I have a question about Isaiah 59:1-2. I have heard it taught that the last words of verse 2, “your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear”, means that when people who are not Christians pray, their prayers were not heard, even if they are sincerely religious. I always found this view strange and wondered your opinion on it.
I agree with you that we should not take Isaiah 59:1-2 in its most literal sense–that God literally does not hear the prayers of unforgiven sinners. To do so would be similar to taking John 9:31 as a statement of doctrine. Here a guy who is not a Christian is spouting his opinion, which is not authorized by Jesus, that God does not listen to the prayers of sinners. There are sufficient examples of prayers of non-Christians or non-Jews being heard by God in the Bible to prove that a wooden, literal interpretation of Isaiah 59:1,2 is not correct. There are dozens of examples, but let me use just one, and let you find others. I will use Acts 10:4 in which Cornelius is told that his prayers have come up as a memorial offering before God. Cornelius was neither Jew of Christian at the time of these prayers.
So, what does Isaiah 59:1,2 mean? I believe that in relative terms, it is true that, because of our (unforgiven) sins, “he will not hear.” In other words, obviously, God hears all of our thoughts and prayers whether we are saved or lost, sinner or righteous. He is omniscient and knows everything. However, he listens more intently and answers more completely the prayers and requests of those who are his people. In Romans 8:26 we learn that, for those who have the Holy Spirit in them, their prayers are helped through Him. I am afraid I cannot quantify the difference, and I would prefer to keep it a bit of a mystery as to how much better God hears the prayers of the saints. Is it a five to one ratio? Twenty to one? Of course we cannot quantify this, but I believe it is not wrong to use Isaiah 59:1,2 in a sin study to show people that their relationship with God is severely hindered by unforgiven sin in our lives and to use this verse to motivate people to want to deal with their sins and to get into a vastly more intimate relationship with God than they have now because of their iniquity which has separated them from their God.
Some might say that we should not use this passage to show that our sins put a wall between us and God, as some have done. Well…. I suppose we should teach this passage more carefully and ask people to qualify what they say when they use this passage, but to be honest, I do not think it is a massive heretical use of this passage as the message is still there, which is that if we are not saved, then we do not have the kind of relationship with God that we want and need, and that repentance and baptism leads to forgiveness and restores a relationship with God.
On a theological basis, in this life the lost do not have zero relationship with God and the saved also do not have nearly as complete a relationship with God as we will in the future. For both the lost and the saved we are “already but not yet.” For the lost they are already in a very weak relationship position, but not one which is totally lost as it will be in hell. For the saved, we are not in a totally intimate relationship as were Adam and Eve. But we are largely restored to this position as saved people in this life.
That is my thought on this passage.