“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:16 ESV).
Almost everyone has times of despondency and depression, periods when it seems that everyone and everything is against us and nothing is going right. The prophet Isaiah spoke at a time when the people of Jerusalem felt abandoned by their God. “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me'” (Isaiah 49:14).
God’s inspired response to their plea was two-fold. First, if a woman cannot forget her nursing baby, God cannot forget his people (verse 15). Secondly, Zion and its inhabitants were written on God’s hand – that is, always in his care and on his mind.
The idea that there is a heavenly list of the righteous and faithful permeates Scripture. We think most often of the “Book of Life” which will be open at Judgement (Revelation 20:12-15) and which contains the names of those who will be saved eternally. This book is mentioned at least seven times in Revelation (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:19).
In the Old Testament Moses demanded that God take his name out of “your book that you have written” (Exodus 32:32) if God did not forgive sinful Israel. David prayed that God would punish his enemies: “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous” (Psalm 69:28).
Isaiah’s description of God’s people, represented by the city of Jerusalem, being engraved on his very hand is somewhat more personal, more intimate. The verb used is suggestive; translations vary from “graven” (KJV) to “inscribed” (NKJV, NASV) or “engraved” (ESV). The idea is of words being “carved into” the writing surface, not just put onto its outer layer. All of these renderings depict a permanence to the writing, and a process demanding effort and care.
At least one preacher has used this verse as the text for a sermon, giving it the title, “Does God Have a Tattoo?” Far from being frivolous or disrespectful, that idea hits home. Just as humans have written the names of loved ones into their own bodies as reminders and symbols of their affection, so God has written into his person the name(s) of that (or those) which he has chosen.
In the immediate context of these words, those whom God chose and engraved were specifically the city of Zion (Jerusalem) and its inhabitants. Yet, later verses in the same chapter expand the meaning to include the nations (Gentiles) who will come into fellowship with God and his people (Israel) (Isaiah 49:19-23). It does no injustice to Isaiah or to the teaching of the Bible at large to include all the righteous within this promise made to Zion.
A visit to any cemetery containing graves from the early twentieth or even nineteenth century will reveal that names engraved on a tombstone may be eroded to the point that they are illegible or absent. Engraving is much more permanent than surface writing, but that does not mean it can never be removed. Moses’ conversation with God included the possibility of a Divine “blotting out” of those no longer to be granted fellowship. But so long as those written are loyal to him, that will not happen.
Are we forgotten, deserted, or forsaken by God? Far from it. Just as ancient Israel and Judah sinned and were punished, so we today fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). But we do not fall from his love and care, so long as we trust in him and seek penitence and obedience. If we sin God will forgive us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:8-10). But whatever we do God loves us and seeks to bring us to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). We are inseparable from his love (Romans 8:39), engraved on his hands.