Can We Not Think God's Thoughts?
It is astonishing the number of well respected and highly honored Bible interpreters who misapply Isaiah 55:8-9 where God says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways." An astonishing number! And its misuse is being published in book after book. Most recently I’ve seen the one and only JI Packer misuse this passage in his renowned book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God which has over 100,000 copies in print.
The passage is often hi-jacked to say we should be in awe of God because His thoughts and ways are so much higher than ours. But that is clearly not the intention of Isaiah 55:8-9. That God’s thoughts and ways are so far from his people is a tragic problem. Our thoughts and our ways (thinking and living) are supposed to be close to God's thoughts and ways. That they are so far removed from God is a matter of condemnation on God’s people.
How bad is the problem? God explains in Isaiah 55:9 (ESV).
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts
than your thoughts.
So look up to heaven in dumb amazement? The message is for Israel to repent and return to God, correcting their thoughts to be God’s thoughts and their ways to be God’s ways. Just back in 55:7 God said this:
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” (ESV)
Is it true? Is God high up in the heavens? Absolutely. But this passage and its frequent misuse is a “needs maintenance” indicator of wide-spread sloppy Bible interpretation. We’re not reading our Bibles and we are taking too many men’s interpretation as proven.
The Complete Opposite Teaching
When we miss the meaning of God’s word in a passage we can only do one of two things. We can wrongly teach a truth or we can teach something entirely false.
One, we may teach a truth wrongly. By that I mean we can say something which is true but isn’t in the text we are reading. So it is a truth taught wrongly. Isaiah is a perfect example. We use the text to say how amazing and how high God is. It is meant to humble us and bring us to a state of awe before God. That is good and it is true. However, the text itself is saying nothing of the sort. In fact, the text assumes that God's thoughts and ways are known. In teaching the right thing wrongly we enable bad Bible interpretation habits and we endanger ourselves by missing what God is actually saying.
The other option is to teach something entirely false. In the case of Isaiah 55:8-9, more often than we think we actually teach something absurdly false.
I knew there was trouble when I came to this passage in a book by a fellow Mary Hardin-Baylor alumni Austin Fischer. Isaiah 55:8-9 shows up in an important way on page 9 of his book Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed (2014). Austin doesn’t just use this passage as a reference, its a central text in his theological formation. See what he says:
In searching for answers, I became acquainted with two terms that became a staple of my theological
thought and vocabulary: mystery and transcendence. You know the verse: “‘For My thoughts are not your
thoughts, nor 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.’” 7 The problem with theology is
that it’s humans doing it. Finite, fragile, fallen creatures are trying to make sense of their Creator.
Folks, that is dancing with deism. Deism is partly defined by a belief that God does not reveal himself, his ways, or his will to his creation. In Deism God is too transcendent for us to claim to know him personally and accurately (at least through revelation). Rather, in Deism God remains “shrouded in a divine mystery” (Fischer, 10). Packer says it like this, “A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would not be a God of the Bible at all” (Divine Sovereignty, 29). Well, I agree with Packer's conclusion and Austin's in a sense. But in his next sentence JI Packer quotes Isaiah 55:8-9 as his text for God's transcendance.
See how, using Isaiah 55:8-9, God’s word, which is meant to be a device for revealing God, is used to show how hidden and unknowable God is! How ironic! This interpretation of Isaiah 55:8-9 is saying the exact opposite of the entire Bible which says God is knowable and he is not far off.
This is dangerous because deism gives a therapeutic massage to spiritual apathy. “Phew, I can’t know God how can I possibly be responsible for him or his thoughts or his ways?” With a misinterpretation of Isaiah 55:8-9 we become a ridiculous people of God. How ridiculous is it for God’s own people to run around saying, “We don’t know our God! Who can know him? He is too high for us!” That is ridiculous. Half the point of being God’s people is to know God and to make him known. And how often in Scirpture does God come down to be known by his people? Saying that God is too high to be known becomes a rejection of the Word of God in Christ Jesus and a denial of the revealing work of the Holy Spirit.
That said, in offering a wonderful truth about God from this passage we very often come to the exact opposite conclusion that the entire deposit of God’s word is leading toward: that God has unmistakingly revealed himself to us. Where God is calling his people to think his thoughts and live his ways his people are interpretating that verse to say, "We can't know God's thoughts or his ways" which is false.
Some Guidance in Reading
Here are some guiding thoughts for us in regards to Isaiah 55:8-9 and for general Bible reading:
- Stop using Isaiah 55:8-9 like that. It is not a verse floating around free of context just praising God for his transcendence. The passage is a call to repent from wicked thinking and living and to return to thinking and living like God (which assume his thoughts and ways can be known and replicated in our lives).
- Be humble. If so many Bible interpreters miss this, then who knows where we have erred in understanding the Bible ourselves. God, help us. What have we assumed? We need to remember to be very careful with God's word. This is not about Austin Fischer or JI Packer. It is about us and our Bibles. I am simply using them as examples of how we ought to be careful ourselves. If JI Packer and Austin Fischer can get published with these interpretations, who are we? Be careful!
- No man is above God's word. We should never take the word of a man about the Bible over the word of the Bible about man. Keep the Bible as the authority. Just because your favorite author or your current pastor says something does not make it true (even if they are using the Bible to say it). Keep God’s word as the authority for every faith and practice in your mind. This means acutely listening to teachers in the church while simultaneously holding the Bible as our anvil. It means checking it what others say. If someone uses a passage and it sounds off, look it up!
- Let them know. It is not unkind to approach a teacher or someone discipling you with a question. “Hey, you said this, but as I read that passage it seems to me to be saying something else. What do you think?” Then have a conversation. Do this with reverence and respect. Your pastor, for example, is reading and studying hundreds of passages a week. He may from time to time make an assumption about a passage and get it wrong. Go to him and ask him about it. If he is of the Lord he wants to get God’s word right with you! You might be left disagreeing about a text and that might be ok too. Help build a culture in your church where the Bible is authoritative by talking to people when the Bible seems misunderstood of misused. By being silent we build a culture where the Bible is secondary and the pastor or the teacher is ultimate.
- Read your Bible. There is no replacing the reading of the Bible for yourself. We must know and be fed by it and be given life by it personally. Focus on small passages for days at a time. Read whole books of the Bible in one sitting. Read the upcoming sermon text (ours is emailed to members on Friday). Read last weeks sermon text and include the chapters before and after it. Meditate on it. Rewrite lengthy passages of scripture to familiarize yourself with it. See commentaries with varying viewpoints on a text. Don’t feel the urgency to always understand everything immediately. The tension of not knowing a text for a day or a week is where joy is often found when at last it is understood. We get to blunders like the widespread misuse of Isaiah 55:8-9 when teacher after teacher use the same text in the same way and no one ever reads it for themselves.
It has been said that the aim of studying the Bibe is to think God's thoughts after Him. God's word is incredible. It is worth our time and our effort to know it clearly because God is behind it. It is God's word and therefore it leads us to know his thoughts and his ways. I hope this article will encourage you to pick up your Bible and have the gumption to understand it for yourself. Give yourself to knowing God by reading his word.
For His Glory,