Sunday, August 16, 2009
Ralph D. West, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Senior Pastor, Brookhollow Baptist Church (The Church Without Walls), Houston, TX
Lection - Isaiah 40:12-26 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v.12) Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? (v.13) Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? (v.14) Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? (v.15) Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. (v.16) Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt-offering. (v.17) All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. (v.18) To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? (v.19) An idol? —A workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. (v.20) As a gift one chooses mulberry wood—wood that will not rot—then seeks out a skilled artisan to set up an image that will not topple. (v.21) Have 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? (v.22) It 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 like a tent to live in; (v.23) who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (v.24) Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (v.25) To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. (v.26) 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.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
The term “revival” implies that something was once alive but is now dead or dormant. To revive something or someone is to bring it or a person back to life. Many black pastors hold revival services to bring their congregations back to spiritual life, rejuvenating them with a renewed vision of God’s greatness and God’s mission in the world. Lively songs are sung and fiery sermons are preached—all for the purpose of reviving a people. Yet, revivals can have different foci. This year’s Revival I and II lectionary calendar moments are designed to revive our trust in God’s power and God’s mercy, respectively. This is a good opportunity for preachers to consider doing a series of sermons on the attributes of God beginning with power and mercy.
Often, power and mercy are not linked, but Isaiah shows us that in God these two traits meet and tell us a great deal about the nature of God. God does not domineer over us or abuse us, but God loves us and has mercy on us even when we are weak, especially when we are weak. We are weak, but God is strong enough to make us alive again, regardless of our human circumstances—this fact is at the heart of revival. Revival I explores the power of God and provides insight into the nature of God as a way of rooting revival in the ultimate source of revival, the God of power.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Isaiah 40:12-26
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
It seems that on earth where we find great power we do not often find great mercy and compassion. History has been replete with stories about individuals, who once they taste a little power, forget where they come from, forget about extending assistance to others, but rather use their power to dominate and destroy. They become tyrants, using their power for their benefit alone, to get what they want when they want. To find one who is powerful and merciful at the same time is rare. Down in the heart of every one of us is the seeking desire for one who possesses power and authority and yet will have mercy and compassion on us. We need someone who can care for our needs, wants, lack, and insufficiency.
This is what Isaiah tells us. The eighth century prophet Isaiah, looking forward toward difficult days for the tiny nation Judah-Israel, has a vision of a Lord who is simultaneously an all powerful King yet merciful and compassionate towards fainting, weak, needy, men and women, just like you and me. Isaiah first teaches us about God’s power.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Isaiah begins with a vision of the God of majesty who confronts us with his power. Isaiah asks a series of twelve questions which go off like dramatic bomb shells. These questions explode in our hearts and challenge us to understand the power of the God. His eyes looked up to the heavens above him and he asked, “Who has marked off the heavens with a span?” (v.12). God could measure the heavens with the span of his hand, between the tip of his thumb and his little finger. Then Isaiah looks down at the waters of the ocean and asks, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?” (v.12). Then he looks out at the mountains and says, “Who weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” just as a jeweler would measure tiny precious gems (v.12). But Isaiah does not stop there. He then looks at the nations of the earth as they marched by through the centuries and says, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket” like a drop of water hanging on the lip of a pail, compared to this God (v.15).
These questions and comments are meant to catch our attention, and indeed they do. They are meant to arrest us and cause us to ponder. Humanly speaking, the answer to these questions would be “no one,” because no one measures the heavens, no one holds the water in the hollow of their hand, no one is able to weigh the mountains, and to no one are the nations of the earth like a drop of water in a bucket. “No one” is the human answer. But Isaiah says there is One—the Lord, the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He measures the heavens and holds the waters in the hollow of his hand. God is incomparable and unmatchable. “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26). Isaiah uses these series of images to stagger us and to confront us with the power of almighty God.
1. God reveals his power in the magnitude of his measurements
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?” (v.12). That earth-bound prophet, Isaiah, could stand on the shore of Tel Aviv and look out a little ways to the ocean and could only wonder about one part of one ocean. We know some things that he never knew. We know that there are 66 ocean systems in the world. There is the mighty Pacific and great icy Atlantic. There is the Mediterranean and the Indian and the Black and the Caspian and the Arctic and the Antarctic and sixty others. When we think of the dimensions of the oceans, they are staggering. The Atlantic Ocean alone is 41 million square miles of water. The Pacific is 69 million square miles. All of the oceans in the earth are 329 million cubic miles of water at an average depth of 12,400 feet. And we can not even imagine a single cubit mile of water. Yet, Isaiah said that the God of majesty holds all of that in his hand like a woman would hold water in a cup in the hollow of her hand. Isaiah reveals a God for whom nothing is too big to handle. The God who holds the water of the sea in a cup in the hollow of his hand is the God who is more than sufficient to handle any of our problems in the black community. “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26).
Not only did Isaiah see this, but he envisioned the magnitude of God’s operations in the heavens, the cosmic universe. “He marked off the heavens with a span” of his divine hand (V.12). Isaiah sat there like all those other Hebrew prophets in the days before there was night time television, and after dinner, he looked up at those lantern-like fire flies against the vaulted heaven and wondered. But we know something that Isaiah could never imagine. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls this earth a vanishing planet with its 2600 mile circumference. If you could harness a beam of light and ride 186,000 miles a second, it would take you 100,000 years just to get across the Milky Way. If you started at the beginning of our recorded history, you would not even be 1/10th of the way across our galaxy. Yet we are one of a cluster of twenty such galaxies and one corner of the universe where astronomers have lost count of the millions of galaxies. But God measured it all with the span of his hand.
The industrialist Charles William Beebe was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt. They used to go to Roosevelt’s presidential retreat at Sagamore Hill in New York. After an evening of discussing the boundaries of knowledge, Beebe and Roosevelt would go out before they would retire for the evening and look up into the heavens and one of them would point to the galaxy of Pegasus and down in the far left corner they would see that faint glow. One of them would say to the other that is the spiral galaxy of Andromenon—it contains a billion stars brighter than our sun and there are millions of galaxies just like it. Then Teddy Roosevelt would look at Beebe and say, “Do you think that we are small enough? Why don’t we go in and go to bed.” This is not really the implication of what Isaiah was saying. He doesn’t look at the majesty and power of God and say, “Look how small I am.” Rather, he looks at it and says, “Look how great the God is who cares for me.” “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26).
Then Isaiah continued to imagine, “Who weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (v.12). Who is the God who can weigh the mountains of the earth like a jeweler weighs fine gem stones? We know things that Isaiah could never know. He never saw Mt. Everest at 29,029 feet. He never saw Mount Lenin at 24,000 feet or Mt. Rainier towering at 14,000 feet. Isaiah never imagined any of that. In fact, humanity, in our puny, mortal, finite nature, struggled until 1953 to stand on top of the world’s highest mountain. Yet, Isaiah says that God weighed the mountains as if the mountains were tiny pieces of gems. Isaiah paints a portrait of an awesomely powerful God. We may be weighed down with problems—problems at work, problems at home with the family, personal problems that seem to be bigger than any mountain. However, the word of Isaiah is that the God who is able to weigh the mountains is the same God who is sufficient to fix any human problem. “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26).
2. God reveals his power in the massiveness of his intelligence
Then Isaiah gazes beyond the magnitude of God’s ability to measure the world to the massiveness of God’s intelligence. In verse 13, Isaiah pondered the mind, wisdom, and intelligence of God. He asks, “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him?” (v.13). Isaiah actually uses the same word he uses in verse 12 (i.e. “measure”) thus one can translate this portion of verse 13 as saying “Who has measured the Spirit of God?” The God who measures all things cannot himself be measured. The God who weighs everything cannot himself be weighed. This is a powerful God. “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26).
Who is his counselor? Who can counsel God? Who gives advice to Jehovah? Isaiah says, “No one.” God has never asked for advice. Even in the days of the ministry of our Lord Jesus, he never asked anyone for advice. In Genesis 1, when God created the heaven and the earth, God did not seek the counsel of anyone or anything. Throughout the unfolding years, in the sustaining of the world, God is not asking for counsel and we may be sure that at the end of the earth when the constellations line up and stagger out of the sky like drunken men staggering out of a bar at dawn, and when the sky shall be rolled up like a scroll, God will not ask for counsel or advice from anyone for God possesses all intelligence.
Today, we measure greatness by how many counselors one has around him or her. If you’re the head of a corporation, you have advisors around you. If you’re the president of the United States, you have a host of counselors around you, advising you and directing you. If you are the pastor of a mega church you have a host of persons who surround you with words of counsel. You get a lot of advice. We measure human greatness by how much counsel one has around him. But divine greatness and power is measured by the fact that God does not need counselors or advisors, and James says if any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God who gives it to you (James 1:5). “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26).
3. God reveals his power in the mightiness of his sovereignty
Last but not least, in this text God’s power is demonstrated in the mightiness of his sovereignty. Isaiah says, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket” (v.15). They are like small dust. Isaiah writes these words to a tiny weak nation hardly larger than the state of Vermont. A nation that spent all of its history caught between the super powers—Syria in the north and east Egypt at the south and west. He brought this word to them about God. He said you can put together all of the nations of history in their greatness, but to God they’re like a speck of dust on the scales. They’re like a drop from a bucket. That’s a statement on which one must pause and ponder. Of the ancient monarchies in the Far East, thousands of years of them, Isaiah says, as God weighs things, they’re like dust. Think of the thirty dynasties of Ancient Egypt with the pyramids raising their heads up to heaven and with the greatness of the reign of the Pharaohs, and Isaiah says they are like a drop of water that hangs on the edge of a bucket about to fall in the sand and disappear.
God doesn’t get up and read the front page of the Houston Chronicle or the Wall Street Journal to determine whether or not he is still on his throne. We may read it and wonder what is going to happen in the world. We may listen to CNN, ABC, or NBC and wonder can the world stand? Isaiah says, “Stand”, because the affairs of the world don’t even tilt the balance. God is in control. God has the power. God looks at Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea and the United States, and simply says, “They’re like a piece of dust.” He looks at the unrest and inhumanity of the nations and says, “They’re like a drop of water on the lip of a bucket.” Nothing can compare to the power of God.
God is the God of majesty and power who reveals it in the magnitude of measurements, the massiveness of his intelligence, and the might of his sovereignty over the nations. Someone living in Houston, on Queenston Blvd., in Eldridge, or Bingle and Pinemont who has to get up in the morning and go back to the office, or back to school and face the daily grind, might wonder “What does all of that mean to me?” It means that their situation is not too big for God. That is the reason the prophet says what he says. God might be high, but God will stoop low. God is transcendent in his power but God is immanent and will use that power to help somebody. “He is great in strength, mighty in power” (v.26). God is available to humanity to do reviving work. God is a God of majesty and power but he is also a God of mercy (see Revival II).
What a mighty God we serve. His magnitude, massiveness, and mightiness cannot be matched. God is uncontainable. God is powerful and actually holds us in the palm of his hand! God is high, but he will stoop low. God is bigger than any of our problems. He is able. He is able just now. Revival would come if we could only trust his power just now.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sights: God’s hand; the waters in God’s hand; the heavens; the dust of the earth; the mountains and hills of the earth; water dropping from a bucket; the skilled artisan at work; God sitting above the earth and viewing us like grasshoppers;
Sounds: Water dropping from a bucket; the animals in Lebanon; God blowing on the rulers of the earth as they wither; God asking “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?”
Smells: The fuel of Lebanon; and
Textures: The smooth texture of water in God’s hand; the grimy dust of the earth; the smooth golden idol and prickliness of mulberry wood.
III. Sermonic Suggestions
- A possible sermon title could be “Power.”
- For further background thinking on the power of God read Migliore, Daniel L. The Power of God and the Gods of Power. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.