This is creation language like the Wisdom literature (Psalm 8; Job 38; etc.) more so than the Torah (Genesis 1-3). References to creation in the wisdom literature are generally architectural (setting up pillars, measuring, sinking bases, etc.). So in Isaiah 40:12 there are four verbs of measurement (מדד, תכן, כל, שׁקל) looking at creation in terms of a divine building project. Commentators note that myths of Marduk measuring the waters lie behind this hymn to the incomparability of Hashem (see Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. Pritchard, 332, 389).
Second Isaiah argues that Israel’s God is the only true deity and that the future of Jerusalem is in his hands alone. He seeks to persuade the people during Jerusalem’s ruin to believe in God’s power. Hashem is of an entirely different order from the nature-sovereigns worshipped in Babylon. They are described in myth as builders who made the earth like a city or fortress, but he is above all things and to him the lands of earth are infinitely small.
מִי־מָדַד בְּשָׁעֳלוֹ מַיִם
וְשָׁמַיִם בַּזֶּרֶת תִּכֵּן
וְכָל בַּשָּׁלִשׁ עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ
וְשָׁקַל בַּפֶּלֶס הָרִים וּגְבָעוֹת בְּמֹאזְנָיִם׃
Who has measured out the waters in the hollow of his hand?
Determined the breadth of the heavens by the span of his hand?
Laid hold of the dust of the earth with a third-measure?
Weighed out with a pointer the mountains, with a scale the hills?
מִי־תִכֵּן אֶת־רוּחַ יְהוָה
וְאִישׁ עֲצָתוֹ יוֹדִיעֶנּוּ׃
Who has determined the measure of Hashem’s spirit?
What man informs him concerning his plan?
וַיְלַמְּדֵהוּ בְּאֹרַח מִשְׁפָּט
וְדֶרֶךְ תְּבוּנוֹת יוֹדִיעֶנּוּ׃
From whom does he take counsel?
Who makes him understand?
Who instructs him in the path of justice?
Who teaches him knowledge,
And the way of understanding, who makes it known to him?
הֵן גּוֹיִם כְּמַר מִדְּלִי
וּכְשַׁחַק מֹאזְנַיִם נֶחְשָׁבוּ
הֵן אִיִּים כַּדַּק יִטּוֹל׃
Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket,
like dust of the scales they are reckoned.
Behold, the coastlands he weighs as a speck.
וּלְבָנוֹן אֵין דֵּי בָּעֵר
וְחַיָּתוֹ אֵין דֵּי עוֹלָה׃
And Lebanon is not enough to maintain a fire;
Its animals are not enough for a burnt offering.
כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ
מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ־לוֹ׃
All the nations are as nothing before him,
as naught and void they are reckoned to him.
A few translation notes:
In vs. 12, כָל is not the common word meaning “all, every,” but a word relating to measurement. Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary) notes that the term shows up in the Gezer Calendar (a tablet found in Israel from about 950 BCE). I have translated it here “laid hold of.”
Vs. 13, עֲצָתוֹ is from יעץ and is related to the term יוֹעֵץ found in Isaiah 9:5 (פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ, “wonderful counselor”). An עֵצָה is advice or a plan or scheme. The word is used again in vs. 14, with נוֹעָץ.
Vs. 14, נוֹעָץ, is a Niphal, “allow oneself to be advised.” It is passive and the point is that God is not passive in creation and requires no counsel. The wisdom of creation emanates from him and is not above him in any way. There is no higher plan or reality than God.
Vs. 17, מֵאֶפֶס makes better sense as כאפס. If we retain the Masoretic text’s מprefix the translation would be “from naught and void” or “made from naught and void.” Shalom Paul’s translation is catchy: “They are accounted as nil and naught” (Isaiah 40-66: Eerdmans Critical Commentary).
In Babylonian myth, Marduk was the king over the building project of creation, measuring and building (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed.Pritchard, 332, 289). Who has really done this, asks Second Isaiah? Only one and his name is Hashem.
Yet if the view of Hashem as a deity comparable to Marduk seems limiting, the next verse sets the record straight: he is more than a builder-deity. His spirit is immeasurable. Only Hashem can gauge the depth and breadth of the spirits of all living things (Prov 16:2). No one can measure Hashem’s spirit.
Furthermore, in vs. 14, Hashem does not require counsel. The wisdom of creation emanates from him and it is the highest reality. Wisdom is not something above God from which he draws intelligence. Knowledge has its origin in God and nothing is higher than him.
The events in the Near East during the period of Jerusalem’s ruin (586 – 516 BCE) made it seem as if empires and nations were all-important. Faith in Hashem relativizes the magnitude of political events and powers. Nations are as nothing compared to God. The prophet emphasizes a scale for divine majesty that exceeds the usual imagining. Lebanon is famous for its forest and wildlife, yet all the famed cedars there would not make a fire large enough for God to take notice and all its wildlife would not even be a sufficient burnt offering. The nothingness of the nations is hyperbole intended to express the incomparability of God. The fall of Jerusalem, the reign of powers like Babylon, these tragedies and injustices on the earth are overshadowed by the peerless majesty of the Greater-Than-Whom-None-Exists.