After God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He gave them His Law which taught them how they were to live in their new home. God said that if they obeyed Him, they would experience His blessings in the land. But if they disobeyed, they would experience His curses.
Sure enough, after centuries of disobedience, God’s curses came on His people in the form of the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the temple of God, and took most of its population in exile to Babylon.
To many people in that time, it might have appeared as though Babylon’s gods had defeated Israel’s God. But through prophets like Isaiah, God assured His people that that wasn’t what had happened. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet points out some stark contrasts between the true God of Israel and the false gods of Babylon. He mocks those who painstakingly craft an idol out of wood only to turn around and worship it (Isaiah 44:6–20). And he comments on idols’ inability to predict the future or to save.
But there is one particular contrast Isaiah makes between God and Babylon’s idols that resonates deeply with me. In Isaiah 46:1–2, Isaiah writes:
“Bel crouches; Nebo cowers. Idols depicting them are consigned to beasts and cattle. The images you carry are loaded, as a burden for the weary animal. The gods cower; they crouch together; they are not able to rescue the burden, but they themselves go into captivity.”
Don’t miss the irony. Bel and Nebo—these supposed great gods of Babylon—have to be carried around. Far from being gods who remove the burdens of the Babylonians, they themselves are a burden.
This is a far cry from the way Israel’s God is described in Isaiah 46:3–4:
“Listen to me, house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been sustained from the womb, carried along since birth. I will be the same until your old age,
and I will bear you up when you turn gray. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will bear and rescue you.”
Notice who is doing the carrying here. Unlike the Babylonians who bear the burden of having to carry their gods, God carries His people. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer comments, “In verse 1 the gods were ‘loaded up’ on the beasts, who groaned under their weight; here the people are loaded on their God, who accepts the burden” (Motyer, 369). Another, Barry Webb, paraphrases verses 3 and 4 this way: “‘Idolaters carry their gods,’ says the LORD, ‘but I carry you. I have carried you since you were born, and I will never stop carrying you until your days are done’” (Webb, 188).
The subject of idolatry might feel remote to us today since we may not be accustomed to seeing statues of gods being paraded down the street. But there are many things we are tempted to worship instead of the true God. We might worship our reputation, doing everything we can to ensure that others see only the version of ourselves that we want them to see. We could worship pleasure, pursuing only what feels good and avoiding unpleasant or difficult tasks and responsibilities. We could worship financial stability, thinking that if only our salaries were a certain amount, then we could rest easy.
Yet if we’re honest, such “gods” are burdens, aren’t they? Even if we achieve the reputation we want, we have to work to maintain it. In our pursuit of pleasure, we’ll find it harder and harder to outrun and ignore the difficulties of life. And even if an extra zero were added to our paycheck, we may still find ourselves fearful and feeling anything but stable. These gods are burdens, and we exhaust ourselves when we try to carry them.
Idols demand that we carry them. But God wants to carry us. He has carried us since birth, and He will carry us on into old age. He wants us to find our worth, significance, and security in the relationship with Him that Jesus has made available. So let us lay down the idols we have grown weary of carrying and accept the invitation of Jesus in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.