As the heavens are higher than the earth…

In recent weeks I have been reminded several times, in different contexts, of the following passage from Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For 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, NRSV

Often, the text is used to reinforce the idea that God’s wisdom and holiness is so far beyond our own that we can only respond in awe and humility.  And there can be no doubt that this is true.

But I am struck by the emphasis, in the larger context of the verse, on God’s gracious intention toward his people.  Read the whole of the chapter.  It’s about a God who desires to give what is good, a God who desires to make a covenant of steadfast love, a God who promises forgiveness and mercy, joy and peace — and who not only desires these things but will accomplish them through the creative power of his word.

God’s thoughts and God’s ways are indeed higher than our own.  But we needn’t think of this in terms of lofty inaccessibility, nor some incomprehensible and abstract notion of divine perfection that only a philosopher could love.  On the basis of such an image, it’s a no-brainer to say that God is “higher.”  Of course, we might say.  If that weren’t so, God wouldn’t be God.  And we can go on our mortal and imperfect way unperturbed.

But here, Isaiah suggests that God in his holiness is a loving and merciful God, whose divine nature is expressed in and through the language of human need.  Listen to the prophet: are you thirsty, poor, hungry?  Come!  God is the God who freely gives that which alone can satisfy.  And God is the one who sends the rain and makes the earth burst forth in fruitfulness.  The very natural order will celebrate: the very mountains and hills will sing; the trees will clap their hands.

God’s thoughts and ways are incomparably higher than ours, in part because they are incomprehensibly merciful, and ours…well, ours aren’t.  Thus we are instructed:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call on him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
— Isaiah 55:6-7, NRSV

After all, what other kind of God would we want to seek and find?