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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Jeremiah 10:3-4

Sep 29, 2019

This is often one of the most abused and misused texts around:

It seems that mangling, misappropriating, misusing and manhandling Scripture is a regular pastime for far too many believers. Twisting and distorting what the Bible says is certainly a hallmark of the cults and heretics, but sadly way too many ordinary believers who should know better are also guilty of doing this.

There are many factors that can contribute to this sad state of affairs:

-A lack of basic Bible knowledge.
-A lack of understanding of basic principles of biblical interpretation.
-An inability or unwillingness to use the brains that God has given them.
-The cultic and arrogant belief that we need no ‘human teachers’ and can just know everything perfectly all by ourselves.
-A reliance on nutty videos on the internet instead of actually doing some serious study and careful research.

As a result, we have so many just plain idiotic and ridiculous things being said by Christians as they distort Scripture. The passage under question here is a classic case in point. The text invariably comes up around Christmas time when some ornery Scrooges come out of the woodwork insisting that celebrating the birth of Jesus is somehow of the devil and we should have nothing to do with it.

The text talks about cutting down trees and fashioning idols out of them. As we will see in a moment, this has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas trees – but that does not stop these folks from running with it, judging and condemning all other believers who dare to wish you a Merry Christmas.

I just had another example of this in the form of a comment to my site – and it is still three months from Christmas! This gal said:

Yes, persecution will likely come, as you say, with biblical truth. One such personal example is Jeremiah 10. God clearly tells us what he thinks about the cutting down of trees, decorating them, and idols. Yet, people don’t want to hear or know. We’re ‘plowing close to the corn there’ but, nevertheless, our pagan rituals – God rejects! Gently mentioning this fact to brothers and sisters will usually earn a swift rebuke.

Suffice it to say that I did not print her comment. Had I done so I most certainly would have given her a swift rebuke – because she fully deserves one. So we better look at this verse, and as always, we will be no better off than the cultists if we do not consider the full context. So here it is, Jeremiah 10:1-16, which speaks about God and idols:

Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says:

“Do not learn the ways of the nations
    or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
    though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
    they cut a tree out of the forest,
    and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
    their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
    because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
    they can do no harm
    nor can they do any good.”

No one is like you, Lord;
    you are great,
    and your name is mighty in power.
Who should not fear you,
    King of the nations?
    This is your due.
Among all the wise leaders of the nations
    and in all their kingdoms,
    there is no one like you.

They are all senseless and foolish;
    they are taught by worthless wooden idols.
Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish
    and gold from Uphaz.
What the craftsman and goldsmith have made
    is then dressed in blue and purple—
    all made by skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
    he is the living God, the eternal King.
When he is angry, the earth trembles;
    the nations cannot endure his wrath.

“Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”

But God made the earth by his power;
    he founded the world by his wisdom
    and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;
    he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.
He sends lightning with the rain
    and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them.
They are worthless, the objects of mockery;
    when their judgment comes, they will perish.
He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these,
    for he is the Maker of all things,
including Israel, the people of his inheritance—
    the Lord Almighty is his name.

So what is going on here? It should be pretty clear: Jeremiah is declaring God’s displeasure with the building and worship of idols – of false gods. This is a common theme found throughout Scripture. So what does Jeremiah 10 have to do with Christmas trees? Let me repeat: absolutely nothing.

This should be so patently obvious that there really should be no need for an article like this. But clueless Christians and fightin’ fundie Pharisees are always with us unfortunately. So I need to spend time – perhaps a waste of time – in stating the obvious.

Creating an idol and bowing down before it to worship it as a god is wrong – always. That is certainly obvious. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas trees. First of all, I am not aware of one single Christian on the planet who has ever bowed down and worshipped a Christmas tree, proclaiming: ‘You are my god – I worship you!’

Moreover, the idolatrous Israelites sought instruction from these lifeless gods, as verse 8 indicates. Again, I am not aware of anyone ever putting up a Christmas tree in order to gain wisdom or guidance! If however such a person does exist, he or she is as much of a nutter as those who try to claim that this verse is dealing with Christmas.

Also, we are dealing with a blatant case of anachronism here. If you don’t know what that means, it may be time you did! Simply put, it involves reading something of the present into the past where it does not belong. As one online definition puts it: “the action of attributing something to a period to which it does not belong.”

Um, earth calling Scrooges: there were no Christmas trees back then. And it may surprise some of you to learn that there were no Christmases back in his day either! Jeremiah lived around six centuries before Christ. The first Christmas may not have occurred until some three centuries after that. So no, Jeremiah was NOT writing about, nor concerned with, something that started to take place a millennium later.

He was of course dealing with the situation that he and Yahweh’s people were involved in during his own time. And that had to do with his commission to warn the people of impending judgment for their sins and their idolatry. His ministry took place during the decades just before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He sadly lived to see his warnings come to pass.

Like Isaiah and numerous other prophets, he was denouncing their pagan idol worship. And of course the main way to create an idol to worship back then was to carve it out of wood or stone, or fashion it out of things like gold or silver. So what Jeremiah 10 is warning about is the fully normal means of creating false gods to bow down to.

J. Daniel Hays offers us this by way of historical and cultural background of Jeremiah 10:

Idols played a central role in the polytheistic religions of Israel’s neighbors throughout the ancient Near East. Within these religions it was commonly believed that the gods themselves initiated the construction of the idol. After the construction of the idol was completed, special rituals were carried out to transfer the god from the spiritual world to the physical world. The idol then functioned as the mediator of the divine presence. The idol mediated presence and revelation from the god to the people and then likewise mediated worship from the people to the god.

Um, neither I nor billions of other people who have enjoyed celebrating our Lord’s birth have ever had anything even remotely close to that concept in our minds when we had a tree with gifts for others underneath it. Sorry, but anyone who claims that Christmas celebrations are anything at all like what Jeremiah was condemning two and a half millennia ago are clearly out to lunch.

And of course while the idol maker is a craftsman who carefully carves or chisels images of a false god into the piece of wood, a Christmas tree is nothing of the sort. Aside from being chopped down, there is no attempt to shape and fashion it into the likeness of some pagan deity. It just sits there, unworshipped, simply as part of some decorative festivities for a special day.

Likewise, the giving of gifts has zippo to do with idolatry or pagan practices, and everything to do with celebrating our gift-giving God. As I wrote elsewhere, “The early church saw this as a perfectly fitting way to demonstrate and illustrate the greatest gift of all: the giving of God’s son on our behalf. So our gift giving is to serve as a reminder of this great truth.”

Indeed, as Craigie, Kelley and Drinkard note in their commentary, idolatry “involves both a turning away from God and a turning toward something that becomes a substitute for God. It involves rejecting God as Creator and ascribing to created things an authority that belongs to him alone.”

Once more, what does that have to do with God’s people rejoicing in God’s great gift of a Messiah? Sure, most non-Christians and some carnal Christians may treat Christmas as simply a time of partying and commercialism, but the real believer sees it for what it is: a wondrous reminder and celebration of the Incarnation.

To conclude, here are two things that the Scrooges can do. If they are willing to think a bit and let go of their rather sloppy misconceptions, I have written an entire piece on why we should ignore this silly claim that Christians must have nothing to do with Christmas: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/12/christmas-of-pagan-origins/

Barring that – and I realise that many here will refuse to consider any other points of view, preferring instead to keep their minds shut – here is a second option: If you hate Christmas so much, and those Christians who do not mind celebrating the birth of Jesus, then just don’t celebrate it.

But please stop these ugly, pharisaical and fleshly attacks and condemnation of brothers and sisters in Christ who know that we are NOT to be judged on the basis of certain days, as Paul makes clear in Colossians 2:16-23. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then all I can say to you is ‘Bah, humbug!’

[1868 words]

11 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Jeremiah 10:3-4

  • This is not a “difficult Bible passage”; it is a perfectly clear one. What is not clear is the mind of anyone who puts ridiculous interpretations on it.

  • Yes Malcolm – yours is the short version of my longer version!

  • It should be pointed out, as one fellow on the social media did recently regarding this article, that some good Christians have declined to celebrate Christmas, and they were not nutters. Yes quite so. As I said in reply to him: “Yes many Puritans also did not celebrate it, noting the many unwanted things that tended to accompany it, such as drinking, dancing, gambling and gaming, etc. My piece is more concerned with the contemporary opponents who tend to denounce all believers as pagans and worse if they dare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.”

  • I note in Daniel Hays’ description of the process a practice of heresy mimicking the truth of God “coming down” from the spiritual plane to the physical realm.

    And in Molech worship, the first child (son?) is sacrificed to the gods to appease their anger.

    Yet another heretical mimicking of the Truth of the Cross.

    Even paganism has faint echoes of God’s true working in history, and yet, because they refuse to honour God as God, their guilt remains.

  • Thank you, Bill, for commenting on this passage that, in the minds of some people, puts a damper on celebrating Christmas and the birth of Christ. I have noticed this misinterpretation of the scripture, meaning that it singles out a Christmas tree as a pagan idol, is quite usual among Jewish people who have accepted Christ as their Messiah and Savior. You may not be aware of it, but most Jewish holidays are not really “holidays” as Gentiles would think of them. Rather, Jewish people have observances of historically significant days in their history, and these focus on tragedies, loss of life, and various atrocities that have been a major part of their collective experience. I was not aware of this until I lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Houston and became acquainted with the elderly people who were very stringent about the observances. For example, the Jewish people do not celebrate the victory the nation of Israel had in any conflict. Instead, they focus on the lives lost in the conflict or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and the main practice is leaving the lights off, sitting in the dark or 24 hours, and maybe fasting. Because of their being conditioned to observe the “down” side of everything, they find it very hard to celebrate freely and joyously as Gentiles or Christians do. My husband is a Hebrew Christian, and it took decades for him to get over this focusing on the negative so that he could celebrate the birth of Christ and enjoy having a Christmas tree in our home. As you have guessed by now, he would quote this passage in Jeremiah to justify his depressing take on Christmas. He also would quote the passage in Job about celebrating the day of a death rather than the day of a birth. At any rate, I hope this sheds more light on the subject and helps us as believers be truly joyful and thankful to God for the special days in our lives.

  • For one month out of the year we have people that f are nicer, good deeds are done, sacrificial giving is provided. It is historically a time of the year when people will even silently ponder the birth of Christ or if a birth ever existed. It is a time when we are actually allowed to say Christ or baby Jesus. Songs are played in stores that actually talk about baby Jesus. But the “I can do all things with a scripture verse taken out of context” christians, the holier than now legalists, and the nut jobs want to remove this from society. They want to remove the one time of the year that even the secular may start to ponder God’s existence. The other half always like to remind you that his birth wasn’t in December it was probably more like June; I say who cares. We have several pets in our house and we always celebrate their birthdays( stop laughing) we have no idea when they were born but it is just a day to acknowledge they are special, and we are thankful that they were brought into our lives. We are celebrating their life and giving them honor for that day. The idea is it doesn’t matter the exact day we aren’t pharisees or legalists. Christmas is awesome it is joyful and acknowledgement of the wonderful day that our savior so willingly gave up his royal privilege to come serve and die for the lousy people of this ungrateful earth.

  • Thanks for this. I have a step son who is fully engaged with YouTube theologians and this anti-Christmas baloney is one of his favorites. I will copy this off and give it to him in a probably vain attempt at reasonable thought

  • while I tend to think he was born on Tishri 1 about last Sept or early Oct I am NOT dogmatic about it and while I believe the reason that dec 25th was chosen was to help bringing people for a different faith, it was a big saturn worship day and catholicism did often say “keep your gods just call them saints now” and christianized things that were pagan, the fact remains the reason WE celebrate on THAT DATE is his birth. whatever pagan connections were there have nothing to do with OUR celebrations. same with easter it’s name has pagan origins but those have NOTHING to do with what we are celebrating. the weird thing is so many of these type consider themselves oh so spiritual but like the Pharisees are worse spiritually than those they attack. the truly spiritual are humble and don’t need to announce they are spiritual. it is about christ NOT them. but the “superspiritual” ones are all about themselves and Christ is a bit player in the drama he has a walk on part with one line and walks off. You get a better idea about them by who gets top billing them or Jesus??? (is it I,I,I or The Lord, The Lord, The Lord) though sometimes he gets top billing but in MUCH smaller font. I saw an article by Dr Brown the other day relating about superstar christianity and how one guy started with a poster of the Lord looming large over the stadium and the preacher was small the next time the preacher loomed large and the lord was small. with the superspiritual that too often is the case. (presenting Reverend SO AND SO with a BRIEF cameo by the Lord). the separation of the sheep and goats is going to be quite interesting a lot of self anointed sheep will be exposed as goats. and many shepherds will be exposed as mere hirelings. so many who will say “Lord Lord” will really believe THEY are the true christians.

    It is sad that recently the specialness of christmas time is waning as there is less and less time in the christmas season where crime goes down and kindness goes up. And more and more Jesus’s name is verboten. (you can mention ANY other deity under the sun and that is oak but mention jesus and you would think you had just destroyed the world. say mohammad and you will be celebrated).

  • Whatever any bodies view is about Christmas, for or against, It is a very good time for Christians to witness about the Lord Jesus Christ, to family and friends.

  • I do have some recollection of Hollywood attempting to show how praying to a Christmas tree can lead to a Christmas miracle in Home Alone 2. I think however that it goes to show that when a society is spiritually flushing itself down the toilet, it will turn to anything instead of the one true God and will even turn things that are meant for good into idols, such as Moses’ brass serpent that Hezekiah had destroyed to stop people offering to it.

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