John Gee: His Hand is Stretched Out Still

This is a cross-posting (with permission) from John Gee’s blog.

Five times in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah uses the refrain:

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4)

This phrase was recently cited to me as an instance of God’s mercy. I can see how and why someone might take it that way, but doing so fails to understand the English, the underlying Hebrew, the scriptural context and the cultural context of the scriptural passages. There is actually a dissertation being written on this subject (see here), but I will give my own take.

Let’s start with the scriptural context. The refrain occurs in Isaiah after passages wherein Isaiah discusses the various punishments that will befall the wicked. This includes having their carcasses strew the streets (Isaiah 5:25), the Syrians and the Philistines devouring Israel (Isaiah 9:12), having no mercy on the fatherless and widows (Isaiah 9:17), burning up the people and subjecting them to cannibalism (Isaiah 9:18-21), subjecting the people to captivity, slavery and death (Isaiah 10:4). So, whatever stretching out the hand is, it occurs in the context of punishing the wicked.

The English sentence is constructed to say that in spite of the punishments afflicted (“for all this”) “his anger is not turned away” so that the punishments do not satisfy the Lord’s anger. To the contrary (“but”) the hand of the Lord is still stretched out. So a stretched forth hand, by any careful reading of the English, is a hand administering punishment.

The Hebrew is also clear on the subject. The idiom is yado netuyah [again, I do not have time for the diacritics] which means that the hand is hanging overthreatening, or bent. It is thus a threatening gesture.

Looking at the cultural context, Canaanite deities are often depicted as having their arms bent, hanging over, threatening, or stretched out. There is a good example in a stele from Ugarit, now in the Louvre (and for a better photograph, see the Louvre site):

Canaanite deity, possibly Baal (Louvre AO 15775)

This stele shows the god holding a weapon over his head ready to strike. His hand is netuyah, stretched out, bent, hanging over, and threatening. The upraised arm is the one that is netuyah. The same pose is known from statues from the same area.

Unidentified Canaanite deity (BM 134627)
A Canaanite deity, possibly Reshef (BM 25096)

This is the imagery that Isaiah is using and familiar to his audience, since there are many other examples of this sort of iconography in statues and steles of gods from Canaan. The iconographic motif comes from Egypt where it means the same thing.

Smiting scene at Medinet Habu

This is not a god in a merciful attitude.

What causes God to act this way? Isaiah enumerates these reasons in his discussion: calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), being wise in their own eyes (Isaiah 5:21), taking away justice from the righteous (Isaiah 5:23), despising the law and word of God (Isaiah 5:24), not seeking the Lord (Isaiah 9:13), the leaders of the people causing them to err (Isaiah 9:16), decreeing unrighteous decrees, and depriving people of rights (Isaiah 10:1-2). Those guilty of such things should expect the wrath of the Lord to descend upon them.

So can God extend his hand in mercy? Absolutely! This metaphor in Isaiah, however, is not an example of that. God can also smite you, which is what this metaphor is about.

20 thoughts on “John Gee: His Hand is Stretched Out Still

  1. Interesting! When I was young, I always pictured the phrase to mean his hand was stretched, ready to strike, like a backhand to the cheek. Only later did I come to think it meant stretched out in an invitational gesture of mercy. I guess I was closer when I was younger! Interesting article. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting read. I believe that most people get the idea of mercy from the context of the phrase in these verses:

    24 The Lord of Hosts hath sworn, saying: Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand—
    25 That I will bring the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot; then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders.
    26 This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all nations.
    27 For the Lord of Hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul? And his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?

    Personally, I look at it as a combination of punishment and mercy. The Lord will smite the wicked, and thus deliver the oppressed. His work of deliverance will not be frustrated by those who oppose him.

  3. A compelling case against the hand of mercy being in Isaiah.

    As a follow-up, I would be interested to know how we might account for what seems to be a merciful reading of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 28:32?

  4. This folk interpretation of Isaiah has bugged me a little and I’m glad to see this debunked and clarified.

    Nathan’s point is worth remembering: the hand that is stretched out in judgement to administer punishment to the wicked thereby also brings deliverance to those being oppressed by the wicked.

    Cf. Ps 138:7: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.”

  5. Thank you! I used to always read that phrase as a gesture of mercy, but a few months ago I was reading in 2 Nephi where Isaiah is quoted and thought, “Wait a minute, that’s not what he’s saying at all!” I’ve since pondered it many times over, but I found it difficult to change my perception that a stretched out hand must be a merciful one. So thank you for the explanation of the Hebrew meaning; it has really clarified this for me.

  6. Thanks for the post. I found this page looking for validation after I came to this conclusion on my own. I have heard this quoted a number of times as being symbolic of the Lord’s mercy, but in each instance it tends to illustrate that the misfortune and destruction over Juda/Israel does not alone satisfy the demands required for mercy and deliverance. Essentially, consequence or punishment by itself does not equate to forgiveness.

  7. It has been disappointing & frustrating to me that the Bible, the most crucial book for mankind to understand, is far from a stand-alone book. Proper interpretation of it’s God breathed pages is heavily dependent upon the uninspired works of men. Those that claim to properly interpret the scriptures heavily depend on grammar books, concordances, findings from archaeology, ancient language studies Isagogics, ancient scrolls & clay records, figures of speech, ancient maps & historical records all of which may be subject to fraud, deception, ignorance, & speculation. Today we cannot all agree on what really happened on 9-11-01 vs what we were told happened. Today someone may dig up previously unknown records in the Vatican that alter how we interpret the scriptures. Isagogics? Remember Matt 19:12. Can you get the rich man & His camel through the needles eye? Is the needles eye a narrow keyhole gate in Jerusalem or a sewing needle? That is the deception of Isagogics. However as far as God stretching out His hand…..should a holy & righteous unique eternal God compare Himself to some wicked evil unholy unclean Canaanite idol?

    • Even in this case, the Bible does interpret itself. Dan shared Psalm 138:7: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me: thou shalt stretch forth thine hand against the wrath of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.” So the stretched forth hand is against enemies, not one of mercy toward enemies (although this can be seen as an act of mercy toward those faithful to God who are being oppressed, as others have mentioned).

      Looking into the Hebrew and cultural context can be very helpful, but even without those I believe the Bible does interpret itself and the Holy Spirit leads to a correct interpretation of difficult passages when we earnestly seek to know the truth. Jesus did not share openly with all the meaning of his parables, but for those who sought to learn with a humble heart, He opened their eyes to the truth. (I encourage you to read Matthew 20.)

      1 Corinthians 2:13: “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”

  8. I agree with much of the first part of John’s comment. Unfortunately the Bible does not interpret itself. Admittedly much of the means of understanding and interpreting the Bible depends on mortals who may or may not be inspired in their choices.

    ” However as far as God stretching out His hand…..should a holy & righteous unique eternal God compare Himself to some wicked evil unholy unclean Canaanite idol?”

    With this stance, one has a hard time explaining how in Isaiah 44:6-8 God explicitly compares himself to idols.

    The purpose of this essay is to understand the Hebrew idiom used in Isaiah. The Hebrew idiom happens to be illustrated by the iconography of Canaanite gods (who use the same idiom). You might notice that I analyzed the use of the idiom in the text first. Interpretations of these passages that suggest that God is stretching forth his hand in mercy do not really pay attention to the way that the phrase is actually used in the text.

    I have a fuller exploration of the phrase in press.

  9. It is unfortunate that men, while citing their own credentials and searching ancient carvings in stone, would divert the intended final meaning of Who God is, with such cruel icons of fallen and limited humanity, no matter what their credentials. The final interpretation of all of “God’s Word” must be view from a final interpretation of the Cross of Jesus Christ (Who is God With Us!). In this we must understand that after a wholly evil humanity had done the very worst to the Very Best, even nailing Him to a cross, He “stands at the door and knock,” and says “come unto me.” No matter how much highly intellectual, yet limited earthly minds, try to show that in the end God is a cruel hand waiting to smite, the invitation to come to Him still stands, for “His hand is stretched out still.”

    • This is where I am currently at. I was on the other side, but after I had looked into a previous verse in Chapter 1 that said “I will turn my hand against you….I will restore your judges…” (which the first part appears to be about wrath) As I looked closer the word for turn and the word for restore were the same, so I wonder if God was portraying that even in his wrath it is always to draw us back to him. As I’m sure you can tell as far as the English language is concerned I lack understanding, but I feel pretty strongly convicted that God is and always will be and always was out to restore us to how he intended before sin entered the world.

  10. It seems clear to me that no matter what was written in the past, it had its final fulfillment in the New Testament in Jesus Christ. God’s wrath on sin was consumed on Him (Emmanuel, God with us). Now, through His finished work on the cross, we do have forgiveness and redemption for “His hand is stretched out still.” Jesus said that all who come to Him, he would not cast out.

  11. Book of Mormon scripture 2 Nephi:32
    Wo be unto the Gentiles, saith the Lord God of hosts! For notwithstanding I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, saith the Lord God, if they will repent and come unto me: for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long, saith the Lord God of hosts

    This says pretty clearly to me that it’s an act of mercy.

    • I like your point the best….for those of us that fulfill our covenants, it is a hand of mercy that will be revealed, for those of us who don’t it must be a hand of justice. The point is that it is up to us to find and live our personal covenant and reveal mercy. Our actions along with God will be the judge.

  12. You may be entitled to your opinion, but you should realize that are not discussing the same idiom. “To lengthen or extend the arm” and “to stretch forth the hand” are not used the same way in the Book of Mormon. I sorted out the various idioms and their associated gestures in an article: John Gee, “A Different Way of Seeing the Hand of the Lord,” Religious Educator 16/2 (2015): 112-127.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I have been wondering about this for years! Everything you wrote makes so much sense. God has told us that he is a jealous God. Not because He needs our worship in a vain way, but because He loves us so much and wants to protect and bless us, His beloved children, created in His image!! (Spare the rod, spoil the child. -It has taken me years to recognize that many of my trials were blessings in disguise. They humbled me and brought me closer to the Lord, which brought me much joy! They made me realize, using C.S. Lewis’ analogy, that playing with mudpies in the slums really wasn’t fun compared to a glorious holiday at the beach, even if it took some work to get there!). Again I thank you for clarifying and sharing this with us!! 🙂

  14. I’m curious on thoughts for the footnote offered in the LDS king James version of the bible – Isaiah 9:12d “IE In spite of all, the Lord is available if they will turn to him” It seems likely to me this is a cause of the common interpretation as an act of mercy.

    • Yeah, that footnote is just wrong. There are several chapter headings/footnotes which are incorrect. One of the most glaring examples is in the Isaiah 5 chapter heading (“The Lord shall lift up an ensign and gather Israel”) which is not at all what is being described in Isaiah 5:26-30. Rather, it describes the Lord calling distant nations to destroy the kingdom of Judah and take the people captive. You can only reach the interpretation of the chapter heading by taking the verse completely out of context. Nobody’s perfect, and that goes for the folks who wrote the chapter headings and footnotes, too.

      About the “hand is stretched out” topic, see Isaiah 5:25: “Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” The first iteration of a hand stretched forth (“stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them: and the hills did tremble, and their carcases were torn in the midst of the streets”) is clearly a description of a hand stretched forth to destroy. As for the second iteration (“For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched forth still”), if the hand is “still” “stretched forth,” it is the same hand as in the earlier part of the verse, which is stretched forth in anger and retribution.

      In Isaiah 9:12 and 9:17, the sentence “For all this his anger is not turned away but his hand is stretched out still.” is followed immediately by prophecies of continued wickedness in Israel and continued destruction, so it is clear from the context that this is a hand stretched out in anger and retribution. The last sentence of the chapter reiterates this.

      The proper interpretation can be readily ascertained by careful reading of the biblical text (in English), itself.

      As for Canaanite artistic depictions of gods with an arm raised with a threatening weapon (or even the numerous renditions in Egyptian tombs and monuments of kings similarly posed over their enemies), these are not really convincing as examples of the cultural context of the phrase because: 1) This sort of threatening pose is universal, rather than culturally specific, and so references to Canaanite examples are superfluous. It just doesn’t add anything. It’s hard to believe that Isaiah (or the Lord, really), an avowed enemy of the worship of any gods but the Lord, would use idolatrous Canaanite iconography to describe the Lord. Indeed, he didn’t need to make any such reference, because an arm stretched out in either blessing or cursing is seen in just about every society and in just about every era. 2) The Lord’s hand in Isaiah is not raised up and about to strike (as in the Canaanite depictions), it is stretched forth producing destruction as in Exodus 9:22-23 (Stretch for thine hand toward heaven, that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt), 14:16 (But lift thou thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea and divide it), etc., where, by the way, the same Hebrew word for “stretch forth” is used. Think Charlton Heston as Moses with staff in hand, arms outstretched, parting the sea, rather than your mom with arm upraised threatening to smack you one if you don’t cut it out.

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