All the nations surrounding Israel had temples with idols--symbols or representatives of the gods. Though not themselves divine, idols were worshiped and served as though gods themselves, for through them the gods were thought to be accessible. Service of the idols secured the favor of the gods.
Isaiah, however, insists that such worship is "nothing" for at least two reasons. The first reason is spelled out in detail in the fierce satire of this passage: Idols are made by human hands! How then can they possibly be gods? How can they save (v. 17)? The prophet's concern here is God's own: the point is not to condemn the idols simply as silly, though they are, but to get to the heart of the matter: they cannot save. God cares first and foremost for the well-being of Israel and of all the world, so God fervently wills that people do not squander their religious energies by "praying to a god that cannot save" (45:20).
How absurd, says the prophet, to worship human work. The work is real, the artistry is fine, the effort itself, perhaps commendable--but to worship this is nonsense. The prophet continually identifies God as the one "who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth" (44:24, etc.), so why would anyone worship a creature rather than the Creator?
The second reason idol worship is nothing (41:29) is that, contrary to human belief, there is "no one home" behind the idols: "I am the LORD, and there is no other" (45:5, 6, 18; see also 45:14, 22; 46:9). Gods and spirits populate the religious world throughout human history, but Second Isaiah makes the strongest biblical case for their non-being. Not merely are they false gods, they are no gods at all. There is none besides God.
Because of Israel's sin, their eyes are closed and minds shut (44:18; compare 6:9-10), which might make them susceptible to the idolatry of the nations. The prophet calls them back from this by this satirical denunciation of idols.
9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. 10Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? 11Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.
12 The blacksmith fashions it* and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. 13The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. 14He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. 16Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire! 17The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says, Save me, for you are my god!
18 They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand.
19No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?
20He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org