Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD. (Jonah 2.8-9)
The prime differentiator between Israel and neighboring peoples is its God. While other nations idolize their deities as superhumans, the Jews’ God remains inscrutably invisible. One could scour the whole of Israel and not find one replica of God’s image. Nor would combing the country turn up the likeness of any god, because Israel stands as the region’s only monotheists. In part, the absence of idols and images results from strict adherence to the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20.4) But even if that edict hadn’t been issued, making idols makes no sense. Without a single Israelite having any concept of what God looks like, why invest effort in fashioning a figure no one else will recognize? Nor is there any reason to invent second-tier gods to play opposite the Most High God in morality tales. Israel takes the supporting role in His story. It participates in the ongoing drama and learns by actual experience, not mythic example.
Polytheistic peoples create human facsimiles of their gods, whereas the Jews believe God created them as facsimiles of His image. So, in a way, they see God everywhere. But here’s the final twist. After forging a cast of deities that look like them, pagans conjure legends in which their gods behave like them. Each god possesses special powers and talents. Yet these gifts also come with specific frailties. This means everything is negotiable—not only among the gods, but between mortals and gods. Pagans seek favor from a god by appealing to its weaknesses. So, for example, vintners often ply wine gods for plentiful harvests by pouring out wine offerings to loosen them up. Nothing of the sort occurs in Israel. As the One and Only, its God is invincible as well as invisible. This leaves no room for negotiation. If He says so, so it is. Anyone bold enough to bargain with Him typically hears the same answer: “No deal.”
The plusses in worshiping one God of absolute power and wisdom far exceed its minuses. But there are downsides, not the least of which is reasoning with Him is impossible. This one-sided arrangement is the chief contributor to Israel’s perpetual rebellion. When it bumps into God’s will, too often it turns around and heads the other way. And no one more vividly depicts the futility of this maneuver than Jonah. When God calls him to prophesy in Nineveh, he doesn’t even bother to protest. He jumps on the next boat to Tarshish, perhaps thinking God will send someone else. No such luck. God catches up with Jonah in a sea tempest that threatens the lives of everyone aboard his ship if he doesn’t obey. Jonah throws himself overboard, and a great fish instantly snaps him up. While he comes to grips with what’s happened, the fish ferries Jonah to shore.
Being socked away in the fish’s gut immobilizes Jonah. He has nowhere to go and nothing to say. One thing he does figure out, though, is it’s time for a new attitude. With no idea how long he’ll stay safe in the fish, he wastes no time in wising up. He offers a contrite prayer that extols God’s mercy in sparing him. It concludes with a sobering observation: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2.8) What brings this on? Other than Nineveh’s implied paganism, no mention of idolatry has arisen. It takes a few replays to get the gist of what Jonah means. Had he clung to idols, he’d be dead, as the tumultuous storm would have ripped them from his hands or they would have dragged him down. His only source of help was God’s grace. It saved his life. Now Jonah knows he’s been called to Nineveh to lead its people to God’s saving grace. “What I have vowed I will make good,” he says. “Salvation comes from the LORD.” (v9)
Taking their cue from God’s Word, our pastors and teachers frequently warn us that clinging to idols will lead to no good. They’re right, of course, just as they’re right to frame idolatry as a metaphor for anything that takes precedence above pleasing God. In this regard, Jonah is no less convicted of false worship than his pagan neighbors, because he places what he wants over what God asks. But in a more literal sense, his seafaring disaster shows the dangers of hanging on to idols—of treasuring them too dearly, relying on them too deeply, and dismissing their detriments too easily.
First off, they’re extraneous to God’s story. Ours is a two-character drama that unfolds between Him and us. Introducing other people and possessions we prize more highly than He encourages us to tinker with the plot. When God says, “Nineveh,” and we say, “Tarshish,” we’re sailing into a nasty surprise. Eventually, the idolatrous bent that rerouted our course will steer into us hostile weather. What we cling to will either be ripped away or drag us to destruction. Clingy people are heavy people. They take on unnecessary weight and sinking hopes. They construct stories that suit their lives, rather than construct lives that suit God’s story. They wind up appealing to the weaknesses of what or whom they worship in vain attempts to negotiate better outcomes. This never works. God doesn’t demand first priority to feed His ego or offset His need to be loved. He insists on total commitment so we’ll lighten up to lean entirely on His grace. As these last few days of Lent proceed ever more closely to the Cross, there’s still time to relinquish clingy habits. There’s still time to leave cumbersome idols behind so we won’t forfeit the grace that can be ours.
Idols we cling to become dangerous liabilities and cause us to forfeit grace that can be ours.
Postscript: Whiter Than Snow
One of my favorite hymns, this captures the spirit we embrace when we pray, “Break down every idol, cast out every foe.”