What does the Bible mean by, “God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours”?

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.’
” – Isaiah 55:8-9

For many Christians the above excerpt from Isaiah is a frequent “go-to” verse. It is most often quoted when we encounter a situation in which the outcome, or the means to the outcome, goes against what our natural human emotions/reasoning tell us would have made better sense or would have been the right thing to do.

For example, if we were given the task to choose a king or president, many of us would think it would make the most sense to look for someone who is strong, a good communicator, experienced, carries a solid list of credentials, and perhaps even handsome. But, for example, as in the case where God choose David as king over Israel, God chose someone who was small, unassuming, weak, inexperienced, and young.

Or similarly, as in the example of the story of Gideon, we would think that it would be best to amass as large an army as one could before going out to battle against an enemy. But in Gideon’s case, God instructs him to whittle down his army of over 30,000 to just 10,000. And, from that diminished army of 10,000, God then tells Gideon to further whittle it down to just 300. With those 300 troops alone, God finally tells Gideon to go out and defeat the opposing army compared to whom now the Israelites are vastly outnumbered.

However, in both of these examples the Bible says that the unconventional decisions were directives of the Lord, in which they are supposed to tell us that sometimes, even when things may not look exactly right to us, God might use an “out of the box” solution.

We then implement this same notion into our own lives. This is especially easy to so when things go well for us. We refence Isaiah 55:8-9 saying:

Wow, look at God! That is nothing like what we would have done. His ways of dealing with things are certainly far more different than ours. His ways and thoughts are far higher than ours!

However, and sometimes without any hint of reservation, many Christians will also use Isaiah 55:8-9 when we see a situation in which evil and suffering are taking place. We continue to quote this verse when things don’t work out. Furthermore, we will quote this verse even when all the while, deep down in our hearts, the means and/or outcome of the situation do not seem at all right or justified even the situation goes against every thread of our sense of morality.

For example, let’s think about when a child dies of a long and painfully excruciating battle with cancer. I’m not referring to a type of death that sneaks up on you where the death is merely painless or instant. No. I’m talking about the type of battle that includes chronic hospitalizations, endless medications with accompanying side-effects, horrible pain and discomfort, which then at the end of it all results in a terminal diagnosis. The child perhaps only 3 or 4, and having done nothing wrong, and not being mature enough to even understand right from wrong, succumbs to an undeserved death.

Put yourself in the mind of that parent.

Naturally we feel that neither the child nor the parents should ever have to suffer so painfully like that. No person should ever lose a child or anyone remotely so dear to them. It seems as though something within our very inner being tells us that this death is wrong and it should never have taken place. Something inside of us says “No, this can’t be right!”

And, isn’t it interesting to note that our sense of moral rage toward this tragic death seems to come from an inherent instinctive response? This anger, that naturally arises from the loss of a close loved one, doesn’t seem to originate from something we have been taught, learned, or something we’ve had to convince ourselves of. It would seem that this moral compass is built right into and embedded within the very grains and fibers of our beinga thought we will come back to in a little bit.

When a horrible event like the loss of a little, innocent child takes place everyone who is touched by this child’s life is utterly decimated and heartbroken. Many of the close friends and family members can be left with feelings of anger, confusion, and deep resentment toward God.

How could God let this happen? Didn’t He love this child as much as we loved them? Why did God do this to us?  

It is here, in the context of what seems to be purposeless suffering, that we once again see Isaiah 55:8-9 being used. Christians will quote this verse to each other in the midst of these exact scenarios in an attempt to console those grieving, suffering, and going through loss.

In quoting this verse we are in essence trying to convey to those that grieve that:

God either did this purposely or allowed it to happen. But, God knew what he was doing. It might be painful for us to watch the child suffer, but God’s ways are higher than ours. If we were able to see and know from God’s perspective why he allowed this to happen, we would recognize that His thoughts are not like our thoughts, and His ways are not like our ways. We would see that God’s choice to have this child die was actually a good and righteous decision. Even though this ordeal is painful, take heart that God has a plan and He intends for good to come out of this. 

Although I already covered in detail (“Understanding the Book of Job, Satan, and God’s Sovereignty from the perspective of Jesus and the Cross”) that God is not the instigator nor someone that passively allows evil and suffering, I also wanted to expound on Isaiah 55:8-9 specifically since it is used so often to credit God with all suffering and evil that takes place.       

Is Isaiah 55:8-9 endorsing a God-ordained origin for suffering and evil? Was the purpose of Isaiah 55:8-9 written so that we can lob up euphemistic platitudes to those who suffer great. almost unbearable. losses? Are we taking Isaiah 55:8-9 in the proper context when we use it to say that if anything that happens to us is all happening because God is either causing or allowing it due to His higher ways and thoughts?  

I don’t think it is.

ISAIAH 55:8-9: IN CONTEXT IN LIGHT OF SUFFERING AND EVIL

In order to better understand what Isaiah 55:8-9 is speaking about, let us first go back through the book of Isaiah, and actually the rest of the Old Testament, to find out what context was laid out beforehand.

The book of Isaiah is made up of mostly two types of prophetic writings. The first content being warnings, admonitions, and judgements to both the Israelites and her surrounding nations. The second content being made up of promises and prophesies that share what is to come in a future time period concerning God’s loving restoration of both Israel and the whole world. Included in these prophesies and promises are words concerning the Messiah Jesus, including His birth, life, and death.

When we read Isaiah, most of us tend to focus on the second type of content—myself included. We enjoy reading about God’s redeeming love, the awesomeness of what our world will be like when His messiah comes, and the promises that God lays out concerning His future plans for earthly redemption and restoration.

But a few months ago, I chose to read the Old Testament again front to back. And this time, I intentionally paid much closer attention to the passages of scripture that I usually fluff off. Indeed, I noticed something profound during my latest read-through.

Most of the things that God rebukes the Israelites and her surrounding nations for are squarely aimed at the exact same things that we humans in the 21st century also would rebuke people for. These rebukes are found all throughout the Old Testament books with Isaiah being no exception.

According to the Old Testament, God’s rebukes are concern with:

  • enacting vengeance upon those who harm us or the others we love
  • hurting or taking advantage of other people in order to protect, provide, or further our own needs and wants
  • dealing falsely with neighbors
  • failing to help the poor, widowed, orphaned those in need
  • failing to seek or carry out justice
  • taking bribes
  • seeking diviners and soothsayers
  • taking undue pride in humankind’s own ability or self-righteousness
  • not executing righteous judgement from the courts, councils, or leadership
  • selling and taking slaves
  • hypocrisy among spiritual leadership
  • calling something good when it is evil
  • worshiping created or make up things, such as animals, nature, people, physical objects/idols, rather than worshiping the One who created them
  • murdering women and children in war
  • ripping out unborn children from mothers wombs
  • offering God physical things in sacrifice to Him, such as plants, livestock, or even human sacrifices, rather than offering the sacrifice of the heart
  • offering God act/rituals of worship, rather than worship of the heart
  • lying, murdering, lusting, stealing
  • thinking that God only favors one race or one chose people above all others
  • thinking that we are better or more holy than others
  • thinking that we are free from sin and acceptable to God based upon our own good and moral behavior

You can read some samples of these rebukes found in Isaiah here: (Isaiah 1:16-17,23, 2:6, 2:11-17; 3:16-17, 5:20, 8:19-22, 10:1-4, 10:12-15, etc.)

Now, notice one thing about all of these rebukesGod never rebukes people for embracing things that we humans rather instinctually understand as basic, just, and good moral constructs.

God never rebukes someone for caring for their children, or providing for their family. He doesn’t rebuke us for loving our husbands and wives, or being good to our neighbors, or being honest, or for taking responsibility for our own actions.

And, certainly, He doesn’t rebuke them for desiring good health, nor for desiring their children and themselves freedom from sickness and disease

All of God’s rebukes speak to generations and nations of people who have completely lost their sense of “do unto others as you want others to do unto you” and have committed despicable, morally repugnant acts and injustices toward one another. The actual things that God qualifies as “good” are never in doubt or in question when He gives these rebukes. The issue is that the nations were not doing the good they instinctually should have been compelled and should have known to do.

God gave us our instinctive reaction to evil and suffering. That response is supposed to be there so that we can live and operate in accordance with the loving image of God that has been implanted in our soul from creation.

This means that when we struggle to find a purpose when we experience involuntary suffering we do not need to try to convince ourselves that this was somehow a “good thing” and that it was all a part of a sovereign plan that God willed for us. Instead, we should get into agreement with God’s constant rebukes that evil is evil, it is bad, and it should be judged as such. We can step back and realize that this wonderful ability to recognize and identify that something is evil isn’t merely an error in thinking that stems from our fallen/sinful nature, but something that is good, God-given, and intended to guide us into right thinking.

Our desire to hate suffering and call it for what it is—evil—is not something we should be squelching. It is God-ordained, and affirmed in scripture, and modeled by the life and death of the messiah Jesus Christ. In fact, calling something good when it is really is evil is yet another rebuke that God laid down through the prophet Isaiah:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”   Isaiah 5:20 

Therefore, the first thing we need to recognize here is that when we are able to point out that something is evil and wrong that this wonderful ability is it is a good thing. It is gift given to us by God that enables us to know good from evil so we can make good choices and just judgments. Secondly, trying to say that God allows suffering, evil, and death because He has a twisted sense of morality that He calls “higher” than our own thoughts and ways is blasphemous—for it is God Himself who has both gave us our conscience to know what is evil and wrong in the first place and whom also in turn rebukes us for when we fail to do what is right. Therefore, to use Isaiah 55:8-9 to credit to God with authoring or allowing evil and suffering goes against all the moral rebukes God gave in the Old Testament and in Isaiah itself.

We need to acknowledge death and disease for exactly what they areevil and wrong—and not chock them up to a God who we think would uses them due to a higher heavenly sense of thoughts and ways. God rebukes death and disease and misfortune and we should do the same.

Now that we have seen that using Isaiah 55:8-9 to attribute divine cause behind suffering and evil is out of context against the backdrop of how God asks us to respond to suffering and evil, let us now turn to looking at Isaiah 55:8-9 in a different contextspiritual arrogance.

ISAIAH 55:8-9: IN CONTEXT, IN LIGHT SPIRITUAL ARROGANCE

The book of Isaiah is full of God’s rebukes. It is in the context of these rebukes that the stage is set for understanding Isaiah 55:8-9. While it is evident that chapter 55 is found within a succession of chapters that foretell of soon-coming messianic and future restorative promises, what we find sandwiched in between these promises in verses 4-5 is yet another rebuke of what some of the Israelites were guilty—they believed that God was going to have a unique, special relationship with the people and nation of Israel and that all other peoples of the world would be lower in stature and significance. 

ITS ALL ABOUT US

The Israelites undoubtedly had something truly unique compared with all the other nations of the earth during the period of time that spans the Old Testament. Starting all the way back with father Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, God intentionally began building a nation with a specific purpose in mind that would forever define and shape the soon-coming nation of Israel.

But it is this author’s opinion that many of the Israelites were missing God’s ultimate purpose.

Because God had given such a special revelation of Himself to the nation of Israel (the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the 10 commandments, etc.), such a unique revelation that had not been done so directly and dramatically with other nations before, the Israelites developed a belief that they alone were the special people of God. A belief that, solely due to their physical birth and status as covenant-keepers as descendants of Abraham, they alone were to be the special people favored by God above all the other nations of the earth forever and for all time. This belief perpetuated the idea that all other nations were a lower, or sub-class in God’s eyes in comparison to Israel.  

Yes, the Israelites may have affirmed that the other nations of the earth would eventually obtain some sort of a blessing through Israel (Genesis 12:1-3); however, the mindset for at least some of Israel was that the rest of the nations were not going have the same standing as the “special people of God”. Sure, God would perhaps show mercy to all the other nations, but they were not really the special, chosen children of God.

This thinking prevailed throughout the centuries. Other nations who were outside the covenant that God made through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were looked down upon. Other nations were heathens, godless, unclean, despised, pig-eating gentiles. This pattern also continued into Jesus’s day. Not only were the Roman oppressors of 1st century Jews despised, but even the Jews’ spiritual cousins, the Samaritans, (who worshipped the same God and kept the same Torah) were reviled. The Samaritans were considered to be so bad that a good Jew would take an extra day’s journey just to walk around the Sarmatian territory so as to not even contaminate their feet with the soil of the Samaritan’s land. Yet among all the nations of the NearEast the Samaritan’s were the Jews closest spiritual relatives. This is why Jesus’s parables of the good Sarmatian and the woman at the well would have struck such a striking cord with 1st century Jewish thought. The thinking would have been:

“Talk to a Samaritan woman? Help a wounded Samaritan on the roadside? No way! They are pigs!”

Geez, if that’s how they treat their relatives it would really suck to be their neighbors or enemies!

Most certainly, there was a blatant racist attitude toward non-Jews within a predominant part of Jewish society.

While we can affirm that God did move in a special way toward Abraham and through the building of the nation of Israel, was this superior attitude the attitude that God intended the Israelites to have in response to His special covenant with them? Absolutely not!

Let’s look closer at that subtle rebuke I mentioned earlier in verses 4-5. It is this authors opinion that that verses 4-5 are the real context to how we are supposed to be interpreting our subject text of what follows in Isaiah 55:8-9.

MY WAYS AND THOUGHTS ARE HIGHER

In verses 4-5 God shares a prophetic word about something amazing the coming messiah would do:

..See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. (Emphasis mine)

In these verses God says that “him“, which is speaking concerning the messiah, will do something unbelievably remarkable. Through the coming of the messiah God would be drawing not only Israelites into relationship with Him, but the foreign nations also. Contrary to customary Jewish belief, God would not be setting the people of Israel on a special pedestal and favoring their nation above all others, with a leftover residual blessing trickling down, but God would now be drawing all people on earth unto Himself through the messiah! 

NOTE: These verses have also been interpreted as world nations being called to the nation of Israel, not necessarily just to the messiah himself. In that interpretation each ‘you’ found in verse 5 is considered to be referring back to prior verses in Isaiah where they refer to Israel as a nation. As thus with that interpretation, some folks say that what God was actually saying was that through the messiah He will be glorifying Israel. The nations would be drawn to THEM.

But, we see in the Gospels that it is to Jesus Himself to whom God is drawing all people (John 12:32), not the nation of Israel. We see that it is Jesus Himself who is the light of the world, drawing people to follow Him specifically (John 8:12), not the nation of Israel. We see salvation through Jesus being proclaimed to all the nations (Matt. 28:19-20), not salvation through the nation of Israel. And finally, we see that it is Jesus Himself who is to be glorified through the cross (John 12:23-29, 17:1-6), not the nation of Israel.

The “glorification” in verse 5 that will draw the nations is the glorification of Jesus and His cross. The nation of Israel was just the incubator and national origin of the global messiah. And so, when the prophet Isaiah says that nations will come, “because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you,” I believe the ‘you’ Isaiah was speaking about was in fact the messiah, not the nation of Israel.  

Sure, in one sense the nation of Israel shared in general kind of glorificationshe brought forth Jesus’s birth along the physical and spiritual lineage of Abraham. That’s a pretty awesome and significant thing. But, to say that the nation itself was glorified as special and above other nations would mean that we could also say that the donkey that brought Jesus into Bethany on Palm Sunday is glorified and special as well. Israel, although beloved by God who enjoyed a unique revelation from Him, was only going to be special before God in being the specific family line by which Jesus would come to earth and redeem all humankind. That was it.

Contrary to a corrupted limiting worldview of Israel-above-all , Isaiah prophesies that all people on earth would be able to know God and have a relationship with Him. And, as Jesus and His followers would later testify, this would be accomplished without these foreign nations/individuals becoming Jewish, or without them performing any Jewish spiritual rituals or acts, or without them adopting any Jewish customs. This blessing would be available to anyone who follows Jesus the messiah.

As the Apostle Paul later stated clearly in the New Testament book of Galatians, through the work of the messiah we would no longer separate or view each other as inferior or superior, or Jew or Gentile. We would all now be united as one under the “Christ” regardless of culture, race, sex, or social status (Galatians 3:28-29).

This all-inclusive idea must have been craziness to 1st century Israel. After all, THEY were the people of God. THEY were the chosen. In their mind, THEY were God’s sole point of affection (Heck, we probably would have said the same thing if God had chosen our nation/tribe to reveal His messiah to the world). It even took the early Christian’s an additional heavenly vision from God (Acts 10), a consul meeting of the apostles (Acts 15) and the entire New Testament book of Galatians before the idea started to take hold that people don’t have to be Jewish or follow Judaism to be saved.

How did God respond in Isaiah to this myopic notion of an Israel-only salvation? His response can now be clearly seen as we read in the verses that follow:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

THIS is the correct context of Isiah 55:8-9—God’s loving kindness being opened up to ALL people on the earth. No longer would it only be open to the Jews, but now it was open for EVERYONE. Through the coming of the Messiah EVERYONE would be an equal before the Lord.

People would not be judging their worth and ability to approach God based upon Jewish or non-Jewish birth, covenant circumcision or ritual based sacrifices, or family lineage. All peoples of the earth would be united under one NEW family. Foreigners would not be subservient to or lower than the family of Israel, but all peoples would be one in the great Family of God built upon the Christ. One giant family, not being qualified via physical ties to Abraham though physical natural birth, but by having spiritual ties to Abraham via a spiritual birth though faith in the messiah (Galatians 3:6-9).

Faith, not flesh, would be the new merit and common denominator by which God’s family would be established and realized.

All peoples on earth united as one in the messiah through faith was the grand promise of God as witnessed throughout the Old Testament, and also as we find it here in the prophet Isaiah in chapter 55 verses 4-9. This was notion God was saying was far above and higher than anything that Israel was thinking or imagining. 

“What? God is going to extend mercy on those who don’t keep the Sabbath, who don’t obey the Jewish food laws, and who don’t have Jewish heritage? And only because they put faith in our messiah? Impossible! We are the only chosen people and the Messiah is for us because we are the chosen people of God!” 

But yes, Hear O Israel, it’s true!! God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness of sins is toward ALL PEOPLES OF EARTH. Hard to believe? Well, God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness truly is above any of our thoughts, and higher than any of our ways!  

WRAP UP

It is in this wonderful context, not a context of accrediting suffering and evil to God’s divine will, that we are able to understand what “ways” and “thoughts” the prophet Isaiah was referring to. 

I believe that our default feelings about suffering and evil are right on the money. And, these strong feelings about suffering and evil are not wrong, but are being led by our own God-given conscience/instinct. They are not something to be overruled or squelched by a dark theology that says sometimes evil and suffering is good and ordained by God.

While some who read this blog may still believe that God authors/allows suffering and evil due to His judgement of our sins, or some other unknown heavenly reason that He might purpose, it is clear that using Isaiah 55 to attribute evil and suffering to God’s mysterious sovereign actions would be to read something into the text that is simply contextually absent.

Let’s embrace wider and more encompassing view of salvation that these verses are intended to give:  

See, I have made Him (Jesus the Messiah) a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely You (Jesus the Messiah) will summon nations you know not (gentiles, non-Jews)
    and nations you do not know will come running to You (Jesus the Messiah),
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed You (Jesus the Messiah) with splendor.”

 Seek the Lord (all people of the earth) while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways (all people of the earth)
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon (all people of the earth)

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts ,
neither are your ways my ways,” (that is Israel’s thoughts and ways of being more special, more above, or more glorified than other nations)
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!

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