Isaiah 43 was full of powerful promises from the Lord, and Isaiah 44 continues this theme....and then moves on to a wry critique of behavior that is completely illogical.
It starts with a promise that God will:
[P]our water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams (vv. 3-4).
I love that Isaiah and the Psalmists often use the imagery of the desert. For example, see: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/streams-of-water. This time, in Isaiah 44, we see the image of a desert stream arising from a sudden rain or flash flood. As occurs in these situations, greenery rises up almost immediately as the desert ecosystem responds swiftly to the presence of water. Note: I know next to nothing about desert ecosystems or desert streams, but a cursory glance at some research shows that desert streams are an important contributor to desert ecosystems. They rearrange what was happening in that system, move things around a bit, and in conjunction with wind, completely influence what happens next in that system.
So...a perfect metaphor for spiritual renewal.
God's action is like a desert stream that springs up out of nowhere, and has a huge impact on everything that is happening. It can result in a poplar tree springing up! The desert stream also offers us another image of faith---not only can God do the impossible, but He can do the completely practical. He can keep the ecosystem of our lives intact, full of nutrients, and everything that is needed to thrive. It just may look scary at first when the rain is pouring down in a flash flood that is going to eventually create this desert stream! God is not a "tame lion" after all, as C.S. Lewis points out in the Chronicles of Narnia. We might like a nice little trickle of water now and then. His plan may involve a rushing stream so that a poplar tree can grow up!
The section immediately following this is one that is often with me:
One will say, 'I belong to the Lord'; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, 'The Lord's,' and will take the name Israel.
It is my belief that Christianity and Judaism have both greatly contributed to the promotion of human rights throughout the world. It starts with the core worldview that every human is created in the image of God, and that they therefore have inherent worth and dignity. For example, here is a a document on how a Jewish worldview has such a strong focus on human rights: https://www.renecassin.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/The-Jewish-Case-for-Human-Rights.pdf
At the same time, people worshipping in both traditions have at times been very insular. That is, viewing one's self or people group as chosen means that others are viewed as not chosen. They may have dignity and worth but are perhaps not quite as special. These verses are part of a promise throughout the Scriptures that God's intent in working with a particular person or people group is always to extend globally. In these verses, I imagine people springing up, like lights across the globe, as the seeds of the Spirit spring up in their hearts. As they spring up, they say, "I belong to the Lord."
It is my heart's desire that people worldwide would see that worshipping themselves and putting their highest good above all is not only damaging to themselves and others, but robs them of the great gift of belonging to the Lord in a glorious multi-ethnic community.
Which brings us to the critique. Sometimes there are passages of Scripture that you read and think, "Some stand-up comic should make a routine out of this one!" Like Ehud getting his sword stuck in the fat of someone's stomach. Like Elijah taunting the men engaging in ritual sacrifice and asking whether their god was stuck peeing somewhere and couldn't attend to their call. And then this one, which is more of a dark humor, a critical analysis of the illogic of what was happening, pointing out a scenario that is darkly funny and sad at the same time.
God starts by declaring that He is the first and the last; "apart from me there is no God." Unfortunately, in this time period, people built their own gods, with many craftsman employed in the business of idol making. God points out the lack of logic in what they're doing, in this reverse sequence (fascinating literary device, that it's in reverse!):
The blacksmith works with the metal idol in the coals.
The blacksmith shapes the metal idol, exhausting himself in the process.
The carpenter measures the outline of the idol and chisels it out in the shape of a man.
The carpenter cuts down trees to form an idol.
Someone planted trees to become idols.
Some of these trees become idols, some become firewood. There's no difference which trees become which--and therein lies the dark humor. Randomly, someone chooses to cut down one tree and chop it up for firewood and then use the very next tree to bow down to and say, "Save me; you are my god" (verse 17).
Isaiah says, "No one stops to think." And, "No one has the knowledge or understanding to say, 'half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?' He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'"
This passage breaks my heart. We all know of people who are currently engaged in illogical, destructive practices. Their minds are deluded--they can't see that they are destroying themselves and others. God, in His eagle-eyed view, sees all of humanity and we all at one time or another find ourselves in a deluded state, feeding on ashes as we engage in futile, pointless, and meaningless activities that are destructive. Just like it is miserable to watch someone you care about in this state, it is frustrating and miserable for God to watch us in it as well. Thus the use of sarcasm to point out what He is always pointing out but, like a good teacher, changing it up a bit in the delivery.
In Charles Spurgeon's Isaiah 44 sermon, "A Deceived Heart," he identifies two types of people with deluded hearts. One are idolators, or basically, atheists who are attempting to live a good life sans any connection to any deeper moral Truth. Spurgeon insists that, deep down, they are not really contented, even if they seem to be. There is a gap there that they may acknowledge if they "stop to think." This section in Isaiah 44 is an appeal for them to indeed stop and think about the illogical nature of their worldview. It's why the original existentialists in the 19th and 20th century thought that the most logical conclusion to their beliefs was suicide. It is the logical conclusion to a nihilistic worldview. Anything else is way nicer and more prosocial but much less logical. By definition, existentialism focuses on human existence in a way that inevitably homes in on angst and dread, as they reflect on existing in a meaningless and absurd world. Just layering on niceness on top of this makes absolutely no sense. It is "feeding on ashes."
The other type of deluded heart, according to Spurgeon, are so-called believers who are not truly converted. He points out that having a response of faith and then just going on with your life is pretty good evidence that one is not actually a worshipper of God, no matter how many church services one attends. Doubt is not something to steer clear of at all costs, but is good evidence that one has stopped to think (Isaiah 44:19). Spurgeon quotes William Cowper as saying,
He has no hope who never had a fear, and he that never doubts of his state, he may perhaps--perhaps he may--too late.
We should not have such faith in ourselves that we rest in our goodness to save us. The presence of persistent sins and failures should cause us to doubt, Spurgeon says, and check ourselves that we are actually on the Path. We often conveniently ignore II Corinthians 13:5:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.
The apostle Paul says this to the Corinthians, to whom he had to write two letters of correction for some pretty...um...impressive problems (reading the Bible is not for the faint of heart...sanitized, it is not). This statement is part of his last and final words to them.
We often get it backwards--that is, feeling courageous to speak forth and judge others and showing fear over judging ourselves. Spurgeon says,
Brethren and sisters, let every one of us retire to our closets, and examine ourselves. Put your hopes in the crucible; see whether they will stand the test of the Word of the Lord, which is like a fire. Judge yourself as you would judge another...If you saw a man who was rushing swiftly to perdition, would you not start off boldly, and warn him? Then, be as bold with yourself as you would be with others. Talk to your own self as you would talk to other people. If you would observe this rule, I should not be afraid of what will happen to you; and some of you will thank God that you were ever led to examine yourselves, for now, as guilty sinners, you can flee to the cross of Christ, and by faith lay hold of him who is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by him.
We are often a fragile people, and thinking negatively about ourselves is not thought to be wise in our culture. However, we have completely misunderstood and misapplied what is actually true about healthy self-esteem (I don't have the time to go into it here...but feel free to look it up!). Healthy self-examination is simply...healthy. Not only is it good for the soul, but it makes us people with whom it is much better to coexist with. I find that people who have a right understanding of themselves--flaws and strengths--are the most pleasant to be around. Those in denial...not so much.
Isaiah 44 ends with a promise about Jerusalem being inhabited, and we are reminded that He is our Redeemer,
[W]ho formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.
Lord, you have made us. You know us and have redeemed us. Please guide us to a right understanding of ourselves, that we will not live in delusion or feed on ashes, but will stop to think on occasion and tap into the Truth that you make available to all.