The idol worship we read about in the Old Testament and that which we see today in our modern Western society look completely different. It doesn’t matter if we filter it through the lens of the past or the present; the fact is God hates idol worship all the same; but why?
Step past the borders of the continental United States and you will encounter an entirely different set of idols that are only scarcely seen in the US. Many Eastern and Middle Eastern countries worship false gods associated with Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and countless other religions that pepper the countries around the globe.
What is idolatry?
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is idolatry? Merriam Webster defines idolatry as:
The worship of a physical object as a god; or immoderate attachment or devotion to something
Biblically, we can define idolatry as anything in defiance of the first two commandments. It is the worship of idols, graven images, created things, another god, or the use of idols in the worship of God.
In preparing for this article, I came across this quote I love from Tim Keller from his book Counterfeit Gods where he gives a thought on what idolatry is:
It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. … An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” … [An idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.
I love this quote because it challenges us to think of anything more important than God, or that absorbs our imagination. I would add that some idols can creep in without expressed statement of making them idols.
If we are not careful we can even make the very gifts of God an idol, when we seek the gifts themselves over the gift-giver.
OT Idol Worship
While there are (unfortunately) numerous instances of idolatry in the Old Testament, I think three of the most memorable narratives about idolatry for me are when Moses came off the mountain with the 10 commandments in Exodus 32, Elijah on Mount Carmel with the false prophets of Baal in 2 Kings 18:16-40, and of course the 3 Hebrew children in Daniel 3.
These narratives tell the story of ignorance and blatant sin, reverence and unwavering belief, and finally bravery and undaunted faith.
Moses descended the mount with tablets in hand, only to hear the sound of songs of worship to the golden calf the people had formed in his absence. He was so enraged he shattered the first tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Imagine standing beside Elijah as he challenged the prophets of Baal, and even mocked them as their god failed to answer their cries for fire. It would have been even more amazing to witness the all-consuming power of God as fire fell from the heavens.
If you have ever stood next to a bonfire or wild fire, you know the sound it makes. The rush and roar of the flames, only exponentially amplified as the Holiness of God consumed the water soaked oxen sacrifice, along with the water in the trench around it.
I can only imagine being a young teenager standing before a glistening golden idol and commanded to worship it. They stood with undaunted faith defying the decree of a king, knowing that certain death awaited them on the other side of their decision. But alas, they stood. Because of their unwillingness to bow a knee to a false idol, the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar was eternally impacted by the presence of God as those same three boys walked among the flames.
Why Does God Hate Idolatry?
The first 4 commandments dictate our relationship with God. The first three in particular guide our worship of God (Exodus 20:3-5).
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall make no idols.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
God hates idolatry because He is unwilling to share His glory. He is unwilling to share His attention with another. He created us in his image, Imago Dei. As image bearers we are to worship Him whose image we bear. J.I. Packer says it like this:
It is impossible to worship nothing: we humans are worshipping creatures, and if we do not worship the God who made us, we shall inevitably worship someone or something else.
He is El Elyon, the God Most High. There is none above Him, and none that even stands beside Him. The idea that we would allow another graven image or false god to appropriate a portion of His glory infuriates Him.
He hates idolatry so much that even when the Israelites went into a new land they were to take the false idols and images, and destroy them (Deut. 7:25-26). God didn’t even want them to be tempted by the gold and silver they were made from, because once an idol creeps in it ensnares you.
When Moses descended the mountain after obtaining the 10 commandments, he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. He proceeded to destroy the idol, and crush it in to powder. He put it in the water and made the men drink it. He then proceeded to call forth the men who were “for the Lord.” They went through the camp and killed the men who were not. Three thousand men fell that day.
Why? Why did God command them to die? It would be like allowing your wife to be a prostitute.
God is unwilling to share his glory. He is unwilling to prostitute the bride meant for His Son. He hates idolatry, and those that practice it will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). He will take no smaller portion than the whole when it comes to attention and worship.
Any idol that attempts to subvert His glory is libelous to His character. It says that some other item, object, feeling, emotion, or false deity can bring you joy and fulfillment, and that one of these things is worthy of the same adoration as the Lord Most High. This is false theology.
We have heard it said over and over that Christianity is not about religion, but about relationship. Any idol, big or small, defiles that relationship. It brings a mistress to the marriage bed with Christ.
Recently I have been rereading the book of Jeremiah, and have filtered its words through an entirely new lens. While God is disciplining Israel for its disobedience, there is a sense of a Father who is hurt by the constant betrayal of his children. After sending warning, after warning, after warning to stop worshipping idols and false gods, he finally has to do something about it. He had to discipline them.
I think it was one of those “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” kind of moments. God wanted a pure and unadulterated relationship with His children and yet they kept turning away. God hates idolatry, and because of the holiness of His love, He had to discipline them.
It’s what a good father does out of the deepest and truest love. His love was patient, kind, and long suffering with the Israelites (and with us); but His love also called them (and us) to obedience. So, because of their disobedience he had to correct them in order to bring them back to repentance and into right relationship. That’s what he wanted all along.
Unfortunately, how many times are we like the Israelites?
Wrath and Discipline
The good news is that for those who are in Christ, there is now no condemnation (Rom 8:1). In Christ we are no longer under the wrath of God, but we are subject to His discipline (Proverbs 3:12; Heb. 12:6). Wrath is punishment; discipline leads to correction and deeper relationship. The more you or I fail to heed his discipline, the more harsh it can become, just like He did with the Israelites.
If idols exist in your life, crush them, destroy them, and rid your life of them, just like the Israelites were commanded to do when they entered a new land. Let’s take a few moments of self-introspection and Holy Spirit led searching as David did, and make this our prayer:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. – Psalm 139:23-24
God hates idolatry. He is unwilling to share his glory with another. He will not divide His throne, nor prostitute his presence. God hates idolatry, and therefore we should too.
Read Part 2: The 8 Most Popular Idols In America