Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rags and righteousness.

"Never has ear heard or eye seen
Any other god taking part of
Those who wait for him.
Thou dost welcome him who rejoices to do what is right,
Who remembers thee in thy ways,
Though thou wast angry, yet we sinned,
In spite of it we have done evil from of old,
We all became like a man who is unclean
And all our righteous deeds like a filthy rag;
We have all withered like leaves
And our iniquities sweep us away like the wind."

Isaiah 64: 4-6.

I see this Isaiah verse get quoted a lot, in terms of a blanket statement on humanity. We all have, at any point in time or history, righteous deeds like a filthy rag. No ifs, ands, or buts. It applies to everyone, even today. If you're unsaved, then all your deeds are filthy rags.

But does the verse itself support that blanket statement, or is it speaking about a point in time? And all deeds done filthy rags, regardless of the deeds themselves?

It seems more that the verse is speaking of a particular point in time. I'm no expert on the book of Isaiah, and I believe scholars say that it contains more than one author that was all eventually grouped under one name. I also believe that portions of Isaiah were written in a time of huge conflict, with Israel either attacked or overrun by invaders. Such an occurrence would most likely be interpreted as no longer being in God’s favor, and so wouldn't the Israelites start examining their own behavior? Wouldn't such examination produce verses such as these?

As for all deeds as filthy -- let's say a non-Christian helps the widow, the orphan, feeds the poor and so forth. There are quite a few Bible verses that say such actions are just and righteous. So it can't be every single deed across the board.

However, the verse itself seems to narrow the kinds of deeds. First, the people are doing what is evil in God's sight. Evil acts would be ignoring the helpless, for starters. Or chasing after false gods, or indulging in gluttony, or just living a non-good life. So wouldn't there be a natural connection between someone doing evil, and thus the deeds becoming like filthy rags? Not only that, but if the deeds truly are as filthy rags, then the deeds can no longer count towards any sort of righteousness. The verse almost reads as sarcasm. If the deeds are in fact filthy, then they cannot also be righteous. The two words contradict one another by their very definition. Rather, the speaker of the verse seems to demonstrate a realization that the deeds performed are not in fact righteous. Which means the deeds cannot be those like helping the helpless.

So does anything in this verse support the idea that all deeds of any unsaved people are filthy? Or does the verse focus more on specifics, as to why the deeds are filthy?


SocietyVs said...

"Thou dost welcome him who rejoices to do what is right"

That line alone should speak volumnes to those who only want to use a line out of here to make all people's actions look like dirt. It seems, in this same passage, God is pleased with the person that does 'right' by God's teachings...for some reason that is not seen as 'filthy rags'.

I would contend the non-Christian can do good deeds towards God - and towards the neighbor in their midst - even without knowing they are doing it (at least to God anyways). The parable in Matthew 25 about the sheep is quite interesting - the people had no clue they were helping Jesus in the various acts of charity (they were unaware more or less). Maybe we as people can do something good and be unaware of how God deems that action and its significance.

OneSmallStep said...


** It seems, in this same passage, God is pleased with the person that does 'right' by God's teachings...for some reason that is not seen as 'filthy rags'. **

That line should speak volumes. I have the feeling that the "thou who dost right" line would be interpreted as an impossibility, or just to set up a contrast to lines like the filthy rags.

The interesting thing is that when you start reading a lot of the Psalms, or Isaiah, or even portions of Jeremiah, you get a lot of lines about people who do right who please God. I think the standard Christian interpretation would be that there are no such people, but does the Tanakh ever say that? Can we honestly get the impression that the prophets or the Psalmists thought that there were no good people, and the "good" people were only those covered in the blood of Jesus?

Andrew said...

I was in a discussion at a bible study recently where a woman was using that pretext to state that anything done outside of Christ was worthless. I think I caught her off guard when I said that I did not believe that to be true. If God is our father, does he not delight in our steps toward goodness?

I think her statement comes out of an insecurity and a need to relieve guilt. If deeds done outside of God's direction are useless, then I don't have to be shamed by the non-believer who is simply more righteous in his life than I am. I am "automatically" in a better position. I guess there is some laziness there too.

OneSmallStep said...


**I am "automatically" in a better position. I guess there is some laziness there too.**

I don't think I've thought of it that way, before. And it would almost function as a fail-safe, wouldn't it? There are a lot of Christians out there who I would say come nowhere close to the behavior of Gandhi. Yet the Christians would hold themselves as more righteous, simply because they're saved.

Anonymous said...

Verse 5 states that You(God) meets him/her who rejoices and does righteousness, who remembers You (God)in Your(God's)ways.
You(God)are indeed angry, for we have sinned - In these ways (our ways not God's) we continue; and need to be saved.
Verse 6 But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags...

The verse clearly states that God rejoices in those who do God's commands but then Isaiah states "we have sinned" , and therefore he states that "we need to be saved".

The meaning of "all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags" refers to the fact that if we are expecting God to let us into heaven based on our righteous or good acts then he views them as filthy rags.

The Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 2 v 8 - 9 "For by (God's) grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of (righteous) works, lest anyone should boast.

Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father excapt through Me, John 14 v 6.

It is good to help others, to show kindness, to provide in a practical way however we need top believe Jesus has paid the price for our salvation and receive Him as Saviour if we want to see heaven.

I am just an ordinary person, no better than anyone else, who realises that we are all in the same boat, we all have sinned against God but God has demonstrated His love toward us in tat wehile we were still sinners Christ died for us.

I hope this helps.