I'm on a kick of referencing some of my favorite Christian artists, finding easy connection with this section of Isaiah.
First, though, the passage itself. Isaiah 46 is a taut chapter, filled with literary repetition for a profound effect. The theme has to do with carrying.
It starts in verse one, regarding the gods of Babylon: "The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary." We are the ones who have to carry our idols, not the other way around. And carrying them is burdensome, whether they are physically heavy such as these ancient idols, or the modern ones such as money, security, comfort, popularity, etc.
In contrast, God says to Israel (verses 3-4):
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
I love the verb tenses. God has carried them. He will continue to carry them. He will sustain and rescue them in the future.
These verses bring tears to my eyes. A passage like this is encouraging and beautiful when one is in a time of ease and security. During difficult times, they are a lifeline, thrown to us to help us to keep our head above water as we try to breathe in the midst of tumultuous waters. The repetition of God sustaining, the promise of living until old age--these are words that have me crying as I pray them over my 16-year-old daughter in the midst of her sudden cancer diagnosis. Amen, may it be so.
We see in verse seven again a description of what it is like to carry one's own idols:
They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer, it cannot save him from his troubles.
Despite the futility of our idols and their heaviness, we so often persist in carrying them. For me, the constant temptations to rely on self, to set expectations on others, to whine about how things ought to be operating. I have a little German in me, with the core impulse toward efficiency and optimal functioning to boot. I'd like to think that this helps me to be a highly functional person, and it probably does. Is it an idol? Most likely. And, it is revealed to be such in times of difficulty, since none of this can do a single thing to provide deliverance.
To take a moment for some levity, I'm reminded of a joke that I first saw on a street in Florence, Italy:
Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, and the engineers are German. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are British, and the engineers are Italian.
Enough said. Anyway, God's answer to all of this is as follows:
Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please.
My charismatic friends would often quote this passage, and I was always a little mystified as to why it was perceived as being encouraging. It actually seemed a little alarming to me--as in, God knows what is going to happen, but it will remain a mystery to us, and what He wants will happen no matter what we think about it. I guess that can be consoling to some, but to those in the midst of a Babylonian invasion or a cancer diagnosis, the all-encompassing mystery of what is about to happen is not exactly comforting.
And yet....isn't it comforting to know that Someone knows how it all goes? That it's not all chance and that there is ultimately meaning in all that happens. That there is a long history before and a future ahead in which God alone knows and reveals according to His purposes. He doesn't need to see how things unfold--it is already seen. The only way, though, that this is not alarming has to do with the nature of the God who claims this. The One who, when He was on earth in physical form, had a friend who would write of Him: "God is love." Who, in a passage I'm reading daily right now, has this description:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (II Corinthians 1: 3-5)
It is a good thing indeed that God is good.
Back to carrying. Probably the most famous poem about God carrying someone is "Footprints in the Sand." Perhaps overused to the point of being made treacly, the poem nonetheless paints a powerful image of what it means to be carried and how, when it is happening, one may largely be unaware (https://www.onlythebible.com/Poems/Footprints-in-the-Sand-Poem.html).
I can identify with this, sometimes having the sense of being completely carried and sustained and sometimes feeling what seems like the full blunt of reality hitting me. I doubt that it actually is, and that even the hard moments do involve a high amount of carrying. I much prefer the carrying sensation, though. I went for a few years almost continuously in that state, during difficult work and personal troubles. I still got angry and frustrated, but underneath it all I had a continuous sense of God's presence and that He was actively shielding me from full impact.
I had a strong sense of being carried for weeks after my daughter's diagnosis, which then dissipated in the difficulties of carrying on with life with this added and very unfamiliar challenge. I could pray that He would carry me again, but I do suspect that there are reasons why at times we have to come up for the air of stark reality. St. John of the Cross, in his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, says that this occurs when God is drawing someone to greater depth spiritually. The soul must be purified. It also keeps us from pride because often the first thing that happens when God removes the carrying sensation is that we fall flat on our faces, much like an infant learning to walk, whose parents momentarily remove the guard rails of their arms. St. John of the Cross also says that we can't stay in the ecstasy of feeling connected to God too long or we will develop spiritual greed--we seek the experience and not the One granting it.
I would add to this list by saying that sometimes God has a work for us to do, and if we were blissfully calm and ecstatic all of the time, we would likely not do it! I know for me, when I am extremely calm and at peace, I often let things slide. Things in myself and things that are not good with others. That balance of being concerned enough to be motivated to action and having times of peace and rest...both are needed for wholeness and we so rarely get this right on our own. God in His wisdom grants us the opportunity for both---I just recoil against it when it feels like I'm being dropped.
So, back to my Christian artists. In the 90s, I listened to a lot of Australian artist Rebecca St. James. At age 19, she co-wrote the song, Carry Me High. The chorus is:
Father, carry me high, lift me to the sky. Let me be where you are. Hold me, ever so closely, let me know your mercy. Let me be where you are.
The second verse continues,
They can laugh, but let them see. You are the hope in me. They can point their fingers, push me nearer to the flame. God, You can save me from the fire. I'm Yours, even if you don't. Whatever comes I take this vow. I will never bow...
Bold words, referencing Daniel 3, where, as every Sunday School student knows, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego choose the fiery furnace over worshiping a giant idol set by King Nebuchadnezzar. To the astonishment of the king, they say, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."
They exemplify what Isaiah 46 is getting at. Eschew the comforts of idols, and cast your trust on God. Appeal to him for help, healing, and protection, but realize that one cannot command His will. Regardless of the outcome, commit yourself to the Lord. As Rebecca St. James sings, "You can save me from the fire. I'm yours, even if you don't."
With each passing year, I feel like I'm pretty all in, in terms of my faith. And yet, there is a "further up and further in," as C.S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle. And it's times like these that reveal one's level of trust.
So, the good news is that He makes known the end from the beginning. We may be living in an idolatrous delusion that we are in control of our own destiny. Or we may be struggling in and out of the truth that God is ultimately in control--like sitting in the optometrist's office and with different lenses in front of one's eyes and hearing, "Which one is better: A or B? C or D?" Is it better to live with the delusion of control, carrying the heavy burden that all of our little systems, methods, money, and connections will make it all ultimately OK? Or, better to recognize that only He knows the end from the beginning and our brains couldn't even handle the smallest iota of that cosmic reality, if some of it were to be revealed to us. More complex than a multiverse, we'd also have to grapple with what came Before---that there is a God that pre-exists all of reality, and what does that even mean?
I'll choose to simply to leave it at this, that He knows the end of the beginning, and I'll join others in speaking words of comfort that this is true and that it is good that it is true. My friends had it right all along, and I am thankful for each person who, in the past, quoted this verse to me with such encouragement and joy on their faces, as if God had shared with them a great secret. God grant that the truths of this passage sink into my very being, and those of anyone else needing to hear these words.