A Real God, a Real Hope

The Christian life is a life based on hope:

  • 1 Peter 1:21 – We are through Christ “believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”
  • Galatians 5:5 – “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.”
  • Romans 5:1-2 – “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

Before the cross, we had no real hope. As Ephesians 2:12 puts it, we were “at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

Oh, we had hope. We hoped that money would bring us happiness. We hoped that finding a spouse would give us fulfillment. We hoped that finding a profitable career would give us worth. We hoped that power and influence would bring us security. We had hope.

But when God opened our eyes and the truth confronted us, we saw those hopes for what they really were. They were empty—powerless to bring us what we longed for. Even more than that, we discovered that these things in which we hoped were in fact idols—gods which we served and trusted to meet our needs.

In the gospel we discovered real hope. As 1 Timothy 1:1 puts it, the Lord Jesus Christ is our hope. Our affections were redirected, and our trust centered on Christ. Suddenly money didn’t matter. A spouse didn’t matter. Careers and power and influence didn’t matter because we had Christ. We saw those things as idols standing in the place of the true King and, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, we “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”

Hope is a precious, precious thing. Hebrews 6:19 describes it as “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast.” That is to say, hope grounds us against the waves and breakers of the world. When you have real hope, nothing that life throws at you has any real lasting effect.

First Thessalonians 5:8 describes it as a helmet, “the hope of salvation.” It is the ultimate spiritual protection from the enemy, who would otherwise rob of us our eternal life.

Our world is fraught with uncertainty. Danger and disaster lurk everywhere—financial instability, political uncertainty, hurricanes, drought, fires, you name it. Where there is hope, there is peace and confidence. Where there isn’t hope, there’s fear and despair.

And even we who are believers—we who have discovered true hope and true peace—can be tempted to fear and begin searching for some other hope…more tangible hope. The idols we once renounced are waiting in the shadows, whispering for us to renew our affections—to embrace them once again.

This is why the NT repeatedly warns us about idolatry. Paul wrote to the Corinthians to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14). John ends his first epistle with the exhortation, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The reason the NT gives these warnings is because of our innate, sinful propensity to find hope in anything but the one true God.

KEY: But here’s the thing about hope. Hope is directly tied to trust. The strength of your hope cannot exceed the stature and the strength of the thing you put your trust in. Oh, you can put your trust in anything. But if it’s not worthy of your trust, then it can’t produce real hope, it can only produce false hope.

Only the true God can produce true hope. Only the real God can give us real hope. And that kind of hope, as Romans 5:5 says, “does not disappoint.”

If there’s one passage that makes this principle clear, it’s Isaiah 44, so if you have your Bibles, turn there.

Context

Isaiah is a book that centers on trust. The prophet Isaiah’s ministry spanned a period of 58 years. During that time, four kings reigned on the throne of Judah—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. All of them dealt with the same core issue—where will they put their trust? Where will the nation put its trust?

This period of time in Israel’s history was especially perilous. Assyria had grown to become the new potential superpower of the known world. It was a bloodthirsty nation, bent on conquest. Nation after nation crumbled before its armies, and the entire Ancient Near Eastern world was left scrambling to figure out how they were going to protect themselves from this newfound superpower.

Judah’s kings were confronted with this reality. Where would they place their trust? Isaiah kept on calling them to trust in God to protect Judah. But the kings and especially Ahaz were continually tempted to turn to nations like Egypt. They hoped that military alliances would give them security. Isaiah warned them that only God could stop the Assyrians.

Chapters 36-39 illustrate this dynamic especially well. In chapter 36, Sennacherib king of Assyria invades Judah and besieges Jerusalem. An emissary from the king calls out to the people in the city:

18 Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20 Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’” (Isaiah 36:18-20).

This is the great question of the book of Isaiah—who will you trust? Well, in this case, Hezekiah pleads with God to deliver Judah, and God responded. The Assyrians woke up in the morning to find 185,000 corpses lying in camp. With their army decimated, Assyria retreats, and Jerusalem is spared.

In chapter 38 we find that during this same time, Hezekiah falls mortally ill. He despairs for his life, and in desperation he prays to the Lord and God grants him another 15 years of life. Another example of God working miraculously to protect his people and their king.

In chapter 39, envoys from Babylon arrive. Babylon at this time was an up-and-coming nation which seemed to pose little threat to Judah. They came to congratulate him for his recovery.

Perhaps tempted by the prospect of a new alliance against Assyria or perhaps just emboldened by his own pride, Hezekiah shows the envoys the vast riches of Judah’s storehouses.

God’s response to this act of pride and lack of faith is this ominous message: Babylon is coming. They’ve seen what you have, and one day they will come and plunder your riches and take the entire nation away into exile.

The first half of the book of Isaiah closes with that message—Judah is going into exile.

But beginning in chapter 40, the entire focus of the book shifts. Isaiah turns from the Judah of his day to address the captives who will find themselves exiled in a faraway land—in Babylon.

He knows the despondency they will be facing. He knows the fear they will have. He knows the questions they’ll be asking and wrestling with:

  • Is this it for us?
  • Is there any hope out there?
  • Is God finished with us?
  • Even if he’s not, can he do anything about it?
  • Are we destined to live under the tyranny of Babylon and its gods?

He also knows the temptations they’ll have:

  • They will be tempted to give up hope
  • But they will also tempted to find hope somewhere else
  • Maybe Babylon’s gods can save them
  • Maybe they can give Judah a future that Yahweh can’t

Isaiah 40-48 answers those questions. God is not done with Judah. He is not impotent to the gods of the Babylonians. And His plans for his people are not foiled by their sinfulness. He is going to show His sovereignty and absolute supremacy by doing something new—something impossible—he is going to bring his people back from exile in an event that is so momentous that it can only be compared with Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

These chapters are a monumental work of theology and prophecy. And our passage—44:6-22—is really the zenith of the whole section. And it really has one clear message—don’t be afraid—you can put your hope in God.

Remember, hope and trust are linked. You can’t hope in something you can’t trust. And so the message of this passage is that you can hope in God, because he’s the only one worthy of your trust. And therefore he is your only hope.

Why?

1. Because God is unlike anything else you can place your trust in (44:6-8)

6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. 7 Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. 8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”

At the heart of this section are three statements that zero in on the point Isaiah is making.

Statement 1: And the first is found in verse 6: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god

He precedes everything and concludes everything. From start to finish, all history belongs to him. Nothing that has occurred in the past—like the exile—is outside of his control, and so nothing that will occur in the future is outside of his sovereign plan.

This is what it means to be God. And no other being—no man and no idol, can claim that kind of power, which is why he states emphatically, “Besides me there is no god.”

No other gods can compete with him. In fact, there’s no competition at all. It’s not just that he is the greatest of the gods. In reality, compared to him, there is no other gods.

Statement 2: Now, that first statement leads to a second statement in verse 7: who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare it and set it before me.

This is a challenge. Can anyone else do what I can do? But this isn’t just any old act God is asking for. This is specific. The word “declare”—nagad in Hebrew—is a word that in the context of Isaiah speaks of foretelling future events. Can anyone else do that? If so, let’s have it! Tell us what’s going to happen!

We’ve seen this same kind of challenge earlier in Isaiah 41:21-24:

21 Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. 22 Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. 23 Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. 24 Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less that nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.

If God is “the first and the last”—if he controls all history and brings it to his determined ends—then he alone is the one who knows the future. God’s utter uniqueness is demonstrated definitively in his ability to predict what seems impossible and then bring it to pass.

ILLUSTRATION: People have always been curious about knowing the future. This isn’t just relegated to people who visit fortunetellers, or are part of mystical cult groups. This is an underlying desire that I think most all of us have. We want to know what is going to happen. A news report came out recently discussing DNA research being done to see if looking at chemical processes in our genes can give us an accurate picture of when we’re is going to die.

Now, we can make predictions like that. We can make fairly accurate predictions based on our knowledge of meteorology, biochemistry, or physics, and maybe even come to fairly accurate outcomes. But in the end, the factor that is missing in all of this is control. Someone can predict what will happen, but they can’t bring that event to pass. I guess you can predict someone is going to die, and then kill them. But a meteorologist can forecast for rain tomorrow, but he has no power over the weather, so he can’t ensure that his prediction will really happen.

There is only one being in the universe who can declare the future and then ensure that what is predicted is realized exactly as it was foretold. That being is God.

The Bible is filled with examples of this. In fact, this is such a defining characteristic of God that in the book of Kings, every prediction that God makes by the mouth of his prophets comes to pass before the book concludes.

This is why he says in verse 8, “Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses!” You’ve seen me do this! This should bring you comfort and hope.

Statement 3: That brings us to a third statement in verse 8: “Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”

This pretty much sums up the point of everything we’ve just seen. Is there a God besides him? Of course not. And he answers that question in a very specific way: There is no Rock.

The word “rock” speaks of a rocky cliff face that provides shelter and security to the one who hides in it. It’s used four times in Deuteronomy 32 to describe the God of the Exodus. The same God who sheltered and protected Israel during their first exodus is going to shelter and protect them as they depart on their new exodus out of Babylon.

There’s only one rock. In fact, there’s even a hint of sarcasm here in the statement, “I know not one.” If God knows all things and can foretell the future, it’s kind of funny for him to say, “Is there a God like me? …I know not one.” If God doesn’t know of another God like him, then there’s only one conclusion to make—there is no other!

APPLICATION: What does this all mean for you and me? It means that God is unlike anything else in this world that you can put your trust in.

You want to put your trust in the security of money. How’s that going to help you during the next major recession? But you say, “That’s why I diversify!” Well, diversification doesn’t do you much good when there’s a massive data breach at your bank and all your information is nabbed by hackers.

What is it that you put your trust in. What is it that competes in your heart with the God described in this passage? Ask yourself the same questions God is asking: Who is like him? Is there a God besides him? Can they offer you the security and protection and hope that he can? Can your spouse, or your job, or your ingenuity, or your influence compete with the God who makes promises and ensures that those promises come to pass?

When will we stop and realize that everything around us that we hang our trust and hopes on is like a thin rope just waiting to snap? It seems like it will hold us, but it can’t.

And that’s what verses 9-20 uncover. Why is God the only one worthy of our hope? Because he’s unlike anything else we can put our trust in, and…

2. Anything else we place our trust in cannot give us what we need (vv. 9-20)

Now this section is one of the most powerful and dramatic refutations of idolatry in Scripture. It’s sarcastic and mocking, and incredibly effective, because it uncovers and exposes the heart of what is really going on in idolatry and manmade religion.

It begins in verses 9-11 with this opening statement:

9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

Now the key idea in this opening statement is summarized by verse 10: Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? That’s a masterful rhetorical question. There’s only one answer you can give that doesn’t make you look like an idiot! No one would do that!

But it’s a trap. That’s what makes it so masterful. There are certain people who are masters at argumentation and debate. They can ask just the right questions to trap their opponent into a conclusion they can’t deny. And that’s exactly what Isaiah does here.

No one makes a god that can’t do anything for them! That’s absurd! But that is exactly what happens in the enterprise of idolatry. And in verses 12-17 Isaiah describes this process in all its mind-breaking idiocy:

He begins by describing a metalworker who crafts an idol made of iron:

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.

Now, the overall point of this verse is that a metal idol is made by a man. He may be a strong man—he works hard, he works diligently. But by the end of the process, even this skilled craftsman is only human. He’s exhausted and parched from his labor.

Now, metal idols are usually the property of someone more well off. The commoner would have a wooden idol, which is why the rest of this description starting in verse 13 focuses on the work of a carpenter making a wooden idol:

13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.

Once again, this man is careful and diligent. He plans out his work. He chooses only the best of woods—cedar, cypress, and oak were hard, durable, and valuable. In fact, he has been planning this for a long time. He has planted this tree and allowed it to grow.

But the ugly truth is hidden in the diligence of the carpenter. It says, “He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.” Isaiah is putting his finger on the heart of idolatry. John Oswalt put it this way:

What is the result? Humanity in its fullest flower. The kind of humanity that needs a house in which to live, a roof over its head to keep out the rain, and four walls to keep out marauders. All this effort solely to project ourselves on the heavens! Again, Isaiah demonstrates how incisively he understands the nature of paganism. Above all else, it is an attempt to cast eternal reality into the shape of humanity (Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 180).

This is the essence of idolatry in all its forms. Mankind desperately wants a god—needs a god—as long as it’s not the true God. And just like Adam and Eve thought they could be like God, so man tries to fashion a god into the image of himself.

The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 1:21—

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.

Man wants something he can see, something he can touch, something he can understand. But more than anything, he wants something that is just like him. Ultimately, idolatry is about self—the idol serves the person and fills his needs. The person doesn’t exist for the idol. The idol exists for the person.

John Calvin put it this way:

The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God.

The doctrine of humanism—which we may think of as a new concept developed in the Enlightenment—is really nothing more than a contemporary expression of ancient paganism. In the end, an idol reflects the one who made it—with all his desires and all his weaknesses.

We see this fact in our passage as Isaiah continues to describe the idol-making process. Beginning in verse 14:

14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

Now Isaiah is really upping the sarcasm. You can’t help but see the lunacy and irony of idolatry. The same tree the man uses to make his god he also uses to warm himself, bake bread, and roast his dinner.

The whole point is very simple: what’s the difference between the wood used for the idol and the wood used for everything else? Nothing! It’s the same tree. Yet the man burns half of it, bakes his bread, roasts his meat, and then turns to the other half, bows down and says to it, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

But it’s not a god! It’s a block of wood! What can it do? What profit does it bring to the man? In fact, the irony is that the wood brought more profit to him as fuel for a fire than it does as material for an idol!

Let’s go back to the question we saw in verse 10: “Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing?” The answer is, Everyone who practices idolatry.

Why would someone do this? That’s the real question of the day. The answer comes in verses 18-20:

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

The reason is blindness—spiritual blindness. He cannot see that the enterprise he is engaged in is absolutely and utterly asinine.

Verse 20 is especially interesting. The word “feeds” is used of animals that graze in pastures. But he’s not feeding on good food. Instead, he’s feeding on ashes. In other words, Isaiah is saying that there’s no difference between the idol he’s bowing down to for deliverance and the ashes left over from the fire that cooked his food. He doesn’t see that his spiritual food is nothing but ashes.

APPLICATION: When we begin to look at idolatry through that lens, it makes us ask some important questions. Why would I find hope in a block of wood? Why would I invest so much trust in something that is no more powerful than the human being that created it?

But remember, idols take on many shapes and many forms. They’re not just blocks of wood or shaped iron. They take the shape of money, houses, spouses, kids, political leaders, movements, organizations—or the person looking back at you in the mirror. You can make anything an idol.

And none of these things can offer real hope. They offer empty promises. In the end, trusting these things is no different than trusting a block of wood.

So what do we do? Let’s say the Lord is opening up your eyes to idols in your life. You’re beginning to see your hopes and desires and needs invested in things that can’t bring you any real profit. What do we do?

Isaiah gives the answer. Look at verse 21:

21 Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. 22 I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. 

First, we have to remember.

Remember where you came from. Remember what you used to be. Remember that you used to be an idolater, but that God opened your eyes so you were no longer blind and you “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9).

Remember that “you are not your own. You were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Christ bought you out of the slave market of sin. He freed you from your slavery and made you his own. You don’t serve these other things. You belong to God. You serve God.

Remember that there is forgiveness found in Christ. On the cross, he dealt with your sin once and for all. He’s blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like a mist” (Isa 44:22). They’re no more than a wispy cloud or mist that disappears when the sun comes out.

We have to remember. But then we also have to repent. “Return to me,” he says. Turn back to him. Turn your back on these idols and turn back to the only one who can give you real hope.

Conclusion

Isaiah 44 closes with an incredible promise in verses 24-28. It’s where everything in chapters 40-48 is heading. It’s the promise that God is going to return his people from exile, rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, and that he’s going to do all of this through a man named Cyrus. God is doing what only he can do. He’s telling them the future. And he is telling them in such a way that when it happens, they know it was him, because he even gave them the name of the man who would do it!

And it happens just the way he said it would. One-hundred fifty years after Isaiah’s death, Cyrus the Persian defeats Babylon and makes the proclamation that Judah can return. It’s one of the greatest prophetic predictions in the Bible.

But as great of a miracle as that is, it could never eclipse the fact that in Jesus Christ, God became a man and died for our sins. It’s the Lord Jesus Christ that is described 5 times in the book of Revelation as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13).

The same God who controlled Israel’s history—who formed them and guided them, chastened them in exile and returned them to their land, is the one who came and died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is coming to judge the earth and make all things right.

He’s the one whom Peter made his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16). Peter made that confession while they were Caesarea Philippi—a city filled with pagan idolatry. Surrounded by dead, lifeless idols, Peter saw Jesus as the one true and living God.

He’s the one that Paul says in Colossians 1:15

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)

If you’re not a Christian this morning, I beg you to think very carefully about all of this. Everything you’re holding on to. Everything you’re clinging to for comfort, for strength, and for hope—it cannot hold your weight. That rope will snap.

But Christ is graciously lowering his hand. Take hold of him. Cling to him. He won’t lose his grip. You can place all of your hope on him because he can do something no idol in your life can ever do—he can offer you forgiveness for your sins.

Place your full trust in him. He died to pay the entirety of your sin. There’s nothing you must do except throw yourself on his mercy and he promises that you will receive it. Hide yourself in the Jesus Christ. He is the Rock.