Isaiah 44:9-20 // “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless…The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!” They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, 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?” Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
Idolatry was a major problem for the Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament, they can be found repeatedly worshipping mythical gods or images, and involvement with these deities led them to engage in cult prostitution, human sacrifice, and other atrocious pagan rituals practiced by surrounding nations. A famous example is tucked in Exodus 32, where Aaron and the Israelites created a golden calf to worship (because they decided that Moses was taking too long to come down from his exchange with God in Mount Sinai). They continually chose the convenience and eroticism of worshipping counterfeit gods over the actual sacrifice that worshipping the one true God required of them.
In the passage above, the prophet Isaiah is stunned by the stupidity of idol-making. He points out that it literally involves the leftovers of ordinary human activity, being completely dependent on human hands to exist. The further irony here is that the materials of god-manufacture are created by God himself. Isaiah writes that the worshippers’ eyes are “plastered over” and their minds closed so that they cannot understand how ludicrous their idolatry is: why would God’s chosen people worship the things he has given rather than worship Him? They are bowing before scraps.
Reading this passage through Western eyes, most readers probably wouldn’t have much trouble grasping the absurdity of it. No one in their right mind would waste time drooling over statues fashioned out of raw materials. Yet, before we snicker at the Israelites, we could afford to consider that idolatry is equally present in the 21st century, though in snakelike subtly.
We, too, feed on ashes and then wonder why we’re so unfulfilled.
“We don’t have to collect all our necklaces and melt them down and give them to Aaron to make a golden calf. Anything we love to the exclusion of the Maker is a golden calf.”-Madeline L’Engle
idol·a·try // 1: the worship of a physical object as a god 2: immoderate attachment or devotion to something
Tim Keller describes it as “turning good things into ultimate things.”
It is the act of exalting created things to the place of their Creator, and it has always been a heart issue stemming from disordered loves. Wherever there is a human body, there is a deceived heart within, and wherever our innate appetite leads us into fixation on something that is not God, this is idolatry. The problem did not miraculously evaporate when people lost interest in ancient gods. Idols such as scientific discovery, wealth, religious tradition and the law were simply put on the throne in their place.
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he addresses the futility of idol falsehood (Romans 1:21-23) as a warning to the church that trouble and distress await those who do evil before the Lord. He recognizes that the deceived hearts of the idolators he is referencing were what turned them aside. Because of their idolatry, he says that God gave them over to a depraved mind. He will not tolerate divided affection.
Sin, is its essence, is any distortion of what is good. The Garden of Eden was in perfect Shalom. God created the earth in wholeness, exactly as it should be, but the bite taken in the Garden of Eden was rooted in idolatry of self, a desire to “be like God” (Genesis 3). Human greed warped his design.
& the most dangerous idol present in my life is myself. Full circle.
I’m really good at putting myself first. The truth, however, is that when I pursue only my own happiness, life quickly becomes opaque with the fog of a million sorry excuses for fulfillment that will never be God. I have to clear a lot out of the way(including myself) in order to see him in full transparency.
We all have countless idols. I know that I could go on and on if I were to list mine (comfort, financial stability, relationships, food, exercise, my schedule, physical appearance, people, even wise words of people…). Anything can become an idol if we choose to make it so.
A few questions can help us assess where we’re placing our hope. As a litmus test for where idolatry is present, ask yourself:
- Who am I investing in?
- How do I spend my time?
- What do I think about the most?
- What do I talk about the most?
- What would shake my foundations if I were to lose it?
In Madeline L’Engle’s “Penguins and Golden Calves”, she draws the distinction between an icon and an idol. An icon, she says, “carries within it something of that at which it looks”. Icons are windows through which we can look to get a wider view of God. They should not obstruct our vision. If we look at the stars and then worship the stars, we have made them an idol, but if we look at the stars and then worship God, the stars have become an icon for us, or a glimpse of the indescribable. God speaks to us through many channels and often in striking simplicity. The key is that we attribute the praise accurately.
I know with every ounce of my being that a good and loving God exists, yet I still turn from him, just as the wandering Israelites did. HALLELUJAH that he sent his son Jesus Christ to save me in spite of my depravity. I could never muster up enough goodness in myself to live righteously. Yet, because Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, God calls me forgiven and offers me eternal life with him.
This is all he asks of us: our full affection, not our leftovers. He is righteously jealous for his children.
Lord, forgive me for trying to squeeze the life out of earthly things when my deepest needs are met in Christ. Help me to clear the stage and redirect my affection. You alone are enough. My soul is satisfied in you, O God.