ISAIAH 63:7 – 64:12. THE CONTEXT
Isaiah 56-66 is thought to be from the post-exilic phase—after Cyrus of Persia gave the Jewish exiles permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.
Isaiah 63:7 – 64:12 is a lengthy prayer of lament. Why lament? Hasn’t God arranged their release from servitude in Babylon? Hasn’t God miraculously raised up Cyrus of Persia, who not only allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but even provided resources for their journey and the rebuilding of the temple.
But their return has been painful. The city and temple lay in ruins, and their neighbors have made rebuilding difficult. Internal divisions have impeded progress. Life in Jerusalem has hardly been a bed of roses.
This prayer of lament begins by recounting “the loving kindnesses of Yahweh” (63:7). The prophet speaks of “all that Yahweh has bestowed on us” (63:7) and “in his love and in his pity he redeemed them” (63:9).
Then he mentions their rebellion, which caused God to become “their enemy” (63:10).
Then the tone changes again, asking, “Where is he who brought them up out of the sea?” (63:11a) and “Where is he who put his holy spirit in their midst?” (63:11b). The prophet caps this section with the comment, “So you led your people, to make yourself a glorious name” (63:14).
This early part of the prayer is what we might call the “buttering up God” phase of the lament. It is designed (1) to remind God of the wondrous things that he has done in the past (2) so that the prayer might contrast God’s excellent performance in the past with his lousy performance in the present (3) in the hope that God will remember his earlier good performance and be motivated to do better work now.
So the prayer takes on a pleading tone, asking, “Where are your zeal and your mighty acts? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” (63:15). The prophet reminds God that he is their father (63:16).
Then (astonishingly) the prayer continues, “O Yahweh, why do you make us to err from your ways, and harden our heart from your fear?” (63:17).
I beg your pardon! Who was it that rebelled? I thought it was Israel. Who was it that walked out the door? Surely it was Israel. How is Israel’s infidelity suddenly God’s fault?
But the prophet is not cataloging facts, but is instead unburdening his heart of its pain. He is also trying to find words that will persuade Yahweh to return to Israel (63:17b)—to save them—to make life easier for them.
The one offering the prayer concludes chapter 63 by saying, “We have become as they over whom you never bear rule, as those who were not called by your name” (63:19)—which is another way of saying “We regret to inform you that we have not enjoyed any benefit lately from our relationship with you. This has been very disappointing to us. Please take immediate action to remedy this unfortunate situation.”
Again, the prayer is drawing attention to the unsatisfactory quality of the current relationship of Israel with God and highlighting the plight of the Israelites in the hope of motivating God to save Israel.
And then begins our reading with the next verse, 64:1—a continuation of this prayer.
ISAIAH 64:1-4. OH THAT YOU WOULD COME DOWN
1Oh that you would tear the heavens, that you would come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence, 2as when fire kindles the brushwood, and the fire causes the waters to boil; to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome things which we didn’t look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.4For from of old men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides you, who works for him who waits for him.
“O that you would tear the heavens, that you would come down” (v. 1a). We heard this kind of language earlier in the first section of this book, when Isaiah warned the people of the consequences that they would suffer for failing to rely on Yahweh. But then he raised the hope of salvation, saying: “You will be visited by Yahweh of Armies with thunder, with earthquake, with great noise, with whirlwind and storm, and with the flame of a devouring fire” (29:6).
“that the mountains might quake at your presence” (v. 1b). Israel is seismically active due to the Rift Valley through which the Jordan River flows—so the people have experienced earthquakes. They associate earthquakes with God’s presence and/or God’s judgment (Exodus 19:18; Job 9:6; Psalm 18:7; 68:8; 99:1; Nahum 1:5).
In this instance, this prayer of lament asks that God would announce his presence by an earthquake.
“as when fire kindles the brushwood, and the fire causes the waters to boil” (v. 2a). This portion of verse 2 really belongs with verse 1b. Quaking mountains, burning brushwood, and boiling water are all metaphors for the kind of beyond-our-control energy represented by God’s presence.
“to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at your presence”(v. 2b). The purpose of these manifestations of God’s presence (quaking mountains, etc.) is to impress God’s enemies (who, presumably, are also Israel’s enemies) so that they will become properly respectful of God, (and also of Israel).
“When you did awesome things which we didn’t look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (v. 3). God has been performing awesome deeds in behalf of Israel for quite some time. The plagues on Egypt that forced Pharaoh to let Israel go come to mind—as does the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea—and the manna in the wilderness—and the flattened walls of Jericho—and little David’s victory over giant Goliath—and so on and so forth.
With regard to quaking mountains, Sinai comes to mind (Exodus 19:18). God’s presence there was manifested by fire and smoke and a shaking mountain.
But at the moment Israel is not seeing mountains quake or fire or smoke or any other evidence that God is present. That fact lies in the background of this prayer of lament.
“For from of old men have not heard, no perceived by the ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides you, who works for him who waits for him” (v. 4). The distinguishing quality of Yahweh is that he works for—helps—saves—”those who wait for him.”
Those who worship other gods might claim to have seen demonstrations of their gods’ power, but there is no sense of those gods being in any kind of personal relationship with their people or taking care of their people. The best that can be said for those gods is that they, when placated, visit no harm on their people.
“who waits for him” (v. 4b). Waiting for the Lord means waiting with hope or expectation. Throughout scripture, we find an emphasis on waiting for the Lord (Genesis 49:18; Psalm 37: 9; Hosea 12:6; Zephaniah 3:8; Romans 8:25; Galatians 5:5). To “wait for” the Lord is to live in faith—to live in the expectation that Yahweh’s “compassion doesn’t fail”—that his mercies never come to an end—that his faithfulness is not only great but assured. To “wait for” the Lord is to live in the certainty that the Lord has the power and the will to bless those who are faithful. To “wait for” the Lord is to see beyond one’s present circumstances (such as the exile) to a future blessed by the hand of the Lord (such as the restoration of Israel).
ISAIAH 64:5-7. BEHOLD, YOU WERE ANGRY, AND WE SINNED
5You meet him who rejoices and works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned. We have been in sin for a long time; and shall we be saved? 6For we have all become as one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is as a polluted (Hebrew: id·dim—menstrual) garment: and we all fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is none who calls on your name, who stirs up himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have consumed (Hebrew: mug—to melt, faint, become weak or disheartened) us by means of our iniquities.
“You meet him who rejoices and works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways” (v. 5a). Now this prayer acknowledges that God makes his presence felt in a positive way with people who live righteously—who live in accord with God’s will. God does not abandon people lightly, and does not abandon righteous people at all.
“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned. We have been in sin for a long time; and shall we be saved?” (v. 5b). Now the prayer acknowledges Israel’s sin and the consequences of that sin. Because Israel sinned, God hid himself from Israel—abandoned Israel to its wayward pathway.
This verse deals much more forthrightly with Israel’s sin than did 63:17, where the prayer accused God of making Israel stray from its ways—of hardening Israel’s heart. In that verse, it sounded as if Israel’s iniquity was God’s fault. In the current verse, it is clear that Israel transgressed. This and subsequent verses make it clear that Israel is at fault.
We should note that God still does not force us to do what is right. If we insist on going down the wrong path, he will allow us to do so. He will then allow us to suffer the consequences of that choice—always hoping that, like the prodigal son (Luke 15) our suffering will bring us to our senses so that we might return to our Father.
“For we have all become as one who is unclean” (v. 6a). God gave the Israelites a number of laws that are codified in the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament. A number of these are ceremonial in nature and determine whether a person is clean (ceremonially fit for worship) or unclean (unfit for worship). This has to do with spiritual rather than physical cleanliness. It has to do with ceasing to do evil (Isaiah 1:16)—with ceasing to worship idols (Ezekiel 36:25)—with not defiling the tabernacle or temple (Leviticus 15:31).
Israelites could be rendered unclean by eating animals proscribed by the law (Leviticus 11)—by giving birth (Leviticus 12:2ff.)—by contracting leprosy (Leviticus 13)—or by coming into contact with certain bodily discharges or dead bodies (Leviticus 11:39; 15:18). But the Torah also prescribes remedies for various unclean states so that unclean people might become clean. The purpose of these laws is to establish Israelites as a holy people—separate from other people—set apart to be God’s people (Leviticus 20:26).
“and all our righteousness is as a polluted (id·dim—menstrual) garment” (v. 6b). Leviticus says, “When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15:19-24; see also verses 25-30).
So to say “all our righteous deeds are like a soiled menstrual cloth” is a very graphic way of saying that even our best actions are truly disgusting.
“We all fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (v. 6c). The result of our sin is that we fade like a leaf in the fall of the year—a leaf whose connection with the tree has become constricted as the tree prepares for winter—a leaf that briefly turns from green to red or orange, but then turns brown and withers—a leaf that loses its grip on the tree and is carried away by the wind.
This movement from life to death is caused by “our iniquities.”
“There is none who calls on your name, who stirs up himself to take hold of you” (v. 7a). In verse 63:19 (part of this prayer of lament), the one offering the prayer noted that Israel has become “as those who were not called by your name”—like those whose identity is no longer entwined with God’s identity.
The fallen leaf, blown away by the wind, no longer seeks a connection to the tree. Israel, having become accustomed to iniquitous behavior, no longer seeks a connection to God. She doesn’t call on God’s name, and doesn’t attempt to take hold of God.
This last phrase, “take hold of God,” brings to mind Jacob, who wrestled with God (or God’s agent) all night. Finally, God (or God’s agent) said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, “for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:26-28). But there is no one in Israel now who has that kind of passion for wrestling with God.
“for you have hidden your face from us, and have consumed (mug—to melt, faint, become weak or disheartened) us by means of our iniquities” (v. 7b). Separated from God, Israel has become weak and disheartened. It is as if they had melted like a candle left in the hot sun. They have been swallowed up by their iniquity, as a person might be swallowed up by a mudslide.
The prayer says that God has delivered the people into their iniquity, but it might be more accurate to say that God has allowed them to go where they were determined to go. God did not propel them down that pathway. God did not encourage their iniquitous behavior. God simply gave them the freedom to choose their path and to walk down it.
ISAIAH 64:8-9. BUT NOW, YAHWEH, YOU ARE OUR FATHER
8But now, Yahweh, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you our potter (yo·sere·nu—the one who fashions us); and we all are the work of your hand. 9Don’t be furious, Yahweh, neither remember iniquity forever: see, look, we beg (Hebrew: hab·bet·na—Behold, please) you, we are all your people.
“But now, Yahweh, you are our Father” (v. 8a; see also 63:16). Yet, in spite of everything, God is our Father. God might be disappointed with our behavior. God might have allowed us to engage in self-destructive behavior. God might have allowed us to shrivel up and blow away, like a leaf in winter. But God’s purpose has never been our destruction. God’s hope is the hope of a Father, who always hopes against hope that the child will see the error of his/her ways and return home. The Parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind (Luke 15).
“we are the clay, and you our potter (yo·sere·nu—the one who fashions us); and we are all the work of your hand” (v. 8b). Just as fathers and mothers love their children, artists also feel a deep affection for their art. When an artist fashions a piece of art, something of the artist is bound up in that art. Part of that has to do with the deep involvement of the artist in the creative process. Part of it is pride of workmanship. Part of it is that the work of art reflects the artists understanding of how the piece should look or sound or feel. The artist and the art are inextricably bound together.
There is an interesting phenomenon at work here. An artist might feel that his/her art is imperfect. He/she might even be reluctant to display his/her art, because the inadequacy of the art would reveal the inadequacy of the artist. However, the same artist who would be frustrated with the imperfection of his/her art would quickly bristle at a critic who would make negative comments about the art. The artist’s intolerance of his/her art is nothing compared with his/her intolerance of the art critic. That is because the artist and the art are inextricably bound together.
This prayer uses that connection of art and artist in an attempt to persuade God to forgive Israel—to redeem Israel—to save Israel. The one offering the prayer has called God a Father. Now he reminds God of the creativity that God has expended in fashioning the nation Israel—God’s people—God’s artwork. Israel might have sinned, and be as disgusting as a soiled menstrual cloth, but God should not/cannot abandon Israel, because artist and art are inextricably bound together.
“Don’t be furious, Yahweh” (v. 9a). It would be too much to pray that God would not be angry. How could God fail to be angry at Israel for its rebellious behavior? This prayer is simply that God will not be exceedingly angry—so angry that he would do things that he might regret later—so angry that he might dash the work of his hands against a wall. It is a prayer that God will keep his anger within bounds. If God will do that, Israel can hope for redemption. If not, there is no hope.
“neither remember iniquity forever” (v. 9b). This is a similar thought with a slightly different slant. It would be too much to pray that God would not notice Israel’s iniquity. How could God fail to notice Israel’s sin? Impossible! It would be too much even to ask that God would not remember Israel’s sin. This prayer asks merely that God will not remember Israel’s sin forever—into eternity. If God will do that, Israel can hope that its relationship with God might one day be restored. If not, Israel has no hope.
“see, look, we beg you (hab·bet·na—Behold, please), we are all your people” (v. 9c). This is the clincher. Israel is God’s people, and Yahweh is Israel’s God. God ordained this bond with the covenant that he established with Abram and re-established with David. It is a bond forged in steel. God cannot ignore the implications of this binding relationship.
ISAIAH 64:10-12. WILL YOU HOLD YOUR PEACE?
10Your holy cities are become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.11Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, is burned with fire; and all our pleasant places are laid waste. 12Will you refrain yourself for these things, Yahweh? Will you hold your peace, and afflict us very severely?
The lectionary reading does not include these verses, but one wonders why. They conclude this prayer of lament by graphically portraying the grievous situation with which Israel is faced. Both Jerusalem and the temple are in ruins. The people, even though they have been freed from their servitude in Babylon, are hardly better off. They don’t know where to start or where to turn. Their task is hopeless unless God deigns to help them. So this prayer concludes with these questions: “Will you refrain yourself for these things, Yahweh? Will you hold your peace, and afflict us very severely?” The questions cry out for a “No, I will not restrain myself! No, I will not punish you so severely!” They are a plea for mercy—for forgiveness—for help.
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.
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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)
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan