A Tool in God’s Hands
I want you to imagine something with me for a moment before we really dig into today’s passage. Imagine, if you will, that inanimate objects could speak.
Then I want you to imagine that you’ve just finished a project that was kind of difficult, or took a decent amount of work. Maybe you built some sort of play structure for some kids, or you’ve sewn a difficult quilt, or you’ve cleaned something that was incredibly dirty, and needed to be done for a while. You’re admiring your handiwork, this awesome thing you’ve just accomplished, when all of a sudden, from the floor you hear this voice speak out:
“Look what I’ve done! Isn’t it beautiful? And to think that I did that all by myself!”
You look around, trying to figure out who’s talking, all the while you keep hearing boastful speech, and someone is trying to take credit for your hard work!
Finally, you look down, and whatever tool you were using to do your work is talking, saying that it is responsible for the work that you just did!
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty annoyed (angry, wrathful) if that happened to me. Yesterday, we had to clean the carpets in the apartment we just moved out of, and while it wasn’t very difficult work, it took quite a bit of time to do it. After I was done there, it felt so good to look at the carpets I had just cleaned, and to know that it was because of my handiwork.
Now imagine if the carpet cleaner piped up and said, “I did that all by myself!” I’d be pretty mad, because I know that it was I who did the work, and the carpet cleaner was just the tool that I used to do it.
This is similar to what God experienced with Assyria in our passage for this morning. But before we get there, let’s sum up where we’ve been so far.
Isaiah chapters 7-12 have all centred around the relationship between the people of God and the empire of Assyria. You’ll remember back in chapter 7, Judah was invaded by two of their northern neighbours, and Isaiah challenged king Ahaz to trust in God instead of reaching out to Assyria for help.
We know that Ahaz didn’t do that, and in chapter 8 we found out how his plan backfired. Rather than helping out Judah, Assyria was going to invade them and only the capital, Jerusalem, would be spared.
And in the last part of chapter 9, last week, we heard in detail about the kind of destruction that was coming as Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and threatened the southern kingdom of Judah.
So one thing is clear from all of this. God was going to use Assyria—that wicked nation Assyria—as the instrument of His judgement against Israel and Judah. And our passage today answers some really important questions we might have about this.
If God was going to judge Israel and Judah, why would He use Assyria? Weren’t the Assyrians just as wicked as, if not more wicked than, Israel and Judah themselves?
Was it fair for God to punish Israel and Judah and let Assyria get away with their own sins?
Furthermore, did Assyria know that they were being used by God? Weren’t they just doing the thing they wanted to do—take over the world? And Israel and Judah were just two more countries on their list?
How did Assyria’s plans and God's plans fit together?
These are all questions that relate to the much deeper questions of the sovereignty of God, and how God’s sovereignty relates to human choice. If God is in control, does that mean we’re just robots? How can God be sovereign and still hold us accountable for our sin and wickedness?
Well we’ll see from our passage, that God answers these questions and helps us understand the answers in a really important way.
A Tool in God’s Hands
He begins in verse 5 by stating, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!” (Isaiah 10:5). God introduces Assyria by referring to them simply as a tool in His hands. They are just a rod or a stick that he is using to do His work. They are simply an instrument of His fury and discipline against Israel and Judah.
Verse 6 further explains how Assyria is doing God’s work: “Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets” (Isaiah 10:6).
Assyria is going up against Israel and Judah to simply do what God wants them to do.
But that’s not what Assyria thinks. They don’t know that they are God’s instrument of wrath. As we see in verse 7, “he [Assyria] does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”
Assyria doesn’t know they are executing God’s judgement. They’re on a rampage of destruction, and they think that it’s all part of their own plan. They think they’ve been successful because of their own strength, like verse 8 says: “Are not my commanders all kings?” That’s Assyria talking.
Verses 13 and 14 show us more of this kind of boasting: “For he [Assyria] says, ‘By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones” (Isaiah 10:13).
Assyria thinks they’re so strong and powerful. And for Assyria, Israel and Judah are two more nations on the list of kingdoms to conquer. Look at verse 10: “As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”” (Isaiah 10:10–11).
We see here that Assyria has no regard for the God of Judah. Assyria thinks that Yahweh is just another idol, like all of the other nations have, and they’re going to destroy Him and Jerusalem just like they’ve destroyed everybody else.
Isn’t this ironic? They think Yahweh is just one more idol they are going to destroy, when actually He is the sovereign God of all creation who is using Assyria as a tool to do His work!
Verse 15 helps draw out this irony: “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?” (Isaiah 10:15a).
Assyria is just a tool in God’s hand, like an axe or a saw. And how silly it is for that tool to think it’s greater than the person using it. As verse 15 goes on to say, “As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!” (Isaiah 10:15b). As if Assyria has any right to boast against the very one who is using them to do His bidding!
So what’s God going to do about this? Is He going to let Assyria get away with their pride and arrogance and illusion of control?
And the answer is no. God is going to use Assyria, and then afterwards he is going to deal with Assyria, as verse 12 tells us. “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes” (Isaiah 10:12).
Verse 16 shows us what He’s going to do: “Therefore the Lord God of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire. The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down” (Isaiah 10:16–19).
God compares the Assyrian army to a forest, and promises to cut it down until there’s just a handful left. 2 Kings 19:35 tell us when this, or something very similar to this, happened. Years later, in the days of Hezekiah, we read that “And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh” (2 Kings 19:35–36).
Whether that’s the exact event referred to here in Isaiah 10 or not, the idea is the same: God is going to humble the Assyrian king by wiping out his army.
So, to ask the question again, “Should an axe boast over him who uses it?” And the answer is “definitely not.” God opposes the proud (James 4:6), and Assyria was going to be humbled in a devastating way.
Now at this point in our passage, we see a pivot. Rather than continuing to speak to Assyria, Isaiah turns and addresses the people of Judah with a three-part encouragement. This future destruction of Assyria is good news for them. And Isaiah breaks down this good news, this encouragement, from verse 20 down to the end of the chapter.
Firstly, in verses 20-23, God promises that Israel will not be completely destroyed, but that a remnant will survive and will return to the Lord. “In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (Isaiah 10:20). We’ve heard this idea before—that God is going to preserve a remnant of His people, and they will trust Him instead of Assyria.
Secondly, in verses 24-27, God encourages His people not to be afraid of Assyria. “Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: ‘O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction” (Isaiah 10:24–25).
Notice how God compares Assyria to Egypt? Just like He delivered Israel from Egypt, so he’s going to deliver Judah from Assyria. “And the Lord of hosts will wield against them a whip, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb. And his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. And in that day his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck; and the yoke will be broken because of the fat.’” (Isaiah 10:26–27).
That last phrase is difficult to understand both in English and in Hebrew, but the idea is that God is going to completely save His people from Assyrian oppression just like He saved them from the Egyptians in the days of Moses and just like He saved them from the Midianites in the days of Gideon.
Thirdly and finally, Isaiah describes Assyria marching to Jerusalem only to be stopped in their tracks by God’s judgement. Verses 29-32 are full of place names that sound strange to us, but if you were to look them up on a Bible map you’d see that they plot a course to Jerusalem. Isaiah is describing the advance of the Assyrian army coming up to the city to destroy it.
But then, in verse 33, God intervenes. Picking up the forest picture again, which we saw in verses 18-19, the chapter ends by describing his destruction of the Assyrian army: “Behold, the Lord God of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One” (Isaiah 10:33–34).
After using Assyria to do His work, God is going to judge them. Like a lumberjack cutting the forest down, He’s going to reduce their powerful army to basically nothing. He’s going to humble them and bring them low.
God, the Sovereign One
So what have we seen in this chapter? What we’ve seen is that Assyria was just a tool in the hands of God. They were just doing His work. Of course, they didn’t think that. They were destroying nations because they just wanted to destroy nations.
And so one of the big questions answered by this chapter is, “How can that even work? How can God use sinners to do His work without supporting that sin?” And the answer is that God isn’t going to let the Assyrians off the hook. God is going to use Assyria to judge the sin of His people, but after that He is going to deal with Assyria’s sin.
So in the end, this passage isn’t about the Assyrians. This passage is about a God who is sovereign over the nations. Yahweh was not just the tribal God of Jerusalem, like so many people thought in that day. The God of Jerusalem is the God of Heaven and Earth, and all the nations are under His rule.
And this passage tells us that God is so sovereign that even human decisions are under His control. Just think about it: Assyria had all kinds of selfish motives for conquering Israel and Judah. They had so much to gain: possessions, such as gold and silver; power; glory; possibly slaves, to do their heavy labour. But even their sinful desires and activities were contained within the sovereign plan of God.
Did you know that God is sovereign, in charge and in control, even over our choices and decisions? Even over our sinful choices and decisions?
The Bible tells us this in many places, not just in today’s passage. Think about when Joseph was sent down to Egypt by His brothers. They hated him and wanted to kill him and ended up selling him into slavery. But those evil sinful actions were a part of the sovereign plan of God who intended for Joseph to go to Egypt in order to save many lives during the famine.
And that’s why Joseph said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Notice he didn’t say, “You meant evil against me, but God responded and made a plan B and found a way to make it work out okay in the end.” No, what he says is that there was an event. You had a purpose for that event, and God had a purpose for that same event. Your purpose was evil, but God’s purpose was good. And guess which purpose won the day?
God is sovereign, even over our meaningful choices, and even over our sinful choices.
The same thing happened a few hundred years later with Pharaoh. Pharaoh wouldn’t let God’s people go, and God dealt with him for that, but that whole process was a part of God’s sovereign plan. God repeatedly hardened or “strengthened” Pharaoh’s heart, and told him in Exodus 9:16, “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
And we see the same truth so clearly in the most sinful act in human history: the death of Jesus. Think of how many people acted wickedly as Jesus was handed over to be killed—first by Judas, then the religious leaders, then by Pilate, and finally by the soldiers. And yet, all of that unfolded exactly according to the sovereign plan of God.
In Acts 2:23, Peter says “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” They crucified him, but it happened according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.
We see the same truth two chapters later when the early Christians prayed like this: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
God is sovereign, even over human choices, and even over human sin.
Now this doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for those choices and those sins. We aren’t robots. We make meaningful choices, and God holds us accountable for those choices. Just like we saw in today’s passage: God was going to deal with Assyria for its selfishness and pride. They weren’t let off the hook just because they were God’s instrument.
Now you might ask how this works, and the truth is that the Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining this to us. God just tells us that this is true. We make meaningful choices, and God holds us accountable for those choices. God is not responsible for our sin, God never makes us sin, and we never have an excuse for our sin.
But in a way that we might not fully understand, all of our choices—even our sinful choices—happen within the sovereign plan of God. And while this all might seem like a contradiction to us, apparently it’s not a contradiction to God. This is simply what His word teaches, even if we have a hard time wrapping our minds around it.
Now why is this important? Is the purpose of passages like this, which so clearly demonstrate God’s sovereignty, so that we can puzzle them out, and try and wrap our heads completely around these concepts? No! It’s not just for head knowledge!
God tells us these truths so that we can trust Him. Joseph and Moses and Isaiah and the early Christians all took comfort in the sovereignty of God, because it meant that they were safe. They could trust God. Nothing was going to happen that wasn’t a part of God’s sovereign plan. Even though things may have felt chaotic and out of control, they weren’t. God was (and is) on His throne and He was working all things according to the council of His will, as Ephesians 1:11 says.
And so, God could be trusted. Judah was told these things so that they could trust God. They had sinned, and they were told (many times) that their judgment was coming, and they were even told what their judgment would look like. But, God had also promised them that a remnant would remain, and that they would be restored, and their enemies would eventually be crushed. Their present situation may have seemed bleak, but God, in His sovereignty and goodness, promised that his judgment on them would not last forever.
Do you think this is a lesson we need to be reminded of? Just think about the world today. Here in Canada there are so many things that could instil fear in us: there are threats to our religious liberty; rising inflation; climbing mortgage rates; gas prices are skyrocketing; there are shortages of food and other supplies. And we here in Canada have it pretty easy compared to most of the world, where wars and famines and oppression are making life so hard for so many.
Does all of what’s happening right now feel somewhat chaotic to you? Have you found it easy to worry?
Or maybe the struggles are closer to home. Maybe in your family, or your own life, things feel like chaos. You feel like little Jerusalem and powerful Assyria is coming to gobble you up and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
I trust and I pray that today’s passage is an encouragement to you as you remember that the God of Heaven reigns over all the earth. He reigns over every human heart, whether they know it or not. And He reigns over every situation you find yourself in.
“God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” says Psalm 47:8. God reigns. He’s the king. He’s in charge. Powerful rulers and nations, like Assyria, are merely tools in God’s hand. He is building His church, and death can’t stand against it (Matthew 16:18). He’s working all things for good for His people (Romans 8:28), and He’s promised to return and make all things new.
And so we can trust Him. We can serve Him. We can take risks and follow Him into dangerous places. We never need a plan B when it comes to trusting God.
God said to His people in verse 24, “O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did” (Isaiah 10:24). BE NOT AFRAID. What are you afraid of this morning? What fear do you need to hand over to the sovereign God?
Let’s seek to do that now as we pray, and as we sing, and throughout the hours and days ahead. Let’s ask God to give us the faith to believe and to trust.