Have you ever caught yourself saying, “Well, that is just life?”
It is what it is.
I say it a lot, but after reading today’s passage, I have been weighing that phrase a little bit more thoughtfully.
There is truth to it. Our planet has been loaded under a curse since the dawn of civilization. The first people who inhabited earth took a pivotal turn in the course of human history, which ushered in the sin, decay, and death you and I live with on a daily basis today.
But “that is just life” does not cover the whole story. We look at what is happening in warring nations like Ukraine and Sudan and we say, “Well, that is the inevitable result of aggression and greed.” Or we might look at the recent collapse of a financial institution and say, “This is the inevitable result of bad fiscal decisions.” And we would be right … but only up to a certain point.
What Isaiah is saying in today’s passage is that God directs the activities of people and nations to accomplish God’s purposes. In these matters, the ways of God are often beyond our full comprehension. In fact, we usually see the earthly cause as the “real” reason for whatever is happening.
Often, it is only possible in retrospect for you and I to see God’s sovereign hand at work
Isaiah began today’s passage with a description of the Babylonian New Year festival, which occurred just before the spring equinox—so actually, kind of around right now. Called Akitu, this was a lavish celebration that normally lasted eleven days. Idols of all the major deities would be loaded up onto carts and brought to Babylon to begin the New Year with a grand parade that ended at the main temple.
The entire Epic of Creation would be read out loud, or even enacted. Then, the king would appear. The high priest would remove all the king’s royal insignia, then slap him and pull his ears to signify his humiliation before Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon of gods. After this, the king would swear allegiance to Marduk for the coming year, receive back his royal insignia, and get slapped some more so authentic tears would roll, to show Marduk’s pleasure in his humility.
Later that night the king would take the hand of the Marduk idol and walk with it in a procession all throughout Babylon to signify his loyalty, submission, and partnership with Marduk.
This is what the Israelites in captivity watched every one of those seventy years.
It is doubtful they would have been able to celebrate their own Passover – also a spring festival – except perhaps privately, even secretly, in their own homes.
You and I do not tend to really see our own culture. Our culture is what we see with. We are influenced in ways we do not even notice, let alone grasp, particularly when we have been raised up in the same culture we are now immersed in and saturated by.
We have problems and do not understand the real cause. What do you and I watch all the time? What do we listen to, or read? That influences us.
And what about our children?
All the children born in captivity grew up with this. As far as they might think, these were the most powerful gods on earth.
But what were these gods really? God knew the people would need the truth before they entered into captivity, for their own protection.
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;Isaiah 46:1-2 (NRSV)
their idols are on beasts and cattle;
these things you carry are loaded
as burdens on weary animals.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden
but themselves go into captivity.
Can you see the idols jostling in the carts and the tired oxen hauling those big, heavy things around? Isaiah was diffusing that sense of glamour and allure the people would be seduced by as they watched this rich parade.
Thinking about that made me wonder how you and I might be able to diffuse the glamour and allure of what we watch and listen to.
Bel was another name for Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, the king of the gods, and considered the determiner of the destinies of nations.
Nebo was Marduk’s oldest son, the god of writing and wisdom, the secretary to the council of gods, and the custodian of the Tablets of Destiny.
Together they were supposed to be the most powerful and wise gods in the world, validating Babylon as the dominant world power.
But in reality, they were just statues made of gold and silver.
To whom will you liken me and make me equal
and compare me, as though we were alike?
Those who lavish gold from the purseIsaiah 46:7 (NRSV)
and weigh out silver in the scales—
they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into a god;
then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders; they carry it;
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries out to it, it does not answer
or save anyone from trouble.
They could not do anything!
They had to be carried around.
They could not help or save anybody.
They were no more aware of the people falling down around them worshiping them than the change in your pocket is aware of you!
Reread the first line of the passage above. God asks How can you possibly compare me to those things? Instead of a statue being carried around. the living God carries God’s people from before they are born to the day God takes them from earth to be with the Lord forever
even to your old age I am he;Isaiah 47:4 (NRSV)
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
The people made their idols, but God is the one who created people.
The idols were lifeless, inert, incapable of listening or responding, or speaking at all, so profoundly incomparable to the One True and Living God!
Only the Living God Can Save
I am God, and there is no other;Isaiah 46:9-11 (NRSV)
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the outcome from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfill my intention,”
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man for my purpose from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have planned, and I will do it.
When God’s judgment in the form of Cyrus would come, the idols would not, could not do anything about it, because they were just statues.
The people had a story in their already ancient past that would help them know how true this is. In the days of King Saul, he had the army carry the Ark of the Covenant into a battle. During one decisive confrontation, the Philistines actually captured the Ark and hauled it off to their own region, placing it in front of their national deity, Dagon.
Every morning the priests would go in to check on Dagon and he would be tumbled over, face down in front of the Ark. Each time, they would replace Dagon to his pedestal. Finally, one morning they arrived to find Dagon’s head and hands cut off and thrown outside the temple. All during this time, the account says God’s hand was heavy on the Philistines, making them sick. Eventually they realized it was Israel’s YHWH, so they returned the ark to the Israelites.
Only the Living God has power to save
Idols are useless. But you and I still convince ourselves that what we see must have more power than the invisible God. Still, God promises,
Listen to me, you stubborn of heart,Isaiah 46:13 (NRSV)
you who are far from deliverance:
I bring near my deliverance; it is not far off,
and my salvation will not tarry;
I will put salvation in Zion,
for Israel my glory.