1) Foolish by nature were
all who were in ignorance of God,
and who from the good
things seen did not succeed in knowing the one who is,
and from studying the
works did not discern the artisan;
2)Instead either fire, or wind, or the swift air,
or the circuit of the
stars, or the mighty water,
or the luminaries of
heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.
COMMENTARY: First, details about
words. “The one who is” is a Greek
translation of the Jewish concept of God being “I am”. The “governors of the world” refers to the
sun and moon.
Here begins an important distinction between appreciating nature and worshiping
her. We need this discussion more than
ever these days (in the 2020’s) when I repeatedly hear misled Christians call
ecological concerns and love of nature “Pagan”.
How can anyone who loves an artist think it an affront to him to love his art? And these verses make it clear that nature is
the art of “The Artisan”, namely God.
The writer doesn’t see the earth as inherently evil (that would be
Gnosticism) but as “good things” which point to their source. The writer tells us that nature ought to
bring us closer to God, not away.
Nor does she deny the power in “fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit
of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven”. She even poetically refers to the sun and
moon as “governors of the world.” But a governor
acts on behalf of, and under the authority of a supreme sovereign. To point out the mistake of considering a “governor”
a “god” underlines the distinction between respect and worship. The sin isn’t in respecting these mighty
forces, but in failing to recognize who they serve.
3) Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them
let them know how far more
excellent is the Lord than these;
for the original source of
beauty fashioned them.
4) Or if they were struck by their might and energy,
let them realize from
these things how much more powerful is the one who made them.
5) For from the greatness and the beauty of created
their original author, by
analogy, is seen.
COMMENTARY: It isn’t wrong to find joy in the beauty of
creation, or even to be impressed by her power, so long as you appreciate her
still more excellent source. The beauty
and majesty of what God has made should point to Him as the originator of
beauty and majesty.
6) But yet, for these the blame is less;
For they have gone astray
though they seek God and
wish to find him.
7) For they search busily among his works,
but are distracted by what
they see, because the things seen are fair.
COMMENTARY: Far from being a great
sinner, the culpability of the na´ve nature-worshiper is mitigated by his
sincere searching and by at least being on the right track, looking for God in
what God has made.
8) But again, not even these are pardonable.
9) For if they so far succeeded in knowledge
that they could speculate
about the world,
how did they not more
quickly find its Lord?
COMMENTARY: As mentioned before, Jewish
law rarely ever visited the full penalty for any crime. Judges were supposed to
do their level best to find any mitigating circumstances that they could. “Not pardonable” doesn’t mean “deserving of
death” but “not without fault”.
In this case the fault is a sort of spiritual or intellectual laziness. No mortal can understand God completely, yet
we should take our understanding as far as it can go. One should follow clues to their conclusion.
This runs contrary to certain modern teachings that faith and intellect are enemies,
that we shouldn’t study science, nor delve too deeply into theology, but
instead receive without question whatever we’re told to believe, and never step
beyond convention to seek out God directly.
Indeed, I’d hazard to say that the nature-worshiper is better than the
passive believer, because the former mistakenly worships the creation of the
Creator, while the later worships the creation of a fellow creature—a second
remove from God. But we’ll get to that
further in the next verse.
10) But wretched are they, and in dead things are their
who termed gods things
made by human hands:
Gold and silver, the
product of art, and images of beasts,
or useless stone, the work
of an ancient hand.
COMMENTARY: So now we get to
idolatry. Just as nature appreciation
sometimes gets misbranded nature worship, so art appreciation sometimes gets
branded idolatry. The distinction is
whether the “dead things” serve as a reminder of the Living God, or whether one
pins one’s hopes directly onto them.
11) A carpenter may cut down a suitable tree
and skillfully scrape off
all its bark,
And deftly plying his art
produce something fit for
COMMENTARY: So far so good.
12) And use the scraps from his handiwork
in preparing his food, and
have his fill;
COMMENTARY: Burning it to cook with, in
other words. Yes, very practical and
13) Then the good-for-nothing refuse from these remnants,
crooked wood grown full of
he takes and carves to
occupy his spare time.
This wood he models with
and patterns it on the
image of a human being
14) or makes it resemble some worthless beast.
When he has daubed it with
red and crimsoned its surface with red stain,
and daubed over every
blemish in it,
15) He makes a fitting shrine for it
and puts it on the wall,
fastening it with a nail
COMMENTARY: For the record, I don’t
think pretty, crooked, knotty wood is good for nothing, nor is any beast truly
worthless (even though I am currently furious at that bushy-tailed tree-pig who
just stole an entire suet cake away from the birds who need it right after a
hard frost, stashed it in his hoard, and come back for seed as well.) It’s the
context that annoys the writer—that something of such humble origins should be
exalted to being worthy of a shrine, when the person who made it knows exactly
where it came from. This is less excusable
than somebody who honestly doesn’t know where a flash of lightning or a
powerful wind comes from. Also, it
debases the artisan himself, to say, “I am less than what I make.
16) Thus he provides for it lest it fall down,
knowing that it cannot
for, truly, it is an image
and needs help.
COMMENTARY: Spoken with deliberate
17) But when he prays about his goods or marriage or
he is not ashamed to
address the thing without a soul.
For vigor he invokes the
18) for life he entreats the dead;
For aid he beseeches the
for travel, something that
cannot even walk;
19) For profit in business and success with his hands
he asks power of a thing
with hands utterly powerless.
Now if this object, honestly, was merely a representation of the One who is
helpful, soulful, vigorous, life-giving, competent, guidance-rich, profitable
and powerful, an artistic reminder of something beyond itself, a simple
portrait of God, as it were, there would be no fault in it. Anyone who has ever worn a cross around her
neck knows the value of symbols, and who hasn’t kissed a picture of a loved one
without actually believing that that loved one’s cheek has received the
kiss? It’s when one loses track of the
difference between what’s real and what’s representational that one gets lost.
Some might say that nobody today would make such a mistake, that we are
thousands of years more sophisticated than that. Even a child knows that a doll isn’t really a
person. By this thinking, a taboo
against idolatry makes no difference today because nobody falls for it
anymore. Really? Think again.
Take money. There is absolutely nothing
wrong with money as a method of keeping track of contributions to the
well-being of society, tokens exchanged for someone else’s contributions. So long as you simply see it as a symbol of
labor, goods, and resources, it’s fine.
But isn’t it idolatry to pursue it in ways that don’t contribute to
society? To count it more precious than
anything destroyed in its pursuit, even human lives, even oneself? To attribute so much worthiness not to the
laborer who actually did the earning, but to these bits of paper and metal or
even marks in a ledger is indeed idolatry, and sometimes one demanding human
And then there’s Bible idolatry. We have
indeed grown sophisticated; for now, instead of mistaking wooden portraits of
godhood for God, we must mistake complex chains of words inspired by God and
transcribed by human hands for the living God Himself. We can learn a lot about God through such
human biographies about Him (or I wouldn’t even bother with these studies that
I post) but when we accept a many-removes translation, taken out of context,
for Our Creator Himself, and go against our consciences in order to obey what
we’ve been told this translation says, in effect ignoring the voice of the God
Himself whispering in our hearts, in favor of what human beings say about Him,
then we become idolaters.