Isaiah 59 – Part 3

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

Hatching Sin

They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. Isaiah 69:5-6

Yesterday we explored the sins of the people. Just in case you’re not convicted yet this exploration into sin continues with more metaphors.  Metaphors conjure up layers of meaning creating a rich ‘interplay’ between the text and the audience.[1] Yesterday it was body parts today a series of animal metaphors are used to describe the people and their sinful actions. One of the functions of animal metaphors is to create an emotional response in the hearer.[2]  These metaphors focus on the outcomes of the snake and spider; the eggs of the snake cause death, and the threads of the spider fail to produce a garment.[3] It might seem like minor court decisions have been made but these unjust practices have lasting destructive impact, just like eating snake’s eggs can look harmless but produce poison and death.[4]

Sin, Sin and More Sin

Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace. Isaiah 59:7-8

Accompanying the variety of metaphorical images to describe the people’s sin is a wide range of synonyms (these are words that have similar meanings). Synonyms can stress the central idea by presenting the concept from every conceivable angle.[5] This is how they function in Isaiah 59 in which a series of synonyms is given to describe sin: iniquity, deception/falsehood, injustice/unrighteousness, trouble/wickedness, violence/wrong, do evil, and violence. These words convey the ‘enormity of the tragedy that the prophet sees unfolding’.[6] Muilenberg describes Isaiah 59 as being one of the only places in the Old Testament where such a ‘rich and diverse’ use of words is used for sin. Often English translations fail to capture this fact.[7] Synonyms are again used in verse 7-8 for the word ‘way’: highways, way, tracks, and pathways. All the words stress that the people are not walking in God’s ways but are on ‘crooked’ paths.

The conclusion of this section ends in a negative for the people. It is emphasized that this is a people which should know peace and justice and yet does not. All these rhetorical devices are used to persuade those listening that this separation between themselves and God is due to their own lifestyles.[8] It is hoped the audience will come to a place of recognition and repentance.  

Animal Instincts

Just ahead in the text is more animal imagery, in verse 11:

‘We growl like the bears, all of us, and like the doves groan we groan.’

The bear is an animal often ‘regarded as the most dangerous species’, here it is stripped of its threat in the face of God’s judgement, reversing the typical expectations. [9]  Instead of aggression there is growling.[10] The bear represents lament, and this picture of the bear is unique in scripture as the people begin to feel the weight of their sin.[11] The dove, however, is often used to express lament.[12] It can be found other parts of scripture for this purpose.[13] It symbolises ‘disappointment, sorrow, pain and misery’.[14] This is the first sign of repentance as the people begin to humble themselves.

To think about

What sins do you need to repent and confess to God?

Is the use of animal imagery effective?

Can you think of other words to describe sin?

[1] P. van Hecke, Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Leuven: University Press ; Dudley, MA : Peeters, 2005), 68.

[2]Ibid., 72.

[3] Gregory J. Polan, In the Ways of Justice toward Salvation : A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-59 (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), 267.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1st ed., 2 vols., Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 196-97.

[6] Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style : The Uses of Language in Persuasion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 137.

[7] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 209.

[8] James Muilenberg, “Chapters 40-66,” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah), ed. George Arthur Butrrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 686.

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

[10]Hecke, Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, 87.


[12] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 521.

[13] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 : A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, N.Y. ; London: Doubleday, 2003), 193.

[14] Isaiah 38:14, Ezekiel 7:16, Nahum 2:8

[15] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66, The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2009), 595.

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