More Christlike God Q & A: “Doesn’t Isaiah 59:2 clearly state that our sins separate us from God?” – Brad Jersak

Dear Brad,

I have had the privilege of hearing your teaching at my local church. I also love your book, Stricken by God?  In it you dispel the idea that God cannot look on sin and I totally agree with your reasoning.  But although you mention Habakkuk 1:13, you do not comment on Isaiah 59:2. It seems to be clearly stating that the people’s sin had separated them from God and hidden his face from them. I would be most interested in your interpretation of this verse, if you have the time to answer.
Thank you.  May God bless you,
What a great question, Sarah!
Yes, Isaiah 59 is a key text in the discussion, and our Old Testament scholar, Dr. Matt Lynch, has been fantastic in walking me through the chapter details. I cover it briefly in my new book, A More Christlike God. Before I get to that, it’s helpful to read the verse in question super-carefully.
“But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
What separates us from God? God? No. Our iniquities.
What hides his face from us? God? No. Our sins.
This is the all-essential distinction: in our rebellion and shame, like Adam and Eve, two things are at play in obscuring his face: 1. “Our” [we do it] and 2. “Sins” [what we do].
This is reminiscent of Adam and Eve, trying to hide their nakedness in the Garden. In fact, they were hiding God from themselves but they were not hidden from God at all … unless we think God literally didn’t know where they were. It’s a bit like covering our eyes and believing the sun is no longer shining.
Back to Isaiah: In turning from God’s loving care, we reject his blessings, so that ‘he does not hear us’ … Of course, we know God actually hears everything, because he is God, so this last phrase is poetic (indeed, the whole chapter is a Hebrew poem) … To say God “doesn’t hear us” is a metaphor for the real experience of not perceiving or receiving God’s promised blessings. And why don’t we? Because God is angry and has turned away? Not at all! Rather, because in our sin, we have turned away from God and rebuffed the blessings that come with knowing him.
At the same time, while we have turned from God, God has not turned from us. While our sins hide his face from us we are not hidden from him at all. That is, our sin obscures the joy of his presence, even though God may still feel very ‘in our face’ … as he is in Isaiah 59!
And what does God do? 
God sees, and in Isaiah 59, Isaiah says that God is displeased with the whole situation … the injustice, the alienation, and the interrupted flow of blessings to God’s children. But far from concluding that God rejects or abandons us, we must keep reading … God springs into action. God initiates a saving act whereby he rolls up his sleeves and comes to us himself through his Messianic Redeemer. Those who turn to God will find that he was already for them and toward them. In other words, our repentance does not cause God to come, but rather, God’s grace precedes and even generates our repentance. This is how the New Covenant (announced in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and elsewhere) works. Unilateral grace to self-alienated children. And his New Covenant, according to Isaiah, also assures us that God’s Spirit will not depart … ever.
Here’s how I address it in A More Christlike God:
Some may have been thrown off by a passage in Isaiah, which says, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:2).

Well, that’s quite damning, isn’t it! Pretty clear, right? The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it, right? If only we would keep reading! The chapter as a whole goes like this—God sees the injustice in the land and how that injustice has broken the flow of blessing and favor he intends. He grieves the situation. So what does God do?

15 The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.

16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.

Who or what is this arm of the Lord? Keep reading:

20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord.

21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.

In other words, when God sees individuals or nations wallowing in sin—personal or social, far from turning his back on us and alienating us, he rolls up his sleeves and stretches out his hand to save. In this case the ‘hand’ is a metaphor for the Messiah, a prophetic pronouncement of God’s remedy, and a promise that he will not abandon us.

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