Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9
Isaiah 65 begins with images of a long-suffering, patient deity.
The emphasis here (in verses 1-2) is on the disparity between God’s receptiveness and desire to be found and the people’s recalcitrance. If we accept that this text emerged during the post-exilic period of Israel’s history, then the context reflects a period of great uncertainty about how and where God is present to the people of the Persian province Yehud (Aramaic for Judah).
To back up historically, Israel went into exile in Babylon in 586/7 B.C.E. In 539, the power of the Empire shifted when the Persians defeated the Babylonians and established the largest-ever empire in the ancient Near East. Unlike other ancient empires, the Persian Empire espoused a policy of cultural and religious independence for its conquered subjects. Cyrus, the first king of Persia, officially announced that captives were free to return to their homelands and to rebuild their temples and worship their gods.
Following the installation of Cyrus as King, the prophet known as “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) made grand and rich promises about how God would lead the people from Babylon back to a glorious and promised land. No “mass return” resulted, but for those small groups who trickled into the land of Yehud (between 528 and 398 B.C.E.), it seems that what they found upon their return was not nearly as glorious as they had imagined. Particularly in the early post-exilic period, there was economic hardship, famine, and in-fighting. The literature from this period reveals not only that the people were questioning YHWH’s commitment to them, but that they were also engaging in extensive debate about what it meant to be a follower of YHWH.
Like many of the prophets, Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) here asserts that it is not God’s fault that the people are suffering. God has tried to reach the people over and over again to no avail. They have not seen God at work or experienced God’s comfort and compassion because they have not looked for it. God is anxiously waiting for them, with outstretched hands (65:2a), but the people never call.
The oracle in verses 1-7 is one of pure judgment, designed to justify God and God’s decision to punish the people. However, the judgment oracle form defies convention when it abruptly shifts to become an oracle of salvation in verse 8.
Different from numerous other prophetic oracles of judgment, this oracle in Third Isaiah proclaims that the whole community will not be judged as one. YHWH resolves that for the sake of “my chosen” and “my servants” (verse 9), God will not destroy all the people.
Some scholars have argued that the people deemed guilty by the prophet are the priests, who might have held much power in the post-exilic Yehud. The people identified as the servants may have felt powerless to effect change in the power centers of Yehud or to influence those who controlled worship in the temple. The message that their powerlessness to change worship in the temple would not result in their punishment must have come as a welcome relief to a disenfranchised group.
The post-exilic Third Isaiah shows, to some degree, the extent of the split that has ruptured within the community.
The danger in interpreting this passage, especially in places of privilege, is to conclude that since we are not all in this together, we can write off those we do not agree with because our salvation is not wrapped up in theirs. We can claim that we are righteous, and God will save us; they are evil, and God will destroy them. They will receive “full payment” for their sins (verse 7). God’s chosen–God’s servants–however, will receive a blessed inheritance (verse 9).
Perhaps we should shift the angle on this text and identify with the judged ones, the group that wields the power. If we only wonder what the salvation oracle means to us and assume the judgment oracle is referring to someone else, then we may find ourselves looking for–and finding–plenty of “others” to judge. And once we have a suitable candidate for judgment, we can rest easy in our knowledge that we are among God’s chosen. Instead of identifying with the “servants” who imagine themselves to be in the right, perhaps we might try wondering how this accusation might stick if we throw it at the mirror.
The servants claim that the others have not engaged with God. God is ready to be sought by those who do not ask (verse 1). Perhaps like so many of us, they are too busy or overwhelmed to ask difficult questions about faith and the commitment that requires. They do not seek God (verse 2), perhaps because this god is hard to find. They do not call on the name of YHWH because this is a god who requires an intense level of commitment.
The servants also maintain that the ones in power are engaging in syncretistic worship practices (3b-4a), disregarding the laws from Torah that make the people unique (4b), and arrogantly wielding power and claiming special closeness to God (5a). They worship, but they do not know enough to realize that the worship they engage in provokes YHWH. They do not know their god well enough, as a distinctive and unique god with particular requirements of God’s people, to know that what they do incenses YHWH. They engage in worship of a general, one-size-fits-all god. This passage reminds us that any old worship will not do because we do not worship any old god. But the people would rather walk in their own way and follow their own devices (v 2b) than serve the demanding God revealed in scripture.
Who can blame them, really? How many of us want to get to know and seek the particular, quirky, sometimes cantankerous and jealous, passionate God revealed to us in scripture? Living out a faith in the God of the Bible is not easy.
The oracle of salvation assures us that we need not worry about being punished for the sins of others, but the oracle of judgment challenges us to find the sins of the powerful within ourselves.