Where Is God?
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 59:1-9,
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
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
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).
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 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
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
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
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
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
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).