Hear you the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel:…
This section of Jeremiah's prophecy is one of the notable passages in the. Scriptures concerning idolatry. It is like that in Psalm 115., and in Isaiah 40., 44. It states or suggests much of great interest on this subject, and which deserves to be well considered by us. There is -
I. THE TREMENDOUS FACT OF IDOLATRY. See:
1. The multitudes of mankind who have avowed such worship.
2. The wide extent of the world's inhabited countries over which it prevails.
3. Its permanence. It has lasted on from age to age, and has been handed down unchanged from generation to generation, so that the prophet could challenge his countrymen to tell of any nation which had ever changed their gods (cf. Jeremiah 2:11). And though vast portions of mankind have professedly thrown aside their idols, yet there are still more who have not even at the present day. Idolatry is the dominant religion of the world today, if numbers are considered, even as it was in the days of Jeremiah, and this notwithstanding -
II. ITS MANIFEST ABSURDITY. How scathing is the ridicule which the prophet pours out upon such monstrous worship! With what sarcasm he dwells upon the fact of their being mere wooden dolls, hideous as a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers (cf. Exposition, Ver. 5), chipped into such shape as they have by the hands of the men who worship them, decked with tawdry finery, must be nailed up lest they should tumble down, and "must needs be borne because they cannot go" (Ver. 5), and are, of course, powerless either for evil or for good. And the prophet points out (Ver. 8) that the absurdity is none lessened when the idols are of a more costly sort. They may be plated with silver and adorned with gold (Ver. 9), and the workmanship may be of a much more elaborate and artistic kind. But it is all the same; the idol is nothing but a piece of wood, and that which is taught about them is "a doctrine of vanities," i.e. utterly false and absurd. But though idolatry be thus manifestly absurd, yet we are forced to admit the fact of -
III. ITS NEVERTHELESS STRANGE BUT STRONG ATTRACTIVENESS. How else can not only the multitude of its votaries be accounted for, and their fidelity to it, but also the high rank and leading position of those nations who adhered to it? They were not mere barbarous savages who worshipped idols, but the foremost peoples of the world. The empires of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome, were all sworn upholders of idolatry (cf. Acts 17.). And today it is not the mere fetish-worshippers of the South Seas and Africa who are idolaters, but people such as the Chinese and Hindus - to say nothing of those who in Christian Churches bow down before tinsel-decked images or pictures of virgins, apostles, and saints, and, if they do not worship them, render them homage which can hardly be distinguished from worship. And a yet further proof of this attraction is that the well-instructed people of God, the seed of Israel, the possessors of the oracles of God, were forever falling into this sin. This entire chapter is one appeal and protest against their so doing. And we know how often in the past they had bowed down to idols. The command which stands at the head of the Decalogue, by its position there, by its fullness of expression, and by the severity of its sanctions, shows that the attraction of the idolatry which it denounced was indeed terrible, and therefore needed to be thus solemnly forbidden. And age after age the same command had to be repeated, and its violation sternly punished, notwithstanding that (Ver. 16)" the Portion of Jacob" was "not like" these wretched idols - no indeed, but was the alone true God, the living God, the everlasting King (Ver. 10). And yet there were needed this command and appeal; yes, and the consuming fire of God's wrath which fell upon Israel in their captivity, before the taint of idolatry could be burnt out of them. Now, how was this? Note, therefore -
IV. ITS PROBABLE REASON AND CAUSE. We cannot observe the tremendous fact of idolatry without being led to inquire into its origin. It is not sufficient to refer to the license it gave to the sensual nature of man; if such license were all that was desired, why couple it with some form of worship? The explanation must lie deeper than this. And that missionary would get on very poorly with any tolerably educated heathen if he were to assume that the idolater worshipped the hideous idol before which he bows 'himself down. He would tell you that he did nothing of the kind, but that which he worshipped was the unseen powers of which that idol was the symbol. No doubt idolatry degenerates into actual idol-worship. That with which something Divine has been so long associated comes to be regarded as itself Divine, and worshipped accordingly. And then idolatry has sunk down into fetishism. And it may be often seen where you would least expect it. But originally idolatry was not the worship of images. That worship may probably be thus explained.
1. Man cannot do without a deity of whom, in some form or other, he must be conscious, and whose presence he can realize so as to be able to look to him in time of need. Man cannot be a thorough atheist. His instinctive religiousness and tendency to worship cannot be ever kept under. For a while it may, but let heavy sorrow come, or let fear and dread fill his mind, and he will, he must, then call upon God.
2. But God will not reveal himself to us except to our spirits. He can be only spiritually discerned. Not through any of our senses, or through our intellect, but through the Spirit alone. "They that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."
3. But such coming to God involves purity of heart and life. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." And not only purity, but great spiritual effort. How difficult we find it to realize the presence of God, to hold down our minds, and to summon the energies of the will when we pray! "We know not how to pray as we ought." And permitted sin, defiling the conscience and destroying our confidence, will ever hinder spiritual worship.
4. But these imperative conditions of worship that it should be in spirit, and that it should be pure - men like not. Still, they must worship. What, then, is to be done? The idol is the solution. To avoid the strain and effort of the spirit, men have taken as a symbol some material thing - as the Israelites at Sinai took the golden calf - and so have sought to represent God to their minds. The idolater persuades himself he cannot know the Deity directly, and therefore will avail himself of the aid some sensuous object will afford. And such symbol he can carry about with him, and there is no need of purity of heart for such worship-it can be done without. What wonder, then, that man, averse to spiritual exercises and sensual-hearted, should have everywhere fled to idolatry, as in fact he has done? It is an endeavor to have the favor of God on cheaper terms than he demands; on conditions easier and more agreeable to our fallen nature. But in regard to the idolatries into which Judah and Jerusalem so often fell, there must be remembered not only the force of those universal causes of idolatry now considered, but the further force of powerful example all around them. Who were the mighty nations with whom they had most to do? Egypt, Assyria, Babylon. Tyre also, in her wealth and might, stood on their northern border, and yet others, whose fame reached them from afar, flourished and grew strong. But all these worshipped idols. Happiness, success, strength, and power seemed to be with these nations and not with the worshippers of Jehovah. And all this Judah saw and deeply observed, and at length came to believe that it was better for them to serve idols than to serve God (cf. for proof of this, Jeremiah 44:17-19). For Israel to keep from idolatry was to swim against wind and tide, and to do so when wind and tide promised to bear them or to a condition of prosperity greater than they had ever known. And Jeremiah knew that in Babylon, where they were going, they would be exposed to the full force of this temptation. The devil of idolatry would come to them, and, pointing to the glory of Babylon, would say, "All these things will I give thee, if," etc. And to fortify them against this temptation was the object of the prophet's earnest appeal. The tempter would suggest to them, "You have lost everything by worshipping God. Your conquerors, who hold you now in their power, and have destroyed your city, your temple, your land, have gained all their glory by worshipping their gods. Do you the same; learn their ways."
V. ITS CONSEQUENCES. These have been very terrible. With Israel God dealt very sternly. His direct vengeance came upon them again and again. It was hanging over them at this time as a dark thunder-cloud. But besides this, there were the natural results of such worship - results which were conspicuous in Judah and Jerusalem, and have ever been so in all idolatrous nations (cf. Ver. 8). They became "brutish," "given over to vile affections" (cf. Romans 1:20-32).
VI. ITS SURE BUT ONLY ANTIDOTE. Living faith in the living God - this alone, but this surely, would enable them to resist, not only the clamor and cravings of their lower nature, but also the seductive force of the seeming success which idolatry had won and they had lost. Only such faith would serve them, and hence, in Vers. 6, 7, 10-13, 16, the prophet bids them remember the incomparable glory, majesty, and power of the Lord, the true God, the living God (Ver. 10), and the terribleness of his wrath. He reminds them that God is Creator (Ver. 12) and Preserver (Ver. 13). He who formed the earth governs it still, and he is their God, and they are his people. He is their "Portion," and "Israel is the rod of his inheritance" (Ver. 16). And this which would be Israel's safeguard must be ours still. Let that living faith in the living God be lost, and at once resort will be bad to symbols and substitutes for God, which, though in form they may be far different from the idols of the heathen, yet in substance and effect are the same.
VII. ITS PRESENT-DAY LESSONS. There are such, for the peril of Israel is our own.
1. For we also may - and many do - substitute reverence for those things which are associated with the worship of God for that worship in spirit and in truth which he alone cares for. Symbols, sacraments, creeds, Churches, religious observances, - any one of these may become an idol, that is, a substitute for God. They demand no strain and energy of our spiritual nature; the senses or the intellect can grasp them; and they make no such strenuous demand upon the surrender of the will, the yielding of the heart to God; they will let us do as we like, if not entirely yet far more than true spiritual worship ever will. And thus, though we be called Christians, we may be idolaters after all.
2. And let us guard against being deceived by the sanction which worldly success and present good so often lend to ways which God forbids. There was very much around Israel whose desirableness said to them, "Come with us, and we will do you good." Idolatry did seem to answer, whilst their religion did not. And the way of the wicked will often seem to prosper, whilst "waters of a full cup" of sorrow "are wrung out" to the people of God. The mighty bribe which Satan pressed upon our blessed Lord, if he would but renounce the way of the cross appointed for him by his Father, and take "all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them " - that same bribe is pressed upon myriad souls still.
3. By constant and earnest worship of God let us cherish and keep alive in our hearts that living faith in the living God made known to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, which alone can, but surely will, meet and overcome all those temptations to idolatry, which now, as of old, beset every human soul. - C.
Parallel VersesKJV: Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: