“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” (Exodus 20:3-4).
This is the second commandment as reckoned in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew phrase for idolatry is avodah zara, which literally means “alien worship.” Worship is considered “alien” when the worshiper is pouring out his/her life for a cause or a product other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Lord God of Israel is the true and only God. Ultimately, all so-called gods will bow before him. Because God is the only true God, he forbids his people to make anything that would lure them into idol worship. The ancient idols, of course, were pieces of metal or images carved out of wood and other materials.
It is difficult for us in our postmodern age to understand the lure of idolatry, in the sense of bowing down to blocks of wood and molten images. Nevertheless, we forget that idolatry has behind it a seductive, satanic power. No doubt, sorcery and magic were very much a part of ancient worship as we see in the case of Pharaoh’s magicians (Exo.7:22).
Imagine a poor Israeli farmer in ancient times, eking out a meager living on a terraced hillside. Next to his plot of land there is a Baal worshiper, who through sorcery is growing carrots two or three times larger than our farmer. The Israelite might be tempted to place a small image of Baal, the fertility god, in his garden. Initially, he would have no plan to forsake the God of Israel – but what could a tiny Baal image in his garden possibly hurt?
In such gentle ways Israel was led astray until the people became confirmed and unashamed idol worshippers.
SOME GODS OF THE MODERN TIMES
We have grown too sophisticated to bow ourselves to blocks of wood or pieces of metal and actually worship them. Yet, the subtle snake has beguiled us with a 21st century version of this temptation. Technology has given us more sophisticated blocks of wood and pieces of metal or stone. Just consider our computers, televisions, and other electronic marvels that consume our time and lives. Also, many devotees are often out polishing their fancy cars while the true God is being worshiped by the faithful. Any unknowing person would have to conclude that such ones were serving their gods.
Others are serving the blocks and stones that make up our expensive dwellings in this early 21st century. These gods, like those of old, cannot speak, hear or smell, regardless of how much incense we burn to them. They are in fact “junk gods.” This can be proven conclusively by spending a few hours in the dump of an averaged-sized city. What do we see there? We see old rusted cars, bits and pieces of the houses, furnishings, toys, appliances and all the assorted objects we have idolized. They are being burned and bulldozed into oblivion, although people have actually given their lives to serve them.
These are not the only gods of the 21st century. Think about the greed and the lust for money in this age. Many are the people who have sacrificed their own children on the altars of greed, just as ancient pagans offered their screaming children in the fires of the god, Molech (Lev. 18:21). Regardless of the means, the principles are the same, and the children are just as dead in either case.
Pleasure is another god of our age. It is a multi-million dollar business. The medium of worship of this god is often drugs, and many of the participants in this drug culture are appropriately called “junkies.” They worship junk gods. Another of the pleasure goddesses is, of course, sex. Today we have strayed far from the Creator’s plan that decreed sex was to be a blessed and sanctified gift to a husband and wife. Today, promiscuous sex is oft-times regarded as an acceptable form of recreation. It is, however, a very expensive recreation. According to recent World Health Organization statistics, the HIV virus has now infected over 40 million people worldwide. Many of these, no doubt, contracted the disease through the misuse of sex. Many others suffer from various venereal diseases and pregnancies outside of marriage, all due to the misuse of the gift of sex.
There is also the worship of nature sometimes disguised as environmentalism. I am speaking here of extreme forms of environmentalism, that extol “mother earth” and have roots in eastern religions. These reduce mankind to the perpetual trespasser and violator of earth’s delicate ecosystems and not a ruler over them as God intended. Certainly God desires us to be responsible stewards of the gifts found in nature. Having dominion over the earth does not give us the right to misuse it selfishly. But some forms of environmentalism become idolatrous. These can become mere ways of serving and worshipping the creation instead of the Creator (Rom.1:25).
It is easy to see the danger of some idols, especially those that lead us to immorality, selfishness and unhealthiness. However, we need to realize that very good things can also be idolized. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book titled, Jewish Wisdom, speaks of some of the values of modern society, such as the nation, art, literature and even education. He states in regard to these: “It is only when one ascribes to them supreme value that they turn into ‘gods.’” Even good things like Israel and Zionism can be turned into gods if they are not kept in perspective and balanced with the rest of scripture.
Often the most subtle idols are those that come closest to the true god. Religion can be a dangerous idol. Our doctrine, our church, our favorite preacher can all become idols. If we notice ourselves feeling smug while contemplating our favorite spiritual concepts and commitments, it might be cause to take a long look at ourselves. We need to be sure religious idolatry has not taken root in our hearts and in our fellowships.
THE EFFECTS OF IDOL WORSHIP
How does idolatry affect people? There are several ways. People talk about their gods and praise them. One has only to listen briefly to an idolator and it will become apparent what god that person is worshiping. On the other hand, those who serve the true God will talk about him. The Bible says, “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice” (Psa. 34:1-2).
Idolaters also serve their gods. To serve false gods requires much time, energy and money. Idolatry requires sacrifices just as true religion does. However, the sacrifices of idolaters are always much more costly than those of the faithful. Idolatry ultimately costs the life and soul of the worshiper.
Another effect of idolatry is that people become like their idols. In Psalm 115:8 we read, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
Ever since entertainment became a major industry, the stars of stage and screen have often been types of idols for young people. Few of these stars have been well-equipped to serve as spiritual or moral role models. Today’s rock music stars have surely become idols to many young people. Their hair styles, grudge fashions, drug abuse and casual use of profanity find eager imitators in youth around the world. And the more bizarre and outrageous the style of the popular rock stars, the more young people have adopted these styles. The 21st century idols can pull a crowd today like few evangelists in history. Young people swoon and pay homage to these “junk gods.” Unfortunately, many of these stars are themselves “junkies,” or drug addicts.
The Apostle Paul describes a society where a people had run to all the excesses of paganism and idolatry. He says that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:23-25). Paul goes on to describe the vileness of their behavior, including homosexuality, debauchery, covetousness, murder, violence, etc. It is a biblical certainty that such things always follow false worship.
WORSHIPING THE LORD AND HIM ALONE.
When Jesus (Yeshua) was tempted by Satan, the Lord was asked to fall down and worship before him. Jesus quickly replied in Matthew 4:10, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Worship and adoration lead to service. The gods we talk about will become our gods and will ultimately take our time, money and lives.
May we, like the Master in his earthly temptation, stand up for the true God and him only. May we have the grace and courage to disentangle ourselves from the subtle worship of idols and serve the Living God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem (Original publication date, 1996).
Picture credit, Wikimedia Commons – a junk yard