God Judges Exploitation and Marginalization (Isaiah 3ff.)
A recurring charge throughout the book of Isaiah is that the leaders were unfaithful to God’s covenant because they pursued wealth and status at the expense of the marginalized and the poor. In Is. 3:3-15 God pronounced judgment on the elders and the leaders of God’s people for expanding their own wealth by plundering and grinding down the faces of the poor. Williamson observed that “this [the situation described in Is. 3:14] is generally associated with the development during this period of a class structure whereby the wealth, and hence power, came to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a privileged minority at the expense of small-holders and the like. The need for loans, with the consequent perils of slavery…, foreclosure and ultimately debt slavery, were the means whereby this could be pursued legally but, in the opinion of the prophets, unjustly.” Similarly, in the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5, the first of several “woes” pronounced against the people of Judah was precisely related to their exploitation of the poor for the accruing of their own wealth: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is. 5:8).
As the people of God, they were called to be different from the surrounding and competing cultures. The exploitation of the poor for the advancement of the social elite was a breach of God’s covenant claims on his people to be his people. This pattern can be seen earlier in Israel’s history in the reign of King Ahab through his foreign wife, Jezebel, who stole the vineyard of a farmer named Naboth after having him murdered. The prophet Elijah was incensed, stating, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel!” (1 Kings 21:23). As Isaiah saw that pattern continuing in Judah, he prescribed the antidote to this selfish ambition at the expense of the poor and the marginalized: true kingship will come in the Messianic era when “with righteousness [God’s Messiah] will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is. 11:4).
While Isaiah zeroed in on the sins of God’s people in Judah, he included God’s judgment on the nations: “This is the plan that is planned concerning the whole earth; and this is the hand of judgment upon all the nations” (Is. 14:26). Babylon would be brought down (Is. 13:9-11); within three years Moab’s glory would end (Is. 15); Syria would go down (Is. 17:7-8); as would Ethiopia (Is. 18), Egypt (Is. 19:11-13), and Tyre (Is. 23:17). God would bring down Assyria’s king for his arrogant heart and haughty looks (Is. 10:12). “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws.… Therefore a curse devours the earth, its inhabitants suffer for their guilt” (Is. 24:5-6).
God’s concern for justice and righteousness leads him today to judge nations, corporations and individuals who defraud and deceive others for personal gain. In our day, we see exploitation of entire nations by their own leaders, as in Myanmar, disaster brought on by the negligence of foreign corporations, as in the Bhopal disaster in India, and the defrauding of investors by individuals like Bernie Madoff. Just as significantly, we see — and engage in — seemingly minor injustices such as unfair compensation, excessive workloads, oppressive contract terms and conditions, cheating on exams, and looking the other way when abuse occurs at home, at work, in church and on the street, God will ultimately judge those who gain wealth or preserve their jobs or privileges by exploiting the poor and marginalized.
H. G. M Williamson, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27: Volume 1 (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 271.
Cf. Is. 1:23, 3:9, 5:23, 10:1-2; 29:21. See also John Barton, “Ethics in the Book of Isaiah,” in Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah: Studies of an Interpretive Tradition, ed. Craig C. Broyles and Craig A. Evans (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 89-70.