My name is Matt Nestberg, and I get the joy of serving on staff here at North Hills and opening God’s Word today. So, I’m going to pray, and then we’ll start back in Isaiah 40.
Thank you, God, for your faithfulness already today. And as I asked in the first service, I ask again that you would be seen as great, as our chief desire, and that you would use the weakness, God, of words, which fail to describe you in all your splendor and your greatness. And yet, that’s what you’ve given us to communicate. And so, Lord, would you use them and use your servant to try to communicate who you are through Isaiah 40. Open our minds and our eyes to see and to understand … the finite seeking to understand the infinite. Give us a measure of grace today toward that end, we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
Two weeks ago yesterday, a little event occurred in Great Britain that doesn’t happen all that often — the coronation of a king. In fact, it hasn’t happened, a coronation in England hasn’t happened since 1953, and a coronation of a king hasn’t happened since 1936, King George VI in 1936.
The coronation of Charles III was not shockingly dissimilar from Elizabeth’s coronation sixty-plus years ago. There were some differences, of course, but the basic elements of the coronation remained the same. There was the anointing, the regalia and crown (as you see Charles there in the regalia, crown, and scepter), the enthronement, and even the eucharist. All those were seen again, indicating that still, at the heart of British rule, is an exchange of vows binding the ruler to the ruled with rights and obligations. However, there was one noticeable difference towards the beginning of the ceremony. A young member of the Chapel Royal said to the king these words. She said,
“Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God, we welcome you in the name of the King of kings.”
And Charles replied,
“In his name and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve,”
which are the words of Jesus.
That theme came up again at another place in the ceremony, causing one English theologian to remark,
“There is still an idea stubbornly inseparable from the coronation: Those who rule receive their authority from God.”
An Anglican theologian, Oliver O’Donovan, put it this way. He said,
“That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.”
God sets up rulers and kings and takes them down.
The prophet Isaiah agrees with that, that rulers and princes and kings rule under the authority of the King of kings. God allows their ascent as well as their descent. Jesus agreed with Isaiah when he told Pilate,
“You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above.”
As he stood there, arrested, in front of him, he says,
“You have no authority over me unless you got it from above.”
In other words, “I gave you the authority that you hold right now.” The consistent testimony of Scripture is that rulers and kings … yes, Charles III and yes, Biden I, serve under the authority of the King of kings, whether they know it or not.
So, when we pick up our place in Isaiah 40 here, where we left off last week, Isaiah is describing the reign of the King of kings and asks this question in verse 18 — “To whom then will you liken God, or what will you compare with him?” That is a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a question that does not require an answer because the answer is so obvious, like when you walk in late for something and someone says, “Do you know what time it is?” They don’t really want to know if you know what time it is. They’re pointing out that you’re late.
Or, several years ago I had to go to the doctor because I was working outside, I picked up something that was too heavy for me to pick up, and picked it up wrongly, and hurt my back. It stuck around for a couple of days; so, I went to the doctor. And she said, “You probably have a bulging disk. You need to relax. Take it easy. Let your body recover.” And she prescribed me steroids to help the inflammation go down. It was great. It was fantastic, worked great! Everything started to feel better. A couple weeks later, I thought, I’m ready to go. So, I did it again and hurt my back again. So, I went back to the same doctor. She was like, “What happened?” I told her what happened. She looked at me and she said, “Are you stupid?” That is a rhetorical question, whose answer is so obvious it need not be answered.
Isaiah is using a rhetorical question here. He’s making a point with his question in Isaiah 40:18. It’s transparently rhetorical.
“To whom will you liken God, or what likeness will you compare with him?”
Absolutely no one and nothing is the answer that he doesn’t answer because it needs no answer. You can compare no one or nothing to God. And then he goes on to illustrate the obviousness of the answer by making two main points in these verses. And so, I’m going to walk through the two points, summarize the picture of God that Isaiah is painting for us, and then draw out a couple of implications, hopefully giving you the opportunity to make your implications that might affect you and be helpful to you as we see this picture of God.
And here’s one thing you’ll notice. Isaiah 40 seems to be, in some areas, almost like concentric circles. He picks up the same themes, using the same words, talking about the same things, and then will circle back around to it again. And so, as I preach today, you might think, “Hey, I think I heard this sermon last week by a different guy.” And you did, similarly, but different. It’s different, but there are still some of those same themes.
So, here he goes. Isaiah 40, picking up in verse 18. He asks the question and then he begins to answer it by saying two things. Number 1, he says idols aren’t like him. Verses 19 and 20, idols aren’t like him, and then he gives us three ways that idols are not like Yahweh.
Number 1, idols are manmade. Isaiah bookends these two verses with the word “craftsman.” Idols are manmade. He’s showing us that no matter how ornate or simple the idol, how expensive or cheap, idols are made by men; they are manmade.
Number 2, idols have fluctuating value. They fluctuate in their value. Listen to Isaiah. Some people say the Bible doesn’t have sarcasm, but Isaiah is sarcastic when he describes idols with this ridiculous comparison to Yahweh. Verse 19,
“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.”
What’s he describing? Well, idols are carved images. So, he includes carved images, and he uses the word “casts” to refer to molten images that have been cast. So, whether it’s a wooden idol that’s just wooden like it is, overlaid with precious metal, or precious metal that’s cast so that it’s solid. Those are the kinds of things he’s talking about specifically that have been compared to God. So, you have some idols that are made with gold and silver and some that are only wood. But at the end of the day, the point that Isaiah is making is at the end of the day, the value of the god depends on the financial state of the devotee. They are not intrinsically valuable. It depends on the state of the devotee, how much money he can pony up, and that’s going to be how nice the idol is. So, whether carved or casted, an idol is made in the financial image of the person worshiping it. Do you see that? That idol reflects more me than a God who is transcendent above anything else. It’s just a reflection of me financially.
Number 3, it’s stationary. This is my favorite point that he makes. The idol is stationary. It’s manmade, it has fluctuating value, and it’s stationary. Verse 20, “He seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.” The phrase “will not move” means “will not topple.” That’s the goal of idol-making. One of the chief goals is for the craftsman to create an idol in such a way that it prevents it from tipping over because it’s a real bummer when your idol falls over, and it can’t get up on its own, and you have to get it up, you have to get him back up so that you can worship him again, and so that’s really discouraging for the worshiper. So, the goal of the craftsman is to create an idol that stays upright. Stationary is the goal of craftsmanship. They want a God that will not move.
Imagine the idol salesman in the idol showroom trying to sell that point. “This idol … I want to put you in this idol … This idol has a specially padded design at the bottom that prevents it from tipping over. We guarantee it will not tip over or your money back.” That’s ridiculous! Exactly. That’s ridiculous! But that’s the goal. And we might understand why someone would want a god that is under their control and reflects their image. We could understand at some level the amount of control that a person might enjoy over their object of worship. But to devote one’s life to a created thing that has no power or greatness, no intrinsic mobility to affect anything whatsoever, is absolutely empty. Empty.
And we think about these created idols that are carved, and certainly some people have things that look like that in their homes today, but probably not many people in here. But we have other things that we substitute in that reflect us in one way or another that we devote our lives to. Idols aren’t like him.
Here’s the second big point that Isaiah makes. Number 2, he, Yahweh, is like no other. Idols aren’t like him. In fact, he’s like no other. He gives us four ways that he is like no other.
First, Yahweh is uncreated. God is uncreated. On the one hand, there are these idols that are created and tame. You need a new idol? You go to the idol store and get a new idol. But look at verse 21.
“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?”
What is he saying? He’s saying that from the foundations of the earth, God was there already. He wasn’t created. He wasn’t brought to life by or brought into being by a craftsman. When the foundations of the earth were set, God was already there, and God’s Word was already there. He says, “What has been told you from the beginning…” The truth, the Word of God already existed when the foundations of the earth were laid. If you were there at the beginning, it would have been told you that God was already there. God’s Word existed because he preexisted everything in the beginning.
This sounds a lot like the beginning of John’s gospel in John 1:1, which says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In the beginning, when the foundation of the earth was laid, God was already there. The New Testament is remarkably consistent with the Old Testament. God has no beginning or end. He existed before the beginning, and this was not something that we received by natural revelation, by looking around at the created order; rather, the Word of God was already there. We received it from God’s Word that he has always existed. He is the uncreated one. That’s God. He is uncreated.
Number 2, not only is he uncreated, but he is immense. God is immense. Have you ever been beside something or someone that is immense? Some of you are thinking, “I’ve been beside you, and you are immense.” Not that kind of immense. Really immense! A week from today, God willing, my family and I are traveling out to central California to see some immense things. We’ll go to the Muir Woods of redwoods, and we’ll go to see the sequoias, and we will end our trip in Yosemite National Park, which … that’s El Capitan on the left, and it’s just, you know, much better than that in real life. That’s immense! You stand in a place like that and you go, “I’m so small. I’m so tiny. I’m just a speck.”
But look at verse 22. Verse 22 is ridiculously immense.
“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 out like a tent to dwell in.”
Let me describe a little bit to you about the image that’s given here because of what we know about the universe, just a snapshot. Are you ready?
First of all, we live on earth. Are you with me so far? Okay, good. And the closest star to us is the sun. Are you still with me? Okay. The sun … The surface of the sun is about 10 thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The center of the sun is about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Now, if you’re a scientist, and you’re listening to me, and it’s bugging you because I didn’t give the right exact number, I think I’m close. If I’m a million degrees off, it’s still hot, still pretty hot. I’m not trying to be inexact here. The diameter of the sun is 870 thousand miles. It’s 109 times larger than the earth. Approximately one by volume … It could contain approximately one million earths. Its luminosity (I don’t know who did this math) is equivalent to 4 million trillion 100-watt light bulbs. So, if you had — I think that’s quintillion — if you had 4 quintillion,100-watt light bulbs and turned them on all at the same time, that would be the sun.
Now, let me break that down for you. In the United States of America today, it is estimated that we have approximately 5.6 billion light bulbs. If all 5.6 billion light bulbs were 100-watt light bulbs, and we turned all those on at the same time, it would take over 714 million light-bulb-lit Americas to equal the sun. Seven hundred fourteen — almost three quarters of one billion — Americas with all our light bulbs turned on at 100 watts to equal the sun.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, of which the sun is a relatively small star, is shaped like a giant spiral, like a pinwheel spinning in the expanse of space. Our solar system rotates around the center of that galaxy about once every million years or so. The Milky Way is 104 light years across, and it contains over 100 billion stars. If you decided to count the stars in the Milky Way alone, it would take you over three thousand years to count them one by one.
Now, this is how Isaiah describes God in relation to that. Just like when you go camping and you pull out your tent, you shake it out, and you spread it out, and you put the stakes down, and you put the bendy rods through it, and that’s what you do. That’s not where you live. That doesn’t contain all of you. That’s just a very small part of your life, right? You do other things outside. In that same way, God took the universe, shook it out, spread it out, put the stakes down, put the bendy rods through, except his didn’t break, and set it. It’s not everything he is. He’s way bigger than that. It’s a very small part. It’s just his tent. That’s all. The universe is just his tent. Now, that is immense. And that’s who he is. We don’t serve a God that you casted and reflects you; we serve a God who is holy other, something that we can’t imagine. He’s immense.
Number 3, he’s unrivaled. Well, that might go without saying if you’re spreading the universe out like a tent. There ain’t nobody else doing that! He’s unrivaled. But here’s the key. You might think a God who’s that immense is disconnected from us, from his creation — he just set the tent up and walked away and “Whatever … I don’t care.” But look at verse 23.
“… Who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
Notice a difference between God and idols and every other god. God isn’t stationary; he’s active. In these verses, Isaiah uses words like he “stretches,” he “spreads,” he “brings,” he “makes,” and in verse 24, he “blows.” He’s active in his creation, and his rule in his creation is unrivaled.
Princes are people who hold a high office, like King Charles III. Rulers are those who make the ruling decisions, like a prime minister or a judge. Rulers and princes are the people that are the ones that are in charge. And yet God is the unrivaled King and Ruler. Isaiah says by comparison, he assigns other kings to oversee nothing and rulers to rule over emptiness. By comparison, King Charles, you’re in charge of nothing. And you, ruler, are ruling over emptiness compared to God’s rule, compared to his kingship. His rule is unrivaled.
And number 4, he is provident. That might not be the best word, but I think it carries the idea. Look at verse 24.
“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.”
God in this world takes effective, sovereign action. God takes effective, sovereign action in the world. Remember Oliver O’Donovan that I quoted at the very beginning? He said,
“That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.”
It is a work of divine providence in history. God’s providence continues to sustain and oversee what happens on this earth and in this universe. So, here is the picture of God that Isaiah is showing us. God is both transcendent and immanent. He is both infinite and personal. He’s both. He is transcendent in that he is the God who formed the world with ease.
If we go back a few verses to Isaiah 40:12, which says,
“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?”
God formed the world with ease, and he’s immanent. God presides over the world with ease, as we’ve just looked at in verses 22 and 23. So, God formed the world with ease, and God presides over the world with ease.
This is not deism or dualism. Deism is the idea that God created everything that is and then kind of let it go, got it started and let it go. That’s not true. God is immanent. And the idea of dualism is the idea that there is good and there is evil, and they’re fighting against each other, and we’re not sure which one is more powerful. We’ll see what happens, but there’s always this war. It’s not dualism because God is the unrivaled King and Ruler. It’s not deism. He didn’t just create it and let it go, but he stays and is provident in his care, taking effective, sovereign action over what he has created. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both infinite and personal. He is effortless in his rule and close to his creation.
And of course, Jesus is the ultimate expression of this transcendent, immanent God. This is why the incarnation is such a big deal. I yell across the house, “Kids, he’s here!” on Christmas. They’re like, “Dad, we know.” I do that because it’s the infinite God who came to earth. Who is like our God? What God would do that? If you have all that power and all that infinitude, why would you do what he did? It is the incarnation of the infinite! And that’s what he did. When he was on earth, people reacted to him in that way. They said things like,
“he teaches like no one else, like one who has authority.”
Yeah, like ultimate authority because that’s what he has. They would say, “He has power like no one else.” Yeah, because he was there spreading out the heavens like a tent. So, really having power over disease and death is nothing.
One of my favorite stories is in Luke 7, when the woman of questionable moral character is weeping over Jesus and breaks the ointment and anoints Jesus’s feet and weeps over him, and the people around her are concerned, you know. And Jesus, you know what he does? He looks at the woman because of her faith and he says what?
“Your sins are forgiven you.”
And they said,
“No one can forgive sins but God. Who is this guy who forgives sins?”
Yeah, he is the infinite who is personal. And then Jesus does this, which is shocking. We read over it, and just go right past it. When he told his followers how to talk to the infinite, personal God, the uncreated, immense, unrivaled, provident, transcendent God, Jesus says, “Call him Dad.” He says when you pray, “Our Father …” And we read over that and forget that what Jesus was giving us was a relationship with the infinite, a personal connection through him. We are brought near in Christ. That’s what he gave us.
To the one who spread the heavens like a tent, “Behold your God” To whom will you liken God? There is no one like him. There is none like him.
I want to suggest that these truths can make, ought to make an impact in our lives today. We’ve been in Isaiah 40 for a few weeks now talking about comfort, renewal. There is comfort or renewal in a God that is transcendent and immanent. He has to be both, or there’s no comfort, I don’t think. If he is transcendent only, but untouched by the plight of his creation, that’s not comforting. If he is only immanent but doesn’t have transcendent power, that’s not comforting. It’s nice. It’s empathetic, but it’s not comforting. He must be infinite. He must be transcendent. And he must be personal and immanent for us to find comfort and renewal, I believe.
And in our lives, with the things that we see in our lives and the struggles that we have, we have two ways to respond. I think we can respond with anger, anxiety, fear, even violence. Or I think we can behold our God, a sovereign who is active in the world, which enables us to speak truthfully and love completely, to do both while we look to him say, “God, you are taking effective, sovereign action in the world. I know who you are. You are the infinite, personal one. So, I am going to speak truth and love freely and trust you,” which is very different than anxiety and fear and distress. It’s a very different approach.
So, let me give you two examples. I’m going to give you a big-picture example, things that we wrestle with out here in society as westerners in America, and things that we wrestle with in our homes, in our hearts. Two examples where we might be able to apply this. And my hope is, at the bottom of your notes there, as I’m talking, if anything I say triggers something in your head where you go, “Oh, I see that in my life,” and you write down some that’ll be helpful for you.
So, right now — here’s my first example — right now we live in a culture, where there are powerbrokers and cultural influencers that are pushing lies to us that they’re attempting for us, that they want us to believe. And I’m going to give you one example, because it’s in our faces every day if you’re connected at all to the culture around us, and that is statements like “men can have babies too.” It’s all around us. It’s being pushed in our schools. It’s being pushed in popular culture.
Now, let me be very clear up front. Right now, I am not talking about people who genuinely struggle with gender dysphoria. That is a real thing and something that deserves our care, our compassion, and our love. Full stop. I’m talking about people who seek power and wealth and will use any means or anyone, including the destruction of human bodies, to gain power and wealth. So, we are expected … We live in a culture right now where we are expected — people of the truth, we serve the God of truth. Jesus said, “I am the truth” — we are asked to nod our heads and agree that there is no such thing as gender, that there are no gender differences, that they don’t even exist. We’re supposed to nod our heads and agree that men can have babies even though we know and they know it’s not true. But we’re expected to go, “Okay, yes.” We will also say a lie. Or that men should be able to compete in women’s sports because it doesn’t matter because gender doesn’t matter. Or that women’s sororities should accept men because it’s all the same. We are supposed to nod our heads like this is normal and okay. And it’s not okay. It’s not okay. God created men and women, male and female. And he created them beautiful in his image. And we are number-one champions of people because people are created in God’s image. We are.
However, we live in a society that seems to have so much power and promotes lies. And what can we do? Because we have very limited power, if some. As individuals, we have limited — all of us together — still very limited. So, what do we do? Well, I do think that we behold our God. And that’s not a flippant answer. I think it helps us. Does that mean that we’re passive, that we’re like, “Well, God’s got this”? No, it does not mean that because we are ambassadors. It means, rather, that we are free to speak, to vote, to influence, and love the wreckage of people that are being destroyed by those who are in power. The church is here on earth to be the hands and feet of Christ to those who are being hurt. So, we are to resist sin, resist evil, and Romans 12, we are to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice,” and leave it into the hands of God because God will repay (Romans 12). He is the one.
And we can do this. We can fight for freedom from anxiety and fear and violence and anger. Though some things that happen are worthy of anger and disgust, we can be free not to live like that because we know that God takes effective, sovereign action in the world, according to his perfect will. And we fight for good. We fight for freedom in good ways. I don’t mean fight like war-fight, you know? I mean we struggle to care for people and advocate for things that are good, and we trust God because there is no one like him, no one. That’s a macro example. That’s a big example.
Let me give you a micro example. We live in a world where people hurt and struggle, and our families, our own children are in pain. We live in a world where people we love walk away from Christ. I needed these verses in my life over the last few weeks. I really have enjoyed and bathed in the comfort that’s offered in Isaiah 40.
Since this fall, my family has experienced a series of trials and hurts and struggles and pain. I’ll give you the tip of the iceberg. In November, my mom passed away. She knew the Lord. We’re so happy for her, but it’s still hard to lose your last parent on earth. Since August, one of our children has wrestled with debilitating illness with no answers. And for the last several weeks, Katie and I have been relentlessly and unjustly slandered by people who once professed their friendship. There’s a lot more. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. My point — this is not a sermon about me — my point is this has been really helpful to think about God. I’ve needed these words from the Lord this week. I needed to behold him. I’ve asked him to help us rest, to comfort us, to renew us. I need the infinite and personal God in these things that are outside of my control, but are completely within his. Completely! And I can trust him that he is infinite, and he’s got it, and he loves me, he loves my daughter, he’s got her. One day I’m going to be off this earth. She’s going to be still here, Lord willing. He’s still got her. And that’s the God that I serve, not an empty idol, not a worthless one, but the infinite, personal one. And that is so good for my soul when things are troubling.
Maybe one of these examples intersects with you, or I hope that there are others in your world, where sitting and soaking about the infinite, personal Yahweh…. Just this morning I was looking at Psalm 147. If you have a Bible, would you just turn over to Psalm 147? I’m going to read a couple of verses to end because I noticed that this theme is in Psalm 147. This infinite God who is so personal. Look at verse 2.
“The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
Do you feel that personal? Next verse.
“He determines the number of stars; he gives to all of them their names.”
Oh! The 100 billion stars in our galaxy, God named them all.
“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.”
There is no one like him. Let’s pray.
It’s been my hope today, God, that we would be able to see your greatness and that you love us, that you personally love us and know us and that our hearts and minds would be on that. We are troubled on every side. Sometimes it feels that way, and God, we need this reminder like 2 Peter talks about reminders. Well, this is one we need too, to say, “There’s no one like God.” The finite cannot understand completely the infinite. There’s no one like you. But I ask for my brothers and sisters here that these few words, that there would be something that’s helpful for us to go, “Oh, I need the infinite, personal God right there. This is who he is. I can follow him in faith.” We ask that in Jesus’s name. Amen.