“Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift up, or as if the staff should lift up itself as if it were no wood. “
One of the most beautiful and comforting doctrines of the Christian faith is that of the Providence of God. And perhaps no more beautifully and comprehensively expressed is this doctrine than in our Belgic Confession. Here the truth is set forth that God, after creating the world, did not forsake it, as the proud Deist would have it; nor did He leave it to fortune and chance, as the fatalist or determinist maintains. Rather, so the Article stresses it, He rules and governs the same according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in the world without His appointment. He even executes His work in the most excellent manner when devils and wicked men act unjustly, restraining the devil and all our enemies, that without His will and permission, they cannot hurt us; so that not a hair of our head, nor a sparrow can fall to the ground without His will.
Though this article of faith does not claim to comprehend all the profundities involved in the relation between the restraining power God exercises over rational moral creatures and their response, even cautioning not to curiously pry into those things which surpass human understanding, and to be content with that only which He has revealed in His Word, it nevertheless makes two things abundantly clear. God neither is the author of, nor can He be charged with the sins these rational creatures commit; while at the same time it is evident that He so governs them that they serve His purpose. Moreover, they are so under His restraining power that without His will they cannot hurt us. This restraining power of God must not be understood as a fruitage of a certain ‘common grace’ toward the wicked, as some have explained. There is nothing in the article that remotely suggests such an idea. Rather, what is so beautifully stressed is the Scriptural truth that the devil and all our enemies are so completely under God’s providential government that they can do only what He purposes for them to do. It is this truth which is so clearly demonstrated in the Scripture to which our text now calls our attention.
In the tenth chapter of Isaiah the vaunting, boasting axe is the kingdom of Assyria. Notably the prophet speaks of the boasting axe, the self-magnifying saw, and the rebellious, self-exalting rod, not with the intention to dwell on the subject of three distinct instruments (axe, saw, and rod), but to demonstrate with emphasis the element of boasting which is mentioned in connection with each instrument. When we speak of the vaunting axe, therefore, all that is said regarding the saw and rod may be subsumed under the figure of the vaunting axe.
All these instruments are in themselves dead instruments, used for the purpose of cutting down, humbling the trees of the forest. Naturally dead instruments do not talk, nor do they act by themselves. They simply lie on the ground or wherever they are placed by the user of them. The axe is capable of hewing the tree only as it is manipulated in the hand of the feller. However, in the text as it is set in the context of Isaiah 10 the axe is said to react over against the one who wields it. As was said the axe is the kingdom of Assyria which is made up of wicked men inspired by the devil who proudly vaunt themselves over against Jehovah, the God of Judah, and over against the nation of Judah which is about to be brought into captivity.
Assyria is commissioned of Jehovah God to fulfill a certain work. He must marshal all his forces against Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah, like the kingdom of Israel, had at this time made itself ready for judgment, having made full its measure of iniquity. But unlike the kingdom of Israel, it was not to be completely destroyed, but brought into the captivity of Babylon. In the siege against Jerusalem, the city and temple are to be laid low, while its citizens were to be ruthlessly removed from their land. According to verse six, it is the Lord’s purpose to show His wrath on Judah, a hypocritical nation. “I will send him (Assyria) against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him in charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.” Indeed, Jehovah will send the rod of His anger and the staff of His indignation, and that rod and staff is none other than the kingdom of Assyria. Jehovah will surely chastise His nation for their sin and iniquity; but He will use the reprobate nation of Assyria to accomplish this purpose.
And Assyria will indeed acquit himself well of his task. With great ambition he will go about to bring havoc on Jerusalem. All that Jehovah desires of him he will do. Unwittingly, of course, he goes about his work; that is, he does not really know that Jehovah is using him. He does it all as if it is in his power to do what he will with God’s people. And in the process, he exalts himself. He asks himself the question: are not my princes altogether kings? He boasts that Judah is no different from the other nations he has conquered, nor were the gods of those nations different from the God of Judah. Shall he not, as he had done to Samaria, do also to Jerusalem? (Vss. 8-11). Indeed, Assyria is the vaunting axe which boasteth itself against the God of Judah Who heweth therewith!
Such is the vaunting axe also throughout the history of the world.
To get the full picture we must go back to the beginning. In the beginning of the creation of the world man was made king-servant by His Creator. Created was he in the image of God, in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. By virtue of that image man stood in a covenant relation to his God. He could rightly know Him, love Him with his whole being and will, . . . but only as a friend-servant. He had dominion over all things earthly, but his reign was to be in accordance with God’s will. All things must serve him in order that he might serve his God.
But this friend-servant through his fall into sin and corruption became actually a friend-servant of the devil. He not only lost God’s image, but the image turned into its opposite. His knowledge became darkness, his righteousness became rebellion, and his holiness became corruption. He became not only the devil’s ally, but slave. Mind you, all this while he retained his relation to the creation. O, indeed, he lost much of his original gifts; but he was still the king of the world. He ever since employs all his powers and resources to oppose the living God in the spiritual-ethical sense of the word. He serves the devil, who is in Scripture designated the prince of the world and the prince of darkness.
Naturally, therefore, this fallen man in his generations stands opposed to God’s cause, His covenant, His people in the midst of the world. However, God remains God, and maintains His covenant, His counsel, and purpose. Never is He frustrated, brought to nought by the powers of darkness. He anoints His Son to become King in Zion. He causes Him to become the root of a new humanity — the elect — the seed of the woman. And this covenant people is delivered by Him from the slavery of the devil. They walk in holiness after the image of God in which they are recreated. They constitute the party of the living God in the world over against the power of the fallen king and his kingdom. Not naturally but spiritually they differ radically from the wicked world, developing from the spiritual principle of regeneration, while the vaunting axe develops from the principle of sin and darkness, employing all its powers to establish and maintain a wicked world kingdom. The latter includes the devil and his angels and all the wicked in alliance with them. And so we see the antithesis between Babylon and Jerusalem, between the world and the church.
Assyria, therefore, the vaunting axe, was but an individual manifestation of the antithesis, of the wicked seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) which always manifests itself in the world. So from the beginning there is opposition between the seed of Cain and that of Seth, between the builders of the Tower of Babel and the children of Shem, between Egypt and Israel. Ail through the old dispensation we find the antithesis in the successive powers of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. And in the new dispensation this antithesis manifests itself in the power of Jew and Gentile, Scribe and Pharisee, Pilate and Herod, all foaming out their rage against the Holy Child Jesus. We find it in the false doctrines and vain philosophy of the world and apostatizing church. And it culminates in Gog and Magog, and the Antichrist who shall appear in the last days. The vaunting axe may differ in appearance in history, but always it stands in opposition to God’s cause and covenant in the world. Not in the dualistic sense does this opposition assume its place, for God really has no opponents. Even the powers of evil must serve His purpose. For God is God.
Always the highest purpose of the Divine is His own glory. And this purpose is realized in His covenant in Christ. Not only is this purpose realized in a general way, so that when Jerusalem is assailed the elect will cry to Jehovah for deliverance, and when Christ is crucified to save His people, Judas, Herod, and Pontius Pilate must cooperate. But this is also true in the personal salvation of God’s people. Then Paul must have an angel of Satan to buffet him. Then God purifies His saints in the crucible of affliction, brought on by the wicked. Then heresy must and does serve for the development of God’s truth. Then all things, even the evil, work together for good to them that love God.
In this service the axe then is not a dead instrument. O, in the spiritual sense of the word Assyria is also dead, dead as the natural man in trespasses and sins, and therefore incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. But Assyria also belongs to the category of the rational, moral creatures. Assyria, therefore, acts responsibly, and being motivated from within Assyria thinks, counsels, has purposes of its own: always, you understand, in opposition to God, and all that is holy. Assyria purposes to destroy Jerusalem, the last standing vestige of the work of God. Everything that smacks of God’s covenant must be annihilated. That is Assyria’s purpose. But in the carrying out of Assyria’s purpose God realizes His own purpose. So Assyria is the axe in the hand of Jehovah, and He hews with it to realize His own eternal counsel.
Thus we see that God has a work for the reprobate to do. And this gives new meaning to the whole idea of reprobation. The latter is not simply the passing by of some in distinction from the election of others. But reprobation serves the election of grace; as the shell serves the walnut, as the chaff serves the kernel of wheat. As was said, unwittingly Assyria works, unaware that it serves God’s purpose. Never does Assyria mean, when it destroys Jerusalem and brings Judah to Babylon, to bring God’s people to repentance and salvation, nor, when it makes rubble of the city of Jerusalem, to cause the people of God to look for Jerusalem that is above and which must presently descend out of heaven. Indeed, Assyria means only to destroy all the cause of Jehovah and boast itself in that destruction. But Jehovah uses the vaunting axe to destroy the type so that the fulfillment may appear. His purpose is to destroy the typical temple and sacrifices in order through the sacrifice of Christ the temple of God may be realized in His people gathered out of all nations. Judah must suffer loss that the faithful may look to the Lion of Judah’s tribe for deliverance. Nothing may frustrate that Divine purpose. Even reprobate Assyria, appearing as the boasting axe, is used of God to glorify His covenant.
The vaunting axe attains temporary success only because Jehovah hews with it to accomplish His purpose. Not for a moment would Assyria be able to lay one finger on Judah had this not been the case. But Assyria succeeds because God wills it. And so they will gather the spoil. For a small moment they will exalt themselves over the cause of Jehovah. And this explains how Nebuchadnezzar becomes great in the earth, and is brought to boasting. This explains how Judas succeeds in betraying the Christ, and the enemies rejoice in His crucifixion. This also explains how in the future even the Antichrist succeeds for a while, sitting in the temple and boasting that he is God.
But remember this success leads only to greater rebellion against the Most High, and therefore the greater condemnation. Assyria can only heap to himself greater treasures of wrath. And so the apparent success only leads to bitter failure. This is the folly of the world whose wisdom is made foolishness by the Most High.
The ultimate reward of Assyria and all who boast themselves against our God is everlasting desolation in hell-fire. Because they stood in rebellion against the living God, theirs shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
All the vain boasting will have its end in this that the boasters will be brought to clearly understand and acknowledge that their vain purpose only served to accomplish God’s counsel, Not only is God God, but He must be acknowledged as such. Eternally the Word of God to Assyria, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, to the raging nations, and to Antichrist will be: for this purpose have I raised thee up to show My power in thee. And from the consciousness of desolation they will reply: Yes, indeed, Thou art forever the only true God!
And God’s people now and forever will say: Amen!
Glory, honor, praise,. and dominion be unto our God, Who is the God of our everlasting salvation!