Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9
We are, all of us, impure, rags soaked in blood (Isaiah 64:6).1 We are, all of us, dried up, brown and gold leaves dancing in the wind (verse 6). We are unformed dust churned into mud (verse 8). We are creatures, confronted with death (verses 9-10), hoping for life.
The prophet voices familiar yearnings: if only our elusive creator would show up and fight our battles, earth itself would shift and open to us. The powers we fear would not harm us. “You came down,” remembers the prophet. Mountains quaked before the face of God (Isaiah 64:3).
But now we think we do not see God’s face (64:5, 6). We cry out against the silence (64:12). We feel unable to wait, unable to stretch ourselves, unable to get God’s measure, to imagine the breadth and depth of what God will do, who God is, and who we are to God.
This is waiting at its worst. Welcome to the first week of Advent.
This lection forms part of a prayer of lament spanning from 63:7–64:12. The lament voices divisions and insecurities, guilt and blame. It names distances that seem impossible to bridge, both among the people and between the people and God. The distance between God and people has the shape of sin and anger, guilt and punishment (64:5, 7).
The prophet’s lament has much in common with a subset of lament psalms known as penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143), and indeed the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition titles the unit from Isaiah 63:15–64:12 “A Prayer of Penitence.” Penitential laments confess sins out loud in order to begin the work of healing and relational repair. But this lament differs from the penitential psalms in two respects: It lacks the confident assurance of God’s forgiveness and salvation. It also casts part of the blame on God (64:5).2
The prophet prays, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (64:5 NRSV). As confessions go, this leaves something to be desired. We acted out because you weren’t talking to us. At least this way we got you to come back. We got you to pay attention to us again. Though not very satisfying as apologies go, it holds information God might have needed to hear. A parent who receives such an apology might get mad all over again, or might receive it as a wake-up call and an invitation. They might take the opportunity to figure out why their child thought they weren’t there to listen, and might choose to bridge the gulf that had formed between them.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1). The lection begins with this direct address to God. It is more than supplication. It is exactly an invitation. The penitents have bridged the distance to the extent that they know how. With a half-apology, a complaint, a testimony, a plea. Through their prophet, they invite God to eradicate the distances: spatial divisions, relational rifts, even the ontological distinctions that separate God from humans.
The creation account in Genesis 1 portrays the spatial division between heaven and earth as a firmament, a vault, perhaps something like a hammered sheet of rigid metal. But there are other metaphors for the expanse of the heavens. Two are found in Psalm 104:2, which envisions the heavens both as a tent stretched above the earth and as a garment of light draped around God’s own body.
A clue to how the heavens are imagined in Isaiah 64:1 lies in the prophet’s word choice: The Hebrew word the NRSV translates “tear open”, qāraʿtā, is a form of a verb almost always used for rending a garment. In the cultural world of the Hebrew Bible, rending a garment is a socially meaningful action. It is not an act of frustration or anger. It is rather a visible, bodily expression of grief, lament, or remorse.
The prophet voices the people’s lament, but also dares to invite God to do the same. To rend God’s own garment. To cross the space between heaven and earth, yes. To rip open the cosmic barrier between realms and descend to be with the people on earth. But also to bridge the chasm of hurt and silence. To voice God’s complaint. God’s sorrow. Perhaps even God’s remorse.
A close reading of the lection brings to light another garment that translations tend to obscure: a menstrual cloth (64:6, literally “a garment of [menstrual] periods”). The NRSV’s “filthy rag” simultaneously encodes menstruation as an object of disgust and hides the metaphoric presence of women’s bodies and reproductive processes.
For the biblical writer, the cloth certainly symbolized the people’s impurity. But menstrual impurity was not itself a sinful state, nor was it permanent. In the book of Leviticus it was understood as a normal condition that, for a short time, would exclude one from direct contact with the sacred (Leviticus 15). Understood in this sense, the menstrual cloth is not a metaphor for shame or disgust, but rather for the manifold ways our very humanness contributes to the distance between humans and God.
The prophet prays for us. For “all of us” (64:5, 7, 8). They dare to name God again and again and reveal what it means to be God’s creatures, God’s children, God’s people. They show us where God meets us, in rejoicing, righteousness, and remembrance, yes, but also in sorrow and sin.
For Christians, the prophet’s prayer receives an answer in the incarnation, when God chose to bridge the distances by rending God’s garment, coming down, and taking our humanness upon Godself. A woman’s body and reproductive processes were not a source of shame but active agents in God’s plan for forgiveness, healing, and salvation.
Prayer stretches us, closes part of the distance. We wait on God’s response.
- Verse numbering follows NRSV throughout this essay.
- Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56–66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Yale Bible 19B; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9780300261318.0009.CH018