The Church’s Corrupt Rules

How she is, the faithful city become a harlot! She (was) full of judgment, righteousness was lodging in her; but now murderers! Thy silver is become dross, thy wine cut with water. Thy princes, rebels and companions of thieves, all loving a bribe, and pursue rewards. They judge not the orphan, and the cause of the widow comes not unto them.

Isaiah 1:21-23

In the immediately foregoing context, the Lord reminds us that obedience is the way of blessing for the child of God. At the same time He issues warning against refusing to obey, marking the dangers of determined unwillingness and the heinousness of willful rejection of the Lord. We are in need of such warning, lest we continue in a way of destruction, for we are all prone to rebel most bitterly against the mercy of God, and throw ourselves against the thick bosses of His buckler in hostile resistance against Him. For the sentence of the just Judge of all the earth is pronounced with the certainty and finality of the highest tribunal against the unfaithful and disobedient. That sentence is from the very mouth of Jehovah, and He makes no idle threats. Justice shall be executed speedily upon the children of disobedience, the sword of divine retribution cutting them out of Israel, destroying them utterly. But now, in both figurative and natural terms, the Lord laments the degraded condition of the chosen nation and its capital city.

I.Their Depraved Character. “How is she become a harlot, the faithful city!” Emphasis deserves to be placed on the word how, for it expresses shocking surprise (How could she! how strange that she should!), and is an exclamation of complaint, pain and grief which God feels for a people who are the exact opposite of their original state of bride of Jehovah. He, the Husband, who rejoices in the presence of His angels over one sinner that repents (Luke 15:7, 10), laments the degeneracy of Judah and Jerusalem, and the ruin of the whole state and church. For in the time of David and in the early part of Solomon’s reign, the city was a holy city, a type of the true church, which is the faithful, chaste virgin of Christ. But now citizenry and rulers are fallen. Then passing from the figure of adultery to adulteration the prophet illustrates from the business life of the times. “Thy silver is become dross.” The nobles and princes who had been pure, shining examples are now corrupted. They had departed from righteousness and separated themselves from justice, proving themselves not silver in the smelting process, but dregs, scum and slag. Once they were the choice silver of the theocratic state. Now they are refuse, fit only for the dunghill. So the Lord complains, “The house of Israel is become dross unto Me” (Ezek. 22:17). “Thy wine is mixed with water.” The vintners adulterated their strong drink with water to cheat their customers. In the dairy business, checks are made on the milk to prevent its dilution with water. We also speak of “cut wine”, cut or wounded with water! Wine-dealers commerced in mutilated wine and spurious money. They caught their innocent patrons coming and going in their fraudulent traffic in bad wine and counterfeit money given in change. Both dross and water-wine have the appearance of genuine silver and good wine; but neither is worth the corrosion on a counterfeit coin. So the rulers of Jerusalem had degenerated to politicians. They had a showing and form of justice and legal ethics, but in actuality nothing of these. How good it is when pastor and people can still turn from the corrupt state and the apostate church to say humbly and truly with Paul, “For we are not as many, who corrupt the Word of God, but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (II Cor. 2:17).

Then the prophet illustrates conditions from married life. “How is the faithful city become an harlot!” Here is a fallen bride, once a chaste virgin espoused to Christ. Jerusalem had heretofore been a faithful city, true to the covenant of the Lord, which covenant is a marriage covenant. The marriage covenant establishes a relationship of intimate friendship and love between husband and wife. But the wife, the beautiful, virtuous woman broke the covenant and became a harlot. She doted upon many lovers, yet was worse than a city prostitute. For she professed the strictness of the Pharisees while living as a harlot. In Jesus’ day, the people, as represented by that city, were called by Him an “adulterous generation”; and in John’s day, “the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt.” So the fallen bride became a depraved wife. “She was (once) full of justice; righteousness was lodging in her: but now murderers.” Licentious love hardens the heart, soon turns into hatred, and easily falls into murder. Hardened by sensual lust, she now unfeeling takes murderers (those who dash into pieces) for her paramours. Righteousness used to lodge in her, but now there is a change in her so great that she cannot be recognized from her former self. The just and the right used to remain and dwell in her. But now, antipodal to love and righteousness, harlotry and murder fill her heart. So is this city which represents a people. When the church departs from the true worship of God, she becomes guilty of spiritual adultery. If David and Isaiah could rise from the dead and see Palestine today; if Calvin could thus return to Geneva; if the Puritans could so return to Westminster, and if Warfield to Princeton today, they would all exclaim, “How is the faithful city become an harlot!”

II.Their Perverted Activity. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah not only delineates their character, but also their wicked activity. It is crooked. For they have deliberately departed from the highway of holiness and righteousness. Having the position of right men, they are actually rebel men. “Thy princes are rebels.” They are stubborn and obstinate, even in the administration of perverted justice. Where they have it as their calling to maintain the law of God, they are themselves rebels against it. Rulers of the state are responsible to God to protect the good and to punish the evil (Rom. 13:1-4). But they became thieves, “companions of thieves,” so that the innocent man stood a better chance with a band of thieves, a gang of bandits, or a horde of assassins than with a bench of these judges. Where in Jerusalem, in all Judah, may one find a just, impartial judge? They are all associated with thieves, are their accomplices. The expression in the original means “to join together, to charm, to bind with a spell.” Crooked men have charmed them and bound them with their evil spell. Instead of driving out these thieves, they be came the secret heads and master-minds of crime. All this is to be understood spiritually, primarily, and as such, they were moral vultures and jackals.

Their activity is also characterized by a craving, mad, itching lust. They were graft-lovers, setting their hearts on the court salaries, fees and fines, and any extras they could exact. They were “all loving a bride,” and sought gifts from the rich. So they became extortioners and thieves. Such do not enter into the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:10). They follow after, pursue rewards, are gift-seekers. They help only those who can come to them with secret presents. The word rewards has as its root the idea of “peace,” something they did not pursue, but rather that which would pacify their greed. Thus is come to pass the saying that “a bribe blindeth the wise (or them that have sight), and perverteth the words (cause) of the righteous” (Ex. 23:8).

III.Their Evil Fruit. In their evil-doing they were oppressive. “The orphan they do not judge,” but withhold justice. As someone has well said, “proud and rich oppressors are the worst robbers.” The fatherless, the bereaved, the lonely they overlook, pretending they do not see their miseries, shutting their ears against their pitiful cries. They are cruel to the small and insignificant. Murders go unpunished. How much like our own day! There used to be certain cities in the U.S.A. especially noted for crime, such as St. Louis and Detroit. Now no one city has such notoriety. All the cities of the land are full of rapists and murderers. True, to the end of time tares shall grow among the wheat, and we may not root them up. But swine are not to be tolerated in the grain-field. Yet law and order are fast becoming a thing of the past. What intensifies this wickedness of the princes is the fact that they came from a generation of righteous and godly people. When the most faithful of men degenerate, they become the most wicked of all. We, therefore, must be warned that if as people of God we decline from righteousness we become monsters of iniquity. That which was originally best, after corruption, becomes worst. “Did not thy father . . . do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him? He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him; was not this to know Me? saith the Lord. But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for thy covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it” (Jer. 22:15-17).

We see what these elders of Israel were, what they became, what they did, and now, what they produce. Their product-in-trade is blood and sweat and tears, which they squeeze out of others in abundance. It is customary for them to forget the needy. “The cause of the widow does not come unto them.” The widow has no access to them. She has no bribe to give. The judge hates the weak. The cause of the defenseless never reaches the chambers of these so-called dispensers of justice. They cannot stoop to their grievances. The term ’cause’ has in it the root idea of quarrelling, and is illustrated by the thought of “seizing each other by the hair,” as might easily come to pass in the case of jealousy and oppression between a prosperous wife and a poor widow. But the wicked judge will not take up the case, nor look into the contention of the weak. It is his purpose and profit to crush God’s people, and grind the face of the poor (Isa. 3:15). So there are times when holiness and righteousness are little attended to in the church. But this God orders in His wise providence “that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (I Cor. 11:19). Also He would teach us to leave the unjust and impenitent who persecute us to the Judge of all who shall speedily avenge His own elect.