Who but God?
Quis ut Deus? When I was growing up, my dad loved to quote the Latin motto of his old school in the KZN Midlands. Translated as the Hebrew name Mi-Cha-El, it means, “Who but God?” In simple English, “To whom will you compare God?”
What I didn’t realize until much later, was that this rhetorical question is rooted in one of the most moving chapters of the Bible. It takes my breath away every time I read these verses from Isaiah 40.
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
18 To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move.
21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.”
Setting the Scene.
Isaiah 40 is primarily a word of comfort and encouragement for the people of Jerusalem, who will endure a holocaust and captivity in Babylon within 150 years. Their exile ensued from abandoning Yahweh and persistent idolatry (Isa 39:5-7). Written 700 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah 40 bursts with gospel language. It begins with an announcement of Yahweh’s plan to build a highway between himself and his people. Isaiah sketches a scene of massive earthworks in the wilderness to reveal God’s glory to “all flesh” (Isa 40:5), not just to the people of Jerusalem. The voice that cries out is a momentous proclamation known in the ancient world as a “gospel”. Let us backtrack to the opening verses:
Listen! (Isa 40:1-6)
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.
3“Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
6 A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
An eternal song of redemption
Even without knowing the historical context, we hear strains of a song that resounds throughout the Bible. It serenades us with God’s tenderness and mercy (Isa 40:1-2); his promise to pardon and pay for sin (Isa 40:2), humanity’s weakness (Isa 40:6-8) and God’s extraordinary rescue plan (Isa 40:3-7) through his everlasting word (Isa 40:8). It is the ancient echo of a Redemption plan much grander than anything God achieved for the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. But who exactly is this God?
To Isaiah, God is incomparable. Idols and the world’s most powerful people are mere grasshoppers, transient grass and chaff beside the everlasting God, the creator and ruler of all (Isa 40:18-20; 22; 23; 24). Their achievements are wilting flowers alongside God’s word, which stands forever (Isa 40:8).
Suddenly Isaiah’s mood swings.
In the most tender words, Yahweh, the mighty King becomes the Shepherd of his people:
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11).
It is the sovereign Lord himself who “comes” (Isaiah 40:10) with power to rescue and strengthen his flock. To tend. Gather. Carry. Lead. As a parent, these gentle, intimate verbs choke me up.
Let the Redeemed of the Lord tell their story.
Isaiah 40 resonates deeply with me because it reminds me of a time many years ago when God opened the curtains of my heart to reveal a glimpse of who he is and who I am. It dawned on me that the Lord is incomparable (Isa 40:25) and the things I was living for were empty froth (Isa 40:17-19) and toppling idols (Isa 40:20). He lifted my eyes to see the stars he knows by name (Isa 40:26). He pierced through my ignorance and arrogance to show me that He alone is the Holy One, Judge of all mankind (Isa 40:14), ruler of the universe (Isa 40:22-23).
God took me on a journey back to the beginning and shone his spotlight on my useless idols. But then He switched his beam onto the gospel and Jesus’ sacrifice to pay for my sin. Psalm 107 says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe.” This is my story of redemption:
Can I really trust God?
When I was seven years old I became a Christian. I walked with God for many years at school, but when I went to university at 18, I was like a chicken finally released from the coop, desperate to be free and independent! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the deep question I’d never fully answered in my own heart was, “Can I really trust God to make me happy and give me the good life I want?” Although I was a believer, the enemy’s lies took root and eventually led me to a decision to enjoy varsity on my own terms without the interference of God. I was well and truly captured by the “hand of the foe” like my ancestors in Genesis 3. I never doubted God’s existence, but to my shame, I told him that I did not want to be a half-hearted hypocrite. I prayed to God to leave me alone to discover my own way. I was too busy enjoying myself to feel the full loss of the friendship with God I had always enjoyed. Living as a hedonist provided ample distractions from the realities of life for three years. I was stone deaf to the words of God (Isa 40:21).
At 21, I completed my undergraduate degree. My friends and I planned a holiday in Zimbabwe, which included a trip to Hwange National Park, a canoe trip from Kariba to Mana Pools, rounded off with a 21st birthday party in Harare (that I would attend alone.) As we travelled from one beautiful spot to another, the quiet of the bush started to press in on me and gave me a wistfulness I had suppressed for a long time. I felt strangely alien from the friends and banter around me. It left me feeling hollow and sad. What I craved most of all was to pray, but I knew I had no right to approach the God I’d rejected and despised. Since I’d walked away from him, I could surely not change my mind.
By the time we started paddling on the Zambezi, I began to sense the wonder of God’s creation in the wide open spaces teeming with life, and smells and sounds that are unique to the continent we call home. The first three days were scorching but uneventful. We paddled in a steady rhythm through peaceful valleys, watched birds, ate mealie meal and baked beans beside the river and slept under a trillion bright stars. I saw how the heavens wordlessly declare the glory of God and display his handiwork (Psalm 19:1).
Then suddenly, on the second day, the peace was broken. It honestly felt like all hell broke loose! First, a massive crocodile rammed into my single canoe, dug his teeth into the plastic and tried to turn it over. I’m no croc whisperer, but it was evident that the giant reptile was trying to pull me out of the boat. Even after being hit by many paddles, the croc continued to trail my canoe until I paddled safely to shore. The next day was almost as bad! I paddled between a mother and baby hippo and came face to face with the fiercest maternal love I have ever witnessed! I suspect I could have been ground to dust in an instant by one snap of those jaws.
At night we set up camp beside the river, but one night we were awoken from sleep by loud trumpeting and the stomping of a herd of elephant at close quarters. As I peeped out the tent, I saw their vast tree trunk limbs stepping carefully around us! I felt like a grasshopper.
That was the night I couldn’t help myself praying to God. It wasn’t for help or safety. I felt strangely safe, as though the God who had always known me was watching over me and pursuing me with kindness. I just told him the truth– that I would like to walk with him again, but my guilt was too great. I told God that I did not expect him to take me back, because I had made my choice to turn my back on him and I must bear the consequence of that decision. It was not a dramatic prayer but just a simple cry from the heart. I did not ask him for anything, as I feared I had committed the unpardonable sin and had forfeited that privilege.
My adventures were far from over when I left the Zambezi River. As I was driving alone in my car at the end of the paddling trip, a whole herd of Impala appeared in the road ahead of me. The large male impaled my windscreen with his horns! As I stopped the car to inspect the damage, I saw the bleeding impala lying mangled and dying in the dust.
Behold the Lamb of God.
Sitting beside the road with the bleeding impala on my lap, I saw in my mind a picture of Jesus dying on the cross, along with the title John the Baptist gave him—“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It wasn’t a vision or audible voice, just a thought. But the message was unmistakably clear to me:
“Jesus has died for you, just as surely as this innocent impala has died because of you. Jesus gave up his life to pay for your sin—your rejection, your contempt, your unfaithfulness—all of it. It cost Him everything to forgive you. Don’t despise his sacrifice any longer.” It was a powerful object lesson that I’ve never experienced before or since that day.
The Holy Spirit was like Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” shouting the gospel into my heart, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Don’t run away from Him—Run to Him.”
In repentance and rest is your salvation (Isaiah 30:15).
As much as the Holy Spirit drew me to Jesus, I knew I had a choice to make. I could either choose rest and repentance in Jesus, or I could run from him again. I realised that the gospel of grace was being offered to me that day, just as it was on the day I first became a follower of Jesus Christ. The love of the Shepherd-God (Isaiah 40:11) swept over me as I cried and confessed my sin and prayed for forgiveness beside the road. I received only God’s compassion and healing in return for my guilt. It was the first time I truly understood God as my good Father and realised the horrendous offence of my rebel heart. I finally knew the answer to my question,
“Can I really trust God to make me happy and give me the good life I want?”
The emphatic answer is in Isaiah 40:27; 28; 29-31, which you can read for yourself.
To end the story, I finally got back in my beaten up car, which now had no functional windscreen wipers or fan, and a badly cracked windscreen. I drove through a massive storm, barely able to see the road ahead of me, with a strange sense of peace—even when I realized I was running out of petrol! As I kept driving with the reserve tank on empty, I saw a perfect rainbow arching over the road ahead of me. It was just another tangible reminder of the God who is faithful to his covenant and saved his friend Noah and his family from the flood. I had no fear, as I knew his love for me was rooted in eternity. Foreknown…loved…before I was even born. A small problem with fuel was no challenge for my God who conspired with creation to draw me to himself!
One more miracle awaited me as my car started sputtering. I was free-wheeling down the hill when I saw the entrance to a small inn where I was able to harbour for the night. I had just enough money in my wallet to pay for a room and the couple who owned the inn happened to be Christians. They befriended me, prayed with me and arranged for my car to be repaired at no cost. I will never forget their kindness in helping a lost girl on her way back to God. When I woke up the next morning, it was the dawn of a new day – a new personal understanding of God’s sovereignty and his unfailing love. The ultimate irony is that I am now married to a crocodile farmer from Zimbabwe! Our livelihood comes from the same river where I was pursued by God’s kindness twenty-eight years ago.
Live it out!
If you feel lost, unworthy or fearful to come to God, know for sure that the gospel is for you. It is good news for those who know they have nothing to offer but their own weakness, shame and emptiness. The gospel is for those who know their need of a Saviour. Be sure of this:
“A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out”(Isaiah 42:6).
“How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. (Isa 30:19). “The Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (Isa 30:26).
Becoming whole is the work of a lifetime. God’s sovereignty and our choices are like two parallel lines of a railway track. Faith and obedience go hand in hand. Grace is required every step of the long and windy road. It has taken decades for the Lord to free me of some useless trinkets and idols I have held onto, and his redemptive work will continue until he takes me home.
I hope you have not been bored by my story of redemption! It has been good for me to remember the day I held a dead impala in my lap and saw my Saviour there.
This song “Rebel heart” by Lauren Daigle echoes the prayer of my heart as someone who has been forgiven and freed from much.
Pray Isaiah 40:27-31:
Lord, thank you that my way is not hidden from you and that you defend my cause. Thank you that you are the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler. Thank you that you give strength to weary and weak sinners like me. I come to you today in my frailty and put my hope in you. I pray for your grace to renew my strength today. I ask for fortitude to soar above the troubles I am facing, to run the race you have set out for me without stumbling or fainting.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.