God has given us a treasure of unexpected righteousness. It’s a righteousness that will break your heart with joy, like a sunrise after a moonless night, like a crocus at winter’s end. It blossoms so beautiful that it seems untrue, but it’s utterly true. He has told us in Isaiah (and in all His Scriptures) and He cannot lie.
This righteousness doesn’t come from us and it never could. He looks for righteousness in us, the people He’s made and has ever only shown good, but He finds none (Isaiah 5:7). Isaiah paints a bleak picture of us. So lost are we in our unrighteousness that “all (absolutely all) our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6). We make ourselves our own gods, thinking we can decide what is good, we who are “wise in [our] own eyes” (5:21). Like the king of Babylon, our pomp will bring us to Hell (14:11). God taunts the Jews, who are just as wicked at heart as the nations around them, and we are no better than they are, wearing our proud crowns atop our kingly heads, decking ourselves in fading flowers that are nothing to Him and His beauty (28:1, 5). Isaiah exposes us as not only wicked, but foolishly wicked, irrational in our idolatry. The things we choose to worship are “less than nothing” and make us an “abomination” just like them (42:24). Worshiping things that are not gods, things we make into gods, as if such things could ever be above us and bless us, we “feed on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (44:20). But “there is no other god besides [Him], a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides [Him]” (45:21).
And a righteous God He is indeed. He is not like our idols and not like us. The Holy God “shows Himself holy in righteousness” (5:16). Isaiah reveals a zealous God who punishes the prideful and unrighteous nations, laying low the lofty idols and counselors of Egypt (19:1), defiling the “pompous pride of all glory” of Tyre (23:9). Against the fallen glory of the nations, the judgment of even the entire earth, the world hears “of glory to the Righteous One” (24:16). Such a glory is darkness for the unrighteous ones against whom the LORD sets Himself.
And somehow the Sun of Righteousness rises with healing in His wings.* It seems contradictory that a righteous God could rule and that such a rule could be good for us. How can Isaiah write of the result of righteousness as peace, quietness, and trust (32:17-18) in a world where “no one does good, not even one?”** Christ sits on the throne of David with a scepter of righteousness in His hand (9:7), justice and righteousness, which go hand in hand, and yet this King with righteousness about His waist brings good to the poor of the earth, as if the poor were not unrighteous (11:4-5). But it is not that the poor are more righteous than any other. It is that Jesus comes for the poor, to save those who come to Him with no righteousness of their own and who know that God is the only savior, the only one who can bear the burden of our sin (43:11, 46:4).*** In Isaiah, righteousness and salvation are meaningfully linked; the author sets the two against one another as parallels. When His righteousness draws near, His salvation also goes out (46:12-13, 54:5-8). He “speaks in righteousness, mighty to save” (63:1). The climactic consolation of Isaiah (or at the very least one of them) is that, when there was no hope for us in ourselves, “the righteous one, my servant, [makes] many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities” (53:11). How beautiful is Jesus! God in His righteousness does not only judge us in our lack; He brings His righteousness near to us, decking us out in a robe of righteousness and garments of salvation, the imputed righteousness of our Savior, “as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels” (61:10). To His glory (60:21), we wear this radiant righteousness and burning salvation, no more cast off, polluted and poor as we are in ourselves, and we are delighted in by God, our God who justifies the ungodly (62:1-5).**** “I will greatly rejoice in LORD; my soul shall exult in my God” (61:10).
*Malachi 4:2 and Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” ESV
**Romans 3:12, ESV
***Matthew 11:28, ESV
****Romans 3:26, ESV