Isaiah Study: God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable

Last week, I started studying Isaiah 40-66. These are the last 27 chapters of the book, and they record an extended dialog where God speaks candidly about His feelings, desires, and plans. In this passage, He revealed His plans for ancient Israel’s immediate future at the time, for the Messiah’s coming (included the four famous Servant Song passages), and for events that are still in the future for those of us reading Isaiah today.

If you go back and read last week’s post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes that I want to study more extensively in this section of scripture. The list included (among other things) God’s defense of His reputation and His power to achieve all He’s promised. Another related point is that God is incomparable and sovereign, so trying to replacing Him with idol worship is foolish.

God shows so much emotion in this section of scripture, and much of it is related to the topic of who He is and how people ought to relate to Him. He’s angry and heartbroken when His people turn away, cutting off contact with Him. He’s confused by Israel’s forgetfulness about all He’s done in the past. He wants them to see Him for who He is and give up their foolish attachment to gods made from wood and stone. Though some of the specific wording is closely connected to Israel of Isaiah’s day, the passages also hold meaning for us today. The specifics of our struggles might be different but we’re not immune from developing an inaccurate view of the Lord.

Mi Chamocha

After God parted the Red Sea in Exodus, Moses and Miriam led the people in a song of joy that includes these words: “Who is like you, Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11, WEB). In Hebrew, “who is like you?” is mi chamocha (which is where we get the names Michael and Michelle). You can hear parts of this Hebrew prayer in The Prince of Egypt’s soundtrack (click here for lyrics with a translation; click here for the song).

As I read through Isaiah 40-66, the phrase mi chamocha kept coming to mind. In the Exodus song, the question, “Who is like you, Lord?” is a rhetorical one. The answer should be obvious when we look at His creation and marvelous miracles, such as rescuing Israel from Egypt–there’s no one who can compare to the Lord. Many years later, though, the descendants of those people who once sang mi chamocha aren’t so sure of the answer. And so God asks a series of questions near the beginning of the passage we’re studying in Isaiah.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and marked off the sky with his span,
and calculated the dust of the earth in a measuring basket,
and weighed the mountains in scales,
and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed Yahweh’s Spirit,
or has taught him as his counselor? …

To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare to him? …

“To whom then will you liken me?
Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

Isaiah 40:12-13, 18, 25, WEB

Isaiah’s readers–past and present–need this reminder. In our modern world, it’s easy to forget how awe-inspiring God is. We’re jaded, tired, and distracted; often out-of-touch with the marvels of God’s creation and forgetful of His wonderful works. We need reminders of our insignificance and God’s mighty power (Is. 41:14-20). Yet like Isiah’s first audience, we’ve already witnessed God’s goodness. Now we need to remember it and worship Him accordingly, recognizing that there is no other god (Is. 43:10-13; 44:6-8; 46:5-11; 63:7-14; 64:4).

Image of a woman worshiping with her arms raised and a quote from Isaiah 42:8, WEB version: “I am Yahweh. That is my name. I will not give my glory to another, nor my praise to engraved images.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

Foolish Idolatry

When we turn away from God and put something else in His place, we’re guilty of idolatry. In ancient Israel’s case, this often took the form of literally worshiping other gods. My guess is that most of you reading this today aren’t tempted to carve a block of wood into a shape and bow down to it. Our idolatry temptations are more subtle. They’re still there, though, and it’s still important to be careful of them. The Apostle John makes this clear with the final admonition of his first letter: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5: 21).

God’s feelings about idolatry take up huge parts of Isaiah 40-66. He keeps coming back to this topic. He seems genuinely puzzled by how a people to whom He’s revealed Himself and who’ve seen Him work wonders could turn from Him and bow down to images they made themselves. It’s simply absurd.

Everyone who makes a carved image is vain.
The things that they delight in will not profit.
Their own witnesses don’t see, nor know, that they may be disappointed. …

No one thinks,
neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say,
“I have burned part of it in the fire.
Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals.
I have roasted meat and eaten it.
Shall I make the rest of it into an abomination?
Shall I bow down to a tree trunk?”

Isaiah 44:9, 19, WEB

God is a logical, rational being and He gave humans the ability to think that way, too. Sometimes, though, understanding is clouded to the point that people can’t even figure out that the same wood they cook their food over doesn’t turn into a god just because someone carved it into a shape.

Over and over God and Isaiah come back to the topic of idolatry, challenging their readers to think about what they’re doing (Is. 44:9-20; 46:5-7; 57:3-11). If people really realized who and what God is, they’d know they could never replace Him. As such, proving who He is and that He’s the one responsible for what happens to His people is a key part of God’s purpose in this section of scripture. He even says one of the main reasons for prophecy is to disprove idols.

I have declared the former things from of old.
    Yes, they went out of my mouth, and I revealed them.
    I did them suddenly, and they happened.
Because I knew that you are obstinate,
    and your neck is an iron sinew,
    and your brow bronze;
therefore I have declared it to you from of old;
    before it came to pass I showed it to you;
    lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them.
    My engraved image and my molten image has commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:3-5, WEB

God is all-powerful. He created everything that exists and He determines the shape of the future. We can rest assured that, just as He accomplished His purposes in the past, so He will bring His future plans to pass as well. And if we ever start losing sight of Who God is and wondering if He has the power to follow-through on all the things He’s promised, we can come back to passages like Isaiah 40-66 for reassurance and reminders (Is. 41:20; 45:7; 46:9-10; 55:8-17; 59:1).

Image of a man praying while studying and a quote from Isaiah 49:23, 26, WEB version: “Then you will know that I am Yahweh; and those who wait for me shall not be disappointed.” ... “Then all flesh shall know that I, Yahweh, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Image by WhoisliketheLord Studio from Lightstock

God is Incomparable and Sovereign

Have you ever noticed how much the Bible talks about names? That’s because names in Hebrew culture are connected to a person’s reputation. In an Eastern society, like the one where the people in the Bible lived, family connections, honor, and reputation are extremely important (for more on this topic, see Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien and Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg).

God uses this cultural trait to emphasize how much He cares about the way people perceive Him. It is vitally important to Him that we remember who He is and realize that nothing and no one can compare to Him. Notice these words in part of God’s commission to Cyrus that’s recorded in these final chapters of Isaiah:

I am Yahweh, and there is no one else.
Besides me, there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not known me,
that they may know from the rising of the sun,
and from the west,
that there is no one besides me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no one else.
I form the light
and create darkness.
I make peace
and create calamity.
I am Yahweh,
who does all these things.

Isaiah 45:5-7, WEB
Image of a smiling woman worshipping with the blog's title text and the words "God’s reputation in our eyes affects our relationship with Him. The more we accurately we see Him, the more properly we relate to and respect Him. "
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

What people think of God doesn’t change who He is; He is the sovereign Lord and creator of all things whether humans believe it or not. Still, He cares about how people–especially His people–view Him. He puts His name on us and tells us not to misuse that Name (Ex. 20:7; Num. 6:27). His reputation in our eyes affects our relationship with Him; the more accurately we see Him, the more properly we relate to Him.

“Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel my called:
I am he.
I am the first.
I am also the last.
Yes, my hand has laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand has spread out the heavens.
when I call to them, they stand up together.

Isaiah 48:12-13, WEB

The world is full of distracting and worrisome things. That’s true for us today just as it was true in Isaiah’s day. We battle things that vie for our attention and hearts, offering to fill our time with comforting distractions rather than what really matters. We also hear and see constant reminders that the world is violent, unstable, and full of threats to our security and way of life.

God’s word cuts through that whole thick pile of distractions and worries like a sharp blade. How could we spend time in useless distractions when the Creator of the universe wants to speak to our hearts? How could we waste our time worrying about “what ifs” when the all-powerful Lord says He will deliver and preserve us?

God is incomparable and irreplaceable. Who is like the Lord? Only He Himself. There’s no one who can compare and nothing which can replace Him. We need to remember that. It will help keep our hearts in the right place and our eyes on the goal of eternal life with the Lord.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

The Purpose of Your Redemption

Often when we bring up redemption, we talk about how Jesus redeemed us and why He needed to. We’re sinners–people who’ve broken God’s laws and in doing so earned a death penalty. Jesus shifted that penalty onto Himself. When we accept His sacrifice for our sins, the burden of that sin and the associated death penalty is lifted away so we can live forever with Him.

As incredible as all that is, there’s more to redemption than simply saving us from our sins. God has a purpose for us after we’re redeemed. There’s something He wants us to do and someone He intends for us to become. I find this an exciting thought. God doesn’t start a wonderful work in our lives and then just let us sit there wondering, “Now what?” He gives us a purpose and a goal as well as a dynamic relationship with Him.

Leaving Egypt To Serve God

The way that God delivered ancient Israel from Egypt is a type of how He delivers us from sin. There are so many parallels between the Passover story and the crucifixion story that we don’t have time to go into them all now. In summary, they’re both stories of God’s incredible redemption of a chosen people for a specific purpose. In Exodus, the Lord gives Moses a purpose that he’s supposed to share with Pharaoh for why God wants to take Israel out of Egypt.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has said, “Release my people that they may serve me!

Exodus 9:13, NET

God sets up a contrast here. “The Egyptians ruthlessly made the children of Israel serve” as slaves (Ex. 1:13, WEB), and now God commands them to free His people so they may serve Him instead. This command is repeated over and over early in Exodus as Moses and Pharaoh go back and forth on whether Egypt will obey God’s demand to let Israel go.

The Hebrew word translated “serve” is abad (H5647). It’s used 290 times in the Old Testament. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament connects it with two root words that mean “to do or make” and “to worship, obey” (entry 1553). It’s used both of forced labor for an oppressive master and for joyful service given to God. Abad is also the word used for the type of service the Levites performed in God’s tabernacle and temple. As such, when used of serving God, it involves worship and obedience in our actions. We might say, then, that the reason God redeemed His people is so that they could serve Him as joyful worshipers doing actions that glorified Him.

Image of a woman with her hands raised in worship, with text from Exodus 1-0: 3 and 9, WEB version: "Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and said to him, “This is what Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me. ... “We will go with our young and with our old. We will go with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds; for we must hold a feast to Yahweh.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

“So That”

There’s a simple phrase that Paul uses in Romans and 2 Corinthians to indicate God redeemed us for a purpose. Jesus died for us and we are crucified alongside him “so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” and “so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter” ((Rom. 6:6, NET and Rom. 7:6, WEB; emphasis added).

Now that we’ve been redeemed, we’re to serve God and be reconciled to Him because “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20-21, NET, emphasis added). In these passages, Paul draws our attention to the purpose for redemption. God accomplishes our salvation so that something can happen next. Peter uses this type of language as well.

you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:5, 9-10, NET

Like ancient Israel (whom Peter references by quoting Hosea), we are called and chosen for a specific purpose. It is “so that” we can proclaim God’s virtues and “offer spiritual sacrifices.” In other words, we’re redeemed so we can serve God, just as the children of Israel were in Exodus.

Next Steps in Light

Image of a man walking in the woods reading a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "God didn't start a wonderful work in our lives just to leave us wondering, "Now what?" He gives us a purpose and a goal."
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

So far, we’ve seen the purpose God has for us after redemption described a few different ways. We’re to serve God in the spirit. We’re to become righteous like God. We’re to proclaim His virtues and goodness. Putting it all together, we could sum up our purpose as sincere, obedient worship that results in righteous action.

The book of Hebrews dives deep into this idea. It lays out Jesus’s relationship to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin, explaining how He fulfills them all by offering Himself once as a final, perfectly effective sacrifice. It also describes what we should do next after receiving redemption.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

Hebrews 9:13-14, NET

So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe.

Hebrews 12:28, NET

Look at the wording here. Jesus died for us and purified us so we can “worship the living God.” Then, because we realize that God is offering us incredible gifts, including a place in His kingdom, we should “offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe.” These verses also echo other passages that talk about the importance of worshiping God in the spirit (John 4:23-24; Phil. 3:2-3).

As redeemed people, we walk with God in a new, spiritual life. His goal in redeeming us is to make us fully part of His family. Along with that position as family members in covenant with God comes a purpose for us to accomplish. We have a role now; a way that we’re supposed to live. We ought to serve God in the spirit of the law, modeling His righteousness and worshiping Him joyfully. After all, when we consider the gift of redemption, it’s clear that we have much to be joyful about.

Featured image by Pearl from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave

Learning From Others’ Spiritual Temperaments: Book Review of “Sacred Pathways” by Gary Thomas

A couple weeks ago, in an article titled “Psychology Isn’t Enough, but It Sure Helps: The Need for Personal, Spiritual Growth in Christianity” I talked about a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path To God. I originally read it back in 2017 and I’d planned to write about it here on the blog but for some reason (which I don’t remember now) I never got around to it. So I reread it, and now I’d like to share some thoughts.

Book Overview

Thomas proposes nine “sacred pathways” — spiritual temperaments that describe how we’re most inclined to worship God. In the first chapter, he discusses that in the Christian churches we often expect everyone to worship God the same way. The example he uses is the “quiet time” that became a staple of church training and discipleship programs in the 1970s and ’80s. It involved spending 30 to 60 minutes each morning in prayer, personal worship, and Bible study, then having an accountability partner to check-in that you were keeping up with your routine. Prayer, worship, and study are all good things, but it’s not good if we reduce worship to “rote exercise” or assume everyone has to worship in the exact same way all the time (p. 14-15).

I’ve heard the idea that everyone else should worship “our way” voiced more or less directly by a variety of people in churches I’ve attended. Some think churches that don’t encourage dance are not worshiping Biblically; others worry about the people who aren’t committed enough to follow their example of reading the Bible through every year. I’ve voiced my own frustration with song services that have all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge, saying we need more life in our worship to make it meaningful. Complaining about those who don’t  worship the way we think they ought is a common thing. But perhaps it betrays a wrong attitude. Read more

Am I Blending My Worship of God With Things That Don’t Honor Him?

Does God care how we worship Him? Some Christians today say (or act) as if He does not. Too many people today ignore parts of the Bible, try to over-rule God’s laws, and adopt extra-Biblical practices in worship. And they really don’t think He’ll mind.

The problem is, God actually does care how you worship Him. If you’re not following Him the way He says to, then you’re not really following Him at all. He is “a jealous God” and He does not accept half-hearted or divided affection. You can’t honor Him by worshiping in ways He does not approve or if you’re also trying to worship something else. It’s not good for us to have divided loyalties or identities. We need to find wholeness in seeking our Lord the way He desires us to seek Him.

Really Get To Know God

Paul tells us that all the things which happened to ancient Israel “were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11, WEB). One place where the story of Israel is recorded is the book of Hosea. God used Hosea to warn Israel what would happen to them if they continued to break covenant with Him by blending pagan religions with their worship of the One True God, or “Yahweh” to use His proper name (Ex. 3:14-15). Unfortunately, it’s a message that’s relevant for churches today.

I’m not saying all churches, and certainly not every Christian, is deliberately blending other religions with their faith. But I do think it’s something we should be aware of, and on-guard to avoid. We need to make sure we’re not ignoring parts of His inspired word, rejecting His law, or blending pagan religious practices with our worship. Read more

Hands of Praise

How do you use your hands to praise God? Maybe you lift your hands in worship, or use them to minister to God’s people. Or maybe you haven’t really thought about there being a connection between hands and praise, so this seems like an odd question.

Idioms involving hands abound in the Hebrew language. Being in someone’s hands is to be in their power. Putting one’s hand to something means you’re working on it. Raising your hand against someone is rebellion. Open hands express giving, and closed hands withholding, something.

Hands were lifted when making an oath to God, as Abraham did (Gen. 14:22-23). God lifts His hand when He delivers His people (Ps. 10:12). Priests stretch their hands out when they bless the people and people lift their hands when they bless God (Lev. 9:22; Neh. 8:6). Hands, and specifically lifted hands, can mean different things depending on the context.

Last week, we talked about the Hebrew word yadah (H3034), which means to confess or acknowledge as well as to praise and thank. There’s one other meaning we didn’t touch on, though. Yadah also means to throw or cast (Zodhiates’ dictionary). It’s connected with the Hebrew word for hand, yad (H3027), and as such yadah is considered the Hebrew word which “means to worship with extended hands” (see “8 Hebrew Words for ‘Praise’ Every Christian Needs to Know”).

We can think of yadah as a type of praise we “throw” to God with lifted hands as we declare how wonderful He is and confess that we follow Him. Today, we’re going to look at the ways we petition, pray to, and praise God with our hands. Read more

Lessons From The Dance

Due to wisdom tooth surgery on Thursday I’m not dancing this morning (it all went very well, praise God and thanks to a good dentist, but I’ve been advised not to risk dislodging the blood clot that’s helping it heal by any sort of vigorous exercise so soon after surgery). But I was very tempted to risk it and I’m still wishing I could have danced. (Update: 1 hour after this posted, I showed up at church and they’d changed to slower songs so I did get to dance. Hallelujah!)

For those who that last paragraph left a bit confused, I’m referring to what’s known as Davidic or Messianic dance. It’s easier to show a video than to try to describe it in words. Here’s my dance team (several years before I met them) dancing to one of our very favorite songs:

I joined a Messianic dance team early in 2015. My first introduction to the dance was about a year before that, when a dancer shared some basic lessons at a Feast of Unleavened Bread event in Michigan. I absolutely loved it, and I picked up the dances so quickly my mentors say that God has given me a gift for the dance (there’s really no other way to explain why I’m good at it — normally I’m rather clumsy).

Dancing at church, especially to open the service, seems a bit odd to many Christian denominations. But there is Biblical precedent for dance as part of worship and I’ve found the inclusion of dance (and especially being involved in the dance) is a blessing I hadn’t expected. And it has taught me some valuable lessons about dancing in unity with God on a spiritual level.

Basics First

When you’re first learning to dance, you have to start with the basic steps. We don’t just expect new students to know how to do the Hallelu dance. First, we teach them how to do the mayim, tcherkessia, coupe, and 3-point turn that make up the Hallelu step combination. As they learn the basic steps, we start putting the steps together into patterns to match the different songs. And we keep going over and over those basic steps for the first couple months after new dancers join because they’re the basis for every dance we do.

It’s much the same when we first begin our Christian journey. We start out learning about the foundations of repentance and faith. We learn that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then we learn how to apply those truths in every day situations.

As we grow, God deepens our understanding and adds more foundational principles like “the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:1-3). Then we learn more about His expectations for those following Him, what grace truly means, how He wants us to view His commandments, and practical ways to follow Jesus with every step we take. But it all starts with the basics.

Listen To The Music

Even if you know the basic dance steps, they’re not worth much until you set them to music. Music is so much a part of the dance that our dance leader often has trouble recollecting the steps of a dance when she’s trying to walk through and teach them slowly without music. As soon as the music plays, though, it all comes back to her.

You can’t dance without listening to the music. A waltz calls for different steps than a tune in 4/4 time. In some songs, you need to wait for pauses in the music. For others, you have to be thinking two steps ahead because the music moves so fast. Often, listening to the lyrics tells you which part of the dance you’re supposed to be doing in multi-part dances.

In the same way, we have to “tune” our Christian walks to the song God plays through His scriptures. While the Bible doesn’t use the dancing analogy much, it does talk about Jesus coming “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78) and of God directing the steps of good men (Psalm 37:23, 31; 119:133). We have to study His words so we know the right steps and we need to listen for the guiding of His spirit for how to apply what we learn.

Dance Together

Davidic dance isn’t a solo endeavor. We dance in circles of unity. Every dancer is responsible for knowing the steps to a given dance and how to follow the music. But there are some songs that just don’t stick in your mind as well and there are times (even when you’re no longer a beginner) that you just can’t remember what comes next.

If you can’t remember a step, you can follow one of the other dancers. You’re already watching them to keep in unity, and you know you can count on them for reminders. In turn, they should know they can count on you to know what you’re doing for when they can’t remember a step. We help keep each other on track.

Walking as Christians is made easier by fellowship with other believers. While God will certainly work with people who are isolated from other Christians, His intention is for the body of believers to come together and grow as we build each other up and learn to use our gifts (1 Cor. 12:1-31). We’re on this walk of faith together and we have the opportunity to help each other find the right steps to stay in unity with God.

Lessons From The Dance |
photo credit: “Messianic Dance Troup” by Larry Jacobsen, CC BY via Flickr