Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9
This pericope is found in the part of Isaiah often known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66).
Likely dating to the early days after Persia took over Babylon, two things would have been happening in relationship to Jerusalem at this time (late 6th century BCE). First, those residents who had remained after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem would have received some new freedoms under the realm of Persia. Second, those who had been exiled to Babylon would have been given permission to return to their homeland. Perhaps the very first of those returning would have made the trip. While much of the Old Testament witness from this time period is full of hope and joy, anxiety lies just below the surface. News of a new beginning does not mean that everything happens at once or that the past pain is erased. Even in the midst of the joy there can be disappointment and disillusion. In Isaiah 64:1-9 (and the larger passage in which it is set, Isaiah 63:15-64:12), this is expressed in lament.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
The passage begins with a three-fold appeal: that God would tear open the heavens, that God would come down, and that the mountains would quake at the divine presence (vs. 1). The metaphors used to describe the coming of God — a pot of water boiling over and mountains shaking — are not terribly comforting (vs. 2). Boiling water scalds. It cannot be put back into the pot. Shaking mountains may crumble and reduce the environment to chaos. This is the type of power the people for God use to show those who oppose God — power that will make an impression.
God’s coming with such power would affect the people themselves, too. This appeal to God is based in what the people and their ancestors have already experienced of God. This plea for God to come down perhaps recalls God’s descent onto Mount Sinai when the mountain, covered in cloud, shook in the presence of God (Exodus 19:16-20). The people saw the cloud and trembled at the shaking mountain. Only Moses climbed the mountain to go near the divine presence. To face the LORD was too much for the rest of the people. When Moses returned down the mountain, he had with him the Ten Commandments and other divine instruction. The LORD’s coming had brought the people a precious gift that served to order their lives together. Despite the known danger of facing the LORD, or perhaps because of it, the people in Isaiah 64:1-9 call for God to come near. They are in need of divine help.
Do not remember our iniquity forever
In Verse 9 a second three-fold appeal to God is made: do not be exceedingly angry; do not remember iniquity forever; consider that we are your people. In the intervening verses, the people confess their transgression and waver as to whether or not they are solely responsible for it. In verse 6 they confess their iniquity, but in verses 5 and 7 (as well as in 63:17) they contend that their sin was at least partially caused by God looking away from them (particularly in the Greek text, as the Hebrew text is more circumspect).
In verse 9 there is less concern as to the source of their transgression. Rather their hope is that the LORD would now heal the breach between them. Their appeal is that they would once more be considered God’s own people.
All of us
When one reads this passage in Hebrew, one is struck by the repeated phrase “all of us” (kulanu). In the NRSV the phrase appears as “we all” (vs. 6a, 6b, 8, 9) but is less obvious than in Hebrew where the word hangs on somewhat awkwardly at the ends of the phrases. We are like one unclean — all of us (vs. 6a). We drooped like a leaf — all of us (vs. 6b). We are the work of your hand — all of us (vs.8). Consider, we are your people — all of us (vs. 9). This four-fold emphasis on the totality of the people — all of us — reminds us that we as humans are in this together and we — all of us — belong to God.
It is hard to know whether this statement in Isaiah truly includes all the world or only all the people of Israel. There are hints throughout Isaiah 40-66 that the whole world (that is, all the nations) might be in view (cf 42:1-9; 43:9; 55:1-5; 56:3-8), though there are other places where Israel takes precedence (cf 43:1-7; 44:1-5; 62:1-12). Even if only the people of Israel are included here, it is worth noting the communal nature of this statement. The people cry out in one voice for God to act on behalf of the people as a whole and on behalf of the individuals who make up that whole.
When God comes
The gospel reading assigned for Advent 1A includes the refrain to keep awake so that one will not miss the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33). The reading from Isaiah assures us that God will be recognizable when God comes. For we have experienced God before. Through signs of power, but also as one who does not remember iniquity forever but turns to look with forgiveness — at all of us.