“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 10:3-4)
The above passage from Jeremiah 10:3-4 is routinely misinterpreted. It is common to have this passage cited as a warning not to have Christmas trees. The problem that jumps from the text is that the Hebrew wording does not support the notion of a tree itself being set up as an idol. The tree must be read into the text in which is an anachronism.
“An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, or customs from different periods.” – Wikipedia
The insights of the Pulpit Commentary are noteworthy in understanding the text: “Verse 3. – The customs of the people. “People” should, as usual, be corrected into peoples – the heathen nations are referred to. The Hebrew has “the statutes;” but the Authorized Version is substantially right, customs having a force as of iron in Eastern countries. It seems to be implied that the “customs” are of religious origin (setup. 2 Kings 17:8, where “the statutes of the heathen” are obviously the rites and customs of polytheism. For one cutteth a tree, etc. This is intended to prove the foregoing statement of the “vanity,” or groundlessness, of idolatry. The order of the Hebrew, however, is more forcible, for as wood out of the forest one cutteth it, viz. the idol.
Verse 4. – They deck it… that it move not. The close resemblance of this verse to Isaiah 40:19, 20, Isaiah 41:7 will strike every reader. “Move” should rather be totter.” (1)
According to the Pulpit Commentary, the Hebrew is best understood “as wood out of the forest one cutteth it.” For that reason, the passage is not talking about setting up an actual tree, but cutting wood from a tree to be used as an idol. In reality, a block of wood is taken and carved into an idol from which parts of it are then overlaid with silver or gold.
The entry from Brown-Driver-Briggs on עֵץ֙ concurs with the Pulpit Commentary:
2 (approximately 175 times; approximately 120 times plural, to denote pieces [or articles] of wood)
a. wood, as material; for building, 2 Kings 12:13 (+ אַבְנֵי מַתְצֵב), 2 Kings 22:6 2Chronicles 34:11 (both + id.), Nehemiah 2:8 +; עֲצֵי שָׁ֑מֶן 1 Kings 6:23,31,33 compare 1 Kings 6:32; עֲצֵיגֹּֿפֶר Genesis 6:14 (Noah’s ark), עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים Exodus 25:5,10 20t. Exodus (of tabernacle and its furniture; all P) Deuteronomy 10:3; מִגְדַּלעֵֿץ Nehemiah 8:4; מוֺטִת עֵץ Jeremiah 28:13 (in figurative; opposed to בַּרְזֶל ׳מ); כְּלִיעֵֿץ article of wood Leviticus 11:32; Leviticus 15:12; Numbers 31:20, compare Numbers 35:18 (all P). Hence
b. עֵצִים = articles of wood Exodus 7:19 (P; “” אֲבָנִים), 1 Chronicles 29:2; so עֲצֵי בְרוֺשִׁים 2 Samuel 6:5 (but see בְּרוֺשׁ near the end); specifically הָעֵץ = helve of axe Deuteronomy 19:5; עֵץ חֲנִית(וֺׅ 1 Samuel 17:7 Qr (Kt חֵץ) = 1 Chronicles 20:5; 2 Samuel 21:19; 2 Samuel 23:7; עֲצֵי הָעֲגָלָה 1 Samuel 6:14 (i.e. wood of which cart was made), עֲצֵי הָאֲשֵׁרָה Judges 6:26; especially timbers of a house Zechariah 5:4; Habakkuk 2:11; Leviticus 14:45, of a city 1 Kings 15:22 2Chronicles 16:5; Ezekiel 26:12; עֵץ of pole on which bodies of slain (criminals and others) were exposed (perhaps originally trees) Genesis 40:19 (E), Joshua 8:29 (twice in verse); Joshua 10:26 (twice in verse); Joshua 10:27 (all J E), Deuteronomy 21:22,23; late (in Persian) used for executing criminals (? by hanging = gallows), תָּלָח עַלעֵֿץ Esther 2:23 8t. Esther.
c. of idols, עֵץ וָאֶבֶן Deuteronomy 4:28; Deuteronomy 28:36,64; Deuteronomy 29:16; 2 Kings 19:18 = Isaiah 37:19; Ezekiel 20:32, compare Jeremiah 2:27; Jeremiah 3:9; Habakkuk 2:19; so עֵץ alone Hosea 4:12; Isaiah 40:20, of. Isaiah 44:19; Isaiah 45:20; אֲשֵׁרָה כָּלעֵֿץ Deuteronomy 16:21.
d. (fire-) wood Joshua 9:23, 27 (J), Joshua 9:21 (P), Deuteronomy 19:5; Isaiah 30:33 +, read עֵצִים also Ezekiel 24:5 (for ᵑ0 עצמים) Bö Ew Sm Co Berthol Toy; especially for sacrifices 1 Kings 18:23 (twice in verse) +, Genesis 22:7, 9 (twice in verse); Leviticus 1:7 6t. Leviticus (all P), 2 Samuel 24:22 “” 1 Chronicles 21:23, +; עֲצֵי עוֺלָה Genesis 22:3, 6 (P).
e. עֵץ (הָ)אֶרֶז cedar-wood, used in purifications Leviticus 14:4,6,49,51,52; Numbers 19:6 (all P).
f. מִּשְׁתֵּי הָעֵץ Joshua 2:6 woody-flax, i.e. flax on the stalk. — Jeremiah 10:8 Gie proposes הֶבֶל מֹעֲצֹתָו for ᵑ0 הֲבָלִים עִץ הוּא. — מֹאֶסֶת כָּלעֵֿץ Ezekiel 21:15 is dubious, Sm proposes מָאֵסְתָּ כָלעֵֿץ, Co מֹאֲסֵי כָלעֹֿז, Berthol וּמְנַסֵּף כָּלעַֿז; SiegfKau Toy leave untranslated. (2)
Jeremiah 10:3-4 describes what men do. Moses tells why not to do it:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Jerimiah, Vol. 11. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 268.
2. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius, Hebrew English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers), p. 781.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Christian Apologetics in the market place of ideas Paperback at, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09FS31QMG?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860