Judah's Idolatry and Why It Matters for Us
Jeremiah is one of the major Old Testament prophets, but we tend to not spend much time in his book, with the exception of that one verse we’ve all heard in graduation speeches. Jeremiah is often referred to as the “weeping prophet.” Sounds like a fun guy to bring to a party, right? Turns out, Jeremiah actually had good reason for his grieving. The backdrop of the book of Jeremiah is political tumult. Assyria is falling and Babylon is rising to power, with Judah caught in between. Jeremiah, like other OT prophets, was chosen by God to speak to the people of Israel and Judah on God’s behalf. Through Jeremiah, God called his people to repentance, condemned their false religion, and warned of coming judgment from the north, ultimately predicting the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people of Judah to Babylon. The entire book of Jeremiah reads like a big scrapbook of messages Jeremiah received from God and shared with the people, interspersed with Jeremiah’s lament at the lack of righteous response from the people.
In the midst of all of this, Jeremiah faithfully shares the messages God has given him for the people. In Jeremiah 10, the prophet calls out Judah for their idolatry. They had begun adopting some false religious practices from neighboring Canaanite culture, even to the point of worshiping literal idols made from wood or metal. Speaking through Jeremiah, God points out their foolishness:
“A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good (Jeremiah 10:3-5).”
The Lord reveals these idols for what they are: empty and worthless. They have no power to save, no power to do good, no power to even listen or speak. Later, he takes it even further, saying “there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion (Jeremiah 10:14-15).” It is easy for us to stand with the Lord in condemning these idols, wondering at the foolishness of Judah in following them. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually believing that these wooden and metal images have any power. We would maybe even go so far as to say we would never do the same.
At the very beginning of chapter 10, Jeremiah shares this word from the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are vanity (Jeremiah 10:2-3a).”
While we may not relate to the impulse to worship a statue, learning the way of the nations and clinging to the customs of the people hit a little closer to home. For Judah during Jeremiah’s time, the customs of the people and the ways of the surrounding nations were to worship Canaanite gods made of wood and metal. God’s word in these verses still rings true, so we must ask, what are the ways of the nations and the customs of the people in our time? While there are innumerable customs and ways we could examine, three broad categories present themselves in our world.
Self-indulgence. From buffets to streaming services, our culture embodies the mantra “treat yo self.” We don’t have to be told twice that we deserve something special; there’s something empowering about identifying what we want (often with the help of advertisements tailored to our browsing history) and getting it for ourselves. Self-service is all around us, and it is effortless to join in on this custom. Food, drink, and entertainment are literally a click away. Now, it’s not inherently evil to order dinner using DoorDash, but when we grow accustomed to answering our every desire with yes, things can get dangerous in a hurry. Envy of our neighbor’s new firepit can be resolved with a trip to Lowes. Loneliness drives us to pornography. Greed keeps us from generosity. Disappointment and anger are tempered with alcohol or drugs. When we grow comfortable with meeting all of our desires, whether good or bad, with a self-indulgent yes, we harm ourselves. James 1:14-15 tells us what will come of this: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
We cannot survive as Christians by serving ourselves. In fact, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Luke 9:23). In this same passage, Jesus gives this piece of counter-cultural wisdom: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself (Luke 9:25)?” Our culture tells us to take what we want when we want it. If we truly want Jesus, we will deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. In other words, we will seek to desire him above all else, setting aside our selfish desires and submitting to him, trusting and enjoying the good he has for us.
Self-sufficiency. One of the false scripts our culture feeds us is that success is achievable if we’re willing to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make it happen. That if we work hard enough, grind it out, put in the hours, we will achieve our dreams. We can’t depend on anyone else; we’ve got what it takes inside of us to make it in the world. Read any Olympian’s backstory and you’ll see this narrative. Now, I will be cheering whole-heartedly for Simone Biles and Team USA in a few weeks with the rest of you, but we must acknowledge that even Olympic athletes with only 3% body fat and more self-discipline than an ant storing food for the winter have limits.
As humans, we are weak. We have needs. As much as we may fight it, we are not self-sufficient. Your stomach growling when you get hungry is a reminder of this. Your eyes getting heavy at the end of a long day is evidence of this. Your desire for friendship is an indicator of this. We are unable to sustain ourselves. This doesn’t mean something is wrong with us; we were created this way. Our need for food, sleep, and friends are part of God’s good design for us. God alone is self-sufficient. Acts 17:24-25 tells us, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God is our source. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Our weakness should not cause us to despair, but rather point us to the one who is all-sufficient.
Self-determination. You don’t have to look further than YouTube ads to see messages calling us to “live your truth” or “be who you want to be” presented under the guise of freedom and self-empowerment. Many Christians have stepped up to our culture’s truth buffet to pick and choose what we want to believe. We gladly construct our own realities based on our experiences and preferences, rejecting the parts of Scripture that don’t jive with us. We embrace the idea that we alone determine our identity and we have the power to decide what is true. Much like the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time, we piece together an amalgamation of cultural Christianity and modern culture and call it our faith. And just like for Judah, this simply will not do for followers of Jesus Christ.
Our God is “the one who formed all things (Jeremiah 10:16),” including us. We see in Genesis 2 that God stooped down and gathered up the dust he had created and from it, formed man. Then, he did something new: he breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life. Even after this first man, we see that God forms us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). God does not stop there, creating us and then wishing us the best; he lays out wisdom to guide us and paths for us to follow. We see this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when God says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Ephesians 2:10 highlights this as well: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It is not up to us to construct our own reality or truth but to walk in faith according to the truth of God’s word.
When Jeremiah pleaded with Judah to confess their idolatry and repent, they ignored him. In fact, they were so angry with Jeremiah that in the next chapter, they made plans to assassinate him. We could easily push these 3 customs of our culture aside and say we’re fine, they don’t affect us. But before we dismiss this, let’s spend some time asking the Lord to search our hearts and show us ways we may be bowing down to the idols of self-indulgence, self-sufficiency, and self-determination. He is calling us to a deeper awareness of our need for Jesus, greater empowerment to serve those around us, and a clearer understanding of the authority and goodness of Scripture. Let’s repent of our devotion to these idols and turn to the true God.
“There is none like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you (Jeremiah 10:6-7).”