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Isaiah 64:1-9

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Lesson Focus:  In our brokenness we long for our king to come to reshape our world and us, too.  

Catch up on the story:  For some time, Israel has been under great political and social distress.  This passage in Isaiah probably occurs between 538 and 515 B.C.E. (Achtemeier, 16). There is some evidence to support the fact that this passage occurs sometime during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which places it squarely toward the end of Israel’s exile.  Accordingly, the capital city of Jerusalem is in shambles, as is the Temple and any semblance of ordered worship.  

The writings that make up Isaiah are varied in time period, form and style. Isaiah 64:1-9 finds itself in the middle of a communal lament, which begins in 63:7. The lament begins with a priestly/prophetic figure recounting the glorious deeds of God, but quickly turns toward the stiff-necked rebellion of God’s children. Yet, even in the midst of the people’s rebellion, God is merciful and continues to lead them. 63:15 marks a turn in the lament toward a request for God to intervene in more concrete ways in Israel’s distress, which will pick up steam as our passage begins in chapter 64.

It should be noted, at this point, that there is a chorus of voices represented in this scene. Represented are those who are concerned for all people now living in Israel, those who are concerned for the salvation of all of the twelve tribes of Israel, those who are concerned with just the Temple and its state of disrepair, those who believe they are the true and only descendants of Abraham and are thus the special recipients of God’s favor, and finally, those who are specifically concerned with Israel’s political and military future and standing. At the end, however, Isaiah’s concern will be that God act for all of God’s people (Watts, 308).

The Text: Chapter 64 opens with Isaiah’s calling for God to definitively act within Israel’s desperate situation.  Whereas verse 15 of chapter 63 calls God to only look on Israel’s situation, they now long for God to tear open the heavens and descend to be in their midst.  The language of the opening verse highlights the sense of hopeful yet angst-ridden longing that fills the hearts of the people.  Life is rough and now they hope that God will act.  

The imagery is meant to remind us of the previous ways in which God has broken into human existence and worked for its good and its direction, as when God appeared to Israel at Mt. Sinai. God’s manifestation to his people in these theophanies is often dangerous to those involved and has seismic repercussions. The hope is that God will once again make himself known, not just to Israel, but to Israel’s adversaries, too.

You will notice the proliferation of the second person singular, “you.” This “you” is none other than God himself. As the passage moves forward the emphasis placed on God’s action becomes very apparent. What is needed is God to break through, like God has done in the past, doing deeds of might and power that Israel did not expect (verse 3). It is only God who can save. It will only be through the mighty acts of God that Israel will have space to live. Israel longs for God to do what God has done in the past.

Verse 5 marks a transition in the passage from a cry for help to a confession of sin. The confession begins by stating the obvious: God’s presence is available for those who remember God’s ways and do right. But, Israel confesses, they have sinned and have not had the privilege of God’s constant companionship. The NRSV translates the second half of verse 5 as, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” It might seem, at first glance, that Israel’s confession is backhanded, blaming God for her sins. This is not the case. Israel, at this point, on the other side of exile, is fully aware of its infidelities. The prophet is confessing the sin of the people, and as the people sinned, God withdrew his presence. In the absence of God’s loving presence the people sinned even more, relying on anything other than God for help. The prophet speaks of the truth that we often experience: we sin and then our relationship with God begins to fade. The more our closeness to God fades, the more we sin. It can be a vicious cycle.

The NRSV, however, leaves off what the RSV translates, “in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” This question seems to be the center of the passage. It is a question of hope and hopelessness, of confession and longing for redemption. Not only has Israel sinned, causing a great rift between God and people, but also they have been at it for a long time! They are thoroughly and completely steeped in their own filth. In verse 6 the confession continues with the plural language. Israel is unclean. Israel is unclean because of her failure to set right the injustices in their land. They are unclean because they have not cared for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the outcast and the stranger in their lands. They are unclean because they have trusted in everyone and everything other than God! Their uncleanliness makes all of their righteous deeds, the good things they were supposed to do, like filthy cloths. Literally, “filthy cloth” is a cloth used by women during menstruation. Any discharge of blood would have made the Israelites ceremonially unclean. Without demeaning the normal physical cycles of women, this type of uncleanliness, for Israel, was some of the worst sort. What is not to be missed is the seriousness with which Israel views her uncleanliness. This is serious stuff, and Israel feels as if she has nowhere to go.

Indeed, the prophet goes on to wallow in Israel’s worthlessness a little longer. They are like leaves, which are blown away by the wind of their sin and iniquity. Here the very real consequences of Israel’s unfaithfulness come to the forefront. They have no one else to blame but their own sinfulness. At the same time, however, they acknowledge that their sinfulness has caused God to hide his face from them. God has given them over to their sins and iniquities and therefore they have no strength or even right to call on the name of God. Without some intervention by the hand of God, Israel’s existence will be in the hands of the political powers of the day, powers who care nothing for her or her place as God’s chosen people.

The deep longing and sorrow of verses 1-7 are not the end of the story. The “yet” of verse 8 proves to be a turning point toward a great hope that God will act on Israel’s behalf as he has done before. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father…” The emphasis on the divine action located in the divine “you” of verses 1-5 are met with the communal confessions located in the human “we” of the second half of verse 5-7 are combined. Israel confesses and seeks to remind God that he is their Father. The powerful “you,” God, is the one who created and has sustained the “we.” Indeed, there cannot be a “we” without the divine “you.”

This sentiment is carried through the next few verses. Israel confesses that it is like clay, needing to be shaped, (or rather, reshaped!), into something useful. The only one that can do the shaping is the potter. The cry is issued for God to remember that it was he who crafted Israel into the people of God, the work of his good and strong hands. Israel, in her conflicted and multi-vocal state, reminds God that all of us are the work of God’s hands.

So What? Our journey toward Advent has led us to an encounter with several passages from Matthew’s Gospel that have called us to be prepared for the coming of Jesus.  The focus of those passages have been eschatological, or having to do with Jesus’ second coming.  As we enter into Advent we are called again, in a new way, to ensure that we are prepared for Christ’s coming.  Only, during this time of the year, we focus not only on Jesus’ second coming, but on his first coming.  It seems that the need for being properly prepared for Jesus’ first coming is about as important as the need to be prepared for Jesus’ second coming.  

This passage from Isaiah 64 can be read both ways, one with an eye toward Christ’s birth at Christmas, and one with an eye toward Jesus’ second coming. What I think this passage highlights is a pattern that we often experience personally, during times of failure and unfaithfulness, and communally, during times of crisis or disaster.

Personally, when we have sinned or been unfaithful in our relationship with God and others, we experience this profound sense of hopelessness and loneliness. We begin to experience the crushing natural consequences of our sin and iniquity and it leads us to despair. Then, the Holy Spirit reminds us of who we are and how we should be. We engage in lament, calling on God to act definitively in our broken situation. Even though our situation is of our own making, we desire to see God break forth in our lives in such a way that would dispel the darkness and throwback our adversaries. We remember God’s mighty deeds in the past and ask that he would work so again. In the end, we remember that our only chance for survival is God’s action, even though we have been in our sin a long time. We question if even we can be saved. Then, we are urged to remind God that we would not exist if not for his creative hand. We do this not so much because God needs to be reminded, but because this is the pattern for Israel’s (and ours!) movement toward confession and restoration. Finally, we must wait, wait for God to act.

Communally, we move through the same pattern when we are confronted with some great tragedy or corporate sin. Our brokenness leads us to despair and long for God to intervene in a powerful way. We confess our sin. We recognize the transient nature of life, how we fade like grass and leaves. But then we remember, and remind God that he has called us to be the people of God, the church, his hands and feet. We remind God that he has brought us together for a purpose, to do his will and work in our very broken world. Finally, we must wait, wait for God to act.

God is calling us to be prepared for his coming, both now at Christmas and in the future when he comes again. Our preparedness, however, cannot be full and final unless we remember that we need to be made whole again. So, as we begin this journey toward Christmas, let us, as a community, lament our brokenness, confess how are sinfulness jeopardizes our very existence and then call on our Father in heaven to remember us, the people he has shaped with his own hand.

For, at the end of the day, our preparedness depends on God’s divine hand shaping and reshaping us into his image. At times it feels as if we have been in our sins a long time, neither hearing God’s voice nor seeing God work in our lives or the lives of those around us. Isaiah reminds us that God will not leave us in our brokenness and sin, but will come, and come again so that we might once again be the people God has called us to be. May we allow God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to shape and reshape us so that we are fully prepared for our coming king.

Critical Discussion Questions:

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  2. God, in this text, is absent.  Because of the sins of the people God has withdrawn his presence from Israel.  God is absent because the people have chosen repeatedly to trust in anything other than God.  There comes a point when God gives us over to what we want, even when what we want is not him.

  3. Israel, for her part, believes that the character of God is such that God will not totally leave Israel to fend for herself.  This leads to a latent hope that God will break forth into Israel’s desperate situation.  God will work, but first we must wait. 

  4. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  5. Our salvation and our being made holy are contingent on our recognition that we have been in our sin a long time and that we have no ability to remove our selves from it. Any movement toward Christ-likeness begins with us realizing that we are not God, and as such, cannot save ourselves.

  6. We also must wait with hope and longing to be shaped and reshaped by the hand of God. This is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting in which we seek to attend to the means of grace. We worship and serve together. We fellowship together. We receive the Lord’s Supper together. Through these things we begin to prepare our hearts for the Spirit’s transforming work in us.

  7. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  8. As we approach Christmas we are called to examine our own place in relation to our coming king. We are called to confess that unless God breaks forth into our reality, we cannot live.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Recount a time when it felt as if God was very far away. What were your thoughts and feelings as you longed for God to make himself known in that situation?

  2. In the context of our community of faith, what might it look like for God to “tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence?” (Verse 1)

  3. As a group, spend some time recounting the awesome deeds that God has done. How, specifically, has God worked in our community of faith in the past?

  4. From what kind of situations have you wondered if you could be saved?

  5. Verse 8 declares that God is our Father, the potter who has shaped us. What are some of the concrete ways in which God has shaped us as a community of faith?

  6. What does it mean to be the work of God’s hands here in our local community?

  7. How does this passage help us be prepared for Christ’s coming at Christmas?

Works Cited:  Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier, The Community and Message of Isaiah 56-66: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982).

John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 25, Isaiah 34-66, (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987).


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