Isaiah (Part 82): God’s Response: Condemnation and Restoration - Part 1 (Ch 65-66)

09/27/2013 07:55


Isaiah 64, especially verses 1 through 7, are a wistful reflection for what could have happened had God intervened. Most translations do a poor job in the English version of verse 1. It is not a hopeful plea that if only God “would tear the heavens open and come down.” Rather, the Hebrew particle requires a past reference. Therefore, the statement should read, “If only You had torn the heavens open and had come down.” The speaker is shaking his head in sorrow, thinking of what could have been. But the speaker realizes (shown in verses 4-7) that the failure of God’s people is the cause of their devastation.

And yet…God remains their Father. This passage if of ultimate significance. Prior to this, all hope seems dashed. They have sinned. God has moved away. The world is trampling in. But then…the realization dawns (surely by God’s enlightening hand)—God still is Father; a relationship of love still exists! God is Father; God is Potter; God is Artisan. These three images are meant to show love, sovereignty, and care. How faulty the Calvinist approach to Romans 9 when Paul quotes this passage! All the strict Calvinist sees is sovereignty, and thus misinterprets Romans 9 as a justification by God for his capricious, limited choice. But if Paul, under Holy Spirit guidance is quoting from Isaiah 64, surely he intends to communicate not only sovereignty but also the love and care found in the image. God’s choice must be—has to be for relationship—not mere salvation for salvation’s sake. Here in Isaiah we realize the heart of God in his restorative plan.

Finally, verses 9 through 12 again emphasize Zion—God’s purpose in relationship. The plea is to God for action but not merely for the sake of individual salvation. The plea is for God’s purpose—Zion!—to be realized. 

In chapters 65 and 66 we see the response of God to the cry from chapters 63 and 64. And the response is, as we have seen it all the way through the book, one of both condemnation and restoration. These last two chapters are organized in chiastic fashion.

A – They seek him who had not enquired of him (65:1)

B    – They are a rebellious people (idolatry) (65:2-7)

C       – They include a remnant (65:8-10)

D          – They serve and rebel (65:11-16)

E             – They are restored (65:17-66:2)

D1         – They worship and rebel (66:2b-4)

C1      – They have tremblers at his word (66:5-14a)

B1    – They are his enemies (idolatry) (66:14b-17)

A1 – They did not hear of his fame or glory (66:18-24)

Verse 1 of chapter 65 is fairly cryptic. We will return to that. But in verse 2 we read that God has spread out his hands all day long to this rebellious people. In the immediate context of this prophecy, God clearly refers to the Jews. They are his covenant people, and God has urged them through demonstration of his care and declaration of his intent through his prophets his call and desire for them. Therefore, we can understand in the structure of the chiasm that the building sections of A through D refer to the Jews. Looking to the A1 section of chapter 66 verses 18-24, we read of God gathering the nations. Thus, in the structure of the chiasm, sections A1 through D1 refer to the nations. The Jews of the first sections match up with the nations of the last sections to meet in the middle point E as God’s people who are restored. Thus, reviewing the chiasm again with this understanding, we see the following:

A – The Jews seek him who had not enquired of him (65:1)

B    – The Jews are a rebellious people (idolatry) (65:2-7)

C       – The Jews include a remnant (65:8-10)

D          – The Jews serve and rebel (65:11-16)

E             – God’s people are restored (65:17-66:2)

D1         – The nations worship and rebel (66:2b-4)

C1      – The nations have tremblers at his word (66:5-14a)

B1    – The nations are his enemies (idolatry) (66:14b-17)

A1 – The nations did not hear of his fame or glory (66:18-24)

This chiasm brings together both aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy. There had always been an immediate context of fulfillment for the Jews: the captivity was the Jews’ captivity in Babylon; the Servant Rescuer was Cyrus; the restored land was a return to their physical homeland; in the return they rebuilt the physical temple in which to meet and worship God. But in the ultimate fulfillment, God had the nations—the whole of his created image bearers—in mind: the captivity was our captivity to sin and death; the Servant Rescuer is Jesus Christ; the restored land is our secure home with God; in our return to God, Jesus has rebuilt the temple (himself and us with him) in which to meet with and worship God. So the chiasm shows us that those of faith from both those streams—Jews and nations—are God’s people restored.

We will look at each of these chiastic elements, following the order of ideas—that is, we will start with A and then examine the corresponding idea of A1 before moving to B and then to B1, and so on.

A – The Jews seek him who had not enquired of him (65:1)

Isaiah 65:1 is a difficult verse whose interpretation has led to a couple of totally opposite views. About whom is God speaking? Some commentators answer the Jews. Others answer the nations. The first couple of lines seem to indicate the nations of the world. The HCSB translates the first phrase, “I was sought by those who did not ask.” Those who did not ask were the Gentiles, right? They are the ones who had not asked or turned their attention to God. But as God through Christ carries his revelation to them, they come to him. So whereas at one time they had not asked after him, now they seek him. That seems to make sense, but I think it has a couple points against it.

The literal Hebrew says: I-am-inquired to-not they-asked. So then a good dynamic equivalent would render that as follows: I am asked by those who had previously not asked of me. This may seem to fit with the theory that the subject is the nations. But this idea strips the verse from its context. The whole previous chapter and a half presented the Jews asking after God. Isaiah 65:1 is the first verse of God’s response. Why then should we ignore the context of the Jews seeking an answer from God when God begins the verse talking of people seeking him?

Could 65:1 then be speaking of the Jews instead of the Gentile nations? I think so. God had been calling out to the Jews as we read in Isaiah and as we know from the rest of the Old Testament. But the Jews had been stubbornly seeking their own way and not seeking God. In Isaiah 63b-64, the Jews realize the mess they are in—in captivity in Babylon—and so now finally they turn to God to ask for help. So God’s response in 65:1 is to say (almost sarcastically): “So, I am now being asked by those (the Jews) who had previously not asked of me. I was right there present with them, back when they were not seeking me. I had said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to these people who did not care to make themselves known as a people who belonged to me.”

So this verse introduces the response of God in chapter 65 that concentrates on the Jews.

A1 – The nations did not hear of his fame or glory (66:18-24)

At the other end of the chiasm, the address is more clearly being made to the Gentile nations. In 66:18 God says, “I have come to gather all nations and languages.” In verse 23, we read, “All mankind will come to worship Me.” Therefore, we know that the second half of the chiasm—the part that trails from the middle focal point—is speaking of the nations.

Verse 18 is impressive. The Jews certainly had their faults, but none of the Gentile nations cared anything about living for God. And God knew it. Yet, still he reaches out to them.

Verse 19 emphasizes the call to all the earth. We recognize in the list the city of Tarshish, a city most biblical historians believe was located in modern-day Spain. The Bible mentions Tarshish whenever it intends to direct our thoughts to one of the farthest locations away from Jerusalem. The verse also speaks of islands—again, places that are far off and isolated.

Notice then that from these ends of the earth, God is going to bring “brothers” to the Jews. God is showing that the Gentiles gathered will be on equal covenant footing with the Jews. They will be as “clean” vessels, some becoming priests and Levites. The priests and Levites reference is not that Gentiles will literally be priests and Levites. The picture is that the lines of demarcation are totally withdrawn.

Verse 22 speaks of the new heavens and the new earth as the enduring quality of God’s protection and provision. But notice he extends it to “your” offspring, saying that “your” name will endure. Who is the “you” of these verses? In this whole section from verse 18 on, God has been referring to the Gentiles in the third person (“they” and “them”) while speaking to the Jews in second person (“you”). So while this section does focus on the Gentiles coming into equal covenant relationship, God is not abandoning the Jews. They, according to verse 22, will endure as well. The thought is exactly the same as Paul’s in Romans 11. There Paul speaks of a partial hardening to Israel until the full number of Gentiles has come in. But in that way all Israel will be saved. Paul’s point was not that God was abandoning the Jews, but that he was adding the Gentiles into covenant relationship. The Jews of faith would continue as well. This is the point of Isaiah 66:22 as well.

We can see how this point neatly bookends the entire book of Isaiah. In chapter 1 verse 2, there is a call to the heavens and earth concerning the children of God that have rebelled. In 66:22 there is a final appeal to the new heavens and the new earth that God will hold his children of faith forever.