SERIES: ISAIAH 40 - 55
By Scott Grant
Razumikhin, a character in Dostoyevskyís Crime and Punishment who is trying to solve a murder, makes this observation about others also investigating the crime: "You know whatís most irritating about this whole business? It isnít that they talk nonsense. You can always forgive somebody talking nonsense. We all have a soft spot in our hearts for somebody who talks nonsense, and thereís a kind of nonsense that leads to sense. No, whatís shameful is this. They talk nonsense and worship their own nonsense."(1)
Razumikhin might just as well have been describing the idolaters of Isaiah 44:6-20. Any analysis of their words and actions would prove that they are worshipping their own nonsense, yet they fail to see it. Today we are surrounded by such idolaters who are crafting other gods, who are worshipping their own nonsense. Living among them, we have to ask ourselves, "Are we too worshipping our own nonsense?" The message of Isaiah 44:6-20 is that worshipping any other god than the Lord is foolish.
The Lord is first identified before he speaks to his people. He is identified as "the Lord," "the King of Israel," "Redeemer" and "the Lord of hosts"ótitles that once again, as earlier in Isaiah, evoke his commitment to Israel.
The Lordís point in this section is to communicate to Israel, by clear statement, presentation of evidence and a rhetorical question, that "there is no God besides me." Israel, therefore, is to be fiercely monotheistic.
The Lord declares himself to be "the first" and "the last"óeternal, and independent of creation. When he says that "there is no God besides me," heís not only saying that he is the only God but that any other would-be deity canít begin to be compared with him. Therefore he asks the question, "And who is like me?" The answer would seem to be obvious, but to a people who have embraced other gods, the question is penetrating and revealing.
In verse 7, the Lord proceeds to present the evidence for his statement. By inviting anyone else to present evidence that they cannot show, the Lord shows himself to be in control of history, from the beginning of time to the end of time. As part of the Lordís plan for his creation, he "established the ancient nation": Israel.
Because of the Lordís control of history, and his purposeful establishment of Israel, his people need not fear. At this point, what might they be afraid of? Earlier, he told them not to fear his coming judgment of them (Isaiah 43:1-7). They need not fear future judgment, or anything else in the future, because the Lord is in control of history.
What is it that the Lord has "announced" and "declared" to his people? The Lord in verse 7 challenged someone to proclaim, declare and recount "it" and then to declare "the things that are coming." "It" all has to do with the Lordís control of history. He calls his people "witnesses" of his control.
In conclusion, after the evidence has been put forth, the Lord puts in question form what he earlier told them straight out: "Is there any God besides me...?" But itís not simply a question of whether the Lord is the only God; itís a question of his dependability. Thatís why adds to the question, "Or is there any other Rock?" The imagery of a rock is that of a solid, dependable place of refuge (Psalm 71:3, 95:1). The Lord, through his control of history and his establishment of Israel, has shown himself to be a solid, dependable place of refuge for his people. The Lord answers his own question suggestively, "I know of none." By showing himself to be the one in the best position to answer his own question and then, in fact, answering it with more than a touch of irony, he is inviting Israel to come to the same conclusion.
We too need to hear the Lord tell us, "There is no God besides me." Those around us believe in and worship many gods, but we are to be fiercely monotheistic. There is one God. We need to hear him ask us, "Who is like me?" and allow that question to penetrate our hearts and challenge our belief structure. Indeed, who is like the Lord? Only he is outside of creation and therefore only he controls its history. He also controls our place in history. He established Israel. He established the church. For those of us who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, he has established us for his great purposes. He is in absolute control of history and your place in it. Therefore, the future, the unknown time and place that lingers out there somewhere in the mist, which raises such uncertainty, need not be feared. We need to hear him ask the question, "Is there any God besides me, or is there any other Rock?" What else or who else in your life has proven to be an absolutely trustworthy place of refuge all the time? Each of us must agree with the Lord, saying, "I know of none."
Paul says that any other gods are "so-called gods": "For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we exist through him" (1 Corinthians 8:5-6). He also says that the worship of these so-called gods is demonically inspired and that those who worship idols are in fact worshipping demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).
After the Lord declares himself to be the only God, Isaiah in verses 9 through 20 illustrates the absurdity of worshipping other gods.
Those who make idols are "futile," and the "precious" idols that they value so highly in fact "are of no profit." Whereas the people of Israel are supposed to be witnesses of the Lordís control of history (verse 8), the witnesses of the idols canít see the end result of their worshipóthat they will be "put to shame," shown to be fools. Moreover, the companions of idol makers, those who worship along with them, will also be shown to be fools. The reason the idolaters will be put to shame is that those who fashion idols are "mere men" who canít make a god that can in any sense rise above themselves. Isaiah challenges the idolaters to assemble themselves, stand up and state the case for their gods, but he envisions that they will "tremble" with fear. Whereas those who worship the Lord were told not to tremble, inasmuch as he was in control of history (verse 8), the idolaters will tremble because their gods will be shown to be impotent. Thus, once again, such worshippers will be "put to shame."
What are the idols that our culture fashions, that we are influenced by and that we even fashion for ourselves? Materialism, consumerism, libertarianism, licentiousness, sensuality and success are some of our favorites. We crave riches, the stuff we buy with the riches, the freedom we have to do whatever we want when we want to do it, whatever makes us feel good, and the sense of accomplishment that feeds our pride. These are what we may consider precious. In reality, they are of no profit, and in that we canít see that, we will be shown to be fools. The only payoff for idolatry is shame.
How do you know that something has become an idol for you? That which you depend on to meet your needs has become your god; that which makes you anxious in its absence has become your god.
An idol maker works hard with his "strong" arm to make an idol, but his strength fails him in the process. His strong arm isnít so strong, as he wants for food and water. What he ends up with is something "in the form of a man, like the beauty of a man"ósomething that looks very much like the weak human being who made it.
Isaiah shows that though an idol is made of the most valuable woods, any of them will doócedar, cypress or oak. He also demonstrates that the wood that eventually becomes an idol started out as a simple seed dependent on rain. Ultimately, then, how powerful can the idol really be?
To make matters worse, not all of the wood is made into an idol. Parts of it are used to burn for heat or for cooking. If things had turned out differently, the idol might have instead been used to cook dinner. The idol maker worships and falls down before the leftovers! This is the god he prays to for deliverance.
These verses tell us some very insightful things about idolatry. If we in fact construct a god from our own imaginations, the god is going to be no stronger than we are. It is no greater than us, and it therefore cannot help us. Also, the idols we fashion end up looking a lot like ourselves: They take "the form of a man" and appear "like the beauty of a man." We make an idol in our image. As Pascal said, "God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment." We are in essence worshipping ourselves. The Lord says through the prophet Habakkuk, "What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it, or an image, a teacher of falsehood? For its maker trusts in his own handiwork when he fashions speechless idols" (Habakkuk 2:18). Historian Charlotte Allen has observed that those who have offered portraits of the "historical Jesus" always come up with a Jesus who bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves. (2) In idolatry, we therefore primarily worship ourselves and dream of other little gods that will meet our needs.
N.T. Wright reflected on this idolatry of the self after a book titled The God I Want caught his eye:
The God I want? Left to myself, the god I want is a god who will give me what I want. Heóor more likely itówill be a projection of my desires. At the grosser level, this will lead me to one of the more obvious pagan gods or goddesses, who offer their devotees money, or sex, or power (as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche pointed out). All idols started out life as the god somebody wanted.
At the more sophisticated level, the god I want will be a god who lives up to my intellectual expectations: a god whom I can approve rationally, judiciously, after due consideration and weighing up of theological probabilities. I want this god because he, or it, will underwrite my intellectual arrogance. He will boost my sense of being a refined modern thinker. The net result is that I become god; and this god Iíve made becomes my puppet. Nobody falls down on their face before the god they wanted. Nobody trembles at the word of a home-made god. Nobody goes out with fire in their belly to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, to teach the ignorant, to feed the hungry, because of the god they wanted. They are more likely to stay at home with their feet up. (3)
Isaiah, on the other hand, gives us who Wright calls "the God whom we didnít wantóhow could be have ever dreamed of it?óbut who, amazingly wanted us." And though we fashion our idols with the "strong arm" of our imagination, the Lord "will come with might with his arm ruling for him...In his arm he will gather the lambs, and carry them in his bosom" (Isaiah 40:11). Though our idols reflect the beauty of man, they are nothing in comparison to "the glory of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:5). And remember what happened to those arms: They were spread out and nailed to a piece of wood, displaying for all the world to see the beautyóthe glory!óof the Lord. This, says Wright, is "a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ĎYou did not choose me; I chose youí" (John 15:16).
The gods conjured up from the trees in the forest of our imaginations are dependentódependent on us! It is foolish to worship such a god, to fall down before it and to hope that it will deliver us, however we define deliverance.
Isaiah has just demonstrated idolatry to be phenomenally absurd. Now he says that the idolaters fail to grasp the absurdity of their beliefs and actions. He actually says that God has "smeared over their eyes" so that they cannot comprehend the otherwise obvious stupidity of idolatry. Yet, Isaiah also says in verse 20 that the idolaterís own heart has turned him to idols. It was the same way with Pharaoh. The Lord hardened Pharaohís heart (Exodus 10:1), but Pharaoh also hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15). Isaiah, in fact, was commissioned by the Lord to "render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull and their eyes dim" (Isaiah 6:9-10). He was to do this by speaking the truth, and as they resisted the truth, their capacity for being deceived would increase. So when the Lord "smears over the eyes" of the people, itís because they have rejected the truth. So they canít understand that they are worshipping an abomination and how stupid it really is to "fall down before a block of wood."
Paul in Ephesians 4:17-19 speaks of this deception: "This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness."
Tragically, the idolater "feeds on ashes." Part of the material he used to make the idol has already become ashes, after being burned for heat or cooking. And the idol itself will one day be ashes. Ashes provide no nourishment. But his own "deceived heart" has turned him from the Lord to idols. Earlier, the idolater was asking his god to "deliver" him, to no avail, and now the idolater himself cannot deliver himself from his own deluded state. He canít deliver himself from worshipping a god that canít deliver him. He is not able to recognize that the idol he has constructed, what he holds in his right hand, is a "lie."
Are you worshipping the wrong god? Are you in essence falling down before a block of wood? Are you feeding on ashes? Has your deceived heart turned you aside to other gods? Have those other gods failed to deliver you, failed to really help you? Are you starting to get a hint that this idol, which you are holding onto as surely as if it were in your right hand, is nothing but a lie? While you have a grip on it, does it seemingly have a grip on you? You cannot deliver yourself; you cannot seem to leave it behind.
If youíre starting to see things more clearly, maybe thatís the hand of Jesus opening your eyes. The entire ninth chapter of John treats Jesusí healing of a blind man. John 9:6: "When he had said this, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes." Some of the manuscripts use the word translated "applied," but there is better attestation for a word that would be translated "smeared." After Jesus smeared his eyes with clay, the man could see. In Isaiah, the Lord smeared their eyes because of the hardness of their hearts, but when Jesus "smears" our eyes, we see. He enlightens us so that we can see the absurdity of idolatry and turn to him, the God who is.
Brennan Manning writes of such a time when he was thus enlightened: "After I delivered a 45-minute sermon titled "The victorious limp," the assembled community of 11,000 rose to its feed and erupted into thunderous applause. My shadow self that hungers for honor, recognition, power, glory and human respect experienced an instant of gratification. My false self that thrives on the illusion that my real identity lies in ministerial success, homiletic triumph, victories in the vineyard, stellar book reviews and the admiration of others basked in the chorus of adulation. In that fleeting moment of euphoria, God took pity on his poor, proud son. Immediately I was given a vision of myself lying in a coffin. The funeral home had closed, the place was deserted. My embalmed body was lying in the coffin completely alone. I had run out of time."(4) Talk about feeding on ashes!
The other gods we worship are not bad in themselves; itís just that they arenít divine. Money, sex and power, for example, are good. They are from God. But they are not God. They are to be enjoyed in their God-given contexts and used for good, but they are not to be worshipped.
C.S. Lewis demonstrates this in The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil offers advice to a junior devil on how to deal with their "Enemy"óGod:
"Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemyís ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula." (5)
In other words, worshipping any god other than the Lord is foolish. When we worship the Lord, we see and enjoy the gifts of the Lord for what they are and not as gods to be worshipped. We trust in the Rock instead of feeding on ashes.
(1) Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, translated by Sydney Monas, 1968. New American Library, Times Mirror, New York, Scarborough, Ontario. P. 140. (2) Charolotte Allen, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. Free Press. (3) N.T. Wright, For All Godís Worth, 1997. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. Pp. 23-24. (4) Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus, 1992. Multnomah, Portland, Ore. P. 188. (5) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. Barbour and Co., Uhrichsville, Ohio. P. 49.
Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Isaiah 44:6-20 7th Message Scott Grant March 19, 2000
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