with God.

It was a privilege to hear Dr. Phillips’ wisdom! It is our hope that her exegesis helps shape our efforts to pursue justice and encourages believers in the faith.

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