Few books in the Old Testament provide a richer depth of theological knowledge than the wonderful prophecy of Isaiah ben Amoz. It is not the intention of this paper to deal with issues such as the controversy over the unity of the work – the working assumption here is that the material to be covered is indeed the work of the one author Isaiah, and in dealing with the material in this way it is hoped that due justice is given to this incredible writer, for it is not our assumption that Isaiah was limited to one style, or one level, of writing.
The purpose of this paper is to apply sound exegetical principles to the text of Isaiah 40-45 with the specific purpose of gleaning from this section an understanding of Isaiah’s theology of God. Tangent issues, such as textual variation or lexical problems will be dealt with only in the context of their bearing on the theology presented here.
Isaiah 40-45 is clearly a literary whole; recurring themes, topics, and phrases show this to be true. Some have titled this section the “Trial of the False Gods” in line with the judicial language found in 41:21 and elsewhere. Here Yahweh calls the idols to judgment and challenges them to a “battle of the gods.” Of course, there is no reply forthcoming. But in challenging the idolatry of the people of Israel, Yahweh reveals things about His nature and His purpose in the world that stand unparalleled in the Old Testament, and that is not in any way eclipsed by even the highest revelation of the New.
Historically, this section from Isaiah has held great importance to the Christian Church in the formulation of her doctrine of God. Few old Testament passages can claim any more foundational effect upon the beliefs of the Reformers in reference to God’s sovereignty and providence than this one! As this writer comes from a Reformed perspective, it is admitted from the start that these passages lie dear to my heart.
The format of this inquiry into Isaiah’s revelation of God’s nature and purpose is simple. Sections of the text will be included, taken from the New International Version of the Bible. However, the custom of the MV and other English translations in rendering the Tetragrammaton has altered in these citations. Given the importance of the name “Yahweh” to the revelation of God’s being and His eternal purposes in covenant with Israel, the NIV’s rendering of “LORD” has been replaced with the actual term “Yahweh’ The text will be broken down thematically, and the main purpose of the section determined. From this material conclusions will be drawn in reference to the theology of God that is either directly asserted by the text, or which underlies the actions and words of God in the text.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his band,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?
Who has understood the mind of Yahweh,
or instructed him as his counselor?
Whom did Yahweh consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge
or showed him the path of understanding?
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires
nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.
This section follows after a tender representation of Yahweh as shepherd of Israel (40:11); but even this is preceded by the assertion of the power and sovereignty of Yahweh in verse 10. Almost as a sudden thought, the writer begins a series of unanswerable rhetorical questions, designed to demonstrate the foolishness of questioning the capability of Yahweh to be faithful to Israel. The awesomeness of the Creator is here asserted by comparing Him to that which He has created. The great seas are seen as fitting into the palm of Yahweh’s hand; the heavens themselves are defined by the size of His hand. The anthropomorphic language only heightens the “otherness” of Yahweh against that which He has created. The entire mass of the earth is called dust that God carries in a basket, or weighs upon scales as a merchant would weigh beans or produce. This is not a God who is intimidated by the tasks before Him!
Verses 13 and 14 speak of the impossibility of Yahweh’s being taught by man, or learning anything from man. The rhetorical question is left unanswered, for there is no possibility of reply. God has never “learned” anything, for He is omniscient. No man can know the mind, or, literally, the “spirit” (Hb: ruach) of Yahweh. God is utterly independent and central in regards to knowledge and understanding. This is not a growing, progressing God, but an eternally complete and perfect God.
Verses 15-17 take the assertions given by the questions of 12-14 and bring out the obvious conclusion – there is a great insufficiency in the created order to even begin to offer a sacrifice truly worthy of this God. Surely, only God’s condescending grace allows for man’s existence at all. God is surely not impressed by nations or kings, for they are “worthless” and “less than nothing.” This is no geographically limited, politically controlled deity.
This passage sounds themes that will recur over and over again in the following chapters. The author will stretch the reader to new heights in attempting to utilize human language to describe that which is completely other – Yahweh, King of Israel. In this passage the centrality of God to all knowledge – the cornerstone of epistemology – is clearly presented. God is not in need of man’s wisdom or learning. God is not progressing in His knowledge of the world and man’s actions. He is independent of the created order – transcendent, yet immanent in His providence.
To whom, then, will you compare God?
What image will you compare him to?
As for an idol, a craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A man too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot.
He looks for a skilled craftsman
to set up an idol that will not topple.
This section introduces another major theme for Isaiah – the impossibility of comparing Yahweh to anyone or anything else, and the foolishness of idolatry. It is assumed that in these passages Isaiah is most definitely engaging in deep, dreadfully truthful sarcasm in reference to idols and the construction of false gods. As God Himself is quoted as laying down these kinds of challenges, it is felt that the prophet would do the same.
In verse 18 Isaiah presents the uniqueness of Yahweh. One of the struggles of mankind is the fact that we learn by comparison. We define things by saying, “well, its like this…” But we cannot do this with God. God is unique. God is totally “other.” We cannot compare Him to anything else, for to do so is to actually border on idolatry! There is nothing in the created order that is analogous to God. Every example will break down. God is infinite and uncreated – the universe is finite and created, and those attributes are carried into the very fabric of each and every thing in that universe. Hence, we cannot compare God to anything at all. (see also 46:5)
The Hebrew terms rendered “compare in the first clause, and “image” in the second clause, both come from the Hebrew term damut which interestingly is the second of the terms used in Genesis 1:26 to define the relationship of man to God creatively. The first term tselem is normally translated “image” in Gen. 1:26, and this phrase as “likeness.” There is a close connection between the Genesis creation language and the terminology and thoughts found here in Isaiah, and this connection will come up again in future passages.
Verses 19 and 20 make a very insightful comment into the nature of the human heart in idolatry. Whether the idol is the property of a rich man (vs. 19) or a poor man (vs. 20) it is still the same – an idol. And one’s economic situation is irrelevant to the fact that man refuses to worship the one true God, but instead fashions idols, even if those idols differ in kind, size, shape, or expense (Romans 1:22-25!). Surely the Reformed view of anthropology is informed by passages such as this.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
The question of verse 21 will reappear in 40:28. Here, the sovereignty and providence of God is asserted to be a universal truth, and to be in the realm of universal knowledge, It is assumed that such a fact – the fact of God’s awesomeness – has been known from the beginning, from before the very earth was founded! Here again is language and thinking that is foundational to Pauline theology in Romans 1, especially verses 19 and 20.
God is pictured as sitting above the “circle of the earth”, a rather unusual phrase possibly referring to the horizon, or maybe to the rachia of Genesis 1. Human beings are, in comparison to God, considered to be as grasshoppers. The heavens are pictured as subject to the whim and pleasure of Yahweh.
In verses 23-24, however, this great transcendence is again balanced by the direct assertion of providence. God is credited with working in history. He is concerned and involved in the affairs of men. Despite men’s best plans, and despite the appearances of, being invincible and strong (being “firmly planted”), Yahweh simply blows on them and they whither and are gone – no sign of them is left.
None of the local “gods” to whom the people of Israel are continuously bowing down can make such a claim as this. Their power and might is limited to their own particular geographical locality. Yet in light of God’s actions in history, He asks His people again, “To whom will you compare me?” Who is God’s equal?
To answer this question, Yahweh instructs his people to look at the stars above, Are these stars (which were worshipped by many of the local peoples at the time) deities? No, they are created objects, created and controlled by Yahweh Himself. They are upheld by “His great power and strength.” Again creatorship and continued providence are asserted as clear and incontrovertible evidence of the absolute deity of Yahweh. Genesis language is used here again, for God is active in creating (Jib: bara) just as in the beginning. The heavens to which we are encouraged to look, however, are not described in the same language as in Genesis, but the concept is the same.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in Yahweh will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
This section starts off with the same appeal to the common knowledge of man in regards to the true nature of God as was seen above. A literal translation of the second line of verse 28 might be, “A God eternal (is) Yahweh.” Here eternity is connected with the concept of being Creator. The appeal that follows is based upon the nature of Yahweh. The text asserts the eternality of God, the creatorship of God, the omnipotence of God, and the omniscience of God. The verses that follow will base their promise of God’s giving of strength to the “worm Jacob” the “little Israel” (41:14) on these attributes of His being.
The phrase “and his understanding no one can fathom” presents us with some unusual thoughts. The term tevonah that is used here is not just “understanding” but is defined as “the object of knowledge.” Man is incapable of examining or fathoming or understanding the storehouse of God’s knowledge. Many reasons could be put forward as to why this is – His knowledge is infinite, and man is finite. We would not be out of line, given what has already been said by the prophet, to also allow the sense of eternality to enter into the discussion. God’s knowledge is immediate and simultaneous – God does not, as seen above, grow in knowledge or experience, but, being eternal, experiences all points in time in a completely different manner than the creation man. It is important to remember that time is a creation-oriented thing; it is improper to attempt to limit God to existence within time, even if that time is infinitely extended. It is recognized that to think that someone as “primitive” as Isaiah could seriously be thought to have such lofty concepts in mind is extraordinary. But this writer not only believes that such a view misunderstands the nature of divine revelation, but such a view does injustice to ancient man, and to Isaiah in particular, by assuming a rather snobbish modern superiority and “enlightenment.” It may just be that it is modern man, not ancient Isaiah, that has lost sight of the majesty and eternality of God.
This eternal and omnipotent God is not left in the realm of the untouchable and disconnected; rather, Yahweh is seen here again as graciously functioning as the covenant God of Israel, granting to them strength and power. This power is given to those who “wait” upon Yahweh – the term, by extension, can properly refer to “trust,” for faithfulness is measured over the long term in Hebrew thought. God’s promise is that , He will grant supernatural strength in patient endurance that is of a different kind than the natural strength of the youthful or the strong.
“Be silent before me, you islands!
Let the nations renew their strength!
Let them come forward and speak;
let us meet together at the place of judgment.
Who has stirred up one from the east,
calling him in righteousness to his service?
He hands nations over to him
and subdues kings before him.
He turns them to dust with his sword,
to windblown chaff with his bow.
He pursues them and moves on unscathed,
by a path his feet have not traveled before.
Who has done this and carried it through,
calling forth the generations from the beginning?
I, Yahweh – with the first of them and with the last – I am he.”
Here we enter into the “trial” narrative itself. Yahweh uses the language of the courtroom to prosecute those “gods” who would call for the worship of His people Israel. In this segment God’s actions in history – primarily the calling of Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and free the remnant from captivity – is submitted as evidence of God’s rulership of the universe. A passage such as this would be cited as evidence of a later date for this section, given the presupposition that there is no prophetic ability to speak futuristically. The language, admittedly, gives weight upon first reading to a past event. But this is to be interpreted as a futuristic usage in prophetic language.
The first verse summons the nations to judgment. In verses 2 and 3 reference is made to the awesome power and might of Cyrus, whom God is said to have “stirred up from the east.” Cyrus is seen as serving God in righteousness, though this is not to be taken in a personal way in regards to the man himself. Here the meaning would lean toward the understanding of “fulfilling God’s purpose” rather than any kind of moral or ethical understanding. Cyrus’ success is directly attributed to the work of Yahweh for His people (compare 40:23-24).
These actions are described in verse 4 as being in conformity with the eternal purpose and will of God. The fact that God is capable of sovereignly bringing about the deliverance of His people is here seen as evidence of His true nature and divine power. Yahweh is seen as the source of time itself – the one who calls out “the generations from the beginning.” Yahweh is then quoted as saying, “I, Yahweh – with the first of them and with the last – I am he.” This phrase is laden with meaning. Of course, the term Yahweh itself is connected by many scholars with the eternal nature of God and His consistency in His actions within time. Yahweh is here said to be “with” the first “of them” – the “them” referring to the generations – and “with” the last of them as well. God’s instantaneous and personal presence in all of time seems to be the direction of the thought at this point. Note also the usage of the term merosh – “from the beginning”. This is again language similar to Genesis 1.
He then says, “I am he.” The Hebrew phrase is ani hu and it is translated by the LXX as ego eimi. ego eimi is used in the Exodus 3 account of Moses at the burning bush, but not as the main substance of the translation of eheyeh asher eheyeh for that is rendered ego eimi ho on – the participle being repeated as the direct definition of “the Being.” The LXX will consistently translate ani hu in Isaiah (and in some of the minor prophets) as ego eimi, and it seems clear that this is the background of Jesus’ usage of the term in the Gospel of John. This will be seen even more clearly in 43:10. Here it should be noted, however, that the phrase ani hu is found in a context where the prediction of future events is relevant to the name of God, Yahweh, and to God’s eternal existence itself.
“Present your case,” says Yahweh.
“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King.
“Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
so that we may consider them
and know their full outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
tell us what the future holds,
so that we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.
But you are less than nothing
and your works are utterly worthless;
he who chooses you is detestable.”
Yahweh now calls for the presentation of the case of the opposition. Those who oppose His kingship are invited to “set forth” their arguments. God doesn’t mind the confrontation. He is true, and what He says is true, and hence it will be demonstrated to be the truth. He doesn’t fear what men might say or do.
Verse 22 calls for the idols to be brought (they can’t come themselves!) and to speak. What are they challenged to discuss? They are first challenged to “tell us what is going to happen.” Yahweh knows the future and rules over it because He is the creator of it. Can the idol boast of this? No “god” is worthy of the name unless they meet this requirement. The second challenge is just as high. Can the idols “tell us what the former things were”? This is not just historical knowledge, but knowledge of purpose. Yahweh asks not just for a recitation of the bald facts of history, but the demonstration of the meaning behind those actions. Here we have an underlying thought that all that takes place in time is purposeful and meaningful, primarily because Yahweh is at work within time. This is not simply the result of theological reflection over long periods of time, finally codified at Westminster! No, Yahweh throws the gauntlet down to all who would pretend to be God – tell us what is going to happen, and tell us about what has happened and the purposes for which those actions took place!
Isaiah’s pen drips with sarcasm as God seems to plead with the idols to at least do something good or bad! One is reminded of Elijah on the mountain mocking the priests of Baal. “Is your God out at the bathroom?” he asks. Here Yahweh asks that the idols do something so that “we will be dismayed and filled with fear.” But there is no response. So, in verse 24, God drops the sarcasm and speaks the truth: the idol is less than nothing, its works utterly worthless, and the one who is foolish enough to choose to bow down to this lifeless hunk of material is himself detestable.
This is what Yahweh God says –
he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
“I, Yahweh, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for my people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to set free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
“I am Yahweh; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”
The pattern of Isaiah’s oracles in this section should now be familiar. Before announcing the content of the next statement from God, Yahweh is described in terms that will have direct bearing on the nature of what is said. Here, in verse 5, Yahweh God is described in two couplets. The first is that He is the creator – He created the heavens, and He stretched them out. The second is that Yahweh is the giver of life itself. He gives breath to the people, life to those who walk on the earth, Clearly creation = stretching out; breath = life. It would seem to be wise, then, to listen closely to He who gives us our very breath, our very life!
Verses 6 and 7 fall into the category of verses that are important for the discussion of the “servant” in Isaiah, and we shall not dwell on them here. Suffice it to say that the “you” of verse 6 is singular in the text. Whether this excludes an understanding of Israel as the object, or whether that is sufficient to withstand the weight of a Messianic interpretation, is hard to say. It is self-evident that the New Testament sees in this language a reference to the Messiah.
In verse 8 Yahweh proclaims, or makes known, His name (a fact sadly missed by most English translations!). Yahweh’s name is glorious (Psalm 72:19), and because it represents His very nature and being, God is jealous of that name. He will not allow His glory to be given to another, or His praise to idols. It is fascinating that this proclamation of the jealousy of Yahweh for worship is followed immediately by a passage closely connected to the above discussions in chapter 41. God is worthy of praise and glory, and this is revealed again by His revelation of what has taken place, and His revelation of what is about to come to pass.
But now, this is what Yahweh says –
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summed you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when. you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am Yahweh, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you,
and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the, ends of the earth –
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
In verse 1, Israel is seen to be the object of God’s creative acts. Two terms are used here, bara and yazar. In Isaiah, these two terms are paralleled frequently. Yahweh is the creator of the universe, and, in a special and personal way, the creator of Israel. This is continued in verse 2 where redemption language comes into view – Yahweh has redeemed Israel, and has called Jacob by name. This personal summons reflects God’s ownership and love for Israel that forms the centerpiece of this section (v. 4).
God’s promise is not that Israel will not pass through the waters, or walk through the fire. God does not remove, His people front living in a fallen world. But the promise is to be with His people through these trials and ordeals. The phrase “I will be with you” is the first person way of saying Immanuel! He is the faithful covenant God of Israel.
God’s love for Israel is seen in His willingness to give others for the ransom of Israel. Peoples are exchanged for the life of this small group who would seem to be insignificant from the human perspective. In verses 5 and 6 God’s ability to restore Israel, no matter how severe the dispersion, is asserted. When one comes to verse 7, the same verbs are found as were seen in verse 1, though added here is the small, but immensely important thought – the purpose of God in creating His chosen people is for His own glory. This thought is not new, as the above discussions have shown.
This section is a literary whole. The first three verses of the, unit lead up to verse 4 and God’s proclamation of His love for Israel. Then the same steps are retraced through verses 5-7, only in reverse order so that verse 1 is parallel to verse 7, etc.
“You are my witnesses,” declares Yahweh,
“and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, and Yahweh,
and apart from me there is no savior.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed –
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,’” declares Yahweh, “that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?”
The law-court language continues with the summons of Israel to the witness stand. Yahweh claims that Israel is his chosen servant (which has ramifications for the above brief discussion of the “servant”) with the purpose that they should know Him, and believe Him (yada and aman). Israel is also to “understand” that ani hu. Here again this phrase is used in parallel with Yahweh, and as a definition thereof. It is followed immediately by radical monotheism – the single strongest statement (in my opinion) of monotheism in Scripture. Especially striking is the fact that Jesus uses almost identical language in John 13:19 (LXX is nearly word-for-word with Jesus), and in John Jesus uses the phrase in the context of revealing future events, an action that is clearly connected with Yahweh in these passages. It seems unavoidable that there is a proper connection here, and that in fact the usage of ego eimi by Jesus in John 13:19 finds its rootage here in Isaiah’s use of ani hu.
Verse 11 claims that Yahweh Himself is the only savior – the only hope for Israel. There is no other savior – no other foreign god who can deliver Israel, who can declare to them what is to come! God appeals to their common sense. They are His witnesses. Their testimony must surely be that Yahweh, not some other god, is the one who is at work with them. They are witnesses precisely because they are the objects of the actions enumerated in this passage – God has revealed Himself to them; He has saved or redeemed them; He has proclaimed to them His will and His name.
And this is not a new situation. Yahweh has eternally been the same. Even from eternity Yahweh has been the “I am”. Here again ani hu is used in the same senses as before. His actions have always been sovereign, just as they are now. When Yahweh acts, is there anyone who can (literally) “turn it back”? Since no answer is given, the answer is sure – nothing in the created order can override the sovereign decree of God. This is both a comfort and a reason to fear. It is a comfort for those who seek God’s glory and who accept all from His hand. It is a fear for those who arrogantly attempt to set themselves up in His place, and grab, for themselves some sort of personal sovereignty. Such is a reversal of the created order, and Yahweh will not stand for it.
“This is what Yahweh says –
Israel’s King and Redeemer
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God.
Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and lay out before me
what has happened since I established my ancient people,
and what is yet to come –
yes, let him foretell what will come.
Do not tremble, do not be afraid.
Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me?
No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”
Isaiah 44:6-8 pulls together themes from many of the preceding sections and connects them together in a breathtaking proclamation of Yahweh’s claims. Yahweh here says that He is both the first and the last. This differs from 41:4 where He was with the first and the last of the generations; here He is the first and the last, or, as the New Testament will express it, He is the beginning and the end. This is another of the ways Yahweh expresses in human language the absoluteness of His being. If He is first and last, then His is the ground of all eke. His being cannot, therefore, be, derivative or temporal in any way. He is first and last; He was not first, and will someday be last, but both are a present reality to God. Such knowledge is too high for the human mind! Our finite beings, limited as we are to the slavery of temporal existence, balk at such concepts as this!
Since God is eternal, it is self-evident that there are no other gods. Those who would make this claim are invited to respond to the same challenge laid down previously – let them make proclamation of the past and its purposes, primarily in reference to His “ancient people.” And what is coming in the future?
The comforting words “do not be afraid” find an echo above in God’s mocking of the idols, seeking from them some action that would cause fear and trembling. Since there is no action forthcoming, just as it is sure here that there is none other who knows the course of the future, there is no need to fear. Israel does not need to fear that her covenant God is going to abandon her. If there were indeed other gods in existence anywhere who could compare with Yahweh, then there would be no absolute assurance that these gods would not in some way affect the promises of Yahweh to the people of Israel. But no such possibility exists. Is there any other God besides Him? No, there is no other. He whose understanding and knowledge is infinite (Psalm 147:5) does not know of a single other god. Is it possible that He who stretched out the heaven by Himself (44:24) would not know of another God, if such a God existed? Certainly not.
All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
which can profit him nothing?
He and his kind will be put to shame;
craftsmen are nothing but men.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
they will be brought down to terror and infamy.
The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in the form of man,
of man in all his glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine,
He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is man’s fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says.
“Save me; you are my god.”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
A full exegesis of this passage is beyond the scope of this present work. Rather, it is included to provide a counter-balance, a breathtaking insight into the mechanism and psychology of idolatry. Presented against the backdrop of the heights of Yahweh’s self-revelation in these chapters, the utter depravity of the idolater – and this includes all of mankind! – is seen with shattering exactness. Here is God’s image-bearer, cutting down a tree, eating his dinner that is cooked with part of the wood, and then taking the other and fashioning an idol to whom he can ascribe praise!! Beginning in verse 18 the writer’s voice rises a full octave, and the term incredulous” would best describe the feeling that he communicates with his words. With great gravity he writes, “he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’” No, man is not capable of healing his own blindness, or of saving himself, or even of recognizing the lie in his right hand. Only the Spirit of Yahweh can open those blind eyes and reveal the true nature of idolatry to the idolater. Israel is solemnly warned in verse 21 – remember these things!
“This is what Yahweh says –
your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:
I am Yahweh,
who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who foils the signs of false prophets
and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise
and turns it to nonsense,
who carries out the words of his servants
and fulfills the predictions of his messengers,
The intensely personal relationship of Yahweh to Israel, seen before, is here expressed in familiar language. Here Yahweh claims to be the very one who formed Israel in the womb. Here is creation par excellence! The now customary catalog of attributes is then introduced. As if repetition will cause our dull minds to fully grasp the significance of it, the Holy Word again tells us that Yahweh is creator, Yahweh made all things. But the Lord goes beyond this to make it so emphatic as to establish the fact forever: Yahweh alone stretched out the heavens – He needed no help, had no company. He alone spread out the earth. If Yahweh did all this, then where could these other gods live? They would have to partake of the created order themselves, and hence be subject to Yahweh. No stone is left unturned in God’s quest to express the simple fact that there is no other god – anywhere – beside Him.
But, as the Word is want to do, balance is maintained. God not only hung the stars in the sky, but He is active in the world as well. Here His activity is that of bringing to naught the predictions of the “diviners” and the words of the false prophets. It is not that those who represent the idols will keep silent as the idol does! No, men, without hearing even from their own dumb idol, will speak presumptuously, and God says He delights in making them look foolish (1 Kings 22:22-23). They have no real knowledge of what God is doing in the world. They cannot help but look silly when reality shows them to be fools. But, not so with the true servants of God! God is described here as the one who “carries out the words of his servants.” This is not to say that these servants give messages that they did not receive from God. Rather, Yahweh “fulfills the predictions of His messengers.” As long as the prophet is acting as the messenger and not the author, God will be with him! Certainly men such as Amos or Jeremiah could find solace in such a promise, in such a description of their God. The whole passage is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 18.
“For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a tide of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
men may know there is none besides me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, Yahweh, do all these things.”
Verse 4 opens with the Hebrew term lema’an translated “for the sake of.” Here this term refers to God’s covenant loyalty and love (might we say chesed?) for Jacob. Israel is His “chosen” people. Because of this, God calls them by name (see above) and gives to Israel a title of honor, and this fully of grace, for they do not even acknowledge Him! Literally the term is yadah, a Hebrew term used frequently in these passages and capable of many nuances of meaning. In 44~.8 God is said not to “know” of any other gods; clearly there it is not simply “acknowledge” that is meant, but a flat denial of the existence of such beings. Here we may allow for a simple lack of acknowledgment on Israel’s part, but in practicality could this not refer, to a denial of Yahweh based on idolatry? It certainly is a possibility. Hosea will cry out, “There is no knowledge of God in the land!” in 4:1. This could be Yahweh’s charge here as well.
So why does God remain faithful? Certainly it is His character to do so, but the specific purpose brought into play here has to do with the proclamation of this fact: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other.” This is repeated twice in this section of the text. God will strengthen Israel to show His own glory, just as He raised up Pharaoh for the same purpose.
Verse 7 stretches the human willingness to accept God’s revelation of Himself. It is not as if this verse were all alone – the entire Scriptural witness confirms that these words are true. But that does not make things any easier, When Yahweh commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh, He informed Moses that He was the one who made man’s mouth, who makes man deaf or mute, who gives him sight or makes him blind (Exodus 4:11). So Yahweh’s words here are certainly not without precedent.
Yahweh says He forms(yozer — Qal active participle, lit. “forming”) light, and creates (bore -Qal active participle, lit. “creating”) darkness; then literally the Hebrew reads, “I am making peace (shalom) and creating evil.” Just how ra is to be taken here is difficult to say. Whatever it is, whether “calamity” or “disaster,” it is just as much the opposite of shalom, as light is the opposite of darkness in the preceding clause. Certainly the Reformed concept of providence finds a source in an affirmation such as this.
“Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker,
to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
‘What are you making?’
Does your work say,
‘He has no hands?’
Woe to him who says to his father,
‘What have you begotten?’
or to his mother,
‘What have you brought to birth?’”
Following hard on the heels of the many and repetitive statements of the sovereignty of Yahweh over the universe, this passage again gives insight into the foolishness of attitudes that are so frequently a part of human existence that only by being dazzled by the brightness of the glory of God are we able to then plainly see the foolishnes of our own thoughts and actions. Here is language that fits in Romans 9. Woe to the man who quarrels with his Maker! Indeed! The examples given are in reality humorous, but they don’t read that way given man’s forgetfulness of his own created status! Man is said to be a “potsherd among the potsherds on the ground.” He is just a broken fragment left in the dust. What does he have to complain about? And does the clay speak up and inquire as to the purposes of the potter? Does a pot deny that it was fashioned by the hands of its maker? Certainly not! Yet this is exactly what man does with Yahweh. The analogy continues on using the parent/child relationship. No one would deny that be was begotten by his mother and father – yet Israel will not acknowledge his maker, the one who “formed” him in the womb (44:24)!
For this is what Yahweh says –
he who created the heavens, he is God;
he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it;
he did not create it to be empty,
but formed it to be inhabited –
I am Yahweh,
and there is no other.
I have not spoken in secret,
from somewhere in a land of darkness;
I have not said to Jacob’s descendants,
‘Seek me in vain.’
I, Yahweh, speak the truth;
I declare what is right.”
Another oracle is here introduced with the repeated assertion of creatorship. An addition is here made, however. We are told that Yahweh did not create the world “to be empty.” Here again is Genesis creation narrative language, for the term here is tohu the exact same word used in Genesis 1:2 where the earth is tohu wa’bohu – without form, and empty. The explicit claim is made that this is not part of the purpose of God. But interestingly the same word will be used by Yahweh in verse 19 when He denies that He has ever said to Jacob’s descendants, “seek me in vain” (tohu). Also, another creation prologue word shows up here – hoshek describes the land of darkness in verse 19.
Yahweh here denies that He had not revealed Himself sufficiently to Jacob. Certainly their entire history gives affirmation to Yahweh’s words! Not only this, but Yahweh is speaking (participle in the Hebrew) that which the NIV translates as “truth.” It is the Hebrew term tsedek – that which is right, hence, by extension, that which is true. Anything that is in right relationship to the Creator is true; indeed, without the absolute of the Creator, there can be no such thing as truth, for Yahweh defines truth. Yahweh makes known, this passage says, what is true and what is right. Israel cannot make the excuse of ignorance.
“Declare what is to be, present it –
let them take counsel together.
Who foretold this long ago,
who declared it from the distant past?
Was it not I, Yahweh?
And there is no God apart from me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none but me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
my mouth has uttered in all integrity
a word that will not be revoked:
Before me every knee will bow;
by me every tongue will swear.
This final section to be examined ties together themes and phrases that we have now seen repeated over and over again. Verse 21 lays down the challenge again – Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, makes known the future. He alone controls what takes place in time. This fact alone demonstrates that there are none others like Him. He alone is God. There are no gods other than He.
This magnificent, powerful, omniscient and eternal God, miracle of all miracles, proclaims Himself to be “a righteous God and a Savior.” Given the potsherd passage above, and the idolatry passage before that, one can see just how false is the idea that grace is. a solely New Testament term! Because God is Savior, He invites not just Israel, but all the ends of the earth to come to Him and be saved. He is the sole source of refuge. Yahweh goes against modern trends – Yahweh will have nothing of “comparative religions” – Yahweh is the sole source of salvation. One cannot find salvation anywhere but in Him.
Every knee will bow to Yahweh. This promise is as sure as any that can be made. God has promised. The word has gone forth “in all integrity.” This promise cannot be revoked. Every knee, sometime, someway, will bow to Him. Every tongue will confess His name. Given this, can we avoid amazement at the quotation of this passage in Philippians 2:10-11? For Paul, this promise will be fulfilled when all acknowledge Jesus Christ as Kurios (can we not say Yahweh?), resulting in the glorification of the Father.
Then comes a point, in reading and thinking over these passages, when the mind becomes numb at the majesty of the Person who here graciously reveals Himself to the creature man. One is struck at the fact that such revelation is completely a gift of grace.
At the same time, the issues here discussed are of such a profoundly basic nature that one is tempted to miss them. Our Creator clearly tells us that if we are to function as He has designed us to function, we must acknowledge Him not in any form we wish to, but as He truly is. God requires of us faith in Him as He exists, not as we would like to reshape and reform Him into our image and likeness.
God stresses in these passages His role as creator. Nearly every section examined contained this truth, and built upon it the claims of God upon Israel as well as the basis for their being able to trust in Him. A corollary of this is Yahweh’s eternal nature. This God does not exist within time, subservient to it, but He is the creator of time, the one who declares what has happened and what will happen in the future. God’s existence in eternity is part of that which makes Him wholly “other” than finite, temporal man.
Since God is creator and eternal, there obviously can be no other gods besides Him. Here is a reasoned defense of monotheism. Polytheism is self-contradictory and foolish. It denies the very nature of the created universe, and the nature of Yahweh as He has revealed Himself. Polytheism, no matter what form these “gods” might take, is simple idolatry. A god who is not like Yahweh – who is not eternal and omniscient and sovereign – is no god at all, and those who would choose such a god are, the text says, detestable.
It is not claimed that any man can ever come to a complete knowledge and understanding of the tremendous truths enunciated in these passages. But certainly God would have us spend great energy and time in the pursuit of the knowledge of Him.