LIVE IN REALITY, NOT DELUSION
Week of November 19, 2006
Bible Passages: Isaiah 40:18-23; 41:5-7; 44:9, 18-20; 45:20-22.
Biblical Truth: When God gives a person an opportunity to lead, He also encourages and empowers the person to lead.
What is God Like? Compare!: Isaiah 40:18-23.
 To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him?  As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, a goldsmith plates it with gold, and a silversmith fashions chains of silver.  He who is too impoverished for such an offering selects a tree that does not rot; he seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman to prepare an idol that will not totter.  Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.  He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. [NASU]
 All the comparisons Isaiah has been introducing lead to the unavoidable and inevitable conclusion that God is the true God and that beside Him there is no other. There is nothing with which He can be compared, for He is the Creator and all else is the creation, the work of His hands. To bring out this truth the prophet asks a question, for the asking of a question is sometimes more forceful than the statement of the truth in a simple declaratory sentence. A conjunction begins the question and at the same time shows the connection with what precedes. To bring out the full force we may paraphrase “and therefore”, for the question follows what has preceded as a natural conclusion. It is a question addressed not to the Israelites in particular but to all men. A negative answer is demanded: God can be likened to no one. The comparison has to do not merely with dumb idols but will all that is not God. Is there anything apart from God with which He may be compared? The answer is, “There is not.” Isaiah’s question brings us to the heart of genuine theism. There can be no comparison between the living, eternal God and any man, for man is but a creature. Man is limited, finite, temporal; God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in all His attributes and perfections. In our thinking about God the infinite distance between God and the creature must ever be kept in mind. To break down this distinction is to fall into the sin of idolatry. A parallel question brings out the same thought: Or what likeness will you compare with Him? The verb implies a setting out or arranging in order. One cannot compare God with the creature, for between the creature and God there is an infinite distance; hence, to make such a comparison is to bring God down to the level of the creature.
 The question of the previous verse leads the prophet to mention idols. Certainly God cannot be compared with idols. To bring down the eternal God into the temporal is the result of comparing Him with the form of a man. Even the material used in the manufacture of an idol was created by God Himself. The hands of man created in God’s image employ materials placed in the earth by God to represent God in the form of a creature. This is to deny God’s eternity and infinity.
 The poor man goes into the forest and makes a choice of wood; he shows care and concern in the preparation of his idol. In all this serious description, there is true satire. Having found the wood, the poor man seeks out an artisan who is skilled in his art and has him prepare the idol. It is the task of this artisan to erect an image in such a way that it will not totter. To erect the image in such a manner, the artisan would have to make a secure base, larger than the upper part of the statue. Thus, wind would not blow it over nor would it easily topple if anything struck against it. There were actually those who bowed down to this rather than to the eternal and immutable God. Here the temporal would create the eternal, the weak the strong, the finite the infinite, the changeable the unchangeable. Man seeks to create God – and all in the image of man! Isaiah could not more clearly have placed in the open the utter folly and pointlessness of idolatry.
 To employ materials such as gold, silver, or wood in the construction of idols is folly, for God has created them. The earth is His and all its fullness. These truths the prophet now brings out by means of four questions focusing on knowing and hearing. According to this verse there are two reasons why men who practice idolatry are without excuse. On the one hand, the very foundation of the earth is a testimony that God is the Creator. On the other, from the beginning the truth has been taught by word of mouth, so that those who have not been willing to hear it are without excuse.
 What is stated in this and the following verses is what the people must have known. What they have heard and what they have seen in the creation should have taught them that it is God who sits, stretches and spreads. The phrase sits above the circle of the earth is a figurative expression for God’s providential upholding and maintaining of creation. Seated as a king, He constantly upholds His creation, and governs it. To God seated upon His high throne, men appear as grasshoppers. In their actions and activities men are as weak and powerless as the grasshoppers. Not only does God control the earth, but He also has created and controls the heavens.
 The language is a strong denial of deism. God has created the world but He has not abandoned it. All the created universe is in His hands and under His control. With the present verse the prophet attains a climax in his description of the power of God. No one can resist the power of God, not even the human authorities who exercise lordship over man. God alone gives princes over to nothingness, so that they, as it were, partake of the nature of nothingness. To give princes to nothingness is to remove them from their positions of power so that they have no power whatever. Isaiah speaks of the judges of the earth, and declares that God has made them meaningless. This is parallel to the first half of this verse. Here the men of great power and authority who have the power both to rule and to pronounce judgment, God has made them into nothingness.
What Feeds Idolatry? Fear!: Isaiah 41:5-7.
 The coastlands have seen and are afraid; the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and have come.  Each one helps his neighbor and says to his brother, "Be strong!"  So the craftsman encourages the smelter, and he who smooths metal with the hammer encourages him who beats the anvil, saying of the soldering, "It is good"; and he fastens it with nails, so that it will not totter. [NASU]
 A play revolving around the words have seen and are afraid introduces the verse. Such word plays are frequent in Isaiah, particularly in the latter half of the book. As a result of having seen what Yahweh has done in arousing Cyrus from the east, the coastlands have fallen into fear. They fear not so much because of the approach of Cyrus as because of the God who placed him upon the stage of history. Here is a God unlike the idols of the heathen, a God who can truly move the course of nations. As far as there are lands, stretching to the very ends of the earth, fear will produce trembling among the nations, wherever they are, when they learn of what the Lord has done. Two verbs (drawn near, come) complete the verse and describe the approach of the nations to one another to bring mutual encouragement. The nations will be terrified at the work of the God of Israel. Nations do not come to the God of Israel, who has accomplished such a wonder, but to one another, to seek help at the hand of the idols they themselves have made.
 The prophet describes the manner in which the ends of the earth approach one another and how they proceed to give mutual encouragement. One nation will help another. The thought is that this will be done individually. Here is no thought of repentance or of turning from the idols. Rather, encouragement is given to abide firm in the condition in which the nations already find themselves.
 Although the judgment approaches fast, and the nations have seen it, they nevertheless do not turn unto God but remain in their idolatry, depending upon the idols they themselves have constructed. To show the folly of idolatry, the prophet points out that the idols are dependent upon the nation’s ordinary workmen and upon the smallest details of construction. Even the nails are necessary to prevent the idol from moving; its strength lies not in itself, but in the nails that hold it together. The introductory So connects the verse with the preceding and introduces an example of the manner in which encouragement is given. When all is completed, the idol stands firm, ready for use. To such folly were the nations driven when God aroused His servant from the east.
Where Does Idolatry Lead? Self-Deception!: Isaiah 44:9, 18-20.
 Those who fashion a graven image are all of them futile, and their precious things are of no profit; even their own witnesses fail to see or know, so that they will be put to shame.  They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend.  No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, "I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!"  He feeds on ashes; a deceived heart has turned him aside. And he cannot deliver himself, nor say, " Is there not a lie in my right hand?" [NASU]
 As further evidence that there is but one God, the prophet calls attention to the folly of idolatry. Those who have apostatized from God have sought to pull Him down to the level of the creature and to honor Him by means of images their own hands have fashioned. These people are described as futile and of no profit. Like the idols their hands make, they themselves are vain and void, filled with nothingness. The desired or favorite things are the unprofitable idols themselves. Like their makers, they too are nothingness. The God of Israel is a Rock who abides and in whom His followers may find refuge and safety. The idols, on the other hand, have nothing to offer their worshippers, for they themselves are nothing. As for the witnesses of the idols, the idolaters, they do not see or know so that they may be ashamed. The worshippers of idols are not free of guilt, but they purposely follow idolatry with a depraved will; and they are permitted to remain in the darkness of ignorance that their shame may be seen.
 Those who have formed an idol lack understanding with respect to their own true nature. They do not see the folly of using temporal material for forming gods, which do not owe their origin to themselves, but to the most high true God, who created the material from which the gods are made, and partly to men, who instead of employing the material for other purposes used it for making gods. Israel, as God’s servant, should have dealt wisely but they were in a condition of such blindness that it could not act wisely. To act wisely is to reject idolatry and to serve the one true God in accordance with His will.
 This verse carries on the description. Not only does the worshipper not know and perceive but he also does not recall. The phrase suggests that the one who meditates has control of his thought. If he did actually permit himself to know what he was doing and to perceive its true significance he would realize his folly and abandon it. Were the worshipper to state what he has done, he would bring the details in all their petty significance before his mind and so clearly recognize what folly it was to worship what he himself had created. Isaiah purposely uses the same words over and over again in order to press home the truth of his message.
 Actually the worshipper cannot see that the idol is an abomination because he has deceived himself by nourishing himself with ashes. The result of being led astray is that he does not deliver his soul from the judgment that comes. Nor does he even acknowledge that in his hand there is a lie. The service of idolatry is deceptive; it permits the idolater to remain ignorant of his true state and deludes him into believing that he is doing wisely. He refuses to believe that what he holds in his right hand is a lie. It is a lie, for it gives the impression of being what it is not and so deceives the hopes of the one who trusts in it.
Who Can Save? God Alone!: Isaiah 45:20-22.
 "Gather yourselves and come; draw near together, you fugitives of the nations; they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.  Declare and set forth your case; indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me.  Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” [NASU]
 As a conclusion the Lord commands the escaped of the nations to assemble together, that He may declare that He is the only Savior and that He may command them to turn unto Him. The two imperatives [gather, come] that introduce the verse are to be taken together. The nations are to come gathered together. Although this is an invitation it is nevertheless couched in the imperative, for it is the voice of absolute authority. Parallel in thought is the third imperative; the assembly is not to take place at a distance but the escaped of the nations are to draw near that they may hear what the God of Israel has to say. The address is made to the fugitives of the nations; i.e. the Gentile nations who have escaped the judgment of God. The folly of their belief is shown in that whereas the idols should bear and support them in time of need, they themselves actually carry the wood of their idols.
 The first two imperatives [declare, set forth] are thought to be a command to the escaped to set forth their cause if that were possible. The first imperative refers to the act of proclaiming or declaring, whereas the second has in mind that of bringing near the cause. There is then a transition from the second person [you] to the third [them]. The change of person indicates that they are unable or unwilling to accept the challenge, or at least in doubt and hesitation with respect to it. They are therefore invited to deliberate together or to take counsel of those wiser than themselves. The word together suggests that if individually the heathen cannot recognize and foretell the future, they possibly can do it together. The Lord does not wait for the heathen but immediately presents His own cause, by means of a question that shows that He alone has the power of foretelling what would come to pass. This would refer to the judgment and deliverance spoken of in the preceding verses. Perhaps it is correct to say that its immediate manifestation was seen in the fall of Babylon, although there is no reason for so restricting it. No one but the God of Israel has caused this fact to be heard (i.e. through proclamation) from ancient times. The Lord foretold the exile and the deliverance as well as the ultimate salvation before these things had taken place. Parallel is the expression long since. In this context, this language would seem to suggest that these prophecies were ancient ones, uttered some time before the events predicted. Possibly the reference is to prophecies concerning the downfall of Babylon, such as those found in chapters thirteen and twenty-one. The answer intended by the double question is that no one has caused this to be heard and no one has declared it from before. It is a challenge Yahweh, the God of Israel, alone is able to make. The only One who has been able to predict beforehand the judgment and deliverance is the God of Israel, Yahweh, who is the Only God in existence, and who has shown Himself to be just in that He has acted both in judgment and in salvation in accordance with the strictest demands of His holiness. He is also a Savior, whose salvation is not proffered at the expense of justice, but is accomplished to its satisfaction.
 As far as form is concerned, this verse with its imperative preceded by a declarative statement is similar to the saying of Jesus: Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden [Matt. 11:28]. Before uttering that command our Lord had made a declaration concerning Himself and His intimate relationship with the Father. Here too, the Lord has asserted that He is both just and a Savior and that He alone has been able to foretell the judgment and salvation. It might seem then that for the heathen there remained nothing but destruction. Such is not the case, for an invitation of mercy is extended to them. They are not to continue in their former ways but are to turn from them. The verb suggests a turning away from something and a turning to something; a true conversion. Although the verb is plural, and although the subject is found in the expression ends of the earth, the reference is to men individually. If the ends of the earth turn to God, it is only because the individual men who make up the ends of the earth have themselves turned. There is a stress upon individual conversion. The invitation to turn is couched in the imperative, and thus the responsibility of the individual is set forth. Although God here commands men to turn to Him, it does not follow that He gives to all who hear the command the power and ability to obey. The two imperatives [turn, be saved] belong together. The thought is, “turn to Me and you will surely be saved.” The second imperative gives the result of the action expressed by the first. Lastly, the reason for these things is found in the fact that Yahweh is the true God: For I am God, and there is no other. Out of the doctrine that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the only true God, Creator of heaven and earth, flows the fact that there may be a true conversion. Men have rebelled against God, and can only find salvation when, having turned from the vain idols of abomination, they turn to God who has made them.
Questions for Discussion:
1. List the different ways Isaiah describes the foolishness of those who worship idols. What types of idols do people worship today? Do you see the same type of foolishness in this worship that Isaiah saw in his time?
2. Look at the four questions in verse 40:21. How do these questions apply to us? What is it that we should know, have heard, and understood from the foundations of the earth? How will the answers to these questions help us from falling into idol worship?
3. In 44:18-20, why do the people not know nor understand? What role did their sin play in deceiving their hearts? What role did God play?
Isaiah, Edward Young, Eerdmans.
Commentary on Isaiah, Joseph Alexander, Kregel.