A Prayer of Repentance
THE destruction of Jerusalem and her temple in 607 B.C.E. was discipline from Jehovah, an expression of his extreme disapproval. The disobedient nation of Judah deserved the severe punishment. Yet, Jehovah did not intend that the Jews be exterminated. The apostle Paul alluded to the purpose of Jehovah’s discipline when he said: “True, no discipline seems for the present to be joyous, but grievous; yet afterward to those who have been trained by it it yields peaceable fruit, namely, righteousness.”—Hebrews 12:11.
2 How will the Jews react to the hard experience? Will they hate Jehovah’s discipline? (Psalm 50:16, 17) Or will they accept it as training? Will they repent and be healed? (Isaiah 57:18; Ezekiel 18:23) The prophecy of Isaiah suggests that at least some of the former inhabitants of Judah will respond well to the discipline. Beginning in the last verses 15-19 of Isa chapter 63 and continuing through Isa chapter 64, the nation of Judah is represented as a contrite people who approach Jehovah in heartfelt supplication. The prophet Isaiah, on behalf of his countrymen in their future exile, utters a prayer of repentance. While doing so, he speaks of coming events as if they were taking place before his eyes.
A Compassionate Father
3 Isaiah prays to Jehovah: “Look from heaven and see out of your lofty abode of holiness and beauty.” The prophet is speaking of the spiritual heavens, where Jehovah and his invisible spirit creatures dwell. Expressing the thoughts of the Jews in exile, Isaiah continues: “Where are your zeal and your full might, the commotion of your inward parts, and your mercies? Toward me they have restrained themselves.” (Isaiah 63:15) Jehovah has held back his power and controlled his deep feelings—“the commotion of [his] inward parts, and [his] mercies”—toward his people. Yet, Jehovah is the “Father” of the Jewish nation. Abraham and Israel (Jacob) were their natural forefathers, but if these were restored to life, they might be inclined to reject their apostate offspring. Jehovah has greater compassion. (Psalm 27:10) Isaiah gratefully says: “You, O Jehovah, are our Father. Our Repurchaser of long ago is your name.”—Isaiah 63:16.
4 Isaiah continues with a heartfelt expression: “Why do you, O Jehovah, keep making us wander from your ways? Why do you make our heart hard against the fear of you? Come back for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your hereditary possession.” (Isaiah 63:17) Yes, Isaiah prays that Jehovah will again turn his attention to his servants. In what sense, though, does Jehovah make the Jews wander from his ways? Is Jehovah responsible for the hardness of their hearts that leads them to have no fear of him? No, but he does allow it, and in their despair the Jews lament that Jehovah gave them such freedom. (Exodus 4:21; Nehemiah 9:16) They wish that Jehovah had stepped in to prevent them from doing wrong.
5 Of course, God does not deal with humans in that way. We are free moral agents, and Jehovah allows us to decide for ourselves whether to obey him or not. (Deuteronomy 30:15-19) Jehovah wants worship that stems from hearts and minds that are motivated by genuine love. Hence, he has allowed the Jews to exercise their free will, even though this has permitted them to rebel against him. It is in this way that he has made their hearts hard.—2 Chronicles 36:14-21.
6 What is the result? Isaiah prophetically says: “For a little while your holy people had possession. Our own adversaries have stamped down your sanctuary. We have for a long time become as those over whom you did not rule, as those upon whom your name had not been called.” (Isaiah 63:18, 19) Jehovah’s people had possession of his sanctuary for a while. Then Jehovah allowed it to be destroyed and his nation to be taken into exile. When that happened, it was as if there had been no covenant between him and the offspring of Abraham and as if his name had not been called upon them. Now captive in Babylon, the Jews cry out in their hopelessness: “O if only you had ripped the heavens apart, that you had come down, that on account of you the very mountains had quaked, as when a fire ignites the brushwood, and the fire makes the very water boil up, in order to make your name known to your adversaries, that on account of you the nations might be agitated!” (Isaiah 64:1, 2) Jehovah does indeed have the power to save. He certainly could have come down and fought for his people, ripping apart heavenlike governmental systems and breaking up mountainlike empires. Jehovah could have made his name known by showing his fiery zeal in behalf of his people.
7 Jehovah had done such things in the past. Isaiah recounts: “When you did fear-inspiring things for which we could not hope, you came down. On account of you the mountains themselves quaked.” (Isaiah 64:3) Such great acts demonstrated Jehovah’s power and Godship. However, the unfaithful Jews of Isaiah’s time have no right to expect Jehovah to act in such a way for their benefit.
Only Jehovah Can Save
8 False gods perform no powerful acts of salvation for their worshipers. Isaiah writes: “From time long ago none have heard, nor have any given ear, nor has an eye itself seen a God, except you, that acts for the one that keeps in expectation of him. You have met up with the one exulting and doing righteousness, those who keep remembering you in your own ways.” (Isaiah 64:4, 5a) Jehovah alone is “the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.” (Hebrews 11:6) He acts to protect those doing righteousness and those remembering him. (Isaiah 30:18) Have the Jews acted in this way? No. Isaiah says to Jehovah: “Look! You yourself became indignant, while we kept sinning—in them a long time, and should we be saved?” (Isaiah 64:5b) Because God’s people have a long record of persistent sinfulness, there is no basis for Jehovah to hold back his indignation and act for their salvation.
9 The Jews cannot undo the past, but if they repent and return to pure worship, they can hope for forgiveness and future blessings. Jehovah will reward repentant ones in his due time by releasing them from Babylonian captivity. Still, they need to be patient. Despite their repentance, Jehovah will not change his timetable. If they keep alert and are responsive to Jehovah’s will, however, they are assured of eventual liberation. Similarly, Christians today patiently keep in expectation of Jehovah. (2 Peter 3:11, 12) We take to heart the words of the apostle Paul, who said: “Let us not give up in doing what is fine, for in due season we shall reap if we do not tire out.”—Galatians 6:9.
10 Isaiah’s prophetic prayer is more than a formal confession of sin. It expresses sincere recognition of the nation’s inability to save itself. The prophet says: “We become like someone unclean, all of us, and all our acts of righteousness are like a garment for periods of menstruation; and we shall fade away like leafage, all of us, and our errors themselves will carry us away just like a wind.” (Isaiah 64:6) By the end of the exile, repentant Jews may have ceased practicing apostasy. They may have turned to Jehovah with acts of righteousness. But they are still imperfect. Their good deeds, while praiseworthy, are no better than soiled garments when it comes to atonement for sins. Jehovah’s forgiveness is an undeserved gift motivated by his mercy. It is not something that can be earned.—Romans 3:23, 24.
11 As Isaiah looks ahead, what does he see? The prophet prays: “There is no one calling upon your name, no one rousing himself to lay hold on you; for you have concealed your face from us, and you cause us to melt by the power of our error.” (Isaiah 64:7) The spiritual condition of the nation is abysmal. The people have not been calling upon God’s name in prayer. While no longer guilty of the gross sin of idolatry, they are evidently negligent in their worship, and there is “no one rousing himself to lay hold” on Jehovah. They clearly do not enjoy a healthy relationship with the Creator. Perhaps some feel unworthy to address Jehovah in prayer. Others may go about their daily routine without taking him into account. Of course, there are such individuals as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Ezekiel among the exiles, and these are fine examples of faith. (Hebrews 11:33, 34) As the 70-year period of captivity draws to a close, such men as Haggai, Zechariah, Zerubbabel, and High Priest Joshua stand ready to take an excellent lead in calling upon the name of Jehovah. Still, Isaiah’s prophetic prayer seems to describe the condition of the majority of the exiles.
“To Obey Is Better Than a Sacrifice”
12 Repentant Jews are willing to change. Representing them, Isaiah prays to Jehovah: “Now, O Jehovah, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are our Potter; and all of us are the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8) These words once again acknowledge Jehovah’s authority as Father, or Life-Giver. (Job 10:9) Jews who repent are compared to malleable clay. Those who respond to Jehovah’s discipline can in a figurative way be shaped, or formed, in harmony with God’s standards. But this can be accomplished only if Jehovah, the Potter, extends forgiveness. Hence, Isaiah twice appeals to him to remember that the Jews are his people: “Do not be indignant, O Jehovah, to the extreme, and do not forever remember our error. Look, now, please: we are all your people.”—Isaiah 64:9.
13 During the exile, the Jews endure much more than mere captivity in a pagan land. The desolate condition of Jerusalem and her temple brings reproach upon them and their God. Isaiah’s prayer of repentance recounts some of the things that cause this reproach: “Your own holy cities have become a wilderness. Zion itself has become a sheer wilderness, Jerusalem a desolate waste. Our house of holiness and beauty, in which our forefathers praised you, has itself become something for burning in the fire; and every one of our desirable things has become a devastation.”—Isaiah 64:10, 11.
14 Of course, Jehovah is well aware of the state of affairs in the ancestral land of the Jews. About 420 years before the destruction of Jerusalem, he warned his people that if they turned away from his commandments and served other gods, he would “cut [them] off from upon the surface of the ground,” and the beautiful temple would “become heaps of ruins.” (1 Kings 9:6-9) True, Jehovah found delight in the land he had given to his people, the magnificent temple built in his honor, and the sacrifices made to him. But loyalty and obedience are more important than material things, even sacrifices. The prophet Samuel aptly said to King Saul: “Does Jehovah have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Look! To obey is better than a sacrifice, to pay attention than the fat of rams.”—1 Samuel 15:22.
15 Nevertheless, can the God of Israel look upon the calamity of his repentant people and fail to be moved to pity? Such is the question with which Isaiah ends his prophetic prayer. On behalf of the exiled Jews, he pleads: “In the face of these things will you continue keeping yourself in check, O Jehovah? Will you stay still and let us be afflicted to the extreme?” (Isaiah 64:12) As the situation turns out, Jehovah does indeed forgive his people, and in 537 B.C.E., he brings them back to their land so that they can resume pure worship there. (Joel 2:13) Centuries later, however, Jerusalem and her temple were once again destroyed, and God’s covenant nation was finally rejected by him. Why? Because Jehovah’s people had drifted away from his commandments and had rejected the Messiah. (John 1:11; 3:19, 20) When that happened, Jehovah replaced Israel with a new nation, a spiritual nation, namely, “the Israel of God.”—Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9.
Jehovah, the “Hearer of Prayer”
16 Important lessons can be learned from what happened to Israel. We see that Jehovah is “good and ready to forgive.” (Psalm 86:5) As imperfect creatures, we depend on his mercy and forgiveness to receive salvation. No works of ours can help us to earn these blessings. However, Jehovah does not extend forgiveness indiscriminately. Only those who repent of their sins and turn around are in line for divine pardon.—Acts 3:19.
17 We also learn that Jehovah is keenly interested in our thoughts and feelings when we express them in prayer to him. He is the “Hearer of prayer.” (Psalm 65:2, 3) The apostle Peter assures us: “The eyes of Jehovah are upon the righteous ones, and his ears are toward their supplication.” (1 Peter 3:12) Further, we learn that a prayer of repentance must include a humble confession of sins. (Proverbs 28:13) This does not mean, though, that we can presume on God’s mercy. The Bible warns Christians “not to accept the undeserved kindness of God and miss its purpose.”—2 Corinthians 6:1.
18 Finally, we learn the purpose of God’s patience toward his sinful people. The apostle Peter explained that Jehovah is patient “because he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Nevertheless, those who persistently abuse God’s patience will eventually be punished. Concerning this we read: “[Jehovah] will render to each one according to his works: everlasting life to those who are seeking glory and honor and incorruptibleness by endurance in work that is good; however, for those who are contentious and who disobey the truth but obey unrighteousness there will be wrath and anger.”—Romans 2:6-8.
19 This is the way God dealt with ancient Israel. Our relationship with Jehovah today is governed by the same principles because he does not change. While not holding back deserved punishment, he will always be “Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, preserving loving-kindness for thousands, pardoning error and transgression and sin.”—Exodus 34:6, 7.
1, 2. (a) What is the purpose of divine discipline? (b) What choice will the Jews face after receiving Jehovah’s discipline?
3. (a) How does Isaiah’s prophetic prayer exalt Jehovah? (b) How does Daniel’s prayer show that the prophetic prayer of Isaiah represents the thoughts of repentant Jews in Babylon? (See box on page 362.)
4, 5. (a) In what sense does Jehovah make his people wander from his ways? (b) What kind of worship does Jehovah want?
6, 7. (a) What results from the Jews’ leaving Jehovah’s ways? (b) What vain wish is expressed, but what have the Jews no right to expect?
8. (a) What is one way that Jehovah is different from the false gods of the nations? (b) Why does Jehovah not act to save his people despite being able to do so? (c) How does Paul quote and apply Isaiah 64:4? (See box on page 366.)
9. What can repentant Jews hope for, and what can we learn from this?
10. What inability is frankly confessed in Isaiah’s prayer?
11. (a) What unhealthy spiritual condition exists among most of the Jews in exile, and why may this be? (b) Who were excellent examples of faith during the exile?
12. How does Isaiah express the willingness of repentant Jews to change their conduct?
13. What is the condition of the land of Israel while God’s people are in exile?
14. (a) How did Jehovah warn of the situation that now exists? (b) While Jehovah found delight in his temple and the sacrifices made there, what is more important?
15. (a) What plea does Isaiah prophetically make to Jehovah, and how is it answered? (b) What events led up to Jehovah’s final rejection of Israel as a nation?
16. What does the Bible teach regarding Jehovah’s forgiveness?
17, 18. (a) How do we know that Jehovah is genuinely interested in our thoughts and feelings? (b) Why does Jehovah exercise patience toward sinful humans?
19. What unchangeable qualities will Jehovah always display?
[Box/Pictures on page 362]
Daniel’s Prayer of Repentance
The prophet Daniel lived in Babylon throughout the 70-year period of Jewish captivity. Sometime during the 68th year of the exile, Daniel discerned from Jeremiah’s prophecy that Israel’s sojourn was nearing its end. (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10; Daniel 9:1, 2) Daniel turned to Jehovah in prayer—a prayer of repentance on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. Daniel relates: “I proceeded to set my face to Jehovah the true God, in order to seek him with prayer and with entreaties, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. And I began to pray to Jehovah my God and to make confession.”—Daniel 9:3, 4.
Daniel uttered his prayer some two hundred years after Isaiah penned the prophetic prayer found in chapters 63 and 64 of his book. Undoubtedly, many sincere Jews prayed to Jehovah during the difficult years of exile. The Bible, however, highlights Daniel’s prayer, which evidently represented the feelings of many faithful Jews. Thus, his prayer shows that the sentiments of Isaiah’s prophetic prayer were indeed the sentiments of faithful Jews in Babylon.
Note some similarities between Daniel’s prayer and Isaiah’s.
[Box on page 366]
“Eye Has Not Seen”
In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul quoted the book of Isaiah when he wrote: “Just as it is written: ‘Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, neither have there been conceived in the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those who love him.’” (1 Corinthians 2:9)* Neither Paul’s statement nor the expressions of Isaiah refer to the things Jehovah has prepared for his people in a heavenly inheritance or in a future earthly paradise. Paul is applying Isaiah’s words to the blessings that were already being enjoyed by Christians in the first century, such as understanding the deeper things of God and receiving spiritual enlightenment from Jehovah.
We can understand deep spiritual things only when it is Jehovah’s due time to reveal them—and even then, only if we are spiritual people with a close relationship with Jehovah. Paul’s words apply to those with little or no spirituality. Their eye cannot see, or discern, spiritual truths, and their ear cannot hear, or understand, such things. Knowledge of the things that God has prepared for those who love him does not even enter into the hearts of such men. But to those who are dedicated to God, as Paul was, God has revealed these things through his spirit.—1 Corinthians 2:1-16.
[Picture on page 367]
God’s people had possession of Jerusalem and her temple “for a little while”