All Our Righteousness Is As Filthy Rags

Isaiah 64:6 (NIV) 6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (1)

It has been a common misunderstanding to take this verse to mean that God cannot be pleased with anything we do.  It is also taken to be synonymous with our inability to be saved from God’s wrath by anyone but God Himself, a correct belief, but when tied to this Isaiah verse, is a serious misapplication. This verse should be read as a piece of sarcasm on Isaiah’s part. Aren’t we the righteous ones? The hollowness of the ancient Jews’ righteousness claims are exposed by their false worship of God and the way they lived their everyday lives. While attending to worship, they were also copying the base pagan practices of the surrounding nations. See the cross reference given by the NIV at the word, “righteous”:

Isaiah 46:12 (NIV) 12 Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are now far from my righteousness. (1)

and

Isaiah 48:1 (NIV) 1 “Listen to this, you descendants of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel—but not in truth or righteousness— (1)

Far from meaning that God finds our attempts to draw near to Him and to try to live more worthily as disciples, useless and unacceptable, these verses show that the Jews had attended to worship of God in a ritualistic, meaningless way because they forsook what God required of them – to worship Him as God and live by His ways, not by the ways of the surrounding pagans who were killing their children in child sacrifice among many other heinous idolatries and practices. Many Christians understand this verse to imply that God is never happy with anything we do. We are never good enough to please Him. But through our sanctification by the Holy Spirit, we can please God and grow in our understanding and love for God, attested to by changes in us according to His desires for our behaviour. We will never be good enough to earn our eternal salvation; that is taken as understood. But God is pleased when we try to move closer to Him in our lives. This movement towards God is called ‘sanctification’. The same word, ‘hagios’, refers to ‘saint’. A saint was one by virtue of being different to people of the surrounding culture – especially evident in not worshipping the same things, whether money, unbridled hedonism, rationalism devoid of any spiritual aspect and more. Bruce Shelley explains sainthood:

“The main cause of the hatred of early Christians in Roman society lies in their distinctive lifestyle. “We have the reputation,” said Tertullian in his Apology, “of living aloof from crowds.” The word used to describe the Christian in the New Testament is highly significant. It is the term hagios, often translated saints. It means ‘holy ones’, but its root suggests ‘different’. So a holy thing is different from other things. The temple is holy because it is different from other buildings; the Sabbath day is holy because it is different from other days. The Christian, therefore, is a person who is fundamentally different. Men always view with suspicion people who are different. Conformity, not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble-free life. So the more early Christians took their faith seriously, the more they were in danger of crowd reaction.” (2)

Before we move on, understand that ancient Israel, from 931 BC, (3) became a divided kingdom with the northern kingdom called Israel and the southern kingdom, Judah. Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. , as contributor to the ESV SB for the commentary on Isaiah, says the following to sum up what was wrong with the Jews of Isaiah’s day :

“Isaiah explains why the people of Judah are in crisis. They do not comprehend that they have forsaken God, abused their worship, and corrupted their society.” (4)

and

“God is offended by religious practices that come from an empty heart or a careless life ( 1:10–17 ; 58:1–12 ; 66:1–4 ). (5)

Isaiah’s life spanned across the 8th and 7th centuries BC. This preceded God’s judgement on Israel and Judah through His allowing their exile to Assyria (6) and Babylon (7), respectively. But there was doom in the air as Assyria was becoming a rising threat to peace in the entire Near-East region. (8) The contributor to the Isaiah commentary for the NIV SB, John N. Oswalt, also highlights how the Jews were practising their “faith” in a holy God :

“These chapters sharply contrast the rebellious, hypocritical, unjust Israel of the present (1:2–31; 2:6—4:1; 5:1–30) and the holy, purified remnant of the future (4:2–6) that will somehow draw the nations of the world to come to the holy mountain to learn the tôrâ (instructions) of God (2:1–5). These chapters do not spell out how God will effect this change. Strictly speaking, Isaiah speaks to Judah, but he seems to have in mind all of Israel—the nation as a whole.” (9)

Note Isaiah 65, which lays out the sins of God’s people:

“Isaiah 65:2-7 (ESV) 2 I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; 3 a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks; 4 who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat pig's flesh, and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels; 5 who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day. 6 Behold, it is written before me: “I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their lap 7 both your iniquities and your fathers' iniquities together, says the Lord; because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their lap payment for their former deeds.”(1)

The “offerings on the mountains” (verse 7) refers in part to a recurring sin of the Israelites: that of child sacrifice, whereby they copied the heinous practices of the nations around them that practiced the burning of their children alive as an offering to pagan gods. Israel continued this practice over centuries, as attested to by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who lived after Isaiah. The God of Israel would never request such a thing of His people:

Jeremiah 32:35 (NKJV) 35 ‘And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.’ (1)
Ezekiel 20:30-31 (ESV) 30 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Will you defile yourselves after the manner of your fathers and go whoring after their detestable things? 31 When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. (1)

Isaiah’s phrase,  “all our righteousness is as filthy rags”, does not mean that God’s people are abject failures at approaching God’s holiness. Clearly, Christians vary in their degrees of obedience to God, from martyrs as Isaiah became, to the thief on the cross next to Jesus whom Jesus assured would be with Him in paradise that very day. We are indeed undeserving and saved by God Himself through Jesus’ atoning death for us on the cross. But it does not follow that we should live our lives oblivious to God’s desire for us to live pleasingly to Him because He calls us to obedience as His children. The New Testament, in 1 John 5:3 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)), says :

3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. (1)

References

1. Olive Tree Bible App – Copyright © 1998-2019 Olive Tree Bible Software. All rights reserved

2. Shelley, Dr. Bruce L.. Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition (pp. 41-42). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition. 

3.  ESV Bibles by Crossway. ESV Global Study Bible (Kindle Locations 50310-50337). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

4.  ESV Bibles by Crossway. ESV Global Study Bible (Kindle Locations 162629-162630). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

5. ESV Bibles by Crossway. ESV Global Study Bible (Kindle Locations 149218-149220). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

6.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyrian_captivity

7.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_captivity

8.  ESV Bibles by Crossway. ESV Global Study Bible (Kindle Locations 149260-149262). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

9.  Zondervan. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, eBook: Built on the Truth of Scripture and Centered on the Gospel Message . Zondervan. Kindle Edition. 

Author: ourworldourfaith

Where Christianity Meets Culture