In a remarkable — almost comical — passage, Jeremiah exposes the folly of ungodly worship:
“They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers So that it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, For they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good” (Jer. 10:4-5).
These words are Jeremiah’s satirical commentary on idolatry. They reveal the ridiculousness of the nations surrounding Israel — they reject God for a metal-covered log. The metal is pretty, to be sure, but still it is inanimate and cold. And even worse, they take the idol — a wood idol, their god — and in order to keep it from falling over, they prop it up with boards and nails. Absurd!
In modern times we have progressed so far beyond such silliness. Or have we? Philip Yancey has answered that question well.
What modern idols make God seem trivial? What tends to reduce the surprise, the passion, the vitality of my relationship with God? Most days, I am not so conscious of choosing between a god and God; the alternatives do not present themselves so clearly. Rather, I find God edged out by a series of small distractions. A car that needs repair, last-minute plans for an upcoming trip, a leaky gutter, a friend’s wedding — these distractions, mere trivialities, may lead us to a form of forgetfulness that resembles idolatry in its most dangerous form. The busyness of life, including all its religious busyness, can crowd out God. I confess that some days I meet people, work, make decisions, talk on the phone, all without giving God a single thought. A friend of mine was stopped dead in her tracks by a skeptic. After listening to her explain her faith, he said this: ‘But you don’t act like you believe God is alive.’ I try to turn his accusation into a question: Do I act like God is alive? It is a good question, one that lies at the heart of all idolatry, and one that I must ask myself again every day.
Do I act like God is alive? Wasn’t that the problem in Assyria? And Babylon? And Moab? And Edom? And Israel? And is it not the question for me? It is. It is the question that firmly addresses my loyalties. That is why Jeremiah’s reminder in the following verses is also so important. Do you want to act (read: live) like God is alive? Then remember that “There is none like Thee, O Lord; Thou art great, and great is Thy name in might” (Jer. 10:6).
Yet there is another underlying assumption with idolators: they not only believe that God is not alive, but they believe that they — or their object of worship — is adequate to meet their needs. In a sense, the unspoken reasoning is something like, “God isn’t powerful (or caring) enough to address this need, but something else is powerful enough.” That’s why people turn to alcohol and sex and entertainment and technology and sports and work and leisure. They believe that any or all of those pursuits will satisfy them more than God is able to satisfy them. So, like the Babylonians of Jeremiah’s day, they prop up these contemporary idols with silicone chips and digital images and athletic equipment, bind them together with duct tape and then fall down and worship.
Don’t believe it’s so? Then read the following from Tim Challies:
It must have been six months or a year ago that I watched my iPhone—my brand new iPhone—sliding, then flipping, down a flight of stairs. I had just pulled it from my pocket and somehow lost my grip on it. It clattered down one step, then the next, then the next, all the way to bottom.…
We laugh at the idolaters of old. There is something comical about reading the story of Dagon falling on his face—his carved face—before the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5). The first day he simply fell on his face; the second day he smashed his face. It’s funny. It’s a little less funny when it’s my idol lying on its face at the bottom of the stairs.
But it actually was funny. It was a gift. It was a gift that showed me the utter folly of investing too much of my hope and joy in something made of glass, silicon and aluminum (which are, after all, not too far removed from wood and stone). Not only that, but it showed me again that anything I can hold in my hand, anything I can drop down the stairs, is just a tool, just a bit of the meaninglessness, the vapor, of this life. It may be a good thing, but it isn’t an ultimate thing because it isn’t an eternal thing.
My iPhone promises joy and it even manages to deliver some of it. It really does make me more productive and it helps me stay in touch with the family when I am on the road. These are joys, indeed! But I allow it to hold out the promise of too much joy and this is the battleground in my heart; it simply cannot deliver all it promises. I bought some joy, but then I dropped it down the stairs. And this convinced me that I need to elevate my joy to something bigger, something better, and something higher.
Idolatry is anchored in the belief “God can’t and I can.” A true worshipper acknowledges in his heart, “I can’t but God can.”