Cute Heresy Cannot Save You (Isaiah 46)
It’s often obvious when cults set forth heretical views of God. For example, according to official Mormon doctrine (from the so-called "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints"), not only are the Father, Son, and Spirit separate beings (which amounts to tri-theism), but LDS doctrine even goes on to state that human beings will become divine. In fact, the false prophet Joseph Smith, who founded the movement, stated, “You have got to learn how to be a god yourself.”
The book of Isaiah refutes such ridiculous notions with clarity and precision, saying, “Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me” (Isa. 43:10). Humans do not become divine.
According to official Jehovah's Witnesses teaching, Jesus is not Almighty God, nor does God exist as Trinity. In fact, founder and false teacher Charles Taze Russell stated, “In what a jumble of contradictions and confusion do they find themselves who say that Jesus and the Father are one God!” Attacking the Council of Nicaea which occurred in 325 AD, and treating the doctrine of the Trinity as the product of Greek philosophy, this cult has found itself on the wrong side of both church history and God’s Word.
Here again, the book of Isaiah makes quick work of such false teaching. Not only does Isaiah prophesy of the coming Savior using the title “Mighty God” (El Gibbor in Hebrew, cf. Isa. 9:6), but Jesus attributed to Himself the same divine title “I AM” (ego eimi in Greek, cf. John 8:24) as is used of Yahweh in multiple passages of Isaiah's prophecy (ego eimi in the Septuagint, ani hu in Hebrew, cf. Isa. 41:4, 43:10, et. al.). Jesus is truly divine.
At the same time, however, many genuine Christians who would quickly affirm the correct understanding of God, as described by the doctrine of the Trinity, go on to functionally undermine that claim when they offer poor—and ultimately heretical—illustrations of it in an attempt to explain God’s triune nature. For example, how often do we hear that the Trinity is like water? We're told that the gas, liquid, and solid states of water serve as a comparable analogy to the Father, Son, and Spirit. But the same water does not exist simultaneously in all three states—only one at any given time. This undermines the coexistence of the Father, Son, and Spirit, all of whom exist eternally and simultaneously (cf. Gen. 1:1-2, John 1:1, Matt. 3:16-17). In fact, to think that God morphs between the different “modes” of Father, Son, and Spirit at different times is an ancient heresy known as Modalism (also known as Sabellianism).
Or, have you ever heard that God is like a shamrock? Supposedly, the three leaves of this clover serve to illustrate the three Persons of the one divine being. But in a shamrock, each leaf is only a part (one-third) of the whole, whereas the Father, Son, and Spirit each possess the fullness of deity (cf. Col. 2:9); they are not each “one-third divine.” It is not as if the omniscient God is divided into three parts, with the Father, Son, and Spirit each possessing one-third of all knowledge in the universe.
As if that weren't bad enough, poor explanations of the Trinity seem only to multiply when children are taught. In a well-meaning, but terribly misguided way, some would say that God is like an apple, in that the three parts of skin, core, and fruit all combine to constitute one apple. Others would say that God is like Play-Doh, in that it can be pulled apart but is all still the same Play-Doh. And the triviality seems to have no end: some would go so far as to compare God to candy corn—the cone-shaped, three-colored, sugary treat given to kids at Halloween!
What all of this amounts to is little more than “cute heresy,” an attempt at teaching doctrine in a winsome, simplistic, “cute” way that ultimately winds up in the gutter of serious theological error. Saints in the past were careful to guard against these misconceptions in order to provide us with a true understanding that there is one God who exists in three co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial Persons (described more fully in the Nicene Creed of 381 AD, Chalcedonian Creed of 451 AD, and Athanasian Creed of 800 AD). We would do well to consider their counsel.
One scholar notes the following:
The benefits of reading the Bible in the communion of the saints (e.g., Athanasius, Basil, Calvin) have been revolutionary. Recovering the doctrine of the Trinity has delivered me from a warped conception of God. I have learned again that there is no other God than the God who is one substance in three subsistences (persons); that the Christian is not entitled to think of God in any other way than he has revealed himself (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 25, 96); that with Calvin and before him Gregory of Nazianzus (330-89) we must say, “I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightaway carried back to the one.” For Gregory, for Calvin, and for us, to think of God as triune is not a second blessing, reserved for the illuminati. Rather, it is how anyone must think of God, for any other god is an idol to be rejected.
So, what would Isaiah say to those who would compare the Trinity to the aforementioned examples? Does he speak to them as well?
Yes, even today, Isaiah still speaks on behalf of God: “To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?” (Isa. 46:5). In denouncing the idols of Babylon decades before Judah's captivity, Isaiah exposed the difference between the one true God and all false gods in order to show that Yahweh has no match. In other words, Isaiah provided a contrast in order to guard against comparison. The one true God is nothing like the idolatrous god of Mormonism, nothing like the blasphemous god of Jehovah's Witnesses, nothing like the impotent gods of Babylon... and nothing like the heretically “cute” gods of superficial evangelicalism.
A God That Is Carried (Isaiah 46:1-2)
Bel has bowed down, Nebo stoops over; their images are consigned to the beasts and the cattle. The things that you carry are burdensome, a load for the weary beast. They stooped over, they have bowed down together; they could not rescue the burden, but have themselves gone into captivity. (Isaiah 46:1-2)
As Isaiah continued his “trial of the false gods” that began in chapter 40, he exposed the vast difference between the idols worshiped in Babylon and the one true God of Israel. His purpose was not only to rebuke the futility of false religion, but also to instill in the Israelites—especially those who would one day be captive in Babylon—a strong faith in Yahweh, since they would be living in polytheistic culture far from home. 1 Corinthians 15:33 teaches us that “bad company corrupts good morals,” and Babylon was no exception to this. Assimilation into a pagan culture is inevitable apart from the Word of God providing its guiding hand for God’s people. Thus, denouncing the idols of Babylon was an important source of spiritual safety for those who would remain faithful to the one true God.
To that end, Isaiah prophesied the future downfall of Babylon at the hands of Persia. He began by referring to “Bel” (the city-god of Babylon, the premier god in their polytheistic religion) and “Nebo” (Bel’s supposed son, from which names like “Nebuchadnezzar” are derived). Isaiah foresaw the coming irony that one day the statues and images of these so-called gods would be tipped over, loaded up on pack animals, and carried off by Persian attackers. Rather than carrying their people to safety, these false gods were carried off with their people! As John MacArthur notes, “When Cyrus came, even the gods were taken into exile. These idols couldn’t save themselves from being laid down on the backs of beasts and hauled away, let alone save the people who worshiped them.”
The Babylonians undoubtedly believed that their gods would rescue them from Persia, but it was to no avail. In fact, the “Cyrus Cylinder” (an ancient document written on a clay cylinder from 539 BC) describes the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, king of Persia, and mentions these subjugated Babylonian gods by name. As Isaiah stated, “They could not rescue the burden, but have themselves gone into captivity” (Isa. 46:2). A god who cannot rescue its worshipers from capture, but is instead captured along with its worshipers, is no god at all. Isaiah wanted his fellow Israelites to recognize this.
The God Who Carries (Isaiah 46:3-4)
“Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, you who have been borne by Me from birth and have been carried from the womb; even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; and I will bear you and I will deliver you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)
In contrast with Bel and Nebo, the failed gods of Babylon, Yahweh does indeed carry His people. Speaking in first person on behalf of God, Isaiah reminded the people that God had established Israel as a nation (“you have been borne by Me from birth”) and had continued to sustain them and guard them for centuries. Just as a mother carries her helpless child in the womb, nurturing and caring for the child in this environment of protection, so too had God been with them for centuries, cradling His people in providential care. The fact that the first person pronoun “I” is used five times in verse 4 just goes to show how personally involved God had been in carrying His people.
Despite the rampant apostasy in both Northern and Southern Kingdoms, God had been—and continues to be—faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham, because He remains the same (the attribute of God known as immutability). As one scholar noted, “The people’s existence depends on the Lord, therefore they will remain unless he changes his mind, but ‘he is the same.’” In fact, so great is God’s care for His people, that He promised to continue carrying them even to their “graying years.” God said that He would be there for His people from infancy to boyhood, to manhood, and to old age.
One pastor put it this way:
Where lies the secret of Israel’s toughness and ineradicable condition? The mighty world dominions of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, and Rome have come and gone; Israel not only remained standing but even increased in spite of all oppression. The answer is: that strength lies not in Israel. Israel is as weak as a baby; the secret of that strength lies in Jehovah who carries her and will never allow her to fall.
Beyond carrying national Israel, the reality is that from the foundation of the world, all the way to this present hour, God has carried His elect (cf. Eph. 1:11, Rom. 8:28-33). If you are a believer in Christ, it is not by accident. God not only brought you to faith, He will carry you through to completion (cf. Phil. 1:6, Jude 24). Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep, calls His sheep by name, and leads His sheep to eternal life (cf. John 10).
What a stark contrast this is to Bel and Nebo!
A God That Cannot Move (Isaiah 46:5-7)
“To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse and weigh silver on the scale hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; they bow down, indeed they worship it. They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; they set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; it cannot deliver him from his distress.” (Isaiah 46:5-7)
Finish the following statement: “God is like _____.” Truth be told, that statement can only be finished with the phrase “nothing else.” Having exposed the worthlessness of Babylon’s idols, Isaiah, still serving as God’s mouthpiece, offered a rhetorical question to drive home the point: “To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?” (Isa. 46:5). The Creator of the universe transcends all comparisons to His own creation. He has no equal. God’s supremacy over and above the idols of false religions is patently clear, but based on this question, we must also consider the malady of “cute heresy” that so often plagues our fallen illustrations of the doctrine of the Trinity.
According to Isaiah’s own words, can we, in good conscience, continue to say, “God is like water” or “God is like an egg?” Such statements fly directly in the face of the text itself, which makes it clear that God is not like anything or anyone else, nor should anyone even try to draw the comparison! God is not only incomparable to the wood, stone, silver, and gold statues of ancient Babylon, His divine being is also incomparable to the creaturely examples offered as paltry illustrations of the Trinity.
Isaiah continued on to expose the folly of idolatry as he had previously (cf. Isa. 44:9-20). This time, he looked at the all the work that was put into making a thing that doesn’t work. The great irony is that those who worshiped statues of Bel or Nebo would spend exorbitant money (“lavish gold from the purse”), effort (“hire a goldsmith”) and time (“makes it into a god”) in order to produce something that sits in place and cannot move (“it stands there”)! In Isaiah’s mind, it was simply stunning to envision people who would expend so much energy worshiping something that has absolutely no energy at all.
Worse yet, the sad reality is that those statues could not help the Babylonians ward off Persian invasion, in spite of their cries for deliverance. Bel and Nebo could not move; they could not answer; they could not deliver. And the only thing they could provide was despair. Such is the way of all false gods.
The God Who Moves Kings (Isaiah 46:8-11)
“Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors. Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:8-11)
In contrast, Isaiah again returned to vital truths about Yahweh. “Remember this!” was his primary instruction. Spiritual safety always begins with remembering who God is and what He has done. At the end of his life, King Solomon wrote, “Remember also your Creator” (Ecc. 12:1). In his final days, Paul wrote, “Remember Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:8). And near the completion of his ministry, Isaiah wrote, “Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 46:9).
Isaiah went on to indicate further proof of God’s superiority, stating in Isaiah 46:10-11 that God declares “the end from the beginning” (describing what will happen in the future well before it comes to pass). Far from “looking down the corridors of time,” as many wrongly believe, the reason that God knows the future is because He has ordained the future: “My purpose will be established” (Isa. 46:10, emphasis mine). God has a plan for the future and works all things toward establishing that plan (cf. Eph. 1:11). In fact, the most significant proof of this was the fact that God foretold that He would use a man named “Cyrus” to return the Israelite exiles to their land, and He did so over one hundred and fifty years before Cyrus was born (cf. Isa. 44:28; 45:1)! Cyrus, as a “bird of prey from the east,” would swoop down upon Babylon and overtake it with his army the way a falcon snatches its prey.
But Yahweh was the falconer.
Not Bel. Not Nebo. Not any conjured up god of mankind’s fallen imagination.
“Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it,” said Yahweh (Isa. 46:11).
Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” And Ezra 1:1 describes God’s continued use of Cyrus: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia…” The only one in the universe with free will is the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He governs all of creation, from the highest of kings to the lowest of paupers.
Here is Isaiah’s point: the gods of Babylon could not move, whereas the God of Israel moves kings.
The Verdict Given (Isaiah 46:12-13)
“Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded, who are far from righteousness. I bring near My righteousness, it is not far off; and My salvation will not delay. And I will grant salvation in Zion, and My glory for Israel.” (Israel 46:12-13)
Isaiah ended this portion of his trial against the false gods by calling upon any remaining skeptics among Israel: “Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded, who are far from righteousness” (Isa. 46:12). Those far from God were instructed to pay attention to the aforementioned contrast between Yahweh and idols, because by God’s amazing grace, and for God’s own glory (cf. Isa. 46:13), they would be saved out of exile and brought back to the land: “I bring near my righteousness, it is not far off; and My salvation will not delay” (Isa. 46:13). Their situation was inescapable by their own power, but God would come for them.
But the absolute magnificence of the statement “I bring near my righteousness” is worthy of more consideration. Not only does God provide righteousness for His people, He brings it near. The same God who did that for Israel continues to do it today for all who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for their own salvation. Imagine, if you will, that a wealthy man offered to pay your financial debts by giving you millions of dollars, and said all you had to do was travel to the moon to obtain it. Despite such a grand offer, it would simply be out your reach. You could never jump high enough, catapult yourself far enough, or build a ladder tall enough to reach it. On the other hand, imagine that this wealthy man not only offered to pay all of your debts, but then walked right up to you—cash in hand—and gave it to you. The difference in these two scenarios is representative of the greatness of the Gospel itself: that the Father sent the Son into His own creation to provide the righteousness and reconciliation that mankind desperately needs. We do not have to ascend to heaven, nor descend to the realm of the dead, nor embark on a spiritual pilgrimage in search of our greatest need. Instead, the righteousness of God is brought near, through faith alone in the preached message of the Gospel. This is precisely the argument made by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10:6-11. Furthermore, it’s embodied in the words of the Apostle John: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9).
In contrast with false gods, the triune God Yahweh loves. And He loves enough to save.
In eternity past, the Father chose whom He would save (cf. Eph. 1:4). On the cross, the Son died for those given to Him by the Father (cf. John 6:39). And throughout redemptive history, the Spirit regenerates men so that they can believe (cf. 1 John 5:1). To whom or to what, then, would you compare the triune God of our salvation? To water? To shamrocks? To Play-Doh? In reality, there is nothing cute about these heretical examples. The god who is like a three-sliced pie, a 3D cube, or a three-pronged “fidget spinner” can be represented by fun object lessons, but that god cannot save anyone. Thankfully, though, the one true God of the Bible—to whom there is no comparison—can.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 816.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005), 816.
 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 369
 Harry Bultema, Commentary On Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), 455.