Generations of Israelites looked to the sky and gazed upon a pole reaching toward the heavens. This tall pole, known as Nehushtan, was topped with a serpentine mass of metal. It was firmly fixed in the ground so that it could stretch skyward and be seen by all.
And, unfortunately, it was worshiped by many.
Generations of God’s people worshiped this towering assemblage of metal: “The people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)” (2 Kings 18:4).
Realizing that this pole had become an idol for God’s people, King Hezekiah tore it down. He removed the idols and tore down the towers: “And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made” (2 Kings 18:3–4).
This pole had not always been an idol. It became one.
God originally commanded Moses to construct this pole. The book of Numbers describes how the Israelites were attacked by snakes while they were in the wilderness. After many people had died from snakebites, they asked Moses to pray to God for relief. In response to Moses’ prayer, God told him to make the bronze serpent: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8).
When God commanded its creation, the bronze serpent was not meant to be worshiped. It was meant to be looked at, to be used — not worshiped. The pole served as a sign pointing to the salvation of God. The pole and the bronze serpent could not save them; God alone had the power to save them from the fiery serpents in the wilderness.
And God intended for this pole to be a sign pointing to Jesus. In John 3:14–15, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The tragic story of the Nehushtan is a warning for God’s people today: God’s good gifts can become inimical idols.
A New Nehushtan?
For at least a generation now, metal cell phone towers have pierced our skyline. Like the ancient Nehushtan, these towers protrude toward the heavens.
Yet, unlike the limited number of poles in the time of Hezekiah, modern cell phone towers total in the millions worldwide. And the mobile devices relying on these towers number in the billions.
In a relatively short amount of time, cellular technology transformed the modern world. The first generation of cellular technology — known as 1G — enabled the earliest forms of cell phones in late 1970s and early 1980s. While this technology seems ancient by modern standards, it was revolutionary at the time.
The next generation of cellular technology, 2G, moved from analog to digital and allowed for text messaging.
The third generation of cellular technology came in the 2000s. This 3G network used higher frequency waves in order to transfer more wireless data and allowed users to access the internet via smartphones.
Beginning in 2009, 4G cellular network technology hastened internet speeds for mobile devices. This fourth generation, which is still in use today, was the fastest iteration of cellular technology. While 3G can reach about 42 Megabits per second (Mbps), 4G can reach around 300 Mbps. Downloading a movie on 3G can take twice as long as 4G. One is measured in hours while the other is measured in minutes.
Not even a teenager yet, 4G technology is nearing the end of its life. Soon, 4G will go the way of bag phones, VCRs and pagers.
The fifth generation of cellular technology is here.
In order to use the 5G moniker, a network must support data transfer at the ludicrous speed of 20 Gbps. Downloading a movie with 5G takes less than a minute.
Some 5G networks use higher frequency radio waves that allow significantly more data transfer. Earlier generations of cellular technology use radio frequencies between 1 GHz and 2.6 GHz, while high-band 5G uses radio frequencies between 24 GHz and 40 GHz. Higher power means higher frequency waves and higher amounts of data.
High frequency waves, however, can only travel about one mile and have difficulty going through buildings. In order to remedy this, 5G networks will require many more towers than previous generations of cellular technology.
Though it is still in a very nascent form, this new technology has already arrived. In April 2019, South Korea became the first country to adopt 5G on a large scale. Since then, large cities around the world have already begun constructing and rolling out 5G networks. Currently, high-band 5G is concentrated in dense urban areas and in places where there are large groups of people such as sports stadiums and convention centers.
Like all the previous generations of cellular technology, the fifth generation is sure to transform the world. Autonomous cars, virtual reality and other internet-connected devices will use 5G technology. The incredible speed of 5G networks is vital for the future of these emerging technologies. Once 5G becomes widespread, unimaginable new technologies are sure to follow.
The Cost of 5G
This 5G, however, comes at a significant cost. The cost goes far beyond the money paid to AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. The sticker price for a 5G cellular subscription is really just the beginning.
Looming behind the price paid by consumers, there are furtive fees associated with 5G technology. The massive infrastructure upgrades around the world — more towers, new antennas and upgraded systems — come at a massive cost. The cost of upgrading infrastructure is measured in billions or even trillions of dollars. Landscapes, horizons and land must also be sacrificed to build new towers and antennas. Privacy breaches and data mining, while already an issue with current generations of cellular technology, may be bigger and faster on 5G.
Though it is hard to quantify, the largest cost associated with 5G may be exacted upon us more directly. This cost will not hit our bank accounts, but our hearts, minds and souls. It will come at the cost of our patience and contentment, peace and self-control, focus and freedom. This new technology will feed our lust for instant gratification and round-the-clock amusement. It will further confirm our misguided assumption that all good things must come fast. If we are already overwhelmed and distracted, 5G will only push these problems to even greater extremes. Like every previous generation of cellular technology, this one will soon leave us dissatisfied and wondering what’s next. These costs come so slowly that it is nearly impossible to perceive any losses.
It is only over long periods of time, in the course of generations, that one can measure the human cost of new technologies.
To be certain, these human costs are not unique to 5G technology. They were present in 4G, 3G, 2G and 1G. They are present in all forms of modern technology. All technology presents us with the opportunity — or temptation — to worship and serve created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). All technology can be turned into an idol. All technology can become a talisman rather than a tool.
Just as the ancient people in Babel wanted to make a tower with its top in the heavens, our modern towers and technologies whisper promises of an enduring name. While previous generations sought the tallest tower imaginable, we seek the fastest data transfer imaginable. Both endeavors, however, can be driven by a common motivation: “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).
The wholehearted pursuit of more, bigger and faster is idolatry. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with more, bigger or faster. These can all be good gifts from God used according to His purposes. Yet there is something amiss when we enter into the wholehearted, monomaniacal pursuit of more, bigger or faster. There is something idolatrous at work when these pursuits become ends in themselves.
Like all technology, 5G can become an idol. Its mere existence in our lives is an opportunity for us to fear, love and trust in it above all else. Technologies seek our hearts and minds so that we might “bow down to them or serve them” (Ex. 20:5). They invite us to fear not having them. They seek our love by marrying all our daily activities to them. They bid us to trust them with our lives and livelihoods.
As this new technology becomes widespread, the tragic story of the Nehushtan may be repeated. We can twist the good gifts from God into inimical idols.
A Strong Tower
The pole and the bronze serpent were meant to be used, but not worshiped. Likewise, our modern poles and towers, tools and technologies are worthy of our use and appreciation, but not our worship. They are used well when they assist us in loving God and neighbor, and they become idols when we fear not having them, or when we love them to the harm of others and trust in them for our well-being.
We do not need to worship poles, towers or technology. We need not serve the small glowing rectangles in our pockets or tall towers topped with masses of serpentine wires. We do not need these gods because there is only one true God: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe” (Prov. 18:10).
God, our mighty fortress and strong tower, frees us from relying on our own strength and striving. God, our bulwark never failing, has given us Christ Jesus as our Redeemer. No technology approaches the glory of God. No created thing can best the transforming power that is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the words of Martin Luther, “Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child, or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!” (LSB 657) God alone is worthy of our praise and worship.
Should you cancel your 5G subscription? Should you throw your new smartphone against the wall? No.
It’s alright to get a 5G subscription. There is nothing wrong with upgrading your phone. You can even be excited about the prospect of new technologies and faster connections.
Still, we must guard our hearts, minds and souls against serving these objects. We should turn them off from time to time, to keep them in their place. We can use them and appreciate them, but never worship them. Breaking the bonds of idolatry, we proclaim with the whole company of heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).