Alfred Place Baptist Church

2:18-20 Can men’s idols give them guidance?

Habakkuk 2:18-20 “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

The Babylonians would have scorned this audacious taunt song sung by Jehovah. “What is all this nonsense . . . ‘The plunderers will be plundered’? ‘The exploiters will be exploited’? ‘The shedders of blood will have their blood shed’? ‘The disgracers of men will themselves be disgraced’? What’s all this about?” These Babylonians would mock the Lord God; “You are the God of an insignificant people who are terrified that our army any time it chooses is going to enter their land and take Jerusalem and march its people off to become our slaves in Babylon. You, their God, are an impotent failure of a protector, and you are mocking us? Who do you think you are? Our gods in Babylon are all powerful. None of the gods of the world can match them. We have taken the gold and silver from every single temple in every country in the world. We’ve plundered every nation and laid the treasures of their idols before our gods in the temples of Babylon, and Jehovah’s temple will be no different. There’s nothing you can do to prevent our soldiers conquering Jerusalem and stripping bare your temple too. Our gods reign, not you! Our gods reign!”

That is the background against which this final fifth stanza of the taunt song of Jehovah is to be set. It is the climax of the divine mockery. It is different from the first four stanzas in that it doesn’t start with the word ‘Woe!’ or ‘Ha!’ The appearance of that word is delayed by a single sentence. Rather, this stanza begins with a question, and the question introduces the theme of the final taunt; “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?” (v.18). Does an idol have any value whatsoever? That is how this last stanza begins and it commences thus for a number of reasons; there is a theological reason – the most foundational truth which underlies every thing else is this, there is one true and living God. It is introduced also for a moral reason – all the wickedness Habakkuk has described – drunkenness, nakedness, theft, extortion, murder, violence, cruelty to animals and the like – is all the fruit of idolatry. What good is an idol carved by man if the end result is behaviour like this? Again, this last stanza is introduced with this question for a literary reason – this verse is different for the sake of a variety of form and literary interest, to prevent your attention being dulled and announcing, “Pay heed now! This stanza is the climax.” In fact Habakkuk’s whole prophecy is filled with similar fine literary devices like alliteration and poetic parallelism to catch our attention; it’s never boring. When Habakkuk was called to become a prophet he was determined to dedicate his written talents to the Lord; “Take my aesthetic sense! Take my love of language! Take my skill with words! Take my stylus and my clay tablets! I yield my creativity to you!” God used every part of Habakkuk’s gifts to spread his word. So the climax of the taunt song of chapter two is this declaration that there is only one God, and he lives in his holy temple. Let the Babylonian babblers be silent before him. What gods, or combination of all the gods of Babylon can prevent Jehovah outworking his righteous purposes?

1. IDOLS ARE UTTERLY VALUELESS.

What is an idol? Where does an idol come from? Habakkuk gives three alliterative Hebrew puns in his reply in verse eighteen, all dedicated to underlining the helplessness of idols, ‘carving of its own carver, a design of its own designer,’ and ‘a non-speaking nonentity.’ Let’s turn to Isaiah chapter forty-four and read there the greatest mockery of idolatry to be found anywhere in literature. Remember it by this defiant chant, “Isaiah forty four; Isaiah goes to war against the idols.”

In verses nine to twenty we read these words, “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing? He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy. The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god.’ They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see, and their minds closed so that they cannot understand. No-one stops to think, no-one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’

What are Isaiah and Habakkuk saying? “You are men and women made in the image of God, and you are looking for help in idols that you people have made with your hands? You are seeking strength above and beyond yourself in something which your own wit and skills have made? How utterly inconsistent! What greater resources are hidden in that idol made of wood and metal that you don’t already possess in your own life? How can it be more powerful than you? You possess far more than that idol. You actually made this horrible image; it is your carving and your design, and so you are far greater than it. You are deluding yourself by saying that it is divine. You have carved its mouth and tongue, but it’s still dumb. You have carved its head, but still it can’t think. You have given it legs, but still it never budges from that spot. You are actually telling other people, ‘Put your trust in this idol that I have made. Plead with this idol of my making to help you.’ When you get good health you have the audacity to solemnly tell people that it’s all because of the power of the idol. How do you know? When you get bad health you run to the idol with money and sacrifices to make it propitious towards you.” That is what God is saying in Habakkuk.

Idolatry is utterly ridiculous. It is the single greatest proof that man, who is made in the image of God, is unchangeably religious, but fallen! The whole Babylonian empire was trusting in speechless, immobile nonentities that had been made by Bob the builder and Clive the carver and Mick the metal worker who’d meet many a night after work down the pub. They made them, and they worshipped them with all the others in Babylon. You walk down a certain street in centre city Babylon and there’s a temple. When you enter and peer through the gloom you see a hideous idol, an altar erected in front of it and an army of priests and priestesses busying themselves cutting the throats of sheep and goats. There are hosts of worshippers in the gloom; some are sick people, one may be paralyzed, carried to lie before the idol by his friends. Some are in the last stages of cancer, and all are bringing gifts and offerings to the idol. There is a long line of others, sick children, blind and lame, waiting their turn to get to the altar. Your heart breaks at the sight as you leave that place of despair and deceit, but then you stroll along to the next street and you discover another temple with another idol and hundreds of people waiting to sacrifice to it, and pour out their troubles to its priests. How is that idol going to intervene? Then in the next block and in the next also there are more and more temples and idols and worshippers. These days they are all boosted in their claims to be all powerful through the success of the Babylonian army. You even see entering those temples foreigners who’ve traveled far from other countries for healing. The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone. Can you see why the living God here in our text taunts the idol manufacturer and the priests, “Ha! Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” (v.19)?

They say that ballet dancers who are covered with gold paint for special routines have to leave areas of their skin unpainted in order that some of the skin might breathe, and the ballet dancers must speedily wash off the gold when the routine is over. Keep the gold paint on and it will kill you. But you can cover an idol permanently from head to toe with gold and silver; it is no threat to the idol’s well being because all it is is a lifeless stone painted over, and nothing more at all. You can command it, “Move to my home and help my sick father! Wake up and give me advice!” It has no breath to respond. It cannot give the simplest person some basic guidance. It cannot say, “Now, these are the great truths you must believe . . . This is how husbands should behave . . . Raise your children like this . . .” The question in our text is, ‘Can it give guidance?’ (v.19). There is one answer; ‘No!’ It cannot answer the simplest questions of the children’s catechism; ‘Who made me? What else did God make? Why did God make all things?’ A little three year old Christian girl can give better guidance as to the origin of the universe than an idol because an idol cannot speak. Who made me? God made me. What else did God make? God made all things. Why did God make all things? For his own glory. The most lavishly designed and diamond encrusted idol in India cannot provide an answer like that. The smallest child in the kingdom of God is wiser. All the claims of getting help from an idol are lies. “Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?”

Now, do you see how contemptible is the faith of many that every single religion of the world is just another road that eventually leads to the top of the same mountain? Do you understand our Christian exasperation at this? We are living in a relativistic age that wants to dismiss every kind of cult and religion as the crude attempts of men to do things to get to God. Idolatry is just an attempt to say, “This is how you get to God,” and so ignorant people drag Jesus Christ and faith in him down to the same level as idol worship. No! Christianity does not describe how we can get to God but how God in his grace has come to us. The one true and living God became incarnate in his Son Jesus Christ. Far from various religions all describing the same search for God, mankind’s religions are his greatest crimes.

2. THE LIVING GOD HAS A TEMPLE.

What does our text say? “But the LORD is in his holy temple.” (v.20). You would expect Habakkuk to say something to the effect that the living God has no need of a temple, but he doesn’t. God is in his holy temple today! Where is it? God’s holy temple can be found where? Where can we find the Lord? Let me remind you of what these words meant to Habakkuk. Solomon was allowed to build a temple to Jehovah, modeled on the tabernacle. There at its heart was God’s place, the Holy of Holies, a room which was a perfect cube separated by a veil or curtain from the Holy Place. Worshippers were permitted to come near to the temple and to gather outside the building in its large courts where the great altar was erected. They could come no nearer, ever. A rota of priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place day by day, but no nearer the Holy of Holies, ever. The High Priest alone, and just on one day a year, the Day of Atonement, only then, was permitted to pass through the veil to sprinkle some sacrificial blood on the ark of the covenant. The ark, made of wood but covered with gold, had a lid of solid gold. On either side of the lid were cherubim made out of gold, their wings spread over the mercy seat, the centre of the golden cover. There was no other image in the Holy of Holies. No figure had been carved as sitting on that seat. The Holy of Holies had an empty throne. No image could be placed there, not because there could be no image, for God had made man in his image, but because God had commanded Israel to make no image of him. Do not bow down in worship to any such image. That was the Lord’s place, in his holy temple.

Of course all the people of God knew very clearly that their mighty Creator couldn’t be contained within that building. That was an open secret. They didn’t think that in that little cube-shaped room the infinite God could be compressed – like a heavy atom of deity or like a mighty lion prowling up and down in frustration in a zoo’s cage. Can you gawk at God? No way! Their best men realised that. When Solomon came to open the temple he said, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). Amen! Yet when Solomon finished praying that prayer the Lord did come near to him; he appeared to king Solomon in a cloud of glory in the temple. Again, one day when the prophet Isaiah was worshipping in the temple he also knew a similar blessing; “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Is. 6:1). So there were times when God’s shekinah glory filled the place. It was a taste of heaven coming down to earth. But that sight of glory was a mere shaft of sunlight compared to the sun itself. The glory men saw in the temple was certainly wonderfully glorious, but it was the tiniest sample of God Almighty.

Then there followed the sad history of the decline of the old covenant people. They grew cold to God, but still imagining that because they had the temple in their midst they were protected, safe from being exiled. The temple became the nation’s lucky charm. They actually had a reassuring chant which went like this, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.” I wonder if their children played skipping games to that refrain? They were hollow words from a greedy, oppressive generation. They shed innocent blood, and walked after other gods, and yet clung to the temple of God. So the Lord permitted his house to be destroyed. There was no point to the symbol if there was no corresponding reality. One day the glory of the Lord walked out of the temple. All that was left was the shell. You see, you can’t pin God down like a laboratory specimen.

Then, one day God kept his word, in the midst of aloof and godless people, the promised Messiah, Jehovah Jesus, arrived. How was that coming described? The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst men; in other words, the true temple of God was finally here. Not the sign or the type but the reality. Christians could say, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14 ESV). The divine glory seen by Solomon and Isaiah filling the temple again had appeared but now filling the man Christ Jesus; the Lord of glory had come. He is “the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person” (Hebs. 1:3). That empty seat of the throne of God in the Temple was actually reserved for Jesus Christ, and that is why there was such taunting mockery of idols. It came out of God’s jealous love of his only Son. “If you want to a sight of power and glory then look at my Son!” In Jesus we have the true temple. He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What was Jesus speaking of? Himself. He is the real temple of God; the dwelling in the flesh of God’s incarnate Son. Can God dwell in the midst of us unspectacular Welsh folk in our little town? Yes! In Christ we disciples have been made temples for the dwelling of Christ; the Lord is here in his holy temple at this very moment. He is here, I say, in the midst of the congregation as we gather in his name. God’s temple today is the fellowship of believers in Christ, gathered round the word of God, and living under its authority. That has become God’s dwelling place; the church is the body of Christ. Beyond all our understanding of what is happening here today is this; God is not only pouring out his love in our hearts but he is personally present with us in the Spirit. The Lord is in his holy temple. Welcome blessed Lord. How honoured we are to have your presence with us.

3. LET MEN BE SILENT BEFORE GOD.

One essential response to the wonder of God being here in this place in grace, is overwhelming silence: “Be still and know that I am God!” or as we read in our text, “let all the earth be silent before him” (v.20). This is not the silence of the absence of noise, it is the silence accomplished by reverence and godly fear. Think of that type of non-Christian who enjoys an argument, who can give you one reason after another why he doesn’t believe in the Lord. Such a man was Saul of Tarsus. Look at his energy and malice, hear him breathing out threatenings and slaughters against the Lord Jesus and his apostles: “I’ll get them! I’ll wipe out every last Christian before I die. Worthless heretics!” He was obsessed with destroying Jesus Christ. Then God met him on the road to Damascus and he was finally silenced. The loud mouth was dead and gone! All he could mutter were four words, “Who are you Lord?” Let all the earth be silent before God. Let your words be few in God’s presence. Understand that I am not saying that being silent is the only reaction to God drawing near to us, but it is one indispensable response, and all of you must find one place in your relationship with God where you go and you wait on God silently. Let me give you some examples of this;

i] Think for example of the price of our salvation. What did it cost the Lord in order for him to come today into our hearts and be in our midst each Lord’s Day? He had to wear a crown of thorns. You know the scene in Pilate’s hall, almost too sadly sacred to describe. Soldiers stripped him, scourged him, covered his lacerated back with a scarlet robe of mock royalty, and then they took a crown of the curse of thorns and thistles on fallen man in Eden, the insignia of our sins, and they proceeded to a coronation. This was the holy Jesus, the temple of God, the eternal Word made flesh, your Lord and God, and the very thing that God had planted as a curse as a sign of rebellion – a thorn bush – they planted on his brow as a crown.

There is no plainer picture of substitutionary atonement anywhere in Holy Scripture than that. He was being made that curse for us, and he took it willingly. That cursed crown was thrust upon him without any tenderness or gentleness – quite the reverse. The crown of thorns was thrust down on his head at his coronation. He was born a King and entitled to the most glorious crown that heaven could design, but sinners crowned him with thorns. Cursed men, who needed his salvation, placed the sign of the curse on his head and Jesus didn’t draw back. He could have smitten every soldier standing in the praetorium. He could have cleft in twain the pavement in Pilate’s judgment hall and cast them all into a pit as he’d done to Korah and Dathan and Abiram centuries earlier. But no, he bears it willingly; he bears with man’s sin so patiently; he bears meekly all that misery. A crown of agony on his head; a forest of briars in his heart, my sin and your sin. How amazing, that he could have loved me so much, to wear the crown for me – “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?” What can I say when I survey the wondrous crown of thorns? I bow in wonder and I am silent before him.

ii] Think again of the cost of your regeneration. That same Lord has come to live within me. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, and yet not I Christ lives within me – so Paul tells the Galatians (Gals. 2:20). As John Murray said, you don’t normally go to the aristocracy to get your dirty jobs done. You discover you have a blocked sewer pipe and a lot of unpleasant rodding has to be done to clear it, to get everything flowing again. You don’t call Buckingham Palace and ask if the Queen or one of the royal princes would come to your house to unblock your drains. You understand, there is no dishonour in having to do dirty jobs, to operate a sewerage farm, to clean the drains, to sweep the streets, to gather the rubbish. These are honourable jobs to be done to God’s glory, but you don’t usually get men to unblock your drains from the aristocracy. You usually get them from people in humble walks of life. However, the dirtiest job in the world is done by the most exalted persons, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They come into your very heart and into mine, into these hearts of ours which are like running sewers of defilement, the Son and the Spirit come and they remove every atom of filth. As Joseph Hart says,

“‘Tis Thine to cleanse the heart,
To sanctify the soul.
To pour fresh life in every part,
And new create the whole.”      (Joseph Hart 1712-68).

They condescend to dwell in our hearts all the days of our lives, to make our lives their temple. Oh what love! What can we say to this, that God should cleanse our hearts so completely that he should take up his permanent abode delightedly within us? What words are adequate for the grace that assures us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. You will never cease to be my holy temple.” Christ in me, the hope of glory! What love! We are lost before God’s amazing grace to us. We have nothing to say. The words “Thank you,” sound so inadequate.

iii] Think again of the mystery of providence. Perhaps you can remember how you once behaved as an unbeliever when bad things happened, loudly protesting about it? Maybe you’ve observed this behaviour in other people who are not Christians and who’ve had some bitter experiences in life. They grumbled, “How can you believe in a God who lets people die terrible deaths, on the road, in Afghanistan, by abductors and murderers . . .” and they fume on, attacking God and challenging anyone to believe in such a God. Be silent! Let all this sinful earth keep silent! Know this, that God is just, and that person who is fulminating such hatred also knows that God is righteous. There never was such a thing as an innocent infant. There are innocent children comparatively speaking, but not absolutely speaking. There was only one child who was absolutely innocent, and that was Christ Jesus. He went through life without contracting any sin, and yet he wore the crown of thorns and he died nailed to a cross bearing the wrath of God towards our sins. The question is not, Has God failed to be just because in his providence he allowed a young child to run out into the traffic and be killed. There are questions far deeper than that and we insist you ask them first of all before you ask your own tremendously grievous question.

The greatest question is this: Was God being just when he sent his blameless, perfect, loving Son to Golgotha to die there? Why didn’t God rescue him? Why was there no deliverance? He had done no wrong at all, and yet God did not spare him from being crucified. The Christian is silent before the cross. His own heart is broken before Calvary. He knows that God is just, and that he is just in everything he does, and so the grieving Christian is silent before God at the grievous death of a child. The Christian gathers together all his faith and he says, “Whatever the reason for this grief the answer is not that God has failed to be just.” He says, “He can never wrong me nor mine in whatever he does,” and he quotes the words of Job confronting a similar situation; “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, bless be the name of the Lord.” The Christian is silent before the mystery of providence.

So we face the future as men and women who have been made temples of God, with a supernatural source of inward strength keeping us in every affliction. We are not to become plaintive about what may come into our lives; we are not to worry one little bit. We may lose everything in the world; we may be confronted by circumstances that are very hard to bear; we may lose our health; we may have periods of intense trial when we experience one trouble after another bursting into our lives. In all of this there will be a steady, gentle, suitable, inexhaustible energy seeping through to us by the indwelling Saviour. We will always possess this inward witness that tells us he loves us deeply, that he doesn’t mind at all helping us like this, moment by moment, whatever the circumstances. You have mislaid something trivial, but needed, and you are searching for it without success and you are saying, “Help me Lord!” You feel it is like calling the chief superintendent at Scotland Yard in London to come down and help you find your hearing aid, but Almighty God doesn’t hesitate to help us in the trivia of life. Nothing is too small for him, and nothing, of course, too great. Of course he helps us when the worst days come. Job never lost his grip of the fact that God was with him.

What do you want for the future if you could choose? The indwelling presence of God, or good health? I am saying that you must choose, and what is more important to you? Is it your health or is it Christ in you? Who is better off, the man dying of cancer who has Christ or the healthy wealthy man without God? Which would you rather be? If the choice lay with you, would you rather be in hospital today dying of a malignant growth and knowing that there was no hope for you but sure that your body was the temple of God, or would you rather be a man in good health with all his outward life prospering, but utterly destitute of God’s presence? You must choose. Won’t you say, “There’s no choice. If I have the presence of God I can live and die as I should”?

If your body is God’s temple then you are safe when temptations come. You will have power in conflict with sin through the Lord’s presence. Think of Samson and how strong he was to deal with certain restrictions and bindings his enemies put on him. Samson destroyed them as if they were cotton. He still retained his hair, that outward mark that God was with him. Then later, when his hair was shorn and they bound him with ropes, then he was feeble because God had departed from him. He was just like the rest; a slave and a weakling. So it is with you, you can do all things only through the indwelling Christ strengthening you. You can climb every mountain, ford every river, bear any burden, overcome any temptation, pass through every trial – all through your limitless access to the indwelling Saviour. Those twin towers in New York were tremendous statements of man’s skill and wealth. Who would ever think that they could be destroyed so quickly and completely? The arm of man’s strength fails again and again, but your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. It will last as long as God himself.

When death itself comes God will not fail you. William Carey was dying in Serampore and his friends gathered around his bed to thank and honour him. His life and achievements had blessed many, but he cut through their praise; “When I am gone say nothing about Dr. Carey but say much about Carey’s Saviour. On my tombstone write these words of Isaac Watts; ‘A guilty, weak and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall.’” Such are the men and women who are the temple of God; they enter eternity trusting wholly in everything Jesus is and says and has done.

I am a poor sinner and nothing at all.
Jesus Christ is my all in all.

25th November 2007   GEOFF THOMAS