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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God's Helpless People Plead for Mercy
Text:Isaiah 64:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 144:1,2                                                                                    

Ps 79:2,3                                                                                                        

Reading – Isaiah 63:7-19

Ps 68:1,3

Sermon – Isaiah 64:1-12

Ps 85:1,3

Hy 14:1,3,9

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters, in our text Isaiah is praying. Praying is a normal thing for us, but let’s appreciate what the prophet is doing here. In this book of prophecy, there’s all kinds of different styles of writing. In Isaiah there are speeches, parables, lamentations, hymns of praise, predictions of the future, historical records—but few prayers. Maybe we wouldn’t even expect prayer in a book like this.

But that’s what this passage very clearly is. Isaiah prays to God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens! That you would come down!” (64:1). It’s a continuation of the prayer that he started back in chapter 63, where he asks God to “look down from heaven, and see from your habitation, holy and glorious” (v 15). He is very eager for God to take notice and to act.

And what kind of prayer is it? What’s the mood of Isaiah’s petition? We’re about to see that it’s a prayer offered from the depths, from a pretty low place: ‘Lord, please have mercy. Save and restore us.’ We’ll see why Isaiah, and God’s people with him, are feeling so helpless. They’re desperate for the LORD to draw near and do something.

That’s how we all should pray sometimes, when we just have to make a genuine plea for the Lord’s mercy and can do nothing else. Such a prayer comes from realizing that here is something we cannot change or fix, that we need God’s grace, for we’re sinful and weak.

Of course, everyone agrees with that: ‘Yes, I’m a wretched sinner too.’ But maybe it’s not often that this truth hits home for us. And we just carry on, pretty comfortable with our life and what we’re able to do. Until in a moment of truth, we realize that we can’t solve this problem in our family. We cannot atone for the terrible ways in which we’ve failed. And we can’t keep the church on the right track by our own efforts.

So we finally pray, ‘O God, please do something. Make this better. You’re our only hope, our only help.’ And God, our Father in Christ, has promised to answer the pleas of his people. I preach God’s Word to you on this theme from Isaiah 64,

The LORD’s helpless people can only plead for mercy:

  1. awestruck by God’s glory
  2. humbled because of sin
  3. yet hopeful for restoration


1) awestruck by God’s glory: Let’s begin with the very last verse, for it gives a sense of the dark mood of Isaiah’s prayer, “Will you restrain yourself because of these things, O LORD? Will you hold your peace, and afflict us very severely?” (64:12). Literally, Isaiah asks God, ‘LORD, are you going to stay silent?’ His people are in deep trouble, and will God be passive? He seems very far away, like He’s on the far side of a vast canyon and looking the other way. There’s nothing worse than to feel like God doesn’t care, that He’s out of touch.

He does care, and we’re never out of the Father’s reach. Prayer is about having that sense of real communion with God. That’s what we desire when we draw near to him. Especially if we’ve gone through a time where God has seemed far away, then just his presence is enough to change our world.

And this is what Isaiah prays for: God’s presence. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens!” (v 1). To ‘rend’ something is to tear it apart—like shredding the wrapping paper on your birthday presents. From Isaiah’s perspective right now, God is hidden from view, at a distance because of his great holiness. If only God would “tear a hole in the heavens” so He can come down and have mercy!

Because when God draws near, that’s when things begin to happen. Look at everything happening in verses 1-2. “Come down…that the mountains might shake at your presence” (v 1). And when He draws near, it will be “as fire burns brushwood, as fire causes water to boil” (v 2). Think of how a bushfire can sweep quickly across the hills, or how a pot of ice cold water is soon transformed to bubbling and steaming—that’s what the coming of God can be like: immediate and drastic change.

One of the things on Isaiah’s mind in this prayer is the power of Judah’s enemies. They have been so cruel—the land was in shambles, the king was powerless, and still there was the coming exile to dread and all the pain of captivity. So Judah would love to see God’s fire sweep through the nations and consume their foes. Verse 2: “Make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at your presence!”

Isaiah has spoken often about the Gentile nations. He’s told of a time when they come to Zion for salvation. But now there’s a different message, for some people will aways hate God and his people. Isaiah prays that God’s presence will make the unbelieving Gentiles tremble in fear.

And now Isaiah remembers with longing the better days. In his prayer he reminds God of “when you did awesome things for which we did not look, you came down, the mountains shook at your presence” (v 3). At Mount Sinai God put on a spectacular display of his glory; even the foundations of the earth trembled and quaked. Then God gave his holy law, and the Israelites fell down and worshiped. Back then the future was so bright: Israel was on the way to the Promised Land, guided by Moses, and the presence of the LORD went with them.

Isaiah remembers the great days of being awestruck by the LORD’s glory. In the previous chapter too, he recalled the Lord’s works of deliverance. Think of everything God did to save his people; He sent “the Angel of his Presence” (63:9), and God “brought them up out of the sea…[and] led them by the right hand of Moses” (vv 11-12). Every day anew, God was revealing his greatness: his kindness, his compassion, his power.

So maybe God will do it again. That is Isaiah’s prayer—and it’s Judah’s hope in trouble: ‘Rend the heavens and come down. Be our help like you were before!’ Or could it be that God has forgotten? ‘Where is He who did these great things?’ is what Isaiah keeps asking. And we’re allowed to ask questions like that, even in our dark places. It’s not the same as doubting God. For there is faith here: the LORD has acted for his people before, and He can act—so we can expect him to act again.

Look at 64:4, “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides you, who acts for the one who waits for him.” There is none like the Lord, no God besides him in glory.

And then underline that last phrase, because it is the foundation of Isaiah’s confidence in prayer, “[God] acts for the one who waits for him.” That is the certainty of God’s good answer, even in our trouble: the glorious LORD will take action. But God commands his people to wait for him. To wait on God is to have the expectation that He’ll take action on our behalf, but not necessarily when we think the time is right. It happens in God’s time. So waiting on God is refusing to run ahead of him, or trying to solve our own problems, or trying to escape some other way. But we trust in him.

You can’t trust in someone you don’t know. You’d actually be a fool to trust in someone you just met, especially if you’re asking them to babysit your kids for the weekend or to renovate your kitchen. Trust demands personal knowledge. And we know God. We’ve learned his good ways through the Word. We’ve seen what He can do, we’ve had moments of being awestruck by God’s glory—we need to remember those. We know that God’s power is perfect, his wisdom is unsearchable, and his love for us is steadfast. So we pray.


2) humbled because of our sin: We said that our text is one of the few prayers found in this book of Isaiah. And it’s found very near the end. So why, after all the saving good that God has already promised, all the blessing, why does Isaiah now plead with something close to despair?

Isaiah hasn’t forgotten. But God’s great saving plan has left Isaiah (and Judah) feeling empty and humbled. Maybe you can relate. For sometimes we experience even God’s kindness as overwhelming in its intensity. The LORD is so good to us, but we’re so unworthy. Like David says in 2 Samuel 7:18, “Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that you have brought me this far?” We just can’t fathom how and why the Lord could be so gracious. It’s good for all of us to feel like that sometimes.

So Isaiah (and Judah) are humbled as they reflect on their sin in the sight of the great God. For Isaiah has been praying for the LORD to come near. Like he says in verse 5, “You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness, who remembers you in your ways.” God will “meet” the person who does righteousness. In Isaiah we learn how God delights in a person who is fair, a person who doesn’t exploit the weak but helps them.

And Isaiah says that God meets the person “who remembers [him].” When you remember God, you don’t just spare a thought for him at the odd moment every day: like when you remember to pray to God just before you bite into your sandwich, or when you finally lay down to sleep. To remember God is to have him at the forefront, where his will and grace are the engine of all you do, where closeness to God brings you joy.

God delights in those who remember him. But Isaiah confesses how Judah has done the opposite. They’ve lived in a terminal state of spiritual dementia; they have forgotten the LORD and lost even the most basic skills of doing his will. So Isaiah’s awestruck prayer now becomes a prayer of confession: “You are indeed angry, for we have sinned—in these ways we continue; and we need to be saved” (v 5). Just like the Israelites in the wilderness who rebelled against God, so Judah has been living in unrighteousness.

Now, sometimes our confessions of sin to God are pretty bland. Short on detail, lacking in passion, almost the same every day. So we can learn from Isaiah’s confession, because it’s hard-hitting. It’s even graphic, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (v 6). When he refers to rags, he’s not talking about what you used this morning to wipe up crumbs on the countertop. The Hebrew word describes the kind of cloth that a woman used to keep herself clean during her period. That’s what our sin is like! It’s an uncomfortable image, for it shows just how sinful we are, how deep it goes.

In the Old Testament, a woman’s period made her unclean—and that’s the same thing that sin does to our lives. For sin flows from deep within us, day after day. Think of how perverse we can be: the cruel or dirty things we think about other people, or the despicable way we treat them, or how proud we are in our hidden thoughts. A woman’s uncleanness held her back from worshiping God for a while, and in the same way, our sin constantly gets in the way of our service of the Lord. It contaminates us and hinders at every turn.

And notice how Isaiah puts it: even our righteousness is like filth! Even when we try to do good, we often show how corrupt we are. We might think about how this public service makes us look good to other people, or how these spiritual gifts set us apart, or how this passing prayer eases our guilty conscience. Good works, badly done. So God has reason to cast us away.

It’s a humbling picture of our sin, and maybe we don’t often consider it. But it’s true. And where does it lead? Verse 6 says, “We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” The wages of sin is always death. Living out of step with God can only end in decay—we become like leaves, carried away by the wind.

As Isaiah looks around, he sees that not only does Judah lack any righteousness of their own, they don’t even want it any other way. There’s a lack of desire for God, a complacency about living at a distance from him; verse 7, “There is no one who calls on your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of you.” That’s a scary thought: by nature, we couldn’t care less about God. Even with the threat of his judgment, we are content to walk away from God.

If this is our natural state, we need so much help. I think that we only rarely realize how desperately we need this help, but thank God for those times when it becomes clear. Isaiah put it so pointedly a few verses before, in verse 5: “In these ways we continue; and we need to be saved.” We need to be saved!

But from what? Imagine that you’re walking along the sidewalk, and out of the blue, someone tackles you mightily to the ground. As you get up, all annoyed, dusting off your hands and knees, the guy who tackled you says, “Hey, I saved you!” And what’s your first response? “You saved me from what?

We need saving—from what? Saved from the burden of our sin, saved from our utter lack of desire and ability to do what’s right before the Lord. And more than that, we also need saving from the just penalty that should fall onto us for our failures. “You are indeed angry, for we have sinned” Isaiah says in verse 5; and again he says in verse 7, “You have hidden your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities.”

It can all seem futile, then. God wants us to live his way; but we don’t live his way. So He comes near in holy anger; and we try to dodge his anger by doing better next time, trying harder. But even our best works on our best days are like so many filthy rags. It seems futile, so we cry out to God for help. Please do something, God! For only God can break the cycle. Only God can stop the punishment—or redirect it— and restore us to himself. “We need to be saved.”

So we pray for God’s mercy, “Do not be furious, O LORD, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look—we all are your people!” (v 9). And what is the only basis for our prayer for mercy? When you’ve been emptied of all pride, when you’ve given up trying to earn the LORD’s favour or to fix your life, your only hope really is this: God has made us his own. Notice how Isaiah pleads on that basis, “We all are your people.”

It’s just as we can say to God, “LORD, you’ve made me your own in Jesus Christ. I’ve got nothing apart from what you’ve given me in your Word and in my baptism. I have no hope outside of how you’ve brought me into your family.” We look to God, awestruck by his glory, humbled by our sins, yet…


3) yet hopeful for restoration: There is hope in Isaiah’s prayer, and it comes out in a beautiful way. Let’s look at his confession in verse 8, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father.” Despite all the sin we have confessed—and so much more sin that we haven’t confessed—we are allowed to look to God as our Father.

Beloved, there is a world of reassurance in that simple address to God. He is not a father who finds satisfaction in the suffering of his children. He is not a father who leaves sons and daughters in the lowest place, not even if we put ourselves there by our own stupidity and wickedness. But the Father is merciful, so there is a great hope for restoration.

Isaiah and Judah (and we all) may look to God with that childlike expectation. “LORD, you are our Father.” It’s the prayer of the prodigal child who knows that he deserves to be rejected, but who still begs the Father for mercy. And the child comes, trusting that the Father will not turn him away.

We’re pretty used to the language of “Father” for God. After all, it’s how Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven.” It’s a name for God that we see a lot in the New Testament. But here we see that God has always been the Father to his covenant people.

Chapter 63 spoke of this too, in verse 16, “You, O LORD, are our Father; our Redeemer from everlasting is your name.” And God treated his people like a loving father with his little kids, “He bore them and carried them all the days of old” (63:9). It’s an old name for God that gets a brand new sound in Christ. In Christ, you can cry out “Abba, Father,” and know that God will be faithful to you forever.

And just as a child would not exist without a father, so a pot needs a potter. That’s the next hopeful address to God, “We are the clay, and you our potter; and all we are the work of your hand” (v 8). It’s a confession of God’s creative power and sovereignty. With a lump of clay in front of him, a potter has great freedom. He can make whatever he wants, maybe a fine pitcher for serving wine at dinner, or a rough pot for removing household waste.

In whatever way God has chosen to make us—with whatever gifts He has given or hardships He has sent—we can’t blame God for who we are. But what we can do is ask the Potter to reshape us. And God can! He is the Potter, we are the clay, and the LORD God can always make something of us. He is sovereign, and perfect in power, so He shapes and recasts a people for himself. Maybe this is what we pray for ourselves, or what we pray for people we know and care about—we pray that the Potter would make something new, that He would use his strength to reform us for his glory.

Isaiah is praying this particularly for the church, for the people of God in his time. For the prophet knows that trouble is coming. He speaks as if the dreaded invasion has already happened, as if the people have already been dragged away to exile. After all, God has given his word, so it is certain. Now the prophet thinks about what it will mean, “when your holy cities are a wilderness…Jerusalem a desolation,” when the “holy and beautiful temple” would be burned up with fire (vv 10-11). It’d be a dark day—how could there possibly be hope?

So we come back to the final verse: “Will you restrain yourself because of these things, O LORD? Will you hold your peace, and afflict us very severely?” (v 12). God can appear to be distant; He can seem to be silent, indeed.

But by now we know a better answer to those final questions. The LORD is not far away, and He never has been. He is our Father, whose door is always open to his children who return. He is the Potter, whose hands are always prepared to create good for those who love him.

In the days after Isaiah, God heard his people’s prayer for revival. How did He answer them? Did He rebuild Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, restore the temple and worship? In the short term, yes. After seventy years, a hundred years, things looked a bit better. Does that mean that God will also put right all the brokenness of this life in the here and now? Will the Father heal sickness, mend families, revive hearts? He might, He might not. So we wait on him.

We wait on the Lord, for God has something more in store. The next two chapters—the last two chapters of Isaiah—will show what God has planned: a new heavens and a new earth. That is the ultimate restoration, and it is our great hope: the great day of the coming of Jesus Christ. It’s that gospel which gives us courage to keep going, courage to keep praying, courage to keep trusting in God our Father.  Amen. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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