By Scott Grant

The ideal schedule

Gus Orviston, the main character in David James Duncan’s novel, "The River Why," decides to fulfill his obsession with fishing by moving into a cabin and fish all day, every day and following what he had always envisioned as the "Ideal Schedule." Here’s what happened:

It took some time to get settled in the cabin: a day to stash gear, a day to build a fish-smoker, a day to set up and stock the aquarium, a day to clean, and salt in supplies, two days to cut three cords of wood. But on June ninth I hung the Ideal Schedule on the wall by my bed and began to live it: I proceeded to fish all day, every day, first light to last. All my life I’d longed for such a marathon —

and I haven’t one happy memory of it. All I recall is stream after stream, fish after fish, cast after cast, and nothing in my head but the low cunning required to hoodwink my mindless quarry. Each night my Log entries read like tax tables or grocery receipts, describing not a dream come true, but a drudgery of double shifts on a creekside assembly line. (1)

He had made fishing his god, and his god let him down. Perhaps we too have our gods, obsessions that we hope will meet our needs but let us down in the end. On the other hand, there is a God who will carry you when you’re burdened and who will deliver you in your distress. In Isaiah 46, this God invites you to forsake the other gods and worship him.

Isaiah 46 comprises a poem of five stanzas. The first four appear as two pairs. Each pair offers a contrast between its first stanza and its second stanza. The contrast in each case is between other gods in the first stanza and the Lord in second stanza. In contrast to the other Gods, the Lord bears burdens (verses 1-4) and accomplishes his purpose (verses 5 to 11). The Lord’s activity in these cases is summed up in the fifth stanza, which speaks of the salvation he grants.

The three stanzas that speak of the Lord’s activity are each introduced by some kind of appeal the perceptive faculties of God’s people: "listen" (verses 3 and 12) and "remember" and "recall it to mind" (verse 8).


The gods that burden us (46:1-2)

Isaiah, preaching before Israel’s defeat by Babylon in 586 B.C., is looking forward to the time when Babylon itself will be defeated. Writing before these events, Isaiah projects himself into the future, so to speak, and writes as if they have already happened. Bel and Nebo were the most prominent gods in the Babylonian pantheon. Even the most powerful Babylonian gods will "bow down" and "stoop over" when Babylon is conquered. Their images, which were formerly paraded annually in a New Year’s procession, will now be loaded on beasts and cattle and carried away in defeat. The fact that they have to be carried in the first place, either in celebration or defeat, demonstrates their impotence. Not only are they impotent, they’re burdensome. The beasts that carry them become weary trying to support them.

They create burdens for the worshippers and the beasts that must carry them, but they can’t in any sense relieve those burdens. Not only do they not solve problems, they create problems that they cannot solve. When a people was defeated, it was believed that its gods were also defeated. So the Babylonian gods will go into captivity.

We look to gods such as money, sex, power, work and success to meet our needs. We seek to have our needs for significance, relationship and security met outside of a relationship with God, what he provides and what he prescribes. Often we load all our expectations onto a relationship, or hope for a certain relationship. The third stanza in this poem will show that these gods don’t meet our needs. This stanza shows that they actually create more needs that they themselves can’t meet. They don’t relieve our burdens; they add to them, and they can’t lift a finger to help.

Gods such as money, power, sex, work and success don’t meet the needs we expect them to. Neither do relationships or hoped-for relationships meet our deepest needs. When we load all these expectations onto them, they create needs and add burdens. Think about what happens: You load your expectations onto this god, and you hope that it meets your needs. When it doesn’t, you’re crushed. You’re worse off than you were when you started. These gods demand ever-increasing portions of our resources, because of the needs they create and the burdens they add. Therefore, they create addictions, offering only limited and fleeting satisfaction that begs for more.


The God who bears burdens (46:3-4)

Beginning in verse 3, the Lord speaks to the "house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel"—the exiles in Babylon. He contrasts himself to the Babylonian gods depicted in verses 1 and 2. The difference is that whereas the Babylonian gods had to be carried in some fashion by their worshippers, the Lord carries his worshippers. Words that mean "bear" or "carry" appear five times in verses 3 and 4. The Lord speaks of how, like a mother, he has borne and carried Israel from birth and from the womb—from the time he formed them as a people. He also says that he will continue to bear the people of Israel to their "old age," to their "graying years." He says he has done it, and he will do it. Finally, he says he will "deliver" the people, using the same word that Isaiah used in verse 2, when he said that the Babylonian gods will not "rescue" the burden they create. The immediate deliverance he’s talking about here is deliverance from captivity. He will carry Israel through difficult times in captivity and will ultimately deliver her.

Here is a God who can help. The other gods are helpless; they can’t help us; and they weigh us down with burdens. We have to carry the other gods; this God carries us. And oh how we need to be carried! We are weak creatures who are easily wounded. In our weak and wounded condition, what does the Lord do? He loads us on his back and carries us. Whether you have known the Lord for 20 minutes or 20 years, he has carried you. And even if you don’t know the Lord, at some point after you commit your life to him, you’ll be able to look back and see that he carried you even before you knew him. He has carried all of us from the womb—both our literal birth and our spiritual birth.

This gives us great confidence for the future. If the Lord has carried you this far, he’s not going to drop you now. You might think, "I can’t make it. I’m too weak or too wounded." And the Lord says, "We’ll make it," and he loads you on his back. You might say, "My burdens are too great," but he carries not only your burdens but you yourself. You all here today are young. Most likely you have a long way to go in your journey. You have hopes for the future, but you may also be afraid those hopes won’t be realized. You may have been wounded in the past or are suffering now, so that you’re worried about how you’re going to make it through, or what kinds of wounds you might suffer in the future. The Lord will carry you to your old age, even to your graying years. He will carry you through difficult times, delivering you time and time again until he finally delivers you from the pain of this world to the joy of the next. One other thing is for sure: The other gods aren’t going to get you there.


The gods that we make (46:5-7)

The Lord invites comparison with other gods and demonstrates their inferiority. Those who worship other gods shell out gold and silver to hire a goldsmith, who makes a god. These gods depend on human resources and human skills. After the idols are crafted, the worshipers "bow down" to them. Earlier, the gods were seen as having "bowed down" in defeat. In worshipping such gods, people bow down to what will bow down. They are attaching themselves to gods destined for defeat. After such a god is created, it is dependent on human effort so that it can assume its proper place. Once there, all it does is stand there, inactive. If one cries to it in distress, it can’t help. The emphasis in the first stanza was that these gods are burdensome. The emphasis here is that they are useless.

The Lord asks us the question, "To whom would you liken me, and make me equal and compare me, that we should be alike?" We would probably want to answer, "No one. Nothing." But if the Lord is asking us this question, and if we allow ourselves to hear it, and if it somehow connects with us and lingers for a moment, perhaps there is something in our lives that we have made equal to God—some god that we have formed to meet our needs.

If so, the folly of our idolatry is exposed here. Other gods are dependent on human resources (gold and silver), human ingenuity (the work of a goldsmith) and human effort (carrying the idols to their place). To get this god and worship this god requires money, ingenuity and effort—all of which could be invested in more meaningful pursuits. When you bow down to a god that is itself bowing down because it can’t bear the weight of your expectations, you bring yourself down. You lose something of yourself; you become less than you should be; and you may wonder where the real "you" went. Even after you pay for it, form it and get it where you want it, it’s useless.

Then when you really need this god, when distress comes upon you, it can’t respond. You can’t count on money, power, sex, work, success or the perfect relationship, but you can count on distress. It will come. It’s a long journey into your graying years. You will have many occasions to cry out. Will the god you bow down to be able to answer you? Distress often ends up being a turning point. When in distress you cry out to a god who cannot answer, who cannot deliver, you start thinking that maybe you should be crying out to a different God.


The God who makes (46:8-11)

The Lord now contrasts himself with the impotent gods of the previous stanza, addressing "transgressors" who have engaged in the worship of these gods. Four times in the first three lines of this stanza the Lord uses expressions that call for the idolaters to use their perceptive faculties, particularly in application to "the former things long past." Just as in the second stanza, the Lord appeals to his past faithfulness as a sign that he will be faithful in the future. The things long past concern how the Lord has carried his people from birth (verse 3). Such care proves that the Lord is the only God and that there is none like him.

He also "declared the end from the beginning," or "from ancient times things which have not been done." This concerns his longstanding "purpose," which he spoke about long ago and promised to bring about some day. That purpose, which will accomplish all the Lord’s "good pleasure," is to deliver his people. In this instance, that deliverance will come from "a bird of prey" he calls from the east—Cyrus of Medo-Persia, who will conquer Babylon and allow the exiles to return to their land. Cyrus is "the man of my purpose from a far country" (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1). The Lord, having spoken of these things, promises to bring them to pass. Like a potter working with clay, he says he has "planned" the shape of history and will complete his task.

Isaiah, just as he did in the first and second stanzas, in the third and fourth stanzas first demonstrates the inadequacy of the idols and then the power of the Lord. The contrast in the first two stanzas concerned what was carried. The contrast in these stanzas concerns what is done. In the third stanza a goldsmith "makes" a god (verse 6). In this stanza, the Lord says he will "accomplish" his good pleasure (verse 10) and that he will "do" it (verse 11). (The same word is translated "makes," "accomplish" and "do.") A made god just "stands" there (verse 7), but the purposes of the real God are "established" (verse 10). A made god can’t "answer" (verse 7), but the real God says "truly I have spoken" (verse 11).

The Lord’s care for us in the past proves that he is the only God and that there is none like him. His historic care for us is part of his eternal purpose for us, which he has declared to us. It is God’s purpose to deliver us from that which harms us, that which dehumanizes us. It is his "good pleasure" to deliver us. It is a pleasing experience for the Lord to think about his purpose for us and to execute it. Sometimes that deliverance comes from a "far country"—from some surprising sources. Truly, the Lord has spoken to us about this purpose, in page after page of his word. He says he will bring his purpose for us to pass. Indeed, there is none like him.

We live between the time God has declared his purpose to deliver us and the time when he will bring it to completion. We’re in the awkward, hopeful, fearful middle of time. He does not reveal to us to the details of how he will accomplish his purpose in us. And there are times, of course, when it seems as if his declared purpose to deliver us will never be accomplished. Although we can’t see the details, and though we may see what seems to us to be the unraveling of any good purpose, with eyes of faith we can see him. It’s helpful to constantly reconnect with God’s purpose and discover new aspects of it and to connect with what he has already done. Such connection helps us connect with God’s heart, and we are encouraged to trust him for the details and when life seems void of any good purpose.

Do you want a god who weighs you down with burdens and doesn’t lift a finger to help, or do you want a God who carries not only your burdens but you yourself? Do you want to make a God who drains your resources, or worship a God who makes—who accomplishes his good pleasure in your life, who plans things and does them? Do you want to lift and carry a god so that it stands in place, or worship a God who establishes his purpose, who works for you? Do you want to make a god who can’t answer you in your distress, or worship a God who, truly, has already spoken to you about the great things he will do for you and has promised to bring them to pass?

Ian Baker-Finch is a man who worshipped success. Never heard of him? He’s a golfer. He won the British Open in 1991. In a story in Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly writes, "It was the cruelest thing that ever happened to him." Here are some excerpts from Reilly’s story:

Reilly writes that Finch proceeded to go into "the single worst slump in golf history" and that he went through "more than 30 coaches, psychologists, hypnotists, nutritionists, healers, gurus, swing doctors and spiritualists. Nothing has helped."

There’s a man who worshipped success and found it to be burdensome. Do you feel constantly burdened? Do you feel that something or someone is constantly letting you down? Do you find yourself obsessing about certain things that drain you of time, money and energy? Are you unsatisfied with the purpose you seem to have chosen for your life? Are you crying out for something to happen that just refuses to happen? Perhaps you’re worshipping the wrong god.


The God who saves (46:12-13)

Just as he did in verse 3, the Lord says, "Listen to me." Here, he addresses the "stubborn-minded." Literally, these people are "mighty of heart"—or people who have hardened their hearts against the Lord. These people are "far from righteousness"—they have broken covenant with the Lord to worship other gods. The Lord, on the other hand, says he will "bring near my righteousness"—he will remain faithful to Israel. In that his righteousness is "not far off," his covenant faithfulness will be shortly demonstrated. His righteousness his equated with his "salvation," which will not delay. This means he will raise up Cyrus to liberate Israel from Babylon. In that this salvation is granted not in Babylon but "in Zion," it is setting the stage for an even greater salvation in the unfolding purpose of God. The Lord will also grant his "glory," or his beauty, for Israel. Humanity was made in the image of God and designed to reflect his splendor. Although sin tarnished the image, the Lord has set about restoring it. When he saves Israel, when he brings her back from exile and when he accomplishes an even greater salvation, his beauty will be all the more evident in his people. The burden-bearing God who accomplishes his purpose of the second and fourth stanzas is seen in the final stanza as the God who saves.

We are a stubborn-minded, hard-hearted lot. We like our idols. The more we like them, the harder our hearts become. And despite everything we know about them and about the true God, we have trouble giving them up. What’s the prescription here for a hard heart? It involves "listening" to what the Lord says. What’s he saying in this stanza? He’s saying that he will bring his righteousness near. Although we may be far from righteousness in our idolatry, the Lord still says he will be faithful to us and that his salvation will not delay. Even in the depths of our sin, he is still intent on saving us. That’s what we need to hear. If we hear it, it just might soften our hearts. And if our hearts are softened, we’ll be ready to embrace his salvation when it comes, whatever form it takes. And as we embrace his salvation, his beauty begins to shine in our lives. His image in us takes shape, and we reflect his splendor.


The greater salvation

In the last stanza the Lord hints at a greater salvation than the one that he will grant to the Israelites through Cyrus. The deliverance that Cyrus granted was by no means complete. The people returned to the land, yes, but they were still subjects—this time to the Medo-Persian empire. There was still a salvation to come "in Zion." That salvation did, indeed, come to Zion: "Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your king is coming to you, gentle, and mounted upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’" (Matthew 21:5).

When that one came, he too, like the Lord in the Isaiah passage, talked about bearing burdens and carrying us: "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my load is light." (Matthew 11:28-30).

The Lord’s purpose was not completely established through Cyrus. He had a lot more to "accomplish" and "do" to bring about his purpose through a man "delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23) (the Greek word that translates the Hebrew word for "purpose" in Isaiah 46:10 is the same one used in Acts 2:23). In this one we have been "predestined according to his purpose who works all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). In the Isaiah passage the Lord anticipated a time when his "good pleasure" would be accomplished; because of the one who came to Zion, the Apostle Paul, one of his followers, could say that "it is God who is at work in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13), and that "it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him" (Colossians 1:19).

Cyrus came as a bird of prey from the east; this one’s star appeared in the east (Matthew 2:2). Cyrus came from a far country—Persia. So did this one—he came from heaven (John 1:1, Philippians 2:6). Cyrus defeated Babylon; this one defeated Satan (Colossians 2:15).

He brought God’s righteousness—his covenant faithfulness—near, for in his gospel, "the righteousness of God is revealed" (Romans 1:17) and "has been manifested" (Romans 3:21). The Lord said that he would grant salvation in Zion, and as the plan unfolded, it became clear that this salvation—a salvation from sin—was for all, and that it came through one man: "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Because of this one, Paul could say, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). There it is—God’s purpose again. God’s purpose is wrapped up in his Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul continues in his letter to the Romans, he writes this: "For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom he predestined, these he also called; and whom he called, these he also justified; and whom he justified, these he also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). The Lord said he would grant his glory, or his splendor, for Israel. Here’s how it happens. Romans 8:29-30 describes the "good" result that God brings about in the lives of those who love him. It has to do with his image in us—further defined as the image of his Son—being restored and shining forth. His "purpose" is to deliver us from sin through the atoning work of his Son and the ongoing work of the Spirit of his Son that we might become like his Son, finally when we are "glorified" completely at his coming (1 John 3:2). That’s salvation!

(1) David James Duncan, The River Why, © 1983. Bantam Books, New York. P. 75.

(2) Rick Reilly, "Driven Mad." Sports Illustrated, Feb. 23, 1998. P. 82.

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 46:1-13
9th Message
Scott Grant
May 7, 2000