Summary: Will we remain faithful to the one and only true and living God? Will we trust him alone for security, for salvation? Or will we look to other gods, false gods who offer much but deliver nothing?
Do you ever struggle with whether your understanding of God is correct? Do you ever wonder whether we might have got it wrong? After all, there are lots of voices in the world today that are questioning the orthodox view of God, of Christianity. There are lots of people out there offering an alternative view, an alternative way of coming to God. And there are probably even more who think that it doesn’t matter; any god will do as long as you’re sincere in your belief.
The reality is that we’re in the minority, as people who believe that the God of the Bible is the only true and living God. It’d be easy enough to be swayed by the majority view wouldn’t it? The arguments sometimes seem so reasonable.
A God you can Touch?
In some cases the alternative to our God can seem more real, more tangible. That was the case for the Israelites in Babylon. Bel and Nebo, the gods of Babylon had imposing statues for people to bow before. No doubt the priests had developed impressive rituals to go with the worship of these idols. Babylon was a great military power and much of that power would have been attributed to their gods. And of course the Israelites were a weak minority if ever there was one: slaves in a foreign city. So the temptation to doubt the God of Israel was extremely high.
In fact it was about to get worse. As we’ll see in a moment Babylon wasn’t the only big boy on the block. Cyrus, the king of Persia, was about to attack Babylon and take it over. So it seemed that there were even more powerful gods than those of Babylon.
And that’s how our chapter begins. “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle; these things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals.” As Cyrus approaches, the people begin to carry their idols out of the city to safety and as they go it looks like they’re bowing or stooping. In fact such a procession was a regular event in Babylon as Bel or Marduk, the chief of the Babylonian gods and Nebo his son were carried along in procession in the annual New Year celebration. We saw something like this in India when we visited it years ago. The local Hindu god being carried along on a Bullock cart. But this is no celebration. No here, they’re fleeing for safety. Someone has translated this the way a commentator might describe it from the sidelines: Bel has collapsed, Nebo is crumpling.”
And Isaiah highlights the irony of the scene. Here are the two great gods of Babylon and what are they doing? Nothing! Well, that’s not quite right. What they’re doing is burdening the poor animals that have to carry them. Their burden is wearying. You see, false gods are worse than useless. In the end they wear us out as we try to pretend that they can help us. Well far from helping the people of Babylon, these false gods are about to go into captivity along with their followers.
A God who Carries his People
Then comes God’s voice, speaking to the people of Israel: “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb.” Now when we read this we might think of God watching over each one of them since they were born. But that’s just the product of our 20th century individualism - which may or may not be getting worse in the 21st century. No he’s not talking about individuals, he’s talking about them as a nation. These are the people whose birth as a nation was overseen by God.
Listen to how he describes their birth in Ezekiel 16: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. 5No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were despised on the day you were born. 6I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, ‘Live! 7and grow up like a plant of the field.’”
They’d started off as nothing, as rejects, thrown out to die in a field. This was then, and still is today in some places, the common fate of girls born into a world where men are all that matter. But God chose to save them, to nurture them to maturity. In fact he says he’s carried them from birth to old age. This will be good news for some of us. He says “even when you turn gray I will carry you.” Do you know that feeling of needing to be carried? Well that’s what God will do for us. Why? Because “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”