For the customs of the people are vain: for one cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.…
It is often said of God that He is unknowable. It would seem as if this was advanced as a kind of reason for not concerning ourselves about Him. The form into which this thought would be thrown is something like — If there is a God, He cannot be known by the human mind, and therefore we need not try to know Him. It is remarkable, however, that the Bible distinctly warns us against gods which can be known; and, indeed, the very fact that they can be known is the strong reason given for distrusting and avoiding them. The Bible even makes merry over all the gods that can be known. It takes up one, and says, with a significant tone, This is wood; another, and laughs at it as a clever contrivance in iron; another it takes up, and setting it down smiles at it as a pretty trick in goldsmithery. Concerning the false gods of his time, Isaiah says (Isaiah 46:7). "They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth." Thus everything can be known about the false gods: we can walk round them; we can tell the very day of their manufacture; we can give their exact weight in pounds and ounces; we can set down their stature in feet and inches; we can change their complexion with a brush: because they are known they are contemptible. In opposition to all this view of heathen deities stands the glorious revelation of the personality and nature of the true God. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." "This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." A conviction of the vital difference between the God of the Hebrews and the god of the heathen seems to have forced itself into the minds even of those to whom the true revelation had not come: "Their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges." All human history would seem to show that men must have either a knowable or an unknowable God. Every thinking man has what to him is equivalent to a god. His thought stretched to the point of perplexity — because so much appeals to it that is beyond absorption or reconciliation — becomes to man a species of deity, or in other terms an unknown and bewildering quantity, which will not allow him to put a full stop to his thinking, saying, Human life ends here, and beyond it there is no field of legitimate inquiry. On the other hand, a child loved to idolatry becomes very near to occupying the position of a god. Be it what it may, either a high conception or a low, it would seem as if we must find some equivalent to God, either in the fog of chance, the temple of art, or the sanctuary of revelation. Even false gods put their devotees to great expense in their service. Take the man who gives himself up to the pursuit of an idea, chimerical or practical, but large enough to be to him a religion. He lives no idle life; he does not rise with the sluggard, or lull his brain with opiates; he sees a beckoning spirit on the high hills, and hears a voice bidding him make haste whilst the light lasts; he writhes under many an inexplicable inspiration; he dares the flood that affrights the coward; he cannot spare himself: he is not his own. Such men are not to be despised. They give life a higher meaning, and service a bolder range. I only say of them in this connection that their worship is neither easy nor inexpensive. Men have to rise early, to run great risks, to deny themselves many temporary gratifications, to say No where often they would be glad to say Yes; they have to abandon the society of wife and children, and the security and joy of home, that they may go afar to learn new languages, face new conditions, and endeavour to subdue oppositions of the most stubborn kind. The highest application of this doctrine is found in the religion of Jesus Christ. Whoever would gain immortality must hate his present life, — whoever would seize heaven in its highest interpretations and uses must hold in con. tempt, as to mere permanence of satisfaction, this little earth and its vain appeals. The service of the true God includes all the grandest ideas of the human mind. This is the supreme advantage which Christianity has over every phase of human thought. It keeps men back from no service that is good: on the contrary, it compels them to adopt and pursue it. Is it a question of high ideals? Then we may boldly ask what ideal can be higher, and morally completer, than that which is presented by the religion of Jesus Christ? That ideal may be expressed as peace on earth, and goodwill toward men, — an idea involving personal righteousness, international honour, the recognition of the broadest human rights, and the possibility of all nations, peoples, kindreds, and tongues being consolidated into one Christian brotherhood, not as to mere accidents, but as to supremacy of purpose and pureness of motive. The followers of Bible godliness are not mere dreamers. They do more for the world's progress than any other men in society can do. The advantage which the Christian worshipper has over all the heathen round about him is in the fact that he himself was converted from social heathenism and from trust in false gods. "Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led." Although this has literally no application to us, its spiritual reference is abundantly clear: we have followed the customs of the world; we have drunk at its fountains; we have wandered in its gardens; we have bought its delights; we have sacrificed at its altars; and today we stand up to testify that the gods of the heathen can neither hear prayer nor answer it, can neither pity human distress nor relieve it. We know also with equal certainty, on the other hand, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ covers our whole life, answers all its deepest necessities, is a sovereign balm for every wound, and cordial for our fears.
(J. Parker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.