The final section in the book of Isaiah deals with the coming of the anointed conqueror, chapters 56-66. God's people, the "Sabbath-people", are called to live righteous lives. Among the people there is rebellion, but also a striving for righteousness. Yet, the test of the Sabbath finds all wanting. God's people, lost in themselves and set-upon by the surrounding nations, cry for help. The Lord, the anointed one, prepares to act, and in the meantime appoints "watchmen" to pray for divine intervention. Their prayer calls on the Lord to rend the heavens and come down, 63:15-64:12. The setting Is Jerusalem prior to the invasion of the Babylonians and things are not going well for God's people.
63:15-16. The prayer, offered by the watchmen, wrestles with the question "can we be saved?" God is a holy God, he fellowships with those who walk in his way, yet his wrath is upon those who keep sinning. As sinners, "how then can we be saved?" v4-5. Israel has hoped for a mighty salvation against her enemies, v1-3, but it is God's people who wither as the Lord turns his face from them, v6-7. Has God changed his mind? Everything seems to be falling apart, yet God has always acted with strong kindness toward his people. So the Lord is asked to turn his face and look at his troubled people.
v17-19. The present situation cannot be improved without the Lord. Israel may be his people, but unless he "returns" they will have to survive as if they did not belong to the Lord.
64:1-3. The third stanza of the prayer expresses a wistful longing for what could have been. If only God came down, all the enemies of Israel would be destroyed, boiled away like water, the mountains (the nations) shaken. Isaiah is yearning for a theophany, an awesome appearing of God ("come down") to deal with evil. "If only" - Isaiah muses how easy it would be for God to put things right.
v4-5. In the fourth stanza, which is the centre of the prayer, Isaiah expresses the majesty and uniqueness of God. Yet, why should such a God intervene for his people? God blesses those "who gladly do right", but Israel's sin is never ending. "How then can we be saved?"
v6-7. Isaiah may yearn for the Lord to "come down" and deal with the nations in their evil, but it is Israel which shrivels and wastes away. The Lord has hidden his face from the people's sin. Isaiah describes the sin as "unclean", as a leper's touch; "filthy rags", menstrual rags; "faded leaf", decay of death; "no one calls on your name", disinterest in God. Thus, their lives are carried away in the "wind" as the Lord hides his "face from" his people.
v8-9. Yet, as the Lord is changeless in his requirements and expectations, in his condemnation and judgement upon sin, he is also changeless in mercy and grace. Thus, as God is "our Father" and "we are all your people", Israel cries for mercy, asks that God's anger may cease and sin be forgotten. By creating the pot the craftsman is committed to the pot, and so the pot may look to the craftsman to remove the blemish and remake it.
v10-12. In this final stanza of the prayer, Isaiah builds on his Babylonian prediction, "the day of the Lord", the coming judgement on Israel. Jerusalem and the temple will become a ruin. In the face of this horror, will the Lord continue to restrain his hand, will he not "come down"? Repentance does work and so God will deal with the foe and bring about a new thing out of the ashes of the past.
At times it seems that we worship a God who does nothing. We have all had to watch friends and family members wither before our eyes. For some of us, the death of a young person has moved us beyond pain. In such a circumstance, where is the grace of God? With aged parents we can say they had a full life, but then where is the dignity in death? When all is dark, what do we pray?
The Bible would encourage us to pray "the prayer of faith". That is, we should pray "according to the will of God." We should search the scriptures to understand the mind of God, how his promises, commands, character... address the situation.
In the declining years of the State of Israel, the prophets foretold the horror of the Babylonian invasion. Faced with judgement, the people prayed for the Lord to "come down" and to take a stand for his battered people. Yet, although their end was now determined, they were still a people under the mercy of God. As the events of history unfolded, the Babylonians attacked and Israel went into exile. Yet, they would return and Jesus the messiah would came and stand with God's dispirited people.
God's people today still face difficult times, yet the sovereign grace of our God remains an ever present reality. Our prayer for mercy may not change the circumstance, but then the circumstance cannot change our eternal destiny. Of course, sometimes, just sometimes, we do get to see God's mercy in the fleeting shadows, a touch of the Master's hand, but often the circumstance has its way. So, it comes down to faith in God's boundless mercy, a belief that beyond this shadow land their lies the brilliance of eternity.
If the prophet has revealed Israel's end, what is the point of the "watchman's" prayer, "look upon us"?
2. What is Isaiah's answer to the sinner's question, "how then can we be saved?"
3. If my end is determined, why pray?