Exposition of Romans 1:21-23, Why exchange God for a scarecrow?

Pragmatism is very attractive to many Americans because they have had lessons in the hard school of experience. Pragmatism keys on what works, and in a society like ours that usually amounts to self-interest. If some activity returns sufficient personal benefit, Americans are likely to adopt that activity. We even have a slogan for this strategy: “That works for me!”

But, in the history of humanity, self-interest has not always been clear. The entry of sin into the human heart has brought the desire for self-rule as a short-term replacement for God’s rule. God has used the Bible to reveal that such a strategy will work out disastrously, but humanity has consistently chosen the wrong side of this exchange.

(ESV) Romans 1:21-23

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:21 takes as given that all humanity has always known about God’s divinity and power and then moves on to describe what treatment that revelation received. Many decided to ignore it! Concerning what they did not do, various translations express the verb differently: “did not honor him” (ESV), “did not glorify him” (NET and HCSB), and “wouldn’t worship him” (NLT). In addition they did not thank God even though he himself “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25, ESV). No wonder Paul called such suppression of the truth “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (1:18).

Theologian James Dunn accurately says: “Human behavior is marked by an irrational disjunction between what man knows to be the true state of affairs and a life at odds with that knowledge. This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.”[1] Humanity knows the score and lives in denial.

The second half of 1:21 tells the internal consequence of turning aside from God: their thinking became futile and empty, and their hearts became dark. The Bible commonly speaks about the futility of life apart from God: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” (Psalm 14:1); “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7); those who reject God lack reliable and adequate knowledge to continue their lives.

When humanity turns away from the light of the world, inner darkness is the logical result. Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23). This is the plight of many today.

It is in the above senses that Romans 1:22 says, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Romans 1:23 uses the metaphor of an exchange to speak of what humankind gave up and what was received in return. Having rejected the living God, they turned to idolatry. We remember the idolater who cut a log into two pieces, fashioning one piece into his god and using the other piece to cook his supper (Isaiah 44:14-17)! Of course, such a god makes no compelling demands on us. Is that not why he was fashioned into a god?

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God expressed his total scorn for idols: “Their gods are like helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field! They cannot speak, and they need to be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of such gods, for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.” (Jer. 10:5, NLT).

A bad bargain

While idolatry in its ancient form (stone or wooden images) has generally faded in the western world, it has only taken a different form. Now there is widespread trust in various ideas of human origin: we can solve our own problems through mutual cooperation, technological development, democracy, and market economics. There is a naive faith that the Internet will allow us to pool our wisdom and give birth to solutions for cancer, nuclear proliferation, war, poverty, resource scarcity, and global warming. Nowhere in this picture is there a turn toward God.

1. What cultural forces do you see that promote the idea that God is irrelevant to human affairs? What forms do these forces take in your life?

2. As a Christian, you are betting your life and your destiny on the Lords assurance that he will reward you with heaven for trusting in Jesus Christ. How does that commitment make your life different from those who have exchanged God for something else?

Many of us who serve the Lord Jesus Christ are looking for solutions in another direction. Jeremiah said it well: “Who would not fear you, O King of nations? That title belongs to you alone! Among all the wise people of the earth and in all the kingdoms of the world, there is no one like you.” (Jer. 10:7, NLT). Amen!

Copyright 2012 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship (McKinney, Texas), by permission.


[1] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988) 59.