He Has Made and Will Bear, Carry, and Save

1 Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
    their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
    as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
    they cannot save the burden,
    but themselves go into captivity.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
    and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
    I will carry and will save.

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
    and compare me, that we may be alike?
Those who lavish gold from the purse,
    and weigh out silver in the scales,
hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god;
    then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
    they set it in its place, and it stands there;
    it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
    or save him from his trouble.

“Remember this and stand firm,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
    remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
    the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
    I have purposed, and I will do it.

12 “Listen to me, you stubborn of heart,
    you who are far from righteousness:
13 I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off,
    and my salvation will not delay;
I will put salvation in Zion,
    for Israel my glory.” – Isaiah 46:1-13 ESV

Nabu

Incorporating humor tinged with sarcasm, Isaiah describes two of the primary Babylonian gods as bowing and stooping, as if they actually had life in them. Bel was considered the father of all the gods worshiped by the Babylonians, and Nebo was his son. These gods were worshiped in the form of idols made of stone and precious metals. In some cases, the idols made to represent these false gods were massive in size and required many men to transport them, utilizing carts hauled by cattle or oxen. And Isaiah describes these two lifeless deities as nothing more than heavy burdens borne along by dumb beasts of burden. Not only are Bel and Nebo powerless to lift the burden, they are the burden. And they are stooped and bowed, lying lifeless and defenseless on carts, as they are hauled away as plunder. These false gods will end up in captivity just like all those who worship them.

Suddenly, God speaks and He paints a strikingly different picture. He juxtaposes Himself with these impotent and lifeless gods. While they will end up being borne away on carts, God reminds the people of Judah that He has borne them from the very beginning. It is He who has carried them over the centuries, from the very moment He called Abram out of Ur. Unlike Bel and Nebo, God didn’t require a cart to get from one place to another. He didn’t require human craftsmen to bring Him into existence. He is the eternal and everlasting one. He is the uncreated Creator of all things. And He warned Moses not to allow the people to attempt to portray Him in any form whatsoever.

“But be very careful! You did not see the Lord’s form on the day he spoke to you from the heart of the fire at Mount Sinai. So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form—whether of a man or a woman, an animal on the ground, a bird in the sky, a small animal that scurries along the ground, or a fish in the deepest sea.” – Deuteronomy 4:15-18 NLT

Yet, before this command could make it from the top of Mount Sinai down to people below, something foreboding and foreshadowing happened. Tired of waiting for Moses, the people decided to make their own gods, demanding of Aaron, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Exodus 32:1 NLT). And sadly, Aaron gave into their wishes and commanded them to donate the gold necessary to make an idol.

So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He accepted the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:3-4 NLT

This scene would be repeated in one form or another throughout the generations of the Israelites. Even though God had rescued them out of their slavery in Egypt and eventually bore them all the way to the promised land, they would continually turn to gods of their own making. And God had patiently carried the burden of their sin and rebellion for centuries. Amazingly, God reassures His rebellious people of His commitment to continue to bear with them.

“I will be your God throughout your lifetime—
    until your hair is white with age.
I made you, and I will care for you.
    I will carry you along and save you.” – Isaiah 46:4 NLT

Unlike Bel and Nebo, God would not abandon His people. He wasn’t a false god who had to be manufactured by men and carried on carts pulled by livestock. He was God Almighty, and there were no other gods like Him. And He poses a rhetorical question, designed to expose the lunacy behind their infatuation with false gods.

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
    and compare me, that we may be alike? – Isaiah 46:5 ESV

In an effort to get them to understand the sheer stupidity of their actions, God exposes the illogical nature of idol worship.

“Some people pour out their silver and gold
    and hire a craftsman to make a god from it.
    Then they bow down and worship it!
They carry it around on their shoulders,
    and when they set it down, it stays there.
    It can’t even move!
And when someone prays to it, there is no answer.
    It can’t rescue anyone from trouble.” – Isaiah 46:6-7 NLT

It all makes no sense, and yet, the people of Israel and Judah had made a habit of doing this very thing. From that fateful moment at the base of Mount Sinai to the days of Isaiah, the people of God had repeatedly made their own gods with their own hands. And God addresses them as what the were: Transgressors. They had violated His law – not once, but repeatedly. And just in case they might have forgotten, God reminds them of just who He is.

“I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me.” – Isaiah 46:9 ESV

God has told the people of Judah that they will be invaded by the Babylonians and be taken into captivity. But He has also told them that the gods of the Babylonians will one day be taken into captivity as well, along with all those who worship them. This will happen when the Persians defeat the Babylonians and become the big dog on the block in their place. And God has revealed that Cyrus, the king of the Persians, will one day allow the people of Judah to return to the land of Canaan. These predictions and God’s capacity to bring them to fulfillment are what set Him apart. No false god could do what He does.

“Only I can tell you the future
    before it even happens.
Everything I plan will come to pass,
    for I do whatever I wish.” – Isaiah 46:10 NLT

And God’s unspoken question seems to be: “Why don’t you worship Me?” With all He has done for them over the centuries, it made no sense that they continued to forsake Him for other gods. And yet, they had, time and time again. So, He calls to them one more time, demanding that they pay attention to what He is trying to tell them.

Listen to me, you stubborn of heart,
    you who are far from righteousness:
I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off,
    and my salvation will not delay;
I will put salvation in Zion,
    for Israel my glory.”
– Isaiah 46:12-13 NLT

Why would they not trust God? He had proven Himself faithful. He had put up with their idolatry for generations. He had continued to care for and love them even in the face of their persistent spiritual infidelity. And now He was telling them that His salvation of them was guaranteed. It was as good as done. And as the one true God, He alone is able to say:

“I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
    I have purposed, and I will do it.” – Isaiah 46:11 ESV

God boldly and emphatically tells them,  “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4 ESV). He’s not some stooping, bowing, lifeless idol on a cart. He is the sovereign, all-powerful God of the universe whose plan of redemption for His people is unstoppable. And all He asks in return is that they worship Him for who He is: The incomparable, all-powerful God. 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Turn and Be Saved

14 Thus says the Lord:
“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush,
    and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours;
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will plead with you, saying:
    ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other,
    no god besides him.’”

15 Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior.
16 All of them are put to shame and confounded;
    the makers of idols go in confusion together.
17 But Israel is saved by the Lord
    with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
    to all eternity.

18 For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
    (he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
    (he established it;
he did not create it empty,
    he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.
19 I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    ‘Seek me in vain.’
I the Lord speak the truth;
    I declare what is right.

20 “Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
    who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
    that cannot save.
21 Declare and present your case;
    let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
    Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the Lord?
    And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
    there is none besides me.

22 “Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’

24 “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
    are righteousness and strength;
to him shall come and be ashamed
    all who were incensed against him.
25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
    shall be justified and shall glory.” – Isaiah 45:14-25 ESV

In verse 13, God makes it clear that Cyrus was going to obey His command to allow the people of Judah to return to their land, and without any incentive attached to his actions.

“…he shall build my city
    and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,”
    says the Lord of hosts.” – Isaiah 45:13 ESV

He would do it simply because God had ordained it. There was nothing in it for him. He would receive nothing for his efforts. In fact, Cyrus would end up giving more than he would get. The book of Ezra tells us that he “brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (Ezra 1:7 ESV). He returned these items of plunder to the Jews. And the Jews would walk away with great wealth because of the decree of Cyrus.

“And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:4 ESV

The returning remnant would walk out of Babylon carrying greta quantities of gold, silver, goods, and livestock. But Cyrus would receive nothing for his actions.

And yet, God tells the people of Judah, living in the days of Isaiah, that things will be quite different for their ancestors who are part of the remnant that returns.

“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush,
    and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours;
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.” – Isaiah 45:14 ESV

What a stark difference. Cyrus, who would obey the will of God, will receive nothing. But the rebellious people of Judah, who were sent into exile because of their disobedience, will receive the wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush. It makes no sense. It even seems a bit unfair. Which brings up the point God made in verse 9.

“Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
    ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

This is why it makes no sense to argue with God and to dispute His ways. He does what He deems best. He acts in ways that make no sense. The people of Judah to whom Isaiah was prophesying could not understand why God was going to allow the Babylonians to defeat them and take them captive. And they were prone to dispute and disagree with His methods. But God was letting them know that His ways, while difficult to understand, were always for the best. He was providing them with a glimpse into the future and showing them that this nightmare had a happy ending to it. And if they would only trust Him, they would learn that they had no reason to doubt Him.

The people of Judah deserved no reward. They didn’t even merit their restoration to the land of promise. In the 70 years they would be exiled in Babylon, they would do nothing to earn God’s favor or merit their return to Jerusalem. And yet, God was revealing that they would return and with great wealth. And the Gentile nations that witnessed this God-ordained event would recognize the hand of God in it and respond, “Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him” (Isaiah 45:14 ESV).

At this point, we have to determine whether the details described in this prophecy have already been fulfilled. We know from the biblical record that the Babylonians eventually defeated Jerusalem and took the people of Judah captive. We also know that 70 years later, King Cyrus issued the decree that make possible their return to the land of promise. And it is a proven fact that the city of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. But when those things happened, did the Egyptians, Ethiopian, and Sabeans follow the people of Judah in chains and bow down before them? Did the Jews find their return to the land accompanied by Gentile subjection and the worship of Yahweh? The book of Nehemiah provides us with an answer to that question:

When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the people of Ashdod heard that the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem had moved ahead and that the breaches had begun to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to move with armed forces against Jerusalem and to create a disturbance in it. – Nehemiah 4:7-8 NLT

The Jews were opposed in their efforts to rebuild the city. They were surrounded by enemies who did everything in their power to derail their efforts. And to this day, Israel finds itself facing intense opposition to its presence in the land. So, it would seem that the content of this prophecy remains as yet, unfulfilled.

But the point of this passage is the sovereign work of God and His ongoing role as the Savior of Israel. And the emphasis is on His eternal relationship with His covenant people.

Israel is saved by the Lord
    with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
    to all eternity. – Isaiah 45:17 ESV

While the people of Judah were having a hard time seeing past the news that they were going to fall to the Babylonians, God was focusing on the larger, long-term plan for their well-being. When God created the world, He did so with an eternal strategy in mind. It was never intended to be devoid of human life and filled with confusion.

For the Lord is God,
    and he created the heavens and earth
    and put everything in place.
He made the world to be lived in,
    not to be a place of empty chaos. – Isaiah 45:18 NLT

God did not make an empty world, but one that was meant to be occupied. And He did not tell the people of Israel to seek Him and then hide Himself from them. He had a reason behind His calling of them and it is eternal in scope. And God speaks of a time when He will call all the nations of the earth to come to Him.

“Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!” – Isaiah 45:20 ESV

There is a day coming when the nations of the earth will recognize that their false gods cannot save them. They will finally realize that their idols are lifeless and useless. And God will tell them, “there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” (Isaiah 45:21 ESV). What will cause the nations of the earth to come to this recognition? What will finally make them recognize the futility of their false gods and the reality of God’s status as the one true God.? It will be the unprecedented judgment of God that will come upon the earth during the days of the Great Tribulation. Jesus described those coming days in very stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

In those days, God will bring unparalleled suffering, destruction, and death upon sinful mankind. But they will refuse to repent. They will remain obstinate and stubbornly resistant to the obvious judgment of God taking place all around them. The apostle John was given a vision of the Tribulation and recorded the amazingly obdurate nature of sinful mankind.

Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. His subjects ground their teeth in anguish, and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. – Revelation 16:10-11 NLT

And yet, then as now, God’s will is that all men repent and return to Him. Which is why he calls out, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22 ESV). And all that God does is intended to convince sinful mankind that He is the one true God. There are no other gods. And while, during the Tribulation, the world will choose to worship the Antichrist and Satan, God will be persistently proving their weakness and His own power. And by the time the seven years of the Tribulation are over, all the world will find itself bowing down before God, just as He has predicted.

‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance. – Isaiah 45:23 ESV

Man can choose to humble himself and worship God, or he will find himself humbled by God and bowing down before Him in fear and subjugation. Isaiah records God’s decree concerning that day.

“The descendants of your tormentors will come and bow before you. Those who despised you will kiss your feet. They will call you the City of the LORD, and Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 60:14 NLT

And in his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes from Isaiah 45, when he writes:

For the Scriptures say, “‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD, every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.'” – Romans 14:11 NLT

God calls on sinful mankind to turn and be saved. He pleads with them to repent of their sinful ways. But if they refuse, the day will come when they bow before Him anyway.

…to him shall come and be ashamed
    all who were incensed against him. – Isaiah 45:24 ESV

All will one day bow before Him – some in humility and worship, others in humiliation and fear. But there will be no one who remains ignorant of His place as the one true God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Too Ignorant to Know It

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” – Isaiah 44:9-20 ESV

God has made Himself perfectly clear by boldly declaring, “besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6 ESV). Then, as if to see if His audience has gotten the message, He asks, “Is there a God besides me?” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV). And, just in case they failed to nnow the answer to the question, He gave His divine opinion: “I know not any” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV).

He has established Himself as the Creator-God, the one who made Israel. He is Jehovah, the King of Israel. He is their Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts, the first and the last. And He alone is able to “declare what is to come, and what will happen” (Isaiah 44:7 ESV).

And yet, the people of Judah continued to worship false gods – idols they had made with their own hands. They had substituted worship of and reverence for the one true God with the adoration of lifeless and powerless statues made of wood and stone. And God systematically and somewhat sarcastically exposes the absurdity of their actions.

Over time, the people of Israel had adopted an assortment of pagan gods, from Baal and Molech to Ashtoreth and Chemosh. The Israelites seemed to be equal-opportunity idolaters. They were not picky. And, they never really replaced the worship of Yahweh, they simply added the other gods to the mix, creating a confusing syncretistic amalgamation of for virtually every occasion. But God Almighty had warned them about this very thing. All the way back when Moses was leading them to the Promised Land, God had provided them with the Ten Commandments, and the very first command on the list had been: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). And He would later expand on that command, providing them with clear and irrefutable details regarding His expectations.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Deuteronomy 5:8-10 ESV

And yet, the people of Israel had proven themselves incapable of obeying this very command. All that God had told them not to do, they had done – repeatedly and knowingly. They were operating out of obstinance, not ignorance. They knew exactly what they were doing and they knew it was wrong. So, God decides to show them the sheer lunacy behind their actions.

“How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.”
– Isaiah 44:9 NLT

Notice that God uses the third person. It is as if He is asking the people of Judah to consider how idiotic it is for those other nations to worship false gods. He wants them to step back and take a long and close look at just how ridiculous idolatry really is.

“Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit?”
– Isaiah 44:10 NLT

That had to have hurt. God was not pulling any punches, but wanted them to see the sheer stupidity of what they were doing. Not only were they disobeying His commands, they doing so in order to worship gods they had made with their own hands. And God goes out of His way to ridicule the “mere humans—who claim they can make a god” (Isaiah 44:11 NLT).

God paints the image of a craftsman working diligently to manufacture the tool he will use to manufacture the god he is going to worship. His efforts leave him worn out before he has even begun to make his god. The effort required to make the god he is going worship leave him hungry and faint.

God describes a wood carver going through the process of selecting just the right tree from which to make his god. Then he proceeds to cut it down, carefully delineating which part of the log will become his god and which part he can use build a fire to keep himself warm.

“He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!”
– Isaiah 44:14-15 NLT

When you step back and examine idolatry from an objective viewpoint, it is not difficult to see just how ridiculous it appears. But God says, “The people who worship idols don’t know this” (Isaiah 44:9 NLT). They are blind to the reality of their actions. They are incapable of seeing just how bizarre and nonsensical their actions appear. Which is why God goes out of His way to expose the sheer stupidity of what is going on in Judah. They enjoyed the privilege of being created by the one true God, and being chosen as His prized possession. And yet, they were busy creating their own gods out of wood and stone, and expected these man-made deities to provide for and protect them.

“He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!”
– Isaiah 44:16-17 NLT

And while it may be easy for us to judge the people of Judah and question their sanity, we would be wise to examine our own lives to see if we might be guilty of the very same thing. Their sin seems blatant to us. But God reveals that they were blind to it.

“Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.” –
Isaiah 44:18 NLT

They couldn’t see what they were doing. And, if we are wise, we will recognize that we have the same capacity to blindly and ignorantly worship gods made with human hands. While our idols may appear more sophisticated and less religious in nature, they are false gods nonetheless. Tim Keller, in his book, Counterfeit Gods, describes an idol in terms that may make you a bit uncomfortable.

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.

When put in those terms, it becomes a bit more easy to see how we can have idols, in spite of our more enlightened and sophisticated mindset. And, like the people of Judah, we can find ourselves deluded and unaware of the fact that we have created substitutes for God. We have turned to other things in the hopes that they might deliver what only God is capable of providing: Peace, hope, security, joy, contentment, satisfaction, and salvation. And God warns that we all run the same risk the people of Judah did. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves putting our hope in the wrong god, and failing to recognize the futility of our actions.

“He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”
– Isaiah 44:20 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Their Works Are Nothing

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord;
    bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
22 Let them bring them, and tell us
    what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
    that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;
    or declare to us the things to come.
23 Tell us what is to come hereafter,
    that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
    that we may be dismayed and terrified.

24 Behold, you are nothing,
    and your work is less than nothing;
    an abomination is he who chooses you.

25 I stirred up one from the north, and he has come,
    from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name;
he shall trample on rulers as on mortar,
    as the potter treads clay.
26 Who declared it from the beginning, that we might know,
    and beforehand, that we might say, “He is right”?
There was none who declared it, none who proclaimed,
    none who heard your words.
27 I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!”
    and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news.
28 But when I look, there is no one;
    among these there is no counselor
    who, when I ask, gives an answer.
29 Behold, they are all a delusion;
    their works are nothing;
    their metal images are empty wind. – Isaiah 41:21-29 ESV

This chapter opened with God calling all the nations of the earth to appear in court in order to bring their case against Him.

“Listen in silence before me, you lands beyond the sea.
    Bring your strongest arguments.
Come now and speak.
    The court is ready for your case. – Isaiah 41:1 NLT

That courtroom scene is picked up again in verses 21-29, with God standing in judgment against the false gods of the pagan nations. With a hint of sarcasm, God calls on all the idolaters to bring their so-called gods into the courtroom. Incapable of physical movement on their own, these false gods must rely upon human assistance just to appear before God Almighty. And to make matters worse, God demands that they speak up, defending themselves by providing proof for their own existence.

“Present the case for your idols,”
    says the Lord.
“Let them show what they can do,”
    says the King of Israel.
“Let them try to tell us what happened long ago
    so that we may consider the evidence.
Or let them tell us what the future holds,
    so we can know what’s going to happen.”
– Isaiah 41:21-22 NLT

God wants these non-existent gods to explain all that has happened in the world since the beginning of time. This should have been easy – except that false gods can’t actually speak. Anyone can provide a plausible explanation of the past, as long as they have the faculty of speech. But idols are speechless because they are lifeless. And if they are incapable of explaining the past, they have no hope of predicting the future. They have no idea of what is to come because they are mindless.

God demands that they predict the future as proof of their divinity. In essence, God is simply challenging them to do as He does. He demands that they measure up to His standard of divinity. But they can’t because they don’t exist. And, with ever-increasing sarcasm, God calls on them to do anything that might give evidence of their existence.

In fact, do anything—good or bad!
    Do something that will amaze and frighten us. – Isaiah 41:23 NLT

God is throwing down the gauntlet. But He expects no reply because the gods of the nations are nothing more than the figment of man’s imagination and the work of man’s hands. All of this is intended to remind the people of Judah that their God, Yahweh, is the only true God. They have nothing to fear from the gods of the Assyrians or Babylonians. And they have no reason to prostitute themselves in worship of these false gods. And God makes His point painfully clear, addressing the non-existent gods and all those who worship them.

But no! You are less than nothing and can do nothing at all.
    Those who choose you pollute themselves. – Isaiah 41:24 NLT

Later on, in this very same book, Isaiah provides an in-your-face assessment of the stupidity of idols.

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit?
All who worship idols will be disgraced
    along with all these craftsmen—mere humans—
    who claim they can make a god.
They may all stand together,
    but they will stand in terror and shame. – Isaiah 44:9-11 NLT

Yet God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, reveals that He will do what the false gods are incapable of doing. He will predict the future and then fulfill it.

“But I have stirred up a leader who will approach from the north.
    From the east he will call on my name.
I will give him victory over kings and princes.
    He will trample them as a potter treads on clay.” – Isaiah 41:25 NLT

God boldly claims that He will raise up a powerful leader from the north who will act as His divine instrument, accomplishing God’s will on earth. As will be revealed later in the book of Isaiah, this leader will prove to be King Cyrus of the Persians.

“When I say of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,’
    he will certainly do as I say.
He will command, ‘Rebuild Jerusalem’;
    he will say, ‘Restore the Temple.’” – Isaiah 44:28 NLT

God was going to use Cyrus, an idolatrous, pagan king, to bring about the future restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. God has already decreed that Jerusalem would fall at the hands of the Babylonians and the people of Judah would end up as captives in Babylon. But He would one day restore them, and Cyrus would be His chosen instrument.

This is what the Lord says to Cyrus, his anointed one,
    whose right hand he will empower.
Before him, mighty kings will be paralyzed with fear.
    Their fortress gates will be opened,
    never to shut again.
This is what the Lord says:

“I will go before you, Cyrus,
    and level the mountains.
I will smash down gates of bronze
    and cut through bars of iron.
And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.” – Isaiah 45:1-3 NLT

Unlike the false gods of the nations, Yahweh could predict the future because He is the one who sovereignly controls the future. Everything happens under His watchful eye and according to His divine will. And God challenges anyone to speak up who could claim to have known about any of these things.

“Who told you from the beginning
    that this would happen?
Who predicted this,
    making you admit that he was right? – Isaiah 41:26 NLT

No one speaks up, because no one knew that any of these things were going to happen. There was not a single human being or false god who was aware of God’s future plans. And yet, all along, God had been telling His people what He was going to do.

“I was the first to tell Zion,
    ‘Look! Help is on the way!’
    I will send Jerusalem a messenger with good news.
Not one of your idols told you this.” – Isaiah 41:27-28 NLT

The idols are speechless because they are lifeless. These false gods are defenseless because they are powerless. They can’t explain the past. They can’t predict the future. They can’t provide wisdom. They can’t offer help or hope. But God can, and He does. Because He is sovereign over all.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Trust God

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
    and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
    and weighed the mountains in scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
    and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
    and taught him knowledge,
    and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
    nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
    or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
    chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
    to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 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 like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:12-31 ESV

This chapter opened with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” And the next ten verses revealed the form that comfort would take. God was going to intervene on behalf of Judah. Isaiah was given a vision of a future day in which the Lord God will appear in glory and might.

Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
    See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. – Isaiah 40:10 NLT

God will one day come as Shepherd of Israel, carrying his lambs in His arms and “holding them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11 NLT). But how can the people of Judah know for certain that all of this will take place? What assurance do they have that this future revelation of God’s glory and deliverance will happen? Isaiah has already provided an answer to these questions. It is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). He is trustworthy and true, and His word is as immutable as His holy character.

But God knows that the people of Judah have their doubts. They are still obsessed with God’s declaration that the city of Jerusalem is going to fall to the Babylonians. So, any news of God’s future redemption sounds a bit hollow and too good to be true. The immediate prospect of defeat carries far more weight with them than any promise of future restoration. So, God addresses their apprehension with a series of 13 questions. And these queries from God are meant to reveal His greatness and the everlasting nature of His nature. God is eternal. He stands outside of space and time. Which is why He speaks of future events as if they have already happened. He is without equal and beyond comparison, and Isaiah stresses His incomparability with three rhetorical questions:

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?

Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  

The answer to all three questions is the same: No one. There is no one else like God. He doesn’t need advice or instruction. He doesn’t require anyone else to tell Him what is right or wrong. Compared with God, the “the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). Like dust on a scale, they are infinitesimal and inconsequential. Their weight or glory doesn’t even register. In contrast, God’s glory is so great and His power, so beyond comparison, “He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). To put it bluntly, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes, they count for less than nothing—mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17 NLT).

This series of questions is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between God Almighty and His servant Job. After having lost virtually everything near and dear to him, including his children, his wealth and his health, Job was confused by the dire nature of his circumstances. He questioned the nature of his suffering and defended his own righteousness before God. In a sense, he expressed his doubts concerning God’s justice. And God responded with a series of questions for Job that contrasted His own character with that of Job’s. For two chapters, God bombards Job with a series of questions designed to juxtapose God’s glorious deity with Job’s humanity.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much. – Job 38:4 NLT

“Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!” – Job 38:17-18 NLT

“Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct? – Job 38:34-35 NLT

And two chapters later, God wraps up his inquisition of Job with the stinging words:

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
    You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” – Job 40:2 NLT

This was all about a mere man questioning the integrity of the God of the universe. Job may not have liked his circumstances, but that gave him no right to doubt the goodness or greatness of God. Which is what led God to ask:

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his? – Job 40:8-9 NLT

There is no situation that provides justification for man’s questioning of God’s integrity. Our first reaction, when faced with difficult circumstances, is to measure God’s character by human standards. We tend to analyze His actions by using our own flawed sense of right and wrong. But Isaiah asks, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him?” (Isaiah 40:18 NLT). God is not a man so He cannot be judged like one. And He is not a false god, made by human hands. He is uncreated. He has no maker. And He owes no one an answer or explanation for His actions.

So, God repeats Isaiah’s previous question:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. – Isaiah 40:25 NLT 

And the answer remains: No one.

Yet, God knows that His people still have their doubts about Him. So, He confronts them with the real issue behind their refusal to believe His word.

“O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? – Isaiah 40:27 NLT

There were convinced that God was blind to their current circumstances. Not only that, they were questioning God’s integrity by accusing Him of ignoring their rights. In essence, they were labeling God as unjust and unrighteous. They were measuring God by their circumstances, rather than viewing their circumstances through the lens of God’s character. So, Isaiah gave them a much-needed reminder of how just and righteous, good and gracious God is.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion. – Isaiah 40:29-30 NLT

Notice the circumstances in which God reveals His power and strength. It is in the midst of our weakness and powerlessness. It is when we are tired and exhausted that God tends to show up in all His glory. God told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” and Paul responded by saying, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT).

How could Paul take pleasure in weakness? It was because he trusted God. He knew from experience that God tended to show up when things were looking down. God’s power was best manifested when Paul’s weakness was on full display. Which is why Isaiah reminded the people of Judah:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

Trust is the greatest antidote to trials. Relying on the incomparable, unquenchable power of God when our strength is gone is the key to surviving and thriving in this world. But we must trust what He has said. We must not question His word or doubt His integrity.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Seek God Now, Not Later.

An oracle concerning Damascus.

Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city
    and will become a heap of ruins.
The cities of Aroer are deserted;
    they will be for flocks,
    which will lie down, and none will make them afraid.
The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts.

And in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean.
And it shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain
    and his arm harvests the ears,
and as when one gleans the ears of grain
    in the Valley of Rephaim.
Gleanings will be left in it,
    as when an olive tree is beaten—
two or three berries
    in the top of the highest bough,
four or five
    on the branches of a fruit tree,
declares the Lord God of Israel.

In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense. – Isaiah 17:1-8 ESV

DamascusWith the opening of chapter 17, Isaiah delivers God’s oracle against Damascus, the capital city of Syria. As verse three reveals, Israel is included in this oracle, referred to by the name of Ephraim, the largest of the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom. Israel had formed an alliance with Syria in order to attack the southern kingdom of Judah (see chapter seven).

As has been the case with each of the other oracles, God is speaking a word of warning aimed directly at His own people, the divided nations of Israel and Judah. Their repeated attempts to seek help from foreign nations rather than trust in Him were going to bring His judgment. He has already told what will happen to Babylon, Philistia, Moab and Assyria. Now, He turns His attention to Syria, located to the northeast of Israel. And He cuts to the chase, describing the Syrian capital as “a heap of ruins.” He predicts the utter devastation of the fortified cities of Syria and Ephraim, which would include the Israelite capital of Samaria.

The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts. – Isaiah 17:3 ESV

Syria would share Israel’s fate. Both nations, because of their arrogance, would suffer greatly under the hand of God Almighty. But God’s primary judgment seems to be directed at the children of Israel. He states that their former glory will be greatly diminished, and He describes it is stark terms:

…in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean. – Isaiah 17:4 ESV

Once again, we see God promising to humble the proud and destroy bring low the self-sufficient. Israel had reached the point in their downward spiritual spiral where they no longer believed they needed God. Under the leadership of their king, Jeroboam, they had long ago created their own gods and set up their own places of worship.

Jeroboam then built up the city of Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and it became his capital. Later he went and built up the town of Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there. – 1 Kings 12:25-30 NLT

And a long line of kings who succeeded Jeroboam continued the idolatrous trend, leading the people of Israel further and further away from God. But God does not leave sin unpunished. He cannot and will not overlook the rebellion of His people. So in 732 BC, the Assyrians fulfilled God’s word by destroying Damascus. And then years later, they would destroy Samaria, the capital city of Israel.

And the aftermath of the Assyrian conquest will leave the land looking “like a grainfield after the harvesters have gathered the grain. It will be desolate, like the fields in the valley of Rephaim after the harvest” (Isaiah 17:5 NLT). It is a picture of desolation and devastation. All the glory is gone. Everything the people had placed their hope in and based their pride upon would be gone. Only a remnant of the people of Israel would remain in the land.

“Only a few of its people will be left,
    like stray olives left on a tree after the harvest.
Only two or three remain in the highest branches,
    four or five scattered here and there on the limbs,”
    declares the Lord, the God of Israel. – Isaiah 17:6 NLT

This image stands in stark contrast to the promise God had made to Abraham.

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5 ESV

God had kept His promise to Abraham and had made of him a great nation. While the Israelites had lived in Egypt for 400 years, their numbers had grown to such a degree that the Pharaoh had become fearful of their presence in the land. So he began to treat them as slaves, keeping them under intense subjection so that they might not rise up against the Egyptians. But God had delivered them from their slavery and had brought them to the land of Canaan, where He had given them victory over their enemies and provided them with land, villages and houses in which to live.

But the people of Israel had proved unfaithful to God. Over the centuries, they had repeatedly disobeyed God by worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. They had intermarried with the nations, failing to maintain their ethnic purity but, more importantly, their spiritual identity as the chosen people of God. They had been set apart by God and commanded to live according to His laws. They were to be a living example of how sinful man can live in covenant community with a holy God. But they had failed.

And the core issue here is not the litany of sins the people of Israel committed, but their lack of belief in God. The goal of Satan is not so much to get mankind to commit sins as it is to get them to doubt God. That’s the tactic he took in the garden with Adam and Eve. He came to the woman in the guise of a beautiful serpent and said, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1 NLT). Notice that he raised doubts about God’s command. And Eve correctly responded, “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die’” (Genesis 3:3 NLT). Then Satan did what he always does, he contradicted the very word of God. “You won’t die!” (Genesis 3:4 NLT). And he followed that up with a compelling lie: “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NLT).

Eve and her husband listened to the lies of the enemy. But it was not the eating of the fruit that was the cause of their fall. It was their rejection of the word of God. They failed to believe what God had said. The enemy replaced the truth of God with a lie, and they accepted it. They took the bait. Satan’s promise sounded more plausible and appealing than God’s offer of life in the garden with Him. And mankind has been taking the bait of Satan ever since.

The fellowship with God that Adam and Eve had once enjoyed came to an abrupt end. Sin broke the bond. It severed the relationship they had enjoyed. They were cast out of the garden and away from the presence of God. And, as time passed, they and their descendants would find themselves moving further and further away from God – physically, as they journeyed away from the garden, and spiritually, as they allowed sin to separate them from Him.

But God describes a day when the fall of Israel would leave His people calling out to Him once again. In their devastated and demoralized state, they would find themselves without hope and devoid of any other source of help.

Then at last the people will look to their Creator
    and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
They will no longer look to their idols for help
    or worship what their own hands have made.
They will never again bow down to their Asherah poles
    or worship at the pagan shrines they have built. – Isaiah 17:7-8 NLT

It is amazing how easy it is for the people of God to turn their backs on Him until they find themselves in a state of hopelessness and helplessness. In those moments of trial and trouble, when they no longer have any other options or tricks up their sleeves, they tend to turn back to God for help. When their man-made gods no longer come through for them, they decide to give God one more try.

And the same is true of us as God’s people. While our false gods to be more sophisticated, they are still man-made and poor substitutes for the one true God. Yet, we find it so easy to place our trust in anything and everything but God, until those things fail to come through for us. When all the money in the world can’t heal us from cancer, we turn to God. When our intelligence proves insufficient for the crisis we face, we turn to God. When all our possessions fail to bring us the happiness they promised to deliver, we turn to God. And while it is true that “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1 NLT), He longs for us to seek Him at all times. He desires that we make Him our first and only option. Which is why Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Inquiring Minds Want to Know.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 ESV

Solomon was on a quest. He was a man on a desperate search for the meaning to life. Blessed by God with remarkable wisdom and abundant wealth, he found himself in the seemingly enviable position of having all that his heart could desire. But that was the problem. He was discontent, lacking any sense of fulfillment or satisfaction. So, he used his wisdom to investigate all the options available to him, and because of his great wealth and influence as king, there was little he could not acquire. And in this chapter, Solomon provides us with a glimpse into the somewhat hedonistic experiment that became his life.

One of the things that likely led to Solomon’s dilemma, was the peace that marked his reign. Unlike his father, David, Solomon ruled during a period in Israel’s history when they enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. The book of First Kings describes the situation.

20 The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They were very contented, with plenty to eat and drink. 21 Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River in the north to the land of the Philistines and the border of Egypt in the south. The conquered peoples of those lands sent tribute money to Solomon and continued to serve him throughout his lifetime. – 1 Kings 4:20-21 NLT

24 Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. 25 During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden.1 Kings 4:24-25 NLT

David had spent the entirety of his reign fighting the enemies of Israel and extending the borders of the nation. And his son inherited the kingdom he had established. That left Solomon with little to do, other than maintain what he had been given. So, he built. He constructed an opulent palace for himself that took 13 years to complete. He also built the temple, in fulfillment of his father’s dream. But Solomon was not done.

1 It took Solomon twenty years to build the Lord’s Temple and his own royal palace. At the end of that time, Solomon turned his attention to rebuilding the towns that King Hiram had given him, and he settled Israelites in them.

Solomon also fought against the town of Hamath-zobah and conquered it. He rebuilt Tadmor in the wilderness and built towns in the region of Hamath as supply centers. He fortified the towns of Upper Beth-horon and Lower Beth-horon, rebuilding their walls and installing barred gates. He also rebuilt Baalath and other supply centers and constructed towns where his chariots and horses could be stationed. He built everything he desired in Jerusalem and Lebanon and throughout his entire realm. – 2 Chronicles 8:1-6 NLT

Solomon built. But none of these massive construction projects satisfied him. So, he pursued pleasure.

I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 2:1 NLT

This wasn’t a case of Solomon running headlong into a life of unbridled hedonism, but the well-thought-out efforts of an inquiring mind. He wanted to know the source of man’s satisfaction and significance. Being king was not enough. Having great wealth and unparalleled wisdom didn’t do it. So, he sought out all the ways he might bring pleasure to his life. He tried wine, architecture, horticulture, and ranching. He purchased countless slaves to serve him and meet his every desire. He surrounded himself with concubines, literally hundreds of them, whose sole purpose in life was to meet his sensual desires. He filled his vaults with gold and silver and his palace with the sounds of singers. Solomon was on a never-ending quest for meaning in life. And he lived with a motto that said, “Enough is never enough.” In fact, he stated, “Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 NLT).

But none of it satisfied him. He describes it as vanity, as profitable as chasing the wind. All his efforts were getting him nowhere. His accumulation of material goods had left him surrounded by all the trappings of success, but he still had a huge void in his life. He had hundreds of wives and concubines, thousands of slaves and servants, and countless admirers and courtiers, but he was still lonely.

It would be a mistake to assert that Solomon received no pleasure or satisfaction from the many things listed in this passage. He most certainly did. The sex was satisfying, for the moment. But it didn’t last. The gold and silver made his extravagant lifestyle possible, and brought him short periods of happiness, but no lasting joy. The palace in which he lived provided all the comforts he could ever desire, but it couldn’t make him content. Solomon was learning the difficult life lesson that acquisition and accumulation were lousy substitutes for a vital relationship with God. Only He can satisfy our deepest longings and desires. The blessings of God are never intended to be a substitute for God. Somewhere along the way, Solomon had lost sight of his father’s warnings. Nearing the end of his life, David had given his son some final words of wisdom, encouraging him to remain faithful to God.

“I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man. Observe the requirements of the Lord your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the Lord will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’ – 1 Kings 2:2-4 NLT

And while the early years of Solomon’s reign would be marked by faithfulness, it didn’t take long before he began to allow his wealth and power to turn him away from God. He became self-sufficient and self-reliant. He had all he needed and he filled his life with everything but God. He even worshiped other gods, the sad result of his marriages to hundreds of women from other cultures who brought their pagan idols with them. Solomon forgot God. He lost sight of the fact that his wisdom and wealth had been gifts to him from God. And the minute he began to think that he was a self-made man, he began his descent toward self-destruction. Yes, he maintained all the outward signs of success, portraying to all those around him the visible manifestations of extreme affluence. To everyone else, he looked like the man who had it all. He was handsome, wealthy and powerful. He was admired and envied by all. Kings and queens found themselves jealous of his success, looking on in awe-struck wonder at his many accomplishments and extensive political influence.

But it was all a facade, a house of cards. It all added up to nothing and provided Solomon with no lasting satisfaction. This great king, like everyone else who has ever lived, was learning the painful lesson that our possessions always end up possessing us. What we hope will deliver us, almost always ends up enslaving us. And thousands of years later, Jesus would speak these powerful words of warning:

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

And the apostle Paul would echo the words of Jesus when he wrote to his young protege, Timothy.

17 Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. 19 By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLT

Solomon had taken his eyes off of God. He had placed his hope in anything and everything but God. And he found himself mired in a never-ending cycle of accumulation and acquisition that always ended in dissatisfaction. In his quest to know the meaning of life, Solomon forgot what it meant to know God, the author of life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Take Courage.

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28 So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. 29 And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) 38 And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea. Acts 27:21-38 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome

Earlier in the voyage. Paul had warned the ship’s officers of a bad premonition he had regarding the outcome of their voyage if they proceeded. And Paul had minced no words, saying, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on—shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to our lives as well” (Acts 27:10 NLT). But the soldier in charge of Paul and the rest of the prisoners on board had listened to the advice of the ship’s captain and crew, who had all agreed to keep sailing, in search of a safer port. Now, they found themselves in a predicament. They had sailed for days in violent seas, their ship battered by the waves and wind. The storm was so intense that it blocked out the sun during the day, thrusting Paul and his 275 shipmates into a perpetual state of darkness. For days on end, the sailors had battled the storm, unable to eat or sleep, and Luke indicates that they finally abandoned all hope. 

But in the heat of the storm, Paul addressed the crew, reminding them that they should have heeded his initial advice. All that he had predicted had come true, and now they were on the brink of disaster. Things were out of their control. They had done all they could do, but the storm had proven too great and their attempts to save themselves, too small. Yet, this wasn’t a case of Paul telling them, “I told you so.” He wasn’t rubbing their noses in their failure to heed his advice. He was letting them know that His God was greater than the storm.

22 “But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. 23 For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, 24 and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ 25 So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. 26 But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” – Acts 27:22-26 NLT

Right in the middle of what was probably the worst storm any of these sea-hardened sailors had ever experienced, Paul stood up and told them to take courage. He encouraged them not to fear. Can you imagine how ludicrous his words must have sounded to those men? Here was some Jewish prisoner and landlubber, attempting to calm their fears and assure them that none of them would die. All would turn out well. And, even more incredibly, this man was basing his words on a dream he had received from his God.

Paul had faith, and his faith would prove contagious. He had heard from God and he believed what he had been told. So, he told the men, “euthymeō” – take courage. They were to be of good cheer. Now think about what Paul was saying. The storm was still raging. The waves were still crashing against the side of the boat. The rain was still pouring down. The noise must have been deafening. But Paul was telling them to take courage and he clearly stated why they should. “For I believe God. It will be just as he said” (Acts 27:25 NLT). Paul trusted God. Even in the midst of the storm. Nothing had changed. Their circumstances had not improved. Paul was telling them to trust a God they didn’t know and couldn’t see, while everything was crashing down around them. Paul had learned not to focus his attention on immediate circumstances. What was happening around them was not proof of what was going to happen to them. While they had abandoned all hope, they had not been abandoned by God, and Paul told them as much. “God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you” (Acts 27:24 NLT).

This story reminds me of a poem written in 1774 by William Cowper.  

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

All the sailors could see was the storm raging around them. They were drenched from the incessant rain and weakened from going for days without food. They had lost all hope. They had probably called out to their various gods, begging for salvation. They had thought about their wives and children at home and the likelihood of never seeing them again. They had exhausted all their mental and physical resources trying to save themselves. And now, Paul was telling them that his God had everything under control. They would be safe. There would be a shipwreck, but not a single man would be lost.

As the storm progressed, the sailors determined that their best hope of salvation was to abandon ship. Under the pretext of setting out additional anchors to keep the ship from running aground on the rocks, these men attempted to lower the ship’s skiff or lifeboat. But Paul warned the guards who were watching he and the other prisoners, that if the sailors did not stay on board, everyone would die. So, the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat, allowing it to drift away in the storm. Now, they had to trust God. There were no other options. For the sailors, the lifeboat had become an idol, a false hope of salvation. But Paul knew that it would have failed them. They would not have survived the storm in a boat so small. Their best hope for salvation was to remain in the ship and under the watchful care of God Almighty. But their actions reflect those of every human being who, when caught in the storms of life, attempts to find a way out. They seek a way of salvation and escape. Rather than place their trust in a God they can’t see, they rely on something more tangible in nature. When the Israelites had been set free from slavery in Egypt and found themselves in the wilderness, they began to wonder about this God of Moses. While Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people determined to make their own god, an idol made of precious metal. They sought to create a god of their own making, something they could see. Their leader had disappeared. He had gone to the top of the mountain and they had assumed he was not returning. And the God that had rescued them seemed to have bailed on them. So, they took matters into their own hands and fabricated their own source of salvation.

Paul wanted everyone to know that the best course of action was to remain right where they were. They were to stay on the boat, not to abandon ship. What they believed was going to be the source of their death, would actually play a vital role in their salvation. They were going to have to trust Paul, who had placed his trust in God. And Paul was so confident, that he encouraged the men to eat so that they could regain their strength, assuring them, “For not a hair of your heads will perish” (Acts 27:34 NLT). Then, Luke tells us, “everyone was encouraged and began to eat—all 276 of us who were on board” (Acts 27:36-37 NLT). The faith of Paul had infected the entire ship. When everyone else on board had abandoned hope and the sailors had tried to abandon ship, Paul had remained confident in the faithfulness of God. Instead of fear, he had exhibited faith. When everyone else was panicking, he was trusting. While the crew had grown weak and abandoned all hope, Paul had remained strong. He was exhibiting the very characteristics he had encouraged the Corinthians to have. “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13 ESV). And his courage had made an impact on all those around him.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Worthless Things.

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. Acts 14:8-18 ESV

acts-pauls-first-missionary-journey

After having to leave Iconium due to the Jews stirring up a mob against them, Paul and Barnabas made their way to Lystra, another Roman colony about 20 miles or a day’s journey away. Upon their arrival in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas had another one of those “chance” encounters that were becoming an everyday part of their lives. They were speaking somewhere in Lystra to a crowd that had gathered. There is no mention of them attending the synagogue, as had become their custom. So, it may be that there were not enough Jews in Lystra to warrant a synagogue. But, as usual, Paul and Barnabas had no problem attracting attention to themselves. They simply began to speak to any who would listen. And, in the crowd that day, there happened to be a man who had been lame since birth.
Luke makes note of the fact that the man was listening to what Paul was saying, and that Paul, spotting the man in the crowd, could tell that the man “had faith to be made well” (Acts 14:9 ESV). Luke provides no insight into how Paul knew this. Most likely, Paul was given a kind of spiritual intuition from the Holy Spirit. He was somehow able to see into the man’s heart and perceive in his eyes that this man had faith that God could heal him. He believed. We are not told what Paul said to the crowd, but whatever it was, it produced in this man a believing faith that the God of whom Paul spoke was powerful enough to restore the use of his limbs. Now, it is important that we consider not only why this event was included by Luke, but why this man was in the crowd. By this time in the story, we should be recognizing that nothing that is taking place is happenstance or the result of fate. This man’s presence in the crowd was according to the sovereign will of God. The very fact that Paul made eye-contact with this man was not a byproduct of chance. God had been the one to orchestrate the entire situation. Either God had directed Paul and Barnabas to the very spot where this man was sitting, or this man was able to find help in being carried to where the two men were speaking. God had preordained that this encounter would take place. But why? Because Paul and Barnabas were now entering the frontier, the furthest edges of the world as they knew it. They were in uncharted territory, speaking to people who were primarily Gentiles and who had no knowledge of Jesus at all. They most likely had heard nothing about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem back during the Feast of Pentecost. These two men, Paul and Barnabas, were strangers to them and, their message about Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, would have been alien and foreign to them. So, God arranged for a way to validate the message of His two messengers. They had been given sign gifts, just as Peter and the other apostles had received. These gifts allowed them to perform signs and miracles, providing their message with credibility and their claim to be speaking for God with visible, tangible proof. This man’s presence was going to prove critical. You can almost sense the building sense of anticipation that precede Luke’s description of what happened next. Luke records that Paul, speaking in a very loud voice, cried out, “Stand upright on your feet.” The crowd had no idea what was about to happen, but we do. We have seen this kind of thing happen before. All the way back in chapter three, we have the story of Peter saying to the lame beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 ESV). And the man did, leaving the crowds looking on in wonder and amazement. That had happened all the way back in Jerusalem. Now, we find Paul and Barnabas hundreds of miles away, ministering in a far-flung Roman colony, filled with pagans who knew nothing of Yahweh, had no idea who Jesus was or any reason to believe that what these two men had to say was true. And that was where the lame man came in.
His healing by God would validate Paul and Barnabas’ claims to be speaking for God. And not only that, it would go a long way in establishing Paul as a co-equal with Peter, the recognized spiritual leader of the church at that time. Paul had been a late-comer to the party. He had not been one of the original 12 disciples, but had come to faith in Jesus long after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, having had a one-on-one encounter with the risen Christ along the road to Damascus. For the rest of his life, Paul would battle with those who would try to question the validity of his apostleship. They would continually attempt to paint him as a charlatan, questioning his authority and raising doubts about his teaching. But here on this occasion, God sovereignly revealed Paul’s impeccable credentials as one of His messengers by providing Paul with the very same powers Peter possessed.
And to say that Paul’s actions got the attention of the crowd would be an understatement. Luke writes that the people cried out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11 ESV). They knew no better than to attribute what they had just seen to the work of gods – the gods with which they were familiar. They called Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes. The Greeks had a pantheon of gods they worshiped, so we can only speculate why they happened to choose these two particular gods as being the ones standing before them. But whatever their reasoning, these people were strong enough in their convictions that they were dealing with deities, that the priest of the local temple, dedicated to Zeus, showed up with oxen and garlands to make a sacrifice. We are left to imagine what this seen must have looked like. Try and picture the confusion and chaos going on as these people shouted out their praises to Paul and Barnabas, bowing in reverence before them. And just imagine what was going through the minds of these two men as they found themselves the mistaken, but unmistakable focus of the crowd’s worship.
We do know that Paul and Barnabas were appalled at what they experienced, because Luke tells us they tore their clothes in a outward display of grief and remorse. They wanted no part of what was going on. And Paul spoke up, saying, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 14:15 NLT). What Paul said here was dangerous and risky. He was blatantly denying any claim to deity. But more than that, he was attacking their worship of false gods. When he mentioned “worthless things”, he was speaking of Zeus and Hermes. He compared them to the living God, the one true Creator of heaven and earth. Paul was treading on very thin ice. He was surrounded by a crowd of very passionate devotees to the Greek gods. They were excited and convinced that their deities had come to visit them. And Paul was not only shattering any notion that Zeus and Hermes had come to earth, he was describing two of their most revered gods as worthless.
And Paul made it perfectly clear that it was Yahweh, the God of the Jews, who was the source of any and all things they enjoyed in life, not the Greek gods. It was He who  provided them with food, crops, rain and joyful hearts. This would have been unexpected and unwanted news to the people of Lystra. It would have been seen as a case of slander and blasphemy, treating their gods with disdain and disrespect. But, surprisingly, instead of infuriating the crowd, the words of Paul and Barnabas seemed to have the opposite effect. The people tried to worship them all the more.
What we seem to have here is a clear example of the spiritual hunger of lost mankind. These people were spiritually starving to death. They had plenty of gods, but no real proof that their gods actually existed. Like all false gods, theirs were distant and disconnected from everyday life. They never really knew if their gods were engaged with or even interested in their daily lives. Which might explain why they were so excited when they thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods come to earth. They greatly desired an intimate relationship with their gods, but to date, their experience had been the same as every other people group who has set its desires and affections on “worthless things.” Years later, Paul would write to believers living in nearby Galatia, reminding them of their former love affair with false gods: “you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist” (Galatians 4:8 NLT). The people in the crowd that day had no idea that their gods were false. They were blind to the fact that their gods were helpless and hopeless to assist them, and could do nothing to save or protect them. In fact, the psalmist eloquently and unapologetically described the true nature of false gods when he wrote:

Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,
    shaped by human hands.
They have mouths but cannot speak,
    and eyes but cannot see.
They have ears but cannot hear,
    and noses but cannot smell.
They have hands but cannot feel,
    and feet but cannot walk,
    and throats but cannot make a sound.
And those who make idols are just like them,
    as are all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:4-8 NLT

Paul and Barnabas had struck a nerve. They had performed a sign among a people who were desperately in search of proof that their religion was relevant and their gods were real. The world, then as now, was cloaked in deep darkness, and filled with spiritually blind people staggering about looking for any glimmer of hope and help. They were deceived. And Paul would later write to the believers in Corinth, clarifying the source of the world’s deception, and the only means of hope.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 NLT

The light was spreading. But as we will see, the darkness was great. The enemy had blinded the spiritual eyes of those living in Lystra, leaving them in a state of perpetual darkness, desperately longing for relief and redemption, but unable to see the truth when it stood right in front of them.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Our Incomparable God.

“It is he who made the earth by his power,
    who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.
When he utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,
    and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.
He makes lightning for the rain,
    and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
Every man is stupid and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols,
for his images are false,
    and there is no breath in them.
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
    at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is he who is the portion of Jacob,
    for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
    the Lord of hosts is his name.”
Jeremiah 51:15-19 ESV

In these verses, the prophet writes what amounts to be a hymn of praise to Yahweh, God Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. In the first few verses, God is referred to in the third person. His name remains unmentioned, but His deeds are outlines in great detail. He made the earth and preserves it through His wisdom. It was God who laid out the heavens and all they contain: The sun, stars, planets, galaxies, asteroids, nebula, black holes, and all that stretches out into the universe for millions of light years. And He created it with understand and gave it a precise order and structure. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is the result of chance or exists without God’s approval and creative power. And Marduk, the creator-god of the Babylonians played no part in any of it, because he is non-existent.

Jeremiah goes on to describe Yahweh as not only the creator, but the instigator and sustainer of all things.

When he speaks in the thunder,
    the heavens roar with rain.
He causes the clouds to rise over the earth.
    He sends the lightning with the rain
    and releases the wind from his storehouses. – Jeremiah 51:16 NLT

God’s voice carries weight. When He speaks, things happen. He declares that it should rain and it does. He calls the clouds to appear and they do so. The wind is at His beck and call. All nature is subservient to His sovereign will. Bel, the Babylonians storm god was not the one responsible for the weather. He was not the source behind the storms that brought wind, rain, thunder and lightning to the earth. It was all the handiwork of God Almighty. And yet, as obvious as all of this may be, the majority of the people who live on this planet are too ignorant to recognize the unmistakable attributes of God in the world around them. And Jeremiah describes mankind in less-than-flattering terms: “The whole human race is foolish and has no knowledge!” (Jeremiah 51:17 NLT). Rather than attribute the mighty works found it nature to Yahweh, they give the credit to lifeless, man-made idols made of wood and stone.

The craftsmen are disgraced by the idols they make,
for their carefully shaped works are a fraud.
    These idols have no breath or power.
Idols are worthless; they are ridiculous lies! – Jeremiah 51:17-18 NLT

How ridiculous it is for someone to make an idol with their own hands and then step back and claim that this block of wood or carved stone is a deity with powers to rescue them from danger, protect them from harm, bless then for their worship, and sustain them throughout life. The prophet Isaiah echoes the sentiments of Jeremiah.

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit? – Isaiah 44:9-10 NLT

And he’s not done.

The blacksmith stands at his forge to make a sharp tool,
    pounding and shaping it with all his might.
His work makes him hungry and weak.
    It makes him thirsty and faint.
Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood
    and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
    and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
    and puts it in a little shrine.
He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship! – Isaiah 44:12-15 NLT

It’s so pathetic, it’s sad. How silly it all comes across when you see it written down in black and white. How ludicrous the whole idea appears, and yet, man has made a habit of manufacturing his own gods for generations. The apostle Paul describes it in stark terms: “they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise” (Romans 1:25 NLT).

And Isaiah goes on to paint the idiocy of idols in embarrassingly silly terms.

He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!
He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!” – Isaiah 44:15-17 NLT

And Jeremiah provides us with a vivid juxtaposition between these lifeless, helpless idols and the one true God.

But the God of Israel is no idol!
    He is the Creator of everything that exists,
including his people, his own special possession.
    The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! – Jeremiah 51:19 NLT

That statement should bring us joy and create in us a sense of quiet confidence and growing trust. Our God is real. He is not the byproduct of man’s fertile imagination. He is not created. He is the creator! Everything that exists is due to Him. Even the wood that sinful, foolish men use to make false gods. Even the precious metals and stones they use to decorate their lifeless deities. He is unmade, eternal, all-powerful, and in complete control of all things. The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is incomparable. He is without peer. And, once again, the prophet Isaiah provides us with God’s declaration of His unmatched, unequaled status as the one and only God of the universe.

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?
Some people pour out their silver and gold
    and hire a craftsman to make a god from it.
    Then they bow down and worship it!
They carry it around on their shoulders,
    and when they set it down, it stays there.
    It can’t even move!
And when someone prays to it, there is no answer.
    It can’t rescue anyone from trouble.” – Isaiah 46:5-7 NLT

Idols can’t answer prayers. Idols can’t rescue those in trouble. Idols can’t move from one place to another without human help. Idols can’t do anything. But God can. He is incomparable, totally reliable and completely without equal.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson