“Behold Your God!” — Part Two
Video and complete transcript of the sermon
Preacher, Alistair Begg
The sermon was given on January 10, 2021 (evening service) at Parkside Church
In tumultuous times, we can either seek out a god of our own fashioning or cling to the only true and living God. Turning to a poem from Isaiah, Alistair Begg examines the prophet’s description of God as our Creator, Counselor, Controller, and Comforter, worthy of our trust and worship. From the perspective of the one who created and sustains the heavens and the earth, our circumstances are not out of control. He will uphold us as He has promised in His Word.
Besides Me There Is No God
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any.”
The Folly of Idolatry
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
The LORD Redeems Israel
Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
Isaiah 44:6-21 — English Standard Version
The Greatness of God
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?
Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move.
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
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 dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:12-31 — English Standard Version
What I want to do right now, though, is to read again from the Scriptures. And I think that instead of rereading Isaiah 40, I’ll read another section from Isaiah and from 44, 44. All right. We’ll read from 44:6:
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any.’
“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
“The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. [And] he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’
“They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’
“Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant.”
Well, we pray together once again:
Lord, with our Bibles before us, we pray that the Spirit of God will guide and constrain my lips and guard them, that we might, in pondering this vast panoramic display of your faithfulness and might, see ourselves as we really are, in all of our finitude, and that we might have a fresh glimpse of you, at least, in all of your might and majesty and strength and power and all of your availability to us when we are prepared to acknowledge just how fainting and weak we so readily are. We ask for your help. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, some of you are joining us this evening. I know, because I can see you, and I’m not going to assume that you were part of things this morning. And so, we began at the twelfth verse to look at the balance of what is really a poem. It’s not, as we said this morning, some kind of scientific review, but it is filled with questions, with metaphors. It is figurative language and therefore needs to be understood in that way, and it needs to be taught in that way.
We considered what we have here in verse 12 of the creator God as he is revealed in all of his power and majesty; in verses 13 and 14, of how this creator God is in no need of the counsel of others. He hasn’t had to go to school for anything. And then we considered this great God within the framework of the nations of the world and how before him all of the might and majesty that is represented in nationality and in the power of that which is there to be displayed is essentially diminished; it is dwarfed in the presence of God—not, of course, the god of our world, a god with a small g, where people just imagine whatever they want when they say the word, or, as we said this morning, god as a kind of principle of energy, a cosmic idea. Those notions are prevalent, but they are not biblical, and they need to be rejected wholeheartedly.
We left it off at that point, and so we pick it up with this question of the incomparability of God and considering that fact in itself: “To whom then will you liken God …?” “To whom … will you liken God …?”
The Incomparable God
Now, what we’ve noted is that God is giving us, if you like, a picture of himself through his own eyes, insofar as he is revealing himself to us through his Word. And so the view of us through the eyes of God makes our man’s-eye view of God just doubly absurd, so that when we imagine God or we attempt to diminish God in any way, then it is absolutely ridiculous. And all that Isaiah does here is simply point this out, and just in relatively short order—verse 19, “An idol! A craftsman casts it, … a goldsmith overlays it with gold,” and so on. In chapter 44, which we read from, it’s borne out in a fuller record.
But the thing that I want us to notice is, at the very end of the section that we read in 44, is just that statement there: Can this individual who has embraced this, is he unable to say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Now, we don’t want to camp on this, but let’s be absolutely clear here that God as he is revealed in himself is the only true and living God. Everything else is a lie, and the father of lies is none other than the Evil One himself. Now, if we are going to take this to heart and believe it, and if we are going to be prepared to proclaim it, as I said to you at some point last week, then we’re going to have to be prepared to stand up to the implications of it—and not in some form of false bravado or making a fuss or being rude or unkind to anybody, but just being prepared to say the idolatry that is revealed here, BC, and the idolatry that is prevalent today, AD, is just a nonstarter.
And you will notice that whether the idol is crafted by somebody who’s rich… I take it that that’s verse 19. The rich man can get a certain kind of idol, whereas the poor man, he’s not going to be able to do that; he can get a wooden one. And he’s going to try and have it fashioned in such a way, set up so that it will not move. It is an amazing picture of futility, isn’t it? So you’re going to somebody and say, “I’d like you to make an idol for me. Could you make it this size, and could you please make sure that the bottom is very, very flat, because I’m going to put it up on a bureau in my office, and it will be horribly embarrassing if, you know, when I have my business colleagues come in, it keeps falling over on the floor. So please, I want it to be as good as you can possibly make it.”
Well, whether it’s a rich man’s idol or a poor man’s idol, all of us are tempted—actually, all of us have a compulsive desire—to create a god of our own fashioning, so that we might have one who is manageable; that we might have a god who is, if you like, containable; and that we might have one who is able to go along with our views of morality. You see, the real reason… People don’t want to have no god. They don’t want to have no worship. They just want to have someone or something that is companionable and allows them to believe what they want and live any way they choose. And this is the spirituality of our day, and it is challenged all these years before Jesus comes.
Now, what lies behind the blindness of people to this? You say to yourself, “It is virtually impossible to understand, isn’t it, that somebody, as we read in 44, could go through that process—cut down a tree, take it, split it in half, use part of it for making a fire and having some meal—and then saying to himself, ‘I think I will take the other half, and I will make it into a god that I can worship.’” It’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it? And yet it’s exactly what happens. And why is that?
Well, you need, actually, to go to the book of Romans for the best of answers to that. And the answer, in a sentence, is that there is a willfulness behind the blindness of humanity. A willfulness. And it is there for you in Romans chapter 1. And this is what it says: “For although [men and women] knew God”—Romans 1:21—“although they knew God” as he has made himself known, the Creator, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Well, of course, we’ve seen that. We’ve seen it when we’ve traveled, and we have seen it increasingly on the high streets of American towns and cities. And if Paul were to show up in Chagrin Falls or in Solon or in Cleveland Heights, I think he would have good reason to repeat his Areopagus talk in Acts chapter 17 and have reason to point out as he did then to the people who were listening, “We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” That’s it right there: “an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Conceiving of God as we choose for him to be.
And Isaiah says, you know—to these people who are about to be shipped off into exile amongst the Babylonians, he is bringing a word of comfort to them, long before the comfort is applied to them. Because there’s about a hundred years between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40. And so the prophecy of Isaiah is actually way ahead, and it is an amazing testimony to the veracity of God’s Word. He’s able to tell them of what is going to happen when they are oppressed by the Babylonians, and he’s alerting them to the fact that the God who will bring judgment on them in that way is the same God who speaks comfort to them. And yet at the same time, they will be set upon all the way through by the temptation to succumb to the surrounding culture.
The Creator God
And so he says, “It’s absolutely ridiculous to manufacture idols. Because there is nothing and there is no one to whom God may be compared. He is the Creator, and everything else is the creation. Everything else is the work of his hands.” Which, of course, is another metaphor, isn’t it? Because God is Spirit, and therefore, he has no hands. And so, when we read the Bible and we take it literally, we don’t go off telling people, “You know, I was looking for God’s hands.” No, we understand what is there. He is infinite and eternal and unchangeable, whereas his creation is limited and finite and temporal and mortal.
So you’ll notice that he comes back to this in verse 25. If you just jump ahead, actually, there to verse 25, the question is asked again, virtually the same question as in 18: “To whom then will you liken God?” Notice it is not “to what” but “to whom.” Because even these people understood that there were powers behind these idols. And what is the power behind these idols? Well, the satanic power. Of course it is! “Who would you compare me to?” Verse 25. “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” And you’ll notice that this question now, in verse 25, is posed by God himself.
You said, “Now listen, what I think we ought to do is, let’s go outside. It’s a lovely clear evening. Let’s go out for a little while. We could do this.” If this was school… I loved it when the teachers said, “Now, let’s go out.” Any excuse to get out of the place I was thrilled with, and especially if it was something like that, we could keep that going on for a very long time: “Oh, I think I haven’t seen it yet, Miss. I think we should stay a little longer.” Anyway, if we were to go out, I don’t know how well we would do with the naked eye, but we could look up and see, contemplate the heavens. Man is made by God to contemplate the heavens. You think about it, all the way through, everything we read about in history, people are always looking up: the fascination with space in the twentieth century; the great concerns; the fellow that shows up in Chagrin Falls every so often with that big telescope, which he allowed me to look through, and I’m sure I never saw what it was I was supposed to see, but (may I be forgiven) I said, “Oh, yes,” I said, “that’s quite remarkable.” It was quite remarkable. I couldn’t see a single thing. But anyway, there he was, and he comes every so often, and we all go and have a little peek in. What are we doing? We’re looking up into the night sky, and we recognize what is happening up there.
Incidentally, that’s why God made man erect. You can’t say to your golden retriever, “Look up! Look up to the sky!” Have you ever seen a dog raise its eyes? It doesn’t do it. If he’s gonna really get a good view, he’ll have to lie on his back or something. But God has fashioned us in such a way that we can lift up our eyes. He wants us to. “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, the stars, which you have ordained…” This is what we teach to our children, our grandchildren, isn’t it? We were going down the driveway some months ago. There was a beautiful moon. And I said to the little one, I said, “Look at that!” And he said, “It’s the moon!” I said, “Yes.” I said, “Who put it there?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Well, God put it there.” He said, “Oh?” I said, “Yes.” So we made it all the way back up, and we turned around, and I said, “Look at that!” He said, “It’s the moon.” I said, “Who put it there?” He said, “God put it there.” I said, “A-plus. Let’s go in. We’re done.” But if somebody doesn’t tell him that God put it there, somebody else will tell him that chance put it there or something else put it there.
No, you see. The Babylonians were fascinated by the constellations. If you read of the Babylonian Empire, you realize that they were so struck by the heavenly bodies that they were tempted not only to consider them but actually, in the end, to worship them. And so God is warning his people finding themselves in that circumstance.
And, of course, the warning had come from his servant Moses a long time before that. I didn’t realize that it said this; I read it, but I never fastened on it until this week. In Moses’s forbidding of idolatry in Deuteronomy chapter 4, he’s saying to the people, he says, “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.” “Watch yourselves very carefully.” “… you [never] saw [a] form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yoursel[f], in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female,” and so on. And then he says in verse 19, “And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, [and] all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the [people] under the … heaven[s].” So the warning was there. It’s reiterated, because of the propensity of the human heart.
As I read that again this week, I said, “I wonder if that was one of the triggers for Daniel and his friends, for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” Because you often wonder, don’t you: What was it that kept those boys in that context? Why is it that they stand out? Answer: because they stand out. Because they’re not normal. They’re abnormal. If you think about it, when you read Daniel and you read that story and, of course, we focus on it, most of us think, “Oh yeah, I’m Shadrach, you know,” or “Yeah, I’m one of those boys.” No! We probably wouldn’t have been. We’d be the rest, who presumably were prepared to bow down to whatever.
You see, it’s very, very easy—I find it easy—to take what God has given us as a light on the pathway to himself and for that to become the end in itself, or to take what God has given us to enjoy in life, and instead of that becoming the occasion of our gratitude to God and our enjoyment of his gifts, the gifts become an end in themselves: the gift of sex, the gift of food and drink, the gift of family life—many gifts that God gives us richly to enjoy. And the danger is that we end up making them the very object that they are and the end that they are, as opposed to a means to an end.
“Look up into the night sky. Look up there! He who brings out the hosts by number…” Now, you know that I ain’t no scientist. And my report cards made that very, very clear, and so I bailed a long, long time ago on any of that stuff. So I never use any scientific attempts at illustration, because I know you’ll be going, “He got that out of a book. He doesn’t know that at all.” And so I’m not going to try and even do anything with the galaxies or the solar system or the Milky Way or anything else. I’m not even going to try and hazard a guess at how big the sun is. I’m not even going to attempt to wonder whether the sun is the biggest star in our place. I’m not gonna wonder about how many times you can fit the Earth into the size of the sun. You’re the folks that are going to do all that.
You can agree with me, though, that it is impossible to number the stars in the sky. The very scientists who probe these things keep going further and further and further, and there’s no possibility of people saying, “You know, and we’ve got an accurate count of them now.” You have a better chance of carrying the votes in the election than in counting the number of stars in the sky, okay? (That’s not a political observation. It’s just silliness.) We can’t count them; God names them!
Again, it’s an amazing picture, isn’t it? The number is so vast, there’s no way you could get your arms around it. And God says, “Oh, yeah, that’s him. That’s one.” You see this, don’t you, in other places? If you’ve been with shepherds, and you just see this great company of sheep, and suddenly the shepherd is picking one out and another one out. You say, “How did you do that?” When Sue and I were in the Free State in South Africa, with Villi, who is the father of one of our ladies here, and at one point, all of these cows were there! Just, like—as they say in veterinary manuals—a big glob of cows! And… But no, Villi was—he called them by name! He knew them. They weren’t just a vast host to him.
No, he calls them by their names, “by the greatness of his might, … because he is strong in power,” and there is no possibility of losing one down… What do they call those things? Black holes? Yeah. I don’t even know what that means, but I’m not worried about it. Because this is helping me: “By the greatness of his might, and because he”—that is, God—“is strong in power,” we’re not going to be losing any of them.
The Controller God
So, God the Creator, without any outside help. God the Counselor, in no need of advice. And then God created the universe and keeps the universe under his control. I think I want to use the word Controller. Derek Kidner uses the word Disposer. I didn’t like that. I’m not sure I like Controller either. But it is fair to say that the entire created universe is under God’s control.
Look back up at verse 21, ’cause we skipped this little section by going from 18 to 25. And here the questions come: “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Now, what is Isaiah doing here? Well, he’s essentially saying, “Listen, you know this. You know this. You’ve heard it. You’ve seen it on display. You know that this is the case. So you know better”—he’s speaking to the people of God, the ones who are complaining and who are saying “My way is hidden from God” and so on—he says, “You know better than that—to despair of the power of God, to doubt the care of God, to deny or to despise the wisdom of God.”
Now, just allow that to settle for a moment for us. God says to his people, “You know better than that—to get in your car and say, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make this’; to find yourself saying, ‘I’m not sure that God really is as he has revealed himself to be, that he is as wise as the Bible says he is,’ or perhaps, ‘I can’t believe that my prayer has gone unanswered for so jolly long. Does God really hear me? Does he care about me?’” That’s what the people of God were saying. That’s what the people of God are always saying, if we’re honest.
Now, how does he address this? He says, “Well, you know these things. You know. You heard. You know it’s been true from the beginning. You’ve understood this,” if you like, “from the foundations of the earth. This is foundational truth to you. And you know that it is he”—that is, the living and true God—“who sits above the circle of the earth.” Here’s another amazing picture. I don’t know what “the circle of the earth” really means, but I get the picture clear enough in my mind. It’s a picture of the fact that God is so transcendent, and he’s above and beyond everything. He’s eternal; he’s not trapped by time, he’s not trapped by space. He sits above, beyond, around, if you like, the circle of the earth. What is he doing? Well, he’s upholding and maintaining that which he has made. That’s what he’s doing.
Deism doesn’t work. Some of our early founders were deists—the whole idea that God was a Creator, he wound up the world, and then he went away and left it, and the clock has been running down ever since, and we really don’t know what’s going on. That doesn’t help anybody at all, does it? No, you need to make sure that it comes with a maintenance package. Isn’t that what they always try and sell you at Apple? “And do you want to have the maintenance package for this?” Why? ’Cause the profit is greater on the maintenance package than the jolly hardware that you just bought. I say it with great respect to all Apple employees. I mean, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s the feeling that I get, ’cause they’re very strong. Well, of course, it makes sense. It’s a kindly way to put it. It breaks down. You don’t want it to break down. You want to be able to fix it.
What if the whole universe breaks down? What if all the people that are telling us every day of the week, “You know, it’s gonna be a dreadful day that is coming, there’s only a few months left to get the whole world sorted out, the universe is collapsing,” and so on… Ha! Well, listen, I’ll tell you what: I can sleep at night because the God I worship sits above the circle of the earth. And frankly, from his vantage point up there, humanity looks like grasshoppers. Grasshoppers. Remember we said this morning, you know, “big thoughts of God and small thoughts of ourselves”? The first time you fly, that’s what someone says to you: “Have you flown before?” “No.” And you look down and you say, “Look how small everything is!” He sits above the circle of the earth: “How small!” What’s he doing? Well, Colossians tells us that in Jesus, all things are holding together in him. This, you see, is the basis of our security.
The picture of grasshoppers doesn’t appear there for the first time. In actual fact, if you remember from Sunday school days your old “Twelve men went to spy in Canaan, (ten were bad and two were good),” you remember that the bad fellows said, “It’s a terrible place. It’s full of great giants, and it’s not a good idea to go there.” But two fellows—that was Caleb and Joshua—said, “Well, it is full of great giants. In fact, they are so big that we appeared to ourselves as grasshoppers.” You can read that in Numbers and in chapter 13. In other words, before the vastness of these people in this territory to which they were going to go, “we seemed like this size.” And that’s exactly what is happening here: “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? You do know this. It’s foundational. The same God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain…” What a picture that is: the very fineness of the heavens, if you like, like a gauze. You know, it’d have to be… He just stretches it out.
And who is this God? Well, he is the God “who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.” They have barely got their feet under the desk, they’ve hardly had time to hang the photographs by the credenza or put their diplomas on the wall, and they’re gone. That’s what happens. He brings them to nothing. Those who serve in office, of any kind of office—pastors, policemen, politicians, schoolteachers—will never spend one hour longer in that position than that which God has intended. It’s impossible. Because the God who upholds everything according to his power is the God who controls all things.
And so it is that when we think, as we think at the moment, of all that is going on, we realize what a salutary and necessary reminder this is. He “makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.” The word that is used there is the same word that is used at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1, where it says, “The earth was without form and void.” That is the word that is used. In other words, the earth in that condition was unfit for the purpose for which it was created. Unfit for the purpose for which it was created. And that’s what God does: he makes them unfit for the purpose.
Now, you will notice that it is just a breath. It’s just a breath:
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely [are they] sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
… the tempest carries them off like stubble.
If this were another context, we could have a sidebar and talk about it in very practical terms. I don’t want to do that. But here’s the point: just as the stars remain in place not according to some kind of mechanical necessity but on the basis of, if you like, the creatorial purpose of God… Man looks up in the sky and says, “We can explain this.” I wish I had our man Williams here from the spacecraft. If you ever wanted to talk to somebody about these things—a scientist who has zoomed around the universe—then you could talk to Williams, and he’ll be very clear on this. No, God’s Word makes things very, very clear: they are not held in place by mechanical necessity, and neither are the rulers of the world. They will come to an end.
Now, can I just pause for a second, take a slight deviation from course, just to bring something into this which I hope will be helpful? And if it isn’t, you can discard it. I want you, if you have your Bible, to turn for a moment to the forty-fifth chapter. We were in 44, but now 45:5. Here we go: “I am the Lord.” This comes again and again, doesn’t it?
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
[beside] me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that [my] people may know…
This is a word, incidentally, to Cyrus, who is going to be the instrument of God in the unfolding of his purposes. “I equip you, though you do not know me.” Do you get the point? That God raises up people—surprising people.
… that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none [beside] me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
Now, here’s the point: the will and purpose of God from all eternity stands behind everything. Everything—light and darkness, pain and pleasure, peace and calamity. In fact, if you’re using a King James Version, it doesn’t say “calamity.” It says “evil.” “Evil”—which is a good verse to go off for a coffee and talk to your friends about. But here’s the point: nothing—nothing—can spring into action without God’s say-so, and nothing can run beyond the boundaries of his purposes. It is impossible, because he is God.
Now, you see, unless we get ahold of this, then we will inevitably fall into the great pit which suggests that somehow or another, God is only sovereign in our lives when everything is pleasant. I get this all the time from people who say, “Well, the devil must have done this one, because I know God is only on the side of pleasure. He has got nothing to do with pain. He’s got nothing to do with calamity.” My loved ones, he’s got everything to do with calamity! My friend Motyer—my good friend, my much-missed friend—he said, “If God were only sovereign in life’s pleasantness, what an endangered species we would be.” You take “He leads [us] in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” right? Psalm 23. What are the “paths of righteousness”? “Well, ‘green pastures.’” Yes. What else? The deep “valley of the shadow of death.” Both “the valley of the shadow of death” and the “green pastures” are the “paths of righteousness.”
God knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing on the macro level, and he knows what he’s doing on the little level. Oh! We shouldn’t be discouraged, then, if things appear to us to be out of control. They’re not out of control! From our perspective, maybe. But not from the one who sits outside the circle of the universe, not the one who has called the galaxies into space. No! They can’t be.
The Comforter God
He’s the Creator. He’s the Counselor. He’s the Controller. And finally, he’s the Comforter.
“Why [then]”—verse 27—“why do you say, … Jacob, and speak, O Israel …?” “You’re my people. Why are you saying this? Why do you just keep saying things like ‘It seems that the Lord has forsaken me’ or that ‘he has forgotten me’?” Now, again, let’s be honest: surely there are times in our lives, in the journey of faith, when we find ourselves more leaning in this direction than in the triumph and assurance and joy of things. We know, we can identify, I think, with the word of the people as the Psalms: you know, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down, and we wept. And we said to one another, ‘We might as well just get these musical instruments and just put them away somewhere. How are we gonna sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’”
And people come to me and say, “You know, America actually is beginning to feel like a foreign land.” Well now, here’s a real danger, and let me tell you what it is: the danger is—and it’s a real danger if we’re not careful, and we need to nudge one another continually on this—this notion we are constantly in danger of applying in merely political, social, and national terms. The issue is not about our nation. Who are we? We are the
People of God, called by his name,
Called from the dark and delivered from shame,
One holy race, saints every one,
Because of the [work] of Christ Jesus the Son.
We are the community of Jesus. That’s who we are. And that’s who we are first of all. And that’s something that we’re gonna have to learn as Christians, for as long as God spares us, in this twenty-first century. Because otherwise, we will continue to ride the roller coaster socially, politically, and nationally up to the top and down to the bottom, up to the top and down to the bottom, with every passing cycle such as the one we’ve just been through. Now, it is not that we disregard that. We don’t. But it’s not the issue. Christ is a King, and his kingdom is an international community. And we, by his grace, are made part of that.
So what should be our concern? What should be our overarching concern? Here’s the concern we ought to have: We ought to be concerned about the sluggishness of our worship. We ought to be concerned about the feebleness of our own personal prayer lives. We ought to be concerned about the lack of zeal and the manifold cowardice which fills so many of our hearts in relationship to evangelism—cowering away, hiding behind religious platitudes and statements that really mean very little to anybody at all, because we’re not prepared to say that the word of God is fixed in the heavens, and if we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, that means what God says about gender, that means what God says about marriage, that means what God says about everything.
And that, you see, is the issue. Far easier just to take it on some kind of political level: “Oh, we’ll get this and that fixed,” and so on. I’ve been here now for goodness knows how long—so long I cannot believe that we’re still at the same program that we were at in 1983, when the people began to give me all the political leaflets: “You’ve gotta do this, Pastor. You’ve gotta fix this, Pastor. This will go down,” and so on and so on.
No. Absolutely not! People have misunderstood my comments. I recognize that. I shouldn’t make half of the comments. But if you knew the ones I kept back, you would applaud me for the few that I’ve actually made. No! “O God, why’d you forget us? Look at us here. What’s going on, Lord? I don’t think you could see what’s going on. Have you disregarded us?” No! “Can a woman forget her nursing child …?” And the answer to that, of course, is, by God, “Even [she] may forget, yet,” he says, “I will not forget you. … I have [actually graven] you on the palms of my hands.”
The Everlasting God
Now, who says this? Well, this is where we end. The everlasting God says this. “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? Of course you have! The Lord is the everlasting God. He’s the creator of the ends of the earth.”
Well, he doesn’t “faint or grow weary.” Of course he can’t grow weary! Wouldn’t it be terrible if he grew weary of us? Wouldn’t that be quite dreadful? God says, “I’m fed up with you, Alistair. I’m weary of you. I’m weary of your this and your that and the next thing. I’m weary of that church.” No. No. It would be understandable, I think. Actually, it would be justifiable, at least in my case. Because we grow weary of God: “No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t think so. No, it’s very demanding.” He doesn’t grow weary.
“He gives power to the faint, [the one] who has no might he increases strength.” So when we’re bewildered by life, when we’re tempted to lie down in the grass in the middle of the thing where the track goes round four hundred meters or whatever it is and we say, “You know what, I think I’m gonna chuck this now,” he says, “Now, come on. Come on.” It can happen, because we know that youths faint and they grow weary. Even athletes, they get tired. They have to go and get that Gatorade or whatever else it is. And those who went through the Marine school, they actually know what it is to be exhausted.
But here: those “who wait for the Lord.” Those “who wait for the Lord.” “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” How do we explain the weakness of the contemporary church? An absence of waiting. Waiting. In other words, resting in the assurance that the promises that God has made he will fulfill. It is the expectation of the fulfillment of the promises of God to the people of God in the experience of the exile that allows them to keep their chin up and to keep going forward. And it’s the same for you and me.
Soaring like eagles, running, walking. Hm! I don’t know if I’ve done much soaring. I’m not that good at running either. I’ll settle for walking: “Just help me, Lord. Help me walk. Help me to walk for another week. Yeah. That’d be good. And then, maybe if I can get running after I get the walking down, maybe we could soar.” It says we can soar. “Our congregation could soar? You mean even with masks on?” Oh yeah, we’d definitely soar with masks on.
You see, it’s the expectation of the fulfillment of the promises of God that keeps us going, that keeps us on our toes. But we understand this. You look forward to your birthday and so on. You say, “Well, it’s not much of a day,” but whatever your birthday is or something like that might be.
You know me well enough to know that for seven years I wrote letters to a girl in the hope that, you know, I might manage to triumph over all the American boys who had access to her while I was far away—American boys who had muscles in places that I don’t even have places. And so it was the hope, it was the expectation. So, was she worth the wait? Yeah. Fifty-two years later, I’m telling you, definitely worth the wait.
Some of you are young people. Some of you are just not even twenty years old. Listen to those of us who are older: God is worth the wait—to wait upon him, to trust him, to rest on him, to be prepared to say, “You can have the totality of me. I’ll go wherever you want me to go, and I’ll stay there for as long as you tell me to stay, and I’ll do whatever you want me to do, and I forsake every idol that I have raised up that says to me, ‘No, you can’t do that because of this, and you can’t do it because of that,’ and so on. I’m done with that, Lord. I want to wait upon you, and I want to see your promises fulfilled.” And the same for us as a church.
Well, there’s the poem. We began with the word of comfort, and we were introduced to the gentleness of the shepherd God, the vastness of God, and we end with the shepherd God. I found myself singing to myself, as I sometimes do… Imagine the shepherd God singing this to me:
[Alistair,] when you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes,
I’ll dry them all.
I’m on your side
… when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found.
When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard,
I will comfort you;
I’ll take your part
… when darkness comes
And pain is all around.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
It’s that “lay me down” that kills me when I think of Paul Simon. You’ve got to be crazy to think that he can write that lyric without knowing who it is who lays down his life for the sheep. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The awesome God steps down into time and bids us cast our all upon him. And if we will, he will keep us all the way to the end, and through the end, because he’s promised to do so, and the promises he makes he keeps. And so we can trust him.
Father, grant that all that is of yourself may find a resting place in our hearts and minds, anything that is untrue or unhelpful might be banished from our recollection. Fill our gaze with your Son as we end our night and as we anticipate a new day. For we pray in his name. Amen.
 Acts 17:29 (ESV).
 Psalm 8:3 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Timothy 6:17.
 See Colossians 1:17.
 Numbers 13:32 (paraphrased).
 Numbers 13:33 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 1:2 (ESV).
 Psalm 23:3 (ESV).
 Psalm 23:2 (ESV).
 Psalm 23:4 (ESV).
 Psalm 137:1–4 (paraphrased).
 Wayne Watson, “People of God” (1982).
 See Psalm 119:89.
 See Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4.
 Isaiah 49:15–16 (ESV).
 Brenton Brown and Key Riley, “Everlasting God” (2005).
 Paul Simon, “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1970).
 John 10:11 (ESV).