In Hebrew, the word for tree is ates and means a living tree that is firm and of a suitable quality for carving. Ates comes from the primitive Hebrew root word atsah, and it means to fasten or make firm, as in to close or shut the eyes. In this verse, the tree carving being described is the ancient art of making personal or household gods (idols) out of wood.
Trees in the ancient Middle East were short and scrubby. An entire tree stock might be used to produce a god.
From Pliny: In those days (earliest days) all images were of wood. In Italy, down to the conquest of Western Asia in the first half of the second century B.C., most of the images of the gods are said to have been of wood or earthenware (clay). (Natural History, Book XXXIV. 34.)
From Rev. George Bush: "Before the art of carving was carried to perfection, the ancients made their images all of a thickness, straight, having their hands hanging down and close to their sides, the legs joined together, the eyes shut with a very perpendicular attitude, and not unlike the body of a palm tree; such are the figures of those antique Egyptian statues that still remain." ( Illustrations of the Holy Scriptures, P.493. Published 1850.)
From Sir John Gardner Wilkinson: "Long after men had attempted to make out the parts of the figure, statues continued to be very rude; the arms were placed directly down the side to the thighs, and the legs were united together, nor did they pass beyond the imperfect state in Greece until the age of Daedalus (Greek Mythology)." (Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Vol.3 p. 273; Published 1847.)
Idol trees were chosen according to their durability and longevity.
From John Gill : (Concerning Isaiah 40:20 - "He chooseth a tree that will not rot.") "He goes to the forest, and chooses the best tree for his purpose he can find, even one that will not rot, as the cypress; and though he cannot get an idol made of metal, but is forced to have one of wood, yet he will get the best he can, that will last longest, an incorruptible deity, as he fancies: ." (Exposition of the Old Testament; Published 1748-1763.)
Once a tree was obtained, the workman cut, stripped and cleaned the wood in preparation for it to become a life-sized carving. Any deity's likeness might be chosen, but there is reliable evidence that these idols were given human forms and oftentimes bore the features of the new owner or even the workman himself.
After the carving was completed, the tree idol was decorated according to the wealth and social standing of the new owner. Some gods were merely stained or painted with crude dyes, while others were covered with hand beaten sheets of silver or gold. If the owner was extremely rich, the idol might have loops of silver and gold attached to it, or be embedded with precious gems.
Once finished, the tree idol could not stand on its own. It had to be nailed to a wooden base, a wall, a post or some other such brace. Where it was then located where all could admire it.
From Jean Baptiste Tavernier: The idolaters of India have, both in the towns and country parts, a great number of temples, large as well as small, which they call pagodas, where they go to pray to their gods and make offerings ; but many of the poor people who dwell in the forests and mountains, far removed from villages, take a stone, and rudely trace a nose and eyes with yellow or red color upon it, and all the family then worship it. (Travels in India, Volume 2, P. 262; Published 1676.) (1889 Translation from French.)
From J.G. Wilkinson: " In the early stages of society when gold first began to be used, idols, ornaments, or other objects, were made of the metal in its pure state, till being found too soft, and too easily worn away, an alloy was added to harden it, at the same time that it increased the bulk of the valuable material. As men advanced in experience, they found that the great ductility of gold enabled them to cover substances of all kinds with thin plates of the metal, giving all the effect of the richness and brilliancy they admired in solid gold ornaments; and the gilding of bronze. ("The Ancient Egyptians", P. 234; Published 1837.
Some Biblical scholars believe that the introductory verses, besides their intended spiritual meaning, may also be an historical reference to the use of scarecrows. Mention of scarecrows can also be found in the apocrypha and the LXX.
From the Epistle of Jeremiah 1:70-72: " So we have no evidence whatever that they are gods; therefore do not fear them. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, that guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. In the same way, their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, and like a thorn bush in a garden, on which every bird sits; or like a dead body cast out in the darkness. By the purple and linen that rot upon them you will know that they are not gods…." (Apocrypha/Baruch 6 – Approximately 300BC-100BC.)
One misconception of note concerning the introductory text is that this verse is describing the earliest use of a Christmas Tree and the censure of such a practice. There is absolutely no historical basis for this assumption.
The best explanation for this verse comes from the companion verses found in Isaiah 40:18-20 (KJV). "To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved. "
This passage is God's condemnation against the making and worshiping of false idols.
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