Isaiah 59 divides into three parts.

  1. 59:1–8 Judah’s sins have separated God from His people; therefore He has not delivered them. In verses 2 and 3 the people are accused of sin and this is evident by use of the second person pronouns “you” and “your”; but in verses 4 to 8 the third person plural pronouns “they” and “their” appear.
  2. 59:9–15(a) Isaiah and the people confess that their plight is the result of their sins. It is notable that this section is delineated by use of the first person pronouns “we”, “us” and “our”. Using coloured pencils to colour in these pronouns will aid understanding.
  3. 59:15(b)–21 The mighty arm of Yahweh intervenes to conquer sin, vanquish the forces of evil, redeem Jacob and establish His fear in all the earth.

59:1–2 Sin has separated God from His people

59:1–2 “Behold, Yahweh’s hand [cpv3] is not shortened [cp50:2; Num 11:23], that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities [Heb avon] have separated between you and your God, and your sins [Heb chata] have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”

It was not the waning of Yahweh’s power, nor deafness that explain His failure to deliver His people; it was their sins which had caused the rift in relations. He had promised to hear and answer prayers uttered in His Temple (2 Chron 7:15). The sins, which are listed in verses 3–8, had alienated God from His people. Sins committed by men fall into the categories of thoughts (v7), words (v3) and deeds (v6). They are an affront to God’s holiness, a barrier, a wall separating man from his Maker. Sins, be it noted, and not human nature per se, separate from God (see Eph 4:18; Col 1:21). The lusts that reside in fallen human nature, in man, cause man to sin against God, but neither they nor human nature are actual sin, though called sin by metonymy in Romans 7:17. “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me”, etc. It is true that our mortal human nature needs to be changed in order to “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50); and that our sins need to be forgiven. They are forgiven at baptism, and our nature will be changed, in the mercy of God, when the Lord comes. This is the simple truth of the matter which has been the cause of much confusion.

In Isaiah 58:3 the complaint had been made to God that their religious observances had not been seen or acknowledged; and in verse 9 the reforms needed to obtain His response to their prayers are listed.

59:3–8 Accusations detailed: a catalogue of sins

59:3 “For your hands [Heb hap, palm of hand] are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.”

These are accusations of personal involvement. The mention of hands and fingers denotes direct, detailed touch, and blood indicates violence and damage done to others (cpv7).

Lips and tongues are paired to stress that every aspect of speech was corrupted – “lies” indicating falsehood, and “perverseness” being translated from a word with wider meaning, untrustworthiness of speech in what is not right and what is unseemly (JA Motyer).

59:4 “None calleth for justice [Heb tsedec], nor any pleadeth for truth [Hab 1:4]: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.”

Notice that the accusations now change to the third person, “they” and “their”.

rsv “No one enters suit [ie lawsuit] justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas …”

In word and deed they were cruel and false. In the legal system false dealing, lies and dishonesty governed! A just cause was sabotaged by indifference and corruption.

The last part of verse 4 summarises their lifestyle.

  1. “they trust in vanity” (Heb tohu, emptiness); niv “empty arguments”, mlb “they trusted in confusion”, rsv “rely on empty pleas”. There is no trust placed in God.
  2. “they speak lies”
  3. “they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity” cp 33:11, James 1:14–15; Psa 7:14.

59:5–6 “They hatch cockatrice’ [adders’] eggs, and weave the spider’s web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper. Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands.”

Two figures are now introduced, the hatching of adders’ eggs and the spinning of the spider’s web. Both provoke disquiet and trepidation in the human heart!8 The consequences of each are given:

‘eating the eggs’ is to participate in the fruits of sin with the end result, condemnation and death; whilst the egg crushed and a viper emerging, perhaps indicates what happens when contriving and violent men are opposed!
‘spinning the web’ is a metaphor for making plans, but the resultant garment will be an inadequate covering for sin and nakedness (cp 28:20; Job 8:14).
The last half of 59:6 to the end of verse 8 is literal and provides explanations for the figures.

“neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity” Notice the double reference to works: because their works are works of iniquity, they will provide an inadequate cover; their works will not help them (57:12; 58:3–4).

“and the act of violence is in their hands” In verse 3 we learned that their hands were defiled or stained with blood; here we find out why.

59:7–8 “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths.”

“Their feet run to evil” What a contrast this is with the beautiful feet of him (or ‘them’, Rom 10:15) that brings good tidings and publishes peace (52:7)! “and they make haste to shed innocent blood” This aptly describes the early years of Manasseh, when this prophecy appears to have been given: he “shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Kings 21:16). Isaiah himself is believed to have been a victim of his purges (57:1–2; see The Lampstand Vol 17, Jan/Feb 2011, page 21).

“their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity” Thoughts are the precursors of words and deeds: every thought is a potential deed and every deed is the expression of a thought. Hence there is the need to control and purify them (2 Cor 10:4–5), and this can only be done by constant and daily attention to the Word of God (Phil 4:8; Psalm 119). If the wayward mind of the flesh is unchecked the result is “wasting [ruin, wreaking havoc] and destruction”, literally ‘breaking’. The breakdown of society, of all that is ordered and settled, as can be seen on every hand today.

59:8 “The way of peace [cited Luke 1:79] they know not; and there is no judgment [Heb mishpat, rsv justice, ] in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.”

This verse reflects upon what has been said in verses 3 to 7. It begins and ends with “peace”, so this is the subject.

Sinners do not “know” peace and their “way” or their lifestyle denies them its blessings; as trouble makers their roads will not lead to it. Righteousness is the foundation of peace: there can be “no peace … to the wicked” (57:21): “there is no justice in their paths” (rsv). Instead they have turned them into crooked roads, have made a tangled mess of their lives, and as such are no example for others to follow: whoever “goeth therein shall not know peace”.

By contrast, whoever follows the Prince of Peace will find “peace with God” (Rom 5:1), and inner contentment that can only be found when Christ abides in the heart (John 14:23,27).

Isaiah 59 and Romans 3 – the righteousness of God

Isaiah 59:7 and 8 are quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:15–17. This is very significant because in this chapter the apostle quotes six Old Testament passages, all of which demonstrate the utter depravity of man in contexts that show that righteousness is only to be found from and in God’s way of salvation (Psa 14:1–3; 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isa 59:7–8; Psa 36:1). So Romans 3 teaches that God has concluded all under sin, both Jew and Gentile (v9), so that no flesh might glory in His presence (v20). But Romans 3 also teaches that in the death of Jesus Christ the righteousness, the justice of God has been set forth and Sin has been conquered (v25, 26); and this is the substance of the last section of Isaiah 59. Seeing the appalling prevalence of sin, what was God going to do? Acquiesce with the status quo? By no means. As there was “no man”, “no intercessor”, His righteousness would sustain Him. Like a mighty warrior driven by zeal and vengeance He would contend with sin and evil until total victory was attained (59:15–21). This is the work that He has begun in His Son, “the arm of the Lord” (53:1).

So Romans 3 and Isaiah 59 are complementary, foretelling what God would do to Sin and explaining how this great work has begun in Jesus Christ, the first begotten from the dead.