Idols are necessarily incapable. They can’t hear or walk or talk or do anything. They are made out of wood, stone, metal, or some other earthly material. They are dead objects. This point is made several times throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy 4:28, Moses warns the people of Yahweh against idolatry that would lead to their expulsion from the land, and describes to them what life will be like in a foreign land, “And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” What a contrast from the God who speaks to them, leads them, protects them, and redeems them.
Isaiah writes regarding idols,
“They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
or save him from his trouble” (Isa 46:7).
Likewise the Psalmist writes,
“Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat” (Ps 115:4-7).
In Revelation, John writes of “…idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk…” (Rev 9:20). Idols, quite simply, are utterly impotent. They can do nothing.
One point of an idol’s inability that is worth a bit of reflection is their inability to speak. Isaiah wrote, “If one cries to it, it does not answer” (Isa 46:7). The Psalmist said, “They have mouths, but do not speak” (Ps 115:5, cf 135:16). Logically, it follows, if idols are dead objects of wood, stone, or bronze, then they can’t talk. However, an idol’s material construction is not the only reason it can’t talk.
Idols don’t have anything to say. When we turn to a dead tree, stone, or hunk of metal and say, “Deliver me, for you are my god” (Isa 44:17)! They are silent because they can’t do what we are asking them to do. They have nothing to say to our request. We ask for them to proclaim deliverance, but they remain mute. We listen for them to announce hope, but they have nothing to say. We listen for them to tell us we are secure, but they can provide no such assurance. We listen for them to give us an identity, but they don’t even know we’re there. We listen for them to give a word of forgiveness, but they cannot speak it. It is only Christ who has such words. It is true that idols don’t speak because of their material construction, but it is also true that they don’t speak because they can’t offer what we need. They have nothing to say. They can’t say the words we need to hear.
When we look at our world today, at least in much of the western world, our idols don’t look like those of the ancient world, wherein they had literal images carved from wood, stone, and metal. Nonetheless, we have idols, and our idols are no less powerless to speak the words we need to hear. Martin Luther wrote in his exposition of the first commandment in his Large Catechism, “Therefore I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts… everyone has set up as his special god whatever he looked to for blessings, help, and comfort.” Whatever we look to—work, money, reputation, education, children, marriage, spouse, friends, ministry, experience, possessions, whatever—for the blessings, help, and comfort God has promised in Christ alone is an idol.
The irony of our idolatry is that many of our idols could and would speak the gospel to us if we would listen. They could remind us of what is true. They could open their mouths and announce Jesus Christ in whom is deliverance. In fact, they could speak many other encouraging words to us, such as their own love for us. However, when we idolize them, we are no longer looking to Christ, whom they may still announce, but to them for our hope, security, and identity, and they, too, become mute. Or, to put it more truly, our ears become deaf to the hope they may rightly announce or the other words of encouragement they may speak.
Take for example, when we make our spouse an idol. When we do so, we are, in the best instances, which are still idolatrous, listening for them to offer us something in their name that is only found in Christ. But they go mute because they are incapable of doing this. In the worst, and probably more common instances, we are listening for them to offer something in their name that isn’t offered even in Christ, that is, we are listening for them to proclaim our greatness, our perfections, our glory. We are listening for them to worship us, and they rightly go mute.
Idolatry is insidious. Idols don’t exist to be served by us but to serve us. This is why we craft them in our hearts or with our hands in the first place. We feel the need for something, and we want them to provide it. Our idols, if they provide what we want, become fellow idolaters. It is a vicious cycle, and it leads only to death.
What then is the solution? Law and gospel. The law must confront us in our sin and declare what it actually is. Then the life-giving words of the gospel must be announced. Words that are so true that they undo the lies to which we have run. We must hear Peter’s word that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). We must hear the words that Jesus so often spoke, “Your sins are forgiven.” Confronted by our constant, exhausting labor to erect, serve, and be served by our idols, we must hear the words of Christ, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).