Old Testament: Isaiah 44:6-8 (Pentecost 8: Series A)

Reading Time: 9 mins

In His crucifixion, He took the nails deep into and through His skin to put your salvation there permanently.

Our reading for today comes in the middle of a section of Isaiah (chapters 40-54). It proclaims the Lord’s plan of salvation that He alone will reveal in Zion. This section is a series of progressive arguments which demonstrate God is Creator (40:12-31), Sovereign over time (41:1-42:13), His people’s Redeemer (42:14-44:23), the one who brings Cyrus to restore (44:24-48:22), and ultimately as the only one who can restore His people (49:1-54:17). Our pericope both rebukes Israel for worshiping false gods alongside the true God, and it gives witness to the trustworthiness of God over and against the poor witness of idols (verse 9). Idols do nothing, but God does real deeds in actual history for His people. The shame is how, for five chapters after our reading, Israel keeps falling into pluralistic idol worship. Therefore, the Lord Himself must come in and do for Israel what Israel cannot do for itself. He saves them by bearing their sin and remaining faithful to His plan of salvation even though His people have been unfaithful and are in need of great deliverance.

Sometimes, when preaching on an Old Testament text, you need to reach past the artificial lines of the established pericope in order to set up the gospel proclamation for the given Sunday. In this instance, we will reach back only one verse (verse 5) so we can establish Isaiah’s textual metaphor and see how God saves His people from their sin later in Isaiah 49:16. Isaiah 44:5-49:16 forms a nice bookend for our pericope (44:6-8) inside an inclusio.

In order to get at the metaphor Isaiah is using in this inclusion, I suggest using some kind of Storied Discourse Structure. There are several you can choose from such as Story Interrupted, an Imaginative Retelling, or Framing the Story. Rather than unpack each structure, we will look at how we can use metaphor in the story of Isaiah for preaching. Metaphor will serve as the vehicle by which the larger framework of the text can help give Isaiah’s teaching meaning for his original hearers.

Usually, when stories work with metaphors the story helps you see the teaching, but it also invites you to see more than the teaching. It gives you language to redescribe the world around you. Metaphors, such as light/dark, slavery/freedom, or shepherding/following, can help you to view a situation in a polyvalent way. The story works to convey the teaching, but it also expresses a way of thinking about God and His work in the world through a textually established metaphor. Therefore, you will want to tell a story that provides the single basic metaphor for the entire sermon. Once the metaphor is established, you then deal with the Law and Gospel in the specific pericope. This is in order to demonstrate how the metaphor in the story from your introduction is the same metaphor you have in the text. Afterwards, you develop the metaphor so you can proclaim the Gospel in the text to the original hearers. Finally, you develop the application of this metaphor and story from the text to the lives of your hearers by means of the same Gospel for the original hearers. The key is to have the metaphor in each movement of the sermon.

One common pitfall for preachers is failing to have a strong enough story in the introduction to carry the metaphor throughout the rest of the sermon. The opening story needs adequate depth and complexity to capture the metaphor in the text in a strong way. In this way, the metaphor can be developed further throughout the rest of the sermon in a meaningful way. This use of metaphor is different than analogy because analogy is only “like” the teaching you are trying to communicate. It is also different than using an example. An example is a story that proceeds from the teaching, but it only briefly seeks to illustrate the teaching you are communicating.

The opening story needs adequate depth and complexity to capture the metaphor in the text in a strong way.

When using metaphor, be sure the metaphor is pervasive throughout the entire sermon. If you do this well, you will be communicating the teaching in a way which also pushes the hearers to see the world outside of the text and sermon differently. The power and potency of the metaphor then shapes the worldview of the listener with the Gospel. You will need to emphasize the connection to the teaching multiple times in the sermon. Furthermore, you will also have to establish limits for your listeners because metaphors, like analogies, can break down. When engaging the metaphor multiple times in the sermon, you need to be aware of poetic detail. Keeping poetic details in mind will help you to choose the particulars which are going to show up in the rest of the sermon. So, you will want to select your words based off of the Gospel you wish to proclaim so the cross and resurrection of Jesus remains the goal of the sermon. Remember, it is tempting to use a law-based metaphor and language because it is so powerful, but if you cannot turn the Law to Gospel, the sermon will fail to proclaim Christ crucified and risen again for the life of the world.

The metaphor Isaiah uses in 44:5 is   כָּתַב (kaw-thab; to write) which is set against חָקַק (khaw-kak) in 49:16. חקק means “the tattooing of a name on the hand.”כָּתַב which implies an impermanence to Israel’s allegiance. They merely write their allegiance to Yahweh in the same way someone might pen a list on paper. So, here in our sermon the metaphor is tattooing. You can imagine how quickly this will get people’s attention. Since this may also scandalize your hearers to the degree that it may drive them away from listening to your sermon, you will need to establish the limits of the metaphor early on by, perhaps, explicitly saying how you and the text are not suggesting people go out and get a tattoo. Instead, the metaphor teaches us something about the heart of God in the Gospel.

Skin Hand[2]

One story you can use to introduce the textual metaphor in the sermon is to tell the account of Shelley Jackson who is an experimental novelist.[3] What I mean by that is she likes to play with the idea of what the power of words can do. In 2003, she published a book called Skin. What is unique about this book is how she plays with the idea that a novel, or a story, or a narrative is a living thing. The concept is once you have received a story, it lives inside of you. You know how it is when you are reading a good book, it just plays around in your imagination for a while, right? She loves this idea and is passionate about the way a narrative can become a living thing.

So, here is what Jackson did. In 2003, she started a project. She needed 2,095 volunteers to be involved in an experiment of a “mortal narrative,” to be a story actually living out and about with people. She got 2,095 people and tattooed one word on each of them. All of these words together made up her short novel. I like this because it is a fascinating notion that a narrative is a living thing. Of course, here is where you would do well as a preacher to acknowledge this is a pretty strange idea and you are not going to show them or encourage them to seek out the pictures (except perhaps of the cover above, some of the tattoos are on parts of the body not normally exposed to the public) of this book because they may run you out of church. Again, this helps to set boundaries for the story and your use of metaphor. But the idea you are conveying comes directly from the cover. The word Skin is tattooed on the right hand of a person as the cover of Jackson’s story of a living narrative which is out in the world. This is the basic idea to set up the metaphor you will now introduce from the text.

In our Old Testament lesson for today from Isaiah 44:5-8, God, the author of all the living, has His name inscribed on the right hand of His people (verse 5). Doing so makes them His sacred servants who are dedicated to do His will alone. However, they do anything but serve the Lord faithfully. In verses 6-8, we see the Lord is instructing His people to trust in God alone and not to take stock of the witness of idols. Israel has not been faithful. From Isaiah 44 through the next five consecutive chapters in Isaiah, they have covered up the Lord’s name and written other names alongside Yahweh in their worship.

A central question for this sermon is to ask: What does it mean to be a servant of the Lord? What does it mean to be a part of His story? By the time you get to Isaiah 49, Israel was far from being a servant of the Lord. They had gone back against the Lord, disobeyed Him, and forgotten Him. They have left Him and were no longer serving Him. Instead, they were believing and serving all sorts of other gods. They had completely forsaken the Lord. So, by chapter 49 they ask, “What do we do?” We have completely forsaken the Lord, rebelled as His servants, and gone the other way. What is He going to do now? Is He going to forsake us (verse 14)?

Listen to what God says: Does a mother forget about her infant? Does she forget to feed her child? No (verse 15)! I love you and so you know that I love you, see how I have engraved your name on my hand. I have tattooed your name on the palms of my hands (verse 16).

What is fascinating about Isaiah 49:16 is that God has not just engraved, or inscribed, or written His name down. No, He has put in permanence on His hands the name of Israel. In fact, He has flipped the situation. Whereas before Israel was to be a servant of God (44:5-8) and Israel was to obey Him, but when they failed, God became the servant of Israel instead. Fascinating! God gets ink done. Scandalous that God should become a slave of His people (ancient near eastern cultic/economic slavery customs). God essentially says: “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Where you have failed, I will succeed. I will bear you and I will bear all of your sin.”

The teaching of this sermon is also the Gospel for this sermon. God has made us a part of His living narrative through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are several components of Shelley Jackson’s story which should appear later on in the sermon to illustrate the point of how her story is circulating out in the world as a living thing. I would do this so you can set up God’s greater narrative of the Gospel as a thing flowing out into the world which is living because Jesus Christ is resurrected and alive.

God has made us a part of His living narrative through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, for instance, ink engraved on skin, the existence of a living narrative out in the world, and the creation of a story that involves many people are all details from Jackson I will develop later in the Gospel through Jesus. The depth and complexity of this opening illustration lends itself to several ways of unpacking the text from Isaiah and proclaiming its meaning for God’s people. It is critical you clarify the specific connections you want to make between the story and the text through the Gospel, so your hearers do not take the metaphor to places you did not intend or are unfaithful to the text. Make sure you EMPHAZISE the direct connection you want to make in the text to the teaching that is generated from the story. In this way, emphasize people who are brought into a living narrative through engraving on skin (tattoos). When negotiating the limits of the metaphor, you will want to clarify what is meant to be taken literally and what is to be taken figuratively.

You need to make this clarification because they may not do it on their own. For example, getting a tattoo is not the point. So, if your congregational context cannot handle such a strong image, pick another way of managing the metaphor, like writing a reminder note on your hand temporarily versus permanently, tying a string on your finger as a reminder, or something like that. Take time in your sermon to unfold Isaiah’s context so they know that having someone’s name engraved/tattooed on their skin was a mark of slavery in the ancient near eastern context. Developing these details using these techniques helps to prove you are aware of the limits of the metaphor, which in turn helps your people negotiate the application of the meaning of the metaphor for their lives.

When developing poetic detail, you will want to present those elements carefully which make strong connections to the text. You may also try changing your rate and pitch while speaking to draw attention to these critical features. For instance, God has made you a part of His living narrative by engraving you on the palms of Jesus’ hands on the cross (Galatians 6:17 and the mark of the cross placed on you in your baptism). In His crucifixion, He took the nails deep into and through His skin to put your salvation there permanently. People are written into a living narrative by being engraved on the human skin of the resurrected Jesus (Revelation 5:6).

The image and the act of tattooing together with the language of a living narrative and engraving are emphasized at the beginning of the sermon so they can be used and brought up again later when you bring them to bear on the cross and resurrection. This is where we see God has brought us into His living mortal narrative. He has engraved us on the palms of Jesus’ hands through the nails of the cross.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 44:6-8.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 44:6-8.

Text Week--A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 44:6-8.


[1] Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997. 468.

[2] https://ineradicablestain.com/skindex.html

[3] The credit for the discovery of this metaphor domain from Shelley Jackson belongs to Dr. Reed Lessing. His chapel sermon stuck with me ever since I first heard it on May 8, 2009. Here is where you can find it: Lessing, Reed. “132. Isaiah 44:1-5” (2009). Chapel Sermons Academic Year 2008-2009. 132. https://scholar.csl.edu/cs0809/132