Isaiah 58 is the more famous cousin of Isaiah 1, but they both deal with the same theme: God is not impressed with fastidious religious observance when the daily lives of his people are filled with negligence and oppression. God says, in effect, “Your fasting and sackcloth are meaningless to me so long as you continue in rank disobedience to more important commands.”

How were the Israelites sinful? They oppressed their workers, which usually meant defrauding them of agreed upon wages (v. 3; James 5:4). They quarreled and “hit with a wicked fist” (4). They conducted business and sought their own pleasure on the Sabbath (13).

What should God’s people have done? They should have loosed the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free (6). They should have shared bread with the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed in the homeless poor (7).  God promised “your light [shall] break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily” but only when the Israelites acted righteously and poured themselves out for the hungry and the afflicted (8-10).

Clearly, caring for the poor, the hungry, the afflicted is not a liberal thing to do. It is a biblical thing to do. We must allow this uncomfortable chapter to discomfort us a bit. Those of us in conservative circles can get all sorts of religious ritual right, but it counts for nothing and less than nothing if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves.

Calvin summarizes:

Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts; first, that we should injure nobody; and secondly, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together; for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if thou refuse thy assistance to the needy; nor will it be of much avail to render thine aid to the needy, if at the same time thou rob some of that which thou bestowest on others….These two parts, therefore, must be held together, provided only that we have our love of our neighbour approved and accepted by God (Commentary on Isaiah).

The implications of Isaiah 58 are straightforward: God’s people should hate oppression and love to help the poor.

Without wanting to mitigate this conclusion, let me offer two other comments.

1. Even though I’ve labeled this series with familiar phrase “social justice,” I don’t think that is best way to describe helping the poor. As I’ve pointed out before, “social justice” in its historical origins suggests a certain view of the world where disparity in wealth is considered de facto injustice. Therefore helping the poor is not a matter of kindness or mercy but a matter of justice. Everyone deserves their “fair share” of the society’s resources. Anything less is oppression.

But we see in Isaiah 58 that letting the oppressed go free is not the same as sharing your bread with the hungry. Granted, it could be. Perhaps the same people oppressing their workers were now being told to help them instead of harm them. But by definition, I would argue that pouring yourself out for the hungry is a matter of compassion for your fellow human being, not necessarily a matter of remedying an injustice.

2. While general principle–help the poor don’t harm them–is abundantly and repeatedly clear in Scripture, the application of this principle is less so. For example, does a passage like Isaiah 58 support state-sponsored redistribution efforts? Christians can and do argue for this, but this text certainly doesn’t require this solution to poverty.

And what should our priorities be in helping the poor? Are Christians responsible for everyone in the world? Everyone in society? I would argue there is an obligation first to our family (1 Tim. 5:8) and then to our brothers in the church (1 John 3:17; Gal. 6:10). Also, we should respond to urgent needs right in front of us when our assistance will be helpful (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we should do good to everyone as we have opportunity as shaped by our vocation and calling (Gal. 6:10).

Other questions of application might include: What is the best way to help the poor in modern society? What about the poor overseas? To what degree is all of this the mission of the church and to what extent is this work simply the outgrowth of godly living in the world? Isaiah 58 doesn’t answer these and other questions. But it does lay the groundwork for caring about these questions and, more importantly, caring about the real people for whom questions about poverty and justice are not blog fodder but matters of life and death.

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19 thoughts on “Seven Passages on Social Justice (2)”

  1. Rob Lombardi says:

    I agree, the people who are being free from oppression are receiving mercy and compassion. But there is a sense in which we are doing something about justice in their case.

    The poor are particularly vulnerable to matter of injustice and Scripture calls us to provide them with justice.

    “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!” (Psa 72:2 ESV)

    “They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.” (Eze 22:29 ESV)

    “”You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.” (Exo 23:6 ESV)

    “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isa 10:1-2)

    So there is a sense that when we are relieving the poor of oppression from the hands of those who are doing injustice, we are not only bringing love and compassion to them, but we are bringing justice to an injustice.

  2. Daren says:

    Thanks for these posts and for opening this discussion. After working as a physician in a rural Zambian hospital for the last two years and encountering poverty and suffering on a level I could never have imagined, I have to say that I don’t know how much it matters what you call it, justice or compassion, but it does matter whether or not we (Christians) do it. We do need to understand very clearly what scripture says about how we are to deal with these things and as someone without formal Bible training, I appreciate very much the input from people who have it. I’d just like to encourage all who are reading to read, pray and discuss, but also to move/act on behalf of the poor.

  3. Michael A says:

    I realize this is not the easiest message to hear from my American perspective, and I appreciate that it’s being discussed.

    If Jesus made himself nothing and took the form of a servant, why do we try to find the fine line to walk? Asceticism is certainly not inherently virtuous…I’m not trying to sell it. However, if life is death and freedom is slavery, can’t riches be poverty?

  4. Malin Friess says:

    I agree with Daren (friend of mine)…as I have been working as a missionary doctor in Africa the past 15 months.

  5. Yuriy S says:

    Great comments, I think it should inspire us to make an equal efforts into stopping the sex slave..

  6. ChrisB says:

    I think the OT concept of “justice” can be described as honesty: Pay your workers what you promised. Lawsuits between rich and poor should be decided fairly, not by bribes. Use accurate weights and measures.

    “What is the best way to help the poor in modern society?”

    The biblical model seems to be to encourage self-sufficiency if at all possible and personal charity where needed. Experience bears out the wisdom of that approach.

  7. CT says:

    “…’social justice’ in its historical origins suggests a certain view of the world where disparity in wealth is considered de facto injustice.”

    What?!

    (Better leave the straw men alone.)

  8. The compassion vs justice idea is an interesting one. I’ve come across plenty of accounts of those who have given themselves fully in compassion to the poor, they spend themselves and then a moment comes when the poor continue to remain poor, the injustices continue, the poverty remains stubborn in its refusal to budge that those who began with compassion begin to ask the question about justice? It becomes apparent (to them at least) that there is something inherently unjust about the way their part of the world is working because it keeps producing victims, and at that point compassion moves them to justice.

    I wonder if debating about the difference doesn’t reveal that we haven’t fully connected or committed ourselves to actual, real people in poverty, whose names we know and whose stories we hear. Whatever the answer, it wouldn’t hurt the church to be more compassionate, so let’s all go for that!

  9. Eric says:

    CT –

    That statement is hardly a straw man. It does not take a very hard look around self proclaimed “social justice” circles to find numerous examples of this thinking. It often manifests itself in the perpetuation of class envy. It is all around us.

  10. dac says:

    God’s people should hate oppression and love to help the poor.

    Should is the wrong word. Must is the correct word.

    58:10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday. (NET)

  11. Andy says:

    Kevin – I would actually suggest that both conservatives AND liberals get it wrong, inasmuch as they pursue social justice with self-righteous intent. “Look at how virtuous we are!”

    For example, conservatives often reflexively blame poverty on failures of individual responsibility without reflecting that there are often much larger issues at play affecting the whole community. This is amateurish, Ayn Rand-type thinking.

    Meanwhile, it’s all to common for liberals to expound and pontificate about helping the poor, and yet be incredibly selfish with their own resources when it comes time to back up their words with actions.

    It’s a curious phenomenon that one of the poorest states in the country (if not THE poorest), Mississippi, is also the most generous. Mississippi also happens to be the state with the greatest church involvement. I don’t think this is coincidence. The church is the means by which Christ’s kingdom is advanced on earth, not the state.

    All too many Christians are constructing their golden calves out of the Democrat and Republican parties, trading in their precious birthrights for a bowl of lentil soup.

  12. Richard says:

    Is not part of the problem the way we shape what “justice” means? I think Kevin is correct to disagree with the definition of “social justice”, which generally in liberal-egalitarian political philosophy involves some sort of discussion of what the right distribution of resources is (Rawls’ difference principle being the most obvious example). Justice is defined in abstract terms and is usually seen as an end in itself (Kant) rather than as a virtue enacted as means to a different end. In the liberal tradition, justice has no end other than abstract values like “freedom” or “equality”.

    It seems to me that biblical justice is much more profoundly relational. A society is just when people live in right relation to other parts of the order (God, Ruling Authorities, neighbours, family, the environment etc) , fulfilling their obligations to each other-that is the whole point of shalom. If we understand the Christian heart for justice as being focussed on this much broader question, I think we avoid some of the problems with both liberterian and liberal egalitarian ways of thinking about Justice. Justice is no longer “everyone getting their fairshare”, but attempting to restore and relationships and fulfill obligations towards each other-there is not some universal standard, but it depends on the position we have in the created order. Interestingly enough, this approach has much in common with communitarian approaches to political philopshy.

  13. CT says:

    Three comments for Richard:

    (1) Kevin DeYoung connects “social justice” with the idea that “disparity in wealth is [a] de facto injustice”. But such an idea is hardly representative of liberal-egalitarianism generally or of the difference principle in particular. (Mr. DeYoung would do well to address Rawls’ principles of distributive justice as one conception of one kind of “social justice”; this would be an appropriate alternative to the straw men.)

    (2) It’s often taken to be a strength of liberal-egalitarian conceptions of justice that they don’t presuppose any very particular conception of the good (or, as you might say, of some “end” beyond the sorts of freedoms and resources that everyone has reasons to value regardless of their particular views about the good, whether religious or otherwise). In a pluralistic society such as our own, one removes this feature at significant cost.

    (3) Once we do consider some of the actual liberal-egalitarian proposals (and not the straw men), it’s suddenly a lot less obvious that they will conflict with the sort of “profoundly relational” “biblical justice” which you envision. In fact–for their limited domains of application–some liberal-egalitarian conceptions of justice may be the most Bible-friendly options for a pluralistic democracy such as ours.

  14. Ryan Phelps says:

    I know you have been reading or have finished by now Keller’s new book on justice. I’m interested to hear your rejoinder to his claim that social justice is exactly what the bible prescribes and requires, as opposed to only regarding justice as the punishment of those who commit injustice (specifically with respect to his exegesis and analysis of Job 31 and Ezekiel 18).

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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