“Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” – Jeremiah 10:2-4
I’ve encountered this passage twice, both times in the context of people trying to establish that Christmas is a pagan holiday. Does this passage prohibit Christmas trees?It certainly sounds like Jeremiah is talking about cutting down a tree and setting it up and decorating it, doesn’t it? Indeed, some Christians have attempted to use this passage to argue against the Christian use of Christmas trees. However, the wording of this passage is unfortunately somewhat misleading in the KJV translation. Modern translations and a look at the basic context of the passage, however, reveal that Jeremiah (well, God is speaking here) is not condemning Christmas trees at all.
The word that is translated as “axe” (ma’atsad) only appears one other place in the Old Testament, and that is in another passage with a similar context (more on that in a moment), where it is translated as “tongs” in the KJV, and these tongs are what the workman is working with. However, the NASB translates the word as “cutting tool”. Why is this relevant? Because the other modern translations all indicate that what is happening to the tree that is cut down is not merely that it is cut down with an axe and brought inside, but rather that it is being formed. Why would they be forming it?
That’s where the context comes in. The context of Jeremiah 10:2-4 is Jeremiah 10:1-16, which is all a polemic against idols. It is important to realize that idols aren’t always made entirely out of metal, but rather were sometimes the result of the idol maker plating wood with precious metals, which makes idols a lot lighter than they would be if they were solid metal. Once we read over a modern translation of the full passage, it is suddenly much harder to make about Christmas trees:
Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.”
No one is like you, Lord;
you are great,
and your name is mighty in power.
Who should not fear you,
King of the nations?
This is your due.
Among all the wise leaders of the nations
and in all their kingdoms,
there is no one like you.
They are all senseless and foolish;
they are taught by worthless wooden idols.
Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish
and gold from Uphaz.
What the craftsman and goldsmith have made
is then dressed in blue and purple—
all made by skilled workers.
But the Lord is the true God;
he is the living God, the eternal King.
When he is angry, the earth trembles;
the nations cannot endure his wrath.
“Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”
But God made the earth by his power;
he founded the world by his wisdom
and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar;
he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth.
He sends lightning with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses.
Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
they have no breath in them.
They are worthless, the objects of mockery;
when their judgment comes, they will perish.
He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these,
for he is the Maker of all things,
including Israel, the people of his inheritance—
the Lord Almighty is his name.
Finally, there is another similar passage is Isaiah (written some 200 years prior) that uses the same language as far as shaping wood into idols using sharp tools. Check out Isaiah 44:6-20, which also speaks of cutting down a tree, and then forming part of it into an idol while the other part is thrown on the fire to warm the idol-maker. I encourage you to read the passage, which is somehow both entertaining in the picture it paints and sobering once we realize that idolatry is still one of humanity’s most persistent sins.
So, does Jeremiah forbid Christmas trees? The context and simple modern translations make it clear that he’s not. But he does forbid idolatry. Actual physical idols that we physically bow down and worship aren’t such a big thing in today’s culture (well, then again there’s “Black Friday”). How would Jeremiah write this passage differently to address our modern idolatry if he were living today? Are you keeping a close reign on your heart’s attitude towards temporary material things, or even on your sentimentality?