Monday, October 03, 2016

What Profit is the Idol? (Habakkuk 2:18-20)


The first and second of the Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward. The Lord God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them” (Ex 20:3-4). It is easy to think that idolatry is an issue that humanity has outgrown. Many of us do not regularly encounter temples or shrines where devotees make sacrifices and offerings as acts of worship before a statue. We might be tempted to think that higher education, sociological changes, and even perhaps intellectual evolution have rendered idolatry obsolete. If we have the privilege to travel the world or get to know people who come from other parts of the world, however, we will quickly realize that idolatry in its most overt forms is still prevalent today. Moreover, there are subtler forms of idolatry that are even more ubiquitous, perhaps even taking place unwittingly in our lives. That is how subtle idolatry is.

In our text today, the sin of idolatry is the primary focus. The context of this portion of Habakkuk has been dealing with the impending judgment on Babylon. Four pronouncements of “Woe” have been issued to this point for a variety of transgressions. And now we come to the final one, but it is actually a root cause of the others. Why has Babylon pillaged, plundered, enslaved, and killed so many people? They are idolaters. As Roberston writes, “Because their religious orientation was wrong, their moral standards had to be perverted.”[1] David Prior says similarly, “What we worship affects our choices and our lifestyles. The Babylonians had chosen idolatry, and their social and national life bore the inevitable trademarks of their consequent lifestyle.”[2] Therefore the judgment announced in this passage is well-deserved for the Babylonians.

However, Habakkuk’s words are not merely for the Babylonians. They were also for his fellow-countrymen. Had Judah itself not fallen into rampant idolatry and the sins that flowed out of it, they would not be facing the Babylonian invasion. God had raised up the Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah for its sins. The condemnation against idolatry here in this passage is intended to rebuke the Jewish idolater who erroneously believes that he will escape judgment because of his ethnic heritage as a citizen of God’s chosen nation. But even among the righteous in Judah, there would be a great temptation, upon seeing the Babylonians swiftly conquer their homeland, to conclude that the idols of other nations were mightier than the God of Israel. The words delivered through the prophet here were a stern warning to never turn aside from the worship of the one true God to idols.

The message is also for us still today, for idolatry can creep into our lives in little known or least expected ways. Few, if any, of us would carve statues to worship or go to shrines or temples to make sacrificial offerings. And yet idols can be found elsewhere in our lives from time to time, and we need to be able to identify them so that we can be on guard against them and turn away from them in devotion to the only God who really is.

Before we deal with how to identify the idols in our lives, let us dive into our text and discover the answer to the question that the prophet rhetorically poses in verse 18: “What profit is the idol” The short answer is, “The idol is of absolutely no profit!” So there you go. We can just have the benediction and be on our way. This could be the shortest sermon I’ve ever preached. No, rather, we must look at what our text says about why the idol is of no profit. And there are three reasons set forth.

I. The idol is a powerless god created in the image of the one who crafts it. (v18)

The Bible tells us that mankind was created in the image of God. Scholars have debated for centuries what, exactly, this all entails. The full and detailed meaning of “the image of God” in which we were created will likely never be understood until we get to heaven, but at a minimum, we can understand that there are ways in which human beings have been made to be like the God who made us. Most commonly, it is said that this includes having a mind, a will, and emotions. It certainly goes beyond this to include the ability to communicate, the ability to create, and the capacity for relationships – including a relationship with Him. The image of God also seems to encompass being God’s representatives in exercising authority in the created world.

Because of our sinfulness, inherent within us since the fall of Adam, the image of God in man is distorted, but it is not destroyed. It is still present, but corrupted. Our mind, will and emotions are disordered and run contrary to the will of God. We communicate, but often what and how we communicate is not honoring to God. We create things to serve our own misguided desires. We abuse authority in self-serving rather than God-serving ways. And our relationships become theaters of our depravity. This includes our relationship with God. Rather than worshiping and serving God the creator, we have an innate tendency to worship and serve the creation. Paul says it this way in Romans 1, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. … They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:22, 25). We see it in nearly every culture of the world. Temples are filled with statues and images of deities who look like men and animals and are said to possess the power to affect daily life and experience. Rocks and trees are set apart as sacred and viewed as possessing supernatural powers.

Habakkuk says that all this religious zeal that takes place around the altars and shrines of idols is completely without profit. It is a powerless thing that has been crafted by the artistry of men. The word translated idol in verse 18 refers to something carved from wood, and the word for image that follows it refers to something made from molten metal. The idea is that a carver has taken a piece of wood, made it into an image, covered it with gold or silver, and then set it up as the god he will worship. How quickly he has forgotten or ignored the fact that it is “his own handiwork.”

Isaiah describes the folly of it. He says that a man plants a tree and watches it grow, and then he cuts it down. “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.’ But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god’” (44:16-17). He says that those who do this “do not know, nor do they understand,” they do not remember, so as to realize, “I have burned half of it in the fire … Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (44:19).

The idolater does not ask, “What does God want for me, or require of me?” Rather the idolater asks, “What do I want, and what would I require of a god?” And then he makes that thing, and sets it up to serve his wants and needs. If he wants money or possessions, he makes an idol of prosperity. Then he goes and does what he wants to attain that prosperity, and says, “Well, my god did not tell me not to do this, or stop me from doing it.” Right! Because this god is powerless. He was made in the image of its maker. But we were made in the image of our Maker, and our lives were meant to be lived to serve and worship Him. The idol is of no profit or value because it is a powerless god which is nothing more than the handiwork of sinful human beings trying to make a god in their own image and imagination.

Now, secondly, we see that …
II. The idol is a speechless god deceiving the one who calls upon it. (vv18-19)

There are some people who are so prone to dishonesty that it is sometimes said of them, “You can tell they are lying because their lips are moving.” It would be a terrible thing to have that kind of reputation. Well, the idol’s lips never move, and yet it always lies. Notice that verse 18 says that the idol is a teacher of falsehood, and then says idols are “speechless.” That phrase “speechless idols” at the end of the verse could be just as well rendered, “dumb dumbies,” in the sense that dumb means unable to speak. But though they are silent and speechless, they are persuasive communicators. What they communicate, however, are falsehoods that deceive those who call upon them.

Positioned on an altar or in a place of prominence, the idol claims to be something it is not. It claims to be a deity and that it is worthy of worship and service. How can that be, when it is merely the handiwork of a craftsman? Not only does it claim to be something that it is not, but it also promises what it cannot deliver. The idolator is deceived into thinking that the idol is able to meet his or needs, to work and move powerfully on his or her behalf, to impart wisdom into his or her life. It cannot! It is merely an inaminate object! It can do none of the above. It claims to be something it is not, it promises what it cannot deliver, and also it cannot respond to the prayers it receives. One says to it, “Awake!” and another, “Arise!”, yet another, “This is our teacher!” But the idol cannot awaken, arise, or teach. It sits there like a bump on a log, because it is nothing more than a bump on a log.

Some years ago, I toured a Hindu temple in which the devout old priest walked us around showing us the gods which are worshiped there. He even called them idols. One, he said, was Vishnu – the four armed human figure holding various items in each of his four hands. Another he said was Shiva – another human figure who wears a cobra like a necklace. And then his voice began to shake as we came to the statue of Ganesha – the elephant-headed god. He said, “This is the god that I am most devoted to.” He described how he began his day. He would enter the temple and ring the bell to awaken Ganesha from his sleep, and then he would come and remove the idol from its bed and remove its pajamas. He would then bathe Ganesha in milk, because, in his words, “Ganesha likes the milk.” Then he would dress Ganesha in his clean clothes for the day, place him on the altar, and set before him his breakfast of fruit slices. And then he would prostrate himself before the idol and pray. Hearing the emotion in his voice, it suddenly dawned on me that this man was not mindlessly engaging in the rituals of an inherited tradition. He sincerely believed that this statue was his god, and he treated him as such. That idol has never, can never, and will never say a word, but it has deceived this man into thinking that it is something that it is not. And there are untold multitudes in the world today who are just as deceived. This includes those who are deceived by the more subtle, yet equally dangerous forms of idolatry.

We come then to the final reason why the idol is of no profit …
III. The idol is a lifeless god which condemns the one who trusts in it. (v19)

By nature, we are trusting people. We want to trust, and choose where to place our trust based on various reasons. We come into the world trusting our parents. We tend to trust others whom we know well. We trust ourselves and our own abilities make important decisions and handle responsibilities that come our way. We even trust in inanimate objects. For example, when we apply pressure to the horizontal pedal on the left in the floorboard of our cars, we trust that the brakes will engage and bring the car to a stop. But trust can be broken, leaving us hurting and confused. We want to trust our government officials, but broken campaign promises and hollow rhetoric leave us puzzled about whether we can or should. We want to trust the authorities of justice, but injustice abounds and leaves us feeling as though we cannot. We want to trust those we love, but past heartbreaks tell us that we need to be careful.

There is, of course, a deeper level of trust reserved for life’s ultimate hopes and ambitions, and for eternal peace and rest. Whom, or what, do we trust to deliver upon those things? Do we trust ourselves to create our own destinies? Do we trust others to create opportunities for us or deliver us from trouble? When it comes to this deeper level of trust, the Bible is clear that God, and God alone, is worthy of our trust when it comes to the most important matters of life. The Psalmist said, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us” (62:8). Again, “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield” (115:11). Isaiah says, “Trust in the Lord forever, for in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock” (26:4). Blessing is promised to the one who so trusts the Lord: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord” (Jer 17:7). But when we cease or fail to trust in the Lord in this way, we do not suddenly find ourselves trusting no one or nothing. Instead, we begin to trust other things, maybe anything, perhaps everything, but always the wrong thing.

The Bible speaks of those who trust in riches (Prov 11:28); powerful people (Psa 146:3; Jer 17:5); human strength and power (Psa 20:7); beauty (Ezk 16:15); their own hearts and minds (Prov 28:26; 3:5); and even in evil (Isa 30:12).[3] And then there are those who trust in objects of their own making to do for them what only God can do. And anytime we trust in anyone or anything to do for us what God alone can do, we have entered into idolatry. As one scholar writes, “Idolatry is essentially the worship of that which we make, rather than of our Maker. And that which we make may be found in our possessions, a home, a career, an ambition, a family, or a multitude of other people or things. We ‘worship’ them when they become the focal point of our lives, that for which we live. And as the goal and centre of human existence, they are as foolish as any wooden idol or metal image.”[4]

This is why verse 19 says that the idol has “no breath at all inside of it.” The Hebrew word for “breath” here is the word ruach. It is an interesting word that can be translated as breath, life, or spirit. Often, it means all three, as it does here. Though the idol has been skillfully crafted, and overlaid with gold and silver, it has no spirit within it. It cannot breathe. It possesses no life. It is a dead thing. No matter what one trusts ultimately for life, death, and eternity, if it is not the Lord and Him alone, it is a dead thing. It has no life in itself and cannot impart life. The only thing it is able to do is condemn the one who trusts in it.

We begin to see now the danger of trusting in idols. Idolatry renders unto something or someone which is not God that level of devotion, of worship, of service of which God alone is worthy, even as it ascribes unto the idol the ability to do what God alone can do. It is an affront of the greatest severity to God, because it says to Him essentially, “You are not worthy of my worship, my devotion, and my service, because You cannot or will not do for me what I wish; therefore I will devote myself to the service and adoration of this other thing.” Is it any wonder then that the pronouncement of “Woe!” is given?

This word “woe” is at one and the same time a word of lament and a word of condemnation. It is a word of lament because it expresses pity upon the one cries out in vain for something other than God to do for it what only God can do. It is also a word of lament and pity because of the judgment that is coming for that one. “Woe” is a word of warning saying that one is falling under the judgment and condemnation of God. Because of the grievous rebellion and spiritual anarchy of idolatry, no one who trusts in idols can expect to find salvation and acceptance before the God who commands us to trust in Him alone. As the original NIV translates Jonah 2:8, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” The lifeless idol has condemned the one who trusted in it.
Now that we understand the severity of idolatry, and the reasons why the idol is of no profit, we need to go on a search and destroy mission to identify and uproot the idols in our lives. The overt forms of idolatry are obvious. We know that graven images, be they statues, pictures, “good luck charms,” magical objects, etc. are not to be trusted, worshiped, or served. And few of us here today would knowingly do so. But we are all prone to fall prey to life’s more subtle forms of idolatry. To discover, there are texts and there are tests.

The texts are found in the New Testament. For example in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of human beings in whom the Corinthian Christians have placed far too much trust. The Corinthians are saying to one another, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ” (1:12). Paul says, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). Friends, whether it is a favorite pastor or preacher (as was the case with the Corinthians), or a loved one such as a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, or dear friend, we must see to it that our devotion and affection to that one does not rival the affection and devotion of which only God-in-Christ is worthy. I cannot save you, but I can point you to the Savior who can. It is Christ and Him alone. Your parents or grandparents may have been great Christians, and by their faith in Christ, they will be saved. But by their faith in Christ, you cannot be saved. You must have your own!

Another text is Philippians 3:19, where Paul denounces those “whose god is their appetite.” I prefer the King James here, which says that their god “is their belly.” I always like to bring this one up as we get closer to lunchtime to make the people who are squirming with anticipation of getting out of church quickly feel awkward. I say that tongue in cheek, but it does illustrate Paul’s point. He is not talking about eating exclusively, but the sensate desires of our lives. He is speaking of the one whose life has become consumed with satisfying those desires of his natural flesh, be they food or drink, companionship, pleasure, possessions, etc. If one would disobey the word and will of God to satisfy a desire in one’s life, then that desire has become an idol. A related text is Colossians 3:5, in which Paul says that greed (or covetousness) “amounts to idolatry.” The thing which I want so badly that I would turn away from God in order to possess it is my idol. If I attain it, it will not satisfy me ultimately because it cannot. That desire is in my life to train me that true satisfaction cannot be found in earthly things, but in relationship with God alone.

So there are these texts which help us identify our idols, and then there is a series of practical tests.

(1) The Test of Devotion – What is it that you love more than anything else in life?
(2) The Test of Dependence – In whom, or in what, do you ultimately trust? That is, what or whom do you trust to carry you through life and death, to deliver you from trouble both now and in eternity? To whom or to what do you turn when trouble arises?
(3) The Test of Delight – What gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction?
(4) The Test of Decision – When there is an important decision to make, what or who guides you?
(5) The Test of Desire – What is it that you long for more than anything, the thing of which you would say, “If I only had that, my life would be complete”?
(6) The Test of Disaster – What are you most afraid of losing in your life? What is it which, if destroyed, would make you feel that life was no longer worth living?
(7) The Test of Destiny – Supposing that you had the assurance of life everlasting in heaven, what is it that you most look forward to once you are there? In other words, “If I cannot have ____________ in heaven, then I do not want to go.”[5]

Friends, if the answer to any of those questions is something other than God, then you have discovered your idol. God alone must be the object of our highest devotion, the ground of our foundational trust, and the source of our utmost satisfaction. He alone is a sure and certain guide through life’s difficulties and decisions. He alone can make our lives complete in a personal relationship with Him. He alone must be what we long for most of all in heaven. If heaven meant having anything and everything else besides Him, then it would not be heaven at all. To have heaven is to have Him, and to have Him is to know that we have heaven as well. And the best news is that if we have Him, we can never lose Him, nor will He lose us. If we have God and lose all else, then we have not lost anything. If we have everything and do not have God, then we will lose all either in life or death. 

In contrast to the idol which cannot speak, which cannot breathe or impart life, which only deceives and condemns the one who trusts in it, we have a God who is alive, who does speak, who is able to teach us truth, and who can save those who call upon Him. Thus the prophet says in verse 20, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.” Wiersbe says, “Instead of talking to a silent idol, we have a speaking God who tells us to be silent.”[6] Habakkuk understood that he was included in the summons to silence. All his speculations, all his questions and complaints, and even his repeated prayers to God about the troubles of his day must cease as he bows before the throne of heaven, from which God speaks with a voice that drowns out all others. Unlike the idols who have no life, breath, or spirit within them, God imparts to us His word, breathed out into the inspired pages of Scripture telling us to turn away from our idols and entrust ourselves to Him, to worship Him, and to serve Him. And this divine and eternal Word of God became one of us to die for our rebellious idolatry and receive in Himself all of the woes that are due to us in the condemnation of righteous judgment. In contrast to the idol who has no life, Jesus lived our life for us and laid His life down to save us. And where the idol is powerless to save anyone, Jesus is mighty to save everyone who turns away from vain idols and casts themselves upon His mercy. If you will silence yourself before Him, you can hear Him saying, “A righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 207.
[2] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 257.
[3] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 347.
[4] Peter C. Craigie, cited in Prior, 259.
[5] This list is adapted from Warren Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 92-93.
[6] Wiersbe, 93. 

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