There’s something going on in this passage from Isaiah that makes a former theology professor like me get positively wonky. I’m going to do that now, though I’ll try to rein myself in. Bear with me.
Most scholars have concluded that this section of the book of Isaiah (called “Second Isaiah,” written decades after the first section) is one of the earliest suggestions of what we now call monotheism: “besides me there is no god,” says YHWH (according to Isaiah).
Yes, of course, you can find this understanding of God in, for example, Genesis, but most scholars think those passages were actually written after this part of Isaiah, or around the same time. Don’t ask me or them to prove that. They do have good arguments, however, and I see no reason to dispute this. My faith is not threatened by the very credible idea that the formation of the Bible as we now know it was a long, complex, and often contentious process.
There are parts of the Bible where it seems that the Israelites assumed their God was one of several gods, only their God demanded exclusive loyalty. That’s what, “You shall have no other gods before me,” meant at first. Then there are other parts of the Bible where the Israelites assumed that their God was more powerful than any other gods: my God can beat up your god. But these passages all seem to assume that there are, or at least might be, other gods besides the God of Israel. (I have a more detailed post about all this here.)
But here in this part of Isaiah we hear repeatedly that there simply are no other gods. And this passage ties several of those recurrent themes together.
“I am the first and I am the last” (more literally, the “former” and the “latter”)—God is before and after everything else, all-encompassing.
“Besides me there is no god”—God is utterly unique, not part of a collection of gods.
“Who is like me?”—elsewhere Isaiah expands this: “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike?” (46:5). God is incomparable.
I can’t help digressing here, because this raises an age-old dilemma: if God is utterly unique, in fact, incomparable, how can we say anything about God? To say that God is personal would be to compare God to a creature, which has just been forbidden. But the same problem arises if God were said to be impersonal; impersonal things are creatures too. God can’t be literally anything we otherwise know. This later gave rise to what is called apophatic theology (or negative theology), where God is said to be experienced as utterly incomprehensible (note the tension—experienced, yes, yet experienced as utterly incomprehensible!). St. Thomas Aquinas: “by the revelation of grace in this life we cannot know of God ‘what he is’, and thus are united to God as to one unknown” (Summa Theologiae I-I, Q. xii, a. 13). It also gave rise to the idea that any characterization of God must be non-literal. It must be considered analogical, symbolic, metaphorical, etc. For example, an official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that we cannot speak of God at all without using analogies where “there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater” (Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 2, 1215 CE).
I don’t think Isaiah had thought all of this through, but he opened the door to saying that, when we speak of God, we speak inadequately of an all-encompassing mystery—not capriciously, but inadequately. Let’s call it a likeness/UNLIKENESS.
This passage continues to imply that, while incomparable, God is sort of like/UNLIKE a “who.” God is speaking in the first person, and that presumes some sort of likeness/UNLIKENESS, even though God is utterly unique.
“There is no other rock; I know not one.”—Of course, this first-person God is also sort of like/UNLIKE a “what,” like/UNLIKE a rock.
How can both analogies work here, the personal and the impersonal? Because here’s a deeper analogy: while incomparable, God is all-encompassing, “the first and the last,” as St. Paul said centuries later, the one from, through, and in which all things exist (Romans 11:36— but he probably got that from reading Isaiah). God is like/UNLIKE a giant container, like/UNLIKE an endless sea surrounding and saturating everything. If God is all-encompassing, anything that exists, personal or impersonal, can open us to the inescapable presence of God, as long as we remember that we are stretching language to its breaking point (even when we use prepositions like “from,“ “through,“ and “in”). God is not literally a giant person, a giant rock, or even a giant container, but words like these convey something of God’s inescapable presence if we stretch them to the breaking point and pay attention to how we’re stretching them.
Well, one of the lessons we should learn learn from this, but hardly ever do, is that, if others speak of this presence differently, that doesn’t mean they are wrong. If everything we say about God is more inadequate than adequate, we can’t be too strict about policing what people say. We need to listen more carefully. We need to remind everybody that all our words convey an ever-present likeness/UNLIKENESS.
But the lesson Isaiah wants us to learn in this passage is: “Do not fear.”
Despite all the devastation, the destruction of Jerusalem and captivity in Babylon, despite today’s global pandemics and deep-seated bigotry, we are surrounded and saturated by what Peter Rollins calls “the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.”—Peter Rollins, “A Conversation with Peter Rollins” in the back of The Idolatry of God (New York: Howard Books, 2012). We are surrounded and saturated by “the first and the last,” besides whom/which “there is no other.” There is meaning despite the madness, even in and through the madness—not a meaning that settles everything, but unsettling, uncontainable meaning.
The Israelites may have started out convinced that they had a big, powerful friend who would keep them from suffering if they behaved. The book of Isaiah comes along to remind us that what we are ultimately involved with is literally off the charts, way more than we can ever imagine, and no stranger to suffering (63:9—“in all their affliction God was afflicted”). There is meaning despite the madness, even in and through the madness—unsettling, uncontainable meaning, “the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties.”