Sermon preached on Isaiah 55:8-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/16/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“My Ways Are Higher Than Your Ways”
This is a wonderful chapter of Scripture. It’s a chapter addressed initially to Israelites living in Babylonian exile, calling them to turn to the Lord and to know his gracious salvation. Now you may not know this, but our church has been going through a sermon series on Isaiah 55. In between some of our other sermons series, I’ve been working my way through this passage. I preached two sermons on this in 2012, one more in 2013, and now this fourth one to finish up the chapter. So they’ve been spread out. But let me remind you of them each briefly as a way to bring you back into the context of this chapter!
So, the first sermon was on verses 1-3, focusing on the phrase “without money and without price” from verse 1. I had us consider the many lacking attempts humans do to find fulfillment, and compared that with how God calls us to find satisfaction in him, a satisfaction for our souls that comes as a free gift; in other words one that is of grace. I pointed to verse 3 that talks about how this is to come in an everlasting covenant as the sure mercies of David; that means the ultimate fulfillment of this chapter’s promised grace and salvation comes about in Christ and the new covenant. This is in fact what Christ himself called people to find in him, saying, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
In the second sermon, I preached on verses 3-5, focusing on the phrase “you shall call a nation you do not know” from verse 5. I showed from those verses how this draws our attention to the work that the Christ would do to draw the Gentile nations to himself, that they too would know the salvation of the Lord. That is why we then too, Gentiles according to the flesh, have come to be saved. It’s by being drawn to the Christ. We’ve in turn come running to him in faith and are saved. And we too then, now as the church, herald Christ and the gospel that others would also come to the Christ and become saved.
In the third sermon, I preached on verses 6-7, describing how we are called to seek the Lord, and to repent of our sins. But I also pointed to the wonderful encouragement of verse 7, that God assures us of his mercy and forgiveness as we seek him in faith and repentance. Of course, that’s only possible because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That in Christ, God has secured a way to show mercy and pardon to his chosen ones.
And so then, we come again to Isaiah 55, and focus today on verses 8-13. In this final section, we’ll be assured of God’s higher ways and thoughts in how he brings salvation to his people and ultimately glory to his name.
Let’s begin then by considering God’s higher ways and thoughts. This is seen in verses 8-9. Both verses make the contrast between God’s ways and thoughts, versus our ways and thoughts. But verse 8 is the more simple assertion. It simply notes that God’s ways and thoughts are different than our human ways and thoughts. By the way, we can think of “ways” as those things we do, in how we or God conducts themselves. And we can think of “thoughts” as those plans and designs and purposes, that we or God has. And so the human ways of living and acting are not God’s ways. And the human plans and purposes, the human ways of thinking, are not God’s plans, and purposes, and ways of thinking. This clearly comes out when you notice the context of the previous verse, verse 7. There, when talking about how we humans need to repent, it talks about how the wicked are to repent of our ways and thoughts. God of course, does not need to repent of his ways and thoughts.
Verse 9 further develops the contrast between human ways and thoughts and his ways and thoughts. It’s not just that they are different. There are lots of things that are different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse. Verse 9 makes clear that this is not the case between God’s and man’s ways and thoughts. Verse 9 says that God’s ways and thoughts are so much higher that our human ways and thoughts. In other words, they are so much greater, more glorious, more exalted. The analogy he gives is to contrast the heavens from the earth. The heavens are higher than the earth. They are more exalted and glorious. That serves as an example between our ways and thoughts versus God’s. It is not a different but equal sort of thing. No, it is a difference not just in kind, but in quality. God’s ways and thoughts are better, more grand and glorious, more wonderful!
Let’s analyze this a little further. As we consider this first point, it would be helpful to think further about the point here, and ask why we are told this. In what sense are God’s ways and thoughts higher than man’s, and how does this fit into the point of this chapter? Well, in a very general way, we could affirm that this brings out the creator/creature distinction. In terms of being, or ontology, God is infinite, and we are finite. He created us and sustains us. We are instead the creatures that are completely dependent on him for our existence. And so in general, we see in this passage how much greater and different God is than us. There is a fundamental divide between us and the creator. It is amazing and wonderful that he has revealed himself truly to us; so that we can truly know him and be in relationship to him; and yet we are still the finite creatures trying to know the infinite. There is a real way in which we know him, and know him truly, but there is also a way in which his knowledge is also beyond us, in terms of his infiniteness. That’s a general truth we get from this passage.
And yet the context further heightens the divide here for us. The point in context is not just that God’s ways are greater in terms of being; that they are infinite when we are only finite. But there’s this qualitative difference that comes out too, in light of what we saw in verse 7. That man’s ways and thoughts are those that are wicked and unrighteous and need to be repented of. God’s ways and thoughts, on the other hand, are holy, right, and true. And so take this all together and we suddenly ask the question: “How is it then that God could save us wicked people?” How will they even be turned to him? And if God is so much greater than us, in terms of righteousness, how could he even forgive sinners? We can struggle to understand these things. But here’s where again God’s ways and thoughts are greater than ours. For its God’s higher ways and thoughts that do come together to bring about the redemption of wayward and low-of-thought people! It’s been God’s thoughts to save certain sinners and he has found a way to do this.
How then does God bring his plan of salvation to fruition? This leads us naturally then to our second point for today. Let’s turn next to think about God’s effective Word from on high. This is from verses 10-11. Here we basically see a good proof text for the doctrine of the infallibility of God’s Word, that God’s word won’t return void; but it will accomplish God’s purposes. But don’t miss how this helps develop the point in this larger passage. Remember, God just said his ways and thoughts are higher than ours. He used the example of how the heavens are higher than the earth. And so see how that analogy of the heavens and the earth gets repurposed then in verse 10. Verse 10 gives an analogy for how effective the Word of God is, by using an example that again employs the heavens and the earth. He points out how rain and snow come down from heaven to earth. But when they get to earth, they don’t return back to the heavens until they’ve served a purpose. They water the earth, bringing forth vegetation. The result is this well needed harvest, that provides seed to the sower and bread to the eater.
Verse 11 then applies this to God’s Word. God’s Word, like the rain and snow from heaven, goes out and accomplishes something important. There’s that same trajectory of sorts, too, of God’s Word going from heaven to earth. And in terms of its effectiveness, this is similar to Jesus’ parable of the sower that talks about how the seed is God’s Word, and the point is that God’s Word does find the soil, take root, and ultimately bears much fruit. And so do you see the connection here with verses 8-9? God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours; like how the heavens and higher than the earth. And God’s Word is like that precipitation which comes from on high in the heavens to effectively water the earth. And so God’s ways and thoughts, though so high, come down to man on earth. God’s ways and thoughts are high above, but from heaven God sends his Word to earth, and it is effective. As he says in verse 11, it does not return void. It accomplishes what he pleases. I think of those higher thoughts of God. They are accomplished by the way in which God sends his Word from on high to this earth.
We see this happening right in Isaiah 55. Here you have a chapter of Scripture. This is God’s Word sent from heaven, through the prophet Isaiah. In this very chapter you see the high thoughts and ways of God wanting to redeem a people from their sins unto himself. And so he sends forth his Word, calling them to find their soul’s satisfaction in him. He sends forth his Word calling them to seek him and find him, to turn from their wicked ways and be pardoned. His Word goes forth, and it lands on various souls, and on all those he has chosen to save, it works to bring them to faith and repentance. And so this very chapter shows us God’s effective Word from on high coming down to man. This very Word has been and continues to be used by God to bear much fruit; to transform sinners into saints; to bring people to the Christ and be saved.
Well, to think about how the Word is effective, brings us to our third point for today, and to the imagery of verses 12-13. When it compares the Word coming from on high with the rains that come and water the earth, we see that the fruit of the rain is a glorious harvest. Well, the fruit of the Word coming is also something glorious. Not only does the Word result in God’s people repenting and seeking after him. But the result of the effective word can be described in the language of verses 12-13. Let me read that again:
For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, And instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; And it shall be to the LORD for a name, For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
This is highly figurative language, but it clearly talks of a great salvation. For the Israelite in Babylonian exile, he would surely think of his freedom from that exile. That he would get to go out of that captivity. That he would be led out from there. Leaving that captivity would mean joy and peace! And yet though it would be tempting to think of this salvation in only such terms, in the idea of being freed from Babylonian exile, the context doesn’t support such a limited fulfillment.
Rather, remember the earlier context first. That what God’s talking about in this chapter comes ultimately in a new covenant through a Messiah from the lineage of David. That covenant is said to be an everlasting covenant in verse 3. And coming then back to verses 12-13, we see the everlasting quality of this salvation again mentioned in verse 13. Furthermore, the imagery here is something more grandeur than just Israelites returning from Babylonian captivity. Verse 12 sees the creation rejoicing with the people saved by God. The mountains and hills and trees share in the joy with the saved people of God. And then in verse 13, you get a further sense of the transformation of creation. Thorn bushes replaced with cypress trees. Briers replaced with myrtle trees. Think reversal of the curse upon creation. This is a grand and glorious salvation. Not just a free people, but a people saved into a glorious new place. Isaiah, of course, goes on later to describe how God will be creating a new heavens and a new earth, language that ends up being ultimately used in Revelation 21 to describe where the saved people of God will spend eternity with the Lord.
And this is the precisely the point here with these last two verses. God’s Word comes down from heaven to earth and it is effective. It is effective in bringing about a great salvation, turning wicked and unrighteous people to the Lord. This ultimately will result in a people saved into glory. Of course, don’t misunderstand me. We can see a way in which verses 12-13 already have an initial fulfillment. Already the nations are finding joy and peace in the Christ by repenting of their sins and putting their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Already the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner is brought to repentance. And so there is a way spiritually where the effectiveness of God’s Word to bring his salvation to sinners is already taking place and bearing much fruit. And yet at the same time, we remember with Romans 8, that currently the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, when on the day of Christ, the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption. My point is simply to say then that for the Christian, we have already received a foretaste of the salvation described so wonderfully in verses 12-13. But the fullness of that salvation looks yet unto the eternal glory coming in the age to come.
All of this will be wonderfully to the glory of God. That’s what the last part of verse 13 tells us. This shall be to the Lord for a name. In other words, what God does in redeeming and saving his people, is to his renown. It brings him such great glory. And in accomplishing this mighty salvation, it becomes an everlasting sign that will never be cut off. In other words, how God transforms us and the world in this glorious salvation, this redeemed creation becomes a sign forever of God’s glory. All will look and see what God has done forever and ever and ever, and praise him for it. Because it was his higher ways and thoughts that planned this salvation and saw to it accomplishment. He sent his Word even to bring it all about.
Well, as we’ve been saying throughout, this all of has comes to its greatest fulfillment and application for us in Jesus Christ. John’s gospel especially connects the dots for us on this. If we have seen here today that God brings about the salvation of his elect by the sending of his Word, we should not miss the fact that Scripture identifies the Christ as the Word. John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
And it is this Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, who himself was sent by God from heaven to earth. And he came, Jesus says in John 4:34, to “to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Repeatedly in John’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as making this point. That he was sent by God from heaven, and that his words and teachings are not his own, but those given to him by the Father. And that he came to this world in order to accomplish the Father’s purpose. And so for Jesus Christ to be the incarnated Word, he very literally lives out the very things said of the Word in this passage. And so not only do we have the Word of God as spoken forth in days past by the prophets, but we have the Word of God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent that Word from heaven to earth, and that Word did not return to him void. No, he first accomplished all God’s holy purpose, first in a teaching ministry, and then in going to the cross, to die there in the place of sinners. That in God’s higher ways and thoughts, he could secure a way to justify those whose ways and thoughts have not been God’s. That he could secure a way to pardon wayward sinners who have repented of their sins and turned to the Christ in faith to be forgiven. And so this Word did not return void. But after dying on the cross, he rose again, and then in victory, having declared “It is accomplished”, returned to the father in glory.
And so Christ is the ultimate fulfillment again of our passage. He is that Word come down from heaven to secure the intention and design of God to save a people unto himself. And as much as Christ the Word fully accomplished the Father’s intention in sending him, I am further amazed as I reflect on how this now comes to us. I think of what Jesus prayed in John 17. John 17:8, Jesus prays, “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” That’s what we too have come to know. It’s Jesus as that effective Word that has brought us into this great salvation. And then listen to John 17:18. Jesus continues in that prayer saying, “as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” That’s essentially describing the Great Commission, of course. We continue on that work of the Great Commission in our generation.
In other words, think about it. Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God’s effective Word came to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days his fruitful Word has come to us in his Son. But now that Son has given us these same words and commissioned us to be sent to the world. And so we, in these latter days, have become the heralders of the Word of God to the world. And God’s Word will not return to him void. We then, the church, shall be used by God. We stall accomplish what God pleases; We shall prosper in the thing for which he has sent us. Of course we need to remind ourselves that this means we’ll prosper according to God’s plans, and what he considers the “success” of his plans and purposes, not in how we might think. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. And yet nonetheless, we can be assured that God will use us his people, as the church who proclaims his Word, to accomplish his ways and thoughts. For Christ the Word is with us his church, even until then end of the age. Until we shall all return to him, having accomplished all his holy will for our lives.
So, what an amazing thing then! It’s amazing at how God would use us in such a way. Yes, it’s not about us. It’s about Christ the Word with us. It’s to exalt the name of the Lord, while it’s also for our joy and peace. But it’s still amazing to consider it all. Not just that God uses redeemed sinners like this, but the whole thing, especially in how God has redeemed sinners in the first place by Christ. For us humans, it’s frankly hard to even fathom it all, in all its awesomeness. And yet we rejoice that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.