“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:6-8 New Revised Standard Version).”
Once when I was a little girl, my family was visiting the couple in the apartment a few doors down from us. While the adults played cards at the table, I entertained myself by drawing. I’d seen several variations of a magazine ad that impressed me—beautiful women in expensive gowns, elegant above a particular phrase that, at about six or seven, held no meaning for me. When I sketched my own rendition, getting the lady’s hair and makeup just so, I printed the phrase at the bottom and handed it to my mother, expecting praise. Instead, she burst out laughing and handed it to her friend, who also laughed. Under the drawing of an elegant woman, I had carefully written “Modess…because.” Modess was, of course, a manufacturer of feminine hygiene products- I was completely clueless.
Scholars point out that the phrase “filthy cloth” is from the Hebrew meaning soiled menstrual cloths—a word picture some might find offensive or shocking. Even today, when "female" products are routinely displayed on television with much less subtlety than in those old Modess ads, there are those who regard such discussion as unfit for “polite” company.
Certainly there are plenty of other words he could have used for filth—from rusty to excremental. There’s even a specific word for “morally corrupt” which is what most people think when they read the passage. What was he thinking?!
Get over it. Isaiah used the phrase he wanted, for good reasons.
The concept of being unclean comes from the Law of Moses. A Jewish woman was ceremonially unclean during her monthly period (or if she had an issue of blood at other times). She was not to be touched, and anyone touching her would also be unclean. Her bed was unclean, wherever she sat was unclean. Many of the laws were, in effect, a health code, similar to rules we see posted today (e.g. “employees must wash hands with hot water”).
The children of Israel lived in the wilderness, away from large quantities of running water. Precautions were taken so that disease did not spread. (Keeping a woman isolated from contact until after days after her period was over was also a strategic method for maintaining a growing population.) Just as not every skin spot was leprous but each was treated as being so, so as to prevent the spread of leprosy, every monthly period was treated as a potential germ threat.
From one perspective, Isaiah was saying that all of the good things we do apart from God, in our own strength, are potential disease-carriers. Self-righteousness can spread quickly, with devastation in its wake, among the people of God. When we get the idea that we are responsible for good results, blessings, answers to prayer, ministry, etc. trouble is sure to make an appearance, because God actively opposes the proud in heart (James 4:6). It isn’t enough to know this and try to keep self-righteousness to a minimum; Isaiah wants us to consider it all “unclean” so as to avoid potential problems.
Recently, though, I was reading an author’s take on this passage, and another thought struck me. The writer, a man, said that he couldn’t think of anything more disgusting than Isaiah’s word picture. As a woman, who has dealt with God’s design for women on an up close and personal basis for many, many years, I disagree. How can something that God designed be disgusting? I personally would have likened our good works to a diaper full of diarrhea (pee-ew) or towels that have wiped up vomit (gag), but I understand that many folks (at least the men folks) would catch Isaiah’s drift from his analogy.
Being disgusted at the author’s disgust, however, started me thinking in another direction. What else does a monthly flow of blood signify? In the culture of Isaiah, women were regarded more lowly when they were barren. Every month, they hoped that the flow would not come—not because they wanted to avoid PMS jokes—but because it meant they were pregnant. For the woman who had prayed for years, each month’s period must have been incredibly disheartening and discouraging, proof of her fruitlessness once more.
Think about good deeds. Obviously people—even those who are far from God and have ulterior motives—are capable of such deeds. When tragedy strikes around the globe, armies of helpers from every walk of life join hands to render aid. There are multimillionaires who have profited from sin and lawlessness who nevertheless “do good” with some of that money. The starving man doesn’t care that the food offered to him is tainted by “man’s righteousness.” A dying child isn’t concerned that the surgeon working to save her life is not a Christian.
“Good” things are done apart from Jesus, but only from an eternal perspective will the complete and final fruit of those deeds be seen. It reminds me of James 1:19’s command to be slow in anger, because the anger of man doesn’t bring about God’s righteousness. He doesn’t say it, but it’s true: the anger of man may not result in godliness, but it does get results. An angry mom can whip a household into a flurry of activity…voila! clean house…but also wounds. Scars. Fear and resentment. In the same way, an angry boss may scream his way into increased production from his employees, but he has also lost their respect.
Man’s anger gets results but not the results God intended. Man’s acts of righteousness get results too; however, the fruit of these good works is nothing like the fruit of God’s righteousness. Compared with God’s holiness and purity, the best we can offer is lifeless and barren, good only to be thrown away. And yet, when we come before him, wrapped in our dirty linen, the rags that prove there is no new life, he washes us with the blood that is life, the shed blood of Jesus. He invites us to participate with him in acts of righteousness that will yield lasting fruit.
Jesus…because. Now there’s a phrase that won’t ever be dated.