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Isaiah xl.-lxvi.

In the chapters which we have been studying we have found some difficulty with one of our prophet's keynotes—right or righteousness. In the chapters to come we shall find this difficulty increase, unless we take some trouble now to define how much the word denotes in Isa. xl.-lxvi. There is no part of Scripture, in which the term righteousness suffers so many developments of meaning. To leave these vague, as readers usually do, or to fasten upon one and all the technical meaning of righteousness in Christian theology, is not only to obscure the historical reference and moral force of single passages,—it is to miss one of the main arguments of the prophecy. We have read enough to see that righteousness was the great question of the Exile. But what was brought into question was not only the righteousness of the people, but the righteousness of their God. In Isa. xl.-lxvi. righteousness is more often claimed as a Divine attribute, than enforced as a human duty or ideal.126126   It is only by confining his review of the word to its applications to God, and overlooking the passages which attribute it to the people, that Krüger, Essai sur la Théologie d'Isaïe xl.-lxvi., can affirm that the prophet holds throughout to a single idea of righteousness (p. 36). On this, as on many other points, it is Calvin's treatment, that is most sympathetic to the variations of the original.


I. Righteousness.

Ssedheq, the Hebrew root for righteousness, had, like the Latin "rectus," in its earliest and now almost forgotten uses, a physical meaning. This may have been either straightness, or more probably soundness,—the state in which a thing is all right.127127   In Arabic the cognate word is applied to a lance, but this may mean a sound or fit lance as well as a straight one. "Originem Schult. de defect. hodiernis § 214-224 ponit in rigore, duritia, coll. arabic lancea dura, al. aequabilis" (Gesenii Thesaurus, art. צדק). Paths of righteousness, in Psalm xxiii., ver. 4, are not necessarily straight paths, but rather sure, genuine, safe paths.128128   It is not certain whether righteousness is here used in a physical sense; and in all other cases in which the root is applied in the Old Testament to material objects, it is plainly employed in some reflection of its moral sense, e.g., just weights, just balance, Lev. xix. 36. Like all physical metaphors, like our own words "straight" and "right," the applicability of the term to moral conduct was exceedingly elastic. It has been attempted to gather most of its meaning under the definition of conformity to norm;129129   "Der Zustand welcher der Norm entspricht." Schultz, Alt. Test. Theologie, 4th ed., p. 540, n. 1. and so many are the instances in which the word has a forensic force,130130   Cf. Robertson Smith, Prophets of Israel, p. 388, and Kautzsch's paper, which is there quoted. as of vindication or justification, that some have claimed this for its original, or, at least, its governing sense. But it is improbable that either of these definitions conveys the simplest or most general sense of the word. Even if conformity or justification were ever the prevailing sense of ssedheq, there are a number of instances in216 which its meaning far overflows the limits of such definitions. Every one can see how a word, which may generally be used to express an abstract idea, like conformity, or a formal relation towards a law or person, like justification, might come to be applied to the actual virtues, which realise that idea or lift a character into that relation. Thus righteousness might mean justice, or truth, or almsgiving, or religious obedience,—to each of which, in fact, the Hebrew word was at various times specially applied. Or righteousness might mean virtue in general, virtue apart from all consideration of law or duty whatsoever. In the prophet Amos, for instance, righteousness is applied to a goodness so natural and spontaneous that no one could think of it for a moment as conformity to norm or fulfilment of law.131131   "Die Begriffe צדקה und צדק ... bedeuten nun wirklich bei Amos mehr als die juristische Gerechtigkeit. Indirect gehen die Forderungen des Amos über die blos rechtliche Sphäre hinaus" (Duhm, Theologie der Propheten, p. 115).

In short, it is impossible to give a definition of the Hebrew word, which our version renders as righteousness, less wide than our English word right. Righteousness is right in all its senses,—natural, legal, personal, religious. It is to be all right, to be right-hearted, to be consistent, to be thorough; but also to be in the right, to be justified, to be vindicated; and, in particular, it may mean to be humane (as with Amos), to be just (as with Isaiah), to be correct or true to fact (as sometimes with our own prophet), to fulfil the ordinances of religion, and especially the command about almsgiving (as with the later Jews).

Let us now keep in mind that righteousness could express a relation, or a general quality of character, or217 some particular virtue. For we shall find traces of all these meanings in our prophet's application of the term to Israel and to God.

II. The Righteousness of Israel.

One of the simplest forms of the use of righteousness in the Old Testament is when it is employed in the case of ordinary quarrels between two persons; in which for one of them to be righteous means to be right or in the right.132132   Gen. xxxviii. 26. Cf. 2 Sam. xv. 4. Now to the Hebrew all life and religion was based upon covenants between two,—between man and man and between man and God. Righteousness meant fidelity to the terms of those covenants. The positive contents of the word in any single instance of its use would, therefore, depend on the faithfulness and delicacy of conscience by which those terms were interpreted. In early Israel this conscience was not so keen as it afterwards came to be, and accordingly Israel's sense of their righteousness towards God was, to begin with, a comparatively shallow one. When a Psalmist asseverates his righteousness and pleads it as the ground for God rewarding him, it is plain that he is able with sincerity to make a claim, so repellent to a Christian's feeling, just because he has not anything like a Christian's conscience of what God demands from man. As Calvin says on Psalm xviii., ver. 20, "David here represents God as the President of an athletic contest, who had chosen him as one of His champions, and David knows that so long as he keeps to the rules of the contest, so long will God defend him." It is evident that in such an assertion righteousness cannot mean perfect innocence, but simply the good conscience of a man, who,218 with simple ideas of what is demanded from him, feels that on the whole "he has" (slightly to paraphrase Calvin) "played fair."

Two things, almost simultaneously, shook Israel out of this primitive and naïve self-righteousness. History went against them, and the prophets quickened their conscience.133133   The first chapter of Isaiah is a perfect summary of these two. The effect of the former of these two causes will be clear to us, if we recollect the judicial element in the Hebrew righteousness,—that it often meant not so much to be right, as to be vindicated or declared right. History, to Israel, was God's supreme tribunal. It was the faith of the people, expressed over and over again in the Old Testament, that the godly man is vindicated or justified by his prosperity: the way of the ungodly shall perish. And Israel felt themselves to be in the right, just as David, in Psalm xviii., felt himself, because God had accredited them with success and victory. But when the decision of history went against the nation, when they were threatened with expulsion from their land and with extinction as a people, that just meant that the Supreme Judge of men was giving His sentence against them. Israel had broken the terms of the Covenant. They had lost their right; they were no longer righteous. The keener conscience, developed by prophecy, swiftly explained this sentence of history. This declaration, that the people were unrighteous, was due, the prophet said, to the people's sins. Isaiah not only exclaimed, Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; he added, in equal indictment, How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of justice, righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers: thy princes are rebellious,219 they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come before them. To Isaiah and the earlier prophets Israel was unrighteous because it was so immoral. With their strong social conscience, righteousness meant to these prophets the practice of civic virtues,—truth-telling, honesty between citizens, tenderness to the poor, inflexible justice in high places.

Here then we have two possible meanings for Israel's righteousness in the prophetic writings, allied and necessary to one another, yet logically distinct,—the one a becoming righteous through the exercise of virtue, the other a being shown to be righteous by the voice of history. In the one case righteousness is the practical result of the working of the Spirit of God; in the other it is vindication, or justification, by the Providence of God. Isaiah and the earlier prophets, while the sentence of history was still not executed and might through the mercy of God be revoked, incline to employ righteousness predominantly in the former sense. But it will be understood how, after the Exile, it was the latter, which became the prevailing determination of the word. By that great disaster God finally uttered the clear sentence, of which previous history had been but the foreboding. Israel in exile was fully declared to be in the wrong—to be unrighteous. As a church, she lay under the ban; as a nation, she was discredited before the nations of the world. And her one longing, hope and effort during the weary years of Captivity was to have her right vindicated again, was to be restored to right relations to God and to the world, under the Covenant.

This is the predominant meaning of the term, as applied to Israel, in Isa. xl.-lxvi. Israel's unrighteousness is her state of discredit and disgrace under220 the hands of God; her righteousness, which she hopes for, is her restoral to her station and destiny as the elect people. To our Christian habit of thinking, it is very natural to read the frequent and splendid phrases, in which righteousness is attributed or promised to the people of God in this evangelical prophecy, as if righteousness were that inward assurance and justification from an evil conscience, which, as we are taught by the New Testament, is provided for us through the death of Christ, and inwardly sealed to us by the Holy Ghost, irrespective of the course of our outward fortune. But if we read that meaning into righteousness in Isa. xl.-lxvi., we shall simply not understand some of the grandest passages of the prophecy. We must clearly keep in view, that while the prophet ceaselessly emphasizes the pardon of God spoken home to the heart of the people, as the first step towards their restoral, he does not apply the term righteousness to this inward justification,134134   But the verb to make righteous or justify is used in a sense akin to the New Testament sense in liii. 11. See our chapter on that prophecy. but to the outward vindication and accrediting of Israel by God before the whole world, in their redemption from Captivity, and their reinstatement as His people. This is very clear from the way in which righteousness is coupled with salvation by the prophet, as (lxii. 1): I will not rest till her righteousness go forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burneth. Or again from the way in which righteousness and glory are put in parallel (lxii. 2): And the nations shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory. Or again in the way that righteousness and renown are identified (lxi. 11): The Lord Jehovah will cause righteousness and renown to spring forth before all the nations. In each221 of these promises the idea of an external and manifest splendour is evident; not the inward peace of justification felt only by the conscience to which it has been granted, but the outward historical victory appreciable by the gross sense of the heathen. Of course the outward implies the inward,—this historical triumph is the crown of a religious process, the result of forgiveness and a long purification,—but while in the New Testament it is these which would be most readily called a people's righteousness, it is the former (what the New Testament would rather call the crown of life), which has appropriated the name in Isa. xl.-lxvi. The same is manifest from another text (xlviii. 18): O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments; then had thy peace been as the River, and thy righteousness like the waves of the sea. Here righteousness is not only not applied to inward morality, but set over against this as its external reward,—the health and splendour which a good conscience produces. It is in the same external sense that the prophet talks of the robe of righteousness with its bridal splendour, and compares it to the appearance of Spring (lxi. 10-11).

For this kind of righteousness, this vindication by God before the world, Israel waited throughout the Exile. God addresses them as they that pursue righteousness, that seek Jehovah (li. 1). And it is a closely allied meaning, though perhaps with a more inward application, when the people are represented as praying God to give them ordinances of righteousness (lviii. 2),—that is, to prescribe such a ritual as will expiate their guilt and bring them into a right relation with Him. They sought in vain. The great lesson of the Exile was that not by works and performances, but through simply waiting upon the Lord, their righteousness should222 shine forth. Even this outward kind of justification was to be by faith.

The other meaning of righteousness, however,—the sense of social and civic morality, which was its usual sense with the earlier prophets,—is not altogether excluded from the use of the word in Isa. xl.-lxvi. Here are some commands and reproaches which seem to imply it. Keep judgement, and do righteousness,—where, from what follows, righteousness evidently means observing the Sabbath and doing no evil (lvi. 1 ff). And justice is fallen away backward, and righteousness standeth afar off, for truth is fallen in the street, and steadfastness cannot enter (lix. 14). These must be terms for human virtues, for shortly afterwards it is said: Jehovah was displeased because there was no justice. Again, They seek Me as a nation that did righteousness (lviii. 2); Hearken unto Me, ye that know righteousness, a people—My law is in their hearts (li. 7); Thou meetest him that worketh righteousness (lxiv. 5); No one sues in righteousness, and none goeth to law in truth (lix. 4). In all these passages righteousness means something that man can know and do, his conscience and his duty, and is rightly to be distinguished from those others, in which righteousness is equivalent to the salvation, the glory, the peace, which only God's power can bring. If the passages, that employ righteousness in the sense of moral or religious observance, really date from the Exile, then the interesting fact is assured to us that the Jews enjoyed some degree of social independence and responsibility during their Captivity. But it is a very striking fact that these passages all belong to chapters, the exilic origin of which is questioned even by critics, who assign the rest of Isa. xl.-lxvi. to the Exile. Yet, even if these passages have all to be223 assigned to the Exile, how few they are in number! How they contrast with the frequency, with which, in the earlier part of this book,—in the orations addressed by Isaiah to his own times, when Israel was still an independent state,—righteousness is reiterated as the daily, practical duty of men, as justice, truthfulness and charity between man and man! The extreme rarity of such inculcations in Isa. xl.-lxvi. warns us that we must not expect to find here the same practical and political interest, which formed so much of the charm and the force of Isa. i.-xxxix. The nation has now no politics, almost no social morals. Israel are not citizens working out their own salvation in the market, the camp and the senate; but captives waiting a deliverance in God's time, which no act of theirs can hasten. It is not in the street that the interest of Second Isaiah lies: it is on the horizon. Hence the vague feeling of a distant splendour, which, as the reader passes from ch. xxxix. to ch. xl., replaces in his mind the stir of living in a busy crowd, the close and throbbing sense of the civic conscience, the voice of statesmen, the clash of the weapons of war. There is no opportunity for individuals to reveal themselves. It is a nation waiting, indistinguishable in shadow, whose outlines only we see. It is no longer the thrilling practical cry, which sends men into the arenas of social life with every sinew in them strung: Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. It is rather the cry of one who still waits for his working day to dawn: I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help? Righteousness is not the near and daily duty, it is the far-off peace and splendour of skies, that have scarce begun to redden to the day.


III. The Righteousness of God.

But there was another Person, whose righteousness was in question during the Exile, and who Himself argues for it throughout our prophecy. Perhaps the most peculiar feature of the theology of Isa. xl.-lxvi. is its argument for the righteousness of Jehovah.

Some critics maintain that righteousness, when applied to Jehovah, bears always a technical reference to His covenant with Israel. This is scarcely correct. Jehovah's dealings with Israel were no doubt the chief of His dealings, and it is these, which He mainly quotes to illustrate His righteousness; but we have already studied passages, which prove to us that Jehovah's righteousness was an absolute quality of His Godhead, shown to others besides Israel, and in loyalty to obligations different from the terms of His covenant with Israel. In ch. xli. Jehovah calls upon the heathen to match their righteousness with His; righteousness was therefore a quality that might have been attributed to them as well as to Himself. Again, in xlv. 19,—I, Jehovah, speak righteousness, I declare things that are right,—righteousness evidently bears a general sense, and not one of exclusive application to God's dealing with Israel. It is the same in the passage about Cyrus (xlv. 13): I have raised him up in righteousness, I will make straight all his ways. Though Cyrus was called in connection with God's purpose towards Israel, it is not that purpose which makes his calling righteous, but the fact that God means to carry him through, or, as the parallel verse says, to make straight all his ways. These instances are sufficient to prove that the righteousness, which God attributes to His words, to His actions and to Himself, is a225 general quality not confined to His dealings with Israel under the covenant,—though, of course, most clearly illustrated by these.

If now we enquire, what this absolute quality of Jehovah's Deity really means, we may conveniently begin with His application of it to His Word. In ch. xli. He summons the other religions to exhibit predictions that are true to fact. Who hath declared it on-ahead that we may know, or from aforetime that we may say, He is ssaddîq.135135   At first sight this is remarkably like the cognate Arabic root, which is continually used for truthful. But the Hebrew word never meant truthful in the moral sense of truth, and here is right or correct. Here ssaddîq simply means right, correct, true to fact. It is much the same meaning in xliii. 9, where the verb is used of heathen predicters, that they may be shown to be right, or correct (English version, justified). But when, in ch. xlvi., the word is applied by Jehovah to His own speech, it has a meaning, of far richer contents, than mere correctness, and proves to us that after all the Hebrew ssedheq was almost as versatile as the English "right." The following passage shows us that the righteousness of Jehovah's speech is its clearness, straightforwardness and practical effectiveness: Not in secret have I spoken, in a place of the land of darkness,—this has been supposed to refer to the remote or subterranean localities in which heathen oracles mysteriously entrenched themselves,—I have not said to the seed of Jacob, In Chaos seek Me. I am Jehovah, a Speaker of righteousness, a Publisher of straight things. Be gathered and come, draw near together, O remnants of the nations. They know not that carry the log of their image, and pray to a god who does not save. Publish and bring near, yea, let them take counsel together. Who226 caused this to be heard of old? long since hath published it? Is it not I, Jehovah, and there is none else God beside Me; a God righteous and a Saviour, there is none except Me. Turn unto Me and be saved, all ends of Earth,136136   Earth again without article, though obviously referring to the world. for I am God, and there is none else. By Myself have I sworn, gone forth from My mouth hath righteousness: a word and it shall not turn; for to Me shall bow every knee, shall swear every tongue. Truly in Jehovah, shall they say of Me, are righteousnesses and strength. To Him shall it come,137137   Sense doubtful here. Bredenkamp translates by a slight change of reading: Only speaking by Jehovah: Fulness of righteousness and might come to Him, and ashamed, etc. and shamed shall be all that are incensed against Him. In Jehovah shall be righteous and renowned all the seed of Israel (xlv. 19-25).

In this very suggestive passage righteousness means far more than simple correctness of prediction. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish how much it means, so quickly do its varying echoes throng upon our ear, from the new associations in which it is spoken. A word such as righteousness is like the sensitive tones of the human voice. Spoken in a desert, the voice is itself and nothing more; but utter it where the landscape is crowded with novel obstacles, and the original note is almost lost amid the echoes it startles. So with the righteousness of Jehovah; among the new associations in which the prophet affirms it, it starts novel repetitions of itself. Against the ambiguity of the oracles, it is echoed back as clearness, straightforwardness, good faith (ver. 19); against their opportunism and want of foresight, it is described as equivalent to the capacity for arranging things beforehand and predicting227 what must come to pass, therefore as purposefulness; while against their futility, it is plainly effectiveness and power to prevail (ver. 23). It is the quality in God, which divides His Godhead with His power, something intellectual as well as moral, the possession of a reasonable purpose as well as fidelity towards it.

This intellectual sense of righteousness, as reasonableness or purposefulness, is clearly illustrated by the way in which the prophet appeals, in order to enforce it, to Jehovah's creation of the world. Thus saith Jehovah, Creator of the heavens—He is the God—Former of the Earth and her Maker, He founded her; not Chaos did He create her, to be dwelt in did He form her (xlv. 18). The word Chaos here is the same as is used in opposition to righteousness in the following verse. The sentence plainly illustrates the truth, that whatever God does, He does not so as to issue in confusion, but with a reasonable purpose and for a practical end. We have here the repetition of that deep, strong note, which Isaiah himself so often sounded to the comfort of men in perplexity or despair, that God is at least reasonable, not working for nothing, nor beginning only to leave off, nor creating in order to destroy. The same God, says our prophet, who formed the earth in order to see it inhabited, must surely be believed to be consistent enough to carry to the end also His spiritual work among men. Our prophet's idea of God's righteousness, therefore, includes the idea of reasonableness; implies rational as well as moral consistency, practical sense as well as good faith; the conscience of a reasonable plan, and, perhaps also, the power to carry it through.

To know that this great and varied meaning belongs228 to righteousness gives us new insight into those passages, which find in it all the motive and efficiency of the Divine action: It pleased Jehovah for His righteousness' sake (xlii. 21); His righteousness, it upheld Him; and He put on righteousness as a breastplate (lix. 16, 17).

With such a righteousness did Jehovah deal with Israel. To her despair that He has forgotten her He recounts the historical events by which He has made her His own, and affirms that He will carry them on; and you feel the expression both of fidelity and of the consciousness of ability to fulfil, in the words, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness. Right hand—there is more than the touch of fidelity in this; there is the grasp of power. Again, to the Israel who was conscious of being His Servant, God says, I, Jehovah, have called thee in righteousness; and, taken with the context, the word plainly means good faith and intention to sustain and carry to success.

It was easy to transfer the name righteousness from the character of God's action to its results, but always, of course, in the vindication of His purpose and word. Therefore, just as the salvation of Israel, which was the chief result of the Divine purpose, is called Israel's righteousness, so it is also called Jehovah's righteousness. Thus, in xlvi. 13, I bring near My righteousness; and in li. 5, My righteousness is near, My salvation is gone forth; ver. 6, My salvation shall be for ever, and My righteousness shall not be abolished. It seems to be in the same sense, of finished and visible results, that the skies are called upon to pour down righteousness, and the earth to open that they may be fruitful in salvation, and let her cause righteousness to spring up together (xlv. 8; cf. lxi. 10, My Lord Jehovah will cause righteousness to spring forth).


One passage is of great interest, because in it righteousness is used to play upon itself, in its two meanings of human duty and Divine effect—lvi. 1, Observe judgement—probably religious ordinances—and do righteousness; for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed.

To complete our study of righteousness it is necessary to touch still upon one point. In Isa. xl.-lxvi. both the masculine and feminine forms of the Hebrew word for righteousness are used, and it has been averred that they are used with a difference. This opinion is entirely dispelled by a collation of the passages. I give the particulars in a note, from which it will be seen that both forms are indifferently employed for each of the many shades of meaning which righteousness bears in our prophecies.138138   צדק, the masculine, is used sixteen times; צדקה, twenty-four. Both are used of Jehovah: xlii. 21 צדקו, and lix. 16 צדקתו. Both of His speech: masc. in xlv. 19, fem. in xlv. 23 and lxiii. 1. Perhaps the passage in which their identity is most plain is li. 5, 6, where they are both parallel to salvation: ver. 5, My righteousness (m.) is near; ver. 6, My righteousness (f.) shall not be abolished. Both are used of the people's duty: lix. 4, None sueth in righteousness (m.); xlviii. 1, But not in truth nor in righteousness (f.); lvi. 1, Keep justice and do righteousness (f.) And both are used of the people's saved and glorious condition: lviii. 8, Thy righteousness (m.) shall go before thee; lxii. 1, Until her righteousness (m.) go forth as brightness; xlviii. 18, Thy righteousness (f.) as the waves of the sea; liv. 17, Their righteousness (f.) which is of Me. Both are used with prepositions (cf. xlii. 6 with xlviii. 1), and both with possessive pronouns. In fact, there is absolutely no difference made between the two.

That the masculine and feminine forms sometimes occur, with the same or with different meanings, in the230 same verse, or in the next verse to one another, proves that the selection of them respectively cannot be due to any difference in the authorship of our prophecy. So that we are reduced to say that nothing accounts for their use, except, it might be, the exigencies of the metre. But who is able to prove this?

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