ISAIAH 55:8-9 IS ONE OF THE most oft-quoted texts in scripture. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
What does this text mean? Some twist it to suggest that God is unknowable. He is completely beyond us. Others, usually liberals, use it to empty the Bible of objective content. “See, you can’t stand on those scriptural doctrines, no one can know God’s ways. He’s a mystery. Give up and surrender to doctrinal agnosticism.” For example, a friend once used this text to try and convince me that “God’s ways are not our ways.” Buddhists and Muslims can be saved without professing faith in Christ.
But that was not Isaiah’s meaning. The key word is “ways.” His ways and ours differ. The word, “ways” refers to a path. It refers to an outlook on life that ends in a walking out a specific type of behavior. Because we are saturated in sin, which makes us selfish and me-centered, our ways of thinking and acting are antithetical to God’s. That is the point of this text. Here are a few examples.
Strength From Weakness
God’s ways are different from ours. He expresses his strength through weakness. We, on the other hand, hate weakness. We try to eliminate it from our experience. We want to appear strong, presuming that strength is the precedent to God’s work. But God chose Paul, Abraham, Samson, Isaac, and all the other biblical heroes precisely because they were weak, not because they were strong. If this is true, we should boast in our weaknesses, not our strengths.
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Here is the lesson. God wants us to boast in our weaknesses, not our strengths.
Life From Death
God’s ways are different from ours. His life grows in the compost of death. This also is totally counter-intuitive. Does God really conquer through death? Yes! We grow and bear fruit to the degree that we are willing to die to our self-life. This is not our way. We prefer the best seat, the most praise, the most credit, the praise of the crowds, the comfortable life, and the satiation of our lusts. We want our “best life now.” We are convinced that this is the source of life.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”Matthew 16:24-25
Nothing good happens in the church until someone is willing to die. And, the death that produces life doesn’t come suddenly by plunging the sword of self-denial into your heart. No, it comes by a thousand small paper cuts. Your spouse wants pasta, but you want steak, so you choose pasta. You want a football game, but she wants a romantic comedy, so you switch the romantic comedy. “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Whenever possible it defers to another for their joy, and ultimately, for yours also.
Wisdom From Foolishness
God’s ways are different from ours. He expresses his wisdom through foolishness. In God’s kingdom, the willingness to appear foolish precedes wisdom. The cross was total folly to the ancient world. Yet, it was through Christ’s cross that God displayed his wisdom. Jesus had to appear foolish in order to exhibit the wisdom of the cross. Are we willing to do the same?
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.1 Corinthians 1:23-25
Are we willing to look foolish to the world in order to be wise in God’s eyes? Foolishness is the precedent to God’s wisdom. This is what it often means to follow Christ—misunderstanding, ridicule, mocking, and condescension—but ultimately, to those who persevere, the crown of spiritual wisdom.
Exaltation From Humility
God’s ways are different from ours. He always exalts the humble, and he always humbles the proud. Do we really believe this? We often act like we don’t. We really believe he exalts those who exalt themselves. We boast. We advertise our accomplishments. We take the highest place at the banquet. We drop names to advance our status. All this despite the fact that the Bible repeats this simple slogan numerous times in various ways. Here are two examples.
“God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”James 4:5, 1 Peter 5:5
As an old friend of mine used to say, “Take the low road. It is the safest route to true advancement.” This is what Jesus did. He humbled himself by obeying—even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). That is why God exalted him to the highest place.
Forgiving The Unforgivable
God’s ways differ from ours. He lavishly forgives his enemies. This should be very personal. It is hard to forgive friends, let alone enemies. But you and I were God’s “enemies” (Romans 5:10), and in that state, he sent his Son to procure our forgiveness. Therefore, he commands us to do the same. In fact, the willingness to forgive is a precondition for God’s forgiveness.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”Leviticus 19:18
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”Matthew 6:14-15
Loving The Unlovable
God’s ways differ from ours. Not only does he forgive his enemies, but he also lavishly loves and serves them. We have a hard time truly loving those that love us back, let alone enemies. But Jesus did not die for people he liked. Jesus died for sinners under his wrath. He died to make his enemies his friends. He died to remove the well-deserved hostility he felt for us.
““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”Matthew 5:43-48
In this context, “perfect” means God commands us to love our enemies as he did.
God sent his Son to the cross to demonstrate Isaiah 55:8-9 in space and time. It shows us just the utterly counterintuitive nature of God’s ways. “He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:5). In Revelation 5 Jesus stands with life because he was slain (Vs. 6). His cross demonstrated God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18ff). Because Jesus humbled himself to the lowest point, God raised him to the highest place (Philippians 2:5-11). At the cross Jesus died to forgive and love his enemies.
For these reasons, and more, cross-centered Christians are most apt to know, walk out, and delight in God’s ways. They are definitely not ours. That was the understanding of our forefathers.
At the cross God hides his power in weakness, his wisdom in folly, his goodness in severity, his justice in sins, his mercy in His wrath.Martin Luther, 16th century
For Luther…the very things which human wisdom regards as the antithesis of deity─such as weakness, foolishness and humility─[are] revealed in the ‘humility and shame of the cross.Alistair McGrath, 20th century
The death of Christ, far transcending every example of human love, which hardly ever dreamt of laying down one’s life for a friend, was a display of love for enemies.George Smeaton, 19th century
Have you adopted God’s hidden, counterintuitive ways, or are you still living in the ways of fallen humanity?