Often before, God, by the prophet, had mentioned the folly and strange sottishness of idolaters; but here he enlarges upon that head, and very fully and particularly exposes them to contempt and ridicule. This discourse is intended, 1. To arm the people of Israel against the strong temptation they would be in to worship idols when they were captives in Babylon, in compliance with the custom of the country (they being far from the city of their own solemnities) and to humour those who were now their lords and masters. 2. To cure them of their inclination to idolatry, which was the sin that did most easily beset them and to reform them from which they were sent into Babylon. As the rod of God is of use to enforce the word, so the word of God is of use to explain the rod, that the voice of both together may be heard and answered. 3. To furnish them with something to say to their Chaldean task-masters. When they insulted over them, when they asked, Where is your God? they might hence ask them, What are your gods? 4. To take off their fear of the gods of their enemies, and to encourage their hope in their own God that he would certainly appear against those who set up such scandalous competitors as these with him for the throne.
Now here, for the conviction of idolaters, we have,
I. A challenge given to them to clear themselves, if they can, from the imputation of the most shameful folly and senselessness imaginable, Isa. 44:9-11. They set their wits on work to contrive, and their hands on work to frame, graven images, and they call them their delectable things; extremely fond they are of them, and mighty things they expect from them. Note, Through the corruption of men’s nature, those things that should be detestable to them are desirable and delectable; but those are far gone in a distemper to whom that which is the food and fuel of it is most agreeable. Now, 1. We tell them that those that do so are all vanity; they deceive themselves and one another, and put a great cheat upon those for whom they make these images. 2. We tell them that their delectable things shall not profit them, nor make them any return for the pleasure they take in them; they can neither supply them with good nor protect them from evil. The graven images are profitable for nothing at all, nor will they ever get any thing by the devoirs they pay to them. 3. We appeal to themselves whether it be not a silly sottish thing to expect any good from gods of their own making: They are their own witnesses, witnesses against themselves, if they would but give their own consciences leave to deal faithfully with them, that they are blind and ignorant in doing thus. They see not nor know, and let them own it, that they may be ashamed. If men would but be true to their own convictions, ordinarily we might be sure of their conversion, particularly idolaters; for who has formed a god? Who but a mad-man, or one out of his wits, would think of forming a god, of making that which, if he make it a god, he must suppose to be his maker? 4. We challenge them to plead their own cause with any confidence or assurance. If any one has the front to say that he has formed a god, when all his fellows come together to declare what each of them has done towards the making of this god, they will all be ashamed of the cheat they have put upon themselves, and laugh in their sleeves at those whom they have imposed upon; for the workmen that formed this god are of men, weak and impotent, and therefore cannot possibly make a being that shall be omnipotent, nor can they without blushing pretend to do so. Let them all be gathered together, as Demetrius and the craftsmen were, to support their sinking trade; let them stand up to plead their own cause, and make the best they can of it, with hand joined in hand; yet they shall fear to undertake it when it comes to the setting to, as conscious to themselves of the weakness and badness of their cause, and they shall be ashamed of it, not only when they appear singly, but when by appearing together they hope to keep one another in countenance. Note, Idolatry and impiety are things which men may justly both tremble and blush to appear in the defence of.
II. A particular narrative of the whole proceeding in making a god; and there needs no more to expose it than to describe it and tell the story of it.
1. The persons employed about it are handicraft tradesmen, the meanest of them, the very same that you would employ in making the common utensils of your husbandry, a cart or a plough. You must have a smith, a blacksmith, who with the tongs works in the coals; and it is hard work, for he works with the strength of his arms, till he is hungry and his strength fails, so eager is he, and so hasty are those who set him at the work to get it despatched. He cannot allow himself time to eat or drink, for he drinks no water, and therefore is faint, Isa. 44:12. Perhaps it was a piece of superstition among them for the workman not to eat or drink while he was making a god. The plates with which the smith was to cover the image, or whatever iron-work was to be done about it, he fashioned with hammers, and made it all very exact, according to the model given him. Then comes the carpenter, and he takes as much care and pains about the timber-work, Isa. 44:13. He brings his box of tools, for he has occasion for them all: He stretches out his rule upon the piece of wood, marks it with a line, where it must be sawed or cut of; he fits it, or polishes it, with planes, the greater first and then the less; he marks out with the compasses what must be the size and shape of it; and it is just what he pleases.
2. The form in which it is made is that of a man, a poor, weak, dying creature; but it is the noblest form and figure that he is acquainted with, and, being his own, he has a peculiar fondness for it and is willing to put all the reputation he can upon it. He makes it according to the beauty of a man, in comely proportion, with those limbs and lineaments that are the beauty of a man, but are altogether unfit to represent the beauty of the Lord. God put a great honour upon man when, in respect of the powers and faculties of his souls, he made him after the image of God; but man does a great dishonour to God when he makes him, in respect of bodily parts and members, after the image of man. Nor will it at all atone for the affront so far to compliment his god as to take the fairest of the children of men for his original whence to take his copy, and to give him all the beauty of a man that he can think of; for all the beauty of the body of a man, when pretended to be put upon him who is an infinite Spirit, is a deformity and diminution to him. And, when the goodly piece is finished, it must remain in the house, in the temple or shrine prepared for it, or perhaps in the dwelling house if it be one of the lares or penates—the household gods.
3. The matter of which it is mostly made is sorry stuff to make a god of; it is the stock of a tree.
(1.) The tree itself was fetched out of the forest, where it grew among other trees, of no more virtue or value than its neighbours. It was a cedar, it may be, or a cypress, or an oak, Isa. 44:14. Perhaps he had an eye upon it some time before for this use, and strengthened it for himself, used some art or other to make it stronger and better-grown than other trees were. Or, as some read it, which hath strengthened or lifted up itself among the trees of the forest, the tallest and strongest he can pick out. Or, it may be, it pleases his fancy better to take an ash, which is of a quicker growth, and which was of his own planting for this use, and which has been nourished with rain from heaven. See what a fallacy he puts upon himself, in making that his refuge which was of his own planting, and which he not only gave the form to, but prepared the matter for; and what an affront he puts upon the God of heaven in setting up that a rival with him which was nourished by his rain, that rain which falls upon the just and unjust.
(2.) The boughs of this tree were good for nothing but for fuel; to that use were they put, and so were the chips that were cut off from it in the working of it; they are for a man to burn, Isa. 44:15, 16. To show that that tree has no innate virtue in it for its own protection, it is as capable of being burnt as any other tree; and, to show that he who chose it had no more antecedent value for it than for any other tree, he makes no difficulty of throwing part of it into the fire as common rubbish, asking no question for conscience’ sake. [1.] It serves him for his parlour-fire: He will take thereof and warm himself (Isa. 44:15), and he finds the comfort of it, and is so far from having any regret in his mind for it that he saith, Aha! I am warm; I have seen the fire; and certainly that part of the tree which served him for fuel, the use for which God and nature designed it, does him a much greater kindness and yields him more satisfaction than ever that will which he makes a god of. [2.] It serves him for his kitchen-fire: He eats flesh with it, that is, he dresses the flesh with it which he is to eat; he roasteth roa 720f st, and is satisfied that he has not done amiss to put it to this use. Nay, [3.] It serves him to heat the oven with, in which we use that fuel which is of least value: He kindles it and bakes bread with the heat of it, and none charges him with doing wrong.
(3.) Yet, after all, the stock or body of the tree shall serve to make a god of, when it might as well have served to make a bench, as one of themselves, even a poet of their own, upbraids them, Horat. Sat. 1.8:
Olim truncus eram ficulnus, inutile lignum, Quum faber, incertus scamnum faceretne Priapum, Maluit esse deum; deus inde ego—
In days of yore our godship stood A very worthless log of wood, The joiner, doubting or to shape us Into a stool or a Priapus, At length resolved, for reasons wise, Into a god to bid me rise.—FRANCIS.
And another of them threatens the idol to whom he had committed the custody of his woods that, if he did not preserve them to be fuel for his fire, he should himself be made use of for that purpose:
Furaces moneo manus repellas, Et silvam domini focis reserves, Si defecerit haec, et ipse lignum es.
Drive the plunderers away, and preserve the wood for thy master’s hearth, or thou thyself shalt be converted into fuel.—MARTIAL.
When the besotted idolater has thus served the meanest purposes with part of his tree, and the rest has had time to season (he makes that a god in his imagination while that is in the doing, and worships it): He makes it a graven image, and falls down thereto (Isa. 44:15), that is (Isa. 44:17), The residue thereof he makes a god, even his graven image, according to his fancy and intention; he falls down to it, and worships it, gives divine honours to it, prostrates himself before it in the most humble reverent posture, as a servant, as a suppliant; he prays to it, as having a dependence upon it, and great expectations from it; he saith, Deliver me, for thou art my god. There where he pays his homage and allegiance he justly looks for protection and deliverance. What a strange infatuation is this, to expect help from gods that cannot help themselves! But it is this praying to them that makes them gods, not what the smith or the carpenter did to them. What we place our confidence in for deliverance that we make a god of.
Qui fingit sacros, auro vel marmore, vultus Non facit ille deos; qui rogat, ille facit.
He who supplicates the figure, whether it be of gold or of marble, makes it a god, and not he who merely constructs it.—MARTIAL.
III. Here is judgment given upon this whole matter, Isa. 44:18-20. In short, it is the effect and evidence of the greatest stupidity and sottishness that one could ever imagine rational beings to be guilty of, and shows that man has become worse than the beasts that perish; for they act according to the dictates of sense, but man acts not according to the dictates of reason (Isa. 44:18): They have not known nor understood common sense; men that act rationally in other things in this act most absurdly. Though they have some knowledge and understanding, yet they are strangers to, nay, they are rebels against the great law of consideration (Isa. 44:12): None considers in his heart, nor has so much application of mind as to reason thus with himself, which one would think he might easily do, though there were none to reason with him: “I have burnt part of this tree in the fire, for baking and roasting; and now shall I make the residue thereof an abomination?” (that is, an idol, for that is an abomination to God and all wise and good men); “shall I ungratefully choose to do, or presumptuously dare to do, what the Lord hates? shall I be such a fool as to fall down to the stock of a tree—a senseless, lifeless, helpless thing? shall I so far disparage myself, and make myself like that I bow down to?” A growing tree may be a beautiful stately thing, but the stock of a tree has lost its glory, and he has lost his that gives glory to it. Upon the whole, the sad character given of these idolaters is, 1. That they put a cheat upon themselves (Isa. 44:20): They feed on ashes; they feed themselves with hopes of advantage by worshipping these idols, but they will be disappointed as much as a man that would expect nourishment by feeding on ashes. Feeding on ashes is an evidence of a depraved appetite and a distempered body; and it is a sign that the soul is overpowered by very bad habits when men, in their worship, go no further than the sight of their eyes will carry them. They are wretchedly deluded, and it is their own fault: A deceived heart of their own, more than the deceiving tongue of others, has turned them aside from the faith and worship of the living God to dumb idols. They are drawn away of their own lusts and enticed. The apostasy of sinners from God is owing entirely to themselves and to the evil heart of unbelief that is in their own bosom. A revolting and rebellious heart is a deceived heart. 2. That they wilfully persist in their self-delusion and will not be undeceived. There is none of them that can be persuaded so far to suspect himself as to say, Isa. there not a lie in my right hand? and so to think of delivering his soul. Note, (1.) Idolaters have a lie in their right hand; for an idol is a lie, is not what it pretends, performs not what it promises, and it is a teacher of lies, Hab. 2:18. (2.) It highly concerns those that are secure in an evil way seriously to consider whether there be not a lie in their right hand. Isa. not that a lie which with complacency we hold fast as our chief good? Are our hearts set upon the wealth of the world and the pleasures of sense? They will certainly prove a lie in our right hand. And is not that a lie which with confidence we hold fast by, as the ground on which we build our hopes for heaven? If we trust to our external professions and performances, as if those would save us, we deceive ourselves with a lie in our right hand, with a house built on the sand. (3.) Self-suspicion is the first step towards self-deliverance. We cannot be faithful to ourselves unless we are jealous of ourselves. He that would deliver his soul must begin with putting this question to his own conscience. Isa. there not a lie in my right hand? (4.) Those that are given up to believe in a lie are under the power of strong delusions, which it is hard to get clear of, 2 Thess. 2:11.