Because that when they knew God - When they thus acquired a general knowledge of the unity and perfections of the Divine nature, they glorified him not as God - they did not proclaim him to the people, but shut up his glory (as Bishop Warburton expresses it) in their mysteries, and gave the people, in exchange for an incorruptible God, an image made like to corruptible man. Wherefore God, in punishment for their sins, thus turning his truth into a lie, suffered even their mysteries, which they had erected for a school of virtue, to degenerate into an odious sink of vice and immorality; giving them up unto all uncleanness and vile affections.
They glorified him not - They did not give him that worship which his perfections required.
Neither were thankful - They manifested no gratitude for the blessings they received from his providence, but became vain in their imaginations, διαλογισμοις, in their reasonings. This certainly refers to the foolish manner in which even the wisest of their philosophers discoursed about the Divine nature, not excepting Socrates, Plato, or Seneca. Who can read their works without being struck with the vanity of their reasonings, as well as with the stupidity of their nonsense, when speaking about God? I might crowd my page with proofs of this; but it is not necessary to those who are acquainted with their writings, and to others it would not be useful. In short, their foolish, darkened minds sought God no where but in the place in which he is never to be found; viz. the vile, corrupted, and corrupting passions of their own hearts. As they did not discover him there, they scarcely sought him any where else.
Because that - The apostle here is showing that it was right to condemn people for their sins. To do this it was needful to show them that they had the knowledge of God, and the means of knowing what was right; and that the true source of their sins and idolatries was a corrupt and evil heart.
When they knew God - Greek, “knowing God.” That is, they had an acquaintance with the existence and many of the perfections of one God. That many of the philosophers of Greece and Rome had a knowledge of one God, there can be no doubt. This was undoubtedly the case with Pythagoras, who had traveled extensively in Egypt, and even in Palestine; and also with Plato and his disciples. This point is clearly shown by Cudworth in his Intellectual System, and by Dr. Warburton in the Divine Legation of Moses. Yet the knowledge of this great truth was not communicated to the people. It was confined to the philosophers; and not improbably one design of the mysteries celebrated throughout Greece was to keep up the knowledge of the one true God. Gibbon has remarked that “the philosophers regarded all the popular superstitions as equally false: the common people as equally true; and the politicians as equally useful.” This was probably a correct account of the prevalent feelings among the ancients. A single extract from “Cicero” (de Natura Deorum, lib. ii. c. 6) will show that they had the knowledge of one God. “There is something in the nature of things, which the mind of man, which reason, which human power cannot effect; and certainly what produces this must be better than man. What can this be called but “God?” Again (c. 2), “What can be so plain and manifest, when we look at heaven, and contemplate heavenly things, as that there is some divinity of most excellent mind, by which these things are governed?”
They glorified him not as God - They did not “honor” him as God. This was the true source of their abominations. To glorify him “as God” is to regard with proper reverence all his perfections and laws; to venerate his name, his power, his holiness, and presence, etc. As they were not inclined to do this, so they were given over to their own vain and wicked desires. Sinners are not willing to give honor to God, as God. They are not pleased with his perfections; and therefore the mind becomes fixed on other objects, and the heart gives free indulgence to its own sinful desires. A willingness to honor God as God - to reverence, love, and obey him, would effectually restrain people from sin.
Neither were thankful - The obligation to be “thankful” to God for his mercies, for the goodness which we experience, is plain and obvious. Thus, we judge of favors received of our fellow-men. the apostle here clearly regards this unwillingness to render gratitude to God for his mercies as one of the causes of their subsequent corruption and idolatry. The reasons of this are the following.
(1) the effect of ingratitude is to render the heart hard and insensible.
(2) people seek to forget the Being to whom they are unwilling to exercise gratitude.
(3) to do this, they fix their affections on other things; and hence, the pagan expressed their gratitude not to God, but to the sun, and moon, and stars, etc., the mediums by which God bestows his favors upon people. And we may here learn that an unwillingness to thank God for his mercies is one of the most certain causes of alienation and hardness of heart.
But became vain - To “become vain,” with us, means to be elated, or to be self-conceited, or to seek praise from others. The meaning here seems to be, they became foolish, frivolous in their thoughts and reasonings. They acted foolishly; they employed themselves in useless and frivolous questions, the effect of which was to lead the mind further and further from the truth respecting God.
Imaginations - This word means properly “thoughts,” then “reasonings,” and also “disputations.” Perhaps our word, “speculations,” would convey its meaning here. It implies that they were unwilling to honor God, and being unwilling to honor him, they commenced those speculations which resulted in all their vain and foolish opinions about idols, and the various rites of idolatrous worship. Many of the speculations and inquiries of the ancients were among the most vain and senseless which the mind can conceive.
And their foolish heart - The word “heart” is not infrequently used to denote the mind, or the understanding. We apply it to denote the affections. But such was not its common use, among the Hebrews. We speak of the head when we refer to the understanding, but this was not the case with the Hebrews. They spoke of the heart in this manner, and in this sense it is clearly used in this place; see Ephesians 1:18; Romans 2:15; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Peter 1:19. The word “foolish” means literally what is without “understanding;” Matthew 15:16.
Was darkened - Was rendered obscure, so that they did not perceive and comprehend the truth. The process which is stated in this verse is,
(1)That people had the knowledge of God.
(2)that they refused to honor him when they knew him, and were opposed to his character and government.
(3)that they were ungrateful.
(4)that they then began to doubt, to reason, to speculate, and wandered far into darkness.
This is substantially the process by which people wander away from God now. They have the knowledge of God, but they do not love him; and being dissatisfied with his character and government, they begin to speculate, fall into error, and then “find no end in wandering mazes lost,” and sink into the depths of heresy and of sin.
God chose Israel to reveal His character to men. He desired them to be as wells of salvation in the world. To them were committed the oracles of heaven, the revelation of God's will. In the early days of Israel the nations of the world, through corrupt practices, had lost the knowledge of God. They had once known Him; but because “they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, ... their foolish heart was darkened.” Romans 1:21. Yet in His mercy God did not blot them out of existence. He purposed to give them an opportunity of again becoming acquainted with Him through His chosen people. Through the teachings of the sacrificial service, Christ was to be uplifted before all nations, and all who would look to Him should live. Christ was the foundation of the Jewish economy. The whole system of types and symbols was a compacted prophecy of the gospel, a presentation in which were bound up the promises of redemption. AA 14.1
But the people of Israel lost sight of their high privileges as God's representatives. They forgot God and failed to fulfill their holy mission. The blessings they received brought no blessing to the world. All their advantages they appropriated for their own glorification. They shut themselves away from the world in order to escape temptation. The restrictions that God had placed upon their association with idolaters as a means of preventing them from conforming to the practices of the heathen, they used to build up a wall of separation between themselves and all other nations. They robbed God of the service He required of them, and they robbed their fellow men of religious guidance and a holy example. AA 14.2
Priests and rulers became fixed in a rut of ceremonialism. They were satisfied with a legal religion, and it was impossible for them to give to others the living truths of heaven. They thought their own righteousness all-sufficient, and did not desire that a new element should be brought into their religion. The good will of God to men they did not accept as something apart from themselves, but connected it with their own merit because of their good works. The faith that works by love and purifies the soul could find no place for union with the religion of the Pharisees, made up of ceremonies and the injunctions of men. AA 15.1Read in context »
For nearly a thousand years Adam lived among men, a witness to the results of sin. Faithfully he sought to stem the tide of evil. He had been commanded to instruct his posterity in the way of the Lord; and he carefully treasured what God had revealed to him, and repeated it to succeeding generations. To his children and children's children, to the ninth generation, he described man's holy and happy estate in Paradise, and repeated the history of his fall, telling them of the sufferings by which God had taught him the necessity of strict adherence to His law, and explaining to them the merciful provisions for their salvation. Yet there were but few who gave heed to his words. Often he was met with bitter reproaches for the sin that had brought such woe upon his posterity. PP 82.1
Adam's life was one of sorrow, humility, and contrition. When he left Eden, the thought that he must die thrilled him with horror. He was first made acquainted with the reality of death in the human family when Cain, his first-born son, became the murderer of his brother. Filled with the keenest remorse for his own sin, and doubly bereaved in the death of Abel and the rejection of Cain, Adam was bowed down with anguish. He witnessed the wide-spreading corruption that was finally to cause the destruction of the world by a flood; and though the sentence of death pronounced upon him by his Maker had at first appeared terrible, yet after beholding for nearly a thousand years the results of sin, he felt that it was merciful in God to bring to an end a life of suffering and sorrow. PP 82.2
Notwithstanding the wickedness of the antediluvian world, that age was not, as has often been supposed, an era of ignorance and barbarism. The people were granted the opportunity of reaching a high standard of moral and intellectual attainment. They possessed great physical and mental strength, and their advantages for acquiring both religious and scientific knowledge were unrivaled. It is a mistake to suppose that because they lived to a great age their minds matured late; their mental powers were early developed, and those who cherished the fear of God and lived in harmony with His will continued to increase in knowledge and wisdom throughout their life. Could illustrious scholars of our time be placed in contrast with men of the same age who lived before the Flood, they would appear as greatly inferior in mental as in physical strength. As the years of man have decreased, and his physical strength has diminished, so his mental capacities have lessened. There are men who now apply themselves to study during a period of from twenty to fifty years, and the world is filled with admiration of their attainments. But how limited are these acquirements in comparison with those of men whose mental and physical powers were developing for centuries! PP 82.3Read in context »
The promised Holy Spirit, whom He would send after He ascended to His Father, is constantly at work to draw the attention to the great official sacrifice upon the cross of Calvary, and to unfold to the world the love of God to man, and to open to the convicted soul the precious things in the Scriptures, and to open to darkened minds the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness, the truths that make their hearts burn within them with the awakened intelligence of the truths of eternity. 3SM 137.3Read in context »