The LORD’s Answer: Mercy for Israel Isaiah 65:1-25
The chapter provides the response of the LORD to the prayer that has just been offered. Its message unfolds in three main sections: the LORD’s complaint of the rejection of His overtures by a group of people who practice impure rites (1-7); a comparison of the destinies in store for the faithful and the disloyal (8-16); and a detailed description of the happiness that is to reward the righteous (17-25).
Most modern critics wish to place this section much later than even the time of the so-called “Deutero-Isaiah,” perhaps even in the first half of the fifth-century. But as before, there is ample evidence that the passage could fit the earlier time as well. Indeed, the text is written in such a way that there are several times of application that would work. Verse 11 is said to refer to the temple, and the conclusion is that it must be the temple rebuilt. But it only mentions the “holy mountain.” Thus, it would be hard to date this chapter without recourse to one’s presuppositions about the book itself.
I. The LORD will judge rebellious people who turn aside to false gods (65:1-5).
The first section picks up the familiar theme: the abandonment of the LORD for pagan and superstitious practices and the retribution awaiting those guilty of it. It is the familiar theme of the sin of Israel in the Old Testament. Here is a final warning: if they continue to reject the appeals of the LORD they will be utterly destroyed.
A. The LORD calls people to Himself (1, 2).
The text begins with
“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
to a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, Here am I.’”
So in verse 1 God explains how He extended the offer to the people to participate with Him in the covenant and in pure worship. The first verse as read in the MT indicates that Gentiles have been called by God and have found Him. Some commentaries suggest that the verse should follow the Greek to indicate that He is saying that He has submitted Himself to be inquired of (cf. Ezek. 36:37) by them that have not asked, and that He has submitted Himself to be found by them that have not sought.
The holding out the hands (an anthropomorphism) in verse 2 is in the gesture of entreaty (cf. Prov. 1:24). But the people have been obstinate (see also Paul in Rom. 10:21). There has been no response by them to God’s overtures. Rather, they have followed a “way that is not good.” This is a litotes; it summarizes the entire section to come which describes the rites of worship of an idolatrous character.
Verses 1 and 2 are applied by Paul in Romans 10:20,21 to two distinct groups of people—the nations in verse 1, who while in a less privileged position have responded to the call; and the Jews in verse 2 who have stubbornly refused. Paul is clearly following the Hebrew tradition of the passage.
B. The LORD condemns superstitious practices (3-5).
The LORD accuses His people of provoking Him to anger before His very face. According to verse 3 the LORD is thought of as present in a peculiar degree in His own sanctuary near where the idolatrous acts were committed. If this is the point of “before Me” or “to My very face” in the verse, then the setting is the same as Ezekiel describes before the exile. The “gardens” where they make sacrifices refers to the places where tree-worship could be observed, among the groves and fertile places (see Isa. 57:5 and 66:17). The expression “altars of bricks” has received considerable attention since there is no real prohibition for the use of bricks. Some take it that the tiles of the houses are meant as the base for offering to the host of heaven (Jer. 19:13; Zeph. 1:5; and 2 Kings 23:12). Others would repoint (change the spelling of vowels of) the Hebrew to obtain the word “poplars” to refer to the cult object of white poplars that were associated with the underworld.
Verse 4 introduces their sitting among the graves for the purpose of necromancy. Oracles from the dead were supposed to have been conveyed to those who spent the night in the graves, because the souls of the dead were thought to have haunted the tombs.
The same verse tells of their eating unclean meat, such as the pig, probably at sacrificial meals (cf. 66:17). It was believed that to eat animals considered unclean would be not merely an act of rebellion but a means of communion with supernatural powers, the animals being totems, and the eating being a religious act allowing the consumer to receive the qualities of the ancestor which the totem animal represented. The pagan connections and ideas for the pig are some of the reasons why it was outlawed in Israel. It was not merely that it was meat that easily turned bad.
The words in verse 5 are the warnings of one who claims to be holier than others, one who was consecrated by communion with a divinity (perhaps through eating or by being in the tomb) to passers-by so that they will not contact him and be rendered unclean and incapable of normal duties for a time.
God says that such people are “smoke” in His nostrils. This may mean that they are the cause of fiery anger (Jer. 17:4) which manifested itself in the nose according to Hebrew idiom (Ps. 18:8), or that they are to be judged by God.
II. The LORD will purge rebels and prepare the remnant for the consummation (65:6-16).
A. Judgment will fall on the wicked (6, 7).
When in verse 6 the LORD says that “it stands written” He means that this evil will not be allowed to pass without judgment. He will not keep silent about this, but will pay back in full measure—into their laps. The expression uses the idea of a large fold in the garment to be a receptacle—here for God’s judgment. The sins of the people as well as the sins of their fathers (verse 7) will be paid back. Their worship on the mountaintops was simply blatant idolatry and profane apostasy.
B. The remnant will be saved (8-10).
In verse 8 the nation is compared to a cluster of grapes which is so rotten that only the presence of juice in a few grapes keeps the whole bunch from being destroyed. The juice in the few grapes (the remnant) is the new wine that should not be destroyed. There is some good—so God will not destroy them all.
When the LORD purges the rebels from the land, He will bring forth the faithful as the sole possessors of the blessings (verse 9). “Bring forth” here means cause to emerge. And the “mountains” would be a reference to Judah, the land which God’s servants will inherit. The use of “there” in the text may be temporal—in the future.
The boundaries of the land are given in verse 10. “Sharon” refers to the whole land, from the Mediterranean to the descent to the Jordan (and not Judah only). The Valley of Achor is apparently the deep valley known as the Wady Kelt, leading down to the Jordan near Jericho. These general descriptions give the breadth of the land that was to be the possession of the LORD’s faithful.
C. The rebels will be destroyed (11, 12).
The oracle now turns to address those who have abandoned the LORD and have spread a table for Fortune and prepared wine for Destiny (the actions are metonymies for false worship). The text has Gad and Meni. The Greek has daimonio … tuche, although the Vulgate uses Fortuna for Gad. Gad was venerated widely throughout Syria and Palestine; Meni has no similar evidence. But the ideas of fortune and luck were associated with the stars, and so there may be a connection with astrological worship. Whatever the deities were, the people spread food for them in their ritual of sympathetic magic.
Verse 12 announces that such who do these are destined for the sword. The verb “destine” is manah, a play on the name Meni.
D. Different destinies await people (13-16).
In verse 13 the LORD contrasts the lot of the righteous with that of the wicked. The wicked will go hungry and eventually be put to shame, meaning completely disappointed in their expectations. The contrast continues in verse 14 where the righteous will sing out of the joy of their hearts, but the wicked will be vexed in their spirits—literally, a shattering of their spirit.
Then, in verse 15 the motif of “name” is introduced. The name of the wicked will be left to curse. This means that a fate like theirs will be the most extreme malediction which the righteous can imprecate upon an enemy. On the other hand, the good estate of the righteous will necessitate different epithets to be used in describing them (see 62:2, 4, 12; and Rev. 2:17; 3:12).
Thus, in verse 16, the LORD’s faithful accomplishment of the threats and promises in these verses will lead people to appeal confidently to Him to fulfill a blessing prayed for, or to avenge a perjured oath. Thus, the “God of truth” will once again be revered in the land; and the troubles of the former times for the remnant will be gone.
III. The LORD assures His people of a glorious future in the new world He will create (65:17-25).
At the consummation of the ages the LORD will create a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem. It will be characterized by security, prosperity, safety, and close communion with the LORD. The glorious state described in this chapter is picked up by John in the Book of Revelation in his description of the world to come. In that place John portrays it after the Messianic Age and so it must issue into the eternal state, unless the events in Revelation are not to be taken so strictly chronologically.
It will have as its central focus the Messiah, Immanuel; and the righteous will have free access to Him. This glorious new creation will, as Paul says, begin the reign of Christ on earth, that will eventually be delivered up to the Father (1 Cor. 15) and become what we call the eternal state. But Revelation says that the saints will reign with Christ in earth; but have access to Him in the heavenly sanctuary. It will all be far more wonderful, and complex, than we can even imagine.
All the expressions in these verses are very clear. The prophet in describing the restoration of human society to right conditions tells of a transformation of the physical universe, just as formerly the perfect creation was destroyed and changed by sin. The words are used of the Christian hope in 2 Peter 3:13, and Rev. 21:1. Weeping and mourning will be removed (verse 19). And one of the causes of sorrow, death, or at least untimely death, will be removed so that there will be longevity once again (verse 20).
These descriptions have been taken in a couple of ways by commentaries. Some wish to take the expressions literally and see reference to a new period on this earth when all the transformations in it will be established; for in the eternal state there will be no death and no sinners at all. People who will be on earth will live, marry, have children, build, and be in harmony with nature. Jerusalem will be the center of God’s theocracy, and there will be peace and safety there. This view, a millennial reign of Christ and His saints, would see these conditions in Isaiah as a prelude to the eternal state. This view harmonizes well with some passages of the Bible, but doesn’t harmonize very well with Isaiah 25 and with the order of things in Revelation.
Others, noting that Isaiah 25 had announced there would be no death, and noting the sequence in the Book of Revelation (new heaven and new earth after the millennium), describe this picture as the new creation to come. The language then is figurative and representative—if there were death, one who dies at 100 would be considered a child. And if there were sinners, they would be quickly condemned. But the weakness with this view is that it really strains the meanings of the lines.
What is clear from the prophet’s message is that there is coming a marvelous new creation that will end the curse and its effects. A return from captivity to Israel could not have satisfied these prophecies, especially since the apostle picks them up and advances them. This, then, remains the glorious prospect of the righteous. But the sequence of the events, and how it will all be worked out, cannot be worked out with absolute certainty at this time.
The passage holds out the hope of a share in the world to come, the new creation of the LORD. God will renovate all things in this world to show what He had intended from the beginning. And that “season of refreshing,” that “world to come” as the Rabbis termed it, will see the removal of the curse and the fulfillment of all the promises. So those who respond to God’s call and serve Him faithfully are the heirs of that new creation. Those who stubbornly refuse His call and go after false gods instead will have everlasting shame. Faithfulness to God’s call, then, becomes the central point of the application. Believers must show their faith by their devotion; unbelievers must turn to the truth by faith, abandoning all false beliefs and wicked practices.
For the believers, if the new heaven and the new earth come about a little differently than expected, they will not be disappointed.
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Heerboth, L. A. “New Creation According to Isaiah 65.” CTM 5 (1934):29-37.
Jefferson, Helen Genevieve. “Notes on the Authorship of Isaiah 65 and 66.” JBL 68 (1949):225-230.
MacRae, Allan A. “Paul’s Use of Isaiah 65:1.” In The Law and the Prophets: Old Testament Studies Prepared in Honor of Oswald Thompson Allis, pp. 369-376.
Martin-Achard, R. “L’esperance des croyants d’Israel face a la mort selon Esaie 65, 16c-25 et selon Daniel 12:1-4.” RHPR 59 (1979):439-451.
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