From the pen of Cecil F. Alexander, written in 1852:
Jesus calls us from the tumult of our vain world’s golden store
From each idol that would keep us, saying “Christian, love me more.”
Humans and idols have a long history. When Rachel stole her father Laban’s gods (images) and sat on them as he searched her tent (Gen. 31) it was not the first time that images entered the history of man. When Joshua warned God’s people against compromise with their heathen neighbors he warned “. . . neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow yourselves unto them: . . . When ye have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the Lord be kindled against you . . .” (Josh. 23:7,16). Why was he so concerned? They were descendants of those who served other gods in Ur, including Terah, father of Abraham and Nahor (Josh. 24:2).
Even while Jacob was planning to build an altar to God at Bethel, he was still having to tell his household and fellow travelers to “put away” their strange gods. He was at the “house of God” (Beth-el) where he had dreamed of the ladder from earth to heaven, and heard the Abrahamic covenant renewed to him. He had vowed that Yahweh would be his God. Yet he was still collecting the images and the earrings of paganism . . . and hiding them under a tree (Gen. 35:1) . . . for what? Later use?
By the time Joshua gave his warnings to the people of Israel, the law had been given through Moses at Sinai. The people who made the exodus from slavery had seen the Egyptian gods under assault by the plagues, but this did not prevent an early build of a golden calf. Only a few weeks after leaving Egypt they had reached Sinai. God had identified Himself as the one who had liberated them from Egypt, and demanded singular loyalty to Himself. No other gods would be allowed, nor would man made images be made or revered by bowing or serving (Ex. 20). In verse 23, a specific order of God forbade gold and silver gods. After a review of God’s words, the people pledged their obedience to all that God had said (Ex. 24:3,7). Moses returned to the mountain and received instruction concerning sacrifices, the tabernacle, and the priesthood, etc.; but he finally received two tablets of stone engraved by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18).
Moses had been on the mountain too long for these impatient people. The same Aaron who had been named to Moses for the first priest (Ex. 28:1) bowed to the wishes of the people and from the gold earrings in their ears created a molten and engraved calf to be worshipped as the god that freed them from Egypt! “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10:7). God announced that He would destroy Israel and begin a new nation with Moses. Had Moses not offered himself to be “blotted out of God’s book,” they would have been destroyed.
We marvel at how quickly they forgot God’s law and their vow of faithfulness. They obscured their memory of the God who had demonstrated his power over Egyptian gods and delivered them. They donated their own gold, and with human skill formed a calf which could be burnt in the fire, ground to powder, and ingested into their bodies (Ex. 32:20).
Yet their descendants would continue to be allured by the gods of their heathen neighbors. Baal, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Dagon, Molech and others would become a part of their lifestyle, though their neighbors often admitted the superiority of the God of Israel! Jeroboam’s calves became a stumbling block to hinder Israel from traveling to Jerusalem, and the worship of Molech called for the sacrifice of children on a fiery altar.
King Josiah was one of the youngest monarchs in history. Yet when he received information about the book of the law which had been found in the rubble of the temple, he was moved to abolish the vestiges of idolatry. Gathering the leaders and the people of Judah, he read the neglected book, and made a covenant to obey it, and the people agreed to it. Materials used in worship of Baal and in the grove and heavenly bodies were burnt and ashes carried away. Kings of Judah had ordered the burning of incense to Baal, the sun, the moon, the planets, etc. in the “high places,” and the priests who had done this were deposed. (You will notice when reading the Bible that groves and high places become synonymous with places for pagan rituals.) Sodomites had houses in which women wove hangings for a pagan god. Josiah destroyed them. He also destroyed high places from Geba to Beersheba where incense was offered, and evicted the priests. He defiled Topheth to eradicate fiery sacrifice of children to Molech. Horses were taken away, and their chariots were burned to prevent their use in worship of the sun. Unauthorized altars built by kings were destroyed and thrown into the brook Kidron. High places built by Solomon (for his foreign wives) were defiled by Josiah. These included those for “Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom [Molech] the abomination of the children of Ammon,” along with the images and groves. He also destroyed the historic altar and high place at Bethel, where Jeroboam had introduced the golden calf years before. Josiah slew the priests of the high places and did many other things to purge idolatry. “And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him” (2 Kings 23:25).
Perhaps that summary of the reformation efforts of Josiah seems tedious. But think of all the evil kings of Israel and Judah who, with just as much zeal, allowed and promoted idolatry. Even the “wise king” Solomon was shameful in his catering to his pagan wives with shrines for their religion. Jeroboam became the standard for judging kings; very few were better, and many were worse. Forsaking God for the broken cisterns of idolatry became the bane of the prophets, and the reason for the destruction of Israel and the captivity of Judah. “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit. Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).
The prophets mocked the idols and their worshipers (cf. 1 Kings 18, Isa. 44, Jer. 10) and made it clear how superior the Creator was to the created. They were also reviled and persecuted. They could speak of the ludicrous enigma of a log used both to craft a god to deliver its maker, and firewood to warm his body. They mocked an image that could not speak, hear or even move itself. The image of pitiful Dagon of the Philistines falling on its face, being set back up, and falling again to break off its head and hand (1 Sam. 5), reminds us of the high maintenance of man-made gods. In the New Testament, Paul made it clear that in reality, an idol is not anything, nor is that which is offered to it. There is only one God, though there are many “so-called” gods and lords. The Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are the source of all creation, including us, but not everyone knows that fact (1 Cor. 10:19; 8:4-7).
Like the writer of Hebrews, “what shall I more say?” For the space would fail me to tell of the historical books and the prophets that relate endless incidents of the people of God wandering into idolatry. When we come to the New Testament, we are reminded of the blindness of the pagans who had been shown His invisible attributes. The creation, evidence of His eternal power and godhead, had removed every excuse they had. They knew God, but did not give Him due glory. They were not thankful, and in darkened hearts they imagined vain things. With false wisdom they became fools who worshiped images of the creation of God. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served what God had created more than the Creator (Rom. 1).
It is easy to dismiss this article as an incomplete review of idolatry from the past. Is it irrelevant to us? The New Testament warns the early church to avoid the idols of the pagans who lived in their cities. Acts 15 dealt with avoiding paganism in the church including idolatry. Romans 2:22 warned of hypocritically rejecting idols while committing sacrilege. 1 Corinthians 8 says we all have the knowledge that an idol is nothing, though some are ignorant of that fact. Galatians 5 and Colossians 3 tell us that idolatry is a work of the flesh. 1 Thessalonians 1 tells of those who turned from idols to the living God, and 1 John 5 warns saints to keep themselves from idols. Of course, the church at Pergamum had those promoted eating food offered to idols (and sexual immorality) and a female teacher, Jezebel, was promoting the same thing at Thyatira. Revelation 9:20, however, speaks as if this problem did not end in the olden days. “And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk.”
Can we dismiss the danger of idolatry as an ancient problem? Or just something which happens in primitive societies where they worship trees and other things in nature? Or maybe the icons of ritualistic religions that venerate statues and crosses? Perhaps it is those non-Christian religions which have little household gods to remind them of their obligations. For those of us who claim to just follow Christ, is there anything that takes priority over worshipping God or living godly among our peers? I just read where Paul wrote of “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). What could that mean? Could that mean that my love of money and the things it might buy could be idolatry? Could that mean that that trip to the mountains or the exciting ball game that might be hindering my worship with the saints could be idolatry? Could it mean that my volunteering to work a Sunday shift to get the triple wages might be idolatry?
Yet, is it all about money and pleasure? Perhaps I covet the approval of my friends, my worldly friends…and so I compromise my language to accommodate my peers. I hesitate to mention my faith because it would bring ridicule to me. I take that little social drink to be accepted. I laugh at and contribute to vulgar jokes because I want to be a regular guy or gal. Popularity and approval can also become gods.
According to Robertson McQuilken, to “have” a God is to relate to someone or something as the ultimate– “to seek above all else, to trust above all else, to love above all else, to serve and obey above all else is to treat as god.”1 As he argues, in our society there is little religious veneration of material objects, but things can be sought above all. People can be loved more than God. Pleasure, fame, or power can become the ultimate. Patriotism, education, or service can become gods. The most common idol is SELF. That’s right. ME, MYSELF, and I can crowd God out, and that is when I become an idolater, a god “before” God. Think about it prayerfully.2