Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.15. Don’t look to the world
Isa 40:15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Context: We often say, check the context, and this seems doubly so in Isa 40 for it is a rolling prophecy and it is all pointing the same direction. It comes, as we’ve seen, as a word from the Lord through Isaiah to Israel, specifically to Jerusalem (v.2) and specifically to the southern kingdom, Judah (v.9). It is a word of comfort (v.1), a word that says God is coming (v.5,9) and will be revealed, a word that reassures that He comes as a caring shepherd and they are His sheep (v.11). That was the thrust of the first part, and the second part is all about who the Lord is, and we have just seen His greatness as the unique being who is all-powerful and all-knowing. The objective of this second part is to emphasis his uniqueness and now the prophet, in a rather cut and dried manner, puts the peoples of the world in right perspective compared to Him.
Psalm 2: We also see this in psalm 2: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (Psa 2:2-4) The psalmist paints the picture of godless humanity plotting together to throw off the shackles of God’s love and the Lord just laughs at our folly. The New Testament revelation of God seen through Jesus Christ, slightly tempers whatever we might think of the word ‘derision’ for it does have a hard sound to it, but that is the truth of what God (and Justice) thinks about rebellious mankind in their rebellion. Yet it is always undergirded by His love that is there for whoever will receive it. The ‘derision’ is about the ungodly attitude and verses 15 to 17 here in Isaiah may be summed up as ‘The nations are as nothing before Him.’ Let’s consider them in more detail.
Verse 15a: “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket.” Our problem is that we lose perspective. If you are a film-watcher you may have seen Roman or Greek epics (or even the Lord of the Rings) and seen vast armies that fill the landscape and may think, ‘Aren’t nations powerful!’ A little digging in history shows that peoples come, and peoples go. Great names today will be gone tomorrow. A great empire today will be gone tomorrow, and the folly of dictators is to believe they are so great, and yet every great name from the past is now dust (unless they were embalmed and are now in a museum, which isn’t much better). The nations of the world, when seen in true perspective are really just like a drop in the bucket of history, so small, so insignificant. And if you compare them to Almighty God who fills all of existence, you have to really peer intently at the bottom of the bucket of all of existence to even find any nation known to us. Now this is really going to become meaningful when you consider godless nations in Israel’s history who rose up against Israel and therefore against God. A no-contest!
Verse 15b: He continues, “they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.” So often when prophecy speaks of ‘the islands’ there is being conveyed the sense of small people groupings. Britain is an island, Australia and New Zealand are islands and there are many other islands, big and small in between. But instead of greatness (as godless man thinks of his nation) nations and islands are actually so small that they are rather like dust being weighed on very fine scales, so small, so light, they have to have special scales to measure them. That is how they are in comparison to Almighty God! The Message version has a quaint way of putting these verses: “Why, the nations are but a drop in a bucket, a mere smudge on a window. Watch him sweep up the islands like so much dust off the floor!” I like it!
Verse 16: “Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.” From our perspective as we travel by car or even air, great forests seem amazing. I have flown over Borneo and marvelled at the scenery below me, I have seen aerial film of the Amazon rain forest (as diminishing as it is) and such massive swathes of trees are awesome. Lebanon was known for its massive cedars and so there was a land covered with forests of these massive trees, and the temptation is to think of how great they are but, as the Message version again puts it, “There aren’t enough trees in Lebanon nor enough animals in those vast forests to furnish adequate fuel and offerings for his worship.” i.e. if you wanted to worship God in the Old Testament style with a sacrifice on an altar fire – if you really wanted to worship God as He is truly worth worshipping – there just isn’t enough wood or enough animals to do it properly. That is what Isaiah is saying here.
Verse 17: “Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing” I really think Eugene Peterson hit top form in the Message, here in these verses: “All the nations add up to simply nothing before him – less than nothing is more like it. A minus.” Another way we might say it is, “God is not impressed by the size and strength of nations on this tiny planet and in terms of value, nations are virtually meaningless, they are just the way people gather together to make themselves feel strong and secure. Next to the staggering size and power of God – nothing!
Right Perspective: All that we have been considering in these three verses is about maintaining or even getting, a right perspective when it comes to God. Why did Israel need that? They needed it because so often they had been dominated by surrounding nations who seemed so mighty and so strong that they probably felt trodden down by those nations, and so the Lord’s objective here is to say, “Get a right perspective, realise who I am and realise how small and even insignificant they are by comparison. You have nothing to fear with me on your side.” Remember who we are, the people of God, and keep a right perspective and then you can realise who we truly are and be secure in that. Hallelujah!
Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please help me to have a right perspective of the world, realizing that the wisdom of the world is as folly and only you have true wisdom and knowledge.