• Nathan Schneider
Man working on computer wires

I am a millennial. At least that’s what sociologists have termed the generation born roughly between 1981 and 1996. It’s the generation born to baby-boomers and early Gen-X’rs. It’s the generation that came of age at the turn of the new millennium. (In fact, I graduated high school in the year 2000. Yes, the same year 2000 that promised to wreak havoc on the planet through the infamous, nefarious, and ultimately benign Y2K bug.)

There’s way too much we could talk about when it comes to the millennial generation. Just do a google search for books on millennials and you can see for yourself. The millennial generation is a fascinating study on the changing culture and how it shapes the minds, lives, and worldviews of those who are part of it.

Perhaps the most prominent factor in what distinguishes a millennial from those before and after…apart from age, of course…is their relationship with technology. Millennials have grown up in the midst of massive technological changes. In fact, it could be said that we’re living in the greatest communications shift in 500 years. Not since the invention of the printing press has the world been impacted so greatly by new modes of communication. And millennials grew up right in the middle of that shift. That’s why they’re referred to as the first digital natives.

Millennials have really never known a world without computers. That’s the case for me. As far back as I can remember, there was a computer in the house. It was a dinosaur by computer standards today. I guess I should rephrase that considering it sat on a desk, didn’t take up an entire room, and wasn’t fed punch cards. But it was still an old MS-DOS machine, had two “games” and didn’t even have enough disk space to store a single Word document today. But back then it was pretty standard fare.

I was in fifth or sixth grade when I got on the internet for the first time. I went on a field trip with my class to the local library in our little town in Colorado. Back then (wow, did I just say that?) internet access was limited and slow. It would be a few more years before we had a computer at home with internet capability. I got my first email account as a sophomore in high school, my first personal computer as a freshman in college. By my second year of college, I had built my first personal computer. Since then, I’ve built three more. Computers are simply part of my world. I don’t know a world without them.

Even still, I can’t say I understand how computers work. Not that I’m completely ignorant, but when you get down to the 1’s and 0’s, computers are still a marvel to me. Somehow, someone somewhere figured out how to arrange a bunch of 1’s and 0’s (really, just positive and negative charges) into meaningful strings of code. Fast-forward a few decades, and boom…computers, the internet, and all things digital. How it all works at the intricate level I’ll leave to the computer engineers out there.

Really, computers and everything they represent in the digital world are a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of humanity. It’s just one example of Genesis 1:27 on display:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Man’s creativity is a reflection of the creativity of the God who made him. We can think and work and create because we have been made to do that. When we’re creative and expressive, it brings our Creator honor and glory. Or at least it should.

Here’s the thing. Mankind has created a digital empire. Computers have infiltrated every aspect of daily life. Practically every car on the road system has some sort of computer in it. Your modern smart TV is basically a computer with a screen built in. Refrigerators, washers, dryers, microwaves, etc…they all have computers these days. And yes, that phone in your hand that statistics say you’re 70% likely to be reading this blog on…yep, that’s a computer, too.

Computers are woven into our lives. We rely on them, need them, miss them when we’re out camping, and frightened when they aren’t working the way they should. I was reminded of that yesterday as we dealt with our own network problems at the church. When systems are down, internet service is out, and we can’t print or email anyone, it’s hard to be productive these days. We feel helpless. And in the age of pandemics and lockdowns…when we’re relying even more heavily on our computers to keep us connected with other people…our dependence is deepened exponentially.

What we see happening in the digital age is the same thing that has been going on since man’s fall in sin. Man takes something good…something God has given him…and he flips it on its head. In pre-digital days, it could have been an animal…a ox, for instance. The animal that served him in the field became that which he so depended on that eventually he began to see it as something to worship…something to deify. It became something he served in order to get from it that which he wanted and needed.

Like I said, not much has changed. Only now in the digital age, there’s a new sacred cow…the sacred computer and the sacred internet. Both were created by men to serve men. But we have now begun to serve it. We look at what we’ve accomplished and created and pat ourselves on the back, saying, “Aren’t we so clever? Aren’t we so smart? Look what we’ve created!” But little do we know how much we need it. How much we want it. How much we’re willing to do to make it give us what we want.

That, my friends, is idolatry in a nutshell. Just listen to the words of Isaiah penned nearly 2600 years ago:

“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.” (Isaiah 44:9-11)

The key idea in this opening statement is summarized in verse 10: “Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing?” That’s a masterful rhetorical question. There’s only one answer you can give that doesn’t make you look like an idiot! No one would do that!

But it’s a trap. That’s what makes it so masterful, because this is exactly what happens in the enterprise of idolatry. And in verses 12-17 Isaiah describes this process in all its mind-breaking idiocy:

“The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.” (Isaiah 44:12-13)

Now, the overall point of these verses is that, whether it’s an idol made of metal or wood, it’s made by a man. He may be a strong man—he works hard, he works diligently. But by the end of the process, even this skilled craftsman is only human. He’s exhausted and parched from his labor.

But the ugly truth is hidden in the diligence of the craftsman. It says, “He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.” Isaiah is putting his finger on the heart of idolatry. John Oswalt put it this way:

“What is the result? Humanity in its fullest flower. The kind of humanity that needs a house in which to live, a roof over its head to keep out the rain, and four walls to keep out marauders. All this effort solely to project ourselves on the heavens! Again, Isaiah demonstrates how incisively he understands the nature of paganism. Above all else, it is an attempt to cast eternal reality into the shape of humanity.” (Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 180)

This is the essence of idolatry in all its forms. Mankind desperately wants a god—needs a god—as long as it’s not the true God. And just like Adam and Eve thought they could be like God, so man tries to fashion a god into the image of himself.

The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 1: 

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:21-23)

Man wants something he can see, something he can touch, something he can understand. But more than anything, he wants something that is just like him. Ultimately, idolatry is about self—the idol serves the person and fills his needs. The person doesn’t exist for the idol. The idol exists for the person. John Calvin put it this way: 

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God.”

We see this fact in our passage as Isaiah continues to describe the idol-making process:

“He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!'” (Isaiah 44:14-17)

Now Isaiah is really upping the sarcasm. You can’t help but see the lunacy and irony of idolatry. The same tree the man uses to make his god he also uses to warm himself, bake bread, and roast his dinner.

The whole point is very simple: what’s the difference between the wood used for the idol and the wood used for everything else? Nothing! It’s the same tree. Yet the man burns half of it, bakes his bread, roasts his meat, and then turns to the other half, bows down and says to it, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

But it’s not a god! It’s a block of wood! What can it do? What profit does it bring to the man? In fact, the irony is that the wood brought more profit to him as fuel for a fire than it does as material for an idol!

Let’s go back to the question we saw in verse 10: “Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing?” The answer is, Everyone who practices idolatry.

“They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?'” (Isaiah 44:18-20)

The reason is blindness—spiritual blindness. He cannot see that the enterprise he is engaged in is absolutely and utterly asinine. Romans 1:22 sums it all up: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

When we begin to look at idolatry through that lens, it makes us ask some important questions. Why would I find hope in a block of wood? Why would I invest so much trust in something that is no more powerful than the human being that created it?

But remember, idols take on many shapes and many forms. They’re not just blocks of wood or shaped iron. Sometimes, they take the form of computers, phones, and laptops. Sometimes, they are nothing more than 1’s and 0’s.

And none of these things can offer real hope. Sure, they seem like powerful forces in today’s culture. But they can’t give us what we really need. They offer empty promises. Promises of a better life, an easier life, a life where we’re more productive and more in control. But it’s a lie. In the end, trusting these things is no different than trusting a block of wood.

And if you need proof of that, just wait until the next network outage.

Real hope is not found in dead idols. It’s found in Jesus, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).