Idle Time, Idol Affections

One man has said, "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the loving kindness that could be theirs." A sobering thought perhaps repeated from the pulpit from time to time, but I reeled in alarm when I first read these words -- uttered by a stunned Jonah inside the dark cavity of a fish. I stumbled over the pathos and gravity of his words because it is his sin which has evoked such a declaration. The story is a familiar one: Having rebelled against God's call to go to Ninevah, Jonah sails 500 miles in the opposite direction to Tarshish and finds himself in the midst of a violent storm. When the ship's crew discovers that the storm must be the working of God's wrath towards Jonah, they throw him overboard, whereupon he is swallowed by a large fish. And inside the fish -- imagine! -- a twisted sewer system of utter darkness, fleshy walls lined with burning acid, and the overwhelming stench of salt, seaweed, dead fish and refuse. Whereas Jonah fell into a deep sleep on ship, one wonders if he was able to rest inside the wildly undulating mammal, its belly surging and sucking with each loud rush of air.

Yet it is God's providence which has delivered him to such a place, and indeed Jonah offers praise to God for sparing him: "From the depths of Sheol I called for help.... You hurled me into the deep" but "brought my life up from the pit" (Jonah 2: 2,3,6). Perhaps he recalled Psalm 139 in the midst of this plight: "Where can I flee from your presence? ... If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.... If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me" (vv. 7-10). These familiar words which may have once brought comfort now sting like the salt water lapping his wounds; there is no escaping God.

The Hebrew phrase the NIV translates as "those who cling to worthless idols" is an interesting construction found also in Ps.31:6, where the psalmist positions it antithetically to "(But) I trust in the Lord." Hebel or "worthless" is understood as "meaningless" and "breath," that is, temporary or perishable. Indeed, this is the name given to Adam and Eve's second son, Abel, whose life was soon extinguished by his murderous brother Cain. Solomon uses this word as well throughout Ecclesiastes, such as in the familiar expression "Vanities of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2;12:8).

Regarding the NIV rendering "idols," Jonah does not employ the more common Hebrew terms for idolatry, but instead chooses a word which is most often translated as "worthless, in vain, empty." Hence, the emphatic statement technically reads, "worthless of worthless!" It seems then that while he is speaking of idolatry, he is not formally referring to pagan religions, but rather his unworthy affections -- namely, his autonomy and the vain attempt to evade the call of God.

Whereas the formal rendering of the participle translated "cling" is actually "revere," the NIV has caught the biblical sense of the term -- our idols take hold of us and we clutch them desperately. And in turn, as the Scriptures repeatedly tell us, we become like them. So in 2 Kings 17:15 we read, "They followed after worthless idols (the phrase is actually hebel) and they became worthless" (see also Je.2:5; Ps.115:8). And is this not what happened to Jonah? His fear for his own security and anger towards God -- how could He have compassion on such a violent people? -- incite him to flee and to become essentially useless.

Indeed, even after Jonah obeys God and goes to Ninevah to declare God's coming judgment lest the people repent, what does he do? He sits under a shelter and sulks: "O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, abounding in lovingkindness ... who relents from sending calamity" (4:2). What strikes me is that Jonah once again turns away from what he knows to be true --that God is sovereign and merciful -- and in his own futile scheme, he forfeits the lovingkindness that could be his. Ironically, "Ninevah does not know (this is the Hebrew) it's right hand from it's left," and the Lord sends Jonah to the city to proclaim His truth.

I've had a ragged index card on my desk for almost three years now with a statement I copied from Dick Keyes' essay "The Idol Factory." It reads: "The attempt to not face the face of God or face ourselves as we are begins the process of idolatry." Keyes examines the nature of idolatry in the Scriptures and argues that it is essentially unbelief or God-avoidance. "An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God," he writes. "... Since an idol is a counterfeit, it is a lie. Deception is its very identity."

Jonah's self-deception and refusal to face the face of God literally lead him from the depths of a raging sea to the heat of a scorching earth; but still he (and perhaps we?) will not listen to God. I am reminded of the verse in Job: "Let him not deceive himself by trusting what is worthless (the same term Jonah uses for idolatry), for worthlessness will be returned to him" (15:31).

Note: Keyes' essay may be found in No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel (Moody Press, 1992).

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