Dead Idols or the Living God Isaiah 44:6-23
In this section of the oracles the prophet contrasts the LORD’s ability to order history with the inability of false idols. The contrast exploits a description of idols and idol-makers in a parody on the folly of idolatry. How absurd to imagine that something we can make could actually deliver us from problems we could not free ourselves from! Surely those who serve idols are spiritually blind. While in this section we focus on the folly of idolatry, the passage is part of the wider section that affirms that the LORD is the only God.
There are three general sections here: the first part records the LORD’s claims of sovereignty on the basis of who He is and what He has done (6-8). The second part (9-20) is a lengthy parody on the foolishness of making idols because they are worthless. The oracle closes with a call for faith and praise in the living God who redeems us from our sins (21-23).
I. The LORD alone is the sovereign God (44:6-8).
A. The LORD declares His absolute sovereignty (6).
The passage begins with the claims of Yahweh for absolute authority as the one true God. As is typical of this section of the book, the prophet introduces Him with names and epithets: “Yahweh, the King of Israel, his Redeemer, Yahweh of Armies.” It would take some time to explain fully all these titles, but the exposition will at least have to capture the point of each one. The first one is “Yahweh,” the personal name of the covenant God.103 The second one, “the king of Israel,” stresses that the covenant is a theocracy.104 The third, “his Redeemer,” shows how the LORD delivered His people from sin and bondage.105 Each of these first three has been used by the prophet before; but the next one is new to these oracles—”Yahweh of Armies.” It is often translated “LORD of hosts.” It indicates that Yahweh has at His disposal all armies, terrestrial and celestial.106 It is a military term used by the prophets to announce forceful warnings of judgment or displays of God’s power. It means that God has the resources to carry out anything He desires or decrees.
So in a passage that will ridicule and mock idols and idol-makers, the prophet uses these to introduce Yahweh who will claim absolute sovereignty for Himself. But such a powerful lead-in is most effective.
Now Yahweh speaks to reveal Himself: “I am the first and I am the last, and beside Me there is no God.” This exclaims His exclusive sovereignty: He begins everything and He ends everything, He is the Creator and He will be the Judge. But He also is eternally present (if we take the merism of the expression as well), the eternal I AM. The New Testament will use similar motifs for our Lord Jesus Christ: “I am the alpha and the omega.” He is the beginning and the end, the full revelation, the final authority, the Living Word. Such expressions attest to His eternality as well as His sovereignty over everything. Elsewhere when Isaiah describes how the whole world was full of His glory, we would conclude that that indicates that He is the most important person in the universe; and when He is described as holy, that indicates that there is no one like Him (review Isa. 6). These passages harmonize theologically.
The text adds that besides Yahweh there is no god. This does not deny that people worshiped other gods, or that there were spiritual powers behind their idols. But it does deny that they are gods. There can be but one true God. Everything else is a created being. Every being has to be categorized, creator or created; and there is only one who is creator. No other religion in the ancient world held to such a dogmatic affirmation of exclusive monotheism. There was nothing inclusive about the true Yahwistic faith. The spirit of idolatry, whether in the ancient world or in modern Christendom (note I did not say in Christianity), is to rob God of His unique divinity and introduce rival gods into religion. But the Word of the LORD declares that they are not gods.
B. The LORD confirms His claims with prophecy (7).
In the form of a question Yahweh challenges the pagans to show what other god could predict the future. Here is proof of His exclusive right to divine majesty. The stronger the prediction, the more marvelous the power. God already affirmed in these passages that He predicted the Babylonian captivity as well as the return from exile, long before it happened.107 This, the prophet says, is proof that Yahweh is God, for prophecy is based on the sovereign control of history.
C. The LORD appeals for faith (8).
Yahweh’s appeal is for confidence based on the truth of His sovereignty: “Fear not, neither be afraid.” The repetition stresses the good news that they do not need to fear other gods or other people, for Yahweh is the only Rock. This word “Rock”is a common figure (hypocatastasis) for God;108 it signifies a solid foundation, strength, and security. The expression is couched in an ironic question and answer (almost tongue-in-cheek): “Is there a god beside me? No, there is no Rock; I know not any.” The parallel passage in Deuteronomy 32 is helpful here. That prophetic message tells of the Rock that formed Israel (v. 18), and how Israel forgot that Rock and went after other rocks that could not defend them (v. 30), for those rocks are not the Rock. (v. 31).
So all these solid affirmations about the LORD provide the backdrop for the next discussion—the folly of idolatry. How utterly foolish to try to make gods, when the sovereignty and divinity belongs to the one true God alone. And why would anyone want to replace Yahweh? Why would anyone think he could?
II. Idols are profitless and ridiculous (44:9-20).
A. Idols cannot profit their devotees (9).
The first part of the theme of the folly of idolatry is announced immediately: idols are profitless. The language used here to make the point is most significant, for it shows how idolatry reverses creation. In Genesis we read how God turned the chaos (“waste and void” [tohu wabohu109]) into His marvelous creation, culminating in His forming (<yatsar) human life as His image. When people cast idols they were forming gods as images of themselves, of mankind. This was the reverse of creation, for we are the image of God. So Isaiah says it is “vanity” (tohu, picking up the “waste and void” language of Genesis) and changes creation back into chaos.110 When people reverse the order of creation in their faith and worship there can be no profit, only shame (a metonymy of effect or adjunct for destruction).111
B. Idols are subject to human frailty (10-13).
How ridiculous to worship something made by people rather than a higher power! Those who “create gods” are merely mortals, and they make their images in the forms of “human beings”—after the beauty of mankind, to dwell in a house (v. 13). The absurdity of the entire process is thus underscored by these motifs. God is not a human, does not need a house, does not require food (see Ps. 50:7-14), and does not conform to the desires and limitations of mankind. To be the image of God means that we are His servants; to make God in our image means that He is our servant. Only shame can come from such a chaos, shame in the sense of devastation and ruin—certainly no salvation.
The exposition must capture the tone of the prophet here. He sees the absurdity of the idea of idols and draws it out in this polemic. It is ridiculous! It is laughable! But the humor of it all is tempered by the sad fact that people do worship idols.
C. Idolatry is bound to the creation (14-20).
With a poignant thrust the prophet now describes the lunacy of making an idol out of wood, from a tree that the idol maker could not create. The point is that idols and idol-makers can never rise above the status of being bound to, part of, or limited to the creation. God is above the creation; idols, even including Satanic spirits and powers behind them, are all part of God’s creation.112
The prophet marvels that when the pagan makes an idol, half of the tree is used as fuel to keep one warm, or to bake food (so common human needs like food and warmth are important to the issue), but the other half becomes a god to be worshiped—he bows down to a stump of wood and proclaiming it as a god prays to it for salvation. This, to the prophet, is the epitome of spiritual blindness (see Isa. 6 and 38 for that theme). It will be of no value at all; “they feed on ashes” (v. 20). Here is another hypocatastasis: worshiping an idol is to the soul what feeding on ashes would be to the body. There is no nourishment or satisfaction. I think he has used “ashes” because he just mentioned that they burn up half of the log in the fire. An idol made of wood, even though beautifully carved and decorated, is of no greater substance than the ashes it could become in a fire. And to worship such a “god” is disastrous, because God will destroy both the idol and those who worship it.
It is worth noting that those who make idols are also dependent on God’s creation for their raw materials. They can never be free from depending on Him. They did not create the tree, water it, and cause it to grow—God did all that. All the idol-maker can do is rob God of the material as well as the glory. One finds this spirit of idolatry alive and well in modern trends as well today. People take articles and institutions of the Christian faith, things that God has established and revealed, and then recast them into different theological molds that are of their own making. The idolater can never come up with his own creation; he is always depending on what God has done, but perverting it.
In tracing through this passage the expositor can certainly make much of the vivid descriptions that are here. But the exposition must not miss the point that is timeless in idolatry, no matter what form it comes in: what you can produce by your own intelligence and your own power is no more powerful than you yourself; and, if you yourself could not deliver yourself from your difficulty, how do you expect that something that you have produced will be able to do it? This point applies to primitive, pagan idolatry, or modern idolatry, where money, power, and position have become the gods, not to mention addictions of a number of sorts. Whatever it is upon which people depend for meaning in life, or to which people look to find security and safety in life, in the place of God—these are the essential ingredients of idolatry. But how foolish to think that something we have created will meet all those needs; how ridiculous to think that we can write our own religion and make our own gods.
The point that the Bible makes over and over again is that you and I need a God that is greater than we are—a God who created us.
III. Only Yahweh is the saving God: He is worthy to be praised for His forgiveness and redemption (44:21-23).
A. The LORD is faithful to His promise to redeem (21, 22).
We have in these verses a call for the people to repent for their indifference to their covenant God and to build their faith and their hope in Him. The call is couched in the expression, “Remember these things,” and is strengthened by the guarantee “you shall not be forgotten by me.” The word “remember is important to study because it comes up so frequently in theological texts. (For a start, you could check Brevard Childs’ little book on Memory and Tradition, in which he offers a brief word study.) The verb actually means more than a mental recollection; it describes a vivid activation of the promises (“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”). To remember the LORD is to activate the faith, to live according to the covenant promises, to turn to Him in contrition for forgiveness, to renew the pilgrimage that was interrupted by the folly of idolatry. They are to recall and realize all the truths in this revelation, but they are also to act on them. God made them, they did not make Him. God is the master, and they are the servants. And God can forgive and redeem. Conversely, while they are to remember, God affirms they will not be forgotten. This is another way of saying that God will remember them—He will honor His promises and act on them to bring fulfillment. Here is another dramatic contrast with idolatry—God acts to meet their spiritual needs without their writing the script for Him to do so.
The affirmation that they are servants is significant to the whole conflict with idolatry. The idea of “servant” in the ancient world is one of being owned by the Master, not merely employed but free, as servants may be today. Idolatry makes God the servant and humans the master.113 That must now be reversed.
In conjunction with the theme of “servant” is the twofold explanation for it: You are my servants because (1) I formed you and (2) I redeemed you. In contrast to the theme of making idols, God reminds them that He formed them (both personally and physically, as well as nationally and collectively). And then He repeats the point that they are to serve Him. It was a common idea in the ancient world in creation accounts that God created people to serve.
The second explanation is that God had forgiven them. The imagery of blotting out (hypocatastasis) as a thick cloud (simile) their transgression is powerful. It is as if the darkness was swept away and clear blue sky appeared. The idea may be an allusion to Exodus 19 and 24 when God cut the covenant. In chapter 19 the top of the mountain is covered with clouds and fire and lightening, scaring the people off; but in chapter 24 after the sacrifices are made to make the covenant, there is crystal clear blue sky—they were at peace with God. Here the LORD declares that He has forgiven them, and He has redeemed them. The imagery of thick dark clouds being swept away should not be passed over too quickly. One gets the idea that sin and guilt is depressing and burdensome like heavy clouds and gray skies, but forgiveness is like blue skies and bright sunshine. The people need only to avail themselves of His provision of forgiveness to have the “clouds” lifted, to return to Him with contrite hearts and renewed allegiance.114
B. The LORD is worthy of universal praise (23).
There is every reason to rejoice in the LORD, to sing and break into rejoicing, for the LORD has demonstrated His power over idols and idolaters by redeeming His people.
The primary reference in the idea of “redemption” in this passage is consistent with the context of Isaiah. It refers to the deliverance of the believing remnant from exile in Babylon. Of course, there would have been some who actually came to faith at that time, and so their redemption was both salvation (in the New Testament sense) as well as deliverance from bondage.
But this passage also adds the spiritual meaning of the deliverance: the “redemption” from exile also involved the forgiveness of sins. The prophet Zechariah would expand on this theme, showing that when God brought the people back from exile He also “cleaned them up” (Zech. 3) so that they might again be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Every saving act of God, every deliverance or redemption or healing, is in some way connected to divine forgiveness or spiritual cleansing. The forgiveness may be the basis of it, connected to it, or the result of it.
In this passage the prophet calls for creation as well as people to sing to God. The inclusion of the tree here is probably an allusion to the material used for the idol. All trees are part of God’s creation; when they flourish under His care and blessing, they sing praise to the Creator (personification). All creation will sing to the Creator (see Ps. 65).
So the prophet portrays the utter foolishness of making and worshiping an idol against the backdrop of the reality of the sovereign LORD God of the universe, the One who forgives our sins. The message would be vital for the Israelites in exile among the pagans and their gods; some might have been swayed into those beliefs, or perhaps led to doubt the sovereignty of God. This call for a renewed faith in the true LORD had as its practical outcome the imminent deliverance from exile.
The impact on the seventh century audience (following the early date and one Isaiah) would be even greater, for they clearly were into idolatry. By teaching how the nation was to be punished for idolatry before being redeemed out of exile, the prophet would be warning the nation to change so that judgment would be forestalled (as in the Book of Jonah). His ridiculing of idolatry would have had quite an impact.
From the very beginning of their existence through the exile idolatry was the great sin of Israel. They, like the pagan nations around them, wanted a god that they could control—one that they could see, that was like them. They did not want to be the only people on the earth to worship an invisible God.
But all that they were given was the revelation of the invisible God, the eternal Spirit. But this revelation was often made in terms that they could understand, in human language and human descriptions (anthropomorphisms). God was indeed revealing Himself to them in human forms and functions so that they could understand. But they did not understand; they assumed as with the pagans that these were literal descriptions, and so they made gods to fit.
In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son into the world to reveal the Godhead fully. Jesus had hands. Jesus had feet. Jesus had eyes, and ears, and a mouth—everything fully human. Wouldn’t you think that in the incarnation the human craving for a God in human form that people could identify with would be satisfied? Not so. They put a crown of thorns on that head. They whipped His body. They nailed those hands to the cross. And they drove the spike through those feet. They silenced those lips from speaking (so they thought). They thrust a spear into His side. They would have none of His claims or His demands.
Demands. There is the issue. Jesus had demanded that they conform to His will, that they find forgiveness for sins in Him, that they be His servants and learn of Him. This they would not do, for the essence of idolatry would not allow it. Idolaters seek to control the deity, not be controlled. And how did Jesus describe their unbelief and rejection of Him? “But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, calling to their playmates, and saying, `We piped for you, and you have not danced; we have mourned to you, and you have not lamented’.” (Mt. 11:16,17). If Christ is the sovereign God of creation, the great I AM, the Mighty King, and the Redeemer, then people must find salvation in Him. For them to imagine that salvation is possible in anything other than Him is utter folly.
And we who claim to believe in Jesus must strive continually to conform to Him as His servants, renewing our commitment in faith, worshiping Him with great rejoicing, and testifying to a pagan world that Jesus is Lord. And we must guard against the spirit of idolatry creeping into our faith, as John’s last words warned: “keep yourself from idols.” We must not think that anything we can produce, whether a good work, or a job, or an institution, or an empire, can produce spiritual security or meet our spiritual needs, or see us through the difficult times of life. No, we need someone who is above us to deliver us from the troubles we find ourselves in, that we have brought upon ourselves and cannot solve. It is the LORD alone who can deliver. It is this way because He is God; and it must be this way so that He, and He alone is, may be offered endless praise.
Gelston, A. “Some Notes on Second Isaiah: (b) Isaiah 44:15-16.” VT 21 (1971):521.
Thomas, D. Winton. “Isaiah 44:9-20: A Translation and Commentary. Hommages a Andre Dupont-Sommer. 1971. Pp. 319-330.
Whitley, C. F. “Further Notes on the Text of Deutero-Isaiah.” VT 25 (1975):683-687.
103 The personal name of Yahweh was first explained to Moses with ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh, “I Am that I Am.” It was associated with the Sinaitic covenant: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” But the name stresses the close, personal relationship that God has with His people. Here it is used to remind them of their covenant relationship.
104 The Sinaitic Code, especially as renewed in Deuteronomy, was structured after the Hittite suzerain treaties in order to underscore the fact that Yahweh is Israel’s great king—he claims all their allegiance (see Meredith Kline, The Treaty of the Great King).
105 The idea of ga’al, “to redeem,” has been treated before; here it should be reiterated that this redemption is part of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness for His own people—it is a family responsibility.
106 One is reminded of what the Angel did to the Assyrian army of Sennacherib; but one is also reminded how the LORD can use the Babylonians to accomplish His judgment.
107 If this section of the book is history written after the fact, then one of the prophet’s main arguments for Yahweh’s sovereignty and reliability—God’s ability to predict the future long in advance—evaporates, and with it God’s sovereignty and reliability.
108 Some versions have surprisingly replaced “Rock” with “God.”
109 The Hebrew catch-phrase (a paronomasia) of tohu wabohu means “waste and void,” or more specifically without form or structure and without substance. In general, “waste” fits if it can be defined (perhaps like our expressions “wasteland”).
110 Recall how Paul in Romans 1:18-31 explains that they refused to worship the Creator but instead worshiped the creatures. So God gave them up to their evil desires to self-destruct.
111 This is not the place to develop the point, but an interesting study can be made of the value of creation as a paradigm for worship unfold, both in the nature of God, approaching God, and the construction of the tabernacle.
112 It is this that gives Genesis 1 its polemical nature. The Law said, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Genesis 1 traces through creation. And everything the pagans worship is part of God’s creation, whether angelic powers like Satan, or animals, or trees, or forces of nature. God is before all of them, because He made them. Idolatry can never free itself of the charge of worshiping the creation and not the creator.
113 See the excellent discussion in George E. Wright’s Israel Against Its Environment, in which he discusses astrology, voodoo, burning in effigy, spiritism, and magic.
114 The translation with the present perfect tenses is certainly workable. He could be saying I have forgiven and redeemed (as in chapter 40 where He said your sins have been paid for). They would still have to take advantage of the provision for it to be effectual. But it is also possible to take these as prophetic perfects—I will blot out, I will forgive, I will redeem—so return to me, repent.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)