The Lord Intervenes to Save Depraved Sinners
The Lord saw that there was no justice, . . . so his own arm brought salvation, and his own righteousness supported him. (Isa 59:15-16)
Main Idea: The Lord looks on our wickedness and works his own salvation and vengeance on earth.
- Accusation by the Lord: You Are Radically Depraved (59:1-8)!
- There’s nothing wrong with God’s arm or ear (59:1-2).
- Your radical depravity is exposed (59:3-8).
- You cover your wickedness with wispy cobwebs (59:6).
- Confession by the Humble: We Acknowledge Our Wickedness (59:9-15a).
- From “you” to “we”: confession flows from the humble.
- Our condition is desperate (59:9-11).
- We need a Savior (59:11-12).
- Our sins are pervasive (59:13-15a).
- Intervention by the Lord: Salvation and Vengeance (59:15b-18)
- God saw that there was no man to intercede (59:15b-16).
- God clothed himself with righteousness and zeal (59:17).
- God worked salvation and vengeance himself (59:16-18).
- The Result: Worldwide and Eternal Salvation for the Repentant (59:19-21)
- From east to west, they will fear and glory in the Lord (59:19).
- The Redeemer comes to the repentant (59:20).
- The promise of the Lord’s covenant is the word and the Spirit forever (59:21).
Accusation by the Lord: You Are Radically Depraved!
The depravity of the human race is unfathomable, universal, and radical. The clearest description of sin in the Bible is Romans 3:9-18, in which the apostle Paul levels the pride of every human being on earth with the tattoo of a mournful drum:
There is no one righteous, not even one.
There is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away;
all alike have become worthless.
There is no one who does what is good,
not even one. (Rom 3:10-12)
To support this terrible truth, Paul reaches for Isaiah 59. Centuries before Paul wrote his epistle, Isaiah was the mouthpiece of almighty God to an equally radically depraved humanity.
God begins by speaking of the gap that stands between him and the sinful nation of Israel. The suffering Israelites cried out to God for deliverance, and they wondered why God had not answered their prayers. God says plainly it is not because his arm has become too weak to save or his ear too deaf to hear (v. 1). The problem lies entirely with the people: their sins have produced a separation between them and God so that he will not hear or act on their behalf (v. 2). God has told us that he lives in a “high and holy place” (Isa 57:15). Holiness means perfect separation; God is infinitely above all his creatures, even if they were morally pure, as the radiant seraphim show by hiding their face in his presence. But God is especially separate from all evil: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Hab 1:13). So there is nothing wrong with his arm, nor with his ear. There is something deeply, radically wrong with us.
Isaiah 59 begins with God accusing sinners directly: your iniquities, your sins, your blood-stained hands, your iniquity-defiled fingers, your lying lips, your muttered injustice (vv. 2-3). The depravity exposed in verses 3-8 is pervasive, including wicked plans and evil deeds. Their minds are corrupt and their actions are murderous. The image of repulsive creatures—viper’s eggs and spider’s webs—shows how evil these people have become.
Most striking of all is the effort wicked people make to cover themselves, to escape their guilt. Adam and Eve, realizing in their sin that they were naked, sought to cover themselves from each other and from God. Sinners make wispy cobwebs as a flimsy covering for themselves (v. 6), but it will not shield them from God’s holy eyes.
Confession by the Humble: We Acknowledge Our Wickedness
At this point the text turns inward and humble: the prophet, speaking for the redeemed among Israel (and among the Gentiles who find salvation in Christ), makes no effort to deflect the accusation of verses 1-8, no effort to deny. Everything said about us is true, painfully and shockingly true. The text moves from “you” and “they” to “we” and “us.” True salvation must always begin with honest confession and humble pleading for mercy.
Verse 9 acknowledges that justice and righteousness are far from us, a painful admission because perfect righteousness is required for heaven (Matt 5:20,48). The sea of sin in which we all swim has drowned all hope for light; we yearn for light, but all is darkness. The image of woeful sinners groping in the dark like blind men, moaning mournfully for salvation, is deeply moving and pathetic. It is also the condition of the human race apart from Christ. So in verses 11-12 the humble sinner cries out honestly about sin and yearns for a Savior.
The section probes the dimensions of the sin. It is horizontal, consistently violating the second great command to love our neighbor as ourselves, as verses 3-8 make plain. Verses 14-15 add to this, speaking of truth stumbling in the public square. But the vertical dimension is infinitely more significant: We have lied to the Lord, we have turned our backs on him and rebelled against his holy commands, sinning from our hearts, not superficially (v. 13).
This heartfelt confession is a model for the redeemed in every generation. It is obvious that every single human needs a Savior.
Intervention by the Lord: Salvation and Vengeance
God surveys the decadent condition of the human race with a penetrating gaze, and nothing escapes his notice. Neither does he look on such depravity without deep emotion; he was deeply offended (v. 15b). Beyond this, he was intensely aware that no man could save the sinful human race. No one was free from sin, and no one could work salvation for him; so he had to do it himself. Verse 16 says this was amazing to God! We should not imagine that this word means that God had not known how corrupt the human race was. Rather, this is anthropomorphic language to reveal how shocking the true condition of man’s depravity and utter helplessness is.
But God would not sit idly by and allow the human race to drown in its depravity; God’s zeal for his own glory and for the salvation of his elect moved him to decisive action. His own arm worked salvation for himself, and his own righteousness supported him (v. 16). He clothed himself with armor for battle: righteousness for a breastplate, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance, and zeal as a cloak (v. 17). Clearly this is Christ alone, God’s decisive intervention to save the world from its radical depravity. The clothing imagery here was fulfilled in the incarnation, as Jesus took on a human body and entered the world as God’s zealous commitment both to salvation for his elect and to vindication of his justice. Christ’s heart burned with a holy zeal to purify the people of God from their sins (John 2:17).
But these verses do not only mention salvation but also vengeance. Just as God chose Jesus to be his servant to work salvation for his chosen people, so God chose Jesus to be the instrument of his vengeance. Revelation 19 portrays Jesus, the Word of God, as having a sword coming from his mouth with which he will strike down the nations (vv. 15-16), and the vengeance he will inflict in the name of his holy Father will be terrible. In verses 17-18 we see him put on garments of vengeance to repay fury to his enemies for their wicked deeds, even to the distant coastlands (Isa 34:2).
The Result: Worldwide and Eternal Salvation for the Repentant
The dual displays in Scripture of Christ’s zeal for righteousness—in the past at the cross and in the future at the second coming—cause the elect in the west and in the east to fear his name and delight in his glory (v. 19). They do so by faith, for both displays cannot be seen now by the eye of flesh. Verse 19 says the movement of fear and glory will come like a rushing stream “driven by the wind of the Lord.” But the “wind of the Lord” can also be translated “the Spirit of the Lord,” and it is completely reasonable to see this expression as foretelling the spread of the gospel of the glory of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul quotes verse 20 in Romans 11:26 to speak of the consummation of the age of the gospel in the mysterious salvation of the final generation of Jews just before the end of the world. Christ is the “Deliverer” who will come “from Zion” (Rom 11) or “to Zion” (Isa 59); Zion represents both the heavenly city and the Jewish nation. Jesus is a Jewish Savior, for he said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). But the Jewish nation needs him to come to them in the end, to remove the hardness from their hearts and take their godlessness away from them (Rom 11:26).
So Isaiah 59:21 speaks of a marvelous covenant that the Redeemer will work for his chosen people: he will put his Spirit on them and his words in their mouths, and neither will depart from them “from now on and forever.”
We should realize that the words spoken of the wicked in verses 1-15 were true of us to the very core of our being before God worked salvation for us. We should realize how impotent we were to save ourselves—and how blind and mournful and spiritually dead we were. Paradoxically, such meditations have the power to make us indescribably happy while being so deeply humbled. This humbling can enable us to be patient under trials, to not complain when things don’t go our way.
Beyond this, these verses should give us an accurate diagnosis of the true spiritual condition of the lost world around us. It should enable us to see the reasons for the injustice, murder, perjury in court, and defrauding of unwary consumers. It should make us more zealous to share the gospel with the desperately lost people around us.
Reflect and Discuss
- How does this chapter describe the total depravity of the human race in graphic terms?
- How does this explain why it seems God doesn’t answer prayers?
- Why is it vital to meditate much on the concept of human depravity apart from Christ?
- How should we see our own sinfulness in light of these verses? How should these verses drive us to the cross of Christ?
- How does verse 6 particularly expose the foolishness of sinners trusting in their own righteousness on judgment day?
- How do verses 9-10 reveal the spiritual darkness of people apart from the light of the gospel (Eph 4:17-19)?
- Isaiah 59:15-17 shows the solitary action of almighty God in addressing human sinfulness. How do these verses point ultimately to the cross of Jesus Christ?
- How do verses 17-18 show the solitary role of almighty God in judging sinners?
- Paul paraphrases verse 20 in Romans 11:26, speaking of Christ’s redeeming work in Israel, turning the people from their sins to faith in him. How does it read differently here? How do you explain the difference?
- What final promise does verse 21 make to God’s people?