Posted by: mattcolvin | December 1, 2011

The Illogic of Idolatry: Isaiah 44:9-23


Saturday of the first week in Advent: Isaiah 44:9-23.

This passage is one of the most sarcastic in the Bible. It reveals the illogic of idolatry with two examples: a blacksmith and a woodworker. YHWH lays out his case, summoning his exhibits, saying “they are their own witnesses” and “the workmen, let them stand up.” This is law court language.

It is absurd for a man to expend his strength as a blacksmith on making an idol that has no strength to impart back to him. The idol got whatever strength it has from the man who made it, but the man “is hungry, and his strength fails; He drinks no water and is faint.”

Likewise, the man making idols of wood has no scruples about using one piece of wood for mere fuel for warmth or cooking, and prostrating himself to the other piece of wood. The wood serves his purposes (“Ah, I am warm. I have seen the fire.”), as it should. But then the man attempts to serve the wood.

He does this with his body and his mouth. The thrice repeated complaint is that idolaters “fall down” before wood and stone: the dignity of man is abased by being thus subordinated to inanimate objects. He also requests deliverance from a piece of wood, when he himself is destroying another piece of the same wood in a fire. The wood cannot save itself. How then can it save the man who burns it?

It is interesting that the sin consists in the worship, especially in the physical obeisance of bowing down, more so than the inconsistent and foolish reasonings that one must surmount before so debasing one’s self. The reasonings are bad, but mostly, they are just foolish. The ultimate idolatry consists of worship rendered with man’s body and prayers addressed to a thing that cannot answer. This stress on what we do with our bodies is just what we find in the second of the 10 commandments: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them…”

I have greatly appreciated James K. A. Smith’s writings in the first half of Desiring the Kingdom, in which he discusses the embodied liturgies that shape our desires and loves. It raises the question, which my daughter Talia will be discussing in her senior Worldview class next week: “If our Christianity is primarily a matter of our beliefs in our heads, but our actions and habits and routines are shaped by North American culture, are we really Christians?”

That ought to give us pause. What do we bow to? What are we training ourselves to love and serve by the things that we do with our bodies?


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