Let’s not forget that ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’ made a whip to cleanse the Temple when its guardians had forgotten God’s words through Isaiah, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ (56:7)
That dramatic, pivotal event in the gospel stories makes even more sense when that prophecy is put in context. The prophet is declaring God’s promise that the offerings and sacrifices of the foreigners who come to him will be acceptable, so that they can be joyful in the Temple. In Jesus’ day, the authorities were selling pre-approved animals for sacrifice rather than those that were brought, and changing pagan coins (for a commission) into Temple coins to be used in offering. God’s intention, that all should bring of their own best, had been swamped by the chance to combine nationalism with profit. The Temple had become a centre of power and exclusion, the opposite of what God told the prophet that he intended it to be.
When the prophet goes on in verses 8-11 to denounce the greed of the leaders of Israel, I see more than I have done before in Jesus’ choice of that verse to explain his actions. More widely, this whole passage is an attack on religion divorced from life and in particular from justice. The prophet makes it clear that fasting and sacrifice without charity and care for the needy are meaningless.
We have our part to play – I was struck in 59:17 to see the ‘breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation’ of which Paul will write in Ephesians 6 – another quotation I hadn’t picked up before, and which in context sets the call to serve as a soldier of Christ back into this ancient call to end oppression and bring justice.
As always, with the warning goes the promise – not just of the gathering in of the nations to worship the LORD but of his renewed and lasting blessing to Israel when she returns to his way. 59:21 gives the great hope,
My spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.