Why “reprove the ruthless”? God’s inspired words to Isaiah in Isaiah 1:16-17 are words that are part of patterns of direction to correct the behavior of wicked Judah. There are many scriptural examples devoted to enabling the ruthless to repent. The patterns and examples of God’s Word are needed to strengthen the community of men in a walk of godliness.
Jesus is queried by a Pharisee lawyer in Matthew 22:34-39:
“Teacher which is the great commandment in the law.” Jesus replies: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.”
When Jesus references the commandments, he looks back to the Mosaic Law, specifically the Ten Commandments. When those commandments are examined (Exodus 20), it can be seen that the first four commandments focus on man’s relationship with God. The remaining commandments focus on man’s relationship with mankind. Both are critical in man’s everyday service, but service to God is the highest priority. This relationship was not changed by Jesus, but reinforced.
The pattern shared by Jesus and that of the Old law, putting God first, then mankind, is present in the words of Isaiah as he speaks to Judah. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice” – These three commands have a vertical focus of being God directed. Man ceases to do evil, so he can approach God. He learns to do good so he can please God. Each man seeks justice that he might exact his behavior and grow toward the holiness of God. The second three components of development Isaiah spoke to Judah were: “Reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. These three items, while they glorify God, are items which represent the duty of man in the horizontal relationship to his community.
There is also a second pattern arising in Isaiah’s words. In the God centered commands,he mentions correction (cease) and then strengthening (learn, seek). This same pattern is seen in his man directed commands: correction (reprove) and strengthen (defend, plead). The mentioning of these patterns is not a necessity to understand the statement “reprove the ruthless”, but it does clarify its purpose as being corrective action for the development of mankind.
Translations of the words “reprove the ruthless” [KJV] have taken different forms: “rebuke the oppressor” [NKJV], “correct oppression” [ESV], and “relieve the oppressed” [ASV]. As these translations are considered, confusion can arise. Is the one causing problems to be rebuked or are the ones being oppressed to be helped? Though both would have Biblical precedent, this article will take the approach that “reprove the ruthless” and “rebuke the oppressor” are proper translations based on the meanings of the Hebrew words involved (see footnote 1 for more details). The oppressor or ruthless individual is one who does violence against the word of God. In other words, those who disobey God are to be lead to a change in their actions.
It was shown in the last article (Wash Yourselves: Seek Justice) that man should seek the instruction/discipline of God for it will strengthen them. God used the tool of the Chaldeans to bring about justice on Judah (Habakkuk 1:6), thereby providing the remnant and future generations of mankind a strong example of consequences based on behavior. God used his creation as a tool in the days of Noah to bring about justice, flooding the world, and removing evil (Genesis 7). Someday, God’s Son, Jesus Christ will return and bring about justice for mankind (Matthew 24:44-51). Instead of Deity always acting directly and/or with destruction to bring justice to mankind, God has ordained three other entities to do so preemptively: Secular Leaders (government), spiritual leaders (elders), and the individual faithful. This is their duty! However, their authority to act and bring a reproving of disobedience must always be according to God’s Will (Acts 5:29).
With few exceptions, the leaders of the government of the people of Judah failed in their obligation to reprove the people for their wicked ways. Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:1-2) and Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-2) represent kings who were different and did not endorse evil behaviors. Both sought out the will of God as a direction for not only their own behavior, but that of the people of Judah. When governments fail to make God their priority they fail to serve their function as proper shepherds of the people. Romans 13:1-7 properly establishes the actions of government are to be for the good of the citizenship. Consider also:
1 Peter 2:13-17 – Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
Jesus, properly put in perspective the role of those with the power of government to reprove and punish when he told Governor Pilate the following in John 19:10-11:
“Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above:…”
Isaiah was a prophet and spiritual leader (2 Kings 19:5). In the book of Isaiah, he openly reproved the actions of Judah. He set straight the quality of actions they should have been following. He was not the only spiritual leader of the people to address governments or peoples of the nations. Jonah, Obadiah, Jeremiah, Micaiah, and John the immerser are a few other such men. Jesus personally called to himself men who would be chosen to direct men in the truths of God and call them to repent. Those men, apostles, were leaders of the first century Church and fulfilled their horizontal duty to mankind. Their message to mankind was instruction and reproval:
Acts 2:38 – “Then Peter said unto them, Repent…”
Acts 3:19 – “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;”
Acts 8:22 – “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.”
Acts 17:30 – “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:”
Today, there are no apostles. The scriptures are the authority for the actions of man toward their God.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
The spiritual leaders ordained to enforce the paths of scripture are called elders. Their specific duty is to lead and reprove the Church following the examples of past spiritual leaders.
Acts 20:28-29 – “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Titus 1:7-9 – “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” [ESV]
Regardless of the activity of the governmental leaders of Judah and in addition to the reproof of the spiritual leaders, the people themselves should have been calling upon their fellow citizens to return to following God. However, they only followed their own desires which were contrary to the actions of God. They did not concern themselves with the welfare of others as they should have. King Solomon wrote of their duty to their neighbor:
Proverbs 12:26 – “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.”
Proverbs 9:8 – “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.”
Christians as individuals are also directed to their corrective duties regarding their fellow man:
Ephesians 5:11 – “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.”
2 Timothy 4:2 – “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”
It is seen that governments, spiritual leaders, and individuals are called upon to provide corrective action for the benefit of others. Yet, despite the authority of the scriptures behind these actions, it never fails that someone will quote the following words:
Matthew 7:4 – Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? [ESV]
Upon quoting such they will claim that man is not supposed to judge. It is true that no man is the final judge of another’s salvation – It is the Words of God that will judge in the final day (John 12:48). It is also true that man must first examine himself to see if he is in the truth before fulfilling their duty to others:
Matthew 7:5 – Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
2 Corinthians 13:5 – Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
However, to claim that a man does not have a duty to instruct in the Word of God is pure ignorance as has been seen from the verses presented thus far. Once again consider the duty of man to his fellows:
Matthew 28:19-20 – Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Isaiah set for the command of “reprove the ruthless”, meaning they were to direct those in sin to the paths of God. His instructions though focused on Judah, are a pattern for how man should behave in all ages. Whether the entity be a government, spiritual leader, or individual, there is a horizontal duty to call those in error to return to a proper vertical relationship with God. Calling men to corrective action has a wide number of scriptural examples and mandates. Such action has the authority of God behind it. If they recipient is seeking justice, it will go well with them. However, men may choose to ignore the admonition. Men may choose to claim such reproof has no authority. If such is the case, they do so at their own peril.
Jeremiah 2:19 – Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and a bitter, that thou hast forsaken Jehovah thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts.
(1) The phrase “reprove the ruthless” is made up of the Hebrew words (aw-shar’, aw-share’ – Strong’s number H833) and (khaw-motse’ – Strong’s number H2541). H833 is used 15 times in the Old Testament and it means “to make straight, lead, advance, set right, or make happy”. In the English usage of this word, it has most often been used as blessed, though far from exclusive. H251 is used only once in the Old Testament. According to Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Definitions it means “oppressor” or “ruthless”. According to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary it means “violent” or “robber”. As a third definition Strong’s throws out the word “oppressor” which is seemingly in direct conflict with its other two definitions and BDB. For the article above, the interpretation being used is “reprove the ruthless” based on “making straight, leading, advancing, or setting right” the “ruthless, violent”.