Isaiah 64:6 says (in the KJV) that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”. Many evangelicals have thrown this verse in people’s faces to contend that we all need Jesus to be our Savior and to cover us with his perfect righteousness, since our own righteousness is as filthy rags before God.
I’ll admit that I’m far from perfect and that there is evil within me, as there is in every other human being. But this evangelical interpretation of Isaiah 64:6 has rubbed me the wrong way for a variety of reasons. First, I have issues with the notion that God regards the good deeds of non-Christians as filthy. If a Christian and a non-Christian do the same good deed, why is the deed more valuable when a Christian does it? Isn’t good good, and bad bad? Shouldn’t non-believers who pour out their lives for the poor and put many Christians to shame in doing so get at least some recognition from God that their deed is good, even if it’s not enough to save them? Second, I’ve felt that this evangelical interpretation pulls Isaiah 64:6 out of its context, applies it to every human being on the face of the earth when it was originally referring to Israel, and uses it to construct some grand narrative about how we all need a Savior and will go to hell if we don’t accept Jesus. My interpretation of Isaiah 64:6 has been that the passage is about Israel’s hypocrisy and is not a blanket statement about how God loathes people’s attempts to do good.
Messianic Jewish rabbi Derek Leman believes that Jesus is necessary for atonement. But Derek disagrees with the usual evangelical interpretation of Isaiah 64:6, and his own interpretation is also slightly different from my view that the passage is about Israel’s hypocrisy (though he acknowledges that hypocrisy is an issue in Isaiah 64). Derek cogently argues that Isaiah 64:6 is a lament that, although the righteous in Israel are trying to do the right thing, God by his failure to respond is treating their righteous deeds as filthy rags. Derek also contends that God values good deeds, even those of non-believers. Derek wrote these insights in today’s Daily Isaiah piece, to which I subscribe, and he has given me permission to post it:
“Isaiah 64:5(6) is one of the most misunderstood sayings in the entire Bible. It has become in popular Christian usage a verse declaring that the good deeds of human beings are worthless and even repulsive to God. Sometimes this is clarified to mean that the works of those who lack faith is worthless or repulsive to God. I would like to quickly dismiss both misunderstandings. First, the Bible praises people for deeds of kindness over and over again. Second, the Christian scriptures declare that the final judgment will be according to works (Rom 2:6-7) and that God ordained before creation good works for believers to do (Eph 2:10). Third, the Christian scriptures recognize the good deeds of those seeking to know God (Acts 10:2-4). Fourth, even the slightest good deed of unbelievers receives a positive response from God (the book of Jonah, consider Nineveh) and God calls on people to turn from evil and do good in numerous places. Let’s consider the real situation of Isaiah 64:5-6(6-7). The righteous are being represented in the lament of the prophet. These righteous in Israel are looking at God’s ways with Israel and lamenting. In the distant past, God revealed glories and wonders for Israel and forgave Israel in spite of many sins (64:4(5), ‘we sinned in them continually; yet we were delivered,’ my translation). However, now, in the post-exilic time (some of the people have returned from Babylon but the Temple and city are in ruins), they lament tha[t] God is not being so forgiving. He is requiring more. The people lament in stark terms: ‘it is as if our righteous deeds are garment of menstruation’ to God. In other words, we righteous in Israel are making an effort but it is as if you don’t see that we are trying. It is a complaint. These kinds of strong words in prayer, seeking to shame God into action, are found in other places (for example, the prayers of Moses interceding for Israel in the wilderness). The people are saying, ‘what are we, nothing to you?’ This is not a principle of theology (‘God rejects good deeds and only desires faith without works’). It is a call to action: will you not respond to our worship and restore us? Yet these righteous admit God has reason not to respond. After all, the mass of the people are still unfaithful: ‘there is no one who calls on your name.’ This is obviously an exaggeration. The righteous are calling on God’s name, but they are few. They long to see God act as in days of old and are frustrated. There are many ways in which the righteous deeds of the few in the nation are insufficient: not enough people in Israel have repented, the worship that does exist tends to be hypocritical, there is worship without a change of life, deeds of lovingkindness are lacking, and too many place their hopes in the deeds of the past instead of being transformed in the present. The next section will be a prayer for mercy, for the divine love for Israel to be roused and for him to initiate a revival.”