Repentance does not come easily to any of us, and it is hardest of all for people who have become accustomed to using religion as a cover for their sin. When their prayers go unanswered, they find it easier to blame God than to take a long hard look at themselves. But Isaiah will not allow such evasion. “It’s not God who is the problem,” he says, “but you” (vv. 1-2); then, with devastating directness, he pulls aside their mask and holds up a mirror so that they can see themselves as they really are (vv. 3-8). It’s not a pretty sight: violence, lies, perversion of justice, hearts set on evil, ruin and destruction, and no peace. Can these be the people of God? Yet which of us who has had the courage to look into the depths of our own hearts has not found such things lurking there? The mirror which the prophet holds up shows us ourselves as well, and as we read on it is as though we have entered a dark tunnel. The inveterate and desperate wickedness of the human heart is like a deep rooted infection and ruins everything. Religion can’t cover it, we cannot face it, and it makes God hide His face and turn away (v. 2).
What can we do but weep? Weeping, in fact, is exactly what we get here. Verses 9-15a is what is generally called a communal lament, of which there are many examples in the Psalms. It’s the kind of prayer that is prayed by desperate people and comes out in long, wracking sobs. The good thing about weeping is that it means we have given up pretending that things are alright, or that we have the resources to deal with them. It means we have come to an end of self-justification and self-trust. We have faced the fact that deliverance, if it is to come at all, must come from outside ourselves.
The turn-around comes at last in verses 15b-16: “The Lord looked…He saw.” It’s not as though He suddenly became aware of something which up to this point had escaped Him. It is quite clear from verse 2 that this is far from the case. He has been well aware of the situation, but unwilling to be used by a community which has no intention of changing its ways. He has withdrawn so that they may taste the full, bitter consequences of their sin. But verse 15 indicates a deliberate change on His part. He decides, in His mercy, to turn His face to the community again, and He does so in response to the lament of verses 9-14. He will intervene for the sake of those who mourn. To them His ears are open. For their sakes He looks, sees and takes action.
In verse 17 the Lord girds Himself for battle, like a warrior, and the garments He puts on make His purpose very clear. He puts on righteousness, salvation, vengeance and zeal. The first two have to do with the deliverance of His people; the last two deal with the punishment of their enemies. Taken as a whole, this powerful picture of God girding on His armor expresses the truth that He will not stand by while His people are destroyed; He is totally committed to saving them. The intervention depicted here is so drastic and so overwhelming that any thought that He is indifferent or powerless is utterly driven from human minds. People everywhere fear His name and stand in awe of Him (v. 19).
Verse 20 reads like a summary of it all. It is fundamentally a promise (The Redeemer will come) but also a challenge (to those who repent), but what of the rest? The fact that God will come makes the need for a change of heart imperative for everyone. In due time of course, the Redeemer came in the person of Jesus the Messiah. He came to Zion of His day and found some there who received Him. Many did not, however, even though Jesus reiterated the demand for repentance in the strongest possible terms. But the final coming – the ultimate reference point for Isaiah’s vision – still lies before us, and since we stand much closer to it than earlier generations the demand for repentance is doubly urgent now! The final intervention of God is good news for God’s people; that is where the main emphasis of Isaiah’s vision falls. But it must never be viewed with complacency. It calls for readiness and where necessary, repentance.
Verse 21 draws the chapter to a close with one final word of encouragement. It is addressed particularly to the faithful ones who have just been referred to in the previous verse. God’s covenant with them stands firm. His spirit rests upon them, and His Words have been placed in their mouths. And these two precious gifts will remain with them and their descendants, forever. In other words, apostasy will never destroy the church. In every age God will have those who speak His Word and are sustained by His Spirit. It should surely be our fervent desire to be numbered among them.
Isaiah 59:1-21 Reflection Questions:
When it comes to blaming God for their circumstances in life, what other Old Testament book comes to mind?
What are some Psalms that would be called “communal lament?”
Are you ready if Jesus came back today?
How are going out and speaking His Word?