|Humbling Proud Humility|
|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Monday, 01 November 2010 08:09|
In Isaiah 2:5-22, the prophet hearkens back to the gilded days of Solomon. It is a time of fullness, and Isaiah uses the verb “filled” four times in a few verses to reinforce the point (vv. 6-8). Judah is full from one end of the land to the other. It’s full to every point of the compass, to every border.
But the prosperity is only apparent. Divination, soothsaying (v. 6) and idols (v. 8) fill the land, and Yahweh regards even the signs of success as idols. When Isaiah first mentions silver and gold, he is talking about wealth. When he mentions them again later, they have become “idols of silver and idols of gold” (v. 20). Silver and gold can be formed into statues of Molech or Dagon or Baal, but even when the gold and silver in the form of money, it can be an idol. Judah worships the silver and gold, horses and chariots, just as surely as she worships Baals and Ashteroth (v. 7).
Far from being a sign of Yahweh’s presence and blessing, this fullness is the very reason why Yahweh has abandoned Judah (v. 6). The whole land is covered with a blanket of soothsayers, money, weapons, and idols. Wherever He tries to draw near, He finds another military base, another hoard of gold, another idol shrine. The land is so stuffed that there’s no room for Yahweh.
Yahweh has been squeezed out of Judah, but He’s coming back to humble the proud. This would come as a surprise to idolaters. Idolaters look humble. They bow down to idols. They abase themselves in the dust to their gods. But Yahweh regards idolaters as proud, lofty, haughty, self-exalted, lifted up (v. 11).
Yahweh regards idolatry as the exaltation of man, because idolaters bow before the products of human ingenuity and skill. Idols are “the work of their hands, that which their fingers have made” (v. 8). These idolaters don’t worship things that God’s fingers have made – sun, moon, stars (Psalm 8). They worship things of their own making, and in bowing before these human products they are bowing to man. They may look humble, but they are bowing to themselves. That’s why Isaiah ends end the passage with a warning about trusting man. The whole passage warns against trusting those men who look so humble but are in fact engaged in self-worship.
In response to Judah’s “humble” self-exaltation, Yahweh threatens to exalt Himself (vv. 11, 17). Yahweh is coming in splendor and majesty (vv. 10), and will outshine the splendor of the idols. Yahweh comes in light, and His light is a terror to everyone who wants to keep worshiping idols in secret. Yahweh comes to shake the earth, to make the earth shake terribly, and when He does, idolaters will run for cover (v. 21). Isaiah uses the same verb to describe the idolaters “bow” and the humility that Yahweh will impose: When Yahweh comes, everyone who “prostrates himself” will become “prostrate” before Yahweh.
When Yahweh comes, He lowers all high things (vv. 12-17). If men are high trees, cedars of Lebanon and oaks of Bashan, Yahweh will chop them down. If they are mountains and high hills – high places – then Yahweh will do some topographical reconstruction and make the high places into a plane. If proud men are towers and walls, He will topple them. Ships of Tarshish and the craft again represent human prowess and ingenuity, human creativity at its ancient best. A fleet of ships in the ancient world was like a fleet of supersonic fighter planes today. Ships tame the raging, chaotic seas, and testify to human dominion over the earth and waters. But Yahweh is against the ships of Tarshish, and He’s going to splinter them.
Above all, on the day that is coming, Yahweh is going to make the idols vanish. Men will cast away their idols into dark places, to the moles in the holes in the ground and into caves full of bats. The word “idol” throughout the passage means “empty thing” or “nothing.” And Yahweh is coming to make sure that the nothings are exposed as nothings. As He once humbled the idols of Egypt, as He once humbled the idols and the diviners of Philistia, so now He is coming in glory, splendor, terror to humiliate the idols of Judah, which has become a new Philistia, a new Egypt, a new Sodom. In the process, He will humble the people of Judah, who are Judah’s true objects of worship.
We don’t bow to statues anymore, but we still have our idols in plenty. Ours are more likely to be idols of money and military power, but our idols too reduce to an idolatry of man. Silver and gold are created by God, but in the form that they fill the land they are human products. They have to be mined by men, shaped and formed into fine jewelry and ornaments by men, coined by men. God made horses, but men broke them and trained them for war. Men made the wheel, and constructed chariots that could be used in war.
Money and military power are particularly seductive self-idols because they are genuinely powerful. Technology of any kind enables us to extend our will and our desires beyond what we are capable of by ourselves, and the power of contemporary military technology is especially awe-inspiring. Military personnel in the US can send drones – our own horses and chariots – over the Afghan border into Pakistan and drop bombs, without any Americans leaving the safety of his base. We can impose our national will on other nations, at great distances.
Money has enormous power too. Scripture recognizes that money can do many, many things. Money is protection, Solomon says in Ecclesiastes. Wealth is a fortress and tower, a strong city, a high wall, say the Proverbs. Wealth gains friends, and influences people and circumstances so that we can get what we want. Money enables us to shape the airy nothings of our imagination into solid objects. Money supplies our lacks, liberates us from place and employment and people. When people dream about being rich, they dream of the freedom to keep their own schedule and to do their own thing, answerable to nobody. Money is silver desire, coined freedom (as Dostoevsky called it).
When we trust in money and military power for our national security and prosperity, when we think our national health depends on the Dow or the Defense Budget, we are trusting in the works of our own hands, trusting ultimately in ourselves. But the Lord comes to us too, and when He does, He comes to cut down and cast down and tear down everything that is lofty. If we want genuine security and prosperity, true fullness, we have to abandon our proud idolatrous humility, and humble ourselves before the Living God, who exalts the humble.