His Ways Are Higher


Isaiah 55 is a particularly beautiful and oft-quoted passage, but is its message well understood? In what context do you hear this verse quoted? Isaiah 55:9

As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Most often I hear this stated by a well-meaning brother or sister, trying to offer comfort to a person who is struggling with a difficult circumstance, the message being – ‘God knows what he’s doing’.

Is this really what the verse means, or have we misconstrued it? I’m going to look at the whole passage in context, in the hope of revealing the higher thoughts and ways of God. Isaiah 55: 6-13

Mercy and pardon

The preceding verses establish a foundation:

Seek the LORD while he may be found;

call on him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake their ways

and the unrighteous their thoughts.

Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the LORD.

According to the passage, the higher ways and thoughts of God are to have mercy on those who turn to him, freely pardoning their unrighteous thoughts and ways. To be clear, there is no mention of the Lord choreographing circumstantial difficulties for our edification, which is how this verse is usually interpreted, but instead we see a deeper message – the Lord’s heart is brimming with mercy.

We are looking at an exchange – our unrighteous ways and thoughts for God’s righteous ways and thoughts, which are mercy and pardon. This is exactly what we see at the cross, where Christ established the Great Exchange. 2 Corinthians 5:21

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This passage, then, is an Old Covenant pre-echo of the Gospel message, tapping into God’s deepest hope for us, which is that we would embrace mercy and healing.

Joy, Peace, and Abundance

The verses immediately following show how mercy unfolds into blessing.

As the rain and the snow

come down from heaven,

and do not return to it

without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

You will go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,

and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

The prophet writes of the life-giving power of the word of God, comparing it to rain falling on the land and causing the earth to bud and flourish. To really harness the transforming power of God’s word, we need to go much further than reading and studying the Bible; we are urged to meditate on it. This is not a metaphor or descriptive language; it’s a process, involving two moving parts inherent in the meaning of the Hebrew: muttering and imagining. As we repeat (or mutter) a passage, it comes to life in our imaginations. We surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit, speaking the verse aloud and allowing God to inspire us with its meaning. In this way, we sow the word of God into our hearts as a seed, which will ultimately transform us from the inside out.

The Parable of the Sower describes the attitude which allows us to access the power of the word. Luke 8:15,

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

We must treasure the word, sowing it deep within the good soil of our hearts, meditating on it until the power of the seed springs to life within us. Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither –

whatever they do prospers.

The word of God waters us and empowers us to thrive. It does not return to God empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which he sent it. The passage goes on to demonstrate exactly what that purpose looks like.

You will go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,

and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

The result of obtaining mercy and sowing the word of God deeply into our hearts is transformation. God wants us to go out with joy and be led forth in peace! He wants to take each desolate area of our lives and lead us through a process of growth that sets us free. I’m not arguing for a perfectly blessed life, absent of difficulty – that is neither Biblical nor realistic – but in all his engagements with us, God is our liberator, our strong tower, our deliver, and our healer. We must understand and trust his nature, knowing that we stand on the safest ground.

As part of our discipleship, the Lord leads us step by step, releasing us from specific areas of bondage. The traps we end up in are often of our own making, but the Lord teaches us how to escape, and then to stay free. In this sense, the goodness of God is always leading us into greater liberty.

For me, then, it is perverse to take the key statement from this passage (that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours) and slap on the opposite meaning – that the difficulties we face are all part of an inscrutable divine plan for our improvement. When we think this way, we minimise the mercy of God and associate him with the trouble instead. This is quite wrong. It is the word of the Lord that has a purpose – that we go out with joy and be led forth in peace!

God is glorified when we see his goodness

The passage closes with this:

"This will be for the LORD’s renown,

for an everlasting sign,

that will endure forever.”

Every step of our transformation is a demonstration of God’s loving nature. When we receive mercy and step out of captivity into joy and peace, we reveal the goodness of God to everyone looking on. This is the very heart of what it means to glorify God.


Let’s not bandy verses around as if they mean something they don’t. The higher ways of God have nothing to do with unfortunate circumstances. He is not obsessed with our self-improvement, dreaming up trials and tribulations for our improvement. I firmly believe that if we learn God’s ways and thoughts, the only possible outcome is one of joy and of peace.

Brothers and sisters, may the mountains and the hills burst into song before you, and the trees of the field clap their hands!

5/20/2023 12:04:50 AM
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  • Duncan Pile
    About Duncan Pile
    Duncan Pile is a writer, author and speaker, living in Derbyshire, England with his wife and stepson. His mystical approach to faith straddles the Evangelical/Progressive divide, and flowing from lived experience, he is passionate about the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Christian faith.