Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Isaiah 55:9 - What does it Mean?

Recently, a visitor to this blog asked about the theme verse displayed in the blog header:

Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

The questioner specifically asked what I think this verse means.

Disclaimer and Clarification

Before answering this question, I should note that it matters very little what I think this verse means. God's Word is, at the most basic level, a communication of what He thinks. The verse does, after all, address the subject of His "thoughts." The meaning given by the Holy Spirit to Isaiah 55:9 is much more significant, and vastly more important, than anything I think. And, as He, the Spirit of Revelation, has given us the mind of Christ, we can know with a great degree of certainty what the verse actually, and objectively, signifies.

Too often, theological reflection has been downgraded to the level of opinion and conjecture. The speculations of favored theologians and scholars are discussed, and then someone's feelings about their mesmerizing extra-Biblical theories are recorded with grand intellectual flourishes. This futile endeavor leaves us wise in our own eyes and pathetically self-satisfied. However, when we approach the sacred text of the Bible, we are not dealing with human philosophy. We are not working with a man-made construction. We are considering the word of the prophets "more fully confirmed," to which we will do well to "pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place . . . knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (II Peter 1:19-21, ESV). This is the WORD OF GOD, and it renders our worldly and man-centered thinking totally bankrupt. It reveals our depravity, shatters our self-conceit, demolishes our pride. It is God's MESSAGE, hidden from the wise and lofty, and powerfully manifested to the simple-hearted -- for those with ears to hear.

So, I'd like to begin by redirecting the question. Rather than discussing what I think this verse means, I will instead attempt to answer, at least in part (yet accurately), the following questions:

  • What meaning has the Holy Spirit poured into Isaiah 55:9? 
  • What meaning will He help us to draw out by careful study?
May God guide us in the study of His Truth.

Contexts and Outline

Now that we have begun to think of the verse in its wide context as a part of the inerrant and infallible, God-breathed text of Scripture, we may begin to narrow in further and view it in a variety of additional contexts:
  • Bible Context: Old Testament - the verse appears several hundred years prior to the birth of the incarnate Christ, the establishment of the New Covenant and the inception of the Church.
  • Genre Context: Prophecy - the verse is the utterance of a prophet, speaking for God in the "first person" voice. It fulfills a dual prophetic role of calling God's covenant people to repentance and foretelling the glories of God's future Kingdom.
  • Book/Historical Context: Isaiah - the verse appears within the prophecies of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who prophesied over a period exceeding 50 years, during which Israel was characterized by corruption, apostasy and political turmoil. In Isaiah's lifetime, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, and he saw multiple threats rise against the Southern kingdom of Judah while dwelling in its capital city of Jerusalem. 
  • Book Section Context: Isaiah 40-66 - the verse appears in a section characterized by prophecies of hope and restoration.
  • Chapter Context: Isaiah 55 - the verse appears in the center of a chapter which may be outlined as follows:
  1. Call to Draw Near to God (55:1-3)
    • Invitation to the Thirsty
    • Invitation to the Impoverished
    • Contrast of False and True Satisfaction
    • A New Covenant Promised
      • Made by God
      • Faithfulness and Mercy
      • Everlasting
  2. Declaration of Israel's Role (55:4-5)
    • As Witness
    • As Leader and Commander
    • As Caller 
    • As God's Glorified People
    • Target Audience: The Gentiles! (The "People" and "a Nation" not known)
  3. Instructions for Those Seeking God (55:6-7)
    • Seek the LORD
    • Call on Him
    • Forsake your own Ways and Thoughts
    • Return to the LORD
    • Results: Compassion and Abundant Pardon
  4. Description of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:8-9)
    • Not Your Thoughts
    • Not Your Ways
    • Higher than Your Thoughts and Ways
      • As the Heavens are Above the Earth
  5. Illustration of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:10-11)
    • God's Word is Given as Rain and Snow from Heaven
    • God's Word Infallibly Produces its Intended Effect on the Earth
      • Water
      • Sprout
      • Seed
      • Bread
  6. Promise of Israel's Future Hope (55:12-13)
    • Joy
    • Peace
    • Nature Celebrating
    • A Name for the Lord
    • An Everlasting Sign

Summary of the Passage

We may conclude, from the above discussion of contexts and the outline of the passage, that the broad theme of the chapter is Israel's restoration and the call of the Gentiles. The passage makes clear that Israel is to be used as God's witness so that the Gentiles may partake in the blessings of David, the New Covenant of God's mercy and truth, the compassion and the forgiveness of God.

This divine purpose, though mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, would have been foreign to the thinking of most ancient Hebrews. In fact, it was even shocking to the early New Testament church, as demonstrated by Peter's initial hesitation and later surprise when preaching to the household of Cornelius, in seeing the Spirit poured out on the Gentiles. Paul's unique, unexpected, and God-initiated mission to preach the Gospel of grace to the nations also illustrates this chapter's message with some clarity.

The consistent theme in the passage is this: God calls sinners to Himself and will receive them with overflowing mercy, whether they are ethnically Jewish or Gentile.

The Lord forthrightly explains the reason that underlies this astonishing mercy: His thoughts and His ways, which are categorically opposite to ours, and radically exalted above ours, tend toward displays of extravagant mercy.

Exegetical Considerations

When God speaks of His "thoughts" in this passage, He uses the Hebrew term machashabah, which refers to counsel, plan or purpose (sometimes carrying the connotation of "invention"). When He speaks of His "ways," He uses the Hebrew word derek, which is a path or a road (figuratively, a course of life or one's moral character -- what we might call a "lifestyle" or a "walk of life" in today's vernacular). God is therefore describing something much deeper and more significant than a mere passing thought or intellectual pursuit. He is describing His very WILL, and His PERSONAL HABITS. And when He speaks of these things, thus revealing HIMSELF, He declares vehemently that His ways are not ours! In doing so, He uses the absolute negation (Heb. lo). Additionally, in verses 8 and 9, the repetition of the words "thoughts" (4 times) and "ways" (4 times) emphatically magnifies the message: "I am not like you! I am different! I am infinitely higher!" And yet, by forsaking his own ways and thoughts, and seeking after the Lord, even the unrighteous person (in point of fact, only the unrighteous person) can discover and enjoy these higher ways and thoughts.

The Meaning of Isaiah 55:9

The ancient Hebrew mind could perhaps think of no greater distance and no greater difference than that existing between heaven and earth. In this verse, the prophet shows us that God in His wise and holy counsels is far above us. His eternal plans do not originate within our familiar sphere, but enter it from without and from above. They are beyond our reach. They transcend us! His actions, characteristics, counsels and purposes are thus apt to surprise us when they break through. Yet they are ultimately intended to nourish us, to initiate growth, to produce fruitfulness in us, and to feed others. That is what mercy does. When the revelation of His ways is received within, it satisfies our need and give us life. It furnishes peace and instills joy. It gives us something to give.

Isaiah 55:9 teaches us that God's thinking is incomparable and incomprehensible, yet penetrating and available. It shows us the fine balance of a mysterious, and yet perspicuous, Word from our gracious Creator -- a Word sent to restore His fallen creation by the strange working of an unearthly power. And that power is called mercy.

May you, dear reader, be flooded with His grace today!