But you, our God, are good and true,
slow to anger, and governing all with mercy.
COMMENTARY: The writer frequently returns
this book back to addressing God directly, so that it reads as a prayer. And no matter how hard she condemns idolatry,
she always holds out hope of forgiveness and reconciliation.
For even if we sin, we are yours, and know
but we will not sin, knowing that we belong to
COMMENTARY: Whether we sin or not, we
are still dear to God, belonging to our Creator. Knowing that can be motive enough to avoid
anything that would bother God, regardless of punishment or reward.
to know you well is complete righteousness,
and to know your might is the root of
COMMENTARY: The more you know of God the
more enticing virtue becomes and the more repugnant temptation. The writer also invests faith in the concept
of the immortality of virtuous souls in a life after death—not a universal
concept in Judaism at that time.
For the evil creation of human fancy did not
nor the fruitless labor of painters,
A form smeared with varied colors,
5) the sight of
which arouses yearning in a fool,
till he longs for the inanimate form of a dead
COMMENTARY: One should not read this as
a condemnation of all visual art—the Jewish Temple abounded in art, made at God’s
command, originally under the direction of a master craftsman named
Bezalel. Rather, the “evil creation”
referred to here was specifically intended for worship, in competition with the
I might propose national flags as a modern example, around which we have woven
special rituals and reverence. Sometimes
society expects us to put the flag ahead of God and conscience, as when John F.
Kennedy had to promise to be an American citizen first and a Catholic second
before he could win election to the presidency.
Or when we pass laws that would jail anyone who acts with disrespect to
one of these flimsy slips of cloth.
of evil things, and worthy of such hopes
are they who make them and long for them and
COMMENTARY: Those who make an idol
should know, from experience, the humble origins of the object that they
themselves fashioned. That they
nevertheless worship it shows a dangerous commitment to self-deception, and
sets a sinister precedent, for it opens the door to lying to oneself about
other things, especially the rationalization of sins.
the potter, laboriously working the soft earth,
molds for our service each single article:
He fashions out of the same clay
both the vessels that serve for clean purposes
and their opposites, all alike;
As to what shall be the use of each vessel of
the worker in clay is the judge.
COMMENTARY: The writer illustrates how
the assignment of special meaning to such a figurine is entirely a human
projection that we choose to dispense upon the idol and not the bowl made by
the same hands of the same material.
True religion comes from a calling beyond ourselves. Yet here we see no higher power at work.
With misspent toil he molds a meaningless god from the selfsame clay,
though he himself shortly before was made from
And is soon to go whence he was taken,
when the life that was lent him is demanded
COMMENTARY: The writer points up the
common ground, if you’ll excuse the pun, between the idol-maker and his
idol. Both were made from dirt and both
will eventually become dirt again.
his concern is not that he is to die
nor that his span of life is brief;
Rather, he vies with goldsmiths and
and emulates molders of bronze,
and takes pride in fashioning counterfeits.
COMMENTARY: He’s not concerning himself
with the afterlife that he must eventually face, being mortal, but rather
trying to get in on a lucrative trade.
His real idol is money.
Ashes his heart is! more worthless than earth
is his hope,
more ignoble than clay his life;
COMMENTARY: Referring to his heart as
ashes goes back to the common Jewish belief that, after death, remorse will
burn up everything of oneself given over to sin as a purification before
joining one’s ancestors. In the case of
the wicked, the process leaves nothing by the time it finishes, depriving the
evildoer of post-death existence. All
may expect some purification, but for the idol-maker the burning goes all the
way to the heart.
Because he knew not the one who fashioned him,
and breathed into him a quickening soul,
and infused a vital spirit.
COMMENTARY: Here we see a contrast
between the creating-power of God and that of the potter—God can breathe a
vital spirit into the same clay that the potter can only make into an imitation
Instead, he esteemed our life a mere game,
and our span of life a holiday for gain;
“For one must,” says he, “make a profit in
every way, be it even from evil.”
COMMENTARY: He starts out not even
believing in his idol (although apparently later he falls for his own hype) but
simply tries to snare others for profit!
And here we have a warning particularly relevant for the people of
today, too many of whom genuinely believe that “One must make a profit in every
way, be it even from evil.”
I am reminded of two young men in a youth group that I attended back in the
1970’s--good friends who met at church, enthusiastic about Jesus and prayer and
everything to do with their faith. One
happened to be the son of a realtor and in training to join his father’s
company, while the other had a mentally ill father struggling to sell his
home. Who else would the second fellow
trust to guide this vulnerable father if not his good friend, his companion in
prayer? Except the realtor’s son
exploited the father’s illness, talking him into not only signing away his home
for a ridiculously low price but also every stick of furniture in it, the
curtains on the windows, the dishes in the cupboard, even the man’s own clothes. When confronted, the now ex-friend would only
say, “You’ve got to understand—church is church, but business is business.” No, he didn’t have to understand! God does NOT have some escape clause saying, “You
must do My will unless it happens to get in the way of business.” Following God must permeate every aspect of
For more than anyone else he knows that he is
when out of earthen stuff he creates fragile
vessels and idols alike.
COMMENTARY: He starts out by knowing
exactly what he’s doing, and therefore has more culpability than the merely
But most stupid of all and worse than
senseless in mind,
are the enemies of your people who enslaved
COMMENTARY: The writer has to get in a
dig at the conquerors of Judea, out of patriotic ire. Especially when these are trying to push
their religions onto the Jewish People.
they esteemed all the idols of the nations as gods,
which cannot use their eyes to see,
nor nostrils to breathe the air,
Nor ears to hear,
nor fingers on their hands for feeling;
even their feet are useless to walk with.
COMMENTARY: This part aims mainly at the
Greco-Roman world, who reclassified the deities of every nation they conquered
as having some correspondence to their own, including trying to interpret the
Jewish God as a form of Zeus/Jupiter.
(This didn’t actually even work well among themselves. For instance, Mars and Ares actually have
nothing in common aside from being worshiped primarily by warriors. Mars didn’t even start out as a war-god at
all, and his follows upheld a code of honor that the myths of Ares violate at
For it was a mere human being who made them;
one living on borrowed breath who fashioned
For no one is able to fashion a god like
COMMENTARY: “Borrowed breath” refers to
God breathing life into Creation. Hebrew
uses the same word for breath and spirit; although this was written in Greek,
the Hebrew association continues on into postexilic culture.
is mortal, and what he makes with lawless hands is dead.
For he is better than the things he worships;
he at least lives, but never his idols.
COMMENTARY: The gist of this is that the
idolmaker’s greatest sin is undervaluing himself, by putting something less
than human above himself. He sins
against himself at least as much as he sins against God, who, out of love,
forbids to us what is bad for us. When
we step away from the exotic context of the past, don’t we sometimes fall for
this temptation, ourselves? Don’t our
problems—from the international to the personal--come back, again and again, to
prizing money above human lives? Even
above our own well-being?
18) Besides, they worship the most loathsome
as regards stupidity, these are worse than the
19) For beasts are
neither good-looking nor desirable;
they have escaped both the approval of God and
COMMENTARY: Now the writer waxes rude to another major
conqueror passing Judea back and forth—the Egyptians. Of course beasts are good looking, and God
approves and blesses His own creations! But Egyptians and Israelites have a long and
rocky history, and the writer may perhaps be forgiven for wanting to throw them
some extra digs along the way. Be that
as it may, beasts are splendid as themselves, but made grotesque when burdened
with a purpose too great for them and never intended for them.