• Bryan Hollomon Williams

A Close Reading of Isaiah 44:9-20 (revised)

What follows was written for a class, while pursuing my degree in Christian Ministry:

A Close Reading of Isaiah 44:9-20 c. 2013

In Isaiah 44:9-20, God, by way of Isaiah’s voice directly addresses a specific issue or practice that many people of that time participated in. Idolatry is that issue. The first thing we notice, in reading these verses, is Isaiah’s tone. It is very direct and to the point. Isaiah even comes off as condescending when bringing what God has given him to speak to the people. For instance, v. 9 clearly says that you are “nothing” if you create idols for yourself. Listening to Isaiah’s tone in these verses, reminds us of Solomon’s tone throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, when he uttered “meaningless” or “vanity” over and over again concerning man’s work and efforts on earth. In vv. 9-11, Isaiah ridicules idolaters. He makes it clear that they will be put to shame. He uses words like “worthless” and “blind” in v. 9, “profit nothing” in v. 10, and “brought down to terror and shame” in v. 11. No punches are pulled at this point. Isaiah is really digging in to the people.

Moving down to v. 12, Isaiah begins to describe the toil through which idol worshipers go, in order to create the gods of their lives. The craftsmen he chooses to use in his very descriptive illustration are the blacksmith and the carpenter. We feel that Isaiah chooses to use the blacksmith and carpenter because they are very particular, meticulous, and intentional with their work. In vv. 12 and 13, we see the blacksmith going without lunch and without water breaks to create his god. We also see the carpenter, careful in his handy work, in the creation of his wooden god. Such men exhaust themselves and their resources to create what Isaiah considers to be foolishness.

Isaiah 44:14-20 really digs deep into the futility of man-made gods. A man cuts down a tree, and uses it for several purposes (vv. 14-17). As we think of God, our God, how could man look at a piece of wood and consider it a god, when it is easily cut down and easily burned. We do see a twisted thought throughout these verses in that a blind mind sees this wood as a provider of heat, fire for cooking, shelter, etc. So, in a sense, the wood provides. Why shouldn’t it be worshiped? It is our opinion that men of this frame of mind, in the time in which Isaiah made this address, do not see the true Source and Provider, God. In v. 14, we see an important aspect of truth that the idol maker misses, “and the rain made it grow.” Man may be bold enough to say, “I am great because I planted this tree”, but he’d have to be an idiot not to see that only God makes things grown through the fertile soil and the rain that blesses the earth. In Isaiah 44:18-20, Isaiah simply questions the mentality of those who make and worship idols. He ends v. 20, asking “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” speaking of the created idol. We agree with Isaiah, that anything that stands in place of God or claims to be God is a lie.

We’ve pretty much established that idol worship is foolish and futile, as we’ve look at Isaiah 44:9-20. Looking at the beginning of Isaiah 44, God addresses the people as Jacob and as Israel (v.1). We agree that a couple of meanings of the name Jacob are trickster and deceiver. Of course Israel is God’s chosen people, the name God gave to Jacob. Considering vv. 9-20, we feel that God wanted to address the “deceiver” side of His people through the mouth of Isaiah. He also speaks words of redemption in the first five verses of Isaiah 44. In v. 3, God says He will pour out His Spirit and blessings on their offspring and descendants. He also speaks about helping them in v. 2. Yet, in verse 5, we see a mixed message. To us, God is making it clear that some will submit their lives to Him, while others will not. Our take is that those who “call themselves by the name of Jacob (v. 5)” will choose to continue living by their own way like the blacksmith and carpenter described in vv. 12 and 13. In vv. 6-8, God makes it clear Who He is and reminds the people of Who He is. This makes a very good transition into the chastisement given in vv. 9-20.

The verses immediately following vv. 9-20, go right back into talk of redemption and also forgiveness. God basically, through Isaiah, says He forgives them and redeems them (v. 22). Seeing as God uses Jacob and Israel both, over and over throughout vv. 1-5 and vv. 21-23, He has offered redemption to all His people. He reminds them that they are His people (v. 21).

Isaiah spoke these words, Isaiah 44:9-20, at a time when idol worship was very common amongst the people. Yet, Israel should have been to last to consider such a practice, given their history of protection and salvation with the one true God. Isaiah ridicules idol worship amongst Israelites. To him it seemed flat out stupid to worship man-made objects in place of the God of Creation. It just doesn’t make sense. Considering that idol worship was such an “in” thing, we feel that it was dangerous for Isaiah to speak out against such a common practice. It may have equated to trying to snatch a bone from a hungry dog. Our personal take on some of this, deals with the pride of man, to want to live his own life how he pleases. Think about it. If I choose to worship wood, then that wood is going to guide me in the ways of my own mind. So, it becomes an issue of control. Do I control my life, or do I submit my life to God in obedience to Him?

Idol worship is a direct sin against God Himself. His first laws against idolatry are is found in Exodus 20:3-6. We are told to place any gods before Him, make any false, or bow down in worship to them. With such a law given such a long time ago, can you not understand the reason for Isaiah’s tone? Yet, God has still given room for redemption.

In more recent times, contemporary times, such an address as this one is applicable. We see so many different forms of idol worship, and when we take time to truly see it, we see futility and utter foolishness. Anything that takes the place of God in your life becomes your idol. Anything that steals your focus and devotion away from God becomes your idol. We feel that there are way more distractions in this day and age than what was available centuries ago.

Examples of things we give our minds and heart to today, more than we do God, are television, internet, jobs, cars, apps, our spouses, and even our pastors. Looking back to Isaiah 44:12-17, we see men putting themselves in the place of the Creator. As pride normally does, it drives a man to think he is greater than just a man. So, idol worship is not about the object but about the pride and rebellion in a man or woman’s heart. The object is simply a mask, covering true intent and personal desires.

Today’s technological advances easily become idols to many. We live as though we cannot live without cell phones, Facebook, computers, etc. How the lack of these things affects our lives says a lot about our priorities. With God, we have all we need. Life will go on, if we leave our phones at home for a day, if our laptops crash, or if the cable goes out. If we are utterly lost in such times and situations and can’t seem to move on, then it’s time we get to truly know God all over again. If you can’t find any beauty in a day of power outages, cable outages, or phone outages, then you need to get to know God all over again.

Even in the times of Isaiah, the people needed to get to know God all over again. Many of them did not witness the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, or Samson’s might, but knowing the history of themselves should have been enough to remain faithful. We could say the same about people today. We tend to want to see and touch things before we believe, rather than practicing a strong faith that yields far more than anything we do or create by our own hands.

People, in general, have not changed much since the time in which Isaiah spoke the words found in Isaiah 44. We are still easily mislead by personal desires for what we consider better or more, when we should be content with the grace God gives us, which in many cases turns out to be our simple daily bread.

Anything that is done to replace God is futile, ridiculous, and just stupid. This is what we generally gather from Isaiah 44:9-20. Isaiah’s tone is clearly one of ridicule. Yet, throughout the 44th chapter we see that God will forgive the people and even save them from themselves.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.......

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