Idolatry Today

Why don't we talk much about idols these days? Why do we so easily dismiss a temptation that works so much devastation in the story of God's people?

Idolatry is a consuming focus of the Old Testament. The first two commandments direct our love toward God and forbid the worship of anything but God. When Israel draws near to the promised land, Moses repeatedly warns them against idolatry. After they settle in the land under Joshua, they fall into this exact danger, over and over again. The book of Judges is nothing but a downward cycle:

  • Israel follows after the gods of other nations during peace
  • God sends another nation to oppress Israel as punishment
  • Israel repents and cries out to God for mercy
  • God raises up a judge to lead the people to freedom
  • Israel begins to worship other gods in the peace that follows

When Israel is scattered and exiled by Assyria, their idolatry is given as the reason for God's judgement (2 Kings 17:21-24). The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin saw these consequences, but they didn't learn from them or turn away (Jeremiah 3:7-11). This is what ultimately resulted in their exile to Babylon for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:1-12).

In the New Testament, idolatry becomes a less prominent theme. However, idolatry is still an active threat to God's people, and he warns them about it multiple times (1 Corinthians 10:14, 1 John 5:21, etc). Galatians 5:19-21 lists idolatry among the works of the flesh. Continued practice of these things, including idolatry, excludes a person from the kingdom of God.

So why does idolatry seem like such a remote threat to us today? We seem to think that since we don't bow down to statues or offer sacrifices to the sun and moon that we've escaped the danger. Satan effectively tripped up people for thousands of years with idolatry, but we're not fooled. That trick won't work with us, right?

Or perhaps we still struggle with the same temptations, but the form they take is more subtle and insidious.

In Ezekiel 14 some of the elders of Israel approached the prophet to inquire of the Lord. They thought they were on good terms with God. Most likely they had avoided obvious forms of idolatry like sacrificing on the high places where the people went to worship false gods. Yet God tells Ezekiel that despite their outward obedience, these men have taken idols into their hearts. As a result, they are estranged from God, and God sets his face against them. He answers them, but not by answering their questions. To a person with idols in their heart, God's message is simple: repent and turn away from your idols (Ezekiel 14:6-8).

Idolatry doesn't require a physical idol or an actual altar. Idolatry functions perfectly well in our hearts, hidden from view. And the end result is still the same, still just as devastating. Our idols alienate us from God.

Hebrews 4:12 says, "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword." So why does the Bible at times feel lifeless? How is it that I can open my Bible, pray for God to speak to me through the text, and then come away with nothing? One possible cause is idolatry—a cause we don't think about much, if at all.

We need to take this threat very seriously. As we study idolatry in Scripture over the coming weeks, we will see three different ways we can practice idolatry: delight, trust, and obedience. Each of these belongs primarily to God, our ultimate Treasure, Savior, and Master. So as we study idolatry, our sinful hearts will be exposed—but Lord willing the path of life will also be revealed, that by his help we may walk in it and find joy in him.

Ben Whiting




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