Category: Idolatry

  The  definition of idolatry, according to Webster, is “the worship of idols or  excessive devotion to, or reverence for some person or thing.” An idol is  anything that replaces the one, true God. The most prevalent form of idolatry in  Bible times was the worship of images that were thought to embody the various  pagan deities.

From the beginning, God’s covenant with Israel was based  on exclusive worship of Him alone (Exodus 20:3Deuteronomy  5:7). The Israelites were not even to mention the names of false gods (Exodus 23:13) because to do  so would acknowledge their existence and give credence to their power and  influence over the people. Israel was forbidden to intermarry with other  cultures who embraced false gods, because God knew this would lead to  compromise. The book of Hosea uses the imagery of adultery to describe Israel’s  continual chasing after other gods, like an unfaithful wife chases after other  men. The history of Israel is a sad chronicle of idol worship, punishment,  restoration and forgiveness, followed by a return to idolatry. The books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles reveal this  destructive pattern. The Old Testament prophets endlessly prophesied dire  consequences for Israel if they continued in their idolatry. Mostly, they were  ignored until it was too late and God’s wrath against idol-worship was poured  out on the nation. But ours is a merciful God, and He never failed to forgive  and restore them when they repented and sought His forgiveness.

In  reality, idols are impotent blocks of stone or wood, and their power exists only  in the minds of the worshipers. The idol of the god Dagon was twice knocked to  the floor by God to show the Philistines just who was God and who wasn’t (1 Samuel  5:1-5). The “contest” between God and His prophet Elijah and the 450  prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is a dramatic example of the power of the true  God and the impotence of false gods (1 Kings  18:19-40). The testimony of Scripture is that God alone is worthy of  worship. Idol worship robs God of the glory that is rightfully His, and that is  something He will not tolerate (Isaiah  42:8).

Even today there are religions that bow before statues and  icons, a practice forbidden by God’s Word. The significance God places upon it  is reflected in the fact that the first of the Ten Commandments refers to  idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for  yourself an idol 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  fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:3-5).

Idolatry extends beyond the worship of idols and images and false gods. Our  modern idols are many and varied. Even for those who do not bow physically  before a statue, idolatry is a matter of the heart—pride, self-centeredness,  greed, gluttony, a love for possessions and ultimately rebellion against God. Is  it any wonder that God hates it?

The Bible mentions several people who possessed teraphim, or household  idols. These images were used as talismans to bring a blessing upon the  household. Two women married to men of God kept family idols—Rachel and  Michal.

Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the daughter of Laban. When  Jacob tried to quietly move his family away from Laban to his own homeland,  Laban pursued him with a band of men. Having caught up with Jacob, Laban accused  him of stealing his household idols. Jacob, unaware that Rachel had stolen the  idols, declared, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the  presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it” (Genesis 31:32).

Genesis does not explain why Rachel stole the household idols. Perhaps she had  a nostalgic desire to have some items from her old home, and the teraphim were the most prominent. Another possibility is that the idols were made of  valuable materials. If so, Rachel may have taken them for financial gain. Or it  could be that Rachel believed in the power of the images. She may have stolen  the idols out of a superstitious fear of moving from home. She had lived with or  near her father her entire life, and she likely felt some anxiety about moving  to a new place. The household idols could have been like a good-luck charm for  her.

Basically, it appears that Rachel continued to hold to  superstitions and pagan spiritual practices embraced by her father’s family.  Still today, many Christians have difficulty letting go of non-Christian  practices that exist as part of family tradition.

Michal, the wife of  King David, also had teraphim in her possession. At one point her father,  Saul, sent men to kill David. Michal helped David escape through a window and  then took a large household idol and placed it in his bed. She disguised the  image under a blanket to look like David. In this way, she bought some time to  aid her husband’s escape (1 Samuel 19). It appears this large idol was already  in her house. No explanation for its presence is given in the text, although  some commentators conjecture that Saul had already forsaken the Lord and had  turned to idols by this time. Michal could have smuggled the idol from her  father’s house into David’s when she came to live there.

Interestingly,  in both cases, the wife of a godly man continued to be influenced by pagan  spiritual practices that carried over from her father’s family. This goes to  show that parents exhibit a powerful spiritual influence over their children  that often extends into later life. In Rachel’s case, this influence led to a  dangerous situation.

Idols are not to be part of a Christian’s life in  any form. Scripture is clear that there is only one God, and He alone is to be  served. Any image or statue that is used today as a good-luck charm is an  example of modern-day teraphim.  An image of St. Joseph used to sell a  house, an image of St. Christopher used to protect travelers in a car, an image  of Our Lady of Guadalupe used to impart grace—these are all modern household  idols. They are a throwback to paganism and should not be a part of a Christian  household.

Ultimately, the answer to this question is “sin.” It is the sin nature of man  which causes us to worship modern idols, all  of which are, in reality, forms of self-worship. The temptation to worship  ourselves in various ways is a powerful temptation indeed. In fact, it is so  powerful that only those who belong to Christ and have the Holy Spirit within  them can possibly hope to resist the temptation of modern idolatry. Even then,  resisting the worship of idols is a lifelong battle which is part of the  Christian life (Ephesians  6:11; 1 Timothy  6:12; 2 Timothy  2:3).

When we hear the word “idol” we often think of statues and  objects reminiscent of those worshipped by pagans in ancient cultures. However,  the idols of the 21st century often bear no resemblance to the artifacts used  thousands of years ago. Today, we have replaced the “golden calf” with an  insatiable drive to reach the top of the corporate ladder or with a myriad of  other passionate pursuits. And, sadly, those who aggressively pursue goals and  dreams, altogether excluding God, are often admired for their individualism and  drive. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter what empty pleasure we chase after  or to what or whom we bow down, the result is the same—separation from the one  true God.

Understanding contemporary idols can help us to understand why  they prove to be such a powerful temptation. An idol can be anything we place  ahead of God in our lives, anything that tugs at our heart more that God does,  such as: possessions, careers, relationships, hobbies, sports, entertainment,  goals, greed, addictions to alcohol/ drugs/ gambling/ pornography, etc. Many of  these things we idolize can be very good, such as relationships or careers. Yet  Scripture tells us that whatever we do, we are to “do it all for the glory of  God” (1  Corinthians 10:31), and that we are to serve God only (Deuteronomy 6:13).  Unfortunately, God is often nowhere to be found as we zealously pursue our  idols. Worse yet, the significant amount of time we often spend in these  idolatrous pursuits, leaves us with little or no time to spend with the  Lord.

There is another form of idolatry prevalent today. Its growth is  fostered by cultures that continue to drift away from sound biblical teaching,  just as the apostle Paul warned us, “For the time will come when men will not  put up with sound doctrine” (2 Timothy  4:3). In these pluralistic, liberal times, many cultures have, to a large  degree, redefined God. We have forsaken the God revealed to us in Scripture and  have recast Him to comply with our own inclinations and desires—a “kinder and  gentler” god who is infinitely more tolerant than the One revealed in Scripture.  One who is less demanding and less judgmental and who will tolerate many  lifestyles without placing guilt on anyone’s shoulders. As this idolatry is  propagated by churches around the world, many disillusioned congregants  understandably believe they are worshipping the one, true God. However, these  made-over gods are created by man, and to worship them is to worship idols.  Worshipping a god like this, however, is particularly tempting for many whose  habits and lifestyles, drives and desires are not in harmony with  Scripture.

Given the recent economic breakdown and ensuing global chaos,  many have turned to addictive behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use or even  something as innocent as excessive television viewing as a means of temporarily  “escaping” a difficult situation or perhaps just the harsh rigors of daily life.  The Psalmist, however, tells us that those who place their trust in this  behavior will, essentially, become spiritually useless (Psalm 115:8). We need to place our trust in the lord “who  will keep [us] from all harm” (Psalm  121:7), and who has promised to supply us with all of our needs when we  trust in Him. We also need to remember the words of Paul who teaches us not to  be anxious about anything, but rather to pray about everything so the peace of  God, which surpasses all understanding, can guard our hearts and our minds (Philippians 4:6-7).

The joys of this world for  which we too often seek will never satisfy the human heart. As Solomon  beautifully conveys in the book of Ecclesiastes, apart from a right relationship  with God, life is futile. We were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and designed  to worship and glorify Him as He alone is worthy of our worship. God has placed  “eternity in man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and a relationship with Jesus Christ  is the only way to fulfill this longing for eternal life. All of our idolatrous  pursuits will leave us empty, unsatisfied and, ultimately, on the broad road  that Scripture warns us about most people taking, the one that leads to  destruction (Matthew  7:13).

The phrase “graven image” comes from the King James Version and is first  found in Exodus 20:4 in the first of the Ten Commandments. The  Hebrew word translated “graven image” means literally an idol. A graven image is  an image carved out of stone, wood, or metal. It could be a statue of a person  or animal, or a relief carving in a wall or pole. It is differentiated from a  molten image which is melted metal poured into a cast. Abstract Asherah poles,  carved wooden Ba’als covered in gold leaf, and etchings of gods accompanying  Egyptian hieroglyphics are all graven images. The progression of  idolatry in a pagan religion generally starts with the acknowledgement of a  power that controls natural forces. The presence of the force is then thought to  indwell an object, like a stone, or a place, like a mountain. The next step is  altering a naturally-occurring object, like a standing stone, a deliberately  planted tree, or a carved Asherah pole, and asking the force to indwell it. When  the idolatrous culture has had time to contemplate the personality of the god,  they then make corresponding physical images—a statue that looks like a woman or  a relief carving that looks like an animal. Graven images can be either of the  last two steps. The spiritual progression is similar. People start with  wanting something (Ephesians  5:5; Colossians  3:5), often children or prosperity or good crops. They observe the  circumstances (circumstances some acknowledge are God-ordained, and others think  are independent) that lead to these things and begin to ascribe the causal  forces using human characteristics—thus creating gods. Places are set aside to  commune with these false gods. For convenience sake, smaller items, thought to  hold the power or the communication line of the gods, are brought into homes.  Before long, the people are ensnared by the compulsion to give homage to a thing  of their own definition instead of the God of the universe. The second  commandment, recorded in Exodus  20:4-5, reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of  what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them…” Likely, this refers back to the first  commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” and specifically forbids  the creation of idols. But it is equally dangerous to create an image of God  Himself. God has given us reminders enough of His power and glory (Romans 1:20) without man attempting to use created things  to represent the Creator. Functionally, there is no difference between a  “graven” image (Deuteronomy  4:16) and a “molten” image (Exodus  34:17). Both are man’s attempt to define and confine the power of God who  works over creation. Both are the result of greed and covetousness, along with  the fear that God does not have the worshipers’ best interests at heart. Graven  images, whether an idol, a crystal, or a charm, are attempts to limit the power  of God and reduce it to a small package which we can control. As with any kind  of worship, the object of adoration inevitably controls us.

All the various forms of modern idolatry have one thing at their core: self. We  no longer bow down to idols and images. Instead we worship at the altar of the  god of self. This brand of modern idolatry takes various forms.

First,  we worship at the altar of materialism which feeds our need to build our egos  through the acquisition of more “stuff.” Our homes are filled with all manner of  possessions. We build bigger and bigger houses with more closets and storage  space in order to house all the things we buy, much of which we haven’t even  paid for yet. Most of our stuff has “planned obsolescence” built into it, making  it useless in no time, and so we consign it to the garage or other storage  space. Then we rush out to buy the newest item, garment or gadget and the whole  process starts over. This insatiable desire for more, better, and newer stuff is  nothing more than covetousness. The tenth commandment tells us not to fall  victim to coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not  covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey,  or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus  20:17). God doesn’t just want to rain on our buying sprees. He knows we will  never be happy indulging our materialistic desires because it is Satan’s trap to  keep our focus on ourselves and not on Him.

Second, we worship at the  altar of our own pride and ego. This often takes the form of obsession with  careers and jobs. Millions of men—and increasingly more women—spend 60-80 hours  a week working. Even on the weekends and during vacations, our laptops are  humming and our minds are whirling with thoughts of how to make our businesses  more successful, how to get that promotion, how to get the next raise, how to  close the next deal. In the meantime, our children are starving for attention  and love. We fool ourselves into thinking we are doing it for them, to give them  a better life. But the truth is we are doing it for ourselves, to increase our  self-esteem by appearing more successful in the eyes of the world. This is  folly. All our labors and accomplishments will be of no use to us after we die,  nor will the admiration of the world, because these things have no eternal  value. As King Solomon put it, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge  and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for  it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all  the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days  his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is  meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:21-23).

Third, we idolize  mankind—and by extension ourselves—through naturalism and the power of science.  This gives us the illusion that we are lords of our world and builds our  self-esteem to godlike proportions. We reject God’s Word and His description of  how He created the heavens and the earth, and we accept the nonsense of  evolution and naturalism. We embrace the goddess of environmentalism and fool  ourselves into thinking we can preserve the earth indefinitely when God has  declared the earth has a limited lifespan and will last only until the end of  the age. At that time, He will destroy all that He has made and create a new  heaven and new earth. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The  heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and  the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be  destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live  holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the  elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking  forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:10-13). As  this passage so clearly states, our focus should not be on worshipping the  environment, but on living holy lives as we wait eagerly for the return of our  Lord and Savior, who alone deserves worship.

Finally, and perhaps most  destructively, we worship at the altar of self-aggrandizement or the fulfillment  of the self to the exclusion of all others and their needs and desires. This  manifests itself in self-indulgence through alcohol, drugs, and food. Those in  affluent countries have unlimited access to alcohol, drugs (prescription drug  use is at an all-time high, even among children), and food. Obesity rates in the  U.S. have skyrocketed, and childhood diabetes brought on by overeating is  epidemic. The self-control we so desperately need is spurned in our insatiable  desire to eat, drink, and medicate more and more. We resist any effort to get us  to curb our appetites, and we are determined to make ourselves the god of our  lives. This has its origin in the Garden of Eden where Satan tempted Eve to eat  of the tree with the words “you will be like God” (Genesis  3:5). This has been man’s desire ever since—to be god and, as we have seen,  the worship of self is the basis of all modern idolatry.

All idolatry of  self has at its core the three lusts found in 1 John 2:16:  “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes,  and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” If we are to  escape modern idolatry, we have to admit that it is rampant and reject it in all  its forms. It is not of God, but of Satan, and in it we will never find  fulfillment. This is the great lie and the same one Satan has been telling since  he first lied to Adam and Eve. Sadly, we are still falling for it. Even more  sadly, many churches are propagating it in the preaching of the health, wealth,  and prosperity gospel built on the idol of self-esteem. But we will never find  happiness focusing on ourselves. Our hearts and minds must be centered on God  and on others. This is why when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus  replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and  with all your mind” (Matthew  22:37). When we love the Lord and others with everything that is in us,  there will be no room in our hearts for idolatry.