Israel’s God is incomparable. Statues and political personalities are nothings beside him. Vss. 18-25 are bracketed by the nearly identical question: “to whom will you compare God/me?” At issue is the nature of deity and the hope or hopelessness of the people. Will sculptures used as communication devices with gods bring about good? Will idols bring the people of Judah better hope than the God of their fathers?
וְאֶל־מִי תְּדַמְּיוּן אֵל
וּמַה־דְּמוּת תַּעַרְכוּ לוֹ׃
To whom will you compare God?
What image will you set beside him?
הַפֶּסֶל נָסַךְ חָרָשׁ
וְצֹרֵף בַּזָּהָב יְרַקְּעֶנּוּ
וּרְתֻקוֹת כֶּסֶף צוֹרֵף׃
The idol, a craftsman pours it out,
a smith hammers it out in gold,
[its] chains of refined silver.
עֵץ לֹא־יִרְקַב יִבְחָר
חָרָשׁ חָכָם יְבַקֶּשׁ־לוֹ
לְהָכִין פֶּסֶל לֹא יִמּוֹט׃
The mulberry is a gift,
he selects wood that will not rot,
he searches for a skilled artisan
to set up an idol that will not topple.
הֲלוֹא תֵדְעוּ הֲלוֹא תִשְׁמָעוּ
הֲלוֹא הֻגַּד מֵרֹאשׁ לָכֶם
הֲלוֹא הֲבִינֹתֶם מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ׃
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
Weren’t you told from the beginning?
Haven’t you discerned the foundations of the earth?
הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל־חוּג הָאָרֶץ
הַנּוֹטֶה כַדֹּק שָׁמַיִם
וַיִּמְתָּחֵם כָּאֹהֶל לָשָׁבֶת׃
He who sits above the circle of the earth,
its inhabitants are as locusts,
he stretches out the heavens like a veil,
he spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
הַנּוֹתֵן רוֹזְנִים לְאָיִן
שֹׁפְטֵי אֶרֶץ כַּתֹּהוּ עָשָׂה׃
He designates princes as nothing
and makes the rulers of the earth as waste.
אַף בַּל־נִטָּעוּ אַף בַּל־זֹרָעוּ
אַף בַּל־שֹׁרֵשׁ בָּאָרֶץ גִּזְעָם
וְגַם־נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ
וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם׃
Barely are they planted, barely are they sown,
barely have their stems taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them and they wither
and the storm carries them away like stubble.
וְאֶשְׁוֶה יֹאמַר קָדוֹשׁ׃
“To whom will you compare me?
Who do I resemble?” says the Holy One.
A few translation notes:
Vs. 18, תְּדַמְּיוּן. From דמה and related to the noun דמות, “likeness.”
Vs. 18, תַּעַרְכוּ. From ערך, “lay out, arrange.”
Vs. 19b, alt. translation “refining the gold and hammering it out.”
Vs. 19c seems to be missing something, a verb or pronoun. If a pronoun were present 19bc could be “a smith hammers it out in gold, its chains of refined silver.” I have supplied the pronoun in brackets to smooth the translation.
Vs. 20, הַמְסֻכָּן, is a word of debatable origin. Many translations relate it to a root meaning “to be poor.” The word is used only once in the Bible. However, in Akkadian texts there is a wood (mulberry) used for decorations on buildings (Shalom Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary).
Vs. 20, תְּרוּמָה, usually means a gift or freewill offering. It’s use here is difficult to understand. Many suggestions have been made to alter the text and interpret this is as something more suited to the context. One conjecture is that this wood comes from a fallen branch which seems like a “gift” from the gods to the person who decides to have an idol made from it.
Vs. 22, and in general this section, uses obscure words such as דֹּק and the root אתח (in the word וַיִּמְתָּחֵם), both of which are hapax legomena (words used only once in the Bible).
Idols were not replacements or stand-ins for deities in the minds of worshippers, but objects through which power could be focused. It is also quite possible that sophisticated worshippers saw them as nothing more than objects on which to focus their prayer to the true deities hidden in the higher realms. Nonetheless, even in the most sophisticated understanding, idols and images of any kind bring deity down, implying that the Divine is like its creatures, a being limited in time and space.
In contrast to the care needed to make an idol that is a durable image, the prophet draws the reader to look to something much older and more enduring, even to the foundations of the world. Transitory objects are inferior substitutes. Setting a mulberry statue beside a manifestation of God’s presence is an unthinkable scene.
Israel’s God is incomparable. Statues and political personalities are nothings beside him. The reigns of kings are so short to him they are as nothing compared to his eternal reign. The machinations of war and power are meaningless next to his timeless plan.
The deities of Babylon seem powerful since Babylon has conquered. But they are in reality lesser beings. In the ancient world view, gods were not ultimate beings. They had power over nature and the human and animal realms. Yet above them was a force, a higher energy which we might call magic. Skilled human diviners and workers of incantations could exert power against even the gods. They were not above the cosmos, but powerful beings within it.
As for God, as Job says, “In His hand is every living soul and the breath of all mankind” (12:10, JPS). The prophet calls his people in exile in Babylon to see that the calamity that has happened to Israel and Judah does not eliminate hope. If God says he will do something new in creation, then it will happen. Assurance is based on his incomparability, which is something much more worthy of faith than fetishes and kings.