Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9
This text has three major movements: God’s patient suffering at the hands of a recalcitrant people (Isaiah 65:1-5), God’s decision to judge (Isaiah 65:6-7), and the merciful promise to save a remnant (Isaiah 65:8-9).
Or, seen from the perspective of God, the speaker, the text moves from grief to judgment to mercy.
The first movement is marked by a kind of absurdity. The God of Isaiah 65 proves to be the kind of God who places God’s self directly into the hands of enemies:
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
To a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
To a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
to my face continually …
who say, “Keep to yourself,
do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that burns all day long. (Isaiah 65: 1-3, 5)
The phrase, “Here I am” (hinneniy) is most often associated with God’s obedient servants, not with God (cf. Genesis 22:1; 2 Samuel 3:5, 6, 8; Isaiah 6:8). But the tone of divine humility struck in Isaiah 65:1-9 is entirely appropriate to the context. With each verse, it becomes increasingly apparent that God was paying a profound price to be in relationship with this people: “those who did not ask . . . a nation that did not call on my name … a rebellious people … who provoke me to my face … who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me … They are a smoke in my nostrils.” The responses of the people to God begin with indifference and end in a crescendo of rejection.
And yet, even while being rejected and scorned, God still says, “Here I am,” with arms wide open. Despite God’s welcoming posture and willingness to suffer for the relationship, the people continue to inflict harm on their God: “These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.” These incendiary metaphors indicate that God’s pain was not only acute (“smoke in my nostrils”), but it was also persistent (“all day long”).
The same Savior that places himself in the path of his enemies in Isaiah 65, reappears in Romans 6: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 6:6-8, 10). What distinguishes God’s mercy is that it reaches out not only to those who welcome it, but also to those who reject it.
God’s relationship to God’s people, however, reaches a boiling point in the second movement. God promises to “repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,” primarily for their breaking of the first commandment (Isaiah 65:6-7). To be sure, God’s decision to judge emerges in response to a ruined relationship, but it is also a legal consequence of Israel’s continued breaking of the covenant at Sinai. Notice how v. 6 begins: “See, it is written before me.” But what exactly is God reading? While this reference may refer to the ledger of the righteous and the wicked (cf. Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1-2), it seems more likely that it refers to a covenantal document that lays out the consequences for obedience and disobedience (Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Hints in the text indicate as much.
Note in particular that the language of “repayment” into their “laps” (weshillamtiy ‘al cheyqam) echoes Jeremiah 32:18 (“You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of hosts”), which is itself an interpretation of the 10 Commandments. According to the 10 Commandments, God will judge “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Exodus 20:5). In Isaiah 65, then, God is depicted not merely as the victim in a broken relationship (and the pathos of this text should not be underestimated), but also as a legal interpreter. Finding God’s people to be guilty of unfaithfulness, God chooses to judge.
But God’s decision to judge is quickly qualified, and even buffered, by God’s commitments to particular promises. Sin has real and lasting consequences (divine judgment), but judgment would only be a comma in the much longer sentence of God’s mercy:
As the wine is found in the cluster,
and they say, “Do not destroy it,
for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
and my servants shall settle there.
God’s judgment is not canceled here, but it would finally be in service of God’s mercy, which manifests itself in God’s ancient and persistent commitment to Jacob’s descendants and to their inheritance of the Promised Land. Judgment would occur, destruction would have its say, but only on a temporary basis; in the wake of judgment would come mercy.