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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 2: The Blood of the Poor

Isaiah 1:12-18

When you come to appear before me,

....who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

....bringing offerings is futile;

....incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—

....I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

....they have become a burden to me,

....I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands,

....I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,

....I will not listen;

....your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves;

....make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;

....cease to do evil,

....learn to do good;

seek justice,

....rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

....plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,

....says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

....they shall be like snow;

though they are red like crimson,

....they shall become like wool.

Isaiah 1 functions literarily as an introduction and a preview. It provides insight into the complaint that the Lord has against Israel. Unlike the Former Prophets’ focus on temple loyalty, this oracle challenges the whole practice of temple worship. Temple worship is pointless and useless in the eyes of God if it is not accompanied with a life worthy of God.


Much of the language is general, speaking about sin and evildoings, yet there are a few specific indications of what these sins consist in. The first example comes in describing their posture of prayer, with hands stretched out to God. God will not look upon them or listen to their prayers because their “hands are full of blood.” Whose blood does is on their hands? Where have they found to drench their hands in blood? It is the blood of the poor.


The powerful and wealthy who frequent the temple with displays of public piety are the ones who are oppressing the poor. They come to the temple convinced that their prosperity comes from God’s favor. They are so mixed up about who God is that they want “the day of the Lord” to come quickly (see 5:18-19). They are sure that whatever God is about to reveal will be for their benefit. They completely misunderstand what it is to be the people of God.


How can we be sure it is these people and this evil that Isaiah is addressing? A few lines further the oracle gets specific again. After telling the audience of this oracle to wash and cease to do evil, a list of actions makes the message very clear. “Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.” This first chapter draws attention to the evil that is making God detest temple worship. The people with bloody hands are unjust. They are oppressing their sisters and brothers, or benefiting from oppression and standing by while the weak and marginalized go hungry, are beaten, lose their homes and possessions, fall sick, and die. In a well-recognized trope, the orphan and widow are held up as the “poster children” of the vulnerable among Israel. Isaiah is confronting the violent system of economic oppression.


A few lines from a contemporary prophetic text by Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy,” may help to elucidate what is at stake in this passage.

Padded with power, here they come—

International loan sharks backed by the guns

Of market-hungry military profiteers,

Whose word is a swamp, and whose brow is smeared

With the blood of the poor;

Who rob life of its quality;

Who render rage a necessity

By turning countries into labour camps,

Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom.

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