In this essay we are studying chapter 59. In verses 1-8 Isaiah paints a picture of a sinful society that has fallen apart. Verses 1-2 explain in general terms why God doesn’t answer their prayers, and why God seems so far away from them. Isaiah begins by saying what it is not. It is not because God is too weak (that is the meaning of the image of his hand being too short). And it is not because God is insensitive (the image of his ear being too dull, literally “heavy”). Rather it is their sins that are barriers between them and God. Indeed their sins hide God’s face from them. Isaiah’s logic is simple and powerful. God is neither powerless nor insensitive, but he is holy. and that is why sin separates us from him.
In verse three Isaiah moves to a description of their sin. Their hands are bloody and they have spoken lies. Notice the technique of moving from a lesser to a greater specificity: from the hand (literally the “palms”) to the fingers and from the lips to the tongue.
He continues in verse four by declaring that the legal system is corrupt. People bring unjust lawsuits and lie to gain what they want. And the result is “mischief” (the NIV translates it “trouble) and iniquity. That sounds a lot like our culture today, although it appears that they were further down corruption road than we are.
Verses 5-6 present quite a picture of the results of such a sinful society. It produces “adders’ eggs” and a “spider’s web.” The term used here for “serpent” does not reveal what kind of snake it was, though it had to be a type that does not give birth to live young. The image of serpent’s eggs is a powerful one, because whether one eats them or crushes them to let out the babies, the result is the same. The venom of the baby snakes is as potent as that of the adults. The image of the spider’s web also is strong. A spider’s web is near impossible for insects, once caught, to work free from. When caught in a web, they become the spider’s dinner. On the other hand a spider’s web is useless to human beings. For example, they cannot be used to make clothing. These images correctly picture a society that promotes sin and violence. Those in positions of power take advantage of those who are not; and they do it by force, if necessary.
Verse seven returns to the behaviors of the people in such a society. Isaiah was dealing with this topic back in verses 3-4. Here Isaiah turns to the image of their “feet” and “thoughts.” “Their feet run to evil.” The idea is that those who are quick on the feet can be first to take advantage of others by shedding innocent blood.
And the people’s “thoughts are thoughts of iniquity.” The word for “thoughts” here is the same one as in 55:8-9, which read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Oswalt says that the word for “thoughts” refers to the plans or schemes that these evil people were hatching in their minds. The result of such evil thinking is desolation (NIV says “ruin”) and destruction. Notice the use of the words “highway” and “way.” We have seen this as a theme throughout the book.
Verse eight shows what they should be experiencing as God’s people. They should be experiencing peace. But they do not know “the way of peace.” They also should be experiencing justice. But there is none. Obviously, the solution to their problem is to replace their thoughts with the thoughts of God. But they don’t do it.
In verses 1-8 we have seen Isaiah accuse Israel of terrible sinfulness. And there is no deliverance under their present circumstances. Now in verses 9-15a, Isaiah says that another result of their sinfulness is no justice. Notice the “therefore.” Therefore, based on what I have just told you, namely, the extent of your great sinfulness, “justice is far from us.” Also please notice the switch to the first person. “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.” Isaiah doesn’t separate himself from the sinners. He is part of Israel, and he shares the pain that their sinfulness has brought upon the nation. That switch to the first person represents another change. The prophet is now speaking on behalf of the people.
The image of blindness in verse 10 is important. Back in 42:7 Isaiah had declared that the divine Servant would open the eyes of the blind. Here in verses 9-10, using the same words that he used in 58:10 (light, darkness, gloom, and noon), Isaiah makes the opposite point. There, darkness and gloom became light. Here, light is seen as darkness; and blindness is the result. Oswalt suggests that Isaiah is saying that things are not always what they seem.
The same circumstances will seem different to different people, depending on their inner state. What is incredible darkness to one is as bright as noon to another. And what is noon to one is pitch-black to another. If we have the sense of God’s presence and care, the most confusing circumstances will offer little cause for alarm. But without that sense, the most pleasant prospects soon become gray and dismal.
The growling and mourning in verse 11 indicate the high level of frustration present among the people. Justice and salvation seem far away from them.
Isaiah, speaking for the people, confesses their sinfulness in verses 12-15a. Verse 12 indicates that the sins of the people are so numerous that they are piled up before God. And they know it.
Verse 13 contains six infinitive forms [infinitive absolutes] that lay out their sins: “transgressing and denying the Lord,” “turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words, and uttering them from the heart.” It is not obvious from the NIV translation that these verb forms all are the same. But they are.
In verses 14-15a Isaiah returns to the subject matter of verse nine, namely justice and righteousness. Here he adds truth and honesty. These four characteristics together should prevail in the society, but they do not. Justice is turned away at the gate; righteousness stands at a distance; truth is shut out from the public square; and honesty (like righteousness) can’t even get there. Not only is truth lacking, but also those who try to avoid evil are taken advantage of, or perhaps even persecuted.
Beginning at 15b Isaiah turns to God’s perspective again. The “it” that the Lord saw in verse 15b was the terrible sin and injustice laid out in the previous verses. Once again it is clear that God must intervene personally to solve the problem, and he did.
In verse 17 Isaiah presents God’s intervention to save his people with the image of a warrior preparing for battle. Interestingly, no offensive weapon is mentioned. In verse 18 Isaiah depicts the vengeance as a repayment of wrath. He probably intended a play on words here. The word for “repay” is from the same root as the word for “peace.” The idea is that God will pacify his enemies with his wrath in contrast to giving peace to those who are in relationship with him (57:19).
Verse 19 continues the thought of verse 18. From West to East god’s enemies will fear his name (that is his reputation and character) and his glory. His wrath will be like a flooding stream powered by the wind.
Verse 20 makes it clear that God takes the warrior stand to conquer his enemies in order to redeem his people. Zion typifies all of God’s people. As terrible as God’s wrath is, he offers it reluctantly. He wants to save, not destroy. But one has to turn from sin in repentance.
Verse 21 ends the chapter and the section. God, through Isaiah, covenants with his redeemed people (and that includes us) to send his Holy Spirit upon us to enable us to serve him. He will put his words in our mouths and in the mouths of our succeeding generations, to witness to the world.