Isaiah 59 – Part 4

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

Confession

If you’ve traveled with me through all this sin it is almost a relief to come to this new section! It commences with the point of view switching to the people. Collectively they speak in the first person plural (‘we/us’):

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Isaiah 59:9

This is an influential pronoun creating an ‘inclusive’ feel among those hearing.[1] This pronoun gives the audience a chance to identify as sinners and repent before God. It gives this part of the speech a ‘confessional tone’.[2]  The people finally admit they have sinned before God. There is also the sense that perhaps the prophet himself is identifying with his audience, signalling that he too, is part of this community.[3] We don’t tend to do this in our churches today but it can be liberating to join one’s voice with others and confess together.

We have failed 

The people describe themselves with another simile in verse 10 which also functions as an allusion:

Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. Isaiah 59:10

The prophets frequently draw their metaphors and word choices from other writings considered to be the authoritative word of God, particularly the Torah. This situates them in a wider tradition shared both by the prophet and their hearers. It also underlines the severity of the people’s sin.[4] I used the motif of blindness in my extract sermon . I took it from this passage but I also began the sermon by alluding to a fictional book that also plays with the idea of blindness to bring the motif into a contemporary setting.

In this example blindness is a result of sin. The original readers would have been familiar with how this image is used in Deuteronomy 28:28-29:

‘And you have been groping in the noon as the blind grope in the darkness.’ [5]

Blindness is one of the judgments in Deuteronomy that will fall on the people if they are disobedient and fail to uphold their end of the covenant.[6] This whole speech is to be read in light of the covenant that was established in Deuteronomy. The people are admitting they have failed the covenant. Allusions are most effective when they are familiar to the hearer; if the audience does not recognise it the rhetorical effect is decreased.[7]

Blindness is not only an allusion to other books in the Bible but it is a common image in the book of Isaiah. There are a number of allusions in Isaiah 58 and 59 which place this particular speech in the larger work of the prophet. These allusions are often key motifs reminding the audience of the whole message of Isaiah.[8] Blindness is regularly used throughout Isaiah to stand for those who are ‘insensitive to God’s Word’.[9] For example, earlier in Isaiah the theme of blindness is established in Isaiah 6:9-10. This is later developed in Isaiah 35:5 where God promises the people a time coming when the blind will see.[10] There is also the promise in the middle of Isaiah that God will reverse the blindness of the people.[11] The people, by the time Isaiah 59 was delivered, are still waiting for their healing. Now they confess they are continue to be blind because of their own inaction and sin.

Absence

This unit ends with a stark picture. The rhetorical device employed is the personification of truth. Verse 14:

So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. Isaiah 59:14-15

Personification is when an object or concept- in this case, truth- is described as having human qualities.[12] A similar occurrence has already occurred in Isaiah 59:9. These virtues are associated with God; they are portrayed as his representatives who have been rejected by the people.[13] The people acknowledge that this is where their sin has lead them.

To think about

What other allusions to blindness come to mind?

Is there any value in communal confession today?

Where is justice and truth driven back in our society?


[1] Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style : The Uses of Language in Persuasion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 285.

[2] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66, The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2009), 597.

[3] Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Put on the Armour of God : The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 19.

[4] Tony Schirato and Susan Yell, Communication and Cultural Literacy, vol. Second Edition (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 53.

[5] Risto Nurmela, The Mouth of the Lord Has Spoken : Inner-Biblical Allusions in Second and Third Isaiah (Lanham, Md. ; Oxford: University Press of America, 2006), 106.

[6] Deuteronomy 28:29

[7] Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 595.

[8] Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style : The Uses of Language in Persuasion, 95.

[9]Kenneath Kuntz, “The Contribution of Rhetorical Cricism to Understanding Isaiah 51:1-16,” in Art and Meaning : Rhetoric in Biblical Literature, ed. David J. A. Clines, D. M. Gunn, and Alan J. Hauser (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1982), 148.

[10] Gary V. Smith, “Spiritual Blindness, Deafness, and Fatness in Isaiah,” Bibliotheca sacra 170, no. 678 (2013): 177.

[11] Ronald E. Clements, “Beyond Tradition-History : Deutero-Isaianic Development of First Isaiah’s Themes,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 31 (1985): 103.

[12] Isaiah 41:7, 42:16

[13] Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. ed. (Berkeley, Calif. ; Oxford: University of California Press, 1991), 123.

[14] Yoder Neufeld, Put on the Armour of God : The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians, 20.

One thought on “Isaiah 59 – Part 4

  1. Ross McKenzie says:

    Feels like I’ve been reading Bible college essays over the past few days. The good is hidden in the formality. Eg instead of
    ‘Personification is when an object or concept- in this case, truth- is described as having human qualities.’
    Why not
    ‘Truth is pictured like a human’
    And forget the footnotes! I’m a person on the street hungering for God’s word to be explained clearly, not interested in chasing up references.

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