Isaiah 64: Tear the Heavens Open

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READ: Isaiah 64 notes

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Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 64 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 64:4 – From ancient times no one has heard, no one has listened, no eye has seen any God except You, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.

Quick summary:

Isaiah continues His plea for God to act, in language that foreshadows Messiah’s glorious appearance. When Christ returns, the earth will quake, similar to the shaking of Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law. Isaiah’s reference to fire also links these two events (see Ex. 19:18, 24:7; Isa. 2:5 – 4:1; Heb. 12:18-29). Isaiah confesses that the Holy One of Israel cannot tolerate the people’s sins, which have gone on far too long, yet He calls upon the Lord in faith to forgive and restore.

Take note:

Verse 6 is an often-quoted passage that describes the depravity of the human heart and the inability of people to be reconciled to God through their own efforts. Isaiah laments that “all of our righteous acts are like a polluted garment” – literally, like an unclean menstrual cloth. “[A]ll of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind.”

Paul echoes this truth, stringing together a number of Old Testament passages when he writes, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away … there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But the apostle’s point is not to drive us to despair; it is to direct us to Christ, in whose righteousness we are clothed: “Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ – the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).

The Remnant’s Plea (Isa. 64:1-7)

Convinced of their uncleanness before a pure and holy God, the people realize their desperate state and ask the Lord to rend the heavens like a piece of cloth, come down and execute judgment on Judah’s enemies. Fire and boiling water symbolize God’s judgment here, as in other passages of Scripture (see, for example, Jer. 1:13-14; Mal. 4:1). The Lord’s “awesome deeds” in verse 3 likely refer to the fire, darkness and earthquake that accompanied His giving of the law on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16-19; Deut. 4:11-13). This same God – the only true God – acts on behalf of those who trust in Him. “Recalling this, the remnant would ask that God work on their behalf. They would confess their sin, spiritual uncleanness, weakness (like a shriveled leaf), and lack of prayer. However, they would not blame God for their dreadful condition; they would know that their wasting away was because of their sins. Therefore they would have to count on God’s faithfulness and promises” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1119).

Verse 4 states: “From ancient times no one has heard, no one has listened, no eye has seen any God except You, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.” The apostle Paul picks up on this ancient truth in 1 Cor. 2:9 to make the point that while all people may hear God’s Word with their ears, it is only by the Holy Spirit that the heart receives the eternal truths of God’s gracious and mighty deeds, whether they concern Israel, as Isaiah reports, or the gospel, to which Paul refers.

“Why is God not working wonders?” asks Warren Wiersbe. “They have sinned (Isa. 64:5–6) and must confess their sins and turn from them. If our righteousness is filthy, what must our sins look like in His sight! According to verse 4, God has planned for His people wonderful things beyond their imagination; but their sins prevent Him from sharing His blessings. Is there any hope? Yes, because God is a forgiving Father and a patient Potter (Jer. 18). He can cleanse us and make us anew if we will let Him have His way” (Be Comforted, An Old Testament Study, S. Is 64:1).

These verses contain a complete though brief description of the impact of sin on human beings, according to Lawrence O. Richards:

  • First, sin is habit–forming. We continue to sin against God’s ways (v. 5).
  • Second, sin rightly arouses the anger of God and directs it against us (v. 5).
  • Third, sin is defiling, making it impossible for us to approach Him (v. 6).
  • Fourth, sin so corrupts our character that even the best we can do is fouled by base motives (v. 6).
  • Fifth, sin is destructive, shriveling us up from within and creating circumstances that sweep us away (v. 6).
  • Sixth, sin alienates us from God, creating a distaste for the Lord that keeps us from calling on His name (v. 7).
  • Seventh, sin causes God to hide His face from us and to judge us (v. 7).

“In view of all that sin has done to us, it is no wonder Isaiah cries out, ‘How then can we be saved?’ The answer is in verse 8” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 444).

The Potter’s Hand (Isa. 64:8-12)

The final words of the righteous remnant’s prayer express trust in the Lord, who is confessed as Father and Potter and whose will is received with complete submission. The humbled believers are depicted as obedient children and soft clay, entrusting their lives and future to the sovereign hand of the Holy One of Israel. They plead with the Lord to withhold His anger, righteous though it is, and to extend mercy to them as His children. They remind Him that Judah’s cities have been destroyed – possibly the phrase “holy cities” is a reference to upper and lower Jerusalem – and the temple has been burned to the ground. They lament, “… all that was dear to us lies in ruins” (v. 11). Therefore, the people ask the Lord to break His silence and do something about their plight. Their appeal for forgiveness and restoration is based solely on God’s grace.

The people’s lament in verse 11 is double edged. The “holy and beautiful temple” is where “our fathers praised you.” Is Isaiah reminding God of Israel’s glorious past, or confessing that his own generation has fallen so deeply into sin that worship has become cold and mechanical? Perhaps a little of both. Even so, the prophet expresses trust that the Lord will be faithful to His covenant with the people and, after severely chastening them, will restore them and their place of worship. “They interest God in the cause when they plead that it was the house where he had been praised, and put him in mind too of his covenant with their fathers by taking notice of their fathers’ praising him,” notes Matthew Henry. “Observe here how God and his people have their interest twisted and interchanged; when they speak of the cities for their own habitation they call them thy holy cities, for to God they were dedicated; when they speak of the temple wherein God dwelt they call it our beautiful house and its furniture our pleasant things, for they had heartily espoused it and all the interests of it. If thus we interest God in all our concerns by devoting them to his service, and interest ourselves in all his concerns by laying them near our hearts, we may with satisfaction leave both with him, for he will perfect both” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 64:6.

Closing Thought

We are challenged to pray as Isaiah did, with humility, candor, boldness and trust. Matthew Henry writes: “Those that would take hold of God in prayer so as to prevail with him must stir up themselves to do it; all that is within us must be employed in the duty … our thoughts fixed and our affections flaming. In order hereunto all that is within us must be engaged and summoned into the service; we must stir up the gift that is in us by an actual consideration of the importance of the work that is before us and a close application of mind to it; but how can we expect that God should come to us in ways of mercy when there are none that do this, when those that profess to be intercessors are mere triflers?” (S. Is 64:6)