“He [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! 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! The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”
It’s too easy when reading about ancient history from the Bible to allow our eyes to roll back in our head out of boredom. Most of that boredom is because we think that it just isn’t relevant to our lives today. So I promise to get to the relevance at the end if you promise to labor through the history. No fair skipping to the end.
God called Israel out from among the nations to use them as a shining example of how a nation founded on justice, righteousness and seeking the common good for all could prosper and enjoy both the Lord’s blessing and the Lord’s protection. Instead, Israel used their “calling out” as a sign of a status over against the nations. They took for granted their blessing and protection by God, not understanding that it was conditional—inasmuch as they upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, they would enjoy God’s blessing and protection. If they didn’t, then they were no different than any other nation and therefore useless as a shining light to the nations. God would not give them special blessing and special protection because they were not in fact special at all. On the other hand, God would grant to any nation that upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good special blessing and special protection because that was his intention from the start. Israel would show the nations the special benefits that accrue to those who uphold justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, and all that followed suit would also enjoy those special benefits.
A quick word about definitions: in the Bible, “justice” and “righteousness” were virtually synonymous. Righteousness wasn’t a status given to those whose sins were forgiven, it was the act of doing the right thing. Justice wasn’t about punishing offenders and rewarding law-abiders, it was about taking care of each other, particularly the weakest and the poorest. The phrase I’ve used, seeking the common good, captures the essence of both words. The earth belonged to the Lord, and the fullness therein was to be shared with all so that everyone had enough.
Israel didn’t do this. Those who had a lot took from those who had little, until those who had little lost what they had to those who already had too much, and even became debtor slaves to them. The uber-rich added house to house and field to field—the house and field of their neighbor, until they had more house than they needed and more field than they needed to feed themselves. And their fellow Israelites didn’t have field enough to feed themselves.
So God withheld his protection, and soon Assyria descended upon the northern kingdom and destroyed it; the tribes were dispersed, never to be seen again. You would think that the southern kingdom of Judah would learn a lesson, but in some ways they became even worse, and in 586 B.C. they suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. When people are in need, God hates hoarding. When a nation allows a few to have way too much while many have insufficient resources and many more have barely enough, God’s blessing and protection goes away, and his judgment follows. It’s the biblical pattern.
Relevance: the top 1% own 39% of the world’s wealth. In the U.S., 95% of the wealth created in the 3-year recovery from the recession went to the wealthiest 1% of Americans. Now go back and read Isaiah again and see if the history of ancient Israel has anything relevant to say to us today.