I have wanted to work on the topic idolatry for some time now. Given that if you review the Old Testament, one major theme of these books is Israel's hunger for worshipping other gods, and their rebellion against Yahweh in their pursuit of these false idols. I have found Israel's continual desire to worship idols as something I do not understand. And so, that is one of the topics I will discuss in today's post – why would anyone worship an idol? But let me start by reviewing the background of idolatry:
Worshipping Idols was forbidden to Israel in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20). In fact the way God provides the Second Commandment provided Israel with one of its unique characteristics from other nations – the fact that Israel's God was invisible and unseen. Here is the Commandment: You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4) And so, Israel was distinguished from other nations because of her imageless worship.
Scripture condemns all forms of idolatry;
One of major reasons for outlawing idolatry was to prevent 'syncretism'. 'Syncretism' is the assimilation of another's religious beliefs or practices into another. When other religions were permitted by Israel, we see things like King Solomon who built the famed Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, also built high places devoted to the foreign gods of Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11:7).
So what makes idolatry so desirable? Why even when God did such miraculous things to free Israel from its slavery in Egypt like the Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock, etc, would Israel so easily and so quickly turn to worshipping idols? For example when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and was communing with God for 40 days, the people of Israel and Moses' brother Aaron were afraid at this delay. And so, they gathered some gold, and Aaron molded it into a golden calf. Wouldn't you think that after seeing miracles up close and personal like the Israelites had, that they would remain faithful a little longer than they did?
Here are a few of my thoughts on why idolatry is so attractive: 1) Human Sensual Desire. first, there is a sense of meeting sexual desires in the worship of idols. Temple prostitutes are described in stories of the Old Testament. Also, the unrestrained revelry of worshipping an idol is shown in the story of Aaron's making the gold calf. Exodus 32:6 describes it as "and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play". Most commentators read the story of the golden calf as including sexual revelry. Sexual immorality is a chief example of rebellion against God.
But there are other things that make idolatry desirable as well. 2) Works Righteousness. By Works Righteousness I mean our desire to do something that requires God to do something for us. This is obviously a common desire for people – we think we are entitled to something if we do something (or refrain from doing something) that we think God will reward us for. There is something of a bargaining with God, which makes it wrong. For me, I know that after I lead a class, I always reward myself with a beer or a bowl of ice cream. My reward for doing something good.
But in the Old Testament, we see a bunch of people sacrificing their children to idols. We see sacrifices being made to Molech (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5), to Baal (Jeremiah 19:4-7), and to Chemosh (2 Kings 3:26-27). And the only way I can make sense of this is that people are sacrificing something so precious to them, like their children, so that their god will have to answer their prayer. In this way, it is like the foreign concept to Christianity of Works Righteousness – that by our actions, by what we do, God will reward us. Instead, Christianity is the only religion of Grace – God's love for us through the death of Jesus on the Cross, which we do not deserve or merit.
3) Lawless Idolatry. 1 Peter 4:3 describes idolatry as lawless idolatry. Lawless actions brings to mind a number of things – being unrestrained, wild, unconcerned about rules and others. Therefore, Lawlessness is another major way of an ungodly person to be rebellious against God. To worship in idolatry is to be self-centered and self-focused.
4) Material Benefit. There is an element of human longing for more wealth and possessions. This is brought out in Daniel 5:4 / Revelation 9:20, where it describes "idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood". Who wouldn't want to worship a god whose primary concern is to act like a genie in a bottle, and give you the money and home and car and bling etc. that we deserve, right? Rather the God of Christianity is a God of mercy, love for others, and building us into righteous people, not out of obligation but out of our hunger for it.
This is also the theme of the New Testament discussion of idolatry. The Apostle Paul describes idolatry as something other than being sexually immoral, or greedy, or a swindler (1 Cor. 5:10). And I think this is brought out in Colossians 3:5 (and its related verse in Eph. 5:5), where idolatry is equated with covetousness. Here is Colossians 3:5:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
I think Matthew Henry in his commentary has a helpful description of covetousness equating idolatry: The love of the world: And covetousness, which is idolatry; that is, an inordinate love of present good and outward enjoyments, which proceeds from too high a value in the mind, puts upon too eager a pursuit, hinders the proper use and enjoyment of them, and creates anxious fear and immoderate sorrow for the loss of them. Observe, Covetousness is spiritual idolatry: it is the giving of that love and regard to worldly wealth which are due to God only, and carries a greater degree of malignity in it, and is more highly provoking to God, than is commonly thought.
Finally, note that covetousness can also include an inordinate desire or enjoyment for other people (or as the Bible describes this "your neighbor's wife"), and not just things. See, Exodus 20:17.
In conclusion, I think it is easy to see the pull that worshipping an idol has in people's lives. It centers on our desire to control things, to have more and more of whatever is driving our worldly impulses, and displaces God's place as Sovereign Lord of our lives. It is hard to trust in the control of our lives to an unseen God, and His promises of love, care and provision, especially in hard times. The question that is left open in this discussion is what is the impact of God's hatred of idolatry for people living in today's world? Given that we do not worship Asherah poles, or figurines of angry looking gods, are we still in danger of violating the Second Commandment (Thou shall not worship a graven image)? I think Matthew Henry's Commentary (above)has hit the nail on the head for us when he tells us that if we are giving love and regard to anything worldly and this love and regard is instead due to God only, this is the sort of covetousness that provokes God. Thanks be to God for the sacrifice of Jesus which redeems from our deserved punishment. Amen.