Reassessing Justice in Isaiah 40-55

Multiple scholars have observed that the concept of justice varies throughout Isaiah. John Oswalt and Thomas Leclerc have both argued the meaning of the Hebrew term mishpat shifts as one progresses through the book in its final form. Oswalt argued that in Isaiah 1-39, both the terms mishpat and tzedakah—especially when they appear as hendiadys—are used in the sense of morally correct behavior. However, when we move to Isaiah 40-55, he notes that tzedakah (in any of its forms) is never used in parallel to mishpat. From this, he concludes that in these chapters, righteousness is no longer tied to the issue of moral behavior but rather is connected to the issue of salvation and deliverance. Thomas Leclerc has advanced this thesis, arguing that (1) in chapters 40-55, tzedakah is instead frequently paralleled with salvation; (2) the calls to ethical action and social concern, so frequent in 1-39, recede entirely to the background with the orphans and widows not even being mentioned; and (3) the forensic aspect of mishpat takes precedence as evidenced by the frequent appeal to courtroom imagery. From these arguments, he concludes that “the concern for social justice is entirely lacking in Second Isaiah” (Leclerc, 2001).

While these remarkable studies offer valuable insights into the meaning—and shifting of meaning—found in Isaiah’s use of mishpat, they fail to apprehend the narrative thrust of the second half of Isaiah as it relates to the overall theme of social and ethical mishpat in the context of the book’s canonical and final form. Thus, the paper will demonstrate that the theme of justice is consistent and emphatic precisely because it flows out of the narrative of Isaiah. This demonstration will take the form of three main points: (1) Isaiah 40-66 utilizes the judgments in Isaiah 1-39, which were leveled against the unjust for their violation of social/ethical divine norms and the resulting oppression experienced by the disenfranchised, (2) that the courtroom scenes in 40-66 serve to heighten the seriousness of these ethical violations rather than regulating them to the background, and (3) the intensified emphasis on salvation is not an abandonment of the earlier theme of social and ethical justice, but once again serves to intensify that theme. Indeed, in the ancient Near Eastern world, the newly installed king customarily marked the beginning of his reign by correcting abuses, punishing the unjust, and bringing deliverance to the disenfranchised. If it is an act of justice for a human king to release the poor from oppressive taxes or the prisoner from his chains, then is it not also an act of justice when YHWH delivers and saves his people? The author of Isaiah has not replaced justice with salvation in Isaiah 40-55. Instead, salvation is portrayed as divine justice writ large.

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