Desperate needs call for desperate prayer. This is true for us today, but it was also true for the people of Judah 2,700 years ago. Isaiah chapter 64 shows us the desperate prayers of Judah, begging God to step in and save them from ruin and the wrath of the enemy. The following blog comes directly from my forthcoming commentary on the Book of Isaiah.

Pfeiffer observes, “Isaiah represents the people of Israel as entreating Jehovah to intervene in the world scene and enforce the claims of his holiness and sovereignty.”[1]  Isaiah offers up four kinds of prayers.

The prayer for a powerful descent (vv. 1-2)

Isaiah’s passionate prayer is for God to come down to shake mountains (Exod. 19:18), ignite fires,[2] boil water, and make His name known to those who oppose Him (cf. Ezek. 36:23; 38:16, 23; 39:6-23).  This world is going to think very differently about God when Christ brings God’s kingdom to this world.  Smith explains, “One thing is certain: if God had only appeared in all his glory and power as he had in the past, things would be totally different now.”[3]

The prayer for a second Exodus (vv. 3-4)

Isaiah again uses second Exodus imagery to describe the future salvation of Israel.  After 400 years of life in Egypt, everyone was surprised when God came down to save His people from slavery with “awesome” deeds that made the mountains quake (v. 3; cf. Exod. 15:11; 34:10; Deut. 10:21; 2 Sam. 7:23; Ps. 106:22).  These are the kinds of awesome deeds that the world does not understand.  For this reason, Isaiah says, “For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him” (v. 4; cf. 1 Cor. 2:9).  Smith notes that the main point is that Israel can trust the Lord since He showed Himself faithful in the past (Hab. 3:3-7; Hag. 2:6, 22; Heb. 12:18-20).  Smith writes,

When God revealed himself through the plagues in Egypt and by dividing the Red Sea, his action also proved that he can be trusted to assist his people. Thus, from experience the Israelites know that God is one who acts on behalf of those who trustingly wait for him.[4]

The prayer for God to forgive past sins (vv. 5-7)

Salvation is there to be had, but it cannot happen until Israel repents and finds restoration by the redeeming grace of the Servant (59:1-2).  Isaiah shows us three key principles in obtaining forgiveness and restoration.

Forgiveness is for those rejoice in God’s truth (v. 5a)

To put it quite simply, sinners reject the ways of God because they love the ways of sin (John 3:19-21).  On the other hand, says Isaiah, “You meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness, who remembers You in Your ways” (v. 5a).  God will come and meet the one who turns to Him.

Forgiveness is for those who confess their sins (vv. 5b-6)

Isaiah further describes the person who obtains forgiveness as the one who recognizes and confesses his sin. 

Israel needs to see its sin (v. 5b).  Thus, on behalf of the nation Isaiah declares, “Behold, You were angry, for we sinned, we continued in them a long time; and shall we be saved” (v. 5b; cf. 5:25; 9:12, 17, 19, 21; 10:4, 25; 12:1)?  Without confession of sin, there can be no forgiveness.  Thankfully, the day is coming for Israel when this is what they will do.

Israel needs to see its sin for what it really is (v. 6).  It is not enough for sinners to simply know they are imperfect people.  Sinners also need to see sin for what it really is, a horrible offense against a holy God.  For this reason, Isaiah describes the sin of the nation in these words: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment, and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

These powerful words call for additional comment.  For Isaiah to say that they have all become unclean (tame’; cf. 6:5), not just a few, but “all of us” (kullanu; cf. 53:6; Lev. 13:45), is to recognize that their sin has made them ceremonially impure and unacceptable to God.  TWOT explains,

Animals and foods were considered clean or unclean by their nature. Persons and objects could become ritually unclean. Personal uncleanness could be incurred through birth, menstruation, bodily emissions, “leprosy,” sexual relations and misdeeds and contact with death. Priests and levites were especially concerned with the issues of cleanness and uncleanness.  The greatest uncleanness was idolatry which defiled the temple and the land. The prophets, in denouncing moral uncleanness, used ritual uncleanness as a metaphor for the wickedness which only God can cleanse.[5]

A second graphic description of their sin takes it a step further when Isaiah says, “and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”  Wolf holds that Isaiah may be comparing the righteousness of the nation “to the menstrual cloths used by a woman during her period, a time when she was ceremonially unclean” (cf. Ezek. 36:17).[6]  Furthermore, says Isaiah, “all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  There is no life or spiritual power (cf. 1:30; 17:13; 28:1; 40:24).

Forgiveness is for those who call on the Lord for grace (v. 7)

Lastly, Isaiah emphasizes the need to turn to the Lord, i.e., to call on the name of the Lord (Jer. 33:3; Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13).  Israel needed to ask God for mercy, but sadly no one wanted to do so.  Thus, says Isaiah, “There is no one who calls on Your name, who arouses himself to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us into the power of our iniquities.”

The prayer for God to act according to His fatherhood (vv. 8-12)

Knowing that the situation is hopeless from a human perspective, Isaiah does the only thing one can:  he turns to the Lord to ask for mercy.

A prayer for God to remember His fatherhood (v. 8)

Isaiah reminds God of the unique relationship He has with Israel.  Israel alone has this Father/son relationship with God (Isa. 63:16; cf. Exod. 4:22-23; Deut. 4:32-37; 7:6; Amos 3:2), so Isaiah pleads with God to remember and take action, for Israel is the work of His hands (43:7; 60:21).

A prayer for God to relent of His anger (v. 9a)

Because of this special relationship, Isaiah pleads with God to relent of the anger that brought them into exile:  “Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever.”  God’s anger was upon them, but Isaiah’s prayer is that God would be quick to relent (43:25; 54:8).

A prayer for God to take pity on the ravaged nation (vv. 9b-12)

Because the situation was hopeless at a human level, Isaiah again appeals to the special covenant relationship God had with the nation:  “Behold, look now, all of us are Your people” (v. 9b; cf. 63:16).  Because they are His people and known by His name, Isaiah makes two special pleas.

First plea:  A plea based on the desolate cities (v. 10).  Isaiah brings to the mind of Yahweh that all of His cities, especially Zion, have become desolate ruins, a wilderness (midbar) and a desolation (shemamah).[7]  God’s name was profaned (Ezek. 36:20), and Zion had become a spiritual wasteland (Isa. 1:7-9; 6:11; cf. Jer. 12:11).

Second plea:  A plea based on the desolate temple (vv. 11-12).  Isaiah makes a special plea based on the desolation of God’s glorious temple, the house of God that later got burned to the ground with all of its precious things (v. 11).  Isaiah wrote these prophetic words sometime early in the seventh-century B.C., and within 100 years they all came to fulfillment in 586 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 25:8-17).  Humanly speaking the situation was hopeless, so Isaiah’s appeal is to the faithful character of God:  “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Lord [cf. 42:14; 63:15]?[8]  Will You keep silent and afflict us beyond measure” (v. 12)?  Israel needed mercy, so Isaiah casts himself on the mercy of God.  As Oswalt puts it,

The only question is whether God’s pity for the condition of His children and His concern for His name, which is inextricably linked with Israel, might prompt Him to intervene in the hearts and lives of His people, doing in them what they cannot do for themselves.[9]

Summary and application Israel was in a desperate situation and the only hope was God’s undeserved grace.  This is the desperate situation that faces every man.  The Apostle Paul reminds us that undeserved grace is exactly what God has given us in the cross of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26).  Jesus paid the price of restoration by giving His own life to take the punishment that each one of us deserves.  God’s promise is that He will freely give it if we believe.

[1] Pfeiffer, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary:  Old Testament, Is 64:1.

[2] Fire is frequently seen in association with the presence of God (Gen. 3:21; Exod. 3:1; Isa. 4:5; 6:6; 9:5; 10:16; 29:6; 30:27, 30; 31:9; 33:12, 14; 66:15, 16, 24).

[3] Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 686.

[4] Ibid., 687.

[5] Edwin Yamauchi, “tm’,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, cited in electronic form with Logos Libronix (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 349.

[6] Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah, 246.

[7] Jesus declared that this desolation would be perpetuated because of their rejection of Him (Matt. 23:37).

[8] This verb (Hithpael of ’aphaq; cf. Gen. 43:31; 45:1; Esth. 5:10; Isa. 42:14; 64:11) is used in Genesis to show how Joseph could no longer restrain his emotions.

[9] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah:  Chapters40-66, 631.

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