Faith sees with the ears rather than the eyes. Last week we surveyed how this played out in the lives of Abraham and other Israelite heroes. This week we turn our attention to a point in Israel’s history when God’s people found the worship of gods they could see particularly tempting.
The Babylonian Captivity did not introduce Israel to idolatry. Quite the opposite–the exile in Babylon was God’s punishment for his people’s idolatry. Yet this 70-year “time out” took place in a land infested with idols. So as God prepares his people to return to the Promised Land, as recorded in Isaiah 40-66, the capstone of their rehabilitation is to address their bent toward idols head-on.
Let us take a moment to appreciate the task at hand. Isaiah must convince God’s people to keep their spiritual attention on Yahweh, the invisible, un-imaged God, rather than Baal, Nebo, Marduk, and all the other fantastically carved Babylonian deities. It is akin to telling a 9 year-old boy to close his eyes and think about heaven rather than read the comic books on the table. If we are honest, we face this challenge today when Jesus calls us to treasure spiritual riches over the stuff of earth.
God’s approach to his idolatrous people, then and now, is captured in a three-word command: “Behold your God!” followed by a series of images for them to behold. Isaiah portrays God as a strong, tender shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom. He imagines God’s hand holding water that no human could measure. Contrasted with God’s grandeur, the nations are dust incapable of registering on the scales (Isaiah 40:9-17).
In short, God speaks through his prophet to ignite the imagination of his people. By the time he circles back around to idols, the unseen-yet-vivid word of God has rendered seen-yet-unreal idols of Israel’s neighbors preposterous. “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol!” (Isaiah 40:18–19) The contempt is palpable as the Divinity exposes the foolish logic of worshiping what one constructs. Then he offers more visions of the Holy: the One who watches earth’s inhabitants like a boy observing grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, who reduces human rulers to nothing with the breath of his mouth, who names innumerable stars. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28).
God’s word to the exiles calls our idolatrous hearts to a rival vision of a greater glory. God refuses to be portrayed by an image. Yet he invites imaginative engagement of his greatness that transcends what any image could portray.
Our modern idols, in contrast, are not transcendent. They are exactly what they appear to be, often less. The attractive model, the nice home in the safe neighborhood, the new title on your business card are nothing more than what a glance at the surface suggests. If you, in some lustful state, look to them to fill a deeper need, you will be left with an empty bucket at a dry well. What you need is a God who will be to you a shepherd, a hand that holds infinite oceans, a being whose grandeur relativizes the power of your enemy, an uncreated Source who “gives power to the faint” (Isaiah 40:29).
As we live out the time of our exile in a culture littered with idols, let us be a people of unbounded vision of our eternal God. Let us fight the temptation to worship what we see with our eyes. As we daily listen to God’s word, may we be liberated from the constriction of seen idols and live great lives in pursuit of the God we see with our ears.