In Isaiah 49:16 The Lord (Yahweh) says the following to Zion to show that he will not forget her: See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me (NIV). The word for “engrave” here means inscribe, write, or even carve into. It’s the same word used in Ezekiel 4:1 where the LORD tells the prophet to inscribe the city of Jerusalem on a brick.
This phrase is a metaphor or anthropomorphism, of course, since God does not have hands or palms. But what exactly is engraved on his palms in this text? The Hebrew (חַקֹּתִיךְ) just says “you” (feminine singular), referring to Zion. Some translations add “your name,” meaning this: I have inscribed your name [Zion] on my palms. I don’t think that’s a bad interpretation; it might be correct.
However, in the last part of the verse God says that Zion’s walls are ever before him (Is. 49:16b). Perhaps this means that Zion’s walls are inscribed on God’s palms, as it were, and in this text he is holding his hands out so Zion can see: Look! On my palms I have inscribed your walls! Meaning: I for sure won’t forget you; you walls are always before me, even written on my hands!
I appreciate how Gary Smith comments on this verse:
To reassure Zion and prove the point in an even stronger way, God opens his hand and challenges Zion to “observe, see” (hēn) an image that was permanently “engraved” (ḥāqaq) on the palm of God’s hand. This is not a tattoo on the back of his hand, and it is not something written with weak ink that can fade or be erased; this is permanently carved into his metaphorical flesh. The object engraved on the palm of God’s hand is a drawing of the walls of Jerusalem, but it is useless to speculate about which walls were engraved—were these partially broken down walls or the glorious walls of the future city (60:18; 65:17–19)?
When one has something engraved on his hand, it indicates an important relationship with someone who is very dear (44:5). No one engraves the name of an enemy or a casual friend on his hand. Having something like this on one’s hands provides a constant reminder of the one who is loved because the engraving on the hands would be “continually before me” (Ps 16:8; 50:8). This engraving was written on the powerful hands that created the heavens and the earth (48:13), so it is very comforting for the audience to know that Jerusalem is carved on the almighty hands that can accomplish great things.
Gary Smith, Isaiah 40-66, New American Commentary, Isaiah 49:16
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015