Great Discernment Needed

Isaiah 44:9-23

There are few areas of life where discernment is so necessary as in the area of idolatry. The problem is that our hearts are usually blind to our own idolatries. We don’t see it when we make fame, respect, money, security, relationships, sports teams, or just plain stuff our idols. We have significant blind spots when it comes to the matters of the heart. Jeremiah tells us that the heart is deceptively wicked. Just how deceptive, though, is the human heart? Isaiah gives us a vivid, not to say humorous illustration of how blind people can be to their own idolatry. As modern people, though, we have an additional problem that the ancient people didn’t have. Our problem is that many of our idols are less tangible, less visible. This means that we have an extra layer of deception that is possible. We look at a passage like this, and we are tempted to miss the application to ourselves entirely. We say, “Look at those poor benighted ancient people. They didn’t have a clue. In our modern, progressive, enlightened world, we don’t bow down to a piece of wood.” However, people do bow down to trees. Some people worship creation, what we call the tree-huggers. They seem to bow down to a piece of wood as well. Maybe the passage is more relevant to our modern day than we might have thought.

The first point to consider is that we become like whatever we worship. Our passage says that those who fashion idols are nothing. The witnesses to idolatry neither see or know. Verse 18 says that they don’t know or discern. Even more evocative is verse 20, which says that he feeds on ashes. The ashes are the ashes of the burnt log which constitutes the better half of the log. Psalm 115 puts the matter as clearly as anywhere in Scripture: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel, feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” So, we could put the matter this way: whoever worships a block of wood becomes a blockhead. The amazing thing about this principle is that it also works the other way. If we worship the one true God, then we become like Him. We are all worshipers. Every human being worships something or someone. If we worship ourselves, we turn in on ourselves, and become narcissists. If we worship other people, then we become sycophants with a dependent personality. If we worship Satan, we will become satanic. But if we worship God, we will become, eventually, as like him as it is possible for created beings to be.

Secondly, we see the absolute folly of idolatry. This passage makes fun of idolatry. It is funny, isn’t it? Look at how much effort goes into making an idol. First you gotta tools in order. The ironsmith is first. He labors over the coals, but if he doesn’t drink enough water, he becomes faint. Imagine becoming faint while making your tools! And if that wasn’t enough, he got hungry, too! Making your own idols is hungry, painstaking work. What a mundane and wearisome task this is, to create your own creator!

Next, we move on to the carpenter. Here we can see just how much discernment is needed. He has to know which one of the trees in the forest contains his god. Look carefully, Mr. Carpenter. You wouldn’t want accidentally, now, to pick the wrong tree, would you? Even more discernment is necessary, however, once the right tree is cut down. Which end of the log is right for the fire, and which end of the log is your god? What catastrophe would result if you accidentally picked the wrong end of the log? Notice what the carpenter says after disposing of both ends of the log. After he puts one end in the fire, he says, “Ah, I am warm, and I love looking into that fire.” Notice incidentally that he sees the fire, but he doesn’t see the light! After he makes the idol, he says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” How stupid, when really, both ends of the log are really only fit for the fire. Why is this so stupid? Well, it seems clear from the way Isaiah puts this that one end of the log is really only as valuable as the other end of the log. Again, that is why Isaiah says that he is feeding on ashes in verse 20. His soul is feeding on the burned side of the log, when he thinks he is feeding on the “god” side of the log.

Even more clearly and obviously, verse 18 tells us that these idol-makers haven’t got a clue. Don’t miss the point in verse 18 that God has shut their eyes. This is a judicial blindness that God has leveled against these idolaters. The idolater’s own heart also leads him astray, however, as verse 20 says, “a deluded heart has led him astray.”

The third point of our passage is that the creator of something is more exalted than the thing that is created. In verse 21, the Lord God says, “I formed you.” The true God forms and creates His creation. He is not created by the creation. This seems like a very obvious point, but people don’t seem to understand this about less tangible things. They forget that we are just as involved in making money or forming relationships as we would be in making a block of wood into an idol.

As verse 13 points out, the foolish idolater makes the idol into the form of a human being. That is as high as he can go. In all forms of idolatry, in fact, humanity can never get higher than itself. Look at all other religions, and they drag God down to the level of human beings. The Greek gods are a case in point. They were petty, selfish, lascivious, arbitrary, and cruel. They were no better than human beings.We cannot form our maker. How foolish it is, then, to believe that we can make an idol, when, after it is made, we have to baby it along, take care of it, make sure it doesn’t get burned up the fire that we used the other half of the log for. So, it is not just that the Creator is greater than than the creation. It is also a question of providence: the one true God takes care of His people, rather than the people taking care of God.

The fourth thing we see in our passage is that only the one true God can deliver people. He idolater asks his block of wood to deliver him, after he took such pains to make the god. Who really has the greater power to save? But in verse 22, we see that God is the one who blots out the transgressions of the people. Everything in verses 21-23 forms a contrast with what came before. God says that Israel is God’s servant in verse 21. This is opposed to the end of verse 17, where the idolater falls down in order to serve the dumb idol. God created us, whereas the idolater creates his own creator. God delivers His people from their sins, whereas a block of wood can do absolutely nothing except burn in a fire. Even the trees themselves find a proper place in God’s reckoning. The end of verse 23 has the trees singing the praises of God Almighty. Surely that is a better use for trees than making idols out of them!

So what do we really need from all this? We need to recognize our Creator. Great discernment is needed. There are many things out there which human beings worship. How do we know if we are worshiping the one true God? The answer is that God has to open up our eyes before we can see that. Just as Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, so also He opens the eyes of those who were spiritually blind before. What God does is the absolute opposite of what the idolater does. The idolater takes a tree that is alive and makes something dead out of it. God, however, does the opposite in bringing home a sinner to Himself: He takes a spiritually dead person and makes him alive. Verse 22 says this so clearly: “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” This leads us to the second takeaway.

The second thing we can take away from this is that we need the forgiveness of sins more than anything else in the whole world. That is something to sing about, as verse 23 says. We can only have the forgiveness of sins in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This whole passage ought to point us to a much better, infinitely wiser carpenter than this poor benighted fool of Isaiah 44. Jesus never does any of these things. Yet He came to earth to take on a created human nature in order to redeem us from our own sinful stupidity. What kind of a God would do that for His enemies? Only the one true God does that. Putting our faith in the one true God means that our faith resides in the only God who can save His people from their sins. No other idol or god in any false religion has a god who can save. Only the one true God saves.

Lastly, there is a note of final judgment in this text. Verse 11 says that those who make and worship false gods will be put to shame. They will all assemble together, therefore they shall be put to shame together. The only way to escape that shame is to put your faith and worship in the only being in or out of this universe that is worth believing and worshiping, and that being is the one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who forms the universe, and every human being in it. May we all sing to Him, as the heavens themselves do in verse 23, even the depths of the earth, the mountains, and all the trees of the forest.

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2 Comments

  1. November 9, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Good insights. Incisive application for moderns.

  2. Steve Drake said,

    November 10, 2017 at 7:27 am

    We look at a passage like this, and we are tempted to miss the application to ourselves entirely.

    Never so applicable as to the modern Church’s bowing down to the idol of deep-time (millions and billions of years); worshipping at the feet of secular prognostications by astronomers and geologists who are very, very, objective and don’t have a bias to move forward. Fawning at the pedestal of these secular priests, the Church thinks they can stay ‘relevant’ and win more souls to Christ, failing to realize however, the utter duplicity of their position.


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