Thus says the LORD, “Keep justice and do righteousness.” Isaiah 56:1
Do Righteousness - Another verb, another noun. Isaiah continues his summary of God’s instructions for life with two more insights. The verb is ‘asah. It describes an activity that is focused on accomplishing a designated purpose. If this were a Greek word, we would call it teleological. It points us toward a specific goal.
But wait a minute! I thought that righteousness was something you had, not something you did. Doesn’t our Christian distinction tell us that we can’t earn righteousness, that it is given to us by God’s grace. If righteousness is a God-wrapped package delivered to us by His divine will, then how in the world can Isaiah say that we are supposed to do righteousness? The answer is found in the radical difference between the Greek concept of the structure of the world and the Hebrew concept of the world’s design.
We learned a long time ago that Greek derives its verbs from its nouns. Language often reveals the fundamental metaphysics of a culture. In this case, the Greek language tells us that fundamentally Greek sees the world as a place full of things (nouns). The structure of Greek is really an attempt to organize, catalog and control these things. So, Greek has incredible detail in its vocabulary, drawing exquisite distinctions between one thing and another (for example, the four different types of love). Notice carefully that our Western view of the world follows that same pattern. We believe the world is filled with things that need to be sorted out, named and controlled.
But this is not the way Hebrew sees the world. Hebrew is a verb-based language. It derives its nouns from its verbs. The fundamental construct of the world in Hebrew is action, not things. Why? Because God is a God who acts. He is the ultimate source of all activity, the constantly creating God. In Hebrew, the world is full of flow, motion, action and transition. Things are only the result of some type of action. What’s important is not the left-over things, but the action that produced them.
Apply this semantic and metaphysical difference to Isaiah’s summary and you see something quite amazing (for us, of course, not for a Hebrew). Righteousness is the product of action. It is the action that matters since the action is the generator of the noun. Without the action, there is no noun. Without doing something, there is no righteousness.
But doesn’t this mean that we are back to earning our way? Absolutely not! God acts to declare us righteous. We don’t earn any of that. But when it comes to being useful to the God who acts, we absolutely must act. Isaiah is summarizing God’s instructions, not God’s graciousness. An instruction manual is absolutely worthless unless you use it to do something. Don’t let the common Christian confusion about Law and Grace mess you up here. Grace is God’s act. Obedience is ours. Our obedience has nothing to do with earning God’s grace, but it has everything to so with being useful to Him in order to accomplish His purposes through us.
What do I have to do? I have to do tsedaqah. I have to do justice, right acts, right attitudes and whatever is expected according to God’s instructions. I have to do those things that please Him and bless others if I want to experience the full application of God’s grace in my life. I can do less than what the instruction manual recommends, but I won’t end up with the product the manual was designed to produce.
So, forget the nonsense about Law being opposed to grace. Grace is as old as Abraham (actually it goes back to Adam). Be theologically Hebrew. Do righteousness. Make all the instruction manual your guide for life.
Topical Index: Hebrew language, tsedaqah, asah, righteousness, action