If you spend any time at all in the Old Testament, you’ll notice a theme that runs throughout. It is idolatry. Almost everyone falls into it. They succumb to idolatry in droves, over and over and over again.
Idol worship is not a sin that only trips up the brazenly corrupt. The Bible illustrates idolatry as an insidious, creeping sin that spreads like contagion through every nation, including Israel. It is so widespread and so pervasive that it is normative in the nations of the Old Testament. God rails against it. Moses rails against it. Joshua rails against it. The pages of Judges are soaked in the consequences of it. The Psalms are filled with it. The books of the prophets scream warning after warning about it. The historical narratives show king after king and nation after nation that fall in a litany of idolatrous failure.
If there is one drum that continually beats all the way through from Genesis to Malachi, it’s this: Don’t worship idols.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
There is nothing ambiguous or open for debate here. It’s very clear. It’s very consistent. This is God’s position on idolatry. He despises it; He will not tolerate it; and He will punish it.
Idolatry is mentioned hundreds of times in the Old Testament, but I was so blind to any equivalence between the sins of biblical people and my own that I was actually angry at the Israelites. They saw Him. They heard his voice from the mountain. They heard it with their ears, out loud and in their own language. They saw daily manifestations of His presence, and they saw “signs and wonders” over and over again. Still, they fell into idol worship. I disdained them and sort of took it for granted that I would never do such a thing.
But I was lying to myself because I have done it many times.
As I read these books of scripture for the first time back in 2016 and 2017, I was able to apply all of the other commandments to my own life. I could see my own sin reflected in the sins in the biblical stories.
I knew what it meant to lust, to fall into greed, to indulge wrath, to covet, to lie, and to profane. I understood that all these warnings about sin in scripture applied to me. Idolatry, though, felt different.
I didn’t think God was talking to me. This was a message for those idiots in 1,500 B.C. who believed a lump of clay could be inhabited by spirits and then bargained with for favor. These were ignorant, backward people who thought the sky was a solid dome and the stars were actually divine spirits shining in the night. This idolatry stuff was for them. It had nothing to do with us.
The enemy is really good at his work, isn’t he? I mean, he had me completely snowed when it came to the most egregious sin we commit. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I dismissed the warnings, convinced that though my sins were many, idolatry wasn’t among them. Nothing to see here.
I was tricked into forgetting that idolatry is real, that God hates it, and that we are just as prone to its allure as any generation before us.
The stories about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon, and all of the prophets and kings who came afterward take place over a period that stretches over something like 2,000 years. In all of that time, the generations never shook off the chains of idolatry, and it is only hubris for us to believe that the next two thousand years (which bring us to our own time) were any different.
The polytheism and idol worship of the Ancient Near East were practiced in a pretty specific way, and I think it’s helpful to know how idols “worked” in that type of cultus. An idol could be any kind of image. Metal, ceramic, or a combination could be worked into an icon of the god they wished to find favor with. Once the idol was made, the worshiper would “breathe life” into the eyes or mouth or nose of the idol–this could be smoke or literal breathing or something symbolic. They believed this would entice or force the god in question to inhabit the physical idol. They could offer sacrifices to it. They could offer incense or food to it. The entire system was set up as a tug-of-war for control and favor and bargaining. You make the god, you worship the god, and then the god will give you what you want.
In Genesis, we are shown that God created man in God’s image. In idolatry, man creates a god in man’s image.
Do you see it?
I never connected my modern “idols” to the practice of fashioning a clay statue and praying to it, but worshiping our money or youth or whatever else…is the same thing. It is just as profane as the golden calf or the asherah poles or the altars to Ba’al.
What does the world worship today?
I bet at least a few of these are in the list you’d make, too, right? What else would you put on your list? Think about it and take it seriously. God certainly does.
Let’s break the first two down a bit. I want you to see what I’m seeing–that what we do with these modern idols is a precise mirror of what the Canaanites were doing in our Old Testament.
The Idol of Sex – This one is pretty simple and obvious. In the Old Testament, sex was used the same way we use it today. It’s what women were good for, and it’s how men demonstrated their virility. Back then it was concubines and blood lines and heirs. Today, it’s hookups and self-empowerment and personal liberation. It’s still what women are good for, and it’s still how men demonstrate their virility.
Pornography, promiscuity, and sensuality are ubiquitous in our society. Ads for everything from coffee to car repair are loaded with sexual imagery. Sex and our ability to get some of it are prioritized above just about everything else. Even those of us who believe in and accept godly boundaries for sex can fall into the traps of longing to be sexually desirable to the world. We fall for it because “the nations” around us value sexual desirability above almost every other quality.
How many men obsess over muscle mass above and beyond “health and fitness?” How many men feel pressured by their peers to be indifferent to ungodly sexual content, entertained by sexual jokes, and complicit in sinful discussion of the sexuality of women (“it’s only locker room talk”)? How many women feel pressured to accentuate the parts of their body that are considered sexual–with clothing, with cosmetics, or with surgery? How many women obsess over remaining youthful because being sexually desirable to men (the ones who are not our husbands) is the only metric for “attractive” that the world values?
Each gender, in its own way, begs the idol of sex for validation and fulfillment and wholeness. Daily. It can manifest in different ways, but it is worship…and we look to sex instead of God. We look for fulfillment in sex and sexuality instead of looking to God.
It is no different than fashioning an image from clay, naming it, and then bargaining with it for blessings. It doesn’t look the same in practice, but the sin, itself, is identical…and we do it all the time.
“If I give the idol bread and oil, the god will bless me with a rich harvest.”
“If I workout/alter my appearance until I am sexually desired, I will be blessed with acceptance, wholeness, and fulfillment.”
The Idol of Politics – This one is also pretty straightforward. We look at the world and we see all of the pain, all the of chaos, all of the immorality, and all of the injustice. To whom do we turn for remedy? To whom do we give our worship when a remedy comes?
We give it to the President/Prime Minister, if we like him. We give it to our candidate, in whom we’ve placed our hope. We give it to our party, in which we’ve placed our faith.
I know people get all itchy about this one. They don’t want to hear it.
The right president, the right governor, the right party in power…that would solve our problems. That would right the ship. That would clear out the swamp.
Listen to me; I beg you: No, it won’t. It’s just an idol. It’s just a clay figure we’ve made in our image. That’s all it is. Your offerings are being given to an idol with no ears to hear your pleas, no eyes to see your distress, and no heart full of love and mercy and grace for you. It is a false god. It is the idol god of politics…and it is a sin.
“If I offer the idol the first fruits of my harvest and burn incense in front of it, the god will protect my village from invaders.”
“If I vote for this candidate and send money to this party, the government will protect my nation from injustice, immorality, and decline.”
Of course we should take care of our bodies, care for our appearance, and foster healthy habits. Of course we should pay attention to our earthly government, vote, and do our part to be good, active, involved citizens. That isn’t the point. The point is that we don’t lower our eyes from God to fix our gaze upon an idol. Do not place your faith in the idols of this world. Make that distinction, and examine your own life, your own feelings, your own weaknesses. Pray about it. Look hard. Find your idols and smash them.
The Bible makes it clear that idolatry is pervasive, intoxicating, and everywhere. The Word of God does not spend the first 3/4 of its pages harping on and on about idolatry for nothing. Do not discount it. Do not think yourself immune to it. Guard your heart against it. Be vigilant and aggressive in rooting it out.
Idolatry is not gone. It has not been eradicated. The idolatry we practice today is not “softer” or less egregious than the idolatry of the Old Testament. It is the same sin, the same enemy, and the same affront to God that it has always been.