Q & R with Brad: “Doesn’t Isaiah 59:1-2 Teach Separation from God?”

QUESTION:

Hi Brad,

I love the article you wrote on separation/alienation but I am having problems understanding the separation verses in scripture. The specific scripture I had trouble interpreting in light of your article on “separation” was Isaiah 59:1-2.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

RESPONSE:

Thanks for your question. In general, “separation” references are best interpreted as phenomenological. That’s a fancy word that means most mentions of separation are descriptions of our experience, from our point of view (like the word “sunset”), rather than the reality. Such descriptions are “true” experientially, but not literally. I’ve written a previous article that should make it more clear:
https://www.ptm.org/inspired-by-god-part-3-dame-judy-dench-phenomenological-sunsets

As for Isaiah 59, the first two verses provide a classic proof-text for those who want to argue for “separation,” just as it’s a classic example of reading isolated verses out of context to reinforce an exclusionary religious theological system. The chapter as a whole is incredibly beautiful and actually addresses the question of separation head on. So as usual, when in doubt, just keep reading:

First, I’m glad you began with verse 1, which is the theme of the whole chapter. Despite the self-inflicted, self-alienating troubles that we’ll read about in the next 14 verses, God’s opening statement assures us beyond any doubt,

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.

And that’s exactly what he’ll do. Let’s consider three important highlights in this chapter.

1. THEIR OWN SINS HAVE CUT THEM OFF (VERSES 2-15)

In this context, to be separated or cut off refers to God’s people going through an experience of loss. They are no longer enjoying the blessings of the covenant because they have turned away from God to idolatry, violence and injustice. He didn’t cut them off or disown them. They’ve done this to themselves. While God has already told them he is able and willing to hear them and save them, their experience makes it seem to them that he can’t hear them or save them.

This description is identical to the case of the prodigal son, who was cut off from all the benefits of living at home. This is what we mean by alienation. But note: like the prodigal, God’s wayward people, bereft of the covenant blessings, were not truly separated from God’s unwavering love for them. Rather, like the prodigal son, they were blind to God’s love and deaf to his answers by their own doing. It’s they who lied about God and it was they who left him (vs. 13). That’s the precise problem that God goes about solving in this very chapter.

2. ABBA INITIATES THE SAVING SOLUTION:
THE COMING REDEEMER (VERSES 16-20)

In verse 16, we see that God assesses this disaster and initiates his saving solution. Verses 16-20 outline that solution.

16 He saw that there was no man,
And wondered that there was no intercessor;
Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him;
And His own righteousness, it sustained Him.

The solution is none other than Abba’s Messiah. This whole section is a Messianic prophecy, where Abba’s “MAN,” his “INTERCESSOR” and his “ARM” refer to our Savior Incarnate. Where we’ve been unfaithful, our covenant-keeping God will prove faithful by rolling up his own sleeve and extending that awesome “right arm”: Jesus Christ himself.

20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion,
And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,”
Says the Lord.

3. ABBA RENEWS HIS ETERNAL COVENANT (VERSE 21)

“As for Me,” says the Lord, “this is My covenant with them:
My Spirit who is upon you,
and My words which I have put in your mouth,
shall not depart from your mouth,
nor from the mouth of your descendants,
nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the Lord,
“from this time and forevermore.”

Isaiah’s message is fulfilled in beautiful Trinitarian fashion!

  • First, we have Abba surveying the carnage. He’s not pleased that his people have so lost their minds that they would wallow and languish, cut off from the blessings by turning from his Fatherly care.
  • Second, Abba resolves to solve the problem by sending his Messiah to redeem them from the enemy. As it turns out, he dons spiritual armor to conquer the true adversary, the spiritual forces of death itself.
  • Third, Abba renews his covenant and seals it with his Spirit and his Word, which he promises, will never depart from them or their descendants, “from this time and evermore.”

All this to say, while the passage certainly uses the word “separation,” it is not the separation implied by those dysfunctional theologies of separation that “lie against the Lord” (vs. 13), by painting him as the One who turned. Rather, the whole chapter describes the Trinitarian love of Abba, Christ and the Spirit of Grace, in hot pursuit of children who suffer alienation.

As with the Good Shepherd of Jesus’ parable, Isaiah 59 describes the God who will leave the 99 and relentlessly seek for the lost sheep … for how long? Until he finds them.

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