Technologies, Ancient and Modern

“He Prays to It and Says, ‘Save Me, for You are My God!’”

Guest Contributor / 1.29.21

This post comes to us from Robbie Sapunarich:

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” (Isa 44:12-17)

The Old Testament prophets don’t typically make for easy reading, nor do they readily lend themselves to obvious applicability — watching Game of Thrones is the closest we probably come to thinking about kings, empires, statecraft, and militaristic exploits. Nonetheless, Isaiah does have something surprising and life-giving to say to us.

A bit of context: This section of Isaiah was written during a period called “the exile,” after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and deported a sizable portion of its population. Though a foreign military power expelled the people of Jerusalem, the prophet proclaimed it was ultimately a form of divine judgment. The author of this text is writing to a people who are now in exile. In the midst of a discourse that offers consolation and hope, presented in many translations in verse form, the prophet’s writing turns to prose and enters into a piece of satire about idolatry, focusing on the manufacturing process of idols.

Note the detailed description of the ironsmith and carpenter’s works, the impressive engineering and mastery of one’s tools — stylus, plane, compass — that go into the making of idols. And these craftsmen use their skills to meet actual needs: keeping warm, baking bread, roasting meat. But the prophet shows us the irony of their disposition toward their creations — they do all of this work, and then ascribe praise to the very things they built.

I think something in this passage has an eerie resonance in 2021. We still invest the creations of others with trust and significance. These works just tend to be more abstract — digital or systemic handiworks. Consider the role that digitally facilitated on-demand services play in our lives. Getting a ride to the airport and ordering food is a simple matter of pressing our thumbs against a piece of heat-sensitive glass. We use this same tool to manipulate our dopamine and serotonin levels by comparing ourselves to strangers, arguing with misinformed relatives, and swiping through a list of prospective mates. These creations provide us with apparently endless amounts of convenience and entertainment.

But listen closely to how businesspeople, politicians, and “thought leaders” describe the promises of these handiworks — innovation, progress, efficiency. Consider the pride of place given to STEM in public conversations around education. We must prepare our children to “compete” in the economy of “the future.” Learning isn’t something undertaken for its own sake; it’s now a matter of utility to prepare us for the ineluctable force of progress.

Technology is often assumed to be an unmitigated good, as long as we don’t consider its human costs. It’s a known thing that the executives and shareholders who profit from the manufacture of these products often send their own children to device-free private schools. And the deleterious effects that social media has on mental health are well-documented. And the sanitized and frictionless aesthetic of so many devices belies the working conditions of those who mine their raw materials, or assemble them. The true cost of our sleek creations is abstracted away and hidden from us.

Like the people of Judah in exile in Babylon, we find ourselves immersed in a culture that often invests power in created things — people, products, and systems — rather than the Creator. And we are often held captive by the power of our creations in ways that we can’t help; we are subject to what St. Paul calls the “powers and principalities” of this age. The shape of these powers morphs over time, but they have always ensnared people and nations across history. These powers often encourage us to put trust in ourselves, in the works of our hands, and we are often unable to save ourselves from their consequences.

But God promises rescue, and it is his work, and not ours. After this passage, God tells Israel, “I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Note the order of events — not, “return to me, and I will sweep away your transgressions,” but, “I have swept away your transgressions — return to me.” And in Christ, God provides deliverance on something made by human hands — the cross, a technology of torture and execution. Despite all of the things we build and put our trust in, God promises to build something new in us from the ruins of our handiwork. As the prophet tells us, “God says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins'” (Isa 44:26).