Reading this morning in Isaiah thirteen, I’m struck by the contrast between the gods of ancient pagan societies and the Biblical God, YHWH. Most societies of the day, did not see their gods as being universal. Most saw them as dwelling somewhere within their land. The power of these gods was seldom seen as reaching far beyond their own borders. Most of these nations were locked in a state of struggle or negotiation with surrounding peoples and, as polytheists or henotheists, they viewed their gods in a similar relationship to the deities of those others. In their mind set, “You are my enemy, so your god is my god’s enemy.” When one nation overthrew another, it was seen as a victory for the people and their gods. We see an example of this thinking in 2 Chronicles 32:14-15 (ESV):
“Who among all the gods of those nations that my father devoted to destruction was able to deliver his people from my hand? Now, therefore do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you in this fashion, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to deliver his people from my hand or from the hand of my fathers. How much less will your God deliver you out of my hand!”
It was assumed, “My gods want me to succeed; your gods want the same for you.” This was only natural in societies who saw the offerings made to their gods as somehow bestowing benefit upon the gods. When conflict between people arose, victory was believed to be a sign of who had the more powerful gods.
YHWH (Jehovah) is very different. He was not the tribal deity of a band of wandering Hebrews. He was the God of heaven and earth who had chosen this people through which to work his plan—bringing forth the Messiah to redeem all of mankind. As such, he wields power over all peoples in all situations. He even uses the other nations as if they were his tools. God speaks of his use of foreign people as, “The Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle. They come from a distant land, from the ends of the heavens, the Lord and the weapons of his indignation to destroy the whole land” (Isaiah 13:4c-5 ESV).
When God’s people suffered defeat, it was not because he had been overcome by more powerful gods. It happened because he was disciplining his people. But there is another dimension to which I alluded a moment ago—the self-interest of the deity. If a people is convinced that their gods need their service and offerings, then the gods must do everything they can to keep such service and offerings coming regardless of the morality of the people. We see a perfect example of this in the mythologies of the surrounding peoples. Their gods were not moral. Those gods lived amoral existences and cared little about the morality of their people. Their greatest interest was in keeping the offerings coming. They were believed to protect the people because they needed what the people brought them. Any punishments meted out were either for neglecting service to the gods, or because the gods had chosen one person over another.
YHWH was different—and I don’t just mean because he existed and the other gods did not. YHWH did not need the offerings being brought to him. The people needed him, but there was no codependence. God could have chosen any people or no people. He chose the people of Israel out of his sovereign power to choose, but not because they deserved to be chosen or because he needed a people to serve him. This keeps God independent. His only self-interest was in fulfilling his final plan. He didn’t need to keep the offerings coming. He didn’t need to preserve the people at any cost, regardless of their moral failings. He could do what was needed to accomplish his purpose: the creation of a chosen people from which to bring the Messiah.