In paradoxical fashion, we learn that it is possible to make gods that “are not gods” (Jeremiah 16:20). Jeremiah introduces in simple language something the apostle Paul will explain in depth to the church in Corinth hundreds of years later. Jeremiah and Paul agree that idols, to use the language of Christopher Wright, are “nothing, but we making them something.”
First, they are nothing, for the gods which humans invent or craft are unable to fulfill their promises. They are weak and impotent. YHWH is less threatened by idols than I would be that my wife would fall in love with her niece’s drawing of my face. Idols are genuinely nothing, but we make them something. In Jeremiah’s days, people constructed idols and made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to handmade gods that supposedly could provide rain, crops, sun, fertility, military success and so on. Even today, God is not threatened by the person whose esteem controls your actions, but to you that person is something. God is not threatened by our upward mobility or buying power, but we spend all of our resources at their service. Idols are genuinely nothing, but we make them into something.
God doesn’t simply judge this because it is evil, but God also builds into the practice of idolatry misery and disappointment. God is gracious in ensuring the futility of idolatry and even the attending judgement against it. Both are strong invitations to find our home in a powerful “refuge in time of distress” (Jeremiah 16:20).