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Where Is God?
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 59:1-9, 12-13, 15b-21

Dennis Bratcher

Historical Context

This text is from the third major section of the book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Many scholars have concluded that these chapters reflect the situation of the community of Israel following the return from Babylonian exile in 538 BC (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah).

A major shift in world power occurred around 539 BC. Cyrus the Persian overthrew the Babylonians and established the Persian empire (Isaiah 44:24; 45:1). Cyrus was a much more lenient ruler than were the Babylonian kings. In 538 BC Cyrus issued a decree that allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland (Ezra 1:1-4).

In spite of the promises of the prophets and the urging of the priests, there was no mass exodus back to Israel. Many exiles had grown comfortable in Babylon and were unwilling to leave. Even the handful that did return faced a ravaged land, a city and temple in ruins, and hostile neighbors (Ezra 4). The glorious promises of a new future had not immediately translated into blessing and prosperity.

So following the return from Babylon, the people faced a new crisis. With no city walls, marauding bands of outlaws threatened them. With no central government, there was little leadership and little means of enforcing laws. With no temple, religious life ebbed low. Apathy, indifference and cynicism grew until the people began to lose sight of who they were as God’s people. They began to be careless how they lived out being God’s people. They began to doubt the future that God had promised.

The writer has constructed this entire chapter carefully. By noting changes in pronouns marking new speakers, we see that the chapter has four main sections:

1. the people challenge God (1)
2. the prophet answers with an accusation (2-8)
3. the people respond with a confession of guilt (9-15a)
4. God reacts with mercy (15b-21).

The Text

1. The People Challenge God (1)

1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.

Some take verses 1-3 together and see this as a positive affirmation of God’s power (Isaiah 50:2). In view of the horrible conditions that unfold in the chapter, it is better to understand this as the people’s sarcastic challenge to God’s ability, or willingness, to intervene in the world (note a similar objection in 58:3). The language throughout the passage is similar to lament psalms, which challenge God for not intervening in the world for the downtrodden and oppressed (Ps 10:1-18; note Habakkuk 1:2-4; See Lament Psalms in Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms).

1. arm of the Lord This signifies God’s willingness to use His power to accomplish His purposes in the world (40:10; 33:2). The people pick up the positive affirmation of Isaiah 50:2 and use it as a challenge: "So why doesn’t he?"

save We should be careful not to read into this word our post-New Testament ideas of salvation. Of the 200 or so times this verb appears in the Old Testament, only once (Ezekiel 37:23) does it specifically refer to deliverance from sin. Terms such as "forgive" or "pardon" normally refer to the removal of the guilt of sin.

The basic meaning of the Hebrew word is "to make a wide space" and so "to deliver" or "to liberate." The idea of "salvation" in the Old Testament is rooted in the exodus. God by His power brought the Hebrews to a physical place where they could properly respond to God as His people (Ex 5:1; 8:25-27; note Jeremiah 23:6). This is the origin of most of the "salvation" language in the Old Testament.

The term save, then, refers to deliverance from an external threat. Usually the threat is an enemy (Judges 2:16) or something portrayed as an enemy such as sickness (Psalm 6:1-4). Here, the threat is the terrible situation in the country. The people feel that the enemies of God are causing their problems. And they imply that it is God’s responsibility to save them from those enemies. As the passage continues, the problems clearly are not caused by enemies "out there." The people’s sinfulness is their own enemy.

2. The Prophet Answers with an Accusation (2-8)

2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. 3 For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 4 No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. 7 Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways. 8 The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace.

These are not specific instances of wrongdoing, but comprise a general indictment against the people presented in familiar prophetic imagery. Several phrases are traditional terms drawn from various sources (Job 15:35; Proverbs 1:16; 16:7), including earlier parts of the book of Isaiah (e.g., 1:15). Several features of this passage closely parallel Isaiah 50 where the people also have trouble responding properly to God.

This passage differs from other prophetic attacks on sin in one important respect. Here there is no threat of future judgment. The implication is that the people themselves are creating their intolerable present situation. In the imagery of Isaiah 50:11, those who kindle a fire must walk in its light. With a sarcastic tone, we learn from verse nine that their light is really darkness! They have separated themselves from God who now appears hidden.

Your iniquities . . .your sins  Your is plural (Hebrew has both singular and plural forms for "you"; English does not) and addresses the entire people as a group.

3. Much of the imagery describing the people’s sins in the following verses relates to social relationships. There is no mention of worship of idols or failure to acknowledge God. The sin here concerns how the people of God treat other people. The previous chapter attacked the superficiality of the people’s religion. The writer argued strongly that a person’s relationship to others reflects his relationship with God (58:6-12: note Luke 10:25-37). This theme has permeated the book of Isaiah (see Lectionary Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-20). The Israelites could not truly be the people of God if they neglected proper relationship with each other and the people around them. It was just as valid after the exile as before. God’s expectations had not changed!

hands stained with blood "Blood" often describes actual violent physical death or crimes of violence (Genesis 4:10-11). In the book of Isaiah this expression refers generally to guilt arising from oppression or injustice (Isaiah 1:10-20). Innocent blood (v.7) more often refers to physical violence. The phrase also occurs frequently in the prophets to refer to crimes of injustice against the poor or oppressed (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3).

4. This verse vividly describes dishonesty in the law courts. In ancient Israel no less than today, the system of law was the only protection the poor had from greedy tyrants. The breakdown of the judicial system reflects a situation of near anarchy among the returned exiles.

8. way, path, roads, walks These are all common poetic symbols, comparing life to walking a path. This figure is especially common in Proverbs (2:12-15; 10:9) and Psalms (1, 14:3).

3. The People Respond with Confession of Guilt (9, 12-13)

9 So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.

12 For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: 13 rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived.

9. So is a strong "therefore" in Hebrew. It indicates that the following statements of fact are true based upon the conditions just described. Here the people acknowledge that justice is far from us, not because God is inactive, but because they have not advocated justice among themselves!

justice . . . righteousness Both words have a wide range of meaning in Hebrew. When used together, they become more specific. These are not abstract terms that simply describe what a person is. They describe a lifestyle, something that a person does because of what he is. In describing God, they denote God’s saving activity revealed in history (Hosea 2:16-20). When used of people, they refer to ethical conduct as the proper response to God (Jeremiah 22:2-5; Ezekiel 45:9-12). Both meanings are interwoven here (as in 56:1). The people’s confession links proper ethical conduct with God’s activity in the world (see Social Ethics in the Prophets). Other biblical writers portray God acting in spite of the sin of the people (Jeremiah 31:34; note Isaiah 40:1-2!). But that is not the message here. In this passage, God has not acted because the people are sinful.

Light is a common biblical symbol to describe happiness, well-being, and the presence of God in deliverance and blessing. In the book of Isaiah it often symbolizes hope (9:2; 30:26) and God’s future activity for His people (45:7; 60:1-3). Darkness speaks of despair and the absence of God’s saving activity.

4. God Reacts with Mercy (15b-21)

15b The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. 17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. 18 According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due.

19 From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. 20 "The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the LORD. 21 "As for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD. "My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever," says the LORD.

This section again draws on familiar themes to respond to the people’s confession of guilt. The writer presents God in the recurring imagery of the mighty warrior who brings deliverance to His people (see The Turn Toward Hope, comments on Isa 40:3). Such an appearance of God was called a theophany or an epiphany (see A Prayer of Hope, comments on Isa 64:1). It always had two dimensions. For the righteous, God’s "coming" (v.20) brought peace and security, or in this case justice. For the ungodly (enemies, foes, v.18) God’s newly revealed activity in the world brought judgment (note Amos 5:18-20).

15b. no justice Normally, God acted in the world to bring deliverance from external foes. But several prophets also portray God acting to establish justice among His people (Habakkuk 1:2-4; 3:3ff; Micah 6:9-15).

16. his own arm The term own is not in the Hebrew. It is possible that "his arm" refers to an agent by which God would work out his purpose in the world (perhaps also 40:10). Some commentators see a reference here to the Persian ruler Artaxerxes who intervened to reestablish law and order in the country (Ezra 7). Earlier parts of Isaiah have clearly shown that God used non-Israelites for his purpose. Isaiah himself had labeled the king of Assyria a razor in the hand of God (7:20). The Persian ruler Cyrus was later announced as God’s "anointed" (45:1).

There is a strong underlying conviction that permeates the book of Isaiah. God is ultimately Lord of human history. He will use events (even "negative" ones) and people (even pagan ones) to work out His purposes in the world (note Genesis 50:20). Whatever the means, God was at work to bring justice to the community.

worked salvation The Hebrew verb can mean simply "to bring victory" in battle, and should be translated that way here (as RSV, NEB). Helmet of salvation (v.17) also could be "helmet of victory."

his own righteousness sustained him Again, own is not in the Hebrew. The pronouns in this section are not clear. They could all refer to God himself (as NIV, RSV). Or they could refer to both God and his "arm" who is bringing victory.

17. Paul uses the same imagery in a different way in Ephesians (6:14-17).

18. According to what they have done reaffirms the prophetic principle that in God’s scheme of things evil actions create their own negative consequences. This system of retribution is a consistent biblical theme (Job 4:8; Gal 6:7) especially in the prophets (Isaiah 3:9-11; Habakkuk 2:15-16; Hosea 8:7).

19. The prophets after the exile feared that other peoples would look at the condition of Israel and conclude that Israel’s God was not much of a god at all. God’s actions to establish justice in the land would again affirm the true nature of Israel’s God. For comments on glory as a symbol of God’s presence, see The Turn Toward Hope, comments on Isaiah 40:5.

20. Redeemer as a biblical title for God occurs almost exclusively in the second and third sections of Isaiah (41:14; 43:14, etc.). The idea of redemption arose from the custom of buying back something that had been sold, either a piece of property (Leviticus 25:25-28) or a person (Leviticus 25:48-54). Usually a close relative or kinsman did the redeeming. The term then described generally the familial responsibilities of relatives (Ruth 3:1-4:12 where "do the part of the next of kin" translates the same verb in the RSV). The verb then poetically described God’s saving actions in the world to establish relationship with His people. It could describe the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:13), the return from exile (Jeremiah 31:11), or generally deliverance from death (Hosea 13:14).

Paul uses parts of verses 20 and 21 to refer to Jesus (Romans 11:26). He quotes from the Greek version which has "deliverer" instead of redeemer. He combines these with part of Isaiah 27:9.

21. my covenant Some see this as referring to the promise of God’s coming in the previous verse (v.20). Verse 21 is a prose conclusion to the previous poetic section. Since this verse is distinct from the preceding verse, covenant more likely refers to the continuing presence of God (v.21). In many places covenant is a key idea. While the usage here recalls the importance of covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the meaning is more simply "agreement" with overtones of "promise."

The NIV and NASB capitalize Spirit here. Since Hebrew does not have capital letters, this gives the verse more meaning than the Hebrew conveys (RSV and NEB: "spirit"). The Hebrew word (ruach) means "breath" or "wind." When used of God it symbolizes His active presence in the world. The term translated who is impersonal and can be translated "which."

your children . . . their descendants The ongoing survival of the people as God’s people was a primary concern of the post-exilic community (Nehemiah 13; see The Third Generation: Nehemiah and the Question of Identity).

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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