July 23, 2014

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Is There Hope for a World Slipping Back into Pagan Nature Worship?

By E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D.

Dear Friend,

Some of today’s environmental movement is clearly a revival of ancient pagan nature worship, exemplified in this video of Earth First members crying out, speaking not only of but to trees, and referring to the forest as a “tabernacle.”

Isaiah 1:29–31 contains a sobering warning for those who worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).

Speaking of the idolatrous people of Judah and Jerusalem shortly before God sent them into exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah said, “… they [their rulers] shall be ashamed of the oaks that you [the common people] desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen. For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.”

Of the trees mentioned here—the actual species of which is uncertain—Old Testament scholar E.J. Young writes in his commentary on Isaiah, “these were green trees in which the numina [spiritual influences perceptible by mind but not by the senses] were thought to dwell (cf. Deut. 16:21; 1 Kings 16:33; 2 Kings 16:4; Ezek. 6:13). There is a tree cult in Palestine even today. In ancient Canaan idolatry found expression in that divinity was attributed to the powers of nature and worship was held under the trees.”

Comparing and contrasting these verses with Psalm 1 and Genesis 2 yields powerful insights.

Through Isaiah God says idolaters—including those who worship nature—will be “like an oak whose leaf withers.” In contrast, Psalm 1 says one who delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3).

Here in Isaiah God says the powerful, oppressive idolaters of Jerusalem would “become tinder,” their work “a spark,” and they would “burn … with none to quench them.” Psalm 1 describes the wicked as “like chaff that the wind drives away” who “will not stand in the judgment” (Psalm 1:4–5).

The contrast between these trees and gardens, planted by idolatrous men, and the Garden of Eden, planted by God, is even more striking. The trees of these gardens would wither, but “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden [of Eden]” (Genesis 2:9).These gardens are “without water.” But “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden [of Eden], and there it divided and became four rivers” that watered the whole Earth (Genesis 2:10).

The makers of idolatrous gardens—gardens used for the worship of false gods, particularly gods of nature—would “be ashamed of the oaks [they] desired; and … blush for the gardens” they chose (Isaiah 1:29).

The irony is striking. The idolatrous people of Jerusalem before the exile made gardens for themselves, with mighty trees, in which they worshiped the Canaanite nature gods, thinking this would make their fields and livestock fertile and so themselves prosperous. The actual consequence would be the opposite: they would be overthrown, impoverished, enslaved, removed from their land—and their land would be made desolate.

“God has chosen Judah,” writes Young, “but Judah had chosen a tree, the symbol of man’s fall into sin. Yet man cannot find in nature or nature worship an answer to the deepest needs of the soul.”

Fallen mankind is always striving to get back into the Garden of Eden but cannot. Only God can renew creation and the human soul. And He can and will. To the very same people to whom He gave the warning of Isaiah 1:29–31, God also said, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

Many modern environmentalists, like those Earth Firsters in the video above, have “chosen a tree” rather than the God who made all trees. In addition to our ongoing work bringing sound science and economics to bear on Earth stewardship, the Cornwall Alliance, as part of our In His Image 2012 educational initiative, is preparing a gospel presentation and training program specifically designed to reach people caught up in various aspects of environmentalism. Will you please help us with your tax-deductible donation today?