The Lord God versus gods of Men

by Frank Jones


“Present your case,” the Lord says. “Bring forward your strong arguments,” the King of Jacob says. Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them and know their outcome. Or announce to us what is coming; declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods; indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. Behold, you are of no account, and your work amounts to nothing; he who chooses you is an abomination. (Isaiah 40:21-24)

The pagan understanding of existence rests on the concept of continuity. According to this concept, everything that exists is part of everything else. Thus humanity, nature, and deity are all inseparable from one another. In an ultimate sense, the cosmos is eternal. What is always has been, and what has been always will be. In the cycles of existence there is no beginning and no end, and nothing ever changes. Thus the way to tell the future in such a system is to find the ways in which the present is congruent with the past, for what happened in the past under similar circumstances must happen again. But the gods are absolutely helpless to tell us how the world began or how it will end; the gods are the system personified. By the same token, they are helpless to tell us about something that has never happened before. First, by definition there cannot be such a thing; second, the system cannot know what it has not yet experienced.

Thus Isaiah’s attack betrays a penetrating understanding of the nature of the system he is attacking. He has attacked it precisely at its weak point. His attack also illustrates the breathtaking difference between his (and the Bible’s) conception of God and that of Israel’s neighbors. What kind of God is he who knows what has not happened? What kind of God is he who can explain the first principles of existence? He is one who is Other than the system, one who has made the system according to certain specifications, one who makes the system operate according to his sovereign will. He is the one who is himself “the first and the last” (cf. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; and the discussion of “first” and “last” above on 41:22). Isaiah says, in effect, that anything worthy of the term “god” must be more than the system itself. Since these beings are incapable of independent activity, they are not gods. This is philosophical sophistication of a sort found elsewhere only in the logical reductionism of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But there it is little more than an abstract formulation that was little more than a philosophical concept. Here it is the fervently held conviction of a whole people, a conviction that was to change the entire Western world. Whence came such a belief, except, as the Hebrews insist, through divine self-revelation? (Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (the New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Eerdmans, 1998, 106.)