The Only God and Savior
There is only one true God who made and rules over all things. We can resist him and suffer his curse, but we cannot change him or control him. Instead, we can turn to him and be saved.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
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It’s been a very mild winter in Philadelphia this year. We’ve had 60s and even a 70 in February, and it’s looking less and less like that March snow is actually coming. Nonetheless, we do have our windy days. The weather app may say it’s 50 degrees outside, but if that wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour as it sometimes does, the run you just got excited to take might not be as pleasurable as you’d imagined. Or, on the other hand, running in the wind may be quite pleasurable, as long as you run in the right direction. Running with the wind at your back feels great, while running, or even walking, with the wind in your face can be downright painful. The wind is a force you and I cannot control. It does what it wants so to speak, and we have a choice: We can resist it, or we can turn, and experience the freedom and joy of having it at our backs. In the passage on which we’re focusing today, the God of Israel reveals himself to be a bit like the wind in that sense. He does what he wants, how he wants, and we can’t control him. In fact, he’s the only God, and so there is no force that can stop him. And we also see that if we will give up resisting him, and will instead turn to him, the thing he wants to do, that none can stop him from doing, is not to curse us, but to save us. Giving up the battle and turning to him is like running with the wind at your back. So turn to the God of Israel and be saved, because he rules over all, none can question him, and all will acknowledge him.
He rules over all
Our text begins with the common phrase of the prophets, “Thus says the LORD.” When you see the “LORD” in all caps in your English Bibles like in that verse, it is indicating to you that the Hebrew word it is translating is Yahweh, which is different than the word for “God.” The word God can be used more generally, but the word Yahweh is the name of God, and in the context of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, it was the specific name of the God of Israel. The god of Babylon, the being they worshiped, was named Marduk. It’s easy for us to miss the significance of that because if you’ve grown up around Christianity, you’re used to hearing the title “Lord” and thinking, “Oh right, that’s like another name for God.” It is, but the word it’s translating was originally the name of the God of Israel, which the other nations thought of as merely a tribal deity. And even his introduction in verse 24 might lead you to think that. Speaking to Israel, Isaiah introduces him as your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb. You could read the introduction in verse 24 this way: “Thus says the God of Israel, Israel’s redeemer, who formed Israel from the womb.”
But then look at the content of God’s speech in verse 24. “I am the LORD” so there’s the name again, read “I am the God of Israel, who made all things”—not the God of Israel who made Israel, but the God of Israel who made all things. In other words, the God of Israel is the Creator God. And not only does he say in verse 24 that he made all things; he’s very clear that he alone stretched out the heavens, and spread out the earth by himself. In other words, we might call Marduk a god because the Babylonians worshiped him as such, but he’s not properly worthy of the name. There is only one being who made all things, he did it all by himself, and that being, that god, is Yahweh, the God of Israel.
But it’s not as though he created all things and then stepped back to let his creation be governed by others. Throughout the rest of chapter 44 and then into chapter 45, God lists out all the ways his exclusive ongoing rule over his creation can be seen. He frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners; he turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish. We still have fortune tellers and palm readers all around, but God makes fools of them when he brings about events contrary to what they predicted. Even the wise who claim to know where technology is heading, who project the economy, or even who predict the weather, God shows to be foolish when their predictions fail to come true. On the other hand, verse 26: He confirms the word of his servant. When his prophets prophesy in advance what will occur, he brings it about! While in exile, with Jerusalem still lying in ruins, God says through the prophets that she will be inhabited, and the cities will be rebuilt. So now, he makes a specific prophecy in verse 28 of chapter 44: There will be this Cyrus, who is his shepherd, who will fulfill God’s purpose, and rebuild the city and temple of Jerusalem.
Cyrus was the historical king of Persia, which conquered Babylon and became the regional hegemon a few decades after Israel went into exile in Babylon. Now here’s what’s crazy about his name appearing in Isaiah 44:28—those words were spoken and written by Isaiah over a hundred years before Cyrus was even born. So God is saying here that unlike the fortune tellers and those who are wise in the world’s eyes, he will prove himself to be the one true God by saying in advance what will happen, then doing it. And it’s not like this Cyrus knows Yahweh, the God of Israel. Not only does he not exist yet, but when he does exist, he will not be a Yahweh worshiper. He’s a Persian, not an Israelite. So God says in verse 4 that he names Cyrus, though Cyrus does not know him. But then he reiterates in verse 5: I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. So just as God created by himself, God is going to demonstrate through Cyrus that he rules by himself. He is going to predict it a hundred years in advance and then fulfill it, though Cyrus doesn’t even know him. That’s something no one but the true God can do.
In fact, God’s power over Cyrus is so complete, that though Cyrus is an outsider, a non-Israelite who doesn’t know God, God as the God of Israel in 44:28 calls him “My shepherd”. In verse 1 of chapter 45 God calls him “my anointed”. An anointed shepherd to Israel was a savior, someone from the line of David, the shepherd king. The Greek translation of the Old Testament even calls Cyrus in verse 1 of chapter 45 a “Christ,” which means anointed one. God is saying to them that he is bringing his salvation to them, their deliverance from captivity to Babylon, the freedom to go back to their land and rebuild it, through an unexpected, anointed shepherd: Cyrus, a foreign conqueror. So verse 7 concludes this section in language similar to the first verse of our passage. Where before he said he was the God of Israel who made all things, now he says he’s the God of Israel, who does all things. In other words, he is both the sole creator, and the sole ruler, over all of creation. Whether it is well-being or calamity, verse 7 says, it is the God of Israel who has ordained it.
So, even when Cyrus comes and appears to be bringing calamity, it is the God of Israel who has sent him, and Cyrus, though Cyrus doesn’t know it, is accomplishing the bidding of the God of Israel. And God says in verse 4 that the purpose for which he is directing Cyrus is for the sake of his servant Jacob, and Israel his chosen. Do you see why, then, of all potential gods, the god to whom you’d want to turn would be the God of Israel? Of all potential gods, the God of Israel is the only creator and ruler over everything! Only his promises can be trusted with certainty, because only he has the power to accomplish all that he says, and he will do so, whether through well-being or calamity, whether through the anointed shepherd you would expect, or through a different anointed shepherd you never would have guessed.
Turning to him for salvation, then, rather than to other gods, looks like putting your ultimate trust in his promises rather than in fortune tellers or the wisdom of the world, and like this promise, we have his promises recorded for us in scripture. That’s what’s certain, and we have even greater cause for certainty that the God of Israel is the one creator and ruler over all things because we now know that this prophecy did come to pass. Cyrus did come to power, he did conquer Babylon, and he did send Israel back to their land to rebuild their temple. But if you were Israel, in exile, or Israel, anticipating another conquering ruler like Cyrus, how could you believe that’s what was going to happen? The fortune tellers weren’t predicting that, and nothing in the wisdom of the world suggested it would happen. But you could believe it by taking God at his word.
Church, take God at his word. He has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose, and he has promised that in the end, all things will work together to conform us to the image of Christ, such that we will be raised from the dead with him, to live with him forever, and to inherit God himself as our eternal joy. You may not be able to see how the calamities of your life will work toward that end, but you can know that they will. When you get on the bus or subway, you don’t have to know how the timing of all the subway, trolley, and bus routes works together. You don’t have to understand that whole complicated map with all the different colors on it. You don’t even have to know how your bus will get to its destination. All you have to know is that if you get on the 43 at 2nd St going west, you’ll end up at the art museum. And so with the LORD, he uses foreign kings, he uses well-being and calamity, and you don’t need to know how he’ll do all that. How could you? If the SEPTA map is complicated, how much more complicated is working all things together through time and space to accomplish one purpose? You don’t need to know how he’ll do that; you just need to know that if you turn to this God, the God if Israel, the only true God, your final destination is salvation.
Sometimes verse 7 of chapter 45 bothers people, because it does clearly teach that calamity, as much as well-being, is from the LORD. If your view is that God doesn’t will hardship, he just allows it, I don’t know how you square that with verse 7. There God clearly says that he creates calamity, and that he is the LORD who does all these things. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, he freely and unchangeably ordains whatsoever comes to pass, whether well-being or calamity. I know that raises questions, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the answers to all of them, though I’d be happy to wrestle through them with any of you who have such questions. But for now, just notice here that verse 7 is the very thing that gives us hope in calamity. It means the calamity isn’t in control! It means God isn’t trying his best to respond to a chaotic, calamitous universe. Calamity isn’t some rival god. Even the calamity is under the God of Israel’s rule, because the God of Israel is the only God, and he is committed to using the calamity for the good of his people. Trust him amid your calamities rather than resisting him, because none can question him.
None can question him
Just after verse 7, verses 8-13 are a kind of drop-down expansion of verse 7. He creates well-being and calamity. In verse 8 we have an example of God creating well-being; in verses 9-13, we see him pronounce a woe, a sentence of calamity. In verse 8 God calls for a new creation, in which righteousness dwells, and concludes by saying, “I the LORD have created it.” He creates well-being. But then in verse 9 he pronounces the woe to the one who strives with the one who formed him. So think about this: If it’s true that the God of Israel is the creator and ruler over all, what’s the only real alternative to turning to him and trusting him? It’s striving with him, resisting him, fighting back against him.
Here the illustration God gives us in verse 9 is of clay striving a potter. Have you ever seen clay talk back to the one making it and say, “What are you making?” or “Hey, you forgot the handles”? You think, “No; that’s dumb. Pots don’t even talk.” That’s the point of the illustration. How crazy and unimaginable it is to us to imagine clay talking back to its molder is how crazy it is for God’s people to talk back to him. The next illustration is in verse 10. Have you ever heard a baby or a child in the womb talk to their dad and mom and say, “What are you doing, making me like this?” Again, crazy.
So verse 11: “Will you command me concerning the work of my hands?” God asks. How crazy is that? You see, not only is the God of Israel the ruler over all, but he doesn’t rule by consensus. America was founded as a democracy because of the conviction that all people were created equal, and therefore all people should have a say in the governance of the nation. But God’s point here is that he and his people were not created equal, because he was never created, and his people were created by him. So just as the potter and the clay are not equal, so God and his people are not equal. This text is showing us that God’s relationship to us is more like the relationship of a potter to clay than like the relationship of a President to citizens. And just as the potter is above the clay’s questioning, so God is above the questioning of people. The Israelites would no doubt have been tempted to question God’s methods here. Save through calamity? Save through a foreign anointed shepherd who doesn’t even know the God of Israel? But God lands in verse 13 on this: That’s how I’m going to do it. Who are you to question me?
It’s probably not lost on you that most today don’t think of God in this way at all. To the degree they think about God at all, it is common for people today to say of him what he must be like if he exists, or to lay down the conditions for a god in whom they will or will not believe. People say things like, “I could never believe in a god who _______.” But if that’s the God who does exist, you’re just resisting reality. That’s like a pot saying, “I could never believe in a potter who made me like this.” But the potter did. And if you refuse to give up your striving against this God, you’ll receive the curse of verse 9, rather than the blessing of verse 8. Why choose that just because God didn’t conform to your idea of what he should be like? Have you ever considered that the things you don’t like about him say more about something wrong with you than something wrong with him? If I say I’ll never eat a salad that doesn’t taste like a cookie, that may feel good, but there are no salads that taste like cookies, and I’ll be cursed with all kinds of health issues in that case.
The so-called “problem of evil” is a classic example of this. As an argument against the God of Israel, it goes like this: Evil exists in the world. The God of Israel claims to be both all good and all powerful. But if evil exists, either God wants it, in which case he is not all good, or he is powerless to prevent it, in which case he is not all powerful. But there is an implied premise in the argument. The implied premise is, “If we cannot think of a reason for an all good God to allow evil to exist, one cannot exist,” and just pointing it out should prove its invalidity. Assuming that is as irrational as a pot assuming it could understand why its maker designed it the way it did. Not all questions and doubts are bad, and we are committed in this church to working through them together and giving honest answers to honest questions. However, no question gives you a legitimate reason to resist the God who is, and no logical objection will absolve you from God’s promised curse if you refuse to turn to him and be saved.
Yet this is not just a problem for unbelievers. Verse 9 is still directed at Israel, God’s own people. Now, typically when you hear God pronounce a curse, what might you expect him to be cursing? If you’re familiar with the Bible, probably you’d expect him to be cursing disobedience to something he commanded. So in the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from one tree of all the trees in the garden that he gave them to eat, and he promised a curse on them if they did. So when God gives his law, he promises a curse on those who do not keep it perfectly. That’s one way to rebel against God and so incur his curse: Do something he forbids, refuse to do something he requires. But this shows us another way of which we may not think as naturally. We can rebel against God by breaking his commands, or we can rebel against God by resisting his providence, and that’s what God is dealing with here.
What’s that look like? It looks like God telling you he’s going to save you through calamity and through Cyrus, and you refusing to believe him or telling him he can’t do it that way. Woe to the one who does that. Or, it may look like God giving you a certain amount of money, but you feel the need to spend more than that. What’s happening there? You’re striving with the one who formed you. He ordained you have $1000, but you insist on living like you have $1500. It may look like you had a plan for your day, but your computer isn’t working, or your brother and sister in Christ has an emergency, and now love requires you to help them with that when that wasn’t on the agenda, and either you refuse to do so, or you do so a bit grumpy. It looks like grieving the successes and joys of others because God ordained those things for them and not for you. It looks like insisting on grumbling and complaining, and refusing to rejoice, until God changes the circumstances of your life. It looks like being angry, not consciously at anyone in particular, but at the situation, which, as verse 7 reminds us, comes from God. Woe to the one who does these things. Not only will you be cursed if you persist in that kind of striving against God, but your life will feel cursed. It’s just a miserable way to live, and I can testify to that firsthand.
But if instead you want to hear what it sounds like to give up striving with the one who formed you, and to instead trust his providence in your life, stay in the service for another 15 minutes or so, and we’re going to sing a song, Lord willing, called “Whate’er my God ordains is right.” That song is the polar opposite of the clay talking back to its maker. That’s part of why we sing it, to help form one another into a deeper trust of God and to form us out of our striving against him. We’ll sing it in a bit, but just to give you a sample of what it sounds like to joyfully submit to God’s providence instead of striving against him, here are a few examples. It’s when your heart can sincerely say this: “Whatever my God ordains is right, his holy will abideth. I will be still, whatever he does, and follow where he guideth…He holds me that I shall not fall, and so to him, I leave it all…Though now this cup in drinking, may bitter seem to my faint heart, I take it all unshrinking…I take content, what he has sent.” Instead of striving against him and receiving his curse, turn to be him and be saved, because, finally, the day is coming when all will acknowledge him.
All will acknowledge him
So verse 14 tells us of a day when the wealth of Egypt, the merchandise of Cush, and the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to Israel and be theirs. They will follow them, bow down to them, and plead with them, because they recognize God is surely in them, and there is no other, no god besides him. You see what they’re saying, what they’re acknowledging? They’re saying the God of Israel is the only true god, and therefore, they want to submit to the people of Israel, whose God He is. So not only is the God of Israel the only true god, but one day all will acknowledge him as such. However, it’s also the case that not all will do so joyfully.
We see in verse 16 that a day is coming when those who make idols, and those, by implication, who worship them, will be ashamed and confounded. Again in verse 24 we read that to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. The idea, then, is that a day is coming when all will acknowledge God as the only true god, but some will do so to their shame, because they spent their lives worshiping what will then be clear were false gods, and striving against the one true God.
On the other hand, there are those who will do so joyfully. While the makers of idols are put to shame and confounded, verse 17 says to Israel that that day will be the day of their salvation, and they will not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity. So also verse 25 says in the LORD, the God of Israel, all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory. When those who trusted him by faith see him by sight, they will rejoice and be glad! When that day comes, those who went through calamities but trusted that he would work it all for their good, those who did not understand his providence but trusted him instead of striving with him, they will see that their trust was not misplaced, because they will be saved, they will see the God of Israel is the one true God, and they will rejoice.
Now in verse 17 and verse 25 it kinda sounds like it’ll just be Israel rejoicing in that day. He is their God after all, right? But in the middle of it all there is this call in verse 22. God says there, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” Just as he is the creator of all the earth, just as he is the ruler of all the earth, so he is the savior of all the earth. The salvation he was going to accomplish would be so great that anyone who turns to him, to the God of Israel, even those who were not of the nation of Israel, could be saved by it. And just as he promised the anointed shepherd Cyrus would come, and he did, so this promised salvation has now come, through an even more surprising anointed shepherd.
Israel was saved from Babylon by a conqueror more powerful than Babylon, Cyrus of Persia. Then the Persians were conquered by a conqueror more powerful than they, Alexander the Great. Then his descendants were conquered by the more powerful Romans. So if Israel was going to be set free from them, how would you expect God to do it? By sending a conqueror more powerful than the Romans, right? And if this Savior was going to save even the ends of the earth, he’d have to be so powerful as to conquer all the rulers of all the earth, right? But then the Savior comes, and he’s born in a manger in the middle of nowhere. He lives in relative obscurity for 30 years, and then when he “goes public,” he does so not with a sword, but with a cloth used to wash others’ feet. The throne he took was a cross, and the crown he wore was made of thorns. The God who forms light and creates darkness made the land dark when he hung on the cross, and the God who makes well being and creates calamity brought calamity on him, because he came not to execute a curse, but to bear the curse that God’s people deserved for all the ways we not only break his commandments, but resist his providence. Yet through this most unexpected of paths, even through the grave itself, God provided salvation when he rose Jesus from the dead, and now whoever, from all the ends of the earth, who turns to him will be saved, and one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So turn to Christ and be saved. He is both the God of Israel and the anointed shepherd no one expected, and no one comes to the Father except through him. Already knees throughout the world are bowing down to him. In the book of Acts which records the history of the early church after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, we already see people turning to God and being saved from outside the fold of Israel, we are a church made up of people who have joyfully bowed the knee to Jesus from outside the fold of Israel, and to this day peoples unreached by the gospel continue to hear, turn to the LORD, and be saved. Perhaps you realize that you’ve given something else or someone else the place only God should have in your life. Perhaps you realize you’ve been resisting and resenting God for the life he’s assigned you. Turn to him and be saved. Rejoice in his salvation. Otherwise the day will come when you will see very clearly that Jesus Christ is Lord, and you will be sentenced to eternal shame for having refused to give up striving against him during your life on earth. But turn to him now, and that day will be one of great rejoicing.
People talk today about being on the “right side of history.” The idea is that if you supported slavery in the 1800s, for example, we now see that you are on the wrong side of history. So people will now try to get you not to oppose their agenda because you don’t want to end up like that, on the wrong side of history. But no human knows where history is going apart from God’s word. The God of Israel is the only true god, and remember that he makes the knowledge of the wise foolish. People think they know where history is heading, but they have no idea. So they don’t know who will be on the right side in the end, but God tells us here there is one issue of which we can know the end. Is the God of Israel the only true god? Is Jesus Christ Lord? If you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, turn to the God of Israel and be saved. Those on Christ’s side will not ultimately be on the wrong side of history. Bow the knee to Jesus Christ now, and one day history will vindicate your faith, and you will rejoice.