Our advent sermons this year are from Isaiah 59-60, and this week we are starting with the first half of chapter 59. (I know this isn't the first week of advent, but we were working through Genesis and had to finish chapter 50 last week.)
One thing that stood out to me about this week's passage is the progression of pronouns in Isaiah 59. The prophet starts out in verses 1-3 speaking in the second person. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" and "have hidden his face from you." He speaks to the people about their own sin and its effect on them. At this stage he is accusing them, and he is not part of what he is criticizing. They do this.
He then shifts to third person in verses 4-8. At this point no one calls for justice. They give empty arguments, speak lies, conceive of trouble, are quick to shed innocent blood, and walk paths without justice. No one who walks in their ways will know peace. He isn't just accusing others now. He's talking about an objective situation, without placing himself in it our outside it. He's noting something that is true.
Then we see a shift to the first person in verses 9-13. "Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." He speaks of his own people, him included, as if they collectively walk around blindly and mourning, looking for justice and deliverance but not finding it.
But verse 12 shifts to an explanation. "For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities." Rebellion against God, oppression, revolt, and lies are in the same breath given as the reasons why "we" end up with the effect of verses 14-15. Justice is driven back, righteousness pushed off at a distance, truth stumbling in the streets, honesty unable to enter. "Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."
He's still giving the effects on those around him, but he's identifying with them in their sin and collectively recognizing that it's not just some other group of evildoers that he is calling out. We are all in this group. And when he calls for justice, the reason it's not happening is because of the doing of injustice that he is also participating in.
You might argue that he's just collectively identifying with his fellow Jews the way Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 when they weren't committing the sins of the people but were still offering prayers of collective repentance for the people they belonged to. But I think this is different. Ezra didn't commit the sin of marrying pagans who didn't worship God that he was lamenting. Daniel didn't bow to the idols around him in Babylon. Yet they collectively repented as a way to lead their people to repent.
But the things Isaiah is dealing with here, though not all sins we all commit, includes things that he and any other generally righteous people in his time, were complicit in. So even though he starts out pointing out the sins of others and describing the effects on them, none of that false, he ends up identifying with it enough to describe it as something true of "us" in a way that leads him to express public and collective repentance that he seeks those around him to join with him in. And then he says that the reason they have not experienced the justice that they now long for (which they started out not even wanting) was because of their own injustice.
If, as I think is true, the presentation of the prophecy of Isaiah should be taken at face value, and it was actually composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century looking forward to a time much later when the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon, then there are even more interesting implications of this. Isaiah is here identifying with not just his own generation of God's people in their current rebellion but with the future rejection of God's ways by a generation that he isn't even part of. His notion of collective responsibility and group identity is that strong, which speaks volumes about how easily we get away from those notions with Western individualism. And all of this is compatible with recognizing that in one very important way we really are responsible for what we ourselves do. That runs all through this (and through the other collective repentance prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel).
And it's also jarring to many of our sensibilities, where we like to think of things in an oppressor/oppressed binary, to see God's prophet speaking to oppressed people and telling them that one chief reason why they are oppressed is that they are themselves complicit in injustice, and then he has his prophet communicating this identify with them in that injustice, as much as he also seeks in that identifying to offer a prayer of repentance for them to turn from that injustice and experience the fruits of righteousness and peace.
It's hard for me to read this passage and think anyone in our current setting (politically left or right) should come away from this feeling comfortable about themselves. If they do, they are either rejecting its teaching or not understanding it.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.