Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 59

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-21

“The Lord’s Hand Is Not Shortened” (59:1-21)

Chapter 59 is a new exposition and exhortation dealing with the unredeemed life of the new community in Jerusalem. The great age of God has not come, even though a community of exiles has returned and has been rebuilding the ruins. Why has God not come? In the first section of this exposition (vss. 1-8) the prophet explains the reason. It is not that the Lord’s hand does not have enough power to save nor that his ear is too dull to hear the prayers of the people. It is that their evil has created a gulf between himself and them. In verses 3-8 the deeds of the community which are violations of the will of God are specified in some detail. The final verses of the section eloquently summarize: “Their feet run to evil . . . The way of peace they know not, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked, no one who goes in them knows peace.” Here we have the same explanation of trouble in the body politic that was given by the pre-exilic prophets. There can be no peace and salvation so long as there is personal and community evil. It is characteristic of human beings to desire peace apart from judgment, apart from their accountability for the society they have produced and for the actions of that society. But, “There is no peace ... for the wicked” (57:21).

The second section of the poem (vss. 9-15) is as eloquent as the preceding. Indeed, if this passage is not by Second Isaiah himself, we would have to presume that it is by a disciple who shared his great gifts, both of theological insight and of skill in the use of words.

It is because of the separation between God and people brought about by the people’s sinful acts that the community of Jerusalem “look for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but . . . walk in gloom” (vs. 9). The word for “look” can also be translated “wait,” and the word for “gloom” means “blackness.” The structure reminds us strongly of one of Jeremiah’s expressions: “We looked for peace, but no good came, for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jeremiah 8:15). Another use of light as a term for salvation, and of darkness for its opposite, appears in 60:1-3.

Whereas the first section is in the form of an explanatory declaration to Israel about her sin, the second section is in the form of a confession. The prophet on behalf of the people confesses: . . our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and

our sins testify against us” (vs. 12). This is the reason “Justice is turned back . . . for truth has fallen in the public squares Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey” (vss. 14-15). The word “truth” is used here in a typically Hebraic manner. It derives from the same verbal root as do words for reliability, faith, and faithfulness. It refers to fidelity to God’s will and is used in verse 14 in synonymous parallelism with justice, righteousness, and uprightness. The picture of the prophet as intercessor for his people is most clearly illustrated in Jeremiah. (See his prayer of confession in Jeremiah 14:7-9, and note also 14:10—15:1 for a colloquy between Jeremiah and the Lord concerning the prophet’s intercession in behalf of his people.) Intercession was not a priestly function in Israel; it was part of the work of the prophet. As God’s appointed representative on earth, he was in a special position to represent the people before God. Israel in looking back upon the figure of Moses saw him as a prophet who interceded on the people’s behalf repeatedly (for example, Numbers 11-12, 14).

The final section of the poem begins in the second half of verse 15 and continues through verse 21. Here God is pictured as the warrior who himself actively takes up the war against sin and evil in the world. Because of this, man can have hope. What man cannot do in reforming his life, God will accomplish. The picture of God as warrior is a very common one in the Old Testament. As the sovereign Ruler of the world, his activity in behalf of his own causes and against those who would thwart his purpose is spoken of in political terms as a warfare, and he is described as leading his forces in battle. This metaphor is by no means in opposition to the other pictures of God as the active Judge of the world and as the Father and the Shepherd of his people. All were functions of kingship. The picture of God as warrior is a particularly dynamic one because it shows him in intensely active combat against the sin and evil of the world. This, then, is the real ground of man’s faith, trust, and hope. The picture continues in the New Testament, where in the background of history God and his heavenly hosts are represented as in conflict with Satan and the powers of darkness, a conflict that will be resolved with Satan’s defeat and the triumph of the rule of God.

In verses 16-17 God is represented as putting on the armor of the warrior after seeing that there was no one on earth who would take up arms against human evil. This figure of the armor of God is elaborated in the familiar passage in Ephesians 6:13-17. The passage in Ephesians adds to the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “helmet of salvation” the “shield of faith” and the “sword of the Spirit.” The “garments of vengeance for clothing” in Isaiah refer not to an unworthy attribute of God, but to God as the one who is responsible for the administration of justice in the world. As has been noted, the English word “vengeance,” with its solely negative connotation in our time, is simply an improper rendering of the Hebrew. The Hebrew term refers to God’s vindication of his cause, whether it is judgment upon his enemies or salvation for those who love him.

The final verse of the poem pictures the return of the Lord to Zion in triumph as Redeemer (vs. 20). It is possible that verse 21 was added by a compiler; nevertheless, it is profound in its thought. God’s Covenant with his people—that is, his way of relating himself to them—is here described. The Spirit of the Lord, that empowering by God within the mind and soul of man, is upon his people and he has put his words in their mouths, and they shall not depart from the people or from their children forever. The possession of the Spirit and the word in man’s innermost being is God’s eternal Covenant. The thought is comparable to Jeremiah’s “new covenant” which envisages God’s law written upon the hearts of his people so that they will no longer need to teach one another about the Lord, for all shall know him, from the youngest to the eldest (Jer. 31:3134).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 59". "Layman's Bible Commentary".