This is the famous “filthy rags” verse that sometimes is used as an attempt to support the idea that whatever we do – whether we are agnostics or christians – our best deeds are still viewed as filthy and unclean before God. But this is not what the verse is saying – particularly not if we view it in context. We can read that there are indeed people who wait for God and remember Him, and we can read about people who work righteousness. We can read about the REASON why certain people’s righteousness is like filthy rags before God and that it’s DUE TO INIQUITY. Sins always separate us from our Holy God. This is the entire context:
Isaiah 64:4For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that WAITETH for him. 5Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and WORKETH RIGHTEOUSNESS, those that REMEMBER thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved. 6But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our INIQUITIES, like the wind, HAVE TAKEN US AWAY. 7And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, BECAUSE OF OUR INIQUITIES. 8But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. 9Be not wroth very sore, O LORD, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.
In the next chapter we can see more evidence of that it’s iniquities that cause God to view also our righteousness as filthy rags. There is no obligation to commit iniquities. God doesn’t want people to be rebellious and walk in a way that is unholy to him. We can read below that people walk after their own thoughts, provoke him to anger, offer sacrifices to false gods, make abominable things, blaspheme him, forsake him, refuse to answer him, refuse to hear him, make evil things before his eyes, do things he does not delight in, etc. People couldn’t possibly be predestined to “choose” something that God does not take delight in, so this must mean that people have a free will to obey or disobey God. The next chapter says:
Isaiah 65: 2I have spread out my hands all the day unto a REBELLIOUS people, which walketh in a way that was not good, AFTER THEIR OWN THOUGHTS; 3A people that PROVOKETH me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick; 4Which remain among the graves, and lodge in the monuments, which eat swine’s flesh, and broth of ABOMINABLE THINGS is in their vessels;— 7Your INIQUITIES, and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the LORD, which have burned incense upon the mountains, and BLASPHEMING ME upon the hills: therefore will I measure their former work into their bosom.—11But ye are they that FORSAKE the LORD, that FORGET my holy mountain, that prepare a table for that troop, and that furnish the drink offering unto that number. 12THEREFORE will I number you to the sword, and ye shall all bow down to the slaughter: BECAUSE WHEN I CALLED, YE DID NOT ANSWER; when I spake, ye did not hear; but did EVIL BEFORE MY EYES, and did CHOOSE THAT WHEREIN I DELIGHTED NOT. 13Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry: behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty: behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed:
It also makes perfect sense that God isn’t impressed even with our good deeds if we at the same time perform shameful things in other areas of our lives. (And as we know obedience is better than offerings.) If we confess our sins and REPENT on the other hand, then we are CLEANSED and regarded as righteous before God since we have no sins on our account any more. But we will never be considered “righteous” as long as we live unrighteous lives.
Our good works CAN please God IF we live righteously, and then they are NOT viewed as “filthy rags”:
Matthew 25:21His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
Acts 10:34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35But in every nation he that feareth him, and WORKETH RIGHTEOUSNESS, is accepted with him.
2 Pet 2:7 And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: 8(For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed HIS righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds)
Rom. 2:6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds: 7To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:
Luke 6:45A good manout of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.
The better option is to live holy lives, because then we don’t provide “filthy rags” before God.