Isaiah 59 – Part 2

We continue our series in Isaiah 58-59, with guest writer Rev. Christine Redwood.

Picturing God

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. Isaiah 59:1-2

Sometimes God is pictured in Isaiah as if he is a human being. The technical name for this is an anthropomorphic metaphor. Such language makes it easier for people to grasp God.[1]  It both shapes the Israelite understanding of God and highlights the difference between humanity and the LORD.[2] The power of anthropomorphic metaphors stems from the fact that the human body is something we are intimately familiar with, and it is often how we interpret our experience.[3] Hebraic thought generally seemed to affirm physical matter as good, unlike later Greek thought.[4]  The LORD is described as having not a ‘hand shortened’ nor an ‘ear dull’ but in fact his ‘face’ is hidden due to the people’s sin. The arm is a symbol representing the power of God to bring deliverance and the ear stands for the willingness of God to hear. [5] The face hiding draws on the ancient Near Eastern kings’ protocol; to see the king’s face is to be honoured and the opposite is to be disgraced.[6]Anthropomorphism becomes a short-hand way of speaking about the characteristics of God.

Picturing People

For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. Isaiah 59:3-4

Now the prophet pictures the people. This section has much in common with the earlier part of Isaiah 58, particularly verses 3b-5. Both seek to answer the charge of God’s absence by accusing the people of sin.[7] The prophet this time expresses people’s sin by linking their bodies to the sinful acts they are committing. Individual body parts are named which in the end stand for specific sins committed by Israel.[8] In verses 3 and 4 the prophet describes the people using phrases like hands ‘defiled with blood’, ‘fingers with iniquity’, ‘lips have spoken lies’, ‘tongues mutter wickedness’. Each line names a body part moving from ‘lesser to greater specificity’, for instance, from hands to fingers.[10] Brueggemann notes two pairs: hands and fingers correlate to actions that violate, and lips and tongues correlate to speech that violates others and God.[11]

Every part of us and every one of us participates in creating this world where the guilty go free, where lies disguise the truth, where the stronger one (the one with the all the weapons or the fist wins), the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We keep unjust systems going by using all the resources for ourselves; hoarding, stuffing our faces, consuming, putting up our walls to keep our wealth nice and secure. The overall impression that Isaiah paints is one of sin pervading all aspects of both the individual and the community as a whole.


To think about

Does God still hide his face away from our sin today?

Are these sins still relevant issues for us?

Do you ever think of how specific parts of your body might be involved in sin?

[1] Graham A. Cole, “The Living God: Anthropomorphic or Anthropopathic?,” Reformed Theological Review 59, no. 1 (2000): 16.

[2]Marc Zvi Brettler, “Incompatible Metaphors for Yhwh in Isaiah 40-66,” (Sage Publications, Ltd., 1998), 100.

[3] G. B. Caird, Language and Imagery of the Bible (Duckworth, 1980), 173.

[4] Ian D. Ritchie, “The Nose Knows : Bodily Knowing in Isaiah 11.3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 87 (2000): 61.

[5] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, N.Y. ; London: Doubleday, 2003), 187.

[6] Ibid.

[7] P. A. Rev Smith, Rhetoric and Redaction in Trito-Isaiah : The Structure, Growth and Authorship of Isaiah 56-66 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 114.

[8]Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 192.

[9] Curtis W. Fitzgerald, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-66” (Dallas Theological Seminary, 2003), 175.

[10] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 514.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1st ed., 2 vols., Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 196.

[12] Smith, p. 590

[13] Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew : An Introductory Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 185.

[14]Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style : The Uses of Language in Persuasion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 185.

[15] E. Editor Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar 2nd English Edition Revised in Accordance with the Twenty-Eighth German Edition (1909), 2nd ed. ed. ([S.l.] : OUP, 1910 (1966)), 345.

[16] Yeshoshua Gitay, Isaiah and His Audience : The Structure and Meaning of Isaiah 1-12 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1991), 124.

[17] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66, 522.

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