The places in literature that most often slow my mind to a reflective halt are usually intensely visual. Among them, perhaps surprisingly to some, are images from ancient scriptures that offer some of the most beautiful scenes. The ageless cry of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” is like a museum filled with the most hopeful, most disturbing, and most inviting images. Fitting with Isaiah’s vision for a world that revolves around the throne and the kingship of God at the center, his cry was a fervent prayer for the severe presence of a God he knew could come nearer.
Like the God for which he longed, the prophet’s words are intense, stirring, and intentional. Isaiah’s use of words—in fact, the entire genre of prophetic literature—cries out with poetic vision. As Abraham Heschel comments, “Prophecy is the product of a poetic imagination. Prophecy is poetry, and in poetry everything is possible, e.g. for the trees to celebrate a birthday and for God to speak to man.”(1) And that is to say, God gives us something of the divine character in the prophet’s powerful interplay of word, metaphor, and image. As messenger, the prophet yields the words of God, and the poetic nature of prophetic speech reveals a God who speaks in couplets, a God who uses simile and metaphor, rhythm and sound, alliteration, repetition, and rhetorical questions. Any reading of prophetic speech requires that one engage these poetic structures. A quick scan of Isaiah 64:1 reveals a depth of interacting words and key patterns, and a metaphor that moves us like the mountains Isaiah describes:
If only you would cleave the heavens!
(If only) you would come down,
From facing you, mountains would quake!
These few stanzas make use of repeated words and paired images to convey an intensity about human longing for the transcendence of God. The cry is not merely for God’s presence, but a presence that will tear open the heavens and cause mountains—even Mount Zion and the children of God—to tremble. Set in the opening line, the Hebrew word qarata is as illustrative in tone as it is meaning. The guttural sound and sharp stop in its pronunciation contribute to the severity of the word itself, which means to tear, to rend, to sever, or to split an object into two or more parts. ”Oh that you would rend the heavens…” “If only you would cleave open the heavens and come down…”
Significantly, this Hebrew word is most often found in the Old Testament referring to the rending of garments out of grief or desperation. Ezra describes falling in prayer “with my garments and my mantle torn, and on my knees, I spread out my hands to the Lord my God” (Ezra 9:5). The same word is used of David after hearing that Absalom had killed all of his sons: “The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments also” (2 Samuel 13:31). The images of grief and shredded garments would likely have come to the minds of those who first heard the cry of Isaiah to God: If only you would tear the heavens in two and see what is happening in your holy cities… If only you would sever this distance that sits between us like a heavy garment…
But this act of rending is also used in the Old Testament figuratively, usually in terms of removing someone from power or formally tearing away their authority, as when Samuel told Saul that the kingdom had been rendered from him and given to his neighbors. Here, in the context of Isaiah’s prayer, the word seems to take on both figurative and literal qualities. Oh that you would rend the heavens like a garment and come down here, tear away our perception of authority and show us something real, your own power. The cry is clearly making use of metaphor and yet it is a desperate plea for God’s presence in power, tangibly and substantially—”so that the nations might tremble at your presence,” Isaiah cries.
Even so, whether uttered metaphorically or literally, the cry for God to tear open the heavens and come down is a cry no mind conceived, nor ear perceived how thoroughly God would answer. For those who read this passage in light of Christ, fully taking in the poignant image of the heavens tearing like a garment brings to mind the tearing of the temple curtain when Jesus took his last breath. ”Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. And at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:50-51). The incarnation, the death, and resurrection of Christ was God’s bold answer to an ancient longing—the longing and the answer both intensely visual and unapologetically real. The Word himself is God’s response to the great metaphor of a God who rends the heavens like a garment, a God so present that he comes down to be among us, causing the earth to quake at his own breath.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 2001), 469.
(2) See 1 Samuel 15:28.