Xylolatry: the worship of wood

Can a piece of timber lead you to hell? Can it make you turn your back on the true and living God? Read the Bible, and you’ll find the answer is yes.

Think about the wooden instrument you tap with a mallet and the practice of serving idols, and you’ll have our very rare word, but very common practice.

Xylolatry is the worship of wood; and is strongly condemned in the Bible as being one of the most dangerous snares. Believers need to be careful, not just in Old Covenant times. In the age of Jesus Christ and his gospel and right up to the judgment day, this danger is still real.

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.

Rev 9:20

The times of ignorance are over. God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:3). He will judge the world through Jesus Christ and has given proof of this “by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:4-5).

We’ve so reduced idolatry to a metaphor that we can easily forget the essence that still plagues many people. 

1. But, why wood?

No one says today says they are worshipping wood. No one in the ancient world did either.

People claim to be worshipping the gods of their ancestors, the powers that will look after their mum who is dying, the one who will bring favourable rains, or, the one who will grant success for a business merger. The wood merely represents the form of their divine ideal. The timber is shaped as an archetype. 

In a sense, wood is the crudest, cheapest and most common form of idolatry before the mass production of plastic. This is idolatry for the common person.

He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.

ISA 40:20

2. Saved from wood!

One of the narrative arcs of the Bible is that of exile and return. Even before the Israelites felt the soil of the promised land between their toes, God predicted that, for their continual rebellion, he would eject them, scatter them, send them to exile where they would serve carbon, cellulose, and crystals. 

And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Deut 4:27-29

When prodigal Israel returns to her senses, she will find the Lord. If Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt, who will release them from their future twin slave masters, xylolatry and her sister, litholatry (think paleo-lithic)?

3. Come out! Ridiculing wood

Almost all the discussions about serving wood come from the mouths of the prophets who speak of the exile, certainly the wittiest and most causticly barbed.

I expected there to be more about making wooden idols in the earlier parts of the Old Testament story, but it is the advanced cultures of the Assyrians and Babylonians that seem to ensnare the Israelites into these cheap, portable family idols.

Three key chapters are Isaiah 40:18-20; Isaiah 44:9-20 and Jeremiah 10:1-10. Each is worth reading in its entirety, but let me draw out five themes:

A. Don’t learn how to handle wood from those around you

“Learn not the way of the nations…for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.

JER 10:1-4

B. How does wood measure up to God?

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol!

ISA 40:18-19

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” There is none like you, O LORD;

JER 10:5-6

C. The idols that are made from wood are creations of mere people. 

The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.

ISA 44:13

D. The very same wood is used for both adoration and oxidisation

He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

ISA 44:14-17

E. You become what you worship: thick as a plank of wood

They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

ISA 44:18-20

The prophets are not polite. They call the Israelites to come out of such practices.  The emperor has no clothes. Beneath the most culturally historic, aesthetically beautiful, and most revered wooden idol, is undressed wood. But they can’t see it. Those who worship blocks become blockheads. And yet this lie can be as close as the right hand.

And now that Jesus has come, the time of ignorance is over, not just for the Israelites, but for all nations. 

4. Some hopefully not wooden applications:

1. In our service of the true God. Don’t make representations of God made out of wood (or plastic, ceramic etc..) This includes Jesus. Christ can see and hear and he is not located in front of us, but waits in heaven. Christian syncretism of idolatry and the triune God is alive and well in our generation.

2. In cultural tourism. We admire the wooden idols of other cultures, but remember what these things are. It’s what we have been saved from. When you bring them home and place them in your gardens, what are your saying to your neighbours, to people converted from idolatry who come over and have lunch? What are you saying to God?

3. In calling people to follow Christ. We call people to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thes. 1:9-10) Just as the exiled Jews were called out of their new-found wood and stone idolatry, so the gospel calls all nations and tribes out of their own captivity.

4. In seeing the stupidity as well as the wickedness. Our age of cultural relativism screams at us that we must admire and not judge other cultures. But there are bad ideas and foolish ones too. We shouldn’t feel arrogant, but remain thankful that are not trapped by such a distortion of true worship. We also must be very careful with those things that capture our heart. 

5. In applying the lessons widely. Remember what Isaiah said about the wooden idols. “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:20) What do we carry around, serve inordinately, entrust with our happiness and security, and love and can’t do without? By it we stay connected to the world – literally. Not all crutches are made of wood.