In this essay we are studying Isaiah 64. Isaiah, having called on God in the previous chapter to do something, he now pleads with him to break into Israel’s desperate situation once again. Isaiah longs for that Servant/Messiah to destroy Edom, Israel’s enemies, and come striding to Zion. Using another image, he asks God to break through the dome of the heavens and shake the most stable of earth’s foundation, the mountains. This feeling of desperation comes from the fact that Israel’s sins have utterly defeated them. And the nations round about are gloating about Israel’s apparent failures and weaknesses. Isaiah knows that nothing less than “God’s direct intervention can break the power of the people’s sin and make them a witness to the nations instead of a laughing stock.”
Verse two continues the sentence of verse one. Isaiah uses two analogies to illustrate the breaking in of God that he is longing for. If he would come as when fire sets brush ablaze, or water to boil, this would make God’s name known to his adversaries. In Isaiah’s book, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, “fire” is associated with the presence of God. Now the overall context convinces me that Isaiah is asking God to come against his enemies in judgment, as the lone warrior, the Servant/Messiah, was pictured as doing in 63:1-6. But Oswalt interprets it as a setting on fire of the hearts of Israel’s people. He suggests that the fire in Israel then would reveal the character of God’s name to the nations and cause them to tremble at his presence. I guess both interpretations are possible.
Verse three appears to be a reference to the time of the Exodus when God did so many wonders for Israel, including his making mount Sinai quake at his coming. Isaiah is longing for God to do it again. Notice that Isaiah mentions the unexpected nature of the Exodus miracles, and he is hoping that Israel will have another unexpected visitation. This reminds me a bit of some of the expectations I saw after the famous Asbury College revival of 1970. People wanted it to happen again, so they tried to make it happen again, especially around the anniversary date of February third. But we cannot make God visit us. He does it unexpectedly. It was the same with the birth of the Savior in 4 BC. It happened unexpectedly. And Matthew tells us it will be the same at Christ’s second coming (Mt. 24:36-44). He will come suddenly, unexpectedly.
We see in verse four that Isaiah was rightly convinced that there had never been, and never would be, a rival to God. Why? Because from ancient times to Isaiah’s present, no one ever had heard of, or had seen, a God like him. He is the God who works for those who wait for him. This is a significant insight. Whatever else one might say about God based on Israel’s history, he is the Savior, the Redeemer. And he works for those who wait for him. As you well know, the New Testament calls us to wait expectantly for Christ’s return. As mentioned earlier, it will occur at an unexpected time. But we evangelical Christians will not be taken by surprise, because we are waiting expectantly for him to come.
The translation of verse five is quite difficult, and the NIV is much better, in my opinion, than the NRSV. At any rate, in this verse Isaiah points out another important truth. God “meets, or as the NIV translates it, “comes to the help of,” those who joyfully do what is right and remember God’s ways. So our waiting is not to be a matter of doing anything we want. It is a matter of doing God’s will in the world. It is a matter of living out God’s covenant life, of living according to his ways that include “integrity, honesty, faithfulness, simplicity, mercy, generosity, and self-denial.” If we live this way, God will meet us, or come to our help. In other words, he will be with us; he will see us through whatever comes our way.
But in the middle of verse five, Isaiah suddenly breaks off his discourse on how God meets those who gladly do his will and returns to the hard reality that the people of Israel were not in that positive situation. They were sinning, and God was angry about it. To Isaiah this seemed to be a vicious circle. They cannot do righteousness unless God helps them, but God won’t help them unless they do what is right. So Isaiah cries out, “How then can we be saved?” In effect he was asking if it were still possible for them to be saved?
In verses 6-7 Isaiah further describe the hopeless condition of the people. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” in other words, like a leper. “And all of our righteous deeds are like” filthy cloths. The NIV says, “filthy rags.” Indeed they are live decaying leaves that blow away in the wind. Verse seven declares that the situation is so bad that there isn’t even anyone who cares enough about what is going on to cry out to God, or to try to lay hold of God. And then Isaiah mentions the viscous circle again, “for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
Verses 8-12 bring the lament to a close. Notice the “Yet,” literally “But now” at the beginning of verse eight. Isaiah reminds the Lord that he is Israel’s father in the sense that he created them as a people. And he could have added that the Lord entered into a covenant with them. In other words he is responsible for their existence.
Isaiah used the image of the potter and the clay twice before in the book, in 29:16 and in 45:9. In both of those instances, the idea was that the created item has no right to criticize the one who created it. Here Isaiah uses the image quite differently. He suggests that a potter ought not throw away an item in which he has invested so much of himself. Although Israel’s sin cannot be denied, neither can the relationship that God established with her by his grace.
In verse nine the prophet pleads for mercy for Israel. He reminds God that they are not just any people; they are his people. You will recall that Moses used this same argument, along with a couple of others, when he interceded for the people after the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:11, 14). Notice that Isaiah does not ask God to ignore Israel’s sin; rather he asks him to mercifully reduce his anger and not to remember her sin forever.
Notice the use of the word “holy” in verses 10-11. The cities of Judah are called “holy,” and the ruined temple is called “holy.” Earlier in the book, in 62:12 and 63:18, the people were called “holy.” But the reality is they are not holy. And here the cities and burned temple are called holy, though there is little evidence that they are. The point seems to be that they are holy because they belong to God. Thus this becomes another argument by Isaiah for God to have mercy on Israel. She never has deserved God’s love. It always has been a matter of grace. So Isaiah is asking for more grace. Discussion
Isaiah closes out the lament in verse 12. It reads, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” These two questions basically sum up Isaiah’s, and thus Israel’s, hopes and anxieties. Isaiah is asking God if he will continue to do nothing in the face of all that Isaiah has pointed out. Will he continue to keep silent, and will he punish them severely? Or will the Servant/Messiah, the lone warrior of 63:1-6 come to their rescue? Of course we know that the Lord did act, though Isaiah wasn’t around to see it. God remained faithful, as always, to the faithful remnant in Israel. He acted to move Cyrus of Persia to permit all of the Jews in Exile who wished to return to Palestine and reestablish their nation to do so. And from our vantage point, many centuries after Isaiah, we know that the Servant/Messiah did come to the rescue. He just didn’t come in the time and way that Isaiah might have envisioned.