Why doesn’t God have mercy on widows and orphans?
That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,
or compassion on their orphans and widows;
for everyone was godless and an evildoer,
and every mouth spoke folly.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 9:17 NRSV)
I received an email recently from a friend who asked, “Why in Isaiah 9:17 does God not have compassion for widows and orphans?” Things were bad, but why pick on the widows and orphans. Here is how I responded:
Yes, Isa. 9:17 is difficult in several aspects. One of my favorite Isaiah commentaries basically skips over the issue on 9:17. I can’t “solve” this problem, it is very troubling, but here are a few thoughts.
1) First, the NRSV has a slightly more problematic take on that verse by repeating the lack of pity/compassion, based on a Dead Sea Scroll manuscript (Bibles will make a note about “Q” for Qumran) . Other ET (ESV, NAS, NIV) follow the Masoretic Hebrew Text and have God not taking pleasure in the 1st half, but still not having compassion in the next line. The problem of a lack of compassion for widows/orphans doesn’t disappear, but it least it’s not repeated. While I like the NRSV, and their choice to follow the DSS here makes sense for the sake of parallelism, it does make the text a little more difficult.
2) As we elsewhere in Scripture, sin has corporate consequences. Because David committed adultery (or rape?) the child that was conceived in Bathsheba after their sexual encounter was killed by God (2 Sam. 12). The child who did nothing wrong was punished for his father’s sin. God, who usually has compassion on widows and orphans doesn’t in this context because the wickedness of the people, particularly the evil leaders. It doesn’t make sense to us in our Western Individualistic mindset. Still troubling however…
3) This is poetry, which needs to be read more loosely/figuratively, than prose narrative. I’m not sure how that helps. But we do see more examples of strong language, confusing imagery and hyperbole in poetic texts.
4) Elsewhere we see how God has special compassion on widows, orphans. God even threatens that his anger (a big theme of Isa. 9) will strike out and kill his own people if they don’t have compassion on Widows and orphans (Exo. 22:2-23). All of this tells us that God was pretty pissed off at his people in Isa. 9.
So, those are my thoughts. I’m not really an Isaiah scholar, so I’m sure someone who is would have more insights on this tough text.
I did write an article on “Wrath” in the Dictionary of the OT Prophets (IVP 2012, for link click here), which doesn’t directly focus on Isa. 9:17, but goes into depth on patterns of divine wrath in the Prophetic Books.
Good Question. Blessings to you and your ministry.
What would you have said about God’s lack of compassion?
Image entitled, “Widows and Orphans” by Kathe Kollwetz, an early 20th-century German anti-war artist, from http://dwellingintheword.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/243-deuteronomy-26/.
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