Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
Have you ever begged God to just do something, and intervene in a powerful way? I know I have, and for much less important things than what Isaiah is imploring God for---which is to restore Israel and reclaim them from their present embarrassment and suffering. While I've asked a self-centered version of this question, Isaiah asks this on behalf of others in Isaiah 64. His question is accompanied by statements of faith:
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
The conundrum, as Isaiah sees it, is that God's people weren't waiting on the Lord, gladly doing what was right, or remembering God's ways. Instead, according to verse 5, they sinned against those who did. They were part of the problem! This prompts Isaiah to ask, "How then can we be saved?"
How indeed, when there are precious few righteous acts of one's own to point to? And it gets worse.
Even the good things they did were heavily tainted:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins weep us away.
This passage has been famous since the Reformation. While it's Romans 1 that gives Martin Luther the life-altering epiphany that he can't earn his salvation, Isaiah 64 is right in there for providing theological context. We Christians use the "filthy rags" phrasing so often that we may forget that it's actually an Old Testament, rather than a New Testament, phrase.
And it's a correct-ish translation...kind of like when movies used to air on TV and remove the stronger swear words for family-friendly viewing. Because the literal translation in the Hebrew is "menstrual cloths." This doesn't change the meaning--the theological significance is the same. This literal meaning, however, doesn't pull any punches with what Isaiah is trying to convey, and perhaps gives us some additional nuance to boot. There are modern translations that do include this literal meaning and, instead of filthy rags, opt for:
permanently stained rags
The Bible can be rather earthy, in a way that I love. The book of Judges particularly comes to mind. You have Ehud, the left-handed judge/warrior who plunged his sword into the obese king of Moab...and the sword gets stuck, blade and all, in the king's belly. There's Jael, who is my daughter's middle name namesake, who used her hospitality and her tent equipment to do... what needed to be done. Jumping ahead to I Kings, we have the prophet Elijah taunting the priests of Baal by laughingly asking whether the reason the god isn't responding is that he's indisposed in the bathroom (somehow, I hear this taunt in Carol Burnett's fabulous Miss Hannigan voice in Annie: "She needs to go...bathroom!").
We sanitize what the Bible hasn't sanitized...and Scripture leaves in for a reason.
Here in Isaiah 64, the reason is obvious. What would be the most repulsive imagery that a culture steeped in the dichotomy of holy/unholy, clean/unclean could imagine? This.
Some have claimed that this passage is sexist, that it is oppressively depicting the average women's experience as horrifying and wrong. There's an entire Reddit channel I stumbled onto about this. If this is the accusation, then we should also take our pitchforks to Hollywood, which, based on its movie depictions similarly views the ubiquitous female experience of menstruation as either nonexistent or disgusting.
But I would argue that this is not what we see here. Instead of invisibility, we see acknowledgement. Instead of framing women as disgusting for how their bodies behave, the author uses a female rather than male experience to illustrate a crucial theological point. And, what's key is that the metaphor isn't about women's bodies but the cloth.
It reminds me of Rachel in Genesis 31 who stole her father's idols and, when accused of the theft, claims to be on her period so that her father's men don't dare to make her stand up and see what she's sitting on. She's subverting what the (yes, probably sexist) men feel and think about what she's experiencing so that she can get what she wants.
Here the subversion is subtler. God, through Isaiah's voice, is using what men would find to be repulsive to illustrate that even when we are at our best, even when we are actually doing some good things, the best we can give is a cloth whose original color can't really even be seen anymore due to the blood soaking through it. This stain is not coming out anytime soon, and probably never. Women, ancient and modern, throw these cloths out. There's no point to try to reuse.
That is what our righteous acts are like, let alone our unrighteous ones.
It's a good reminder this time of year, at Christmas, when lots of nonprofits appeal to donors for end-of-year giving. They know that they can pull at our heartstrings more this time of year--to give to others in need. It makes us feel good. We're good people because we help out. We're good people because we donate.
On my knees this morning, I prayed that the Lord would show me where I can serve Him, where He can plug me in to fill a need. Lately, I've had some closed doors of involvement in ministries I've tried to support and help. I still found some new nonprofits to donate to, near our new house. I need to do this, and find ways to give more because I need to give away what I have been given. Because the Lord commands it. Because, as Martin Luther said, it's not so much that God needs it but that other people do. And yet, is giving and serving a safety net, that gives confidence that I am a righteous person? That ultimately, per Isaiah's initial question, I am therefore deserving of God's help?
This is what this section of Isaiah 64 is speaking against. My donation, or even my served time, my efforts at my very best....is like the thrown-out menstrual cloth. How then can I be saved? And I ask this question as a Christian who knows that Christ is the answer, but suspects that many of us nonetheless lapse into obtaining a certain measure of self-satisfaction from our righteous acts.
Isaiah doesn't exactly answer his own questions, but he delivers one of the Bible's most clearest descriptions of the creator/created relationship between God and humans:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
I love how in this passage, we're not yet a fully formed piece of pottery. We're still clay. Earthiness indeed. We're his work, but it's very much in progress. A complimentary, and even more detailed, potter/clay section is in Jeremiah 18:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.
David Platt, at radical.net, offers a wonderful teaching and prayer that we can lay before the Lord as we acknowledge His creative work in shaping us and our lives and also confess our confusions and struggles to make sense of it all. The excerpt below (from https://radical.net/podcast/175-the-potter-and-the-clay-isaiah-648/, italics mine) picks up on themes of surrender and trust that we've seen throughout Isaiah:
I encourage you to think about all the things that are going on in your life right now, just know that none of those things are random, that God is working in and through all of those things, even the worst things, or things we don’t understand why this is happening, that God is using even those things to mold us, to make us, to shape us.
And so the posture of clay before potter is God make me, mold me, shape me however you want. And the beauty is, we can pray that because of what Isaiah 64, verse 8 says at the very beginning, “But now oh, Lord, you are our father.” He’s our father, He’s a good father, He’s a perfect father, the perfect father. So we can trust Him. So if we were clay in the hands of a potter that was not trustworthy, that was not good, that was not loving, that was not merciful, that would be a really bad thing.
But the good news of Isaiah 64 is that we are clay in the hands of a good potter, a gracious potter, a merciful potter. A father who loves us as His children and cares for us and shapes us according to his care for us so we pray, oh God, we are in your hands.
Our lives are the work of your hand...so shape us, mold us, make us however you will, God. We confess it’s not always easy, we confess to you, shape us and mold us and make us in ways that we might not always choose, in ways that we don’t always understand. But God, even amidst the pain of being pressed in this way, or even broken in that way, we look up to you and we say we trust in you, you are our father, You are our Dad. You love us, you care for us, and we are just so awed to be your children and so we gladly place our lives in your hands. And we pray do in us, with us, whatever you will, lead us however you will, we yield to you, we confess you as our Lord. We yield to you, we just pray. God as clay you our potter, use us for noble purposes. Use us for the accomplishment of your will and the glory of your name. God help us not to waste our lives rebelling against your hand at work in our lives. Help us to trust and follow you and in the process use us as a demonstration of your grace, your handiwork, for you glory. We pray, in Jesus name. Amen.
Ephesians continues this theme of handiwork and also shows us the right balance of our work/God's work:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith --and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Yes, Lord, may it be so. Help us this Christmastime to see what You have prepared for us to do, actions that leave us no room at all for boasting. I'm so thankful that we are created "in Christ." Let us remain in You as we live out what we were created to do and be.