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.

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