Sneaky Polytheism

January 17, 2022 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


File:Mt-olympus gods.jpg
Credit: Mt. Olympus gods / Wikimedia

One of the most startling religious claims made by the ancient Israelites was that their God was the only true God. God Himself argues for His singularity when He says through the prophet Isaiah:

 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from Me there is no God. (Isaiah 45:5)

This echoes the command God gives to the children of Israel through Moses:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Exodus 20:3)

In our religious milieu, unlike in the ancient world, the majority of people of faith are monotheists – that is, they believe there is only one God.

Yet, even if monotheism is common to believe, it is much harder to practice. Isaiah explains why when he speaks of the fall of Babylon:

Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children.” Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood. They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells. You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, “I am, and there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 47:8-10)

God’s judgment on Babylon feels horrifyingly harsh to us. But notice what God’s judgment is in response to. It is in response to those who say of themselves:

I am, and there is none besides me. (Isaiah 47:8, 10)

Sound familiar – like what God has just claimed for Himself two chapters earlier in Isaiah?

It turns out that the Babylonians were not just worshiping many gods, they were putting themselves in the place of God, claiming, “We are all who matter! We are all we need! There is no one else who can do what we do!”

Even if theological polytheism no longer appeals to many of us, sociological polytheism is just as prevalent in our day as it was in Isaiah’s. We are incessantly tempted to believe that our moment in history is the pinnacle of history. We understand what those who have gone before us did not and could not. We can solve the problems of the world – and, indeed, must solve the problems of the world – because our forebearers were too doddering to do so. We are quick to quip: “I am, and there is none besides me.”

This kind of arrogance is what leads Isaiah to say: “Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you” (Isaiah 47:10). Our forbearers were not as incompetent as we can sometimes think they were, and we are not as smart as we can sometimes think we are.

So, what do we need? We who declare “I am” need to humble ourselves before the true and great “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We need to realize that having “none beside me” is not desirous, but disastrous. We, in short, need to know our place. We are under God and beside each other. That’s right where we’re supposed to be. And that’s a great place to be.

Entry filed under: Devotional Thoughts. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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