Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16. Idols? You have to be joking!
Isa 40:18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?
The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.
The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.
Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?” Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!
Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.” Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.
Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.” Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.
This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?
A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.
The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.
Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about. Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.
Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.