Thus shall you say to them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth…
Wearied out by the ingratitude and impenitence of the Jews, God was about to deliver them into the hands of their enemies. They were to pass many years in a country of idolaters; and the danger was considerable, that they would forget the true God, and join themselves to the worshippers of a false. It is to guard them against this danger that they are thus addressed by the Lord, in the beginning of the chapter — "Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them." The prophet then proceeds to show the utter vanity of idolatry, by exposing what we may call the manufacture of the worshipped images. But it was not enough that the Jews should be fortified in the true religion, and thus prepared to remain faithful when cast amongst idolaters; God would not be satisfied with the silent testimony against error which would thus be borne by their conduct, if they steadfastly adhered to what He had revealed and required. Associated with those who knew not God, and who gave to idols the honour due unto His name, it would behove them to be preachers of truth, and to endeavour to win the heathen from their debasing superstitions. Accordingly, in our text, God puts into their mouths the message they should deliver. Now, if ever peculiar circumstances might have been pleaded in apology for not striving to expose error, and instruct the ignorant, those of a captive people might, we think, have presented the excuse. The Jews might have reasoned that, dependent as they were upon imperious conquerors, whom it would be easy to provoke to oppression and to violence, they should not act with the wisdom which they were bound to exhibit, if they in the least degree interfered with the national religion. It would be a great thing, they might have said, if the Babylonians allowed them to worship God after the manner of their fathers, and did not require them to conform to idolatry; but if, not satisfied with this, they were to denounce the reigning superstitions, and strive to overthrow the religion of the State, what was to be expected, but that persecution would be substituted for toleration, and that in endeavouring to show others their errors they should altogether lose their own religious privileges? And yet such excuses, however specious, would not have been valid. We seem bound to gather from this, that whatever our circumstances, we should consider ourselves charged with a message from God. But we go on to observe in respect of the proclamation with which the Jews are thus charged, that though its delivery, under their circumstances, demanded great boldness, the terms in which it is expressed are those least likely to give offence. We are as much taught to use circumspection in our mode of reproof, as to avoid flinching from the duty because of the difficulties which may attend its performance. There is nothing of invective, nothing of bitter declamation, in the words whose utterance God enjoins. They undeniably condemn the superstitions of the Chaldeans, but only indirectly, by way of inference rather than of assertion. And it is very observable, as furnishing a guide to ourselves when dealing with men in error, that the attack on the Babylonians is to be made through principles acknowledged by themselves, and not through others which might not be admitted. The Babylonians would be supposed to concede that the creation proved Divinity; and it was with the principle thus conceded, and not with one which they would be likely to dispute, that the Jews were to strive to win them from idolatry. If the Babylonians once allowed its due weight to the principle, that the true God must be the Creator, it would be easy to prove to them that their idols had no claim to the being Divine, and then gradually to conduct them to the truth, that the Jehovah of Israel ought alone to be worshipped; and therefore are the captives commissioned to utter a proclamation involving no principles, so to speak, but those of natural religion; just as Paul, when preaching at Athens, employed the Grecian altars as his weapons of assault upon Grecian superstitions. But now we must look a little at the truth involved in the proclamation — the truth that Divinity was to be proved from creation. The true God, you observe, is "the God that made the heavens and the earth." The stress is laid on the fact of creation; and we will endeavour to show you why it is laid there. How came matter into existence? Who made the matter out of which all other things are made? Here is the Divine act; and this is the act of creation. No power short of infinite could have made the material, if any could have afterwards wrought it into the worlds. Give an angel the material, and, for anything I know, he might work it into the wing or the flower; but to make the material, and then work it into the exquisite forms, this is beyond any angel; before Him who can do this, I fall prostrate as God. But we have still, in conclusion, to consider our text in the light of a prophecy, and to examine what grounds we have for expecting its literal accomplishment. It was a bold prophecy, as originally uttered, and there seemed no likelihood of its ever being fulfilled. With the exception of a solitary people, and that people now exiles and captives, all the inhabitants of the earth then worshipped false gods. Who could have expected so stupendous a revolution as was predicted by our text — the downfall of heathenism over the whole habitable globe? Yet already a vast advance has been made towards so glorious a consummation. Where now is Bel, the god of Babylon, and Nisroch the god of Assyria? Where now are Baal and Ashtaroth, the gods of the Zidonians? Where now is the Dagon of the Philistines, the Chemosh of the Moabites, the Milcom of the Ammonites? Or if you pass from scriptural records to profane, where now are the thousand deities of Greece and of Rome — those whose praises were hymned by the most melodious of poets, whose praise was renowned on continents and islands, to whom the great and the mean, kings and warriors, sages and servants, conspired to do honour? Hath it not come true of all these, that they have perished from the earth and from under the heavens? They made not the earth, neither were the heavens the work of their hands; and wanting the distinguishing mark of Divinity, creative energy, it mattered nothing that millions were their worshippers, that philosophers were ready to uphold their pretensions, and armies to defend their temples. The true God rose in His jealousy, and with the breath of His indignation He scattered the idols, so that their very names have vanished from the territories once crowded with their shrines. And what has been thus already done, is our warrant that the text shall be accomplished to the letter. False gods, they shall perish; false principles, they shall perish. False gods, they may have been honoured in the fairest provinces of this globe, where the sky is the most brilliant, and the foliage the richest, and the waters the most sparkling; but they spread not out that sky, and they pencilled not that foliage, and they poured not forth those waters; and therefore shall they make their grave with the Jupiter, and the Apollo, and the Minerva — known now only in classic story, and swept from classic land. They shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens. False principles of a vain philosophy — principles which would substitute reason for revelation, and ascribe to man independence and moral strength — these may have their admirers and defenders; but these cannot conduct to immortality, these cannot effect a new creation, these cannot build us a home beyond the grave, and throw open to us new heavens and a new earth; and, therefore, unable to create, they too shall perish, and the world be willing to take salvation without money and without price. I require you to try principles as the Babylonians were to try deities — by their power of creating. If there be nothing in a religious system to renew human nature, to remould the dispositions, and so to alter a man that old things shall pass away, the system is inadequate to our necessities, and that too, because void of creative energy, and therefore leaving us in our feebleness and in our corruption; and every such system shall consequently perish.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.