It is difficult to know precisely when this portion of Isaiah was written. References to the destruction of Jerusalem (64:10) and the profanation of the temple (63:18; 64:11) are consistent with “the Babylonian punitive campaign of 589-586 B.C.E.” (Blenkinsopp, 258-259).
The context for these verses is more complex than is apparent at first glance. We can benefit by looking both at the wider context and the more immediate context.
Yahweh has chosen them; (2) disdainful of foreigners, whom Yahweh also loves; (3) too dependent on cultic ritual as a way of attaining righteousness; (4) too little concerned with holy living; and (5) insufficiently appreciative of the grace of God as the true means of salvation.
The context includes chapter 62, which gives ringing reassurance to Zion, promising salvation and vindication and assuring that Israel will be known as “The holy people, The redeemed of Yahweh” (62:12). Then 63:1-6 recounts the Lord’s mighty work to save Israel by destroying her enemies, symbolized by Edom, Israel’s traditional enemy located to its southeast (today’s southern Jordan).
Today’s text (63:7-9) speaks of God’s graciousness—but is followed by a recounting of Israel’s rebellion (63:10-14), a lengthy prayer of penitence (63:15 – 64:12), and an emphasis on the righteousness of God’s judgment (chapter 65). The book closes by emphasizing the kind of worship that God demands (66:1-4), promise of vindication (66:5-13), and a vision of a world in which “all flesh shall come to worship me” (66:23).
What isn’t immediately apparent is that verses 7-9 are the beginning of a prayer of lament that concludes with 64:12. Laments were inspired by tragedy, such as defeat in battle, exile, illness, or death. They typically include (1) a complaint, (2) a section in which the lamenter contrasts former good times with current bad times (times when God favored Israel contrasted with the current time when God seems absent), (3) a prayer for relief, and (4) a statement of trust in God. Isaiah 63:7 – 64:12 includes all these elements (Tucker, 46-47).
ISAIAH 63:7. I WILL MENTION THE LOVING KINDNESSES OF YAHWEH
7 I will make mention of the loving kindnesses (Hebrew: hesed – steadfast love) of Yahweh and the praises of Yahweh, according to all that Yahweh has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which he has bestowed on them according to his mercies, and according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses (Hebrew: hesed).
“I will make mention of the loving kindnesses of Yahweh” (v. 7a). Yahweh called Israel to remember all that God had done for them, and promised to bless them if they did—and to punish them if they didn’t (Deuteronomy 8:18-19). They were to enhance their remembrance by foregoing leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 13:3ff.). This was, in part, to insure that “the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips” (Exodus 13:9).
As noted above, verses 1-6 recount Yahweh’s actions against Israel’s enemy, Edom.
“I trod them in my anger,
and trampled them in my wrath;
and their lifeblood is sprinkled on my garments,
and I have stained all my clothing….
I trod down the peoples in my anger,
and made them drunk in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (vv. 3, 6).
Now, in verse 7, the prophet/poet extols Yahweh’s hesed (loving kindness or covenant loyalty) as evidenced on that and other occasions. In the Hebrew, this verse both begins and ends with the word hesed, which speaks not only of love but also of steadfastness.
As we will see if we continue to verse 10, Israel has given Yahweh plenty of cause to abandon them and to transfer that steadfast love to someone more deserving. But Yahweh, who sometimes punishes Israel, instead loves Israel through thick and thin.
We can see something of that kind of love in good parents today. Parents become terribly frustrated with their children and wonder why they keep trying—but they do. They keep trying and hoping and praying. They might punish their children as a way of correcting behavior, but would never consider turning the children over to someone who might do them injury. Most parents do their best to defend their children, even undeserving children. Parents often make great sacrifices to help their children. It isn’t unusual to hear of a mother or father who has died trying to save her or his child.
Yahweh is like that but more so. He has bestowed “the praises of Yahweh” in behalf of Israel—has shown Israel “great goodness” and “mercies” and “loving kindness.”
ISAIAH 63:8-9a. SURELY, THEY ARE MY PEOPLE
8For he said, “Surely, they are my people, children who will not deal falsely:” so he was their Savior.
9a In all their affliction he was afflicted,
“For he said, ‘Surely, they are my people'” (v. 8a). These people are Yahweh’s people because Yahweh has chosen them—has chosen them “to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). It was not because they were numerous, because they were in fact “the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). It was “because Yahweh loves” them that he redeemed them from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8). Yahweh assured them that he “keeps covenant and loving kindness with them who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9), but he warns them that he “repays those who hate him to their face” (Deuteronomy 7:10). Yahweh therefore commands them to “keep the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day, to do them” (Deuteronomy 7:11).
“children who will not deal falsely” (v. 8b). Yahweh has promised to be faithful to Israel, and now expects that Israel will respond by being faithful to Yahweh. This verse assumes that they will do so, but verse 10 (not included in this reading) shows that this is a false assumption—that Israel has betrayed its heritage—has rebelled against Yahweh “and grieved his holy spirit”—in the process becoming Yahweh’s enemy.
The prophet has already called Israel “children of disobedience” and “a seed of falsehood” (57:4). He has accused them of having hands defiled with blood and lips that have spoken lies (59:3)—and of “transgressing and denying Yahweh, and turning away from following our God” (59:13). Yahweh is surely aware of these sins, but has created Israel for something better—and is determined that Israel should live up to its promise.
But the prophet’s purpose is not to scold, but is rather to appeal to Yahweh for patience and to appeal to the people to become faithful again.
“so he was their Savior” (v. 8b). Some translations pair “in all their affliction” (v. 9a) with verse 9b instead of verse 8. However, it matters little whether he became their Savior in their affliction or “in all their affliction…he redeemed them”—the sense is the same. Yahweh has saved Israel from slavery in Egypt and starvation in the wilderness. Yahweh has saved Israel from Moab (vv. 1-6) and a host of other enemies. Yahweh has saved Israel time after time from all sorts of distress.
“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them” (v. 9a). Yahweh quite often used an angel to save his people (Genesis 22:15-18; Exodus 23:20; Numbers 20:16; 2 Kings 19:35), but the angel was only Yahweh’s agent. Yahweh was the savior. In many cases, Yahweh dealt directly with his people instead of acting through an angel. Yahweh’s presence was a frequent and redemptive reality in the life of Israel.
ISAIAH 63:9bc. IN HIS LOVE HE REDEEMED THEM
9b and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he
redeemed (Hebrew: ga’al) them; 9c and he bore them, and carried them all the days of old.
“in his love and in his pity he redeemed (ga’al) them” (v. 9b). This word, ga’al, can refer to redeeming a slave by paying a price. Levitical law requires Jewish people to redeem family members who have sold themselves into slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49)—and to redeem family land that has been sold (Leviticus 25:25-26).
But it was not law that motivated Yahweh to redeem Israel. It was love and pity. No one could require Yahweh to redeem Israel—but no one had to.
“and he bore them, and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9c). The image here is of a shepherd who “(gathers) the lambs in his arm, and (carries) them in his bosom” (40:11)—or of a father or mother who picks up and carries a small child. It is an image suffused with warmth. The shepherd (parent) feels the warmth of the lamb’s (child’s) body against his or her own body, and is reminded of the lamb’s (child’s) vulnerability. The lamb (child) experiences the strength of the shepherd’s (parent’s) arms and the security of the shepherd’s (parent’s) love. It is one of those wonderful moments when both the one doing the carrying and the one being carried are blessed by the love that binds them together.
But the promise is not just to Israel in its infancy. Yahweh says, “Listen to me, house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, that has been borne from their birth, that have been carried from the womb; even to old age I am he, and even to gray hairs will I carry you. I have made, and I will bear; yes, I will carry and will deliver” (46:3-4). It is the promise of undying love and protection.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph, The Anchor Bible: Isaiah 56-66, Vol. 19B (New York: Doubleday, 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Reid, Stephen Breck, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan