Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Isaiah 40:12-31: Who can measure the Spirit of the LORD?

In my previous post on the first few verses of Isaiah 40, I suggested that in the exile, Jews in Babylon would be severely tempted to lose their faith in the promises of Yahweh.  After all, everything that he promised was taken away.  They were gone from the land, they were not numerous, there was no king, God did not live with them in any obvious way.

Maybe the Babylonian gods had won.  Maybe Yahweh did not have the power to do what he said he would do.  It looked like the Babylonian armies had triumphed through the superior power of their gods, and there was no end of their power in sight.

Or maybe Yahweh had just given up on the Jews.  His plan to bless the nations through them had failed; perhaps he would find another people, or maybe he had just given up entirely.  The descendants of Abraham were harassed, hopeless, powerless, worn down, and sinful; nothing good would ever come from them again, certainly not blessing to all nations.

Isaiah 40-55 is God's word to this situation.  Nowhere here is there an exhortation to try harder, nor even to repent.  The answer is Yahweh himself: his character, his power, and his plan.

Who can measure Yahweh?
12Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the heavens with the span
enclosed the dust of earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in a scale,
and the hills in a balance?
13Who has measured the spirit of Yahweh,
or as his counselor has taught him?
14Whom did he consult for enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
The key idea here is contained in v. 13a: "Who has measured the spirit of Yahweh?" In English versions, v. 13a is unfortunately often translated in a way that obscures its connection with v. 12. E.g., KJV, RSV: "Who has directed the spirit of the LORD?" NIV has "Who has understood the mind of the LORD?" which is somewhat better.  The Hebrew verb here is exactly the same as the word in 12b, "Who has marked off the heavens with a span?" (Translations in other languages, such as German, say the equivalent of, "Who has measured the Spirit of Yahweh?")

No one can measure the spirit of Yahweh--he is beyond anything that humans can measure.  I suppose that the reason English translators have not drawn attention to the repeated word is because 13a should be parallel to 13b, and at first glimpse the immeasurability of God seems not to be parallel with his wisdom. But I think it is (see below).

All the rhetorical questions in both v. 12 and v. 13 have the same answer.  The assumed answer to the rhetorical questions in v. 12 is therefore not "God," as it might initially appear, but "no one."  No one can measure the ocean by taking up one palmful, then another, then another; the ocean is too vast to be measured that way.  No one can measure the sky by the spreading out his hand (a "span" is the distance between the tip of the thumb and the tip of the little finger when the hand is stretched out). No one can measure the earth by filling up a basket again and again--the amount of dirt that can be measured that way does not compare to the size of the earth. Such quantities are beyond the reach of our measuring tools. Similarly, Yahweh cannot be measured or limited by any standard we have. In every way, he is on a completely different scale from anything we might compare him to.

The limitlessness of God is summarized by the word holiness, one of the most important words in the book of Isaiah (used here in 40:25, the "Holy One").  Sometimes we treat "holiness" as synonymous with "righteousness", but that is a secondary meaning of the word, and is not normally the way it is used in the Old Testament when referring to God.  "Holy" means literally "set apart", i.e., "different", on a different plane of existence--meaning primarily that the holy God does not have human limits. The pagans called their gods holy (e.g., Daniel 5:11) and meant that their gods were a different order of being.  For this reason, "holy" is often a synonym for "powerful" (e.g., Ex. 15:11), and this is normally the case in Isaiah.  But God is also unlimited in other ways, too.  He has unlimited wisdom to formulate his plans.  He is also without limits in his moral attributes (unlike the pagan gods), and for this reason "holy" for a Hebrew also means "perfectly righteous".

v.14 introduces another important theme in this section of Isaiah, the plan and counsel of Yahweh.  The author does not elaborate much on Yahweh's plan in this chapter, but it is the central theme of some of the chapters to come.  No human would have thought to do the things Yahweh is about to do to bring about justice in the earth, especially the work of the Servant in chapter 52:11-53:12.  Yahweh does not do what we expect (see below on chapter 55).  It is Yahweh's plan that drives history, a plan he began long ago in creation, without any advice from us.  His plan was partially revealed it to his people through the covenants, which were made at his initiative and not ours: he will bless the world through the descendants of Abraham.

Yahweh's plan and his wisdom are called into question by the exiles, since it looks like Yahweh has failed.  The next chapters go on to demonstrate that this is not the case.  Here we only have a glimpse at his plan, but its importance is suggested by the fact that in the two halves of v. 13, the measurelessness of Yahweh is put in parallel not with his unlimited power but his plan which had no human advice.  
15Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales.
behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
16Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17All the nations are as nothing before him,
They are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
"The nations" here summarizes all of the enemies of Israel: Babylon and its clients, Egypt, Moab, Edom, etc. Those of us from a large country like the United States do not have a gut-level appreciation of what it must have been like to be a citizen of a small country surrounded by many aggressive neighbors with large countries lurking in the distance. And in the exile, there were only a few thousand Jews scattered throughout the huge empire, a truly insignificant minority with absolutely no power, at least early in the exile. It would be hard not to fear the nations; but they are nothing compared to Yahweh. The nations which seemed so large in human estimation are so insignificant they are like the dust on the scales that no one bothers to brush off--it has no measurable influence on the outcome.

Lebanon used to be famous for its forests, though that is certainly not what we think first of it today.  The forests were eliminated by centuries of wars (where trees were cut down for sieges or as a punitive measure) and bad government policies (the Turks had a tax on trees).
18To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19The idol! A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
20He who is impoverished chooses for an offering
wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an image that will not topple.
21Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in;
23who brings princes to nought,
and makes the inhabitants of the earth as nothing.
24Scarcely 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.
There is no need to fear the idols, no matter how impressive they are.  The best that idol makers can do is to make something that does not fall flat on its face ("does not topple"); the idol is lucky if it stays upright. In contrast, God is above the heavens.

The exiles of Israel might fear the princes, the rulers of Babylon; but these too are nothing before God. As he has blown on Israel and made it wither (40:7-8), so he will blow on them and they too will wither.
25To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26Lift 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.
One of the things the Babylonians were most proud of was their astrology. (Modern astrology comes from the Babylonians through the Greeks.) They were famous throughout the ancient world for their knowledge of the stars, and their supposed ability to predict the future from them. The planets and stars were thought to be deities; their regularity was evidence of their divine power (nothing on earth is so precise and unblemished). It would be natural in that environment to fear the power of the star-gods.

The text here turns that on its head. The stars are not in control of the future; Yahweh is in control of the stars, and Yahweh's plan controls the future. The stars only come up every night because he calls them. And he never accidentally drops one of them. Their very regularity is evidence not of their own power but of Yahweh's perfect sustaining power, which will sustain you too.
27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hid from Yahweh,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
28Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31but they who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The questions in v. 27 use the singular "you", in contrast to the similar questions in v. 21 which use a plural. In this context, the contrast makes the question to Israel more emphatic: "Have you not known?" Perhaps the nations might not know, but you certainly should.

The tired, defeated, worn out people in the exile will be given new strength by trusting in Yahweh God.  This is made emphatic by the structure of vv. 30-31:
be weary
fall exhausted
those who wait for Yahweh will renew strength
mount up with wings
not be weary
not faint

This kind of structure, where the first element corresponds to the last element, and the second element to the second-to-last, and so on, is often called a chiasm because it looks like the left half of the Greek letter chi (which looks like our X). The main point is usually in the center (those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength), not at the end where modern readers would expect it. What comes before the middle is often transformed into what comes after by reflecting through this main point (here, "waiting on Yahweh" tranforms "falling exhausted" into "mounting up with wings like eagles", and so on). This is a fairly common structure in both the Old and the New Testaments. In this case, it explains why this passage seems to end in something of an anticlimax: any modern western writer would have put "mounting up with wings like eagles" at the end as a grand finale, instead of "walking and not fainting".  But ancient readers were trained to look for the point at the center of the chiasm instead of at the end.

Yahweh carried his people on eagles' wings through the Exodus (Ex. 19:4); now he will do the same in a second exodus, the return from Babylon.

What comes next

Isaiah 40 is merely the introduction to one of the grandest sections of the Bible, sometimes called "The Consolation of Israel". The next chapters continue to address the same issues, resoundingly affirming Yahweh's incomparable superiority to anything that might be compared to him, and his unfailing care for his people and his plan to save the whole world through them. As in the exodus, the gods of the nations will be judged and Yahweh will vindicate his people, and all the nations will know that salvation is only in Yahweh. The people will return from exile and will once again, as in the time of David, be by far the greatest of the nations.  This is accomplished by the strange work of the Servant of Yahweh, who accomplishes forgiveness for Israel and establishes justice in the earth.

This section of Isaiah concludes with a final statement about the limitlessness of Yahweh in ch. 55:
6Seek Yahweh while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to Yahweh, that he may have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says Yahweh.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher that your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out [from Babylon] in joy,
and be led forth in peace....
vv. 8-10 are often cited in discussions of the incomprehensibility of God; but in context, they are about his incomprehensible forgiveness that is totally foreign to humans. No one can measure the Spirit of Yahweh; no one would have expected such forgiveness. No one would have expected it of God, based on what we know of people; but his ways are far higher than ours, and therefore his forgiveness is too.

This forgiveness is summarized in the words of promise (v. 11). God's promise to forgive and reestablish will not be empty words, nor are his previous promises in ancient times somehow void. They will accomplish what he always intended to accomplish, to redeem the whole world through the descendants of Abraham, despite their sinfulness. Israel's hope, and indeed the hope of the whole world, is in the word of Yahweh.

The book of Isaiah, and especially chapters 40-55, is a dramatic summons to renewed faith in Yahweh and hope in his purpose.  The historical situation may not have looked promising, but Yahweh has not given up on his people, and he never will.  Yahweh has not been defeated; he has been in control of history all along.  Yahweh's plan for the redemption of the world is unchanged.


See my previous post.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Comfort my people": Isaiah 40:1-11

What does God say to people who are defeated and discouraged, who have given up hope?

The latter half of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, was written for Jews in the exile, who lived in Babylon. This is very clear from passages like chapter 48, where the Jews are told to leave Babylon; there are no more threats of exile, only promises of return.

Before the exile, the nation of Israel was given its charter by the promises that God made:
  • They would live in the land. 
  • They would be numerous (as many as the sands by the sea, or the stars in the sky).
  • They would prosper economically (they would be blessed). 
  • Those who cursed them would be cursed. 
  • They would "rule over the gates of their enemies", i.e., they would be militarily dominant.  A king from the line of David would rule over them. 
  • They, or especially their king, would be honored and have a great name, "like the great ones of the earth," i.e., like the greatest of the kings of the nations. 
  • They would be a blessing for all peoples. In fact, they would be the vehicle that brings God's intended blessing in creation to all the world
  • God would live with them. This was symbolized by the tabernacle and later the temple, the palace of the great king. 
These covenant promises were given in rough outline to the patriarchs and then elaborated and expanded through Moses and David. They are summarized in the often repeated words, "I will be their God and they shall be my people."

Every single thing God promised was systematically taken away in the exile.  No visible sign of God's promises remained. They were no longer in the promised land. They were not numerous; only a few thousand Israelites were actually taken to Babylon, and we know from archaeology and from various passages in the Bible that the land of Israel was greatly depopulated at that time, so that much formerly cultivated land was left wild. Apparently most people died during the Babylonian invasions. There was certainly no evidence of curse on the Babylonians who had cursed and mocked them. The Israelites were not a great people; apart from some notable exceptions in the Babylonian court, they were mocked and looked down on (and there are numerous predictions of this in the pre-exilic prophets). There was no king.  The city that God chose for his name lay in ruins.

Perhaps most importantly, God no longer lived with them. Ezekiel had the vision of the glory cloud departing from the temple; and anyway, it was obvious to anyone who looked at the ruins of Solomon's temple that there was no glory there any longer. God had left his people.

The people themselves were living in Babylon. Inside an impregnable wall that was fifty feet thick (as wide as a freeway in Los Angeles), enormous palaces and temples were everywhere. Even now these ruins are impressive; in their own day, before skyscrapers and modern earth moving equipment, they must have been awesome. Everything about this city was designed to impress with the glory of Babylon and its king and its gods.  It looked like nothing could ever challenge Babylon and its gods.

It is not hard to imagine how the Jews in Babylon must have felt about this. Some, no doubt, thought that God had been defeated by the Babylonian gods; that, after all, was the normal ancient way to understand defeat in war. (Even the Bible takes this viewpoint, especially when it was Yahweh who was victorious; for example, the Exodus is described as punishing the gods of Egypt.)

Others would remember the promises that God gave to Abraham and David, and would conclude that God had simply been unfaithful. Still others, knowing that Yahweh had after all been warning about this disaster for several centuries before it happened, probably concluded that God had given up on the Jews for good, and that he had no more plan for them. He was still ruling but their place in his plan had been forfeited by their stubborn refusal to obey him. No longer would the descendants of Abraham play any role in God's plan to bless the world. There was no more hope for Israel.  Maybe he would find some other people and redeem the world through them; or maybe he would just abandon the world to its fate.

The word of Yahweh

Into this bleak situation, Yahweh speaks again.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her hard service is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from Yahweh's hand
double for all her sins.
The first words bring to mind the ancient summary of the covenant, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people." God still regards them as his people! These words are also a sharp contrast with the opening words of the book of Isaiah, where in chapter 1 Yahweh calls together his witnesses and accuses Israel in a courtroom scene of violating her covenant with him. The verdict from the first half of the book has been carried out. Now she has paid the penalty ("double" is probably meant to be understood as a standard fine for wrongdoing that a court would assess).

The phrase "Comfort my people" is actually a plural command; Yahweh gives an order, and then three voices carry it out with messages of comfort in vv. 3, 6, and 9. The scene is something like the divine council in ch. 6, where the terrified Isaiah sees Yahweh in his glory giving his messengers a charge to proclaim Israel's destruction for her sinfulness. Here, however, the decree of Yahweh is for forgiveness and consolation and rebuilding.
3A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5And the glory of Yahweh will be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together.
For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken."
When a king comes to visit, it was customary to fix up all the roads for him. When Yahweh comes back, this must be done on a grand scale; even the mountains will be leveled to make a road. The mountains and valleys are to be understood metaphorically, like the similar reference to "threshing the mountains" in ch. 41.

Some commentators have understood the wilderness and desert as the terrain that must be traversed by the exiles, with Yahweh at their head, on their return journey from Babylon as a second exodus. The image of a second exodus is indeed prominent in this section of Isaiah, but here I think it is better to see the wilderness and desert as the land of Israel itself. We know that the land was greatly depopulated and much formerly cultivated area became wild, and this is repeatedly discussed in various passages in this book (see for example the end of Isaiah 7). One of the great promises of this book is that the devastated land will once again become habitable.

In any case, the glory of Yahweh will be revealed to all people (not just to Israel). The glory cloud had left the temple, but God's glory was coming back! Yahweh's glory is an important theme in this book. The glory that Isaiah saw in the temple will become visible to all, in a way yet to be described. (Later we find that the glory will be revealed through his saving actions, through the return from exile under Cyrus, and culminating in the work of the Servant.)

"For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken" means that the proclamation of comfort to his people is an official pronouncement, a final decree of Yahweh that no one can reverse. Yahweh has said it; he will do it, no matter what.
6A voice says, "Cry out!"
And I said, "What shall I cry out?
All flesh is grass,
and the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of Yahweh blows on it;
surely the people is grass."
8"The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever."
I have put the quote marks in different places than most English translations, following the suggestion of Westermann, because to me the end of verse 6 and v. 7 sound more like the prophet's complaint than the response of the voice that is speaking for God. (The quote marks are not in the original Hebrew, so anyone is free to put them wherever seems best.) v.8 is Yahweh's answer to the complaint.  Wherever you put the quote marks, the comparison is clear: the breath of Yahweh has blown on Israel and withered it, but from the mouth of Yahweh also comes the word which rebuilds it eternally. The hope of frail humans in the face of the judgment of God is the promise of God himself.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!"
10Behold, the Lord Yahweh comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
The Lord is returning to Jerusalem and that city is to give the exciting news to all the other cities that God once again is visibly with them. "Fear not" means that Zion need not fear being wrong about this and raising false hopes. The proclamation should be bold and audible to everyone, because there is no chance that it will not happen.

Yahweh's reward is what he gives to his people, and his recompense is what he gives to his enemies for the way they treated his people. (Part of the promise to Abraham was to bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him.) In the period before the exile, God's own people became his enemies and he destroyed them. Now they are no longer his enemies; he will be their shepherd and will care gently for them again.

Yahweh, the shepherd of Israel, will once again pasture his flock in their land.  How exactly this happens is the subject of the rest of Isaiah 40-55.

New Testament uses of Isaiah 40

This part of Isaiah, and other prophets as well, predict a glorious return from the exile and the establishment of eternal peace and prosperity for Israel. The actual return from exile was, in comparison with the prophecies, quite a disappointment. The Jews were back in the promised land, true, but nothing else that had been promised had come to pass. They were poor, not prosperous.  There was no king in the line of David.  They were an insignificant part of a vast empire, called merely "the province beyond the River [Euphrates]," far from where anything important was happening. Large numbers of gentiles were not bringing their wealth in to worship Yawheh. The temple was disappointingly small, and more importantly, God's glory had not come back. (Rabbinic sources talk about this: one of the things that was missing from the second temple was the glory cloud.) The primary problem the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had to address was discouragement and doubt at the disparity between the situation then and the earlier promises of God. These prophets affirmed that God was still in control, that the glory would return someday to the temple, and that Israel would again be vindicated and significant.

The faithful Jews concluded that the exile was not truly over yet. Any other way of looking at it would mean that the earlier prophets were simply wrong, and God had no intention of keeping his word (or maybe Yahweh was not really the true God).  So in the first century, even Jews living in the land of Israel were still hoping for return from exile, that Yahweh's gracious words of forgiveness and restoration would come in their time. Apparently God had not yet forgiven the sins of the nation, because he had not restored the people, and the two are inseparable in the prophets.

When John the Baptizer used the words of Isaiah 40 to describe his own ministry, everyone knew what he was talking about.  (All four gospels use the words from Isaiah 40--Mk. 1:2-3, Matt. 3:3, Lk. 3:4-6, John 1:23--so evidently that is important.)  John was proclaiming that the long wait was over, that what Isaiah had predicted was finally here.  John offered "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," and he proclaimed that one was coming who would restore Israel. The time of national forgiveness was here!

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament continually draw our attention to prophecies of return from exile and claim that they are fulfilled or are being fulfilled in Jesus. The glory of God returned in the person of Jesus.  The temple was rebuilt in the form of the church, with the Spirit living in it.  The nations were gathered into the people of God through the missionary work of the church.  The glory of Yahweh was revealed; all flesh saw it together in Jesus on the cross and will see it in the glorified Christ.


In my opinion, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary by Klaus Westermann (in the Old Testament Library series) conveys more effectively than any other the drama of the text and the significance of the historical context, though he fails to connect many of the passages together because of his source-critical approach.  The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 by Oswalt (in the NIV Application Commentary series) is also extremely good and makes a better attempt to connect the pieces of the text together into a systematic whole.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, has an excellent section on the New Testament appropriation of Isaiah 40.