The Cornwall Alliance, in cooperation with our parent non-profit The James Partnership, produced a series of 23 lectures on the Ten Commandments. How do those relate to our usual focus on environment and development? Lots of ways. This is the second in a series of brief posts exploring some of them.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”—The Second Commandment
Modern people often misunderstand this commandment. We tend to think “primitive” people, having made an idol of wood, stone, or metal, thought the idol itself was God, or a god. In reality, while some few might have been so foolish (and God’s prophets mocked them for it, as in Isaiah 44:10–20), most weren’t. When they called such things “gods,” they spoke metaphorically. They knew they weren’t actual gods. They thought of them as representatives of gods, and they believed that through manipulating the representatives they could manipulate the God or the gods themselves.
What that implied was that they wanted to turn the order between the true God and themselves upside down (as others turn the order of man and creation upside down, an error I discussed in my first post in this series). They wanted to control God—or the gods—rather than obeying God. The idols were what they used to do that.
For example, worshipers of the ancient Near Eastern god Baal, “Lord of the Sky,” thought that by making idols of him and worshiping before them, they could get him to ensure good weather for their crops.
What they didn’t know is that precisely the opposite was true. The true God, Yahweh, brought judgment on idolaters in the form of natural disasters like droughts and storms, as the Prophet Jeremiah often pointed out (Jeremiah 1:16; 2:5; 3:6; 7:9, 18; 8:19; 10:2; 11:10; 16:18; 17:2, etc.).
Idolatry ultimately stems from fear. Fear isn’t a bad thing except when directed toward the wrong objects. Fear near the edge of a high cliff makes sense. But fear of false gods and of idols doesn’t.
Such fears, I’ve argued elsewhere, lie at the root of exaggerated alarms about environmental degradation.
Declare this in the house of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah, saying, “Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see; who have ears but do not hear. Do you not fear Me?” declares the Lord. “Do you not tremble in My presence? For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it. But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and departed. They do not say in their heart, ‘Let us now fear the Lord our God, who gives rain in its season, both the autumn rain and the spring rain, who keeps for us the appointed weeks of the harvest.’ Your iniquities have turned these away, and your sins have withheld good from you.” (Jeremiah 5:21–25)
The full impact of this text stems from the contrast drawn between the sea, which, though it has neither eyes nor ears, still stays within the boundaries God has set for it, and the “foolish and senseless people,” who, though they have eyes and ears, neither see nor hear God and therefore transgress the boundaries He has set for them. And what lies at the root of their blindness and transgression? It is their lack of the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). The real root of irrational fears of natural catastrophes is the absence of the fear of the Lord, manifested in persistent sins like those named so frequently throughout Jeremiah. It is precisely because the people of Judah do not fear God (and so practice all kinds of sin) that they come to fear that the spring and autumn rains will fail.
Fear of environmental catastrophe grows out of lack of the fear of God. That, Jeremiah teaches, is the real root of the many false or exaggerated environmental scares that have plagued the modern world. And such fears will continue—with or without scientific basis—until people repent and fear God. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. … Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is in the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7–8). Since the Bible teaches also that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7), it follows that those who do not fear God are vulnerable to irrational fears stemming from a flight from reason.
These and similar passages suggest that the Bible teaches that God’s wisdom, power, and faithfulness justify confidence that Earth’s ecosystems are robust and will by God’s providence accomplish His purposes for them.