If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that even though we try as we might to guard against idols within our hearts, there are still a few that sneak in through the back door. Whether we are aware of them or not, our hearts our perpetually conjuring up new things to steal away true worship of the one true God. Calvin’s well known-quote goes like this: “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Man’s nature has been like this since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve chose to make an idol out of knowledge. Israel’s history is basically the recycling story of Israel forgetting the God that had saved them from Egypt and turning to worthless wooden, stone, and golden images.
Surrounding Israel were the pagan nations who were idolatrous to their core. Babylon is a primary example and in Isaiah 46 we see the stark contrast between these false pagan gods who have no real power to save and the almighty God who saves to the uttermost. Look with me at Isaiah 46:1-4.
“Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. ‘Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” [Isaiah 46:1-4 ESV].
Bel and Nebo were two of Babylon’s gods. Bel stood at the top of the Babylonian pantheon, while Nebo was the god of writing and wisdom. Isaiah uses them within the context of the impending Babylonian captivity for Israel and the subsequent (albeit years later) invasion of Babylon by the Persians.
It was common practice for kings of nations facing impending invasion to evacuate their pantheon of gods along with the people (Motyer 368). Isaiah says that these gods “cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.” In other words, these gods are completely powerless to save those who rely on them and when trouble comes, they are carried away into captivity right along with their worshippers (Oswalt, NIC 229).
These worthless gods are contrasted with the God of Israel. The Lord Himself says that, unlike the idols who must be borne and carried by beasts, God has borne Israel from her birth and carried her from the womb (v. 3). Motyer in his commentary on Isaiah says that, “In verse 1 the gods were ‘loaded up’ on the beasts, who groaned under their weight; here the people are loaded on their God, who accepts the burden" (Prophecy 369).
What a contrast! The God Israel served was not a burden, but a burden carrier. He was truly mighty to save and was not dependent on His worshippers. Instead, His worshippers were dependent on Him.
What is the point of all this, though? What is God trying to get the Israelites to understand? I think the answer is in verse 7 when God asks, “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?” [ESV]
God is essentially asking the Israelites if they have the audacity to compare Him to worthless idols that have to be carried out of harm’s way by their worshippers. Are the Israelites really stooping to that level, that they are comparing the eternal One to things made out of the creation itself? How absurd!
But before you scoff at the foolishness of the Israelites, take a moment to evaluate your own life. What are the idols lurking in the depths of your heart? What are you trying to make carry your needs, or your wants, or your struggles? What are you piling onto worthless idols, who have no power to carry but rather must be carried themselves?
Are you trying to find meaning in your job, putting in long hours and neglecting other aspects of your life? Are you attempting to find satisfaction through sex, spending untold amounts of time surfing the web or swiping right? Or maybe your idolatry takes more subtle forms and you would rather debate the finer points of theological issues than meditate on God and His Word; you would rather philosophize about God than experience intimacy with God.
The point is, deep down all of us have idols that we try to make carry weight they are inherently unable to carry. I think John N. Oswalt put it well when he said, “We need them for what they do for us, but the burdens they impose on us are devastatingly heavy. Instead of our using them, they use us, and the results are all around us” (Oswalt, Application 524-525).
Take time today to evaluate the idols in your heart and cast them down, opting instead to rely on the God who has carried you since birth and declares triumphantly, "I will carry and will save." [ESV] Only He can bear the weight of your burdens, only He has the power to save, and only He can satisfy the deepest longings of your idol-prone heart.
I hope this passage challenged you as much as it challenged me! If you have questions or comments, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter! And don't forget to hit that subscribe button below, you'll receive posts like this one right in your inbox!
NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah, John N. Oswalt
New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, John N. Oswalt
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, J. Alec Motyer