Many would say today that we are living in a godless age, but what that means in a very narrow sense is that we are not trusting the true and the living God. The reality is that we are living in an age filled with ‘gods’ or as the Scriptures call them, ‘idols.’ Idols are a substitute for God. The tragedy is that instead of carrying our burdens, idols need to be carried as a burden by the worshipper. All people worship. Even the atheist is a worshipper. What the atheist is saying is ‘no’ to God, but that doesn’t mean that he or she is not trusting in something, even if it is simply self-worship. Here in Jeremiah 10 we find one of the most powerful chapters in the bible dealing with the issue of ‘idolatry.’ Simply put, idolatry is a false worship system. “The root of idolatry is to try to find ultimacy within the world or our own control and production.”[i]
In Jeremiah 10, we discover the reason why Israel was about to experience devastation and exile. When a people put their faith in what is false it leads to devastation not only on a personal, but also on a national level. Far too many people are putting their trust in what is false rather than what is true. Real spiritual freedom comes from knowing the person of the truth and allowing that to create authentic hope and freedom. So, why do we create false gods? What is so attractive about idolatry? Jeremiah makes a case against idolatry by comparing the true and living God with dead and lifeless idols. Here we discover three aspects in relationship to idolatry.
THE FIRST ASPECT IN IDOLATRY IS THE CREATION OF FALSE GODS
When we refuse to worship the true and the living God, we default by virtue of our human need to create a false substitute. We begin to look around us and see how others are coping. We then begin to embrace the values and strategies that others are employing in order to help us through this journey of life. We are warned against such a terrible strategy and encouraged to look to God as our source and help. Notice the prophet is speaking to the people of God. Let us not allow fear nor a desire for earthly fame and riches to cause us to put our trust in the things that our society is looking to. The system is broken. It doesn’t work. You’ll be disappointed if you are trying to find meaning, significance, and security in what this world has to offer.
Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel.
This is what the LORD says: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak, they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.[ii]
- The tragedy of idolatry is that it is so misguided.
Idols are described as human inventions. The gods we create are fashioned to meet needs which they cannot meet. They are lifeless and have no power, they are deaf so they cannot hear the cry of the petitioner, nor see the needs or even arrive to assist, as they need to be assisted or carried to go anywhere.
Can this really be what God is like? Now we can imagine a worshipper who used such idols replying: ‘That’s an unfair comment; we don’t worship such images; they are no more than helpful symbols of the gods we worship.’ True enough, but this passage is not written to convert such people; its purpose is to confirm the prophet’s own people in their commitment to the One who, in the words of verse 10, is ‘the living God’, the God who is ever active. How can a dead, lifeless piece of wood or metal be an adequate symbol of such a living God?[iii]
One of the problems we have as postmodern people is that we deny that idols exist in our society. Richard Keyes points out in ‘No God But God,’ that “if we do not understand the nature of idolatry, we will not be able to recognize it or guard against it in our own lives and communities.”[iv] The apostle John warned the believers at the very end of his first letter of this very danger, and this danger still exists today. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”[v]
So what really is idolatry? Richard Keyes describes it this way.
To speak of an idol in the biblical sense assumes that there is a true God of whom the idol is a counterfeit. The natural human response to the true God after the Fall is rebellion and avoidance. Sin predisposes us to want to be independent of God, to be laws unto ourselves or autonomous, so that we can do what we want without bowing to His authority. …We do not just eliminate God, we erect God-substitutes in His place. The biblical writers call these counterfeits ‘idols,’.
..Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an overattachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good. The crucial warning is this: As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol. …An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero-anything that can substitute for God. …idols will inevitably involve self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception.[vi]
The Psalmist recognized that danger of self-exaltation as idolatry as reflected in Psalm 115. Are we living for God’s glory or agenda, or our own?
Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.
Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’
Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.[vii]
What we trust in is what we worship. The problem with idols is that they do not give life, and those that trust them will be like them, dead. There is no life in them.
B. Contrasting idols with the nature of the true God.
No one is like you, LORD; you are great, and your name is mighty in power.
Who should not fear you, King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise leaders of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you.[viii]
Jeremiah points out that the God of Israel is the God of all nations. Now we see the nature of God as Creator whereas the idols are created by fallible human beings. We become like what we worship. Notice that we fashion our idols on that which we value, but in the end they have no value and do not produce value in our lives.
They are all senseless and foolish; they are taught by worthless wooden idols.
Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple – all made by skilled workers.[ix]
We can see that those who create idols place high value on them, but they don’t produce what is desired because they are lifeless. Unlike idols, God is not false but true, living, and eternal in nature. God will hold us accountable.
But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King. When he is angry, the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath.
Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.
But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.
Everyone is senseless and without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by these idols. The images he makes are a fraud; they have no breath in them.
They are worthless, the objects of mockery; when their judgment comes, they will perish.
He who is the portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the Maker of all things, including Israel, the people of his inheritance – the LORD Almighty is his name.[x]
The message of the Bible is that just as idols deceive us, so also they eventually disappoint and disillusion us.”[xi]
Social historian, Daniel Boorstin in his book, ‘The Image,’ writes:
Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.[xii]
THE SECOND ASPECT OF IDOLATRY IS THE CONSEQUENCES OF WORSHIPING IDOLS
When we trust in what is false it leaves us destitute. Israel had violated her covenant with God and the results of that broken covenant were about to happen. They would be exiled from their land and led into captivity, slavery and bondage. They would no longer be free as a political entity.
A. Sin brings death.
Death is not just manifested physically. Death can also be understood as being separated from God and others. In this case they would be separated from God’s promised blessings, the land.
Gather up your belongings to leave the land, you who live under siege.
For this is what the LORD says: ‘At this time I will hurl out those who live in this land; I will bring distress on them so that they may be captured.’[xiii]
This is what happens to us, when we create false substitutes for God in our lives. This can be experienced when we live to fulfill our agenda and will rather than God’s purposes for our lives. The results are devastation and unrealistic expectations. Idols promise much but only deliver bondage and brokenness in our lives. Before we bewail the tragedy of idolatry from afar, and look back and say to ourselves, ‘how foolish of the Jewish people to embrace the idols of the nations around them’, we first need to evaluate ourselves and see that we also suffer as a result of our own idol factory. But what do our idols look like in a postmodern world?
To identify our own idols, ask questions like these: What things take the place of God in my life? Where do I find my significance and my confidence? What things make me really angry? (Anger usually erupts when an idol gets knocked off the shelf.)
Once the idols on your shelf have been identified, see them for what they really are. Recognize that they are like the scarecrow in the melon patch: man-made, impotent, false, and worthless. Then scorn them the way Jeremiah scorned the idols of his day.[xiv]
B. Acknowledgment of our true condition.
Woe to me because of my injury! My wound is incurable! Yet I said to myself, ‘This is my sickness, and I must endure it.’
My tent is destroyed; all its ropes are snapped. My children are gone from me and are no more; no one is left now to pitch my tent or to set up my shelter.[xv]
Here the land is lying desolate because the people have been taken into exile. They are suffering the consequences of their sin. If we are to be free from idols, we must acknowledge them in our lives. What is motivating us? Where do we get our value, significance and security from? Is it our faith and trust in Christ, or is it in ourselves or other things and people?
C. Here we see the attitude of acceptance.
The challenge is to be able to identify the real issues in our soul. To gain godly wisdom. This is stated so succinctly in the prayer of serenity. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Here we see Jeremiah explaining that reality.
Man is not the master of his own destiny. …This could be a terrifying thought unless, as verse 24 assures, we are in the hands of a God who may indeed have to discipline us, but who can be relied upon to do so not irresponsibly but justly. If this be so then the response to tragedy is prayer which accepts our human limitations and frailty and reaches out to a God who can be trusted even in the darkest hour.[xvi]
D. The primary reason why nations flourish or falter.
One of the keys is the realm of leadership. Will those in leadership look to God for their source of wisdom or will they look to idols? Maybe this is one of the reasons why God asks Christians to pray for those who are in authority (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-4). Are we praying for our leaders? We know that leaders have profound influence in our lives toward both good and evil.
The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the LORD; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered.
Listen! The report is coming – a great commotion from the land of the north! It will make the towns of Judah desolate, a haunt of jackals.[xvii]
The Shepherds here are the political leaders.
Part of the blame for this is laid squarely on the shoulders of ‘the shepherds’, the rulers who played power politics instead of seeking to know and to do God’s will: so their flock, the nation, is scattered (verse 21). But, as in all tragedy, much depends on how people respond to it. The same tragedy that breaks one person, may make another.[xviii]
What does it mean for the leaders to ‘seek God’? They were to consult God’s Word and know His ways, rather than pursue their own course. It was the responsibility of the King in Israel as God’s regent to ‘know the covenant obligations’ and to keep them. So, how does that apply in our day? To the spiritual leaders, the answer is obvious: we need to know God, His word and walk in his ways. This can also be said for believers in whatever sphere they have been given oversight; from parenting to the workplace and even guiding communities, regions and nations. For those who do not know the Lord, as believers we must pray for God’s grace to guide them.
THE THIRD ASPECT OF IDOLATRY IS THE CONSTERNATION OF THE GODLY IN AN IDOLATROUS AGE
What are the godly to do in a time of despair and distress? How are we to respond when people turn their backs on God, and look to human inventions to determine their future direction? We first of all need to acknowledge that our lives are not our own and God is the One who directs all of our steps.
LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.
Discipline me, LORD, but only in due measure – not in your anger, or you will reduce me to nothing.[xix]
What is Jeremiah conveying to us? What is he asking from God in that time of deep moral degeneration in which he was living?
The reference may be to the destiny of man, which is outside his control however much he may imagine in his pride that it lies in his own power.[xx]
We need to remember that idolatry is, in effect, trying to control one’s life. We need to remember that when God created humanity, He gave us as human beings the responsibility or dominion over the creation but within the context of trusting in Him, reflected by our obedience to what He says. However, once sin enters the picture, these two elements in life become distorted. Richard Keyes explains that dominion becomes domination or control, and trust becomes over dependence – “a grasping or clutching onto things, ideas institutions and people.”[xxi] The prayer is one for mercy. If we receive what we deserve it will bring only complete destruction. Jeremiah is pleading that God’s discipline will be corrective and not punitive in nature. The chapter ends with an imprecatory prayer for judgment on those God is using to discipline His people.
Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the peoples who do not call on your name. For they have devoured Jacob; they have devoured him completely and destroyed his homeland.[xxii]
Some scholars think that this expression was more of an angst in the heart of the prophet, while others suggest that though our prayers ought to be for the mercy of those who come against us, there are times when God intervenes to address injustice. An imprecatory prayer is a prayer that asked God to judge their enemies who were being unjust. Though God used other nations to discipline His people, often they were more punitive than what was needed. God ultimately judged Babylon for their extensive destruction of Judah. This is one reason why when David had sinned by numbering Israel he choose to be disciplined by God directly, rather than through the intermediary of his enemies.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this. Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.’ The LORD said to Gad, David’s seer, Go and tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’ So Gad went to David and said to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘Take your choice: three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies, with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the LORD – days of plague in the land, with the angel of the LORD ravaging every part of Israel. Now then, decide how I should answer the one who sent me.’ David said to Gad, ‘I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.[xxiii]
We are living in an idolatrous age and the question is, are we being seduced by the idols of our age? Herschel Hobbs shared the following challenge:
In his travels about the world, he had seen idols ranging from crudely carved pieces of wood worshipped in the open air to elegant images housed in beautiful temples. The material, workmanship, and location is not what matters, but the concept and purpose represented.
You may say you have never made an idol, neither have you worshiped one. Upon reflection, is this really the case? Intellect can become an idol as you sit in judgment upon God, His Word, and His purposes in history. Your body may be an idol if you are more concerned about physical appearance and health than you are about your inner spiritual nature. Business or wealth can come before God and so be your idol. Another person may be your idol as you pattern your life after him/her rather than after God and His will. Achieving your own goals become your god if they are more important than following God’s plan for your life. Popularity is your idol if you are more interested in being accepted by other people than by God. The mores of society become your idol if you care more about fitting in than you do about living by God’s eternal principles of righteousness. It is folly to bow before these and other idols of this age and ignore the age-abiding will and way of God.[xxiv]
Let us remember that when God was leading the Israelites into the promised land, that He told them to destroy all the images and shrines in the land or they would eventually be their downfall. Unfortunately, they didn’t deal with the idols in the land and began to worship them instead. The result was their downfall and destruction. If we don’t deal with the idols in our lives, they too will bring us down.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 106.
[ii] Jeremiah 10:1-5 The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 94.
[iv] Richard Keyes, ‘The Idol Factory’ in No God But God: Breaking withe Idols of our Age, ed. Os Guinness & John Seel, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 992), 30.
[v] 1 John 5:21.
[vi] Richard Keyes, ‘The Idol Factory’ in No God But God: Breaking withe Idols of our Age, 31-33.
[vii] Psalm 115:1-8.
[viii] Jeremiah 10:6-7.
[ix] Jeremiah 10:8-9.
[x] Jeremiah 10:10-16.
[xi] Richard Keyes, ‘The Idol Factory’ in No God But God, 45.
[xii] Daniel Boorstin, The Image, (New York: Atheneum, 1961), 15-16; as quoted by Richard Keyes, ‘The Idol Factory’ in No God But God: 45-46.
[xiii] Jeremiah 10:17-18.
[xiv] Philip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentation: From Sorrow to Hope, Preaching the Word Series,(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2016), 188.
[xv] Jeremiah 10:19-20.
[xvi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, 97.
[xvii] Jeremiah 10:21-22.
[xviii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, 96.
[xix] Jeremiah 10:23-24.
[xx] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 336.
[xxi] Richard Keyes, ‘The Idol Factory’ in No God But God, 36.
[xxii] Jeremiah 10:25.
[xxiii] 1 Chronicles 21:8-13.
[xxiv] Herschel Hobbs, My favorite illustrations, (Nashville, Tn: Broadman Press, 1990), 273–274.