The Foolishness of Idolatry

No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat… . And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’” (v. 19).

- Isaiah 44:6–20

More than a century beforehand, Isaiah foresaw that Judah would join Israel in exile from the Promised Land, but that God would not abandon His people. One day, He would forgive them and bring them home (Isa. 39–40). Isaiah also knew that the exiles would find this good news hard to believe. They would question the Lord’s power to save, for if He had not kept Assyria and Babylon from taking them into exile, perhaps He could not restore them. God’s people would be tempted to ask other gods for help even though, ironically, they were in exile due to their idolatry (2 Kings 17:7–41).

To convince the exiles of his message, Isaiah had to affirm Yahweh’s power to save and deny the worthiness of other deities. Isaiah 44:6–20 accomplishes both ends. First, the prophet reveals the Lord’s ability to save by affirming that there is only one God—the covenant Lord of Israel and Judah. Most ancient Near Eastern peoples were polytheists who believed the power of each deity waxed and waned. Such views meant that Jews living in this environment often thought other gods could help them when Yahweh could not. Isaiah would have none of this. When God told Israel to have no other gods before Him (Ex. 20:3), He meant that Israel owed Him exclusive devotion and that He was the only God, the Lord of all creation. Yahweh’s ability to foresee the future reveals Him to be the one true God, and if He is Lord of all, He alone can save (Isa. 44:6–8).

In Isaiah 44:9–20, the prophet brilliantly points out the futility of paganism. Let us paraphrase his essential point: “How can you believe that a god you made from the same wood used to cook your food and warm yourself will help you? You showed yourself stronger than the wood when you cut down a tree to make your fire, so what can this ‘god’ do for you?” Some criticize the prophet for a naïve view of idolatry—as if the pagans thought the idol was the god itself, not a representation of it. Isaiah deserves more credit, for as an ancient, God-honoring theologian, he certainly knew that idols were representations and not gods themselves. Yet if there are many gods that can be manipulated by the right rituals and incantations, there is no principled difference between a pagan god and its physical idol. Just as a person can craft an idol, so might he work on a god to get what he wants from it. But if we can manipulate a god to do our bidding, then we are ultimately higher gods, and how can we trust lesser gods to save us?

Coram Deo

Every form of idolatry manifests our doubts that God really has the ability to save. Counselors have long understood, for instance, that one of the main reasons people become drug, alcohol, and sex addicts is because they are looking for a way to escape their pain, to be saved from their trouble. But such things, as well as the gods of other religions, cannot rescue us. They all disappoint. Only the transcendent Lord of creation, the first cause of all things, can redeem us.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 4:32–40
Jude 24–25

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