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A Prayer of Hope
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-12

Dennis Bratcher


This passage differs in several important ways from much of the previous material in the book of Isaiah (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). Close examination reveals differences in language, vocabulary, and ideas. The most significant variation is the kind (genre) of literature here.

Most of the book of Isaiah contains various prophetic messages to the people. This is also a  message to the people, but it is written as a prayer (Isa 38:9-20 is also a prayer, but of a different type than here). This kind of "sermon-prayer" occurs in Deuteronomy (3:24ff; 9:26ff). It is especially prominent in Chronicles, which was written about the same time as this third section of Isaiah (1 Chron 29:10ff; 2 Chron 6:4ff).

In the Old Testament era, the people used prayers most often in a ritual or service of worship (liturgy). Priests probably wrote most of the prayers used by the worshippers. Some prayers were intended to be used by individuals, others by the entire community as a whole. Modern Judaism and many Christian churches still use written prayers. The Psalter (Book of Psalms) is largely a collection of these prayers for use in various settings of worship (see Introduction to the Psalms).

While prayers in the Old Testament could have great variety, they followed basic patterns. Specific kinds of prayers that were used in particular circumstances developed a "standard" structure. Our prayers, although not written, follow a basic pattern (address, thanksgiving, petition, closing, see Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms)

This kind of prayer is called a lament (Psa 13, 22). In most prayers that follow a regular form, like laments, the writers use traditional poetic language and symbols (see The Servant of the Lord, comments on Isa 53:2-3). The significance of the prayer does not lie so much in the poetry of the prayer, although it may be beautiful and edifying. Neither is the historical background especially important. The significance lies more in the form itself.

Generally, a lament is a prayer that cries out to God from the midst of desperate grief, pain, or any circumstance that seems out of control. It vocalizes the hurt to God with the conviction, the faith, that God can and will bring relief. A lament is not just the venting of frustration, but is a profound statement of faith in God from the midst of utter human hopelessness. The significance of a lament is that the worshipper prays in the midst of his pain. He believes that God cares about His condition and he has enough faith in God to trust Him with the outcome.

This passage follows the general pattern for community lament Psalms, although it exhibits considerable freedom in composition. The Scripture focus is 64:1-12. The entire prayer is actually 63:7-64:12 and should be studied as a whole. It has four main elements:

1. God's acts of the past as a basis of trust (63:7-14)
2. complaint about present circumstances (63:15-19)
3. confession of sin and petition for God's help (64:1-7)
4. affirmation of trust in God with renewed appeal (64:8-12)

The Text

1. Petition based on God's Past Actions (64:1-5a)

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5a You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.

1. come down is an appeal, in traditional language, for God to act in the world (Psa 144:5). It uses the common imagery of God dwelling in the heavens (or "sky"; note the complaint in 63:15; 2 Sam 22:7-16). Portraying God enthroned above the earth was a poetic means of affirming God's "otherness" from humanity (His holiness), and His majesty as Creator (Psa 29:10-11).

The prayer for God to come down does not imply that the people thought He really lived "out there" somewhere. It did emphasize that the people were experiencing difficulties. They expressed their problems as God being far away, hidden (v.7), silent (v.12) or absent (Psa 22:1).

The view that underlies this prayer is that the people identified God's presence only with the great and awesome things (v.3) that God had done (63:7-14). Without the great supernatural events they were not sure that God was really God. The problem is still with us today. There are many who can only see God's activity in "miracles" or can identify His presence only with unusual events or behavior.

1-2. rend the heavens, mountains . . .tremble, fire, nations These are part of a group of related ideas (including lightning, thunder, clouds, earthquake, etc.) that are the symbolic language of theophany. A theophany (or epiphany) is a poetic way of describing God as actively revealing Himself in the world. This language could refer to a specific event of the past in which God did awesome things (v.3; Sinai, Exod 19:1-18). More often, as here, it appears in petitions asking God to reveal himself anew in the present (Hab 3:3-15; Psa 29).

The poetic language of theophany always portrays cataclysmic upheavals in nature which accompany God's action or "coming." This affirms the might and power of God as Creator and Lord of the earth. The effect of God's actions on the nations is also a common feature.

2. make your name known The word translated know has far more meaning in Hebrew than in English. In can mean simply knowledge or command of information. More often, it refers to a deeper level of understanding and insight. "Know" refers to intimate relationship between persons, usually based on shared experience. To know someone is to understand who they are on the most personal level. This is the biblical term for sexual intimacy between husband and wife (NIV usually translates the word "lay with" as Gen 4:1).

A basic idea that underlies the entire Old Testament is that God may be known by His actions in the world. This view arises primarily from the exodus experience. During the exodus, the Hebrews came into relationship with God, they knew God, because He had acted in history to deliver them from slavery in Egypt (Exod 6:6-7; Deut 4:32-35). His actions revealed who He was.

The Israelites understood that God's actions in the arena of human history were not just God amazing mortals with His power. Neither were they solely aimed at easing the plight of the people, although they did that. God always acted in history to reveal Himself to the world (Ezek 36:22). The Israelites expressed this in terms of "making for Himself a name" (Isa 63:12, 14).

In the culture of the ancient world, names carried more significance than today. A person's name represented an essential part of that person's character. A change of name meant a significant change of disposition (Jacob, "deceiver," to Israel: Gen 32:27). To know a person's name meant to understand something about who the person was (Gen 32:29). God revealed His name, YAHWEH, to the Israelites to establish relationship with them (Exod 3:13-15). In modern Judaism, God is often simply Ha Shem, The Name. The petition here is simply that God will again act to reveal himself to the people.

did awesome things is a standard way of referring to God's actions in history (Psa 106:21-22).

we did not expect The unexpectedness of God's mercy and gracious actions never ceased to amaze and delight the Israelites (Gen 18:9-15). Through long experience, they came to value the wondrous "surprise" of God's grace. Part of the beauty and impact of the narratives of Jesus' birth in the New Testament arises from this marvelous element of surprise at God's new work (especially in Luke).

4. This verse expresses a fundamental affirmation of the Israelites. Their belief in Yahweh, the God of their fathers, grew largely from the uniqueness of the exodus experience as a self revelation of God. The Old Testament emphasizes repeatedly that the Canaanite gods of wood and stone lacked capability of even breathing, let alone acting in history (Hab 2:18-20; Isa 44:8-20)!

those who wait Patient and faithful waiting for God to reveal himself again in the world is an important theme throughout Isaiah (8:17; 25:9; 40: 31, etc.).

5a The first half of this verse adds an important qualification to the idea of "waiting" in the previous verse. God has done, and continues to do, extraordinary things in His world. But, despite what some would have us believe today, God's great acts of revelation in history do not occur every day or even frequently. This is the dimension of "surprise" mentioned above. In fact, much, if not most, of the Bible deals with living in the long gaps between God's revelations of Himself.

Throughout history, God's people have spent most of their time waiting. It is an expectant waiting, anticipating God's new activity to bring justice, deliverance and the kingdom of God to the world (Psa 25, 37, 130; Rom 8:18-25). But it is not a waiting that only has the future in view. Neither is it an idle, self-centered waiting, as seen in those who sell everything they have and then sit on a mountain waiting for God to come.

Biblical waiting is an active waiting that focuses on being God's people in this world (Hos 12:1-6; James 5:1-9, 4:1-12). That kind of waiting involves a lifestyle both of faithfulness to God (who remember your ways) and of proper relationship with other people (who gladly do right). Both dimensions have been important throughout the book of Isaiah. The future hope is there. Yet the focus falls clearly on being God's people in the present world.

2. Confession of Sin (5b-7)

5b But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? 6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7 No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.

5b. The meaning of this half of the verse is uncertain because of textual corruption in the Hebrew manuscripts. A comparison of different translations reveals the problems this causes. For example, where the NIV translates the last phrase as a question, the NEB reads "in spite of it we have done evil from of old." The RSV has a footnote on this verse: "Hebrew obscure."

It is best not to draw important conclusions from verses that are not clear in the original language. We must keep in mind that in such cases, the English translations are, at best, educated guesses. Whatever the exact wording, the writer is shifting to a prayer of confession of sin. Since this lament is a "sermon-prayer," the confession also serves as an accusation against the people.

6. all of us and no one (v.7) do not refer to individuals. This is a confession for the community as a whole (59:4).

unclean usually described ceremonial contamination. This included actions or contact with a variety of objects that rendered a person (or thing) unable to participate in religious services of worship (Lev 11-15). The term also could figuratively describe sin and its resulting guilt as contaminating a person (Isa 6:5-7). This rendered a person unacceptable to God. Even righteous acts would be repulsive (filthy rags) to God if the person were "unclean" (Isa 1:12-15).

Unclean is the opposite of "holy" (Lev 10:10-11). The unclean are not fit for association with God while the "holy" are set apart for special service to God. God's people were to be a "holy people" (Lev 19:2). Calling them unclean was a severe reproach.

6-7. shrivel up, sweep us away, waste away These are all poetic images of the lack of vitality of the community.

7. The lack of God's revelatory actions in the world (you have hidden your face) had led the people into spiritual indifference (no one calls on your name). They have simply given up believing and hoping in God (Mal 2:17; note 1 Peter 3:4).

Throughout Isaiah 40-66, a central theme has been an appeal for continued faith and hope in God even when the people do not immediately experience His deliverance or witness His presence (Isa 49:23-26; Hab 3:17-19). The exilic prophets had consistently maintained that God was at work in the very events that the people experienced as harmful. Perhaps we should not so quickly judge events good (God present) or bad (God absent) based only on how they affect us personally (Gen 50:20). There is a subtle warning here not to tie faith in God too closely to what we can witness him doing in the world (Heb 11:1)!

3. Affirmation of Trust in God and Renewed Petition (64:8-12)

8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.

10 Your sacred cities have become a desert; even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins. 12 After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

8. Yet (Heb: "but now") The central feature in most lament psalms is a shift toward trust that begins with a strong "but now" or "but as for me" (Psa 13:5). This marks the turn from looking at the adverse circumstances to trust in God.

Father The writer combines two familiar affirmations about God and His relationship with His people. The image of God as Father is a powerful expression of God's care and responsibility in the world, although because of its associations with Ba'al worship it is rare in the Old Testament (Isa 63:16; see Commentary on Hos 11:1-11). The confession of dependence on God in the metaphor of clay and potter is familiar from Jeremiah (18:6; Isa 45:9; note Rom 9:21).

9. beyond measure could also be translated "exceedingly" (RSV) or "excessively."

your people An important expression of the covenantal relationship between God and His people is: "I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Exod 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 25:27. Hosea had warned that if the Israelites continued to sin and violate the covenant, God would reject them from being His people (Hos 1:8; see Commentary on Hos 1:2-10). That is exactly how Jeremiah interpreted the exile; God had rejected the people because of their sin (Jer 11:1-17).

The entire second and third sections of Isaiah (chs. 40-66) address this very problem. Were they still God's people or would God's rejection be permanent (see Isaiah 40:1-15)?  The prayer of lament here turns to a confession of sin. Isaiah 59 concluded that God had not acted because of the people's sins). The emphasis here is clearly on the appeal for God to act based on the people's repentance.

10-11. The adverse circumstances during the exilic and post exilic period are evidently the background of this prayer (see the historical background sections in The Turn Toward Hope and Where Is God?; see also The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah).

12. This is no demand. It is a humble plea for God to act simply stated as a question. All this is plural in Hebrew and could be translated "these things" probably referring to the destruction just mentioned. The word translated after also can mean "because" or "on the basis of." The appeal is for mercy from God because judgment has already fallen (Isa 40:2).

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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