But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me. Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” —Isaiah 49:14-16
Although clearly metaphorical, this is an amazing passage! God, it seems, has inscribed His people (maybe an image or maybe names) on His hands, much like a tattoo that was not unusual in Isaiah’s day (tattoos that are not to be confused with the markings found in Leviticus 19 that were dangerously akin to pagan religious practices). We see the same thing today as folks ink the names or likeness of those they love on their skins (which can create a problem if it’s a spouse or lover who decides that someone else is more to their liking and moves on).
“Some biblical scholars suppose that it is an allusion to some practice common among the Jews at that time, of making marks on their hands or arms by means of punctures in the skin with some sign or representation of the city or temple, to show their zeal and affection for it. In illustration of this, he refers to the fact that the pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre are accustomed to get themselves marked in this manner with what are called the signs of Jerusalem …
To me, it seems that the view of these scholars is most accordant with probability, and is best, sustained by the Oriental customs. The essential idea is, that Zion was dear to his heart; and that he had sketched or delineated it as an object in which he felt a deep interest – so deep as even to delineate its outlines on the palms of his bands, where it would be constantly before him.” —From Barnes Notes on the Bible (see Isaiah 49:16).
In Eastern culture, the way of expressing great love and continual remembrance was by engraving, which we would call tattooing. This ancient tradition involved inking the names of those you dearly love on your body — while simply doing lesser things for those you don’t care as deeply about.
Most of us can probably guess (or know) that the process of tattooing is quite painful. Most of the time, the art is on the arm but sometimes on the back. leg, or chest. Almost never (I can’t recall one example) do you see a person being tattooed on the palms of their hands. Why? Because our palms are much too sensitive. The discomfort of having tattoos engraved on the front of our hands would probably be too much to bear.
Yet God says, “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands …” God is saying He wants His remembrance of us in a place that is uncovered and is always in His sight. Isn’t that a beautiful illustration of God’s love for His children? He can see us constantly. He loves us so much that, figuratively, He is willing to bear the excruciating pain of having us tattooed on His loving, healing, guiding, protecting hands.
Back to our focal passage. The Jews had been brutally taken away into Babylonian captivity due to their rebelliousness and disregard for God and His covenant with them. They feel abandoned by God (v. 14) just as they had abandoned Him. But God had not discarded them at all. And to emphasize His point, He compares His affection for them to a mother’s love for her newborn.
A mother nursing her infant child has indescribable feelings of attachment and tender affection for that baby. Indicating the unthinkable — a mother forgetting her nursing infant — God says that He will never forget one of His own children. He tells us that His remembrance and love is beyond that of a mother for her child. God’s affection is deeper than the most intimate human relationships. And this is beyond our finite comprehension.
No matter how you interpret this unique passage, one thing is clear — God’s hands and His love for His children are distinct biblical themes. We know God’s hands are mighty: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you … —1 Peter 5:6 But that just accentuates their protecting and loving qualities. His hands hold us, protect us and secure us for all eternity:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. —John 10:27-30
And this reality was sealed by the nail-pierced palms of Jesus, the Savior. Whose infinitely loving scars we will see for the first time when we are united with Him forever. —Revelation 5:1-7
Not in the sky, because the sky is too high
Not in the clouds, because the clouds can’t hold you
Not on a stone, for a stone is too cold
Not on silver or gold, lest anyone think you could be sold
Not in a book, because a book could be lost
But on the palms of my hands
On the flesh
Where you can’t be lost, sold or forgotten
On the flesh
Where I see you all the time
On the flesh
Where the pain was measured out in love
On the flesh
In the warm, permanent skin of my Son
There you are …
Part of me
At great cost
As my tattoo
By John Fischer