The gods we make vs. the God we need.
Showing how the religion of idol gods is a religion of soot and stupidity from Isaiah 44.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
The renowned Genevan reformer John Calvin, in his magnum opus The Institutes of the Christian Religion, famously quips that the heart and mind of man is “a perpetual forge of idols.”1 That remark has often been translated as an “idol factory,” one that operates 24/7, with mankind “forging idols at will.”2 The products this heart factory churns out are nothing but “molten gods,” which are supposed to serve as sources of hope, meaning, and significance. It is a sobering portrait of mankind’s fallenness, to be sure, one which sees rebellious man acting as both foreman and line-worker in an “idol factory” that never closes its doors. But as staggering as that image is, it did not originate with Calvin during the Reformation. Instead, it is the Old Testament prophet Isaiah who offers up such devastating albeit inspired imagery, who in a span of ten verses in the forty-fourth chapter of his oracle proceeds to expose Israel’s pathetically idolatrous hearts in one of the sharpest and most sardonic prophetic diatribes in all of Scripture.
I call the passage in question “The Parable of the Blacksmith and the Carpenter” (Isa. 44:9–20), seeing as the prophet uses such craftsmen to illustrate the “vanity,” folly, and utter worthlessness of idol worship. Verse 9 serves as his thesis. “They that make a graven image,” he declares, “are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed.” We might render his words: “Everyone who makes ‘a graven image’ are worthless forgers forging worthless things.” Notwithstanding how precious these images are, they “shall not profit.” They’re empty, lifeless, inferior imitations of the One True God. And those who worship before them are a company of fools who attest to their own madness by bowing before manufactured deities (Isa. 44:10–11). Such is Isaiah’s estimation of God’s chosen people. Despite Jehovah’s providential blessings, the Israelites had given themselves over to “idol factories,” falling prostrate before puny little “graven images” rather than the King of kings.
To further articulate the gravity of Israel’s shameful idolatry, Isaiah alludes to a blacksmith and a carpenter, who by sheer force of will make for themselves “graven images” before whom they fall prostrate in worship. The blacksmith is seen hard at work, exerting every ounce of the “strength of his arms” (Isa. 44:12) in order to craft a god of his own. With “tongs” and “coals” and “hammers,” and his own blood, sweat, and tears, he fashions liquid metal into a “graven image” to suit his fancy. He is drenched in the evidence of his effort. He is covered in the grime of his own glory as he exhausts himself in the endeavor of forging his own “delectable thing” to serve as his god. In his pride, he sets out to fashion an icon of strength and superiority. Yet, as he does so, his strength fails — he faints and falls victim to his own limits. This, I believe, is a token of our creaturely limitations, with every trophy of our craftsmanship bearing the same limits of our finitude. It is the height of foolishness, therefore, to assume that we who are finite can forge something infinite.
And yet, we are just like this blacksmith, expending untold amounts of energy and effort making “molten gods” we believe will bring us fulfillment, peace, and purpose. Perhaps our idols are not iron statues sitting in the corners of our homes, but maybe they’re the metal devices we carry in our pockets, or the green pieces of paper we live for, or the rungs of success we incessantly climb. Even still, our efforts are “vanity.” We still end up hungry and thirsty and weary. And we never learn, do we? As soon as we’ve fashioned an idol god, and found it lacking, we set out to fashion another. If this doesn’t fill us, that surely will.3 The assembly line never stops. Just as the blacksmith is, ultimately, never able to forge what he’s looking for, so our efforts at fashioning something lasting, something filling are as good as trying to fill a bucket of water with a sieve.
But if that’s not enough to stir the heart of Israel back to the right worship of Yahweh, Isaiah offers up another illustration in the form of the carpenter (Isa. 44:13–20). In this extended metaphor, we are given a detailed account of a woodworker’s meticulous care in making a “graven image” for himself. He is seen measuring and marking and checking every minute detail, planning everything, down to the smallest cut. Happy with his design, he ventures out to hew the necessary timber to construct his idol god (Isa. 44:14). And here’s where the carpenter’s ridiculous logic is fully displayed. Out of his collected beams, he uses some as firewood, in order to warm, nourish, and satisfy himself (Isa. 44:15–16). Then, with the “residue,” the leftovers, he whittles a god. The point is clear: same forest, same wood, with some used as kindling and some petitioned to give his soul deliverance (Isa. 44:17–19). The elements did not change. In both instances, it is the same lifeless, hopeless hunk of wood which is worshiped.
These polemical parables demonstrate the depths of mankind’s depravity, delusion, and deception. Rather than find his truest delight in the One True God, the heart of man “feeds on ashes” (Isa. 44:20). Sin, you see, bamboozles the heart to prefer that which cannot nourish or fulfill. The religion of idol gods is a religion of soot and stupidity. Like the carpenter, our gods are nothing but ash. We fall before them, paying homage to idols that are supposed to bring peace and satisfaction. But ashes cannot be made palatable, let alone profitable. Ash is still just ash, no matter what you do with it. And the tragedy is that we are often okay with that. As the ever-trenchant C. S. Lewis asserts in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”4
Ours is a world that is fraught with burning zeal after the divine but without any of its substance. Having been separated from our Maker, our eternal Provider, by a breach of our own choosing, we still yet thirst and hunger for something eternal, something everlasting. For all of mankind’s profundity and reason and logic and intellect, he is no more capable of giving himself or making for himself the meaning he so desperately craves than ash is to provide nourishment to the parched and hungry. The idols which man’s heart continually fabricates are shoddy stand-ins for the One True God, residual evidence that we were made by and for Someone else’s glory (Acts 17:24–25). “The human mind,” Calvin attests in his Institutes, “stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to image a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dulness, nay, is sunk in the grossness of ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God.”5 Nothing we manufacture or manage can offer us the transcendence we so desperately crave. All we can do is create objects that sit in the corner, “remain in the house” (Isa. 44:13), and collect dust.
Like the blacksmith and the carpenter, we are “too easily pleased” with the gods we make. We are happy with the ash and the mud that we play with and worship. We are, it seems, content in our delusion. And yet, all the while, the One True God, the Lord Jehovah, has put a better offer on the table. Whereas Lewis likens it to an all-expenses-paid vacation at a house by the sea, Isaiah compares it to the consummate transforming of the desert into an oasis. “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty,” the Lord declares through his prophet, “and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water courses” (Isa. 44:3–4). Even though Israel is enduring exilic judgment via the oppressive rule of Babylon (Isa. 43:27–28), they are still his, and he is still theirs (Isa. 44:1–2).
The same God who allows his people to undergo this season of judgment is the same God who assures them of ultimate deliverance and restoration. The One who “made” them and “formed” them and “chose” them is the same One who promises them abundant blessing, chief of which is exemplified in his blotting out of his people’s sins (Isa. 44:22). All of Israel’s transgressions and tragic idol rebellions would be erased, like a wisp of cloud is dissipated in the wind. God’s Word of promise imbues the Israelites with confidence, assuring them that upon their “return” they wouldn’t be greeted by some sort of grumpy grouse god. Rather, their return would be preceded by an accomplished redemption. “I have redeemed thee so return unto me,” the prophetic logic runs. And so it is with the rest of God’s Word, wherein the words of forgiveness forever precede warrants for repentance. The Lord’s appeal to his chosen people is, therefore, an invitation to fall into his open arms. Such is his posture toward us.
“The posture most natural to him,” writes Dane Ortlund, “is not a pointed finger but open arms.”6 Yes, even for idolatrous sell outs like you and me, God’s position has not changed. Even though we may have forgotten him, he never forgets us (Isa. 44:21). He waits with arms wide open for every blacksmith, carpenter, and every idol worshiper of all shapes and sizes to realize their folly and “return unto him.” He is the only Deliverer, the only Redeemer. The only God who is actually able to live up to his word. The only One who actually comes through on everything he ever says. He is “the King of Israel,” the “Lord of hosts,” the Alpha and Omega, the Lord Jehovah (Isa. 44:6–8). He is the God with no parallel, no equal. He is before all things and above all things, and by him are all things sustained. And yet, what are his words? “Fear not” (Isa. 44:2, 8; cf. 41:10; 43:1–3). The One who by rights ought to make yellow-bellies of not just Israel but the entire world, says to us, “Do not fear. Your trembling, though understandable, is unnecessary. I am your God.” It is God’s predisposition towards self-disclosure and self-donation that gives defiant Israelites and depraved idol-factory-workers every reason to “return” and repent, knowing that when they turn around, they’ll be staring into the eyes of their Redeemer, who waits to welcome them home.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids, MI: AP&A, 1975), 1:11.45.
Calvin, Institutes, 1:11.45.
Which, as it turns out, is a good summation of the book of Ecclesiastes.
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 26.
Calvin, Institutes, 1:11.45.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 19.