In this essay we are studying Isaiah 65:1-16. We aren’t doing the entire chapter, because a new section begins at verse 17. The first part of the chapter is an answer to the questions raised in the previous section, the lament of 63:7-64:12.
Notice that God responds to the lament with blunt words. In verse one he declares that Israel’s problem was not due to his silence, or to his unwillingness to save. He had not hidden his face, as he was accused of doing back in 64:7. On the contrary, as the NIV (rightly in my opinion) translates it, he revealed himself to those who didn’t ask, and was found by those who didn’t seek for him. In other words, he was anxious to be sought out; he wanted to be found. The problem was on Israel’s side of the relationship.
Then in verse two God continues by saying that he was reaching out to Israel, but they were going their own rebellious way. This reminds one of 59:1-2 where God said much the same thing. Back there he said that was fully able to save, but Israel’s sins formed a barrier between him and them. The point is that the problem is not that God is unresponsive; rather it is because Israel is rebellious and sinful.
Paul quotes verse one in Rom. 10:20. Interestingly, Paul quotes it for his context as a reference to Gentiles. That is, some of the Gentiles were listening to God better than the people of Israel. And then in the very next verse, Rom. 10:21, Paul quotes Isaiah’s verse two in reference to the Israel of his day. That is to say, Paul saw the Israel of his day as rebellious and sinful in the same way that the Israel of Isaiah’s day had been.
In verses 3-5a God continues to spell out Israel’s sinfulness. Notice how God details what the “not good” ways mentioned in verse two were. They had chosen religious practices that provoked God to his face. That is, they were brazen in their pagan practices. They sacrificed in gardens. We talked before about how pagans planted groves and gardens for their worship. They offered incense on bricks, another pagan practice.
Verse four gets a little creepy. God says that they sat in tombs. Of course contact with the dead made Jews ceremonially “unclean.” So when Israelites participated in cults that did such things, they knew they were sinning against God. They also spent the night in secret places. I don’t know what that means, and Oswalt was not of help there. But the next one is clear. They ate swine’s flesh, which was forbidden by the Jewish law (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:4). And they ate some kind of stew with forbidden foods, probably meats, in it.
Then in verse five we see the crowning irony. These persons who, as we have just seen, are profoundly unclean, warn others to stay away from them, “for I am too holy for you.” As Oswalt points out, it is characteristic of this sort of pagan mindset to believe that their unholy activities make them holy. This is the height of self-deception. They are totally defiled, but do not recognize that fact.
Now then, as you would expect, this activity is not acceptable to God. Indeed it is an acrid smell in his nostrils. It is as if a fire that burned all day was emitting stinky smoke. Another way to interpret the images is this. A Hebrew idiom for anger is “the nose grows hot.” So it is possible that God was saying that their sinful activities make him angry like a fire that burns all day.
In verse six, “it is written before me” could mean either that the sins are written down before God, or that his decree of judgment on the sins is written down. Either way, the point is that judgment is certain. God will repay.
Back at the end of the lament (64:12), Israel had begged God to speak. Now it appears that they may prefer that he not speak, because he is going to speak a judgment that will repay them for their sinfulness. This is not a new message. You will recall that in 63:10 Israel was informed that their Savior had became their enemy, because of their rebellion. Oswalt says that the idea of repaying them “into their laps (literally “bosoms”) is an expression that means into the very center of their lives.
Finally, interestingly, verse seven suggests that the repayment, that is the judgment, will come on their rebellious ancestors as well as on them. In other words, what they were doing was not new. Their fathers also had participated in idolatrous pagan practices.
After announcing judgment on those who had not been obedient, as we have just seen, God offers assurance to those who have been obedient. The basic point of verse eight is that God will not destroy the good (that is, the obedient) with the bad (the disobedient). In the analogy, the cluster of grapes has both good and bad grapes on it, but only the bad grapes are destroyed, not the whole cluster. This is the concept of the remnant that we have seen before in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Bible. For example, In Isaiah chapter ten, after pronouncing judgment on the nation of Assyria (vv. 12-19), there is a promise of restoration for the repentant remnant of Israel (vv. 20-27). Another example that is closer to this chapter is 57:13. That verse comes right at the end of a segment (57:3-13) in which God is pronouncing judgment on idolatrous people in Israel; but in verse 13, he says that those who would take refuge in him (that would be the remnant) would possess the land.
Interestingly, the next verse in our passage, verse nine, makes the same point as 57:13. Not only will there be a remnant that will survive, they will inherit the land.
In verse ten God begins to talk about the land. Sharon is the fertile plain along the coast, running from Joppa to Mt. Carmel. The valley of Achor is a rather barren, hilly area, running north from Jericho. The Valley of Achor is best known as the place where Achan and his family, who had stolen sacred things, were stoned to death. That story is found in Joshua chapter seven. These particular two areas probably were chosen because they are on the western and eastern sides of the Promised Land and represent the whole.
In verses 11-12, God turns his attention once again to those who are in rebellion against him and speaks directly to them. As you can see, these people went after other gods, specifically Fortune and Destiny. The god of Fortune (gad) was a well-known god from the region of Syria. The god of Destiny, on the other hand, is not otherwise known. In verse 12 God announces what he will do to those who have abandoned him for these gods. He destines them for the sword. The verb “to destine” comes form the same root as the god Destiny. Therefore God is being ironic. Those who pursue the god of Destiny are destined for the sword. The last two lines of the verse clearly show that the sins in question were deliberate. These people knew what they were doing.
In verses 13-14 God continues to speak to the rebellious ones; and as he does so, he distinguishes them from God’s servants. Notice that verse 13 makes the distinction with six beautifully balanced lines that contrast the two groups. “My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry. My servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty. My servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame.” In other words God’s servants will be blessed, and the sinners will be punished. Then verse 14 sums up the difference with a kind of restatement of the last two lines of verse 13.
Verses 14-15 continue the contrast between the two groups, but not in the highly patterned form of verses 13-14. In verse 15 the Lord says that the name of the rebellious ones will become a curse for God’s servants. And the servants will be given another name. Then verse 16 tells us that the result will be that the servants of the new name will draw people to the God of truth, a God who is willing to hide the “former troubles” from his sight.