What does a Christmas tree have to do with a prophet called to proclaim the word of God to the rebellious people of Judah in the days leading up to the Babylonian Captivity? Some would say – a lot; someone like me would say – not so much. The issue in question is whether the opening verses of Jeremiah 10 condemn the use of Christmas trees. Now while you will not find me singing, ‘O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches’ during the holiday season, I nonetheless cannot say that an accurate interpretation and application of the text before us is – never put up a Christmas tree. Whether someone puts one up or doesn’t put one up is up to them. I think the subject would much sooner fall under things disputed by Christians in terms of their own conscience (cf. Rom. 14:1-22; 1 Cor. 10:23-25) versus things prohibited by Scripture. The issue in Jeremiah 10 is not, as some have suggested tree-decoration; the issue is idolatry and its folly (Jer. 10:8). Let’s jump into the text and see how the passage develops so that we can hear what the text has to say versus the misapplied chatter that surrounds it.
As we have grown accustomed to seeing, the opening verse of our text is tied to the closing verse of the preceding chapter. Having just prophetically identified all the house of Israel as uncircumcised in heart (Jer. 9:26) Jeremiah called that same house to renewed attention: “Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD:” (vs.1-2a). If the house heard what Jeremiah had just said – that God was going to punish the circumcised with the uncircumcised (Jer. 9:25) – they would do well to heed His admonition to abandon the idolatrous superstitions of the pagan nations. The LORD began by saying:
Do not learn the way of the Gentiles [i.e. the nations]; Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, For the Gentiles are dismayed at them. (vs.2b).
The way of the Gentiles spoken about here does not deal with ‘how to do Mathematics’ or the practice of medicine, it deals with pagan religion. The first example deals with pagan astrology. The house of Israel was not to be dismayed at the signs in the heavens(vs.2b) even though the nations were (vs.2c). When pagan astrologers saw things like comets and eclipses it’s as though the ‘Chaldean stock-market’ plummeted. They became terrified. They looked to the starry host for direction instead of the one true God and the result was they were deceived and frightened. This wasn’t only a problem for Jeremiah’s contemporaries it’s a problem for people today who open their newspapers or click on internet articles to see what the astrologist will tell them about their future. That kind of learning needed to be avoided in Jeremiah’s day and it needs to be avoided in ours.
The LORD went to further illustrate the problem with the ways of the nations by highlighting the futility of their idolatry:
3 “For the customs of the peoples [i.e. their religious customs]
are futile; For one cuts a tree from the forest,
The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
4 They decorate it with silver and gold;
They fasten it with nails and hammers
So that it will not topple.
5 They are upright, like a palm tree [or, “like a scarecrow in a cucumber field”],
And they cannot speak;
they must be carried,
Because they cannot go by themselves.
Do not be afraid of them,
For they cannot do evil,
Nor can they do any good.”
Sheer silliness – that’s how idolatry is depicted in these verses: A man cuts down a tree from the forest (vs.3b), not for the purposes of building (or Christmas) but to make it a god – anyone else see a big problem with that – a god you can make? Then he, along with others, play ‘idol dress-up’ and decorate it with silver and gold (vs.4b). After all, if it’s going to demand worship without being able to speak (vs.5b) it’s going to need to look somewhat majestic, right? And granted the idol will not be immutable – it will get old and wear down over time – but they wanted to do their best to make it stable. The way of choice – fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple (vs.4b). Funny to think that the newly created god would fall if left by itself. Not exactly the kind of thing one ought to be scared of. And not only did man have to make his god stable but it was also up to man to make his god moveable – they must be carried because they cannot go by themselves (vs.5b). This is the antithesis of the true God who says that He carries His people even to their old age (Isa. 46:4). No wonder why the LORD says, “Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good” (vs.5c).
Idolatry, no matter how systematized, institutionalized, or theologized always looks this silly. Anyone who worships the imagination of their own heart, or the imagination of someone else’s heart, essentially trades trusting in a living Savior who died on a tree for sinners, for an inanimate scarecrow in a cucumber patch (cf. Jer. 10:5) – utter folly.
So rather than debating about a tree that has become culturally connected with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem much more than any winter solstice of centuries gone by, let us see the thrust of this passage which is not – avoid Christmas trees, but, to use a New Testament text – “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21).