Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Isaiah 44: Of Metal, Stone, and wood

This chapter of Isaiah has a very interesting literary structure.  In the middle are verses 9-20, which contain an excellent sermon against the sin of idol worship.  This sermon is sandwiched between outer layers of gentle reminders of who God is and our relationship to him.  I call this the “hamburger principle”, i.e. bun/meat/bun, which is a method for delivering advice/criticism.  Start with something nice to say, then provide the stuff that is important to hear (the meat), then reinforce again with something nice.  It works pretty well when I remember to do it!


With Isaiah, the outside (“bun”) verses serve the purpose of telling us who God is and what he is capable of.  Here’s a few key points I was able to gather about God and about his relationship is Israel:


-          Israel has been chosen by God to be His servant.  (That point alone deserves a good hour of contemplation, but I’ll leave it there. )

-          It is the Lord that provides great spiritual blessings for Israel.

-          The Lord will reach out to scattered Israel wherever they may be, raising up people who are righteous and take upon themselves the name of the Lord.

-          We are not be afraid or worried, The Lord is the ultimate God and beside him there is no God.

-          God is the forgiver of sins.

-          God is the creator of all things.

-          God’s knowledge confounds the wisdom of men.

-          He has control over what happens on earth, both in nature and in the affairs of men.   Even the kings of hostile nations do the bidding of the Lord and they don’t realize it.   


To appreciate the middle portion of this chapter, it is important to look at these items as a backdrop to what Isaiah says about idol worship.  Isaiah is contrasting the pitiful, earthly origins of idols with the transcendent glory and power of God.  I recommend to everyone that they read Isaiah 44:9-20This is one of the places in the bible where the writing is so clever and witty that it made me laugh.  I’ll approach discussing these verses by paraphrasing in my own words: 


v9-11 Idols and graven images are vain and unprofitable and the people who make them should all be ashamed.   Anyone with a little sense and reason can work this out. 

v12  Think about an idol that is made of metal.  Who made it?   Some regular guy, that’s who.   He made it with his own tools and his own strength.  There isn’t anything special about him.  If he’s hungry, he gets tired.  If he doesn’t get water, he’ll pass out.    

v13 But if you really want to see the lunacy of this trade, take a look at the carpenter who makes graven images.    He also makes them with his own tools and his own strength.   He is making a piece of art and he is careful to make it pleasing to the eye.  (After all, he wants make profit.)    

v14 But where does he get the wood?   He gets it from the forest among the trees he’s been tending himself.   He plants them, the rain waters them, and he harvests them.   

v15-17 And what does he do with the wood?    Well, for the most part, he burns it!   He bakes his food with it, warms himself up with it, and makes utensils out of it to eat with.   So picture this guy warm and cozy by the fire.  He has a wooden fork that he’s stabbing into a piece of roast beef on a wooden plate.   “Ahh, this is the life!”  he says to himself.   Then he looks over and sees a scrap of wood.   This is the leftover piece that wasn’t fit to eat with or even burn.    Amazingly, this is the piece he carves up into an idol.    Next thing you know, this same wood that was warming his backside is now on an altar and he’s bowing down to it!    He’s worshipping it, saying “You are my God, deliver me!” 

v18 Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous in your life?   This guy is obviously not using his head!  He is blind and completely lacking in understanding.   

v19-20 The rest of you who worship idols are in a similar boat.   You don’t take two seconds to consider that you are bowing down to utensils, charcoal, firewood!  You who worship idols must understand that you have been greatly deceived and you are living a lie.    


I was thinking the other day about how odd it is that we pay so much attention to the things that we make with our own hands, yet we casually take for granted the amazing creations of God that surround us.    For instance, a person can take a tree, cut it up and make a house, or a statue, or a chair that people will ooo and ahh over.  But if we examine one single cell from that tree we will find a structure so fine and complex that no human has ever come close to duplicating it.     


I can sympathize with admiring a fine piece of art, but what _really_ amazes me is how much attention and admiration we give to things that are truly ugly.   To get a feel for this, the next time you go to a Costco or Walmart or any other box store, stand at the edge of the parking lot and take in the view for a few minutes.  Really soak it in.    It is truly ugly- from the 10 acre parking lot to the drab cinderblock walls, to the unhappy stressed customers hurrying in and out.    (The fact that this building is a temple of consumption doesn’t make the picture any  prettier.)   Then, when your eyes are opened, look around you as you drive down the freeway.   Notice how nearly every other commercial building is crafted in the same fashion.    I’ve found that as I do this, I come to appreciate nature more and more and what we make less and less. 


I think the essence of rejecting idol worship is to be able to put the things of the world in the correct perspective.  It is to remember that the Lord is supreme and the things he made are given freely to bless all of his children.    It is to remember that we don’t ­“deserve” more because we have “earned” it, but that we are beggars just like everyone else.   It is to remember that the Glory of the Lord is beyond the comprehension of our temporal minds and that to truly worship Him, we must worship him in spirit, devoting to Him all of our mind and all of our heart, understanding that His methods and ideas are superior to our own.     And it is finally to remember that the physical world was created by our God for His purposes and His works- it is not something to shun, but something to participate in, to take care of, and to use wisely.