Commentary: Isaiah 63:16-64:12 Is Anyone Listening?
There are crises, which force us to question everything about life. Some have the skill to articulate their feelings and struggles poetically in such circumstances. This text captures the pathos of humans in distress as powerfully as any poem in the Hebrew Bible.
The greatest calamity, which befell the ancient nation of Judah, was the destruction of Jerusalem including the temple in 587/586 BCE. Out of the debris of their ruined cities and broken lives, Hebrews raised their voices in communal laments begging God to come to their aid (Pss 44,74,79,80; Lam 5). It appeared that God answered their pleas when the Persians conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE and permitted those whom the Babylonians had exiled to return home. However, their hopes were not realized. The temple and much of the countryside continued to lay in ruins (Is 63:18; 64:10-11). It was in this historical setting that a group of people lifted their voices to God in a communal lament reminiscent of those which had mourned the loss of the temple (Is 63:7-64:12). The lament expresses either the views of the returnees who were frustrated by their disappointments or more probably the complaint of a group who had remained in the land and now found themselves disenfranchised from the returnees who thought of themselves alone as the true descendants of Abraham and Israel (Is 63:16).
Literary Context and Form
The prayer begins with a rehearsal of the magnalia Dei (63:7-14). The lament proper follows (63:15-64:12). The components of a lament are fairly stable: A description of the distress, a cry for help, reasons why God should help, and a proleptic note of thanksgiving. However, the order is not. So this prayer has the basic elements, but lacks an obvious structure. Perhaps this is because souls in anguish do not express themselves in organized formats but cry out in spontaneous bursts.
Analysis of the Text
63:15-19, Their Plight
The people open on an accusatory note: "Where are your zeal and your might?" The absence of divine assistance in the present is inexplicable in light of God's gracious dealings with them in the past (63:7-14). Even though the returnees who are in charge do not recognize these people as legitimate heirs of pre-exilic Judah, God as their "Father" does. This unusual appeal to God as Father is based on divine recognition of them as children (63:8). Convinced of God's absolute sovereignty, they ask why God has hardened their hearts and brought them into their present distress. They had occupied the temple for a brief period, but now their enemies control it. This probably refers to the struggle over control of the temple after the return from exile (e.g., Ezek 44). The returnees have excluded them. In despair they exclaim that the absence of divine assistance makes them appear as if they had no God.
As in 63:15, the people make it clear that they need more than human assistance. They need a theophany. They describe God's descent in standard theophanic language, i.e., God's presence is so powerful that even nature is profoundly affected (Exod 19:16-18; Ps 18:6-15/2 Sam 22:7-16; Hab 3:2-15). The second half of 64:3 should be deleted as a doublet of 64:1b. The text is a candid acknowledgement of their agnosticism: They are not presently expecting God's intervention even though they believe that God has acted powerfully in the distant past.
More introspectively, the people recognize that God's disappearance may be due to their own actions. As God moved away from them, they abandoned God. In a series of four similes they describe themselves in unforgettable images: They are like the "unclean," their acts are like menstrual rags, they are no more durable than a leaf, and are subject to the vagaries of the breeze. Within the prayer the people have moved from an accusation against God to a confession of their own guilt.
64:8-12, Will you Answer?
The people have now come full circle and return to the beginning of their lament. God is their "Father." The point of emphasis is, however, different. In 63:16, the accent was on God as their Father; here it is on their status as the children of the Father. In the former passage the subject is God in the second person; here the same affirmation is qualified by the claim of the people in the first person plural. It is on the basis of this claim that they issue their plaintive question: Will the Father answer the children?
How should we respond to crises? This lament provides three fundamental insights. First, it states frankly what we know from experience: We begin by asking God why things could have happened this way? We may even be angry with God. We are not the only people who have felt abandoned. Second, as we express our frustration, we must search our own hearts. We have no right to expect God's help until we have made our own lives right. Third, our appeal to God is grounded in our relationship to God as children. The text becomes a natural prayer for those who have learned to address God as Abba.
Gregory E. Sterling
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