The time of the prophet Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, was a similar period of turmoil and change in the Near East just as the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered our world today. The people of God had a choice to make between the multitudes of tangible but false gods of the neighbouring states and the unseen but Almighty God of their forebears. We face a similar choice in a similar dispensation. Who/What will we trust in for salvation?
What a time to be alive! Our ‘Titanic’ has hit an iceberg. The worst pandemic in 100 years! Over half a million infected with COVID-19 in 199 countries and territories; over 25,000 dead. Nations are in lockdown; economies are heading into recession; healthcare systems are bursting at the seams… everything that can be shaken is being shaken!
The time of the prophet Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, was a similar period of turmoil and change in the Near East (Coogan 2016, 253). It wasn’t a viral microorganism stirring up the turmoil; it was a viral kingdom called Assyria! As Coogan puts it, “As the Assyrians moved toward Egypt in their ambition to control the entire Near East, the northern kingdom of Israel, like many other states in the region, was absorbed into the Assyrian empire, and the independence of the southern kingdom of Judah was curtailed severely” (253).
The other thing was that the Near East was rife with idols! Literally thousands of idols have been uncovered by archaeologists throughout the area. And Israel was constantly tempted to put their trust in these tangible but false gods rather than the unseen yet Almighty One. This is the context of the prophet Isaiah.
In the last couple of weeks my church family in Montreal, Westview Bible Church, began a series on “Selections from the Book of Isaiah” under the broad theme “The Glory of God and the Restoration of all things.” Today we continue that, and for the next few weeks… The book of Isaiah’s overall theme receives its clearest purpose statement in chapter 12: “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). This echoes the meaning of Isaiah’s name, which means the “Yahweh is salvation.”
Today’s message, PLAYING GOD, samples a number of passages in the Second of three parts of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, particularly chapters 40, 42, 44 and 45. My aim is to force us to take a closer look at our tumultuous world today (just like in Isaiah’s day), to see how everything that can be shaken is shaking right now. And to ask ourselves a piercing question: What shakey created thing are we putting ahead of, or even in place of, an unshakeable uncreated God? Who or what has been playing God in your life? How are they doing right now? Isaiah 42:6-22 will be our anchor text; but we’ll go back and forth in the Isaiah 40’s. Let’s go!
Playing God. There’s a sense in which we play God because we are made in His image and likeness and have the power to create, both hard ‘stuff’ and soft stuff like ideologies. But as Andy Crouch puts it so well, “Idolatry is the biblical name for the human capacity for creative power run amok” (Crouch 2013, 55). We then create stuff that now want to play God in our lives. We make idols and then they shape us!
We’ll examining this message in four parts (4C’s):
- Characterization | characterization of idolatry (Isaiah 44:1,2, 6-7, 9)
- Claims | claims of the gods (Isaiah 44:1,2, 6-17)
- Consequences | consequences of idolatry (Isaiah 44:10, 11, 18-20)
- Call, your call. (Isaiah 44:19-22)
1. CHARACTERIZATION | of Idolatry (44:1, 2, 6-7, 9)
Right from the beginning of Second Isaiah onwards (chapter 40 forwards) there is a series of verses targeting idols and idolatry, especially chapters 40 to 48. Introduction is right there in chapter 40:18
18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? 19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. 20 A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.
Images in the ancient Near East were either cast (i.e. metal) or carved (out of wood). An idol is a cultural construct, hard or soft, that we treasure and that embodies a false claim about our ultimate source, sustenance and sense of identity and meaning. “The word ultimate is crucial …” (Crouch) because various things are our source( eg. the sun for light) and sustain us (eg. economy or science) and give a sense of meaning (like family) but none of them should ever be considered ULTIMATE! Then they become a god; a false god.
It is reported that someone said of the Titanic: “Even God cannot sink this ship!” That is the problem with idolatry. Crouch says Crouch, “an idol is a special kind of human creation, one that is not just mistaken in a superficial way. Rather, it advances a claim about the ultimate nature of reality that is ultimately mistaken. And since the Creator God is the ultimate meaning of the world, an idol is a representation of a false god. Implicitly or explicitly, all idols represent a challenge and counterclaim to the identity and character of the true Creator God.”
First of all, who are the PLAYERS in this ‘game of thrones’:
- Yahweh: “Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty” (vs. 6)
- If you back track to the beginning of the chapter (vs. 2), “This is what the LORD says…”
- Yahweh’s people: they are the ones he’s mainly speaking to in this passage
- Backtrack to beginning of chapter (vs. 1): “But now listen, Jacob, my servant, Israel,
- Repeats “Jacob, my servant” in the last part of verse 2 and adds a nickname for them “Jeshurun.” This was “an endearing name for Israel—see Deut 32:15; 33:5, 26” (Walton et al 2000, 628).
- Verse 7 talks about “what has happened since I established my ancient people“
- In vs. 8b, “you are my witnesses“
- Idol makers/Craftsmen: “All who make idols…” (vs. 9a)
- Idols: “…and the things they treasure…” (vs. 9b)
2. CLAIMS | of the gods (44:1, 2, 6-17)
GAME ON!!! Idols’ claim versus Yahweh’s claim. Both Yahweh and idols want to claim us; but only God is able to articulate and justify his claim in the Scripture! In fact, an idol can make no claim, except what we’ve attributed to it. God wants to play His role as God in our lives; but idols also want to play God. I’ll just compare the claims in terms of CHOICE, CREATION, CLASS, CONFESSION of these four players.
A. Choice | The One Who Has First Choice alone is worthy of first place!
- YAHWEH: He chooses first because he comes before all things!
- “But now listen, Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.” (vs. 1)
- “Do not be afraid Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (vs. 2)
- PEOPLE & IDOL MAKERS: They go choose a what deity, design and material in nature.
- “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.” (Is. 40:20)
- IDOL: Cannot choose anything or anyone.
B. Creation | The One Who Creates alone is worthy of worship!
- YAHWEH: “This is what the Lord says—he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you…” (vs.2). “I have made you, you are my servant” (vs. 21) 18 For this is what the Lord says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited…” (Isaiah 45:18)
- PEOPLE & IDOL MAKERS: “Who shapes a god and casts an idol,which can profit nothing?” (vs.10) “People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings.” (v.11)
- 12The blacksmith takes a tooland works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. 13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. 14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. (vs. 12-15)
- IDOL: Is created/shaped! “Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing?” (vs. 10)
C. Class | God is in a class of His own; all by Himself. He is worthy of our exaltation.
- YAHWEH: “This is what the Lordsays—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one” (vs. 6) In Isaiah 45: 18 God says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
- PEOPLE: “Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame” (vs. 9c).
- IDOL MAKERS: “All who make idols are nothing…” (vs. 9a)
- IDOLS: “…and the things they treasure are worthless.” (vs. 9b)
- 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says,“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!” (vs. 16-17)
D. Confession | The One Who Can Speak for Himself (not spoken for) is to be heeded.
- YAHWEH: Who then is like me? Let him proclaim Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened [past] since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let them foretell what will come [future].” (vs. 7) “Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses.” (vs. 8) “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness;I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right.” (Isaiah 45:19)
- PEOPLE: Nothing to say.
- IDOL MAKERS: Nothing to say.
- IDOLS: Say nothing. They do not because they cannot.
3. CONSEQUENCES | of Idolatry (44:10, 11, 18-20)
When it comes to idolatry, it’s a lost game. Heads, you lose; tails you lose.
- A. Lose Time & Money: Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? (vs. 10)
- B. Lose Honour/Face: “People who do that will be put to shame; … Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to … shame“ (vs. 11). But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame. (Isaiah 42:17) “All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting.” (Isaiah 45:16-17)
- Nana Bea story of idol in rain; beaten to pulp
- C. Lose Calm: “… they will be brought down to terror ….” (vs.11). Terror.
- D. Lose Sense/Smartness:“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see… No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:18-20)
- We’re not even able to record at church anymore, hence this message is from my home office—which incidentally used to be a shrine for a number of idols. When we came to see this home in Pierrefonds to purchase it a little over seven years ago, this room was full of idols! Think about it, the former occupants of this house had to pack up what they worship in boxes and send them to their next house. How can something you can pack up and carry, carry you?! We lose our smarts!
- E. Lose Self (GOD IMAGE): BECOME LIKE THEM! Blind, deaf, dumb; heartless… “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8). You become who/what you worship.
Bottomline, you loose all. I like how Andy Crouch puts it: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands, which initially seem so reasonable, for worship and sacrifice. In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. …idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing” (56).
4. CALL | your call (44:19-22)
Today, God is calling us to Reflect, Remember, Repent and Return.
A. REFLECT (stop to think): “No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” 20 Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (vs. 19-20)
- Reflect (take stock) of what you A-D-O-R-E
- Who/What you ADORE –> affections
- gods out of celebrities (catching the virus); Sports (NBA has ceased; Olympics postponed)
- Who/What you DEPEND ON –> addictions
- gods out of our sexuality; gods out of science & technology; AI’s coming!
- Who/What you OBEY –> directions
- gods out of our autonomy, our intellect! Our appetites. “The god is their stomach”
- Who/What you spend significant RESOURCES on –> investments of time and money.
- gods out of business; our economies; our healthcare system
- Who/What you Elevate –> promotions
- gods out of human rights—“We’ve elevated our rights above the one who makes us righteous” (Ron Kenoly).
- All these things, are good servants but terrible masters!
- Who/What you ADORE –> affections
- Reflect (take stock) of what you A-D-O-R-E
B. REMEMBER: “Remember these things, Jacob, for you, Israel, are my servant. I have made you, you are my servant; Israel, I will not forget you.” (vs. 21)
C. REPENT: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.” (vs.22a)
D. RETURN: “Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (vs. 22b)
GOD DOESN’T PLAY. HE IS GOD. He is either NUMBER ONE or NUMBER ONE! He won’t take second place. “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
IF you have an idol in your life, it is your full responsibility because you have ceded your power of creation and choice as a person made in the image of God with the ability to ‘play God’ to someone or something, hard or soft, to rather play God in your life.
We’re so nothing—but you know what’s worse—the things we create to PLAY GOD in our lives. Everything that is created—primary (i.e. created by God) or secondary (created by man from what has already been created by God)—can be shaken.
Let me ask you again: What shakey created thing—created by God or man—are you putting ahead of, or even in place of, an unshakeable uncreated God? Crouch says, “Like the serpent in the Garden, they all [i.e. all idols] raise the question of the Creator God’s truthfulness and goodness, subtly or directly suggesting that the Creator God is neither true nor good” (56).
But in times of crisis like now I hope you see how no one and no thing can save you but Yahweh! “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). All else you cannot trust for salvation; and you ought to be afraid! NOTHING WE MAKE OF OURSELVES OR MAKE OURSELVES CAN ULTIMATELY SAVE US! Do you want to be safe and saved? Come to Yahweh!
Coogan, Michael D. 2016. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible in its Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Crouch, Andy. 2013. Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Walton John H., Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.