Dear Radio Friends,
In the three verses we consider today out of Isaiah 40 the prophet compares Jehovah to man. We read in verses 15-17, “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” It is this direct rather than implied comparison between God and man that makes these verses of Isaiah 40 stand out from among the rest. Say what you will, man thinks very highly of himself. He boasts about his great accomplishments and his ability to accomplish what he wants. Man thinks he is someone great. So, Isaiah places man alongside of God and now makes a comparison between them. We wish to examine that comparison today. Placed side by side with one another, is man indeed so great in comparison to God?
JEHOVAH WEIGHS THE NATIONS
Before making the comparison between God and man we need to identify them. We know who they are already, of course, but Isaiah gives God’s people a couple of important facts both about God and man. The focus of our attention, however, must be on God and who He is. This, after all, is what is ultimately going to give to believers the greatest of comfort. At the end of verse three we are told, “Behold, he (God) takes up the isles as a very little thing.” The term “isles” here ought not to call our attention to the islands of the seas as much as the coastlines of the seas. The Israelites were no doubt reminded of the Great Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and its vast coasts, from which and to which many of their own ships had sailed and returned. You and I have a much more universal idea of the many different shorelines that surround the continents and islands of our globe. It is as if the continents are held up out of the sea by their coastlines. And indeed this is true in a certain sense.
Isaiah explains to us in a very picturesque way what God does with these seashores. He “takes them up, he lifts them up.” Immediately what comes to mind is a huge being that is able to reach down and lift up the shoreline, no, the continents of this earth and its isles, and hold them in his hand. Isaiah spoke earlier, if you recall, in verse 12, of holding the waters of the earth in the hollow of his hand. Here we are given the picture of this great Being, this massive God, holding the inhabitable parts of the earth in His hand and watching them as the waves beat upon their shores. One is reminded of the spiritual (hymn?): “He’s got the whole world in His hand.” Now, we know that this is not literally true. But there is an amazing truth presented to us here.
That truth is that of God’s providential care over His creation. He upholds and preserves, as it were by His hand, the earth and the seas. They continue to exist only because God holds them up, so to speak. If God were for a moment to remove His almighty hand, everything in this world would perish! The laws of nature are under God’s control. God keeps the dry land, the isles, the inhabitable parts of the earth, from plunging back into the depths of the seas. Peter speaks of this truth in connection with the destruction of the earth by the waters of the Flood. We read in II Peter 3:5, “…by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water.” So, the picture presented here is not that God picks up the shorelines and curiously looks at them, and then puts them down again. The idea is that God takes up, He holds, the earth and all its creatures in His hand in order to uphold and preserve the earth and its inhabitants.
Now, from a human perspective that is quite a feat! A feat far beyond the capability of a man, that is for sure! But Isaiah adds that God is able to take up the isles as a very little thing! The very little thing referred to here is a granule of sand. God holds up the earth as if He is holding between His thumb and forefinger a little particle of sand. In other words, for God to take up the isles is not a great feat to Him at all! It is as easy as it would be for us to hold something very small in our hand. Peter says that God by the word of His mouth upholds and preserves this creation. We know how easy it is to speak a word. But our words are ineffectual. That is not true of God. His word always produces results. God takes up the isles as a very little thing!
This simple statement establishes the fact that God is God. No man upholds and preserves creation. God does. If this is the case, then He must be worshiped as God. So Isaiah turns to that subject in verse 16. We read, “Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.” The worship of Jehovah in the Old Testament was done by means of sacrificing. God had taught this to His people since the fall of man into sin. God’s people in Israel would come into the temple to bring a lamb or a goat or a bullock or a turtle dove. These were offered as sacrifices. A huge supply of wood was also needed to burn in order to offer these sacrifices. Both the wood to burn and the animals of these sacrifices are what Isaiah is speaking of in verse 16. The point Isaiah is making is that God is so great, so mighty, so transcendent as God that all the trees of Lebanon could not supply wood sufficient for a sacrifice to God. So great is God, so terrible is He in His majesty, that all the animals found in that forest were not enough to offer as sacrifices to Him.
It is striking that Isaiah speaks of Lebanon. Lebanon, during the days of the kings of Israel, was a majestic and mighty forest that spanned hundreds of miles and grew on high majestic mountainsides. It was north of Canaan, located in the possession of the Zidonians or Phoenecians. Lebanon was known in that day for its costly and precious cedar and fir trees, and the wood they produced. When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, Hiram king of Tyre assisted by sending cedar trees from Lebanon. Much of the furniture, walls, and floors of the temple were made out of cedar wood from Lebanon. Isaiah speaks of that mighty forest of Lebanon with its precious wood. The cedar wood of Lebanon, Isaiah says, is not precious enough or plentiful enough to be a proper oblation to Jehovah—so great and glorious is He as God.
Neither are the animals in that forest enough to sacrifice to God as a proper token of worship, so great is He. We are reminded of the number of animals Solomon offered up to God upon the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. We read in I Kings 8:5 that the sheep and oxen “could not be numbered for multitude.” Now Isaiah says to God’s people: Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering—so great, so magnificent, so transcendent is God in all His glory!
That then is God—the One who upholds all things and the One who is so marvelous that we cannot offer enough praise in our worship of His name.
This God we place on the one side of the balance in order to be compared to man. On the other side of the balance we place the nations. When comparing God to man, we take man not as an individual but as a nation. A nation consists of a compilation of all the individuals that comprise it. A nation is only as powerful as its citizens, of course. If the citizens of a nation are for the most part ignorant, superstitious, and immoral, the power of such a nation is greatly diminished. If its citizens are educated, having great understanding about the world we live in and the laws that govern creation, that nation is powerful and rules over other lesser nations. It is also true that when each man stands alone, without others, he will not be able to achieve what he desires. He needs others. He needs to sharpen his thoughts and experiments against what others think.
If we were to use our own nation as an example, the interaction of knowledgeable men and women has produced a powerful nation. Look at what we have been able to accomplish in the way of technology, medicine, engines of warfare, comforts and luxuries. Look at how self-sufficient and powerful our nation has become.
So, when Isaiah here in verses 15 and 17 speaks of nations, he is going beyond the knowledge and know-how of individual men. He is putting these great minds of men together, and he is comparing God to entire nations of the world, great and small.
But more. Isaiah in verse 17 lumps all these nations of the world together as one. It is as if he says to the believers in Israel, “Let’s not just put one individual or several great individuals together in that balance. Let’s put the nations together in that balance. No, let’s not just put the nations together in that balance as individual nations. Let’s lump them together, so that all the nations of this world, lending their power together, can be compared with God.”
Someday that will be true, you realize. More and more our world is looking toward a one-world empire, when all the nations of this world will lend their power and wealth to one-world government. It will be the kingdom of man. It will be when man has reached the apex of his power and fulfilled all the desires of his heart. Isaiah says: “Go ahead—lump them all together as one. We will put God on one side of the balance and all nations with all their knowledge, riches, and power on the other. And we will weigh them one against another to see which one is most powerful. Who is greater: God or man?”
We read in verse 15, “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.” Again, we read in verse 17, “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.”
To understand the comparison being made here in these verses we need to know what a balance is. It is a scale used to weigh the worth of something. A balance is made of a thin rod that has on each end a pan of equal weight. The exact center of this rod rests on the point of a wedge that supports the rod. This balance can be used for various things. But the one that is alluded to in our text is to weigh the value of money. On the one side of the balance we put a weight of one pound, let us say. When we do, the side with the weight goes down and the empty side is up. But we then begin to place gold coins in the opposite pan. One coin does not shift the balance. Two do not. We continue to place gold coins on that balance until it lifts the one pound weight on the other side. When we finally put just the right amount of gold on the scale, so that the two pans are balanced at an equal height, we can say that we have one pound of gold. A monetary value is placed on that one pound of gold, so we can say it is worth so much in weight. That then is a balance.
This balance Isaiah uses to compare the value of man over against God. God is the weight that is placed on the one side of the scale. When He is placed in the pan on the one side of the scale, obviously the other pan goes up. So heavy is God in honor and glory that it is a wonder that the scale is able to hold His weight! Now we take man and place him in the other side of the scale. How many men will it take to weigh the same as God? How many men will it take to outweigh God? This is the test. God weighs man in the balance to see what he is worth in comparison to Him.
What do you think is the value of man in comparison to God? The test here is not to say that you and I as God’s people have no value at all. We are God’s children. He loves us and cherishes us. He has condescended to us and through the cross of Jesus Christ has adopted us into His family and household. We belong to Him! From that point of view we are precious, valuable in His sight. But the comparison being made here is between the power, honor, and glory of man in comparison to God.
So, what then is the result of this weighing? This: the nations are as a drop of a bucket and are counted in value as the fine dust on the balance. All the super powers of today, the greatest nations on earth, are nothing more than a drop of a bucket in comparison to God in might and glory. A drop in a bucket. How insignificant are the nations. Not only are the individuals that make up that nation insignificant, but all those individuals put together as a whole are insignificant. They are as the small or fine dust on a scale. A thin, microscopic layer of dust on man’s pan of the balance in comparison to God on the other. This dust would not even affect the balance. It would not make it move in the least sense. It might as well be as if there is nothing there. Indeed, it is as if nothing is there! We read in verse 17, “all nations are as nothing—no, less than nothing!—they are vanity.” That is, they are nothing more than emptiness in comparison to God! Man does not even compare. Put the greatest of all men on man’s side of the balance—nothing happens. Put the most powerful and glorious nation of the earth on the scale—no movement. Put all the nations one by one on that balance. The balance does not even reveal a faint tremor! Then take all the nations together as a whole—one grand and glorious kingdom of man—man in all his might and power and glory. The rod that weighs God and man does not even strain. Why? Because man at his greatest is nothing, less than nothing, in comparison to God.
My family and I lived through a hurricane when I served as missionary on the island of Jamaica. When God sent the winds of that hurricane with gusts up to 200 miles an hour, the island was decimated. We watched helplessly as the winds ripped up large sections of our roof and blew them over the top of the hill next to our house. We watched as one by one the trees of our yard were ripped up by their roots and laid flat. Power lines were flung into the air, houses destroyed, and many parts of the island flooded. All that occurred by the hand of God, who takes up the islands as a very little thing.
Dear listener, if all the nations of the earth sent the strongest of their armies to the island of Jamaica to stay the hand of God, God would have destroyed them! If the nations of the earth in concert had sent men with the most highly designed equipment to stop the hand of God, He would have walked right over the top of them. And He would have done it as a very little thing! All nations are less than nothing and vanity before the might, before the infinite glory, of the only God of heaven and earth, who must be served!
Certainly we are able to say when we consider the truth of these verses: How great is God! But these words were meant to be a comfort to God’s people in Judah who were witnesses of God’s judgment on this nation. How do these words serve to comfort those who were disdained for the sake of God and His kingdom? How would this serve to bolster and encourage those who would see their friends and fellow countrymen killed by the edge of the sword? How would this sustain them in their long journey to a foreign kingdom many miles away to be held captive there? What is worse: How would this give comfort when they saw as it were the cause of God’s kingdom destroyed, making it virtually impossible for the Christ to be born?
Look at God, believer! Nothing takes place apart from His will and good pleasure. Today, too, we see what goes on in the nations of this world. What we see can be just as distressing as what God’s saints in Israel saw. The events that surround us certainly are not falling in favor, it seems, of the church and the cause of Christ’s kingdom. Our world, our society, the nations of this world, grow progressively more evil. We live in the last days. We even see the development around us into the one-world empire of man. But consider who our God is: He holds the nations in His hand. He governs them in the way He chooses. All the events going on in Israel God was using for one end: the birth of Christ. For us it is the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. We only need bow before the living God and understand how great He is. If He is for us, nothing can be against us. All nations are vanity, emptiness, before the great power, honor, and glory of our God! Rest in Him in childlike faith. He directs all things for the salvation of His people. O Lord, how great Thou art!