Joshua 4; Psalms 129-131; Isaiah 64; Matthew 12
IN A PREVIOUS CHAPTER, ISAIAH WROTE, “You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isa. 62:6-7). Now Isaiah follows his own advice. Isaiah 64 (more precisely, Isa. 63:7-64:12) records one of the great intercessory prayers of Scripture.
The earlier part of the prayer (Isa. 63:7-19) begins with an affirmation of God’s goodness, manifested especially in the rescue of Israel in the days of Moses. Isaiah does not sugar-coat the problem: the people rebelled so grievously that God himself became their enemy (Isa. 63:10). But to whom else could Isaiah possibly turn? He appeals to God’s “tenderness and compassion” (Isa. 63:15), to God’s covenantal faithfulness as the Father and Redeemer of his people (even if Abraham and Jacob might want to disown the people, Isa. 63:16).
But now in Isaiah 64, the prophet utters one of the most wrenching pleas found in Holy Scripture: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” (Isa. 64:1). That is the only hope we have: we cannot save ourselves. Nothing of our resolutions and gimmicks and religion will suffice. God himself must rend the heavens and come down. Isaiah is not denying God’s immanence; rather, he is saying that God must actively intervene on our behalf to save us, demonstrating his power once again, or we are lost.
Three other elements of Isaiah’s intercession must not be missed. First, no one recognizes more clearly than Isaiah that the God to whom he is appealing is also the Judge whom we have offended. “But when we continued to sin … you were angry. How then can we be saved?” (Isa. 64:5), he asks. That is the heart of the dilemma—and the hope. Second, not only does Isaiah understand that sin separates us from God, he also identifies himself completely with his sinful people: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). The greatest intercessors have always recognized that far more connects them with the common lot of sinners than what distinguishes them—and in any case they do not hesitate to plead with God on behalf of those who will not plead for themselves. Third, Isaiah deeply understands that if God rescues us, he must do so out of grace, out of mercy, out of pity—not because we have any claim on him. That accounts for the moving tone of Isaiah 64:8-12.
When have we last prayed with such insight and passion?