Musings on Isaiah 55:8-9—His Ways Are Not Our Ways

Musings on Isaiah 55:8-9—His Ways Are Not Our Ways

        “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, says Yahweh. Just as the sky is higher than the earth, my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.”

 For obvious reasons, this is a popular passage to quote in all sorts of situations. In my experience, it is usually quoted incorrectly. I would guess that at least 90% of the times I have heard people allude to this statement, the essential point has been close to the following: “This [and you can fill in the blank as to what This refers] is a mystery, and we can’t understand it because God’s thoughts and ways are so much higher than our thoughts and ways.” Usually, This refers to something bad.

I just now did an internet search on “God’s ways are not our ways.” I read the first ten hits. Each was from a Christian site. Each referred to the Isaiah 55 text. Most of the writers made pretty good points, typically describing how when tragic things happen, or when God doesn’t answer our prayers as we hope, we should maintain our trust in him because we simply can’t understand his thoughts and ways—they are so much higher than ours. The overarching theme was to help believers cope when things aren’t going well. And that’s a nice idea. But it’s not the point of the Isaiah passage.

Regardless of the writers’ offering comforting thoughts to the readers,

every one of the writers failed to understand the point of the passage.

Here’s the context: The quote is preceded by Yahweh’s plea for his people to turn to him because he is eager to forgive them. And that statement is preceded by the promise that Yahweh will bless and call to himself “the nations” (i.e., the gentiles, the goyim, the foreign/pagan peoples whom the Israelites despised).

The whole point of the larger passage is that Yahweh is MORE MERCIFUL than his people are!

He is willing to forgive, no strings attached! (“Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. –Isaiah 55:1 RSV”) He cares for the pagan gentiles. It’s his incomparable grace and mercy that differentiates his thoughts and his ways from those of his people.

The radical disconnect between God’s ways and our ways runs throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I dare say that few modern believers would be happy living in a land where Yahweh’s ways are the norm. Consider the following “ways” and “thoughts” in the Torah that for most of us are “wholly other.” In their day these laws were extreme, revolutionary, immoderate, seemingly impractical/unworkable, perhaps even seditious. Yet these commands clearly reveal the true heart of our Lord; they reveal how his ways are indeed extremely different from ours.

•After serving for seven years, a Hebrew slave is to be set free, with no debt or obligations.

•Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven.

•If an owner strikes a slave and knocks out a tooth or destroys the sight in an eye, he must free that slave.

•If slaves escape and seek shelter with you, you must not return them to their masters; rather, you are to permit them to live as free people.

•If a person pawns his cloak to you, you must give his cloak back to him every night so that he can stay warm.

•Foreigners are to be treated exactly as citizens are treated.

•Those who have acquired land from their fellow Israelites, no matter by what means and no matter what they paid for it, must give it back to the original owner at the beginning of the “jubilee year,” which occurs every 50 years.

•If some of your relatives come upon hard times, you must take care of them. You can give them money, etc., but you may not lend money to them [i.e., you may not make them indebted to you].

•A man’s estate passes to his son. If he has no son but does have a daughter, it passes to his daughter. [This doesn’t seem radical to us, but in that time it was revolutionary.]

•Before going into battle, military commanders are instructed to send home any men who are engaged but haven’t yet been married; who have built a new house but not yet dedicated it; who have planted a vineyard but have not yet had a chance to enjoy its fruit. And the commanders are to send home anyone who is afraid. [N.B. This demanded an incredible level of trust in Yahweh, that he was with them, that he could be trusted to give them victory—that the victory depended on him and not on human capabilities.]

•When you harvest your grain, fruits, etc., you are to make only ONE pass through the field. Anything you don’t get on the first pass is to be left for poor people to harvest. [N.B. We are accustomed to crops developed by plant breeders to mature all at the same time; in earlier times, crops typically would mature over a significant period of time—meaning that there would be a LOT of grain, grapes, figs, etc., remaining for the poor to gather.]


Enough examples from the Torah. Here is a small sampling of the things that Jesus said:

•We are to love and bless our enemies.

•If someone asks us for something, we should give it to them.

•If someone sues us to take our coat, we should give him our cloak as well.

•We should give to anyone who begs from us and lend to anyone who wants to borrow from us.

THIS, my friends, is an orientation totally different from the lifestyle and values of our current culture. If we are comfortable living within our culture, we probably are turning a blind eye to the kind of life to which God has always called his people. Please note, however, that that lifestyle of grace and generosity is not meant to be a burden. God promises to dwell within us through his Holy Spirit so that when we give/live sacrificially we achieve ever greater levels of joy. That’s just the way we were made.

God’s ways and thoughts are indeed higher than ours—they are immeasurably more merciful, more gracious.