"Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counsellor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and
vanity." (Isaiah 40:12-17)
The Lord begins a series of rhetorical questions designed to point the reader to the incomparable nature of God. The Lord cannot be replaced or represented by any idol, form or figure. There is none like Him. The questions which He asks sound much like those directed to Job when God sought to enlighten Job to the singular greatness of his Creator.
Two thirds of the earth is covered by water. The worlds oceans are unsearchable in their vastness. Below the depths lurk creatures of which the modern scientist knows little or nothing. Mankind is still discovering new species of oceanic life. Undoubtedly, the world's oceans are one of the earth's most intimidating and amazing displays of power; yet, God views them as the small amount of water which might be measured out in the palm of a man's hand.
The size of the Milky Way boggles the mind. Measuring some 100,000 light years in diameter, it dwarfs earth to the point of insignificance; however, the size of the Milky Way is little in comparison to galaxies far beyond it. Of these things, God thinks little. He is not impressed by the immensity of them because He is far greater. To Him, they have been measured out by a span, or a fixed measure. The vastness of space and its galaxies only represents, in a small way, the unsearchable depth of God's wisdom and power.
The world's dust may be thought of as some of creation's smallest objects, and God has placed each spec. Every molecule is accounted for. The power of the nations does not impress the Lord. As the insignificant drop of water is swallowed up in the bucket full of water, the nations are swallowed up in the grandeur of God's creation. They are not even vanity. They are less than vanity. With these vivid illustrations in mind, the Lord asks, Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD? Paul quotes some of these verses in his closing arguments concerning God's work of salvation among both Jews and Gentiles.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
"To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved. Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth? (Isaiah 40:18-21)
The Lord puts the stupidity and vanity of idolatry on display. God has no comparison. Israel had consistently struggled with idols, and so the Lord illustrates idolatry's uselessness. The workman is the metalworker. He forms an image out of metals from the ground, the same place from which man was made. He then covers it with an outer layer of gold to add beauty and makes silver ornaments to adorn it. To the human eye, it may be attractive and appear valuable; yet, it has been made from things created by God. Its golden layer is deceptive because underneath is its core of simple metal. The vanity progresses as God describes the idol of a man too poor to make such an elaborate image. Poverty does not stop the sin of man's idolatry. He simply chooses a less expensive material. The trunk of a tree is selected and carved out by the woodworker to form a false god whose image, again, represents that found in the creation of the true God. The image may be bare wood on the outside or covered over with precious metal as that described by Jeremiah (10:3-4); however, the end result is the same. These lifeless images bring no deliverance but incur the wrath of the one true God.
The last four questions illustrate the Lord's astonishment at such things. From the very beginning, God made it clear that He is the Creator of all. Have you never read the Scriptures, Oh Israel? Have you not been told, by godly people, of the Lord's creative powers? Since the earth was founded, has no one heard of or witnessed the Lord's authority over all things? The answer to these questions is obvious. Far removed from this time and culture, idolatry seems so silly to many people; but it can be practiced in many ways. Everyone is tempted to love something above God. If such were not so, John would not have said, "...This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen (I John 5:20-21)."