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Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah 64:1-9
Background to the Book of Isaiah

The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah, after a period of neglect by scholars, are now the focus of renewed interest. B.Duhm in 1892 first focused attention of Old Testament commentators on Isa 56-66 when he proposed that these chapters were written by a different hand and at a different time from the material in Isaiah 40-55. Duhm believed that the author of Isa 56-66 had two emphases which were very important: Sabbath worship and fasting.

Isa 56-66 contains radical proposals for an inclusive community based on faithfulness rather than on blood line. The composition of the community described in Isa 56-66 has changed from that previously accepted in the Hebrew Scriptures. We note two important differences: foreigners and eunuchs are included in the worshipping community; and the nation of Israel no longer can regard itself automatically as the ' chosen people'. Instead, inclusion as part of God's chosen people is dependent on a person's faithfulness and response to Yahweh rather than on biological descent.

Isa 56-66 has been used as the basis for a number of discussions on the genesis of certain groups within Judaism: for example, Pharisees, Samaritans, a Levitical Prophetic group and others. One notable scholar who explores the issue of diverse groups/parties within post-exilic Judah is Hanson. However, a secondary issue evolved in which Hanson uses Isa 56-66 to prove a conflict between two parties, one of which is epitomised in chapters 56-66. This proclamation may confront the exclusive theology expounded in Ezek 40-48 and Nehemiah. Whether this is the precise historical setting of the reader or not, Isa 56-66 is constructed to defend an inclusive group against the actions of those who want a 'pure' Israelite community. This does not necessarily imply that there is a cohesive unity in Isa 56-66, but that the author has used different genres from various periods and allowed them to stand side by side. We take seriously the final literary form, without denying that the material may have come from many different sources and historical situations.

The creation of the book probably took place around the time of Ezra/Nehemiah (400 BCE).

Literary Comments: xThe whole book of Isaiah has been divided up into three main sections which appear to reflect preaching from different historical periods. Chapters 1-39 are often referred to as the prophecies from Isaiah of Jerusalem and cover the periods shown in the table in last week's background Section. Chapters 40-55 speak to the exiles, offering forgiveness and a strong encouragement to move back to Jerusalem. It contains some of the most beautiful language and a comprehensive theology of God as creator and redeemer. The remaining chapters 56-66 speak to a later post-exilic situation addressing quite different concerns to those expressed in Isa 40-55.

A literary Structure which is quite helpful is that first proposed by N.K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Litery Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

56:1-8 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners
       56:9-57:13 - Indictment of wicked leaders
                  57:14-21 - Salvation for the people
                      58:1-4 - Indictment of corrupt  worship
                             58:1-15a - Lament/confession over sins
                                    59:15b-20 - Theophany judge/redemption

                                                                       60-62  - Fully redeemed people

                                    63:1-6 - Theophany judge/redemption
                              63:7-64:12 - Lament/confession over sins
                        65:1-16 - Indictment of corrupt worship
                 65:17-25 - Salvation for the people
           66:1-6 - Indictment of wicked leaders
66:7-24 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners

Context of Isa 64:1-9
We have commented previously that Isa 60-62 is the centre of Isa 56-66 and speaks of a fully redeemed people back in Jerusalem. The emphasis in Isa 60-62 is on the consequences of God choosing to let his glory rest on Jerusalem. Surrounding these central chapters are verses describing appearances of God proclaiming judgement. The shock as one moves into Isa 63 is quite profound, as we read the strong statement of judgement based on the statement that there was no-one to help: the people had all abandoned their God. The cry of God in vv.1-6 is that there was no-one who was being faithful to God. The description of God who can be angry and vengeful is not a pleasant one, and we need to remember this is a world view prior to the advent of Christ. On the other hand we have the incredible picture of God which is the complete opposite in Isa 63:7-9, which reminds the people of how Yahweh had redeemed them and cared for them. But the people had rebelled in spite of knowing God as the rescuer and leader in the wilderness (63:10-15). They even wanted to blame God for their apostasy and refused to take responsibility for their behaviour (63:15-19). God answers the people's lament of Isa 64 in Isa 65 by pointing that he/she was always available, constantly reaching out to them. The description of why the people had failed to respond to this outreach from God is because of their unfaithfulness and participation in horrendous acts such as eating swine's flesh. Here it appears as though the Israelites are eating swine's flesh quite voluntarily which makes it much worse that when the Greeks forced the Jews to eat swine's flesh in 167 BCE. It was just such an act that provoked the rebellion of Mattathias against the Greeks.
Insights/Message of Isa 64:1-9
Literary:Some scholars include the lectionary reading in a section that begins at 63:7-64:12 (Heb: 64:11.Oswalt: 600, Hanson:235) or a section that begins at 63:15 - 64:12 (Westermann: 390). We will work with the latter. Isa 63:15-19 is a plea to God reminding God that he is parent and suggesting that God was the one who made them sin (vv.17) which resulted in a temporary stay in Jerusalem before it was destroyed(vv.18-19). The ideas raised in 63:15-19 become the basis for further expansion and reiteration in Isa 64:1 ff: a cry to the Lord in second person singular (64:1-5a) and confession in first person plural (vv.5b-12). The whole section is often referred to as a lamentation. A call to God to come down and intervene (v.15), the acknowledgement of God as parent and redeemer (v.16), the suggestion that God is to blame (v.17) and the final verses speak of the loss of the temple. Isa 64:1-4 bring up images of God at Sinai with mountains and fire which are all metaphors for God's presence. The change from this plea for God to appear, to confession of their sins in v.5b is quite abrupt. Some of the phraseology is reminiscent of Isa 40:7-8 (Seitz: 528). Isa 64:1-2 is one continuous sentence which in the Hebrew is quite disjointed and full of dislocations. Whether this is due to scribal error or is intended to demonstrate the emotional agititation of the writer/speaker is unclear (Oswalt:621). Vv.6-7 are both lament and complaint. The lament is acknowledging their sins, however, the people still want to make God the problem - God hid God's face and allowed them to sin (64:7b). There is an appeal to God based on the fact that as Creator they were formed by God as a potter forms the clay and as parent (v.8). Therefore, they ask God not to be so angry as appears by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Indeed, their plea seeks God to refrain from continued anger and affliction. We note that this is the only psalm in which the phrase, "O Lord, you are our Father", (Isa 63:16 x2, 64:8) is used in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament writers wanted to ensure that people did not want God to be mixed up with the idea of physical fatherhood as were many gods of the local cults.

Message:The writer/speaker is calling on the past experience of the people to remind them of the power and presence of God in their lives. This God is one who is creator and uses it to manifest self, as well the one who saves. The end of this reading (vv.10-12) refers to the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE which is a long time in the past. I place these last eleven chapers of the Book of Isaiah in the time of Ezra/Nehemiah around 4th BCE. However, it is abundantly clear that the composer of these chapters knew the traditions from a wide variety of sources and is using them to preach God's word into a situation of appalling apostasy (see Isa 57-59 and 65-66). The mention of destruction of the Jerusalem and the temple reminds the people that what God did once, God can do again. The writer/speaker is using all his skills to recall the people to faithful worship and by reminding them of exile is hoping to shock them into keeping the first commandment - "you shall have no other gods before me" ( Exod 20:3). The prophet is the one who is attempting to mediate between God and the people. Hanson suggests that the prophet, "pleads with God, accepts solidarity with the people in their sin by raising his voice in confession and recalls the past to prompt both sides to break the tragic impasse" (Hanson: 235). The fact that the writer/speaker choice to use a "lament form" already gives the people a clue that they are listening to a situation which his full of grief, loss and anger. The plea for God to act rather than just listen indicates the severity of the situation.

We are beginning the time of Advent, when we remember the time God did come down, not on a mountain, but in human form. We can also say like the psalm "who has ever seen a God like this?" Unlike the psalm (Isa 63:15-64:12) we are not remembering the terrifying things which God has done but the giving of self through the birth of a babe. The time of advent is waiting again to celebrate the birth of the one who saves. However, we continue to sin, but again don't believe that God has turned God's face away from us. Indeed, the act of God to send self in the form of a son- child is pure grace and undeserved. It is this gift of God we remember and celebrate during the advent season.
Resources/Worship for Isa 64:1-9
Worship: One could plan the worship service around the elements of the psalm. For example, the service begins by calling on God to be present and the initial prayers and hymn could emphasise this aspect. Prayers of confession pick up the element of sin vv.5-6. Reading of the word is remembering where God has been in the past. In spite of all this God is both creator and parent and wants to be in relationship. Even when our world is a mess we can seek God's help and call for renewal.

Resources: Commentaries
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Emmerson,Grace I. Isaiah 56-66. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Tucker, Gene. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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