Have you not known?
In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts. Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church. It strives to bring “order” to our lives. Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.
Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05). The book of Isaiah might go along with that. The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20). It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.
Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to. So take a bath! (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)
Have you not heard?
With whom, with what, can we compare God? We constantly fail to get the message. Hear the words of the prophet:
“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).
We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions. We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars. Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.
I’ve always been a fan of exploring space. (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!) We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years. The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration. Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.
So, what does this have to do with us right here and now? How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us? Hold that thought!
With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah. We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.
I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry. I think that’s a hasty conclusion. As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist. Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!
We devise all manner of concepts. Even our concept of God can become an idol. There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous. Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category. For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false. Of course, we see this all over the place.
Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe. Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!
If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again. In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…” And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous. And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals. I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it. It doesn’t make life, it takes it. It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive. Idolatry is death.”
I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God. There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over. By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”
Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.” Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line. You don’t need the latest features. You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!
If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions. “To whom then will you liken God?” And also, “To whom then will you compare me?” They both are answered by verses 21 and 28. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.
How often does that describe us? When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.” However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God? What is happening?”
We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7). We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point. We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark. I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.
Indeed, there is a space for mourning. There is a space for sadness. The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation. It is honest.
We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness? Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?
Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry. What about tyranny? How is that a human tendency?” Good questions.
The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23). Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.” We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways. Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator? If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.
We can have our own inner tyrant.
Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous. Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames? We might expect behavior like that in middle school. It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.
And it’s not just politics. We really do it with religion. Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”
Labeling can actually be a form of judging. We assign worth to people. We can sum up their whole lives. As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2). We get what we give.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? There’s something else about a tyrant. A tyrant doesn’t want to be told. Tyrants don’t want to hear. Tyrants assume they already know. Have you not known? Have you not heard?
My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know. My puny god idol raises its head. Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way. Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing. We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.
But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in. The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene. Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out. (Do you believe me?) However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).
Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home. Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters. You need not enslave each other. The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin—the demons of continual letdown.
Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord. They demand to be heard. When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit. The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle. We will run like a gazelle. We will take the long walk and remain strong.
 George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.
 Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 21.
 סׇכַן, sakan
 Knight, 39.
 Knight, 39.