That’s how Jeremiah mocked the idols of his day. After describing the vanity of people constructing gods from wood, silver, and gold, then setting them up and fastening them so they would not totter, the prophet says:
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk” (Jer. 10:5).
In ridiculing idols by picturing them to be like the scarecrows people set up to protect their crops, we can easily laugh along. And when Westerners look across oceans into places like Asia and Africa, and see people bowing down before such physical idols, the shaking of heads and the incredulous smiles remain. We think we would never be so foolish.
Yet the production of idolatry starts, as Calvin so famously pictured, in the factory of the heart. Everyone is prone to them and prostrates before them. For having a blind, obsessive devotion to any created thing is idolatry. Longing for any object, position, or relationship that is not rightfully your own is idolatry, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in two of his letters (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5;5). If that is indeed the case – and it is – then we in the West are propping up scarecrows all day long.
It is easier for us first to see idolatry in others before we recognize it in ourselves. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller tells the story of Andrew Carnegie, the steel company tycoon who became one of the world’s wealthiest men. One of his mansions used to stand near the seminary where I teach. When he was only thirty-three years of age and experiencing great success, he paused at one point, did a self-examination, and wrote these words:
Man must have an idol- the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry…to continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent memory.”
So, as Keller recounts, Carnegie decided to resign in two years to keep this self-degradation from occurring.
However, he did not stop. Instead, he pressed on building his businesses and making what he thought were valuable contributions to society. In the process, he ended up having 2059 libraries built, a seemingly incredible tribute to his philanthropic spirit. However, as one of his steelworkers said, “We didn’t want him to build a library for us. We would rather have higher wages.” Forgotten behind the scenes were his employees, who worked twelve hour shifts for two weeks straight, ending with a twenty-four shift before receiving a day off. Most of his workers died in their forties or earlier. Ironically, carved in stone above The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is his favorite quote: “Free to the People.” (I wonder if Pharaoh had that carved on the pyramids of Egypt?) Scarecrows seem harmless enough, but their production always ends up taking a huge toll in human capital.
This same idolatrous, relentless drive for significance and success so easily seen in Carnegie is found in all of us. Psalm 49 says, “The stupid and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses are forever and their dwelling places to all generations; they have called their lands after their own names” (v. 10-11). Whenever we live as if this life is all there is, are driven to make more money than the next guy, or longing to have our name placed on some monument to us, we are simply building scarecrows for cucumber fields. The awful end result is always the same, and, as Carnegie stated in a moment of truth, especially leads to the self-degradation of the idolater himself.
For as the psalmist goes on, “But man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish” (Ps. 49:12). Or, as the Lord reminded us by asking rhetorically, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). You see, those who make and put their trust in idols become like them (Ps. 115:7). They lose the ability in their hearts to truly see, hear, and feel. In essence, they become scarecrows themselves – lifeless, alone, and rotting in the process of a position that amounts to vainly guarding their prized earthly possessions.
So how is this idolatry overcome? Though certainly much could be said in answer to this question, one starting point is certain. Idolatrous living is conquered through the same call that the Lord issued to the rich young ruler. Jesus called this man to give his idolatrously-gained earthly treasures away and follow him. This man resisted that call. We should not.
For heeding this call is not without great reward. The Lord never asks us to give up earthly treasure without replacing it with something far greater. Listen carefully to what he said, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). As John Piper reminds us in his book Don’t Waste Your Life, “It will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”