Isaiah 64 is a confident prayer for deliverance by the believing remnant. It begins with a plea for the LORD to intervene to deliver His people in His characteristically powerful way (1-4). Their confidence is based on the LORD’s great demonstrations of power in the past. Their recalling the works of the LORD is followed by the acknowledgment of their complete sinfulness (5-8). And yet, in spite of their guilt, they could appeal to God because He was their Father and Creator (= potter); He would change their estate by His grace (9-12).
The prayer is similar to Isaiah 53 in that the exiled people confess their sin as a nation before God. Here they pray for the advent of the LORD to end their afflictions through some powerful intervention. Although the nation had rejected Him by their idolatry and wickedness and brought the exile on themselves, He had not finally rejected Israel. There would be a remnant that would return. Nevertheless, if the people were to be part of that remnant, they had to confess their sin and pray for deliverance before He would deliver them from the consequences of sin.
The prayer recorded here is a national lament. It begins with the request for divine intervention—in a spectacular way. They are praying for divine intervention to deliver them from bondage in exile; but the language goes far beyond that. The people want a dramatic show of power as the LORD intervenes on their behalf. “Rend” the heavens in verse 1 would be a hypocatastasis, an implied comparison to tearing open a curtain. The epiphany language that follows is drawn from “Day of the LORD” prophecies (Joel, Amos) and the Sinai experience. The “mountains” would represent any obstacle that stood in the way of their deliverance (another implied comparison, or hypocatastasis); of course, in the actual eschaton (end of the age) something far more dramatic is in view according to the other prophets who see geological changes in the earth (Zechariah). When the LORD literally rends the heavens and comes down to the Mount of Olives, it will be split in two, and all sorts of geological changes will take place. The mountains “trembling” is a poetic description of an earthquake.
The purpose of such a great display of God’s power is that the name of the LORD might be known. This is a theme that began with the plagues of Egypt and continued throughout the Bible—that He might make Himself known. All acts of God are revelation; His great acts of redemption are likewise to be revelatory so that others might find salvation.
The people recall how God did amazingly mighty things in the past (verse 3). And in it all they know that the work of the LORD was truly unique. No one ever heard of a God like this who makes a covenant with people and keeps it, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him (verse 4). God delights in doing the impossible, the unexpected, on behalf of His remnant. Here is our theme of waiting for the LORD again—faith, endurance, obedience, expectancy, all rolled into one (see Isaiah 40).
The Church prays “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It also prays, “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Verses 1-4 are essentially what we are calling for God to do. And when it happens, when the heavens open and the LORD descends, it will not be just to deliver people from the exile in Babylon, but will be to deliver the redeemed in the Lord, dead or alive, from all bondage, and to make all things new—things that we could never imagine.
Living in the expectation of the LORD’s coming to deliver His own, the people of God have the opportunity to reflect on God’s past interventions. Thus it was with Israel in exile; and so it is today on the eve of the Second Coming. And that reflection should inspire greater faith and obedience and devotion.
Beginning in verse 5 the prophet acknowledges that God champions the cause of the righteous, but that the nation (for which he speaks) sinned against Him, and those who rebelled against God also sinned against the righteous in the nation. And, if God intercedes for those who choose righteousness (“meet” = intercedes, as in Isaiah 53), then there is not much hope for sinners who oppose the righteous. “How then can we be saved?” he asks. God was angry for the sin of the nation, and the only hope the nation now had was to plead for forgiveness.
So verse 6 is the central part of the confession. Drawing upon Levitical terminology they confess that they are unclean. The terminology means that they would have been barred from fellowship in the Sanctuary. Moreover, any acts of righteousness that they had done were no better than polluted rags (the language comes from ritual uncleanness through bodily function). This recognition of sinfulness is the expression of a contrite heart. According to verse 6 they know that their own sins sweep them away like the wind sweeps the leaf away, for God does not come to their rescue. And because God has hidden Himself from them, no one calls on His name (verse 7). And so their confession of sin is a plea for divine grace so that they can be forgiven and delivered from bondage. There would be no deliverance from bondage without the forgiveness of sin (which is why Christ died at His first advent and will release us from bondage at His second).
Their only appeal is the relationship they have with God (verse 8). God is their Father (stressing the covenant relationship); God is their potter and maker (stressing their submission to Him).140 So while acknowledging their sin, they appeal to the close relationship they have with the LORD, how much He has invested in them, and what plans He has for the nation. To call God Father and Potter is to express submission to the will of God—both refer to God’s creation and God’s sovereign will. They will accept His plan for their lives, and so they pray for forgiveness and intervention.
This passage closes with an impassioned appeal for God to look favorably on them, forgetting their sins against Him, and remembering that they are His people.
The prayer is that God will not remember their sins. The word “remember” is anthropomorphic (here not remembering is equal to forgetting if we say it positively). God knows everything perfectly well; so the expression must mean to hold something against them. When God forgives, it means that He will never bring that issue up again. People may have troubling forgetting; other people may make it difficult for them to forget—but if they confess their sins to God, God will never mention them again or hold them against them.
The plea for God to “look upon” them is also anthropomorphic; it conveys the idea of turning with grace and compassion. The idea is reflected very well in the High Priestly benediction which is a prayer for the bestowal of grace, a prayer for God to lift up His face and look on them so they would have grace and peace (Num. 6:22-27).
They motivate God to answer their prayer with the appeal that the Temple has been destroyed, the Temple in which praises were given to God. This holy and glorious Temple has been burned down. After all this, will God still hold back and punish them more. It is time for this divine discipline to end, and the restoration of all things to begin, so that Zion can once again be the center of worship and praise it used to be.
This prayer follows the pattern of many Israelite prayers. It contains the introductory cry, the lament, expressions of confidence, and the prayer proper with its motivations for God to work. We need to study the structure and compare it with other lament psalms, for it does follow the pattern.141 The prophet, speaking for the people, acknowledges both their humility and their confidence as he prays for swift intervention by God for the fulfillment of the covenant promises.
Likewise, people today eagerly anticipate and desire the Second Coming of the LORD in which He will deliver His people from bondage (even that which they have brought upon themselves) and make everything new by destroying oppressing nations. But that expectation should prompt people to confess their sin to the Lord and avail themselves of His mercy. Then their confident prayer will come from holy lips: “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.” But the prayer will not be for purely selfish interests, but for the glory of the Lord. For indeed, His work today seems to be in ruins in so many places, and the Church has fallen in disrepute, thanks to the sin of people. God will never let that remain forever. That, then, is our appeal, when we pray for the heavens to be opened and the LORD to descend and bring all this to an end. In the meantime, we walk by faith in the blessed hope of the redeemed.
Blank, Sheldon H. “`And All Our Virtues.’ An Interpretation of Isaiah 64:4b-5a.” JBL 71 (1952):149-154.
Botterweck, G. J. “Sehnsucht nach dem Heil: Isa 64:1-7.” BibLeb 6 (1956):74-75.
Conrad, D. “Zu Jes 64,3b.” ZAW 80 (1968):332-334.
140 Both of these figures, Father and Potter, are straight metaphors, as is the description of the people as "clay." They stress the personal and covenantal relationship the LORD has with Israel.
141 Remember, though, that the pattern is never stereotyped. We should expect variations and rearrangements.