On Idols and Idolatry (Isaiah 42:17)
Topic: One Lord: No One Like You Passage: Isaiah 42:17
I. American Idols
American Idol may be a popular television show, one that's been on the air for an impressive twenty-one seasons, but American idols are something different. American idols are those popular objects of worship that regularly ensnare our neighbors, our coworkers, our leaders, and our family members. Of course, most of the time, the word “worship” is not associated with our present-day devotion to such things. But that imagery of images, this language of worship, is confirmed by Scripture itself. Let's look together at some examples of this. Turn if you would to Colossians 3. Listen to what the Apostle Paul tells these early disciples of Jesus...
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
So very clearly what we see here is Paul warning these Christians about vices that continue to characterize our fallen, sinful world. Paul describes these things as "earthly"... earthly attitudes and appetites. But notice the final item that Paul, that God, calls these Christians to put to death is "covetousness". What is covetousness? Well, it's simply greed. It's that desire to acquire...and to keep acquiring. It's a craving to have more money or more stuff, even if that stuff belongs to someone else.
But what is extraordinary is the small phrase that Paul tacks on right after the word "covetous-ness". He writes "covetousness...which is idolatry". Idolatry? Isn't that when someone worships before the statue of a false god? Isn't that when someone bows down before a graven image, before a pagan deity? That's the overwhelming way in which that word is used throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament (OT), especially in the readings from Our Bible Reading Plan last week, those chapters from the prophet Isaiah.
So how does Paul connect greed with groveling before a graven image? In this verse (and in Ephesians 5:5, where Paul adds a similar note) the Apostle does something remarkable. With this simple phrase he helps us to think more carefully, more deeply about the nature of idolatry. And that is so important for us, because for the most part, we are not surrounded by temples where people come to worship carved images of false deities. Idolatry like that certainly does still take place in other parts of the world (I've seen it firsthand in India).
But again, how can Paul connect greed with groveling before a graven image? Well, Paul can make this connection because he understands the true nature, the essence of idolatry. Consider this definition:
Idolatry is when our ultimate pursuit and prize is something or someone other than God.
Notice that definition fits both greed and worshiping false images. Many times in the OT, Israel is warned about "going after" false gods (Deuteronomy 6:14; Jeremiah 25:6). Idolatry is always a "going after", a pursuit of of something or someone other than God.
So in light of this definition, in light of Colossians 3:5, and even though we were made for God, there are sadly countless "somethings" and "someones", we have countless "pursuits" and "prizes" to which we might attach this sobering phrase: "which...is...idolatry". Now by themselves money and possessions are not idols, It is the love of money which is a form of idolatry.
A critical word in our working definition of idolatry is the word "ultimate". The dictionary defines "ultimate" as "the best or most extreme of its kind". And so we might talk about the pursuit and prize of starting a small business, or the pursuit and prize of raising healthy, well-balanced kids. And we would be right in saying those are good goals. But if those things become our "ultimate pursuit and prize", we have crossed a dangerous line into the territory of idolatry.
Pastor and author Tim Keller puts it this way in his book "Counterfeit Gods": What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
Okay. So why start in the New Testament (NT) if our main text this morning is from the OT? Well, too often, we believe we are more sophisticated sinners. Why? Because we don't fall on the ground before a statue. As a result, we are often tempted to disconnect ourselves from the huge number of biblical warnings against idolatry. But Paul's words here in Colossians 3:5, words written to Christians, simply will not allow us to dismiss all those warnings.
II. The Passage: “Who Trust in Carved Idols” (42:17)
With that in mind, follower of Jesus, please turn over to Isaiah 42:17. These are the words of God, as communicated through the prophet...
They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods.”
So here's one of those OT warnings about idolatry. In fact, our readings from this past week were filled with similar warnings. Therefore, sensitized by Paul's words in Colossians 3, let's take a few minutes to consider what God wants to teach us about identifying, and turning away from, and guarding ourselves from our American idols.
Before we look at what this section of Isaiah teaches us about idolatry, let me tell you a few important things about the context here. Isaiah 40 is the beginning of the second half of this massive prophetic book. It differs from the first half in that it is ultimately addressed to an audience yet to be born. In fact, though this book had (and has) important things to say for all of God's people, it would be almost 175 years before these words would be relevant to those addressed here. Who were those addressed? They were the men, women, and children returning, in the late sixth century before Christ, from exile in Babylon. God would use Cyrus the Persian (the people group who conquered Babylon—he would use Cyrus) to restore many Israelites to the Promised Land (in fact, Cyrus is specifically named in 44:28 and 45:1).
But because they had been away from the land for so long, and had been deeply influenced by the idolatrous Babylonians, God must call them to repentance and faith. Notice how our main verse, Isaiah 42:17, communicates that call to repentance: “They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, 'You are our gods.'” God's coming restoration from political exile would also be a spiritual restoration; and false idols would have no place in that restoration. They must be renounced.
Consider with me how God confronts the idolatry of some of these returning exiles. Yes, he does take time to point out the foolishness and inadequacy of false gods (cf. 44:9-20). But even more effectively, even more powerfully, he does this while emphasizing the greatness and sufficiency of the true God. Here are three ways this is communicated in Isaiah 40-43. First...
1. Idols are created by people, but all things were created by God. Not far into chapter 40 we read this in verses 19–20 (after the question is asked in v. 18, “to whom will you liken God”):
An idol! (more likely, “An idol?”) A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.  He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.
How can God be compared to an idol when an idol is a human fabrication? The same craft and craftsmen are mentioned in 41:7 as well. But these idols are more than just the products of human craftsmanship. They are also the products of human imagination. Look back to the end of chapter 41. Verse 29... “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.”
But the true God, the God of Israel is (40:28) “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” He, and he alone, “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span” (40:12). He, and he alone, “stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in” (40:22). But he's also (43:15) “the Creator of Israel, your King”, and he's reaching out to (43:21) “the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise.” For as we read in 42:8.. “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”. That leads to a second argument against idolatry...
2. Idols are mute and lifeless, but the living God speaks. In 41:21-24, God challenges the idolatrous to make their case for these so-called God. Look at and listen to how he does that...
Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.  Let them bring them [i.e., their idols], and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come.  Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified [i.e., do anything at all!].  Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.
And in 41:26 it's clear that no false God ever did speak; in light of God's challenge, nothing would be declared. There would be no explanation for why “the former things” happened, and no prophecy about “the things to come”. But the opposite is true with the everlasting God, the God of Israel. Look at Isaiah 42:9... “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” If we were to continue into chapter 46 we would read more about the God who speaks. This is verses 9 and 10..
...Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,'
As 40:8 powerfully reminds us, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Consider one more anti-idolatry argument with me...
3. Idols are powerless to save, but God is an all powerful Savior. Notice the similar language in 40:20 and 41:7. An idolater “seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.” (40:20) Similarly, 41:7 speaks about craftsmen who “strengthen it [an idol] with nails so that it cannot be moved.” Whether it is chained or nailed, the solidity and security of an idol is again, just a human fabrication; so in the end, it is neither solid or secure; not really; not when it matters most. But in stark contrast, the living God is able to reassure his people with these words in 41:10 (look there) “...fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” As they return to the land, they will not have to fear whatever difficulties they might face. Look at 43:2...
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Why? Because “the Lord Yahweh comes with might” (40:10); “because he is strong in power” (40:26). “He does not faint or grow weary...” (40:28). And listen to how Isaiah 44:8 brings a couple of these amazing truths together...
Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”
III. “Behold, My Servant”
As we come this morning to this Rock, we come with the confidence that Jesus Christ is the fullest fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. Listen to what Matthew 12:15–21 tells us about Jesus...
...And many followed him, and he healed them all  and ordered them not to make him known.  This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:  “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles [that's most us!].  He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory;  and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
If you completed last week's readings, you should recognize those final four verses. They are straight out of 42:1-4. We celebrate good news this morning, don't we? Specifically, the Good News that the living and speaking and saving God of Isaiah 40-43 has come near to us in Jesus Christ. And he came to heal us. Praise God that Jesus has not and will not break bruised reeds or quench smoldering wicks like us! Brothers and sisters, behold God's servant! Behold, Jesus!
And because we can have confidence that we will be, by grace through faith, eternally upheld by God through Jesus, because of the cross and empty tomb of Jesus... guess what we can do today. We can identify, and turn away from, and guard ourselves from our American idols... and we can do so without fear that we will be left lacking in any way. In terms of specific application, suggestions: first, take time to prayerfully and courageously personalize this verse in terms of your life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you... [specifically _________], which is idolatry.” Consider what your schedule and priorities and bank account and words and thought life reveal about your functionally ultimate pursuit and prize. If not God, who or what is ruling you this morning? Who or what is shaping your identity this morning? Confess that to God even now.
Once you've confessed that idol, second, meditate on God's word to you this morning. Really come to grips with how that idol is a human creation that can never give you what only God can provide as your Creator; really face the fact that your idol can never explain where you've come from or where you're going (it can only lie to you today with temporary and empty promises); really come to grips with how that idol is as powerless to save you as a quicksand is to give you solid ground in the middle of a storm. Idols are not solid and secure. Such idols “are all a delusion; their works [i.e., the supposed good they provide] are nothing; their metal images [i.e., what they appear to be] are empty wind.” (41:29)
I believe that like Isaiah's audience, we too will recognize and be persuaded to stop trusting in these idols. Lest we forget, “They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols...”. This is why the Apostle John ended his first letter with these words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21) Brothers and sisters, let's remind one another regularly that through Jesus we have something far, far better than even the most appealing idol the world can offer. We have a God who is real. A God who has spoken. Better still, we have a God who is powerful to provide and powerful to save. Amen? Amen! And if you have never responded to the call of Jesus, if you've never trusted in Him as your only hope, in this life and the next, then know that you can do that this morning. You can personally know the God who made all things, the living God who gives life. Through Jesus, you can personally know the God of Isaiah, and hear these words spoken in your own heart...
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (43:1)
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
August 27, 2023Praying for God's People (Daniel 9:17-19)
August 20, 2023Daniel's 'Not of This World' Example (Daniel 1:8-17)
August 13, 2023The Shepherd's Rescue (Ezekiel 34:10-12)