Isaiah 1:17
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(17) Relieve the oppressed.—More accurately, correct the oppressor. The prophet calls on the rulers not merely to acts of benevolence, but to the courageous exercise of their authority to restrain the wrong-doing of the men of their own order. We are reminded of what Shakespeare says of Time, that it is his work—

“To wrong the wronger till he render right.”

(Rape of Lucrece.)

Judge the fatherless.—The words are still primarily addressed to men in office. They are told that they must be true to their calling, and that the “fatherless” and the “widow,” as the typical instances of the defenceless, ought to find an advocate in the judge.

1:16-20 Not only feel sorrow for the sin committed, but break off the practice. We must be doing, not stand idle. We must be doing the good the Lord our God requires. It is plain that the sacrifices of the law could not atone, even for outward national crimes. But, blessed be God, there is a Fountain opened, in which sinners of every age and rank may be cleansed. Though our sins have been as scarlet and crimson, a deep dye, a double dye, first in the wool of original corruption, and afterwards in the many threads of actual transgression; though we have often dipped into sin, by many backslidings; yet pardoning mercy will take out the stain, Ps 51:7. They should have all the happiness and comfort they could desire. Life and death, good and evil, are set before us. O Lord, incline all of us to live to thy glory.Learn to do well - , To learn here is to become accustomed to, to practice it. To do well stands opposed to all kinds of evil. "Seek judgment." The word "judgment" - משׁפט mishpâṭ - here means justice. The direction refers particularly to magistrates, and it is evident that the prophet had them particularly in his view in all this discourse. Execute justice between man and man with impartiality. The word "seek" - דרשׁוּ dı̂reshû - means to pursue, to search for, as an object to be gained; to regard, or care for it, as the main thing. Instead of seeking gain, and bribes, and public favor, they were to make it an object of intense interest to do justice.

Relieve - - אשׁרוּ 'asherû - literally, make straight, Or right (margin, righten). The root - אשׁר 'âshar - means to proceed, to walk forward in a direct line; and bears a relation to ישׁר yâshar, to be straight. Hence, it often means to be successful or prosperous - to go straight forward to success. In Piel, which is the form used here, it means to cause to go straight; and hence, applied to leaders, judges, and guides, to conduct those under their care in a straight path, and not in the devices and crooked Ways of sin; Proverbs 23:19 :

Hear thou, my son, and he wise,

And guide אשׁר 'asher, "make straight") thine heart in the way.

The oppressed - Him to whom injustice has been done in regard to his character, person, or property; compare the notes at Isaiah 58:6.

Judge the fatherless - Do justice to him - vindicate his cause. Take not advantage of his weak and helpless, condition - his ignorance and want of experience. This charge was particularly necessary on account of the facilities which the guardians of orphans have to defraud or oppress, without danger of detection or punishment. Orphans have no experience. Parents are their natural protectors; and therefore God especially charged on their guardians to befriend and do justice to them; Deuteronomy 24:17 : 'Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor the fatherless, nor take the widow's raiment to pledge.'

Plead for - Contend for her rights. Aid her by vindicating her cause. She is unable to defend herself; she is liable to oppression; and her rights may be taken away by the crafty and designing. It is remarkable that God so often insists on this in the Scriptures, and makes it no small part of religion; Deuteronomy 14:29; Deuteronomy 24:17; Exodus 22:22 : 'Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.' The ancient views of piety on this subject are expressed in the language, and in the conduct of Job. Thus, impiety was said to consist in oppressing the fatherless and widow.

They drive away the donkey of the fatherless,

They take the widow's ox for a pledge.

17. seek judgment—justice, as magistrates, instead of seeking bribes (Jer 22:3, 16).

judge—vindicate (Ps 68:5; Jas 1:27).

Learn to do well; begin and inure yourselves to live soberly, righteously, and godly.

Seek judgment; show your religion to God, by studying and practising justice to men, and neither give nor procure any unrighteous judgment.

Relieve the oppressed; be not only just, but merciful.

Judge the fatherless; defend and deliver them, as this word is used, Psalm 7:8,11 9:4, and oft elsewhere.

Plead for the widow; maintain the righteous cause of poor and helpless persons, against their unjust and potent adversaries; whereby you will show your love to justice and mercy, and that you fear God more than men.

Learn to do well,.... Which men are naturally ignorant of; to do good they have no knowledge; nor can they that are accustomed to do evil learn to do well of themselves; but the Lord can teach them to profit, and of him they should ask wisdom, and desire, under the influence of his grace, to learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, and particularly to do acts of beneficence to all men, and especially to the household of faith; and also, the following ones,

seek judgment; seek to do justice between man and man in any cause depending, without respect of persons:

relieve the oppressed; the poor that are oppressed by their neighbours that are richer and mightier than they, right their wrongs, and deliver them out of the hands of their oppressors (i):

judge the fatherless; do justice to them who have none to take care of them, and defend them:

plead for the widow; that is desolate, and has none to plead her cause.

(i) Misn. Sabbat, c. 9. sect. 3. T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 67. 1,

Learn to {z} do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

(z) This kind of reasoning by the second table, the scriptures use in many places against the hypocrites who pretend holiness and religion in word, but when charity and love for their brethren should appear they declare that they have neither faith nor religion.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
17. relieve the oppressed] E.V. seems here to follow the LXX. The Hebrew must be translated set right the oppressor (R.V. marg.)—restrain him within the bounds of justice.

fatherless … widow] those who have no natural protectors, and are always exposed to wrong when the administration of justice is weak or corrupt (cf. Isaiah 1:23; ch. Isaiah 10:2). To defend such is specially the duty of the judge, but it is also an obligation lying on every one who has influence in the community. The prophet addresses his hearers (“rulers” and “people” Isaiah 1:10) as members of the state; and his demand is that by “seeking judgment” they shall exercise the fundamental virtue of citizenship. The righteousness which he requires is social righteousness, iustitia civilis, a public life so ordered as to secure for each individual his personal rights. The prophets’ passion for justice is always inspired by a deep sense of the value of the human personality in the sight of God.

Verse 17. - Learn to do well. Now comes the positive; first, in the general form" learn," etc.; which resembles the apostle's "Put on the armor of light" (Romans 13:12). Then follow the particulars. Seek judgment; or, seek out justice; i.e. endeavor to get justice done to all men; see that they "have right." Relieve the oppressed. So the LXX., the Vulgate, the Syriac, and the Chaldean Versions. But the word translated "oppressed" is thought by many to mean "oppressor" (Kimchi, Gesenius, Cheyne). This is certainly its meaning in Psalm 71:4. Translate, tighten the oppressor; i.e. correct and chasten him. Judge the fatherless; rather, do justice to the orphan (Cheyne); see that he is not wronged - be his champion. Plead for the widow; i.e. plead her cause in the courts; or, if judge, and she have no advocate, lean towards her, as if her advocate. The widow and the orphan were taken under God's special protection from the time of Moses, and constantly commended to the tender care of the righteous (Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; Deuteronomy 24:17; Deuteronomy 27:19, etc.). Isaiah 1:17Five admonitions relating to the practice of what is good: "Learn to do good, attend to judgment, set the oppressor right, do justice to the orphan, conduct the cause of the widow." The first admonition lays the foundation for the rest. They were to learn to do good - a difficult art, in which a man does not become proficient merely by good intentions. "Learn to do good:" hetib is the object to limdu (learn), regarded as an accusative; the inf. abs. הרע in Isaiah 1:16 takes the place of the object in just the same manner. The division of this primary admonition into four minor ones relating to the administration of justice, may be explained from the circumstance that no other prophet directs so keen an eye upon the state and its judicial proceedings as Isaiah has done. He differs in this respect from his younger contemporary Micah, whose prophecies are generally more ethical in their nature, whilst those of Isaiah have a political character throughout. Hence the admonitions: "Give diligent attention to judgment" (dârash, to devote one's self to a thing with zeal and assiduity); and "bring the oppressor to the right way." This is the true rendering, as Châmotz (from Châmatz, to be sharp in flavour, glaring in appearance, violent and impetuous in character) cannot well mean "the oppressed," or the man who is deprived of his rights, as most of the early translators have rendered it, since this form of the noun, especially with an immutable kametz like בּגוד בּגודה (cf., נקד נקּדּה), is not used in a passive, but in an active or attributive sense (Ewald, 152, b: vid., at Psalm 137:8): it has therefore the same meaning as Chomeotz in Psalm 71:4, and âshok in Jeremiah 22:3, which is similar in its form. But if Châmotz signifies the oppressive, reckless, churlish man, אשּׁר cannot mean to make happy, or to congratulate, or to set up, or, as in the talmudic rendering, to strengthen (Luzzatto: rianimate chi oppresso); but, as it is also to be rendered in Isaiah 3:12; Isaiah 9:15, to lead to the straight road, or to cause a person to keep the straight course. In the case before us, where the oppressor is spoken of, it means to direct him to the way of justice, to keep him in bounds by severe punishment and discipline.

(Note: The Talmud varies in its explanation of Chamoz: in one instance it is applied to a judge who lets his sentence be thoroughly leavened before pronouncing it; in another the Chamuz is said to signify a person robbed and injured, in opposition to Chomez (b. Sanhedrin 35a). It is an instructive fact in relation to the idea suggested by the word, that, according to Joma 39b, a man who had not only taken possession of his own inheritance, but had seized upon another person's also, bore the nickname of ben chimzon as long as he lived.)

In the same way we find in other passages, such as Isaiah 11:4 and Psalm 72:4, severe conduct towards oppressors mentioned in connection with just treatment of the poor. There follow two admonitions relating to widows and orphans. Widows and orphans, as well as foreigners, were the protgs of God and His law, standing under His especial guardianship and care (see, for example, Exodus 22:22 (21), cf., Exodus 21:21 (20). "Do justice to the orphan" (Shâphat, as in Deuteronomy 25:1, is a contracted expression for shâphat mishpat): for if there is not even a settlement or verdict in their cause, this is the most crying injustice of all, as neither the form nor the appearance of justice is preserved. "Conduct the cause of the widows:" ריב with an accusative, as in Isaiah 51:22, the only other passage in which it occurs, is a contracted form for ריב ריב. Thus all the grounds of self-defence, which existed in the hearts of the accused, are both negatively and positively overthrown. They are thundered down and put to shame. The law (thorah), announced in Isaiah 1:10, has been preached to them. The prophet has cast away the husks of their dead works, and brought out the moral kernel of the law in its universal application.

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