21 How the faithful city has become a harlot! She was filled with justice; righteousness made its abode in her, but now murderers.
Foreseeing his people’s imminent calamity because they choose not to repent, the prophet grieves for them, the word “How” characterizing a lament (Lamentations 1:1; 2:1; 4:1). In other words, the prophet is asking, “How could this tragedy have happened? How is it that this people didn’t repent in time? How could those who were once righteous become so wicked?” The term “harlot” attests to their broken covenant relationship with Jehovah their husband (Isaiah 57:3–13). Besides identifying a specific place, the term “city” represents Jehovah’s covenant people in general (Isaiah 45:13; 60:14).
She was filled with justice. Righteousness made her abode in her, but now murderers. “Justice” (mispat) and “righteousness” (sedeq)—the basis of all covenant blessings and the underpinnings of a law-abiding society—have given way to injustice and unrighteousness. The term “murderers” reiterates the level of wickedness to which Jehovah’s people have sunk. The term righteousness additionally identifies Jehovah’s end-time servant who acts as an exemplar of righteousness to Jehovah’s people (Isaiah 41:2, 25; 46:11–13) and whom Jehovah appoints to restore justice in the earth (Isaiah 42:1–4).
22 Your silver has become dross, your wine diluted with water.
As the Hebrew term “silver” (kesep) additionally means “money,” its meaning here points to a worthless or devalued currency. Products such as wine, too, lack the quality they once had. Isaiah, however, intends more than a literal meaning of these terms. His imagery of common, semi-precious, and precious metals and stones, for example, denotes three ascending spiritual categories of people (Isaiah 60:17). In other words, some people who were in an elect category (“silver”) have become “dross,” which isn’t a metal at all. Having fallen from grace, they have joined Isaiah’s Perdition category.
Your wine diluted with water. Besides its literal meaning, the idea of “wine” metaphorically signifies spiritual nourishment: “You who have no money, come, buy wine and milk with no money and at no cost” (Isaiah 55:1). Those who teach God’s word, in effect, have watered it down until it no longer nourishes his people: “Their heart ponders impiety—how to practice hypocrisy and preach perverse things concerning Jehovah, leaving the hungry soul empty, depriving the thirsty [soul]of drink” (Isaiah 32:6). What passes for God’s word has become but a diminished version of his gospel in its fulness.
23 Your rulers are renegades, accomplices of robbers: with one accord they love bribes and run after rewards; they do not dispense justice to the fatherless, nor does the widow’s case come before them.
On a par with the ecclesiastical leaders of Jehovah’s people (v 10; Isaiah 9:14–16), political leaders similarly come under condemnation. Persons in government, whose task is to protect society from predators, have turned into predators themselves. The would-be administrators of justice perpetrate injustice. The most needy elements of society—the fatherless and widows, whose cause Jehovah advocates (v 17)—are neglected. People in leadership positions have degenerated into “renegades” and “robbers,” officials who violate others’ rights in order to gain their own ends (Isaiah 3:14–15; 5:23; 29:21).
24 Therefore the Lord, Jehovah of Hosts, the Valiant One of Israel, declares, Woe to them! I will relieve me of my adversaries, avenge me of my enemies.
Jehovah’s bringing to bear his titles again renders his statement an official declaration (cf. v 20). The name “Jehovah of Hosts” or “Jehovah of Armies” (yhwh seba’ot) alludes to the legions, heavenly and earthly, he has at his disposal to implement his decrees. The title “Valiant One of Israel” expresses his divine attribute of valor. His pronunciation of a “woe” or covenant curse makes this a formal condemnation of his people. The “adversaries” and “enemies” of whom Jehovah avenges himself are their apostate ecclesiastical leaders (v 10) and corrupt politicians (v 23; cf. Isaiah 5:7, 24–25; 10:1–6).
25 I will restore my hand over you and smelt away your dross as in a crucible, and remove all your alloy.
To counter the wickedness of his people’s leaders, Jehovah “restores” (’asiba) all things pertaining to his people. This he does through the agency of his servant who prepares the way before his coming to reign on the earth (cf. Matthew 17:11; Acts 3:21). As Jehovah’s hand or right hand (Isaiah 11:10–12, 14–15; 41:2, 10, 13; 49:1–3), the servant restores Jehovah’s people and their lands (Isaiah 49:5–6, 8) and deals with his people’s enemies (Isaiah 50:10–11). The “dross” and “alloy”—the lowest spiritual categories of his people—Jehovah purges away in his Day of Judgment (cf. Malachi 3:1–5).