Rare is the bard who guides entire generations through chasms in their nation’s virtue. Between excessive self-indulgence and the carnage of child sacrifice, the poem of Isaiah 57 is a prophetic cry to the redeemed Kingdom of Judah to repent from their wicked practices. Yet, even in the people’s pursuit of God as depicted in Isaiah 58, they still fell woefully short of His standards. How does this happen? How does a society become so enamored with itself that its people overindulge while simultaneously exploiting their children? Interestingly enough, I found a glimpse of the answer in the Industrial Revolution.
Many know that it was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that popularized many Christmas traditions that we observe today. And, quite a few know that he wrote this story amidst financial burdens and deteriorating relations with his publisher. But what is lesser known is how he came to write this timeless allegory. As a child during the Industrial Revolution, Dickens knew all too well what it meant to be exploited. With nations reaching unprecedented heights of economic success afforded by new innovations in manufacturing, society began doing what it could to maintain the momentum the revolution provided. With increasing competition pressuring manufacturers to cut costs and maximize output, employers began seeking the cheapest labor they could find. And, find it they did – in children.
At 12-years old, Dickens was forced to quit school and find work for a few months in harsh factory conditions in order to pay his father’s debts while his family served time in debtors’ prison. Dickens would bounce between school and full-time work due to his family’s financial woes once more at the age of 15. The experience would leave an indelible mark of shame on his heart that would later bleed through onto his writing, deepening a passion in him for education and child welfare. The turning point came as an adult when he read the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, an investigative report that presented shocking findings of children working in conditions barely suitable for even adults. Reading the interviews from kids, Dickens could no longer remain silent on the matter.
He originally intended to craft his indictment of the country’s treatment of children in the form of a political pamphlet titled, An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child. But, after giving a speech for a fundraiser at the Manchester Athenaeum alongside future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, he decided to convey his sentiments through an allegory that would reach a wider audience. In six short weeks, Dickens would write and self-publish A Christmas Carol; and the idea of the charitable spirit of Christmas was born. The man who largely solidified the way most of us celebrate Christmas was not seeking to change a holiday, but to direct the heart towards generosity. Can we say to ourselves in 2018 that we have upheld the true spirit of Christmas?
There is nothing quite so flimsy and pathetic as the shell of a custom stripped and gutted of its original meaning. Instead of a tradition marked by holiness, we find people exploiting the spirit of generosity for personal gain. We see fights erupt where there should be additional measures of charity. Mockery replaces reverence. And while it is easy to think I am alluding to modern-day Christmas, it is actually the backdrop for Isaiah 58.
Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Isaiah 58:2-4 (ESV)
Isaiah 58 is a poem written to the Hypocrite. The Phony. The Four-Flushing Pharisee. The Humbug.
Not many intentionally seek to be the modern incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge. We may not be as grumpy and callous as he was; but do our regard for others share any similarities? Many times, even with the best intentions, we get caught up in our life circumstances to the extent that we forget to turn our attention to the larger issues that concern the Lord. Even when we do begin to consider these matters, we tend to get so bogged down with our own questions and frustrations that we paralyze ourselves from nourishing and encouraging those around us who need it most. So what are we supposed to do?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Isaiah 58:6-7 (NIV)
Despite our personal problems and the size of systemic problems that plague our communities, we are supposed to do what we can to lessen the burden of those around us anyway. And I think that’s where most of us struggle. I was talking with a few ladies earlier this week as we grappled with the pain of truly seeing a homeless person in their God-given dignity only to further recognize the magnitude of the suffering around us. When we realize the limitations of what we can do and that we have to choose who to help, scarcity enters our mind and we seek to operate within those confines of our own limitations. But, that’s the problem. We focus on only what we can do and not on what God can do.
Reading through Isaiah 59 and 60, it is so easy to see the contrast of God’s goodness and restorative power versus our own shortcomings and inability. For me, this is why Isaiah 61 leaves such a deep impression. As we are confronted with pain and suffering, we become well aware of how far we fall short. Then this Person enters the story and offers a solution, a way to bridge the chasm of our sin – Jesus Christ. Where the people of Isaiah 57 were willing to sacrifice their own children to appease the gods, Jesus Christ offered himself to secure an eternal legacy.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
Isaiah 61:1-3 (ESV)
“To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” harkens back to Leviticus 25 and the Year of Jubilee, a command by God to restore certain economic practices every fiftieth year. It was a year “to proclaim liberty throughout the land and all its inhabitants.” It was a reminder to the Israelites that it was the Lord who provided the Promised Land that they enjoy. And it was a time of socio-economic restoration for the community to ensure the Israelites did not take advantage of the most vulnerable. So, in Luke 4, when Jesus read from the scroll Isaiah 61:1-2, he was announcing the beginning of a time of restoration, but not just societally. He was not anointed by the Lord to simply restore any economic breakdowns, but to provide hope to all who were downtrodden. He was commissioned to reach where the Year of Jubilee could not – the heart.
Ashes were typically scattered on the head as a sign of mourning. So, when Christ announced that He was the Anointed One of Isaiah 61, He was saying that he would put in the very place of your mourning and sorrow a crown of beauty. He would not just give gifts instead of coal, but he would address your mourning at the place most needed. And what is the outcome of Christ’s transformation in us individually? We go on to transform society.
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:3-4 (ESV)