The Futility of Idols

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, “As YHWH, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Here we have the moment that James describes in James 5:16-18: Elijah, prophet of God but still a man with a nature like ours, prayed to God, and it did not rain for three and a half years. such is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer, proving that God can do amazing things when His people devote themselves to prayer and righteousness.

Yet there certainly is a dark side to this prayer– Elijah has just consigned the land and its people to drought for three and a half years. A drought means no rain, and when there is no rain, crops fail. When crops fail, there is no food. When there is no food, people starve, suffer, and die.

We might feel inclined, through the lens of “modern sensibilities,” to think of this as utterly merciless, cruel, barbaric, and inhuman. What kind of prophet is Elijah to consign his people to famine and death? What kind of God would withhold rain and thus lead His people to starvation and death? Or, in less judgmental terms, why is it that Elijah prays for it to not rain as opposed to praying for some other demonstration? Why does God punish Israel with a lack of rain as opposed to some other calamity or difficulty?

In order to make some sense of this we must understand what is going on at the time. Elijah has been called by God– whose personal name is YHWH or “Yahweh”– because Ahab king of Israel is exceedingly wicked (1 Kings 16:30). He and his wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, have rejected YHWH in favor of Baal, Asherah, and the Canaanite gods (1 Kings 16:31-33). Israel followed along in this apostasy.

Baal, in the Canaanite belief system, was a storm god and a fertility god. Baal was believed to provide the storms that led to crop growth and thus fertility. Baal is in a contest against Mot, the god of death; when Baal wins, there is fertility; when Mot wins, there is famine and death. Much of the belief system of the Canaanites surrounded the idea of fertility, both in crops and in child-bearing.

We should not imagine that God or Elijah really want the people to suffer for suffering’s sake. Instead, a powerful lesson is being taught: the gods of the world are emptiness and nothing. During the drought, no doubt, Ahab and Jezebel constantly sacrificed to Baal and plead for mercy from him, along with many of the Israelites. During the contest on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal plead with Baal, even cutting themselves in the process (1 Kings 18:26-29). Yet, as the Kings author says, “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (1 Kings 18:29). Baal was not there– because there was no Baal.

Afterward YHWH demonstrated His existence powerfully with fire from heaven and a return of the rains (1 Kings 18:30-46). The lesson was evident: YHWH was God, not Baal. YHWH is responsible for the rains and fertility, not Baal.

This was not the first time YHWH had made such a demonstration; the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 8-12 are also demonstrations that YHWH, and not the gods of the Egyptians, is really in control. It’s a demonstration with which it is hard to argue: if you believe that Ra is the sun god, but at the command of YHWH the sun turns to darkness, and your pleas to Ra change nothing, then it is clear at least that YHWH is stronger than Ra if Ra even exists. It is only when idols are dethroned that people really reflect on the power of the One True God.

We should not think that we are much different today. Granted, we do not have many people going to temples and bowing down to statues of perceived divinities as was prevalent in Biblical times. But that does not mean that we have solved the challenge of idolatry– far from it (1 John 5:21)! Our idols are just more abstract. And we still need powerful demonstrations of their ultimate inefficiency and inefficacy.

For generations money has been an idol (Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5). It is easy for people to trust in their material goods– their stuff, their bank accounts, their investments, and even their government’s entitlement programs. And yet what was powerfully demonstrated during our great recession? Wealth is uncertain, and cannot be trusted (1 Timothy 6:17)! Government is proven to be uncertain and ultimately not entirely trustworthy; stuff also cannot bring satisfaction. Health, status, prestige, relationships, fame, the Internet, science, you name it– all of them are really subject to the One True God, and in and of themselves, cannot save, and cannot be entirely trusted. Unfortunately, all too often, we only perceive this after they have been rendered ineffective and inefficacious in our lives. It is only in crisis do we learn that we need to rely upon God and not the gods of the world.

If we want to avoid needless suffering we would do well to learn from Israel’s example and trust in the One True God and not the gods of this world. God always has a way of demonstrating His power and authority over every false god, and we would do well to trust in Him and not suffer His chastisement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Zealous For Good

And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good? (1 Peter 3:13).

We have again come to the time of the year known as “March Madness,” when the eyes of many in the nation are focused on the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. Even people who have not really followed the teams so far this season fill out their brackets, and millions tune in to see who will be upset and who will be able to win it all.

The passion that people bring to sporting events is, of course, legendary. In America, baseball and basketball are cherished sports, but nothing seems to inspire more passion than college and professional football. In most other countries it is soccer that inspires fanatic devotion. Untold amounts of money, energy, and time are expended in following and cheering on these sports teams.

And for what? Most of the teams, by necessity, lose. The focus then goes to the next season. But what happens when your team wins? You may go and get an honorary t-shrirt or hat or the like, but even here, the focus goes to next year. And then the year after that.

As the Preacher indicates, all is vanity, or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:1). So it is with fanatical passion regarding sports– teams win, teams lose, and the world goes on, and nothing is really gained in the end. But this goes beyond mere sports– it is true with almost everything in life. Politics– actions are done, actions get reversed. Elections are won and elections are lost. The world moves on. Business corporations succeed. They stagnate. They fall. Others begin to succeed. The world moves on. All remains vanity!

How much human effort, energy, and resources are expended toward that which is ultimately futile? How many people devote all the energy they’ve been given in this short life to things that do not ultimately profit?

Believers in God, on the other hand, are invited to invest their time and energy into something that will endure forever– the Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:36-44). We are invited to lay up treasures in Heaven, where thieves cannot steal and moth cannot consume (cf. Matthew 6:19-20). We are able to participate in God’s eternal plan, promoting His purposes to those in His creation (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And then, when everything that humans have expended their effort to obtain is burned up into nothing, we have the opportunity to experience the eternal weight of glory with the Father forever (2 Peter 3:9-12, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17).

Therefore, we have been given the greatest encouragement, incentive, and purpose that could ever be. Whereas any effort we direct toward any other purpose or cause will not endure, our effort in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). All the gold in the universe will melt, but treasure in Heaven will be perpetual. When all is destroyed, it will not matter who won the Final Four, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup. All that will matter is whether we were found to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and that we were zealous for His purposes (cf. Matthew 25:14-46)!

It is easy to become zealous for sports, zealous for politics, zealous for business, or zealous for thousands of things “under the sun.” Yet our overreaching passion and zeal should be directed for the good– for the promotion of God’s message of salvation in this world, reflecting Jesus Christ to everyone in our lives. Let us be zealous for good, and not allow our energies to be misdirected!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry