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

Prayer Changes Us, Not God

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.

“This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. – Isaiah 38:1-8 ESV

A key to understanding chapters 38-39 and their place in the chronology of the book of Isaiah is the first three words of verse one of chapter 38: “In those days…” This is a clear reference to the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem as described in chapters 36-37. Isaiah is providing additional information that will help shed light on all that took place in those dark days, but he is also prefacing the remaining chapters of his book.

During the height of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, King Hezekiah became deathly ill. We are not told the extent of his condition, but the prophet Isaiah delivered a divine prognosis that was anything but good news.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.’” – Isaiah 38:1 NLT

So, along with the pending invasion of the Assyrian forces and the likely fall of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had to deal with the threat of a terminal illness. All of this had to have weighed heavily on Hezekiah’s heart. He must have been confused by this unrelenting wave of bad news. After all, he had been one of the few kings of Judah who had tried to do the right thing, instituting a series of drastic religious reforms in an effort to restore the peoples’ worship of Yahweh.

Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah after the death of King Ahaz, who was the poster-boy for unfaithfulness and apostasy. The book of 2 Chronicles gives a summary of some of his exploits.

The king took the various articles from the Temple of God and broke them into pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s Temple so that no one could worship there, and he set up altars to pagan gods in every corner of Jerusalem. He made pagan shrines in all the towns of Judah for offering sacrifices to other gods. In this way, he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:24-25 NLT

But when Hezekiah took the throne at the age of 25, “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2 NLT). One of the first things he did was to reopen the temple and recommission the Levites so that the sacrifices to Yahweh could begin again. He also revived the celebration of Passover and called the people to worship Yahweh alone. As a result, “they smashed all the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and removed the pagan shrines and altars” (2 Chronicles 31:1 NLT). 

Yet, in spite of all his reforms and his efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah, God sent the Assyrians.

After Hezekiah had faithfully carried out this work, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified towns, giving orders for his army to break through their walls. – 2 Chronicles 32:1 NLT

And to make matters even worse, Hezekiah was told he was going to die. If anyone had the right to ask God, “Why?” it was Hezekiah. But rather than questioning God’s actions or doubting His love, Hezekiah simply asked that his acts of faithfulness be remembered.

“Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.” – Isaiah 38:3 NLT

Hezekiah was not bragging or boasting, but merely expressing his confusion over this latest bit of bad news. Isaiah describes the king as weeping bitterly. He was devastated by all that was happening to him and around him. The nation of Judah was under siege. It was just a matter of time before the Assyrians arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. And now, he was facing imminent death. It was all more than he could handle. So, he took his hurt, confusion, and despair to God. And his prayer was heard. God gave Isaiah a second message for Hezekiah.

“This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. Yes, I will defend this city.” – Isaiah 38:5-6 NLT

This raises the often-debated question: “Can the prayers of men change the mind of God?” Was God’s prescribed will somehow altered by the prayer of Hezekiah? The text is clear that, as a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life by 15 years. So, it would appear that Hezekiah’s death date was postponed because he prayed. But at the heart of the question lies the sovereignty of God. There is also the issue of God’s omniscience. He knows all. There is nothing that escapes His notice or that lies outside His awareness. While there are many occasions recorded in Scripture where it appears that God “changed His mind” because of the prayers of men like Moses, Abraham, David, and others, it is essential that we understand that God’s will is never altered by anyone. In fact, the book of Numbers tells us that God never changes His mind.

God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

So, what is going on here? Why did God determine to extend Hezekiah’s life? One of the things we need to always bear in mind is God’s complete and unwavering knowledge of all things. God knew Hezekiah’s heart. He was fully aware of how Hezekiah would respond to the news of his pending death. Hezekiah’s prayer didn’t change the heart of God, it changed the heart of Hezekiah. The king, faced with the news of his terminal illness, unknowingly prayed within the will of God, revealing his desire that his life be extended because he cared for the glory of God and the good of the people of Judah. God, because He is all-knowing, knew exactly how Hezekiah was going to respond and His “decision” to extend the king’s life had been part of His will all along.

God used the announcement of Hezekiah’s death to bring the king to the point of total dependence upon Him. The terminal prognosis was meant to get Hezekiah’s attention, not God’s. It was intended to bring the king to a place of total reliance upon the will of God and to remind the king of his own faithfulness. So much of this is about perspective. We see things from our limited vantage point as human beings. From our earth-bound, time-controlled view, we are incapable of seeing into the future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But God does. He knew all along that Hezekiah was going to live an additional 15 years because He knew how Hezekiah was going to respond to the news of his illness. Hezekiah didn’t change the mind of God, but Hezekiah’s mindfulness of God was dramatically altered. God wanted Hezekiah to know and not forget that faithfulness was the key to God’s graciousness. In a time when it could have been easy for Hezekiah to turn away from God and restore the former alters to the false gods, he remained faithful to Yahweh. He did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Even during this time of trouble, King Ahaz continued to reject the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus who had defeated him, for he said, “Since these gods helped the kings of Aram, they will help me, too, if I sacrifice to them.” – 2 Chronicles 28:22-23 NLT

In a sense, the news of Hezekiah’s terminal illness had been a test. Not of God, but of Hezekiah. And God knew that Hezekiah would pass the test with flying colors. Hezekiah’s death date did not really change. But his view of God did. And in the remaining verses of this chapter, Hezekiah will reveal the profound impact this situation had on his life and his heart. He was drawn closer to God. His reliance upon and love for God deepened. And this enhanced understanding of God’s love and faithfulness was going to be needed in the days ahead.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is the proof that God gave Hezekiah to assure that all He had said was true.

“‘And this is the sign from the Lord to prove that he will do as he promised: I will cause the sun’s shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz!’” So the shadow on the sundial moved backward ten steps. – Isaiah 38:7-8 NLT

We know from the parallel story found in 2 Kings, that Hezekiah had asked God for a sign.

“What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me?” – 2 Kings 20:8 ESV

This was not necessarily an expression of doubt on Hezekiah’s part, but a request for some form of reassurance on God’s part. The news was almost too good to be true. So, Hezekiah asked God to provide him with a tangible sign that what He had promised would indeed take place. And God graciously and miraculously obliged.

What’s truly interesting is that God used something built by and named after wicked King Ahaz to provide faithful King Hezekiah with proof of His word. God caused the shadow of the sun to reverse itself. In a sense, time reversed itself. We are not told whether the sun itself moved backward in the sky or whether the shadow moved contrary to the position of the sun. In either case, God provided a miracle, a supernatural sign that provided Hezekiah with all the proof he required. And again, the impact of all of this on Hezekiah was profound, resulting in his penning of a poem of praise to 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

 

The Potter and the Clay.

Astonish yourselves and be astonished;
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
10 For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes (the prophets),
    and covered your heads (the seers).

11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

13 And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
14 therefore, behold, I will again
    do wonderful things with this people,
    with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
    and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? – Isaiah 29:9-16 ESV

The people of Judah were spiritually dull and complacent. Isaiah compares them to a man stumbling around under the influence of alcohol. But he makes it clear that their stupor and instability is spiritual in nature, and it has been brought on them by God.

For the Lord has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep.
    He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. – Isaiah 29:10 NLT

Part of the punishment He has brought against them is their inability to discern the right thing to do. In spite of all their pride and arrogance, they were incapable of understanding what it was that God was doing. The signs were obvious, but their eyes were blinded to the reality of what was going on around them and to them.

All the future events in this vision are like a sealed book to them. When you give it to those who can read, they will say, “We can’t read it because it is sealed.” When you give it to those who cannot read, they will say, “We don’t know how to read.” – Isaiah 29:11-12 NLT

Isaiah, as the prophet of God, had been pleading with them to trust God. He had exposed their misplaced trust in Egypt and other pagan nations. He had warned them of God’s pending judgment. And he had made it clear that repentance was the solution to their problem. But they had remained stubbornly unwilling to listen to a word he said. And he delivers a stinging indictment from God.

“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual. – Isaiah 29:13 NET

There were guilty of giving God lip-service. They claimed to be His loyal subjects, but they were simply going through the motions. Their words were not backed by appropriate actions. And what they alleged to be worship was nothing more than a set of man-made rules and rituals they performed by rote. Their hearts were not in it.

Not only that, they suffered from the mistaken impression that God Almighty was unable to see what it was that they were doing. In their warped and twisted minds, they fully believed that they could hide what it was they were doing from the penetrating gaze of God. And Isaiah gave verbal expression to their thoughts.

“The Lord can’t see us,” they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!” – Isaiah 29:15 NLT

And why did they have this remarkably naive outlook? Because they somehow believed that they had done a good job of hiding their actions from Yahweh. But Isaiah delivered the sobering news that their impressions were wrong. Deadly wrong.

What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
– Isaiah 29:15 NLT

Of all people, the Jews should have known that their God was omniscient. Nothing was hidden from His sight. And their own Scriptures were filled with reminders of this very fact.

For the Lord sees clearly what a man does,
    examining every path he takes. – Proverbs 5:21 NLT

“Doesn’t he see everything I do
    and every step I take?” – Job 31:4 NLT

The Lord is watching everywhere,
    keeping his eye on both the evil and the good. – Proverbs 15:3 NLT

“I am watching them closely, and I see every sin. They cannot hope to hide from me.” – Jeremiah 16:17 NLT

And that same understanding of God’s all-knowing, all-seeing capacity is carried over into the New Testament. The author of Hebrews states:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. – Hebrews 4:13 NLT

And yet, we seem to believe that we can hide our actions from God. Not only thought, we sometimes have the false impression that we can keep God from knowing what we are thinking. But David, the great king of Israel, throws a wet blanket on that perception.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT

Think closely about that last line. God knows what you are going to say even before you say it. A thought, unexpressed, is not hidden from God. He knows our inner thoughts. He even knows the motivations that flow from the condition of our hearts. He can tell the difference between an act of charity done out of selflessness and kindness and one done for the self-centered reward of recognition.

But Isaiah exposes the lunacy behind their false perception of God.

“Your thinking is perverse!” – Isaiah 29:16 NET

The Hebrew word Isaiah used is hophek, and it literally means “to turn things upside down.” The people of God were guilty of twisting the truth and perverting the reality of God’s omniscience. In a sense, they were guilty of wishful thinking. They could only hope that God was blind to what they were doing. But He wasn’t. And to press home his point, Isaiah uses a metaphor that compares God to a potter and Judah to clay.

He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
“He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
“The potter who made me is stupid”? –
Isaiah 29:16 NLT

God wasn’t like a lifeless lump of clay. They were. The Creator-God who made each and every one of the people of Judah was not the one who was ignorant, blind and clueless. They were. And they had no right to question what God was doing around them or to them. They were like clay in the hands of the Potter, and He would do with them as He wished. Their compliance was not needed. Their submission was not necessary. And their denial of God’s omniscience or omnipotence did not diminish His knowledge or power one iota.

God had sent His prophet, Jeremiah, with a similar word of warning to the people of Israel. He too used the metaphor of the potter and the clay.

“O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would.

“Therefore, Jeremiah, go and warn all Judah and Jerusalem. Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am planning disaster for you instead of good. So turn from your evil ways, each of you, and do what is right.’” – Jeremiah 18:6-11 NLT

But the people of Israel suffered from the same problem as the people of Judah. They were too stubborn and incapable of grasping the significance of the prophet’s words. So, they responded:

“Don’t waste your breath. We will continue to live as we want to, stubbornly following our own evil desires.” – Jeremiah 18:12 NLT

How ridiculous their words sound. How arrogant and ignorant can they be? And yet, as the people of God, we far too often exhibit the same characteristics. We boldly reject the words of God, demanding that we be allowed to live our lives the way we want to. We stubbornly determine to do things our way, rather than obeying God’s will for our lives. And we ignorantly assume we can hide our thoughts and actions from God. But He knows. He sees. And, as the Potter, He does what He has to do to mold His children into the vessels of glory.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul picked up on Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay and used it to address to believers in Rome.

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? – Romans 9:20-21 Berean Bible

God will do what He has to do to bring about the transformation He has planned. His will is never thwarted. His design is never altered. In our arrogance and pride, we may believe that are the ones in control. But Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul would have us understand that God alone controls our destinies. And it is far better to submit to His will than to resist it.

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

Yet I Will Rejoice.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. – Habakkuk 3:17-19 ESV

What kinds of conditions do you put on your worship of God? What does He have to do to get you to love and honor Him? Maybe you expect your life to be easy-going and care-free. Perhaps you demand that things always go your way or that your life be marked by happiness and contentment. You silently hope for no pain, sorrow or disappointment. And if any of those things show up in your life, you tend to wonder what God is doing or why He has it out for you. But in the prayer of Habakkuk, found in chapter three of the book that bears his name, we see a slightly different perspective – one we could all stand to incorporate into our lives as believers.

Habakkuk was a prophet. Like all prophets, he had been given an assignment by God to tell the people of Israel about the coming destruction from God because of their sins. He was to call them to repentance. But at the very outset of the book of Habakkuk, we read his words of complaint aimed at God. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:2-4 ESV). It sounds like Habakkuk was less than satisfied with how God was handling the situation in Israel. From his perspective, God was oblivious or indifferent to what was going on all around Habakkuk. The nation of Judah, where Habakkuk lived, was out of control. Sin was rampant. Evil was everywhere. And it appeared as if God didn’t really care. The righteous were suffering and injustice was more commonplace than justice. Yet God seemed strangely silent. But nothing could have been further from the truth. God assured Habakkuk that He was anything but complacent about what was going on in Judah. He told His perturbed prophet, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (Habakkuk 1:5 ESV). Basically, God told Habakkuk that He was doing some incredible things, but Habakkuk wouldn’t believe it if he heard it. God was going to deal with the injustice and rebellion in Judah. He was going to raise up the nation of Babylon to bring judgment on His people. The nation of Judah would suffer the same fate as that of the northern kingdom of Israel: destruction and deportation.

Now that God had told Habakkuk what He was going to do, Habakkuk had second thoughts. He complained again, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13 ESV). How in the world could a just and loving God allow a perverse, pagan nation to destroy the people of God? What was up with that? God answered Habakkuk. In the very next chapter, God reveals to Habakkuk what He has planned for the Babylonians. Yes, He will use them to punish Judah, but then God will mete out justice on them. In His time. In His way. Habakkuk didn’t need to understand it all. He simply needed to trust God. And God closed out His answer to Habakkuk with these words: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20 ESV). In other words, God was telling Habakkuk not to forget the fact that He was sovereign and in complete control, whether it looked that way to Habakkuk or not. Rather than complain, Habakkuk needed to wait and watch. And Habakkuk replies in humility, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us” (Habakkuk 3:16 ESV). He didn’t get it. He didn’t even like it. But he was learning to see it as coming from the hand of God. Which is what led him to say, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Even if things didn’t quite look like what Habakkuk was expecting, he would rejoice in God. Even if events took a turn for the worse, he would take joy in the God of his salvation. He would trust God. Why? Because “God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:19 ESV).

In spite of all that was taking place around him, Habakkuk determined to rejoice in the Lord. He was going to find reasons to praise God whether the evidence existed or not. Because he believed his God to be trustworthy, sovereign and faithful. Too often my praise is predicated on my preconceived expectations. I rejoice only when things turn out the way I envisioned them. If God meets my conditions, He can have my worship. But Habakkuk would have me understand that God deserves my praise whether I agree with His methods or not. I don’t have the full picture. I don’t understand what He is doing behind the scenes. So I must learn to trust Him and say, “Yet I will rejoice.” Because He knows what He is doing.

A Risky Request.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24 ESV

Psalm 139

David closes out his prayer with a powerful petition. It is an apt summation of all that he has prayed up to this point. Fully aware that God knows everything about him and that there is nothing he can hide from God, David requests that God reveal what’s going on in the inside of his own heart. This simply prayer reveals so much of what David knew about God, but ultimately, it lets us know that David knew God loved him. David trusted God. He was asking God to reveal things in his life to which he was either blind or simply oblivious. Rather than fear God’s omniscience, David wanted to take advantage of it. He wanted the all-knowing, ever-present God to search inside the recesses of his heart and “point out anything in me that offends you.” That’s a risky proposition. Not because God is going to discover something He didn’t already know. That’s been David’s point all along. God already knows. But it’s risky, because it means that God is going to reveal to David what he doesn’t know, and then David is going to be faced with the choice of agreeing with it and confessing it, or disagreeing with it and denying it. The former results in God’s forgiveness. The latter will result in His discipline.

But this prayer of David’s should be that of every individual who calls Christ his or her Savior. Our relationship with Jesus Christ has provided us with an intimate relationship with God the Father. We are able to come into His presence and enjoy His love, grace and forgiveness. He has created us, redeemed us, and knows everything about us. He loves us deeply and sent His Son not only to die for us, but to make it possible for us to be progressively transformed into His image. To do that, He is constantly exposing the sin in our life so that we might confess it and enjoy His forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). The truth is, we are incapable of seeing so much of the darkness that lies within our own hearts. Jeremiah the prophet wrote, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). The answer is God. He knows our hearts and He can reveal what is hidden from our view. God alone can reveal what is behind our “anxious thoughts.” The Hebrew word David uses is sar`aph and it refers to “disquieting thoughts.” God can tell us why we’re so anxious and worried. He can tell us what is driving our fear. We may think it is a past-due bill, but God may show us that it really our lack of trust in His provision. We may think our anxiety is due to a damaged relationship, but God may reveal that it is really a fear of man or our own lack of love. God has the innate ability to get to the root issue. And so often, it is the result of sin. There was a time in David’s life when he was having trouble sleeping. He could have written it off to his high-pressure job as king of Israel. But God reveals that it was the result of his affair with Bathsheba. David had internalized and rationalized his sin. But God saw it all and made sure David saw it as He did. That’s where the risk comes in.

But David knew that it was better to have his sins exposed by God than to try and live with them hidden. He knew he could fool others, but he could never fool God. He knows everything. And God was the key to David’s spiritual transformation. He needed God to help him live righteously. He was a man after God’s own heart, but he desperately needed God to constantly renew his heart. Refusing to let God reveal what is going on inside our hearts is like going to the doctor and refusing to let him tell us what is wrong with us. Not knowing will not make us better. Ignorance is not bliss. Unrevealed sin, like unseen cancer, does not mean it does not exist. It is there, wreaking havoc on our spiritual lives and doing damage to all those around us. We should want to know what God knows. When God had revealed to David the depth of the sin he had committed with Bathsheba, David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV). God had convicted him. Now David wanted God to cleanse him. He knew that God alone was capable of cleaning up the mess he had made with his life. God doesn’t just give us the prognosis, He provides the cure. He doesn’t just point out our sin, He makes possible the prescription for renewed spiritual health and vitality.

We can’t confess what we don’t know. That’s why we need God. We tend to see only the symptoms of our sin. God sees the source. He knows the root cause of all our thoughts, words and actions. We are blind to our pride, envy, idolatry, lust and more. But God sees it all. So David wanted the all-knowing God, who made Him and knew everything about him, to shine His divine flashlight into the recesses of his heart and point out anything and everything that offended Him. That’s a risky, yet rewarding prayer to pray, because it will show us things we don’t want to see, but it will also allow God to make us who He desires us to be.

Too Heavy Too Handle.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. – Psalm 139:17-18 ESV

Psalm 139.

David is blown away with God. The very fact that God created him and knows everything about him was just too much for him. He uses a Hebrew word, yaqar to describe his feelings. It can mean to “be valuable, be precious, be costly”. But it can also be used metaphorically to mean “be heavy” or “hard to understand”. It is the same word used in the book of Daniel when the king asked his magicians to tell him his dream and his meaning. Their response was, “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11 ESV). Given the context, it would seem that David is saying that God’s thoughts regarding him are too heavy or difficult for him to comprehend. Remember, David has been speaking of God’s creation of him, how He knew David before he was even formed in the womb. God already knew the day of his birth and the length of his life – long before his conception. God was aware of David’s thoughts – even before they came out of his mouth as words. All of this was too much for David to get his head around. He said, “How vast is the sum of them!” He could have gone on forever, recounting even more amazing facts regarding God and His intimate involvement in his life.

David seems to say that when he goes to bed, he falls asleep thinking about about it and when he wakes up, there’s still more. The word translated, “I am still with you” is `owd  and it means “a going round, continuance” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). It can simply mean “more”. In other words, David says he wakes up in the morning and there is even more to be amazed about regarding God’s thoughts for him. It reminds me of another psalm of David where he writes, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4 ESV). Even Job, in his suffering, said to God, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?” (Job 7:17-18 ESV). The very idea that God takes notice of us, created us, cares for us, never takes His eyes off of us, and loves us, should astound us. To think that the God of the universe gives me a second thought at all should blow me away as it did David. As David has already acknowledged, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2 ESV). God is not some distant, disconnected deity who has no knowledge about or interest in His creation. He cares. In fact, He loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us. He knows our weaknesses. He fully understands our inability to live up to His righteous standards. He is fully aware that we are incapable of not sinning. So He provided a way for us to be made right with Him that is not based on our own human effort, but on the death of His own Son. God knows us. And in spite of that, He still loves us. He knows our thoughts, even when we think we have kept them hidden. And yet, He is still willing to forgive us of those thoughts, if we will simply confess them to Him. He sees everything we do – the good, the bad, the ugly – and is still willing to show us mercy and extend to us His grace. That truly is amazing.

To think that God even gives me a second thought should leave me astounded. How easy it is for me to live my life thinking that all I say, think and do is done is obscurity. I am just one among billions. I am virtually unknown and little more than a blip on the radar screen of life. I can easily conclude that my contribution to life is inconsequential and of little value. But God, the one who created me, knows me, cares for me, watches over me, thinks about me, loves me enough to discipline me, and gave His Son to die for me. That’s heavy. That’s mind-boggling. But what a great reminder from the pen of David. I need to constantly consider the fact that I am known and loved by God. I must never forget that He made me – just as I am. As David said, He “formed my inward parts” and “knitted me together in my mother’s womb”. He made me for a reason. He saved me, not because of anything I had done to deserve it, but simply because He loved me. He is constantly transforming me into the likeness of His Son. He never takes His eyes off of me. He holds me in His hands. He protects me, provides for me, guides me and disciplines me. And He always knows what is best for me. Hard to believe? No doubt about it. But my disbelief won’t do anything but rob me of the joy of knowing just how much my God loves me. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

Exodus 15-16, Mark 5

The Power of God.

Exodus 15-16, Mark 5

Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. – Exodus 15:5 ESV

I know of no one who believes in God who would not also say that they believe in the power of God. We sing songs about God’s power. We can recall stories from the Bible, like those in Exodus, that tell of His great power. But there are far too few of us who can speak of His power from personal experience. Either because we have not seen it, or because we have simply taken it for granted. The power of God is not to be some academic or theological concept, but a practical and personal reality in the life of every believer. We have read over and over again in the book of Exodus that simple phrase, “that you may know.” God wants us to know that He is God. He wants us to know of His power from personal, first-hand experience. Witnessing God’s power at work in their lives was what helped the people of Israel believe. His evident power was proof of His ever-presence.

What does this passage reveal about God?

For the people of Israel, God’s power was almost always on display in their lives. They had seen Him do incredible miracles in the land of Egypt. They had watched Him defeat the armies of Pharaoh and part the waters of the Red Sea. They even composed a song about it, singing, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them” (Exodus 15:11-12 ESV). They had seen these things with their own eyes. They had personally experienced the presence and power of God. His deliverance had been up-close and personal in nature. And God would continue to reveal His power to them long after the events at the Red Sea were just a memory. As they made their way to the Promised Land, God would reveal His power repeatedly and in a variety of practical ways. At Marah, He turned bitter water into sweet water. When they arrived at in wilderness of Sin and began to complain about the lack of food, God provided them with quail and manna to eat. Moses told the people, “in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord” (Exodus 16:7 ESV). While normally this would have referred to God’s presence as revealed in the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, in this case I think Moses was telling the people that they were going to see God’s glory in the form of God’s powerful provision. The manna was going to be a manifestation of God’s glory. His provision would be evidence of His power and proof of his glory and greatness.

Over in the book of Mark, we read about the power of God as revealed through the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He casts the demons out of a man, with just a word from His mouth. A woman who had suffered from the same physical malady for 12 long years, receives healing simply by touching the hem of His robe. And Jesus shows His power over even death by raising a 12-year old girl from the dead. These events were meant to provide the disciples with proof of His divinity. They were designed to give the disciples confidence in who Jesus was and evidence of His having God-ordained role as their Messiah. As it had been with the people of Israel in the wilderness, the power revealed in the miracles of Jesus had an objective: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 16:12 ESV).

What does this passage reveal about man?

God tends to reveal His power in the midst of man’s problems. The Israelites had an uncrossable sea behind them and an unbeatable foe in front of them. But God showed up and revealed His power on behalf of them. The waters at Marah were bitter and undrinkable, but God showed up and turned the bitter sweet. When the food began to run out and the people began to give up, God showed up in the form of bread in the morning and meat in the evening. And the typical response of the people after each of these manifestations of God’s power was not awe and wonder, but grumbling and complaint. Rather than gratitude and a growing sense of faith in the power of God, they disobeyed His commands and found plenty of reasons to gripe about the next inconvenience they encountered. The manna should have been a daily reminder of God’s power and presence. It should have been more than enough proof of the goodness and glory of God. But rather than experience God’s power and trust Him, they tended to focus on their problems and doubt.

When Jesus healed the demon-possessed man and restored him to his right mind, the people reacted with fear rather than faith. The kind of power Jesus revealed scared them to death and they asked Him to leave. Yet the woman who suffered from the long-standing illness was willing to place her faith in Jesus’ power to heal based only on rumors and second-hand stories. Jesus said her faith restored her to health. Her belief in His power made her well. When word came to Jesus that the little girl had died, He told her father, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36 ESV). This man had not seen Jesus raise anyone from the dead. He had no reason to believe that his little girl’s life could be restored. In the midst of his greatest moment of tragedy, God was going to reveal His power through His Son. His problem was going to provide an opportunity to see God’s power on display.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

God wants to reveal His power through my problems. He wants me to know that He is Lord – not just intellectually, but experientially. God wants to reveal His power in my daily life by meeting practical needs and solving real problems. God graciously reveals His power in practical ways so that we might believe in Him. He offers us daily proof of His presence, but we either ignore it or refuse to believe it. And far too often, even after we see God’s hand at work in our life, we end up grumbling and grousing at the next setback or difficulty that shows up. Rather than sing of His greatness and goodness as revealed in the practical proof of His power, we whine and moan about our lot in life. May I learn to recognize God’s power in my life more readily and sing His praises more fervently. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11 ESV).

Father, You have shown Your power in my life in so many ways over the years, but I still tend to doubt You far more often than I trust You. And I show that doubt in the form of ingratitude and grumbling. Forgive me and help me see Your power more readily and express my gratitude more quickly. You are great and You are good. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org