Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9
A cry of misery. An appeal for mercy
These verses are part of a larger psalm of communal lament (Isaiah 63:7-64:12) that begins with a praise-filled account of God’s mighty acts of deliverance throughout Israel’s history.
God’s actions on behalf of Israel (“my people”; 63:8) are described as expressions of God’s steadfast love, mercy and compassion.
God’s “children” (63:8) rebel, however, prompting God to become “their enemy” (63:10) and the people to petition God to “turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage” (63:17b) though they “have long been like those whom [God does] not rule, like those not called by [God’s] name” (63:19). It is a familiar pattern in the way Israel’s story is told by the prophets, but in the form of a communal lament (“we,” “us”) it is presented as the community’s perspective on their deeds and a voice for their needs.
Just who is this community? The lament is in the portion of the Book of Isaiah generally associated with a post-exilic Jerusalem context. The Persian king Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians (539 BCE) and established a decree that the exiles could return to their homeland. Threats, divisions, land battles and power struggles erupted between and among returnees, those who had remained in the land, and those who had settled there from other places after Jerusalem was conquered in 587 BCE.
The restoration of Jerusalem to past glory, that had been envisioned, was clearly not going to happen — at least not in the time and ways expected. While the voices of various historical factions might be identified within the lament, a collective voice emerges in the portion of the psalm that is the pericope selection. This community — whoever comprises it — ponders in lament form how God should respond to human guilt.
Isaiah 64:1-9 begins and ends with a request. The first request is that God would “tear open the heavens and come down…to make [God’s] name known to [God’s] adversaries” (64:1a, 2b). The offenders would experience the terror of God’s mountain-quaking, fiery presence (verses 1b, 2a).
Presumably this demonstration of divine power would convince the offenders to end their hostilities but the effect noted in the text is on the lamenting community: mention of God’s mountain-quaking power brings to mind God’s unexpected interventions on their behalf. How God should deal with the guilt of “others” gives way to how God has cared for them through “awesome deeds” (verse 3).
The pondering moves to praising God for being the only God in all the ages “who works for those who wait for him” (verse 4). Divine attention to and involvement in human wellbeing — individually and collectively — varied across the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions. This comparative statement is, of course, is a confessional claim not a scholarly one. Their praise honors a God turned toward humans, in relationship with them and working on their behalf. The persons who receive divine attention are described, not surprisingly, as those working righteousness (verse 5a NRSV: “who gladly do right”).
All is well and good for the righteous but how should God deal with the guilty? In verse 5b the lamenting community erupts in a confession that begins with an accusation. Like the spouse who “confesses” their cheating was due to their partner’s failure, the people attribute their sin and their transgression to God’s anger and withdrawal. The accusation draws upon two key premises: 1) that human right deeds derive from divine goodness, and 2) absent God, humans will sin. No mention is made of human agency.
The lamenters next describe how sin has covered them as a community, contaminated their deeds, taken their energy and become their driving force. This captivity to sin leads to a second confession and accusation: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (verse 7). The failure to seek God is attributed to God’s hiding; seeking is futile because God has left the guilty to the consequences of their own trespasses.
Then the lamenters do what they said no one does: call upon God’s name and attempt to take hold of God. They appeal to “our Father” and “our potter.” They confess that they are all filthy and faded (verse 6) and they claim that they are all offspring and product of God’s creative activity (verse 8). On the basis of this latter connection, the lamenters make one more request: that God’s anger and memory of their guilt not last forever (verse 9).
Laments are not formal arguments. They can employ faulty reasoning and they are one-sided. The lamenters in Isaiah 64 never make the clear and contrite admission of culpability that they might be expected to offer in order to receive the divine consideration they request. Laments are poetic protests against pain and appeals for intervention.
In Isaiah 64:1-9 the pain is brought on by the consequences of the people’s iniquities, experienced most deeply as anger and alienation from God. Their appeal is for God’s intervention — to heal the alienation and to halt the damage of their sins. The people’s pain is clear. How God will respond is not.