Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,
or instruct the Lord as his counselor? (Is. 40:13, NIV)
Who can ever understand what is in the Lord’s mind?
Who can ever give him advice? (NIrV)
Can anyone tell the Lord what to do?
Who can teach him or give him advice? (GNT)
Who could ever have told God what to do
or taught him his business? (Message)
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel? (ESV)
Who directed the Lord’s spirit
and acted as God’s advisor? (CEB)
Many different takes on Isaiah 40:13 to begin with today, with emphases ranging from the idea of knowing or understanding the mind of God in the first phrase, to those which treat the whole verse in the context of the second phrase, giving the Lord advice or counsel. I would suggest that both approaches are right here, since to try to offer my opinion on what someone else should or has done is to presume to have grasped their situation fully. (That’s why good counselors spend three quarters of an hour listening and only one quarter of an hour talking.)
Matthew Henry writes:
As none can do what God has done and does, so none can assist him in the doing of it or suggest any thing to him which he thought not of. When the Lord by his Spirit made the world (Job 26:13) there was none that directed his Spirit, or gave him any advice, either what to do or how to do it. Nor does he need any counsellor to direct him in the government of the world, nor is there any with whom he consults, as the wisest kings do with those that know law and judgment, Est. 1:13. God needs not to be told what is done, for he knows it perfectly; nor needs he be advised concerning what is to be done, for he knows both the right end and the proper means. This is much insisted upon here, because the poor captives had no politicians among them to manage their concerns at court or to put them in a way of gaining their liberty. “No matter,” says the prophet, “you have a God to act for you, who needs not the assistance of statesmen.” In the great work of our redemption by Christ matters were concerted before the world was, when there was one to teach God in the path of judgment, 1 Cor. 2:7.
I say all this to introduce two verses from the book of Nahum:
The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies. (NIV, verse 2)
The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him (NIV, verse 7)
Two pictures of God, only five verses apart; and on this contrast stands a barrier to those outside of the faith, and often a conundrum to those within: How can God be a God of wrath and a God of love? How can He be full of wrath and full of compassion?
I don’t wish to start down that road here today, except to say that these are two aspects (of many aspects) of the same God. We could just as easily ask: How can a God of might and power and majesty subject Himself to the vulnerability of entering the world in the human condition through the incarnation? How can a God who seems dismissive or disdainful toward certain created beings (i.e. the way the scripture reflects on grasshoppers or dogs) be the same God who seems to care about sparrows?
Sometimes we find the contrasts juxtaposed within a single scripture portion, such as many of the Psalms, and it is the same type of contrast that evidences itself in Nahum chapter 1. This was a prophet word that Nahum delivered to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, the same city which Jonah was working so hard to avoid contact with.
(The Message)2-6 God is serious business.
He won’t be trifled with.
He avenges his foes.
He stands up against his enemies, fierce and raging.
But God doesn’t lose his temper.
He’s powerful, but it’s a patient power.
Still, no one gets by with anything.
Sooner or later, everyone pays.
Tornadoes and hurricanes
are the wake of his passage,
Storm clouds are the dust
he shakes off his feet.
He yells at the sea: It dries up.
All the rivers run dry.
The Bashan and Carmel mountains shrivel,
the Lebanon orchards shrivel.
Mountains quake in their roots,
hills dissolve into mud flats.
Earth shakes in fear of God.
The whole world’s in a panic.
Who can face such towering anger?
Who can stand up to this fierce rage?
His anger spills out like a river of lava,
his fury shatters boulders.
7-10 God is good,
a hiding place in tough times.
He recognizes and welcomes
anyone looking for help,
No matter how desperate the trouble.
But cozy islands of escape
He wipes right off the map.
No one gets away from God.
Why waste time conniving against God?
He’s putting an end to all such scheming.
For troublemakers, no second chances.
Like a pile of dry brush,
Soaked in oil,
they’ll go up in flames.
Nahum doesn’t have a lot of good to say to the King of Assyria. Yes, the Lord is good, but as far as Nineveh is concerned, his judgements are good. Unlike the Psalms which often resolve the conundrum of God’s nature in the final verses, when you skip ahead to the end of chapter three you see an ending much like the point where we stopped above.
This is a side of God you don’t want to see; and thanks to grace, none of us reading this need experience.