An old legal adage famously quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. says that justice delayed is justice denied. In the midst of prolonged suffering, even the most faithful Christian can feel the urge to question “Where are you, Lord? Where’s the justice in this?” Even when believers have full confidence that God is just, an apparent incongruity between God’s promises and painful circumstances can push believers to fear that God has forgotten his people.
One of the most recurring questions in the Old Testament was why God allowed wicked oppressors to prosper while his faithful people suffered under their feet. Whether pondered in Job or Ecclesiastes, lamented in the Psalms and Lamentations, or depicted in the lives of countless Old Testament figures, one cannot get far into Scripture without running headlong into the question. In light of our own experiences, that may not be too surprising. Whether seen in our national history or our own families, heard on school buses or in public protests, or read about on Twitter or the Washington Post, one cannot get far in life without asking the question for oneself. Some of us see unjust, wicked oppression against other people, and some of us live under the weight of such oppression every day. What is God doing about it?
It was on behalf of such an oppressed remnant that Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 51:9-11.
Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The prophet had already declared judgement upon Judah. In their prosperity, they themselves had become oppressors—so he says in Isaiah 5:7 that the Lord “looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” Though God had called them to be a light to the nations, a force of good and a source of justice for the whole world, they instead saw the way the other nations worked and chose to follow suit. In response, God promised to lift his hedge of protection from his vineyard Jerusalem. Sennacherib was turned away in 701 BC, but Hezekiah’s error in Isaiah 39 ensured that judgement would come at the hands of the Babylonians. By 586 BC, Judah would be crushed and Jerusalem would be destroyed.
Yet God promised to remember his faithful remnant. For those who returned to the Lord in repentance, God commanded Isaiah to speak his words of comfort, blessing, and restoration. Chapters 40-66 record these words of blessing, and Isaiah 51 features an imagined dialogue between God and the future remnant. God promises to set his justice for a light to the people (51:4) as he reassures them, “my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.” (51:8).
Isaiah, speaking on behalf of oppressed Zion, responds with a mixture of faith and fear. They call to God, “Awake, Awake…Awake as in the days of old!” (51:9). They look back into Israel’s past and into God’s creation of the world. They believe that God truly delivered their ancestors from Egypt, and that God truly “pierced the dragon” to establish his order in creation.1 However, they fear that God might not deliver their generation in the same way. Believers today might see their own faith and fear in Isaiah’s prophesy. We might worship God for the things he’s done in history on Sunday morning and reflect on the ways he’s worked in our own lives during our quiet times, but when we close our Bibles, walk out the church doors on Sunday, and return to the hardships that face us in the world, fear quickly seeps back in.
As relatable as Zion’s lament might be, God’s response is all the more relevant with the advent of the gospel. The Lord’s immediate words to Zion are “I, I am he who comforts you” (51:12). God runs to meet his people in their suffering. He promises not only to rescue them from their oppressors but to in fact take the “cup of staggering” Zion had drunk from and place it in their enemy’s hands (51:22–23). Though God’s people experienced this in part at their return from exile in 536 BC, God ultimately fulfilled his promise at the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s people can trust that they will not be left in the pit (51:14) because Christ was not left in the grave. Believers need not fear God’s eternal judgement because the cup of staggering was passed from them to Christ “while we were still enemies” so that he might reconcile us to himself (Rom 5:10).
The beauty of the gospel recognizes that if we are united to Christ, we have already been delivered from all oppression—both the oppression we inflict and the oppression we suffer. Christians must remember their former status as enemies of God. Remember that before Israel had come under Babylonian oppression, they themselves had been oppressors. What was true for Israel as a nation is true for each of us individually. Left to ourselves, and in light of the paradigm of oppression that dominates our world, we are all naturally inclined to follow the same mentality—one that sees other people as objects and seeks to protect ourselves no matter the cost to other people. Titus 3:3 expresses this mentality well: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” If God is not just, or if He is simply uninterested in our affairs, the only solution to suffering oppression to respond on the same level—to overthrow oppressors, and inevitably become them.
God does not operate on the same level of oppression. His perfect love and justice break the world’s paradigm on the cross of Christ. The only One worthy to judge, Jesus Christ, chose instead to bear the weight of his people’s sin as He forgave them. Titus 3 continues to explain the impact the cross has: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (3:4-7) No longer driven by hate, Christians forfeit their pursuit of oppressing others to follow a new paradigm.
The gospel doesn’t end there. The same stroke that frees us from being oppressors also frees us from the oppression we face, whether spiritual or physical. Sin and death have been overthrown and the serpent has been cut to pieces. Paul rejoices in Romans 8:37 that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” For Paul, this knowledge made all the difference. He believed that unity with Christ was so powerful that all the sufferings the world could throw at him and his churches he regarded as “light momentary affliction.” (2 Cor 4:17). It provided a peace that surpassed understanding (Phil 4:7). Though Paul still experienced unjust oppression, even unto martyrdom, he truly felt the comfort God spoke in Isaiah 51:12.
That same unfathomable peace is available to believers today. God has removed the cup of wrath from our hands and beckons us to run to him as our Father. We are free to approach the throne of grace with confidence. We are free to abandon the paradigm of oppression we used to operate by and instead live up to our created intent, being beacons of truth, justice, and mercy to a world hardwired for oppression. Furthermore, we are free to cry out to God with our fears and wait for his deliverance. Whether God intervenes to alleviate our present suffering or not—and knowing that God delights to show mercy, and really did deliver his remnant from Babylon, we really can hope in present alleviation—our greatest hope rests in the deliverance Christ has already accomplished. Let us find peace in Jesus’ work as we wait for him to finally slay the serpent, cancel the curse of sin and death, and restore his people in the new heavens and new earth.2
1 The reference to God’s victory over Rahab alludes to a typical ancient Near Eastern Chaoskampf paralleled in extra-biblical material like Ugarit’s Baal Cycle. Jeremy Hutton, “Isaiah 51:9-11 and the Rhetorical Appropriation and Subversion of Hostile Theologies,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2 (2007): pp. 271-303, https://doi.org/ 10.2307/27638435. Israel did not interpret such myths to literally describe God’s victory over a serpent before the creation of the world, but the culturally significant reference expands Isaiah 51’s expectation of restoration from national dealings to cosmological proportions. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 340.
2 This article is derivitave of a research paper I’ve written on Isa 51:9-11. You can find the full paper posted here.