“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. . . Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:5a-6, 9)
Isaiah spoke a prayer of intercession on behalf of the people of God. They were in trouble, surrounded by fierce enemies who threatened to destroy the nation of Judah. So they called on the Lord to intervene. They indicate in their prayer that they know that the work of salvation is all the Lord’s doing, but He does not act to save those who do not trust Him. His work includes mighty deeds that no man would ever have thought of. Compared to such deeds, even our acts of righteousness are nothing but filthy rags or polluted garments.
What the English translation calls “a polluted garment” translates a Hebrew expression that denotes a menstrual cloth. This is a rather gross and disgusting image that really belittles the deeds of man as it is nothing but waste and, under the Mosaic Law, unclean. Thus the image indicates that all of the acts and deeds which man considers so praiseworthy, noble, lofty, fine and altruistic are really unfruitful and unholy. They in no way make us better people or make us right with God. In fact, they make us unclean, unable to stand in the presence of Almighty God for they are our works not His. All that we sinners can do is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy to intervene on our behalf.
Our prayer is answered in the birth at Christmas. It is then we realize that God has acted to grant us faith, forgiveness and righteousness in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. We are but clay in the hands of the master potter. He, not we, determines the way we should go and the course of our lives. Only as we submit to His will we find salvation and faith as well as the grace and strength that will help us in the time of trial. Only then, in and through Him, will our works bring Him glory.