His Ways Are Not Our Ways
When life takes a difficult turn, Christians often remind others, with a shrug, “His ways are not our ways”—communicating the mysteries of divine providence by which he orchestrates events in ways that surprise us. The mysterious depth of divine providence is, of course, a precious biblical truth. But the passage in which we find “his ways are not our ways” comes from Isaiah 55. And in context, it means something quite different. It is a statement not of the surprise of God’s mysterious providence but of the surprise of God’s compassionate heart. The full passage goes like this:
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6–9)
The first part of this passage tells us what to do. The second part tells us why. The transition comes toward the end of verse 7 (which concludes, “for he will abundantly pardon”). But notice the exact line of reasoning.
God calls us to seek him, to call on him, and invites even the wicked to return to the Lord. What will happen when we do this? God will “have compassion on” us (v. 7). The parallelism of Hebrew poetry then gives us another way of saying that God will exercise compassion toward us: “He will abundantly pardon” (v. 7). This is profound consolation for us as we find ourselves time and again wandering away from the Father, looking for soul calm anywhere but in his embrace and instruction. Returning to God in fresh contrition, however ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, he will not tepidly pardon. He will abundantly pardon. He does not merely accept us. He sweeps us up in his arms again.
But notice what the text then does. Verses 8 and 9 take us deeper into this compassion and abundant pardon. Verse 7 has told us what God does; verses 8 and 9 tell us who he is. Or to put it differently, God knows that even when we hear of his compassionate pardon, we latch on to that promise with a diminished view of the heart from which that compassionate pardon flows.
This is why the Lord continues:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
What is God saying? He is telling us that we cannot view his expressions of his mercy with our old eyes. Our very view of God must change. What would we say to a seven-year-old who, upon being given a birthday gift by his loving father, immediately scrambled to reach for his piggy bank to try to pay his dad back? How painful to a father’s heart. That child needs to change his very view of who his father is and what his father delights to do.
The natural flow of the fallen human heart is toward reciprocity, tit-for-tat payback, equanimity, balancing of the scales. We are far more intractably law-ish than we realize. There is something healthy and glorious buried in that impulse, of course—made in God’s own image, we desire order and fairness rather than chaos. But that impulse, like every part of us, has been diseased by the ruinous fall into sin. Our capacity to apprehend the heart of God has gone into meltdown. We are left with an impoverished view of how he feels about his people, an impoverished view that (once more, due to sin) thinks it is in fact an expansive and accurate view of who he is—like a grandson who, shown a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill, concludes that his grandfather must be very wealthy, not knowing the billions in real estate of which that gift is just the tiniest reflection.
So God tells us in plain terms how tiny our natural views of his heart are. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. And not because we’re just a few degrees off. No, “as high as the heavens are above the earth”—a Hebrew way of expressing spatial infinitude—“so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (v. 9). In verse 8 God says his ways and ours are different; in verse 9 he gets more specific and says his thoughts are higher. It’s as if God is saying in verse 8 that he and we think very differently, whereas in verse 9 he is saying precisely how, namely, his “thoughts” (the Hebrew word doesn’t merely mean “passing mental reflection” but “plans,” “devices,” “intentions,” “purposes”) are higher, grander, enveloped in a compassion for which we fallen sinners have no natural category.
There is only one other place in the Bible where we have the exact phrase “as high as the heavens are above the earth.” In Psalm 103 David prays: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (v. 11). The two passages—Psalm 103:11 and Isaiah 55:9—mutually illumine one another.  God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts in that his are thoughts of love and ways of compassion that stretch to a degree beyond our mental horizon.
Calvin—the theologian most famous for teaching on divine providence—saw that the mystery of providence is not what Isaiah 55 is really after. He notes that some interpret the phrase “my thoughts are not your thoughts” to be a sheer distancing between God and us, expressing the enormous gulf between sacred divinity and profane humanity. Yet Calvin saw that, in fact, the flow of the passage is in exactly the opposite direction. There is indeed a great distance between God and us; we think small thoughts of God’s heart, but he knows his heart is inviolably, expansively, invincibly set on us.
“Because it is difficult to remove terror from trembling minds,” Calvin comments, “Isaiah draws an argument from the nature of God, that he will be ready to pardon and to be reconciled.”  Calvin then tunnels in to the core of what God is telling us in this text. After identifying the erroneous interpretation, he says:
But the Prophet’s meaning, I think, is different, and is more correctly explained, according to my judgment, by other commentators, who think that he draws a distinction between God’s disposition and man’s disposition. Men are wont to judge and measure God from themselves; for their hearts are moved by angry passions, and are very difficult to be appeased; and therefore they think that they cannot be reconciled to God, when they have once offended him. But the Lord shows that he is far from resembling men. 
Calvin’s language of God’s disposition here is heart language. Remember, when we speak of God’s heart, we’re speaking of the spring-loaded tilt of his affections, his natural bent, the regular flow of who he is and what he does. And the divine disposition, teaches Calvin, is, according to Isaiah 55, the photo negative of our natural fallen disposition.
Our lethargic apprehensions of the uproarious joy of divine pardoning lower the ceiling on whom we perceive God to be, but they do not limit who God in fact is. “God is infinitely compassionate and infinitely ready to forgive, so that it ought to be ascribed exclusively to our unbelief, if we do not obtain pardon from him.”
God’s heart of compassion confounds our intuitive predilections about how he loves to respond to his people if they would but dump in his lap the ruin and wreckage of their lives.
He isn’t like you. Even the most intense of human love is but the faintest echo of heaven’s cascading abundance. His heartful thoughts for you outstrip what you can conceive. He intends to restore you into the radiant resplendence for which you were created. And that is dependent not on you keeping yourself clean but on you taking your mess to him. He doesn’t limit himself to working with the unspoiled parts of us that remain after a lifetime of sinning. His power runs so deep that he is able to redeem the very worst parts of our past into the most radiant parts of our future. But we need to take those dark miseries to him.
We know that he is the future restorer of the undeserving because of what the passage goes on to say:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55:12–13)
God’s thoughts are so much higher than ours that not only does he abundantly pardon the penitent; he has determined to bring his people into a future so glorious we can hardly bring ourselves to dare hope for it. The poetry of this passage is beautifully communicating that God’s heart for his people is building toward a crescendo as the generations roll by, preparing to explode onto human history at the end of all things. Our joyous restored humanity will surge forward with such spiritually nuclear energy that the creation itself will erupt in raucous hymns of celebration. This is the party for which the created order is on the edge of its seat in eager anticipation (Rom. 8:19), because its glory is bound up with and dependent on our glory (Rom. 8:21). The universe will be rinsed clean and restored to sparkling brightness and dignity as the sons and daughters of God step into a future as secure as it is undeserved.
How can we be so certain?
Because although his ways are higher than our ways, the way in which his thoughts are higher than ours is that we do not realize just how low he delights to come. As we read a few chapters later in Isaiah:
Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (57:15)
Where is the heart of God, the unspeakably exalted one, naturally drawn, according to Isaiah 57:15? To the lowly. When Jesus showed up seven hundred years after Isaiah prophesied and revealed his deepest heart as “gentle and lowly,” he was proving once and for all that gentle lowliness is indeed where God loves to dwell. It is what he does. It is who he is. His ways are not our ways.
Content taken from Gentle and Lowly by Dane C. Ortlund, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org.
1. The Hebrew text in both verses is almost identical, with just one difference in preposition, though the essential meaning remains the same.
2. Calvin, Isaiah, 168.
3. Calvin, Isaiah, 168. Calvin says something similar when commenting on Ps. 89:2: “Never will a man freely open his mouth to praise God, unless he is fully persuaded that God, even when he is angry with his people, never lays aside his fatherly affection towards them.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 3, trans. James Anderson (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 420.
4. Calvin, Isaiah, 169. Goodwin likewise reflects on Isa. 55:8–9 in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, 12 vols. (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 2:194.