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. (Isaiah 64.6)
When the bible says something, or someone, is unclean, it doesn’t just mean that it’s dirty and needs to be washed. It means that it is diseased and contagious. To be unclean meant to be socially outcast, unable to enter the temple and worship. No one wanted to be near you. Anything you touched became unclean as well. Some of this was for the people’s protection against real disease. Some of it was a metaphor for their spiritual state.
In this verse, it is the state of our spirit that is in view. Apart from God, all our actions, even the good ones, are unclean. They are like a polluted garment. The popular version of this verse is the King James rendering “filthy rags”. Polluted garments were to be burned (Leviticus 13:47-52). They weren’t to be washed and then reused, but burnt up so they don’t exist any more. That is the state, worth, and usefulness of our deeds apart from Christ. They are like a dirty, greasy rag that just can’t be cleaned. It is good for nothing but to be burned up.
This doesn’t mean that every deed, done by all humans, at all times is nothing but filthy rags in God’s sight. That’s not what the context of the passage says. Isaiah isn’t speaking of every person in this text. He is speaking of those who have rebelled against God, and the works they do while in rebellion, seeking to be righteous in and of themselves, apart from God. Having done so, they were then led into captivity, experienced God’s righteous judgment, and because of this acknowledge that they and their own righteousness are corrupt and polluted, not fit for any good use.
Having recognized this, they “fade like a leaf” when they feel God’s holiness contrasted with their own sinfulness. What a great visual that is! A leaf “fades”, dries up, curls in on itself, and wilts. So does the pride of the man who recognizes his own sin in the face of a holy God.
This is not the end of the prayer though. The prayer goes on to plead mercy and forgiveness from God. It delights in God as our Father and Creator. No the story doesn’t end with a polluted garment. It ends…
“…with fine linen, bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Revelation 19:8)
Deeds made righteous, by Christ in you, the hope of glory!