Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9
This pericope is simultaneously rooted in the rich memories of God’s saving acts and mired in the muck of dashed expectations and the experience of God’s absence.
From this spot the prophet, speaking on behalf of the people, both admits the people’s rejections of God and calls on God to be present and act on behalf of God’s people. The pericope concludes with an affirmation of God’s relationship with God’s people using faithful images of father and potter (64:8).
Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) reflects a moment in Israel’s history rife with the struggles of the earliest returnees to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. After the decree of King Cyrus the Persian (538 BCE)1 that ended the Babylonian Exile, a number of the exiles returned to Judah and Jerusalem to rebuild the crumbled kingdom. When confronted with the difficulties of the return, there is a noticeable shift from the hopefulness of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) to a hope coupled with doubt and lament.
The immediate pericope is part of a larger psalm (63:7-64:12) in which the prophet poetically reminds God who God is. Situated in the uncertain midst of the return from the Exile, the prophet begins from a point of faith, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord” (63:7), remembering God’s previous deliverance of Israel from Egypt (63:7-9). “Praiseworthy” are the Lord’s saving, merciful actions.
As if on a dime, the psalmist shifts from recollections of the Lord’s great deeds to befuddlement at the Lord’s apparent/perceived absence. “Where is the one who brought them up…?” (63:11) In contrast with God’s great deeds of the past, the Lord’s absence is palpable. The great expectations which fill Second Isaiah, written sometime near the end of the Exile painting a picture of favor and renewed blessing for Israel and through Israel the whole world, were experienced as empty (64:10-12). This extends to the point that the prophet laments what the Lord has done to Israel as to Pharaoh and Egypt: “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?” (63:17)2
The sense of the Lord’s absence is quickly followed by reminders of God’s promised commitment to God’s people (63:15-19).
In the proper pericope for this Sunday, the prophet invokes the ancient image of the Lord as the cosmic, divine warrior who, according to Israel’s collective memory, has victoriously ‘come down’ to Israel’s aid (e.g. 2 Samuel 22, Psalm 18, Micah 1:2-4). With a tone of desperation, the prophet implores the Lord to act likewise in the prophet’s here and now, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1).
What follows points to deep contradictions3 between the people’s belief in God’s faithfulness to “those who gladly do right” (64:5) and their profound experience of God’s absence. The story upon which their faith in the Lord sits suggests one thing, while their experience suggests something else−simultaneously.
There is even a hint on the part of the prophet that the Lord’s absence is responsible for Israel’s sins — “…because you hid yourself we transgressed,” taking a cue from the Greek (LXX) version of Isaiah as the Hebrew is not clear at this point.
The prophet places the burden of Israel’s situation squarely on Israel. All of Israel has become as one “unclean,” ritually impure (64:6, cf. Ezekiel 14:10-11), so much so that even their righteous deeds are as “a filthy cloth.” The prophet names the cold, hard reality of the people’s relation with God: “There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you” (64:7). The covenantal relationship between God and God’s people is in danger of being completely severed. The space between the two is an unbridgeable chasm marked by suspicion of God’s absence and clear acknowledgement of the people’s defilement of this holy relationship.
At the point when the chasm appears too wide and too deep to be crossed, the psalm leaps into faithfulness with a simple “but now” (NRSV “Yet” — 64:8). When all hope seems lost and the chasm between God and God’s people seems to have drifted far too far apart, the prophet on behalf of the people makes a profession.
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” (64:8-9)
From the image of the Lord as the divine warrior who comes bursting out of the heavens that begins the pericope, the prophet brings the poem to a far different place. From a cosmic military-like interventionist, the Lord is envisioned as an artisan; a potter working, molding, fashioning in a continuing way this broken people.
As the first biblical text sounding through much of the global Church this Advent, what has been called “the most powerful psalm of communal lamentation in the Bible”4 rings true with confluence of the real muck in which many today are mired and the illogical and unexpected profession of God’s relation with God’s people. In the midst of the muck that covers so much of life because of “our iniquities” (64:6), the temptation (rooted in our story as well) is to call upon the divine warrior. The prophet, on our behalf as well, turns and professes faith in our “Father” and “potter.”
1A version of which is found in Ezra 1.2-4.
2Paul D Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 239.
3Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, (WBC; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 237.
4Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, (David M. G. Stalker, trans.; OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 392.