Pack 1 Interpretative Message of Isaiah 63:7-64:12 Interpretative Message Context With all the turmoil that the people of Israel

had been through up to the point of the exile and return, under King Cyrus, one would think that sooner or later God’s chosen people would get their act together and take Yahweh, their God, and his law a little more serious. But sadly, it seems—and any overview of Israelite history would confirm this—that Israel was perpetually stuck in their sin, being blown to and fro, wherever it carried them (64:6). The exile had failed to create the faithful people envisioned by Isaiah, the great prophet (Dillard/Longman 279). Thus, with their temple smashed to bits and little to no external evidence that Yahweh was their God (64:7)—because of their spiritual deadness and the inactive relationship between them and God—in the middle of Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), the prophet writes a lament to capture that grim moment in Israelite history to hopefully catch the attention and emotion of both the community and God. By pulling from the prior elements of this project, I will construct the interpretative message of this lament: Isaiah 63:7-64:12. I am proposing that Isaiah 63:7-64:12 is a prayer/lament, written by the prophet, complaining about the inactivity of God due to the people’s sin and God’s turning from them, urging God to “look,” “return” and act powerfully on their behalf, despite their sinful rebellion, as he did in the days of old. Before the actual message, a few things are in order, such as the structure of the book of Isaiah, the literary setting of 63:7-64:12, the genre of lament, the occasional setting of the book and passage and the historical context. First, the general structure of the book. The book of Isaiah is broken up into three major sections: chs. 1-39, 40-55, 56-66. The passage at hand, obviously, falls in the middle of the latter. Immediately preceding 63:7 is six verses regarding a vision of Yahweh as a warrior coming “to act as a warrior clothed in battle garb and acting in wrath for the cause of vengeance, tsedaqah, redemption, and salvation” (Goldingay 353). Immediately

Pack 2 following—the final two chapters of the book, 55 and 56—begins the book’s conclusion and thus parallel many of the themes in the first chapter. “Thus, we find references to the people forsaking Yahweh, to their rebelliousness, to their acts that displease Yahweh, to their religious observances in gardens, to their destiny to be shamed, and to the unquenchable fire” (Goldingay 365). Apart from these rather chilling references, much of the content of 56-66 is filled with the future blessings of the people of God (Dillard/Longman 281). Some important ones are salvation/deliverance (56:1), the foreigner/eunuch (56:3-8), fasting (58:3-7), the coming/blessing of nations (60:5-16), new creation and Jerusalem’s blessing (65:17-25). 63:7-64:12 is, generally speaking, a psalm. Psalms were musical poems (Fee/Stuart 206) and thus were intended to instruct “the mind through the heart,” to “evoke feelings… and to stimulate a response on the part of the individual that goes beyond a mere cognitive understanding of certain facts” (Fee/Stuart 207). Additionally, psalms were also strongly metaphorical (Fee/Stuart 208). But more specifically, 63:7-64:12 is a lament.1 Laments, whether individual or corporate, as explained by Fee and Stuart, “help a person [or group] to express struggles, suffering, or disappointment to the Lord” (212). Though 63:7-64:12 does not follow the typical pattern and structure of a lament, it clearly has the main elements weaved throughout as well as the tone and overall feeling of one. And though most likely it was written by an individual, it would have been used in ancient Israelite corporate worship (Fee/Stuart 210). In writing this lament on behalf of God’s people, the prophet yearns for God’s attention so to speak. He is tired of the silence and hiddenness of Yahweh and thus desires God to “look” (63:15) and “return” (63:17b), that God’s activity and involvement might be restored as in the days of old when God performed amazing miracles and led them with the power of his arm (63:11-14).
1

This passage could be further categorized as a protest psalm. Instead of the solely victimizing language of laments, protests seek divine action through direct, confronting and often radical language. For a relevant discussion see Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel's Life. Vol. 3. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003. Print.

Pack 3 Now for the historical context. In a general sense, Third Isaiah is dealing with “the needs of the exilic community” (Dillard/Longman 275). This is true, but it deals also with the needs of the post-exilic community: “Its references [64:10-11] to the ruined state of country and temple suggest a time in the sixth century B.C. before the temple had been rebuilt, and might well thus imply a time prior to that of chapters 40-55” (Goldingay 355). There is a good amount of openness when it comes to matters of timeframe regarding Third Isaiah. Seitz reminds his readers this is “partly because Third Isaiah is so bereft of concrete historical indicators” (502). Thus, “it has given rise to wide-ranging and speculative proposals as to historical and social location, from the pre-exilic period to the late Hellenistic period” (502). It is important to keep in mind that though there is much interpretation regarding the actual timeframe of 56-66, the prophet wrote on behalf of a diverse collection of Israelites, those who had returned from exile and those who were the descendants of those left, whom most likely occupied one of three groups: “those who were deeply concerned about God and the relationship of Judah to him; those who were concerned about religion; and those who cared little for either” (Oswalt 16). Interpretative Message of the Passage Isaiah 63:7-14 The passage begins with a recalling of the goodness and kindness that Yahweh has shown “the house of Israel” (v 7). More than a specific moment, this is more likely a remembering of Yahweh’s incredible love and fidelity throughout their history. Though Fee and Stuart posit that typically the praise element of a lament comes at the end (215), Childs affirms in his commentary, “as is common in the Psalter, complaints are often introduced with praise and the recitation of the great events of God’s show of mercy to Israel” [(523) Italics mine]. Immediately, the reader’s attention is on the hesed of God. “This though is [further] emphasized

Pack 4 by the repetition of hesed (kindnesses) as the first and last words of the verse” (Oswalt 604-5). This is the proper starting (or ending) place for any prayerful lament. Clearly on display in vv. 8 and 9 is Yahweh as Savior. The prophet recalls Yahweh’s words, that this odd group of people are his children and they will not be false (v 8). Certainly Yahweh had an expectation for his people. Oswalt sees this language as alluding to the covenant (605). Though one may ask what Yahweh saved them from, v. 9 (with the help of vv. 11 and 12)—being very similar to Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:11—suggests the ancient exodus as the answer. Yahweh saved them from their tyrant oppressors, ancient Egypt. Yahweh’s heavy involvement and saving activity among the ancient peoples is emphasized in v. 9: in their affliction “he was afflicted,” “the angel of his presence saved them,” “he redeemed them,” and “he lifted them up and carried them.” Thus the prophet is speaking of the Israelites who experienced God’s liberating and saving power in their exodus from their slavery in Egypt. Verse nine’s display of Yahweh’s love and salvation set up the audience for a stark contrast. The prophet shifts attention to the people of Israel (v. 8). Despite Yahweh’s kindness, grace and election, the people respond in the most heinous way: rebellion (v. 10). Here, “the prophet refers not to a particular moment such as those instances of rebellion in Exodus and Numbers but rather to the ongoing story of Israel’s life with Yahweh” (Goldingay 357). The people’s rebellion resulted in two devastating consequences: (1) Yahweh became their enemy and (2) fought against them (v. 10). As Oswalt points out, “the opening waw is disjunctive (But), emphasizing the contrast between what ‘he’ did in v. 9 and how ‘they’ respond in v. 10” (607). Israel treated God and their covenant with him in the most unreasonable way. Verses 11-14 are a more direct, specific remembering (in contrast to the more general statements of v. 9), a recalling of the former ways that God had been so powerful and glorious

Pack 5 among the people in the crossing of the Red Sea. The prophet asks two questions here, thus reflecting on the great divide between the marvelous acts Yahweh did “back then” on the one hand and the silent treatment the people seem to be getting from God “now” on the other. Where is this one, this great God, worker of awe-inspiring miracles, who led and loved our ancestors in their time of need? Further, these questions2—expressing some of the prophet’s complaints— function as an important entry-point into the lament. Where, oh where is that God? Because there is no trace of him here! Isaiah 63:15-19 And so begins the lament proper. The prophet tells Yahweh to “look,” and look down— revealing the ancient’s belief in God’s location—but not just from anywhere, from Yahweh’s “beautiful dwelling place,” his holy and glorious habitation, since it is no longer among the people (Oswalt 612).3 Goldingay reflects on this initial appeal and writes, “Yahweh has kept urging the community to look up and see [40:26; 49:18; 60:4], and the prophet at last points out that, from the people’s perspective, the opposite of this is needed” (358). Yahweh needs to look down! The prophet continues, but with a question; “Where are your zeal and your might?” (v. 15b) He is not afraid to ask the hard questions, which reflect his desire for God’s movement, his action and involvement in and with Israel, as portrayed in vv. 7-14. He wanted the glory of the past to be the glory of the present. Verse 16 is almost humorous in light of what precedes it. The prophet asserts that Yahweh is their Father. Immediately before this though Yahweh is questioned on the whereabouts of his zeal, might, the stirring of his innards—those affectionate and caring feelings
“Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths?” [(63:11b-13a ESV) Italics mine] 3 As will be discussed below, vv. 64:10-11 tell us the temple or God’s earthly dwelling was ruined, thus God is no longer living among the people. He resides in heaven. This explains the prophet’s appeal to “look down from heaven” (63:15 ESV).
2

Pack 6 characteristic of any good father—and compassion (v. 15). Imagining a father, or any parent for that matter, emptied of affection and compassion toward his children seems almost barbaric, yet this is what the prophet announced. And though Abraham and Israel (Jacob) were seen to be the patriarchal fathers, “these men are not the real ‘fathers’… It is God who fathered these people” (Oswalt 612). God is the one who formed them (v. 64:8) and made them a people when they were not. So though Yahweh’s love and care are absent, he remains father. If one of the functions of a lament is to get Yahweh’s attention, so to speak, then v. 17 definitely fits the criteria. The prophet’s discourse here is dicey: he boldly asks, “why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts, so that we fear you not?” [(v. 17) Italics mine] This certainly demonstrates further the strange fatherly tactics of God. In his commentary, John Goldingay cuts to the heart of the issue: “If we wander from Yahweh’s ways simply because we are inclined to wander, then trying to stay in Yahweh’s ways involves trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. However, if our being the way we are is in some sense the result of Yahweh’s action, or even of Yahweh’s inaction then prayer can appeal to a potentiality outside us” (360). Then comes the second/parallel request/appeal: “Return” (v. 17b). Goldingay reveals that it was the job of the prophet to use the word “return” on the part of Yahweh to the people. But in a lament, particularly a protest lament, things get switched and the prophet uses that word toward Yahweh, on the people’s behalf (361). The grounds for the appeal is the sake of Yahweh’s servants, the tribes of his heritage (v. 17b). Israel’s glory and honor is not flickering or faded, it is smashed to smithereens, perfectly ruined just as God’s earthly home, the temple sanctuary, lies in broken pieces of rubble (v. 18b), which the prophet does not neglect to complain/protest about either. And if this was not bad enough, the demolished state of the temple is just a reflection of the community’s overall religious health. They have become all together unrecognizable as God’s precious and chosen

Pack 7 possession and thus are as those never ruled by Yahweh nor guided by his law. So what will fix this? “The solution for Israel is that God should deal with their continued sinning and make of them the witnesses to his glorious name that they ought to be” (Oswalt 616). Isaiah 64:1-7 Chapter 64 begins with the prophet lamenting, wishing that God would have come down, by tearing wide the sky—“breaking through the apparently solid dome of the heavens”—and descending on the people, shaking the mountainous foundations of earth in the aftermath (v. 1) (Oswalt 620). “If you would have just split the heavens is not first of all a hope that God might do something in the future; it is a wish that he had already intervened long ago” (Oswalt 621). The situation is beyond dire. Why had not Yahweh intervened? The prophet most likely has Sinai in the back of his mind. He is imagining a terribly-powerful scene, since the two metaphors he employs to illustrate this “coming down” is fire to brushwood and fire to water, at boiling point (v. 2). The prophet’s discourse invites the reader to understand the purpose of rending the heavens and coming down is to make Yahweh’s foes know his name and cause the nations to tremble. “This is always the purpose of God’s self-revelation: that the world might know him correctly, and knowing him might be terrified over the peril in which it stands (so that in the end it might be thrilled at the possibilities that extend from his grace)” (Oswalt 622). This is not a lament solely regarding a broken and spiritually-dead people; the prophet, here, expresses his deep angst regarding the nations knowing properly Yahweh’s name and, most likely, Israel’s inability to reflect this name at all. The prophet wants God’s activity to flow and benefit the nations of their world. For he knows the kind of God that he was commissioned by, the God who meets those who joyfully work righteousness (v. 5). The Hebrew root (gp has a large range of meaning: (1)

Pack 8 execute, put to death,4 (2) spare, (3) lay on, (4) arrive, (5) reach, (6) intercede, and (7) meet (Brown/Driver/Briggs 803; Grisanti 575). Further, the meeting can be positive, negative or neutral, unintentional or intentional. Contextually speaking, it seems the prophet is employing
(gp to signify a literal, intentional, God-initiated meeting with the lucky human person for the

purposes of kindness and benevolence. But how? What does this look like? Oswalt offers simply, “Perhaps the word was chosen carefully to convey the thought of divine-human interaction. Let a person begin to live according to God’s ways, joyfully doing righteousness, expectantly waiting for him, and sooner than we might think, we are going to meet him coming to meet us” (624). John Goldingay too offers, “Yahweh ‘comes to help’ or ‘meets’ people in the context of a twoway commitment” (361-2). Covenant is not a one-way street, though this is how Israel expressed its “covenantal commitments.” But one may wonder how a meeting like this would ever occur since any righteousness done were like filthy rags. The people were stuck in the vices of their sin. The only hope for the people is the unconditional grace of Yahweh. This leads the audience to a rather dumbfounding theological statement. Verse 5b needs to be understood, through analysis of the discourse, as the following: God was angry, the people sinned. Or reversed and less subtle, the people sinned because God was angry. How does that work? Does this flow in the opposite direction too? Because God was pleased, the people ceased from sinning? Whatever this means, the prophet intentionally binds God and the people’s sin together. They do not sin in isolation so to speak. Far from it! Yahweh is a cause!5 Regarding their sin, the prophet cries, “shall we be saved?” (v. 5b) The people have lived in sin for far too long. What hope is there for them? Honestly, there is only God: “The servants of God are

4

For a relevant discussion, see R. L. Hubbard’s The Hebrew Root PG’ as a Legal Term; Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984): 129-34 (Library Journal/ATLA). 5 He is not the ultimate cause. The passage makes clear that the dead spiritual state stems ultimately from the people’s sin. But this does not mean Yahweh plays no part. His inactivity perpetuates things into a vicious cycle. Without Yahweh’s help—his turning and responding—the people are hopeless.

Pack 9 expected to do righteousness, yet they are unable to do it, so God, the Righteous One, will have to enable them to do it through his own grace and power” (Oswalt 625). Verses 6 and 7 paint the saddest picture yet, that of the people’s sin-saturated lives and inactive relationship with God. A number of metaphors are employed to illustrate the people, their deeds and their relation to sin: righteous deeds are like filthy rags, the people are like a dry leaf and sin like the wind (v. 6). The point is that the people—like a shriveled leaf to the wind— are at the mercy of their sin. Wherever their sin blows, that is where they go. There is no escaping this slavery, naturally that is, outside of Yahweh’s intervention. And this is where the Hebrew poetry brings things to life. ‘We became’ correlates with ‘we shrivel up.’ ‘Like the unclean’ correlates with ‘like the leaf’ and ‘like the wind.’ And ‘our righteous acts’ correlates negatively with ‘our sins.’ Verse 7 is the middle of a concession-contraexpectation relationship. As seen in v. 6, the prophet illustrates the ruined spiritual state of the community. ‘Yet’6 signifies the unexpected assertion that no one seeks God despite the gravity of their sin. Seeking God would have been a reasonable response; it should have been the only response. But as Oswalt lays out, “the problem is the persistent sinning of the people and their inability to do anything about it” (625). And thus, sin plays the central role, so much so that it numbs the people to their situation. No one seems to care and no one calls on God. “The evidence of the hopeless condition of the nation in view of its sins is that no one is even concerned enough about the situation to cry out to God for help… they are so sunk in spiritual lethargy that they cannot even rouse themselves to lay hold of God” (Oswalt 626). And, as previously established, the discourse asks the reader, in v. 7b, to understand the reason no one calls on God or strives to lay hold of him is because he has hid his
6

Out of Brevard Childs (Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001. Print.), Joseph Blenkinsopp (Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 56-66. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003. Print.) and Oswalt’s (Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998. Print.) translations, only Childs inserts “yet” (521).

Pack 10 face and made them melt away (v. 7). God and his inactivity strongly and directly influence the people’s continued depravity. Isaiah 64:8-12 The final section, vv. 8-12, shifts from the people's entanglement with sin to a mix of lament, complaint and final appeal. An important, repeated theme begins v. 8: the Fatherhood of God (v. 63:16), which functions as a trust component in the lament. Moving the metaphor deeper, the prophet asserts that God is a potter who formed and shaped his people, his children, like clay. Thus the argument goes: though we have rebelled greatly, you, like an artist with his clay creation, must not, could not, should not throw us aside, rendering our history vanity. Speaking from the people's perspective, John Oswalt puts it, "although our sin cannot be denied, neither can the nature of our relationship with you. Surely you will not allow our sin to frustrate your creative purposes, will you?" (629) Because this question haunts the prophet, he appeals to Yahweh's sovereignty over remembering, to not remember their iniquity. Verse nine concludes with a desperate, "please look" on the grounds that they are all God's people, all his workmanship and children. As if all this was not bad enough, the prophet reminds God—or possibly informs him since his face is turned the opposite way—that the reason he must look down is because his former home, the temple, amongst the people, has been smashed and now lies in ruins. It seems as if nothing of external importance has remained. Oswalt comments that, “the repetition of holy in both verses [vv. 10 and 11] is significant, because it reflects in the outer world the problem in the inner one” (630). He offers more insight, “this emphasis on the destroyed temple is of special significance at this point in the lament form. Laments normally close with a vow of praise, which is frequently to be fulfilled in the temple. But here the temple where praises were wont to be given does not even exist!” (631) Unfortunately, the section and passage as a whole, ends on this

Pack 11 same low note. The prophet sums up his frustrations and anxieties in two final questions: “Will you restrain yourself at these things, O Lord?” and “will you keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?” The prophet, again, posits Yahweh as responsible for their afflictions. Yahweh's passivity influences people for good or ill. Will the hopes of the prophet for salvation finally be realized or will Yahweh remain steadfast in his silence and hiddenness? Conclusion Throughout 63:7-64:12, the prophet weaved together elements of lament, complaint, appeal/request, history and praise. In 63:7-14 he recalls the kindness and compassion of Yahweh displayed through its early history, particularly in the powerful miracles performed during the exodus and the crossing at the Red Sea. 63:15-19 functions as the beginning of the lament proper. The prophet asks Yahweh to “look” as he did in the old days. Things are not as they were. Hearts are hard, the sanctuary is ruined and the people live as if perfectly pagan. 64:1-7 works together a hypothetical theophany and the truly undeserving people and their sin. Finally, the prophet ends with an appeal to not remember their sins forever since he is their true Father and so should not remain silent.

Pack 12 Work Cited Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Sixth ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001. Print. Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Third ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. Print. Goldingay, John. Isaiah. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001. Print. Grisanti, Michael A. "(gp." New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Forth ed. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1997. 575-76. Print. Longman III, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Print. Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998. Print.

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