We believe in YHWH, the God of Israel, Creator and Judge of the universe. His greatness is inexpressible and his sovereignty is without limit.
“Behold, to YHWH your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it…YHWH your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10.14 & 17).
And yet, YHWH loves and defends the lowly, as he did Abraham and his offspring, Israel, whom he rescued out of slavery in Egypt.
“YHWH did not set his love on you or choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because YHWH loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers, YHWH brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt…on your fathers did YHWH set his affection to love them. [He] has done these great and awesome things for you…your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now YHWH your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 7.7-8; 10.15, 21-22).
In this YHWH reveals himself as a good and faithful judge who works justice for the vulnerable.
“YHWH…does not show partiality, nor take a bride. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the stranger by giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10.17-18).
And so YHWH calls Israel to do the same for the vulnerable in their midst, remembering what he did for them in Egypt.
“So show your love for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10.19).
This kind of command is repeated throughout Israel’s law. Never oppress the vulnerable; defend them, because YHWH rescued you from oppression in Egypt.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22.21-22).
“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23.9).
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…You shall do no wrong in judgment…You shall have just balances…I am YHWH your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19.33-37).
“Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor…then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, or your food for gain. I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt… (Leviticus 25.35-38).
“You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and YHWH your God redeemed you from there…When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that YHWH your God may bless you in all the works of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing” (Deuteronomy 24.17-18; 19-22).
These laws express the heart of YHWH, the exalted One who humbles himself to help the needy. We believe in him.
“YHWH is high above all nations, his glory is above the heavens. Who is like YHWH our God, who is enthroned on high, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people” (Psalm 113.5-8).
“How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in YHWH his God; who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. YHWH sets prisoners free. YHWH opens the eyes of the blind. YHWH raises up those who are bowed down; YHWH loves the righteous. YWHW protects the strangers; he supports the fatherless and the widow” (Psalm 146.5-9).
“When they are diminished and bowed down through oppression, misery, and sorrow…he sets the needy in an unreachable, high place, away from affliction” (Psalm 107.39 & 41).
This is the God of Israel’s poets and poet-kings. We believe in him.
We believe in the God of their songs…
“‘Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, now I will arise,’ says YHWH, ‘I will set him in the safety for which he longs'” (Psalm 12.5)
“A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in his holy place. God makes a home for the lonely. He leads out the prisoners into prosperity” (Psalm 68.5-6).
“I know that YHWH will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor” (Psalm 140.12).
…the God of their prayers…
“Give the king your judgments, O God, and thy righteousness to the king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your afflicted with justice…May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, save the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor…he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper. He will have compassion on the poor and the needy, and the lives of the needy he will save. He will rescue their life from oppression and violence; and their blood will be precious in his sight” (Psalm 72.1-2, 4, 12-14).
…the God of their wisdom poetry…
“He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14.31).
“YHWH will tear down the house of the proud, but he will establish the boundary of the widow” (Proverbs 15.25).
“He who is gracious to the poor lends to YHWH, and he will repay him for his benefits” (Proverbs 19.17).
“He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor” (Proverbs 22.9).
“The righteous one knows the cause of the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such knowledge” (Proverbs 29.7).
…and the God of their warnings.
“God takes his stand in his own congregation; he judges in the midst of the rulers. How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82.1-4).
“He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21.13).
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for YHWH will plead their case, and take the life of those who rob them” (Proverbs 22.22-23).
“He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who hides his eyes [from them] will have many curses” (Proverbs 28.27).
These warnings and curses echo that of Israel’s law.
“‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen'” (Deuteronomy 27.17).
If Israel were to forget that God rescued them from Egypt, to begin to oppress her own, to ignore the afflictions of the vulnerable, to flaunt her wealth, the Law of Moses predicts that YHWH will curse her with a kind of return to Egypt. Israel will again be oppressed by other nations.
“YHWH will cause you to be defeated before your enemies…you shall be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth…A people whom you do not know shall eat up the produce of your ground and all your labors, and you shall never be anything but oppressed and crushed continually…YHWH will bring you and your king, whom you shall set over you, to a nation which neither of you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among the people where YHWH will drive you…So all these curses shall come on you…because you did not serve YHWH your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom YHWH shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things…YHWH will bring a nation against you from afar…it shall besiege you in all your towns…your enemy shall oppress you in all your towns…And YHWH will bring you back to Egypt…(Deuteronomy 28.25, 33, 36-37, 49, 52, 57, 68).
Israel’s prophets, too, predicted and lamented the coming of these curses.
“How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her…Everyone loves a bribe, and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them. Therefore the Lord God of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel declares, “…I will turn my hand against you…'” (Isaiah 1.21, 23-24).
“YHWH arises to contend, and stands to judge the people. YHWH enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people, ‘…the plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding the face of the poor?'” (Isaiah 3.13-15)
“Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of my people of their rights, in order that the widows may be spoil, and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the day of devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? (Isaiah 10.1-3).
“‘They do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people?’ decalres YHWH, ‘On a nation such as this shall I not avenge myself?’ (Jeremiah 5.28-29)
“‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place…If you will not obey these words, I swear by myself,’ declares YHWH, ‘that this house will become a desolation…Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages…Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and the needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know me?’ declares YHWH.” But your eyes and you heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion (Jeremiah 22.3, 5, 13-17).
“‘…you have not merely walked in [the] ways of [Sodom with her sisters and daughters] or done according to their abominations; but, as if that were too little, you acted more corruptly in all your conduct than they. As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘Sodom, your sister, and her daughters, have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and the needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore I removed them…'” (Ezekiel 16.47-50).
YHWH “will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; They will return to Egypt. For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces; and Judah has multiplied fortified cities, but I will send a fire on its cities that it may consume its palatial dwellings” (Hosea 8.13-14).
“…because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, you who distress the righteous and accept bribes, and turn aside the poor in the gate” (Amos 5.11-12).
“Then YHWH said to me, ‘The end has come for my people Israel. I will spare them no longer. The songs of the palace will turn to wailing in that day,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Many will be the corpses; in every place they will cast them forth in silence.’ Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, you who say, ‘When will the new moon be over…and the sabbath that we may open the wheat market…to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?’ YHWH has sworn…”Indeed, I will never forget their deeds. Because of this will not the land quake and everyone who dwells in it mourn?'” (Amos 8.2-8).
“Thus has YHWH of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor…But they refused to pay attention, and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing, and they made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which YHWH of hosts had sent by his Spirit to the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from YHWH of hosts'” (Zechariah 6.9-12).
The God of Israel would not accept the religious ceremonies of a people who oppress or ignore the poor.
“‘What are you multiplied sacrifices to me?’ says YHWH. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings…When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer. Incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies–I cannot endure iniquity with solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Yes, even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from my sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good: seek justice, reprove the oppressor, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1.10-17).
Eventually, when the curses came, when the nations began to oppress them, Israel would fast and pray, begging God to defend them. But God would not hear their prayers while they ignored the oppressed in their own cities.
YHWH says, “…they seek me day by day, and delight to know my ways, as though a nation that has done righteousness, and not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask me for just decisions! They delight in the nearness of God. They say, ‘Why have we fasted and you do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and you do not notice?’ Behold, on the day of your fast find you find your pleasure while driving hard all your workers. Is it a fast like this that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed, and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to YHWH? Is this rather the fast that I choose instead: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own people?” (Isaiah 58.2-3, 5-7).
YHWH searched Israel for a just ruler, but he found no one.
“I said…to Jerusalem, ‘I will give a messenger of good news.’ But when I look, there is no one, and there is no counselor among them, who, if I ask, can give an answer. Behold, all of them are false (Isaiah 41.27-28).
“The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and the needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. And I searched for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22.29-30).
Still, YHWH would not forsake Israel. The prophet Isaiah began to foresee the coming of a great King from David’s line, a Servant who would end the curse by bringing YHWH’s own justice for the poor. We hope in this Servant King.
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of YHWH will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of YHWH. And he will delight in the fear of YHWH, and he will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears here; but with righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth” (Isaiah 11.1-4).
“The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst; I, YHWH, will answer them myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land fountains of water…Behold, my Servant, who I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise his voice, nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 41.17-18; 42:1-4).
But Isaiah predicted a darker task for the Servant. Not only would he defend the poor and oppressed in Israel, but he would enter in to their poverty and suffer oppression alongside them at the hands of Israel’s own corrupt judges. And somehow, through his poverty, he would carry away the curse upon Israel, his own sufferings functioning as a guilt offering on behalf of the whole nation.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, he was despised and we did not esteem him. Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but YHWH has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him. He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off from the land of living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet he was with a rich man in his death, because he has done no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth. But YHWH was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief; If he would render himself as a guilt offering, he will see his offspring, he will prolong his days, and the good pleasure of YHWH will prosper in his hand. As a result of the anguish of his soul, he will see it and be satisfied; by his knowledge the Righteous One, my Servant, will justify the many, as he will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:3-11).
When would he come, this Servant King anointed with the Spirit of YHWH? He speaks to the poor through Isaiah, and he speaks as though he is YHWH himself, promising them justice and a blessing that will be known among all nations.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign YHWH is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of YHWH, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of YHWH, that he may be glorified…Instead of your shame you will have a double portion, and instead of humiliation they will shout for joy over their portion. Therefore they will possess a double portion in their land, everlasting joy will be theirs. For I, YHWH, love justice, I hate iniquity in the burnt offering; and I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Then their offspring will be known among all nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples, all who see will recognize them because they are the offspring whom YHWH has blessed. I will rejoice greatly in YHWH, my soul will exult in my God; for he has clothed me with garments of salvation, he has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes things sown in it to spring up, so the Sovereign YWHW will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations” (Isaiah 61.1-3, 7-11).
Israel waited. Mighty empires oppressed them. Assyria. Babylon. The shadow of the curse was upon them. The prophets continued to scold the nation for asking God to defend them against their enemies, while they themselves were unjust. And they continued to predict a coming Lord who would purge Israel of injustice.
“You have wearied YHWH with your words…in that you say, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of YHWH,” and [at the same time] “Where is the God of justice?’ ‘Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,’ says YHWH of hosts. ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiners fire…and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so they may present to YHWH offerings in righteousness. Then I will draw near to you in judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely , and against those who oppress the wager earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside from the stranger, and do not fear me,’ says YHWH of hosts. For I, YHWH, do not change, therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are no consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes, and have no kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says YHWH of hosts. ‘But you say, ‘How shall we return?””(Malachi 2.17-3.1-3, 5-7)
Centuries later, as Israel languished under the yoke of the Roman Empire, a young prophet began to baptize many of the people, preaching as Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness,” the one who would prepare Israel for the appearance of YHWH’s coming.
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of YHWH,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1.23).
His name was John, and like the prophets before him, he warned of coming judgment and urged the nation to return to YHWH.
“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham has our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3.7-9).
And when the people asked him how they were to return, he again echoed the prophets.
“The multitudes were questioning him, saying, ‘What then must we do?’ And he would answer them saying, ‘Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.’ And tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you have been ordered to.’ And some soldiers were questioning him saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.'” (Luke 3.11-14).
He taught with such power that many in Israel wondered whether he was the Anointed One, the Messiah. But he denied it, insisting that one far greater than himself was about to be revealed to Israel.
“After me one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandals. I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8).
What happened next must have reminded John of the opening words of Isaiah’s first Servant Song: “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42.1).
“And it came about in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1.9-11).
YHWH’s Spirit was upon this man. YHWH’s delight was in him. Isaiah’s Servant-King had arrived, a threat to all oppressors, the hope for all who are oppressed. We believe in him.
(to be continued in Part 2)