A view of idolatry: Jeremiah’s lesson

A central theme in the book of Jeremiah is idolatry. Through his prophecies and prayers, he begins to flesh out the intricacies of this sin. In reading this book, we learn the roots, purposes, and consequences for placing any idol before God. A critical component to our remaining faithful to him is having a right understanding of how idolatry operates to keep us from faithfulness. One prayer of Jeremiah’s in particular lays out for us how idolatry works to ensnare the believer and divert our paths. In chapter 10 Jeremiah shows us what we should watch for as we continue our walk in Christ. If we do not know how to recognize the idols that exist only to mislead us, then we will be more likely to be misled.

v. 2-4

Thus says the Lord, “Do not learn the way of the nations, and do not be terrified and distressed by the signs of the heavens although the pagans are terrified by them; for the customs and decrees of the peoples are delusion; it is only wood which one cuts from the forest, the work of the hands of the craftsman with the axe or cutting tool.  They adorn the idol with silver and with gold; they fasten it with hammers and nails so that it will not fall apart.”

This passage gives us two critical elements of idolatry, and one feeds off the other. First, the Lord is instructing his people not to follow the ways of the pagan world around them. This pagan culture is driven by fear and terror. We read here that it is this distress that causes them to follow their traditions of idol worship. We might expect that our motivations may be more sophisticated as we have an abundance of scripture available to us today advising us why we have no need to fear anything. However, it is all too common for us to be motivated by fear as well. Perhaps God has not acted in the manner or the timing that we expect, and we are afraid that what we dread occurring will indeed come to pass. The fear that has driven an ungodly people to chase false gods can exist within the church today, and we need to recognize that fear when it attempts to influence us. We can see what it is that drives the world around us to seek salvation in anything but God, and we must be vigilant to keep ourselves from following these same trends.

Second, what this fear does is it makes people act on impulse and misinformation to chase after what is merely an illusion. God speaks in this passage about the physical idols that were carved out of wood and made from the hands of man. His point is that these are just things with no power. In actuality, they are objects under the authority of man as they were created by man. Logically, no person should expect salvation or redemption to come from these things. Every idol we could possibly chase follows this model. It is an illusion of something greater when in reality it holds no value that we actually seek in it. The physical idols created in this time could not even hold themselves together without a person fashioning them in a certain way. These things were actually less powerful than the people who created them and hoped to find some spiritual value in them. It is fear that makes people abandon all logic and think that a manmade object or religion or idea can do anything greater than mankind can do for itself. The things that we invent and place in the position that God should occupy can do nothing more for us than what we have the power to do, which is extremely limited. The illusion is that these idols can save us from anything at all.

v. 6-7

There is none like You, O Lord; You are great, and great is Your mighty and powerful name.  Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? For it is appropriate and it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You.

One of the reasons why a person may be misled into following an idol is because he or she does not truly understand who and what God is. The thing about idols is that, even though they may appear to be different from one another, they are all the same. If I were to show you the correct route to take to arrive at a certain destination, and then I were to show you fifteen different routes that would have you arrive at the wrong destination, those fifteen different routes really are not that different. They may cause you to end up in different places, but that does not necessarily matter for purposes of the trip. What matters is that all of those routes will send you to the wrong place. There is only one destination that is right, and that is the only place where you desire to end up. Whether I send you one hour or eleven hours or three minutes in the wrong direction, that is irrelevant. All of those routes will leave you disappointed and unsuccessful; each of them will prove useless.

Anyone who has a true understanding of God recognizes his complete uniqueness. He is the only one with no beginning and no end. He is the only one who existed before the foundations of the earth were laid. He is the only one who created the universe and everything that we see in it. There is nothing and no one who can compare to him. Having this right understanding of the one true God should place idolatry in a much clearer context for us. If we know that God is the only one like him, and if we know that everyone and everything else is less than He is, then it would stand to reason that we would not seek from others what we desire or should desire from him. It should be clear to us that none of these counterfeits can possibly provide what He provides. All of those other ways may look different from each other, but they ultimately are the same in that they lead to the same end. Twenty-five different false gods with different names and different images assigned to different religions are still the same in that they are all false. The one who seeks redemption from them will only find destruction.

v. 9-10

Silver that has been beaten is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the craftsman and of the hand of the goldsmith; violet and purple are their clothing; they are all the work of skilled men.  But the Lord is the true God and the God who is Truth; He is the living God and the everlasting King. The earth quakes and shudders at His wrath, and the nations are not able to endure His indignation.

You likely have heard at one time or another in your life that a person can only give what he or she has to begin with. If we are speaking about tangible things, one cannot give another more money than he or she has available. If we are speaking about intangible things, a person who was never been loved and has never been taught how to love will not be able to love another. If I lack confidence, I cannot teach it to someone else. It is like trying to pull encouragement out of someone who is mired in depression. Those who chase idols are looking for something. The thing is, it is built in us to search for something greater than what we find just in ourselves. God has given us a desire to seek him out. We cannot be satisfied with the world and how it operates because we were created for something greater, and it is part of our makeup to search for that. We are looking for very specific things to bring us fulfillment, and we will never find those things in idols. The reason is that no idol possesses what we truly need, so no idol can provide it.

We are all searching for life. We may think that what we are living on this earth is life, but it is only a mere shadow of the life that God has available for us and that was designed before sin entered this world. Our search for fulfillment in life can only be found in the one who created it and possesses those things that can fulfill us. None of the idols we could follow possess that life. None of those idols rest on truth and eternity. They are dead lies. They offer what they cannot deliver, and they all will pass away. The one true God is alive, and He is truth. He can give us the life that we seek because it resides within him. Our Father in heaven can fulfill every promise He has made to us, and he has even more available to us than we could even comprehend. The scriptures do not have enough room to lay out for us everything that God makes available to those who love him. What we find in God is well beyond what we are seeking. What we will receive from him is an eternal reward that we do not even realize we want and need because we cannot comprehend it. While idolatry leaves us unfulfilled and empty, God leaves us overflowing with that which is truly unimaginable.

v. 12-13

God made the earth by His power; He established the world by His wisdom, and by His understanding and skill He has stretched out the heavens.  When He utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and He causes the clouds and the mist to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, and brings out the wind from His treasuries and from His storehouses.

Idolatry rests on deception. This is why we can look at idols objectively and wonder how someone can make such an insensible decision to chase one. It simply does not make sense on a multitude of levels, some of which we have addressed already. This idea that a manmade object or an invented religion can somehow save us from the ills of this world simply makes no logical sense. What we live in is a state of perpetual degradation. This is a fallen existence in a fallen world. Without intervention of some kind, the degradation will simply continue. The question is where we will find that intervention. Logic would tell us that a world full of imperfection can generate only imperfection. Logic would tell us that the perfect solution to our worldly problems must come from a place of perfection. It cannot be borne out of this fallen world. Those things which are borne out of imperfection can only remain imperfect unless they are somehow affected by that which is perfect.

The verses above make the case for God being literally “out of this world.” We see that it was by his power that the earth came into being. The heavens were created out of his abilities. The sound of his voice causes waters in the heavens to shake. The clouds, mist, lightning, the rain and the winds are all under his control and containment. He is the power that resides outside of this imperfect fallen world. He is the perfection that must intervene in order to bring deliverance and redemption, and He has done that. Logic would tell us that only the perfect one would be able to deliver us from this imperfection. Only the one who created all that we see around us would have the power to mend that which is broken and redeem that which is headed for destruction. There is no power in this world that can accomplish that for us. It takes power from outside this world to bring redemption, and only the God who created all things has that power.

v. 14-15

Every man has become irrational and stupid, without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by his carved idols; for his molten images are frauds and lies, and there is no breath in them.  They are worthless and devoid of promise, a work of delusion and mockery; in their time of punishment they will perish.

Understanding how idolatry works to deceive us gives us knowledge and wisdom. It does not make us impervious to deception, but it certainly serves as a guide for us to keep watchful. To follow idols indeed is irrational and stupid because we cannot expect to receive more from our deceptive inventions then we can do or give ourselves. There are those, however, who are easily deceived. They even exist within the church, and we cannot be ignorant of that fact. Idolatry can be as obvious as worshiping a false God of another name, or it can be as subtle as placing the relationship with your spouse or child before your relationship with God. The hope we have is that God promises that these idols will not stand; they will fall in time. The idols that we create are not eternal, and they will prove to be sad illusions of that which is truly great. The question is one of timing. The desire is that those who are being deceived right now would become enlightened and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ while there is time. The desire is that not one should be lost to foolish deception. We can work toward that goal right now.

When we see the deception of idolatry taking hold of our brothers and sisters, we can speak truth into their situations. When we see the cultural trends of the world leading people away from God, we can pray for the truth to be revealed to them. The effects of idolatry on those around us are not simply a foregone conclusion. We can have a hand in exposing the deception for what it is while there is still time. We can plead for God’s power of revelation to bring the truth to the places where it is merely a fantasy. It is for us to be a light to the world, and there are so many ways for us to bring illumination to those trapped by idolatry. Let us remember to be vigilant not only to make sure that we are not deceived but to intercede for those who have fallen to deception already.