Surely the Nations Are Like a Drop in the Bucket

40: 12-17

   DIG: What is the intended effect of all these rhetorical questions? In each comparison (creation, knowledge, the Gentile nations), how does God fare? How does ADONAI regard the power of the nations, even today’s superpowers (40:15-17, 23-24)? For whom was this message intended? Why?

   REFLECT: Do you believe that the LORD wants to deliver you? Do you think He is capable of doing so? What could stand in His way? Do you believe you are beyond His reach? Can anything separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ? Because a God who can not deliver on His promises cannot be trusted. Isn't that true?

    After establishing that ADONAI wants to deliver Judah (40:1-11) and will not give up on her because of her persistent sinning, Isaiah makes sure that the Jews understood in no uncertain terms that He was fully capable of doing so. In the strongest language possible the prophet of God declared that there is none like the LORD. With a series of rhetorical questions, Isaiah declares that He is unique.

    First, we see the omnipotence of God, meaning He is all powerful. The first question is this: Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand? What is the hollow of your hand? It is the little space in the palm of your hand as you cup it. How much water do you think you could hold there? Maybe a mouthful. And yet God is so great He can hold all the oceans of the world in the hollow of His hand. The second question is this: Who has, with the breadth of His hand, marked off the heavens? The breadth of His hand is known as a span. That is the distance from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger. The vastness of the universe was simply measured out by God by the breadth of, or the span of His hand. Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance (40:12)? He is also able to measure all the particles of dust of the earth in a basket. He can hold all the mountains and hills and hold them up in a balance to give us the exact weight. That is the greatness of God. So the first point about God is that He is omnipotent.

    Secondly, we see the omniscience of God, meaning He is all knowing. ADONAI knows no equal nor is there anyone to whom He can go for advice. Hence, there is a second series of rhetorical questions. Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed Him as His counselor? Who has ever served as a counselor to God? He is all knowing; therefore, no one serves as His counselor. Whom did ADONAI consult to enlighten Him, and who taught Him the right way? Who instructs God? No one! Who was it that taught Him knowledge or showed Him the path of understanding (40:13-14)? Who lectures the LORD about justice? Who teaches Him knowledge? Who teaches Him the path of understanding? No one, because He is omniscient, or all knowing.

    The implication of the discussion of counselors here is the plan of ADONAI for the redemption of His people (see my commentary on Exodus Bz – Redemption). From whom did the LORD get that idea? Some advisor? Was it the brain child of some heavenly committee? Or did it come independently from the mind of the One on whom all things depend? If it came from a heavenly committee, then we are all in trouble. But if it came from the mind of God, then nothing can stop it. Consequently, Isaiah sets the stage for his later comments on redemption.

    The prophet moves from the realm of the heavens to the inhabited world; from rhetorical questions to that of utter declaration (40:15-17). Nothing can compare to the Creator of the world or prevent what He has willed to accomplish. Ever the master of the Hebrew language, Isaiah uses several literary devices to make his point: metaphors for smallness in 40:15, a synecdoche of inadequacy in 40:16, and a blunt literal statement in 40:17. This is hardly a new concept for Isaiah. Beginning as early as Chapter 10, the prophet asserts that Assyria was merely a pawn in the hands of God. That the LORD is supreme is seen through the future reign of Immanuel in Chapter 11, and the entire group of oracles against the nations in Chapters 13 to 23. ADONAI’s absolute sovereignty over every person and every nation is seen again and again. There is no question that He is able to save.

    In contrast to His greatness, we see the insignificance of the nations of the earth. Three points are made here concerning the nations. First, we see how trivial they are when compared to ADONAI. What are the Gentile nations – so impressive in their own eyes? Surely the Gentile nations are like a drop in the bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; He weighs the islands as though they were fine dust (40:15). Both of these metaphors are powerful expressions of insignificance. They are the drop of water falling back into the cistern as the bucket is pulled up, the speck of dust on the pan of the balance scales that does not even cause them to tilt. Both are temporary and neither are noticed.

    Secondly, we see their insufficiency of the Gentile nations when compared to God. There is nothing we can do that would come close to matching the greatness of the Creator. Isaiah illustrates this point with a synecdoche, in which one part stands for the whole. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings (40:16). God is so majestic that even the great cedar forests of Lebanon could not provide enough wood for the kinds of sacrifices He deserves. Nor would the countless animals of those forests provide enough offerings. Humanity cannot adequately pay homage to the Ruler of the world. All the forests of Lebanon, with their abundance of wood and animals, will not provide a sacrifice commensurate with His greatness. Nothing we can do puts Him in our debt or at our disposal. He has to save us because we cannot save ourselves. All of our efforts to take the first step toward ADONAI, to meet His demands, to satisfy His requirement of holiness, or to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps are never enough.

    Thirdly, we see the nothingness of the Gentile nations when compared to the LORD. Figures of speech give way to blunt statements. All the nations who do not know Him are as nothing; they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than nothing, meaning formless or confusion (40:17). There are three Hebrew words that are used beautifully here. The first word means nothing, the second word means nothingness, and the third word means confusion. This word confusion is the same word that is used in Genesis 1:2, where we read that the earth was formless and empty, or confused. The Gentile nations are nothing, nothingness, and confused. Therefore, there is no comparison between the greatness of God and the triviality, insufficiency and confusion of the nations.

    This bold appraisal does not mean the LORD doesn’t value the Gentile nations. He doesn’t think they are worthless and the many statements in the TaNaKh make this clear. It is merely that by comparison with ADONAI (in the sense of His presence), Assyria and its gods, Babylonia and its gods, Persia and its gods, fade into insignificance.

    But the Jews of Isaiah’s own day were not interested in this message. They believed they were righteous, God would never violate His Temple (Jeremiah 7:1-8), and that they would always dwell in the Promised Land. They weren’t listening to Isaiah, they just mocked him (see Fm – With Foreign Lips and Strange Tongue God Will Speak to This People). But over a hundred years later their descendants would be sitting on the banks of the Euphrates River wondering what had happened to them. More than that, they would wonder if ADONAI even cared about them anymore. Did He want to save them, or more to the point, was He even capable of saving them. Very clearly, then, Isaiah declares that the LORD was not only willing, but because of His omnipotence and omniscience, He was the only One who could save them. Is it also not true for us?


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