Idolatry has been a common practice among man for thousands of years. It does not surprise most of us when we study ancient history to find that numerous cultures, from Mesopotamian empires, to the Greeks, and even to the tribes of the American continents, all practiced some forms of idolatry.
God’s own chosen people, Israel, reverted to idolatry at numerous points in its history. From the very beginning, in Exodus 32, Israel looked to a statue of a golden bull calf, most likely a representation of the Egyptian god Apis, who was depicted as a bull. It continued when Gideon made a great ephod out of thousands of gold earrings and the people worshipped it (Judges 8:27). Solomon fell into idolatry also in 1 Kings 11:4-8, which was clearly denounced as sinful in later scriptures. And these are only a few of the instances of Israelites idolatry. Throughout its history, Israel had a constant fixation with forms of idolatry.
But would it surprise us to consider the fact that most people still practice idolatry?
The term idolatry is not as simple as we sometimes assume. While the word can, and often does, mean the worship of a physical manifestation of a divine being, it can also simply refer to the elevation of anything, material or metaphysical, over the true God, the Father of this created universe.
Some forms of idolatry involve no idols at all, in fact. Anytime we consider an activity as more important than worshipping God, than that is idolatry. Any time we expend more energy in the service of ourselves than the service of God – idolatry.
My point, then, is that idolatry is a subtle, crafty sin that is not always apparent to us. So many people seem to enjoy bashing Israel because of all its follies and sins. As if emphasizing the sinfulness of one nation of people somehow justifies our own sinfulness. It becomes so easy, then, to say, “Well, look at how dumb Israel was! What kind of person would actually sit and worship a stupid golden statue?” Well, the Israelites were no different than us today. They were human like us, and they possessed no more potent weaknesses than we do! While worshipping idols, in physical form, is not so common today, we are still just as easily led astray by other idols!
So we must always be on guard, lest we too fall way from faith in pursuit of vain things like idolatry. We must equip ourselves with the tools that are strong enough to fight the temptation to place anything ahead of our love and devotion to God. So I want to examine a few things that idolatry cannot do for you. Hopefully, with this knowledge, we can better fight this common sin.
Let us first look at Habakkuk 2:18-19. There is a lesson to be learned from this text, as we come to understand that no idol in the world is capable of either hearing you, or speaking back to you. No matter what you yell at it, or pray to it, or whisper to it, it can do nothing but stare back at you, just as it does for every soul who comes to it for aid.
What a sad story it is! What if other people did not listen to you just as an idol does not? Perhaps a burglar enters your home and is seeking to harm you and your family. He is not interested in your possessions, only in your suffering. You dial the proper emergency number on your telephone and reach an operator who calmly says, “This is an automated emergency system. Please register your complaints after the tone.” You begin to scream into your phone that you need help and you get no response. Only silence, and, eventually, the sound of a small click indicating that the message machine has run out of tape.
How must an idol-worshiper feel when his prayers go unheard? When trouble hits and there is nowhere else to turn, and the idol simply gives a blank expression of blissful ignorance.
Now consider the story in 1 Kings 18:24-29. It seems that when the time came for Baal to pull his weight, he came up short. Imagine the disappointment on the faces of the prophets of this man-made god when they received no response after hours of begging and pleading!
The problem, you see, with idols is that they have no real ears! One can construct an image of a creature with the physical tools of hearing and speaking, but the capacity is beyond it. The writer of Psalm 115:4-8 understood this concept well. Notice also his final phrase, “Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.”
If we spend our lives, then, in the pursuit of our own idols, like having the nicest home, new cars, or any possessions for that matter, we will become like our belongings. Odd concept? Not really, because it is surprising how very much like our possessions we become the more importance we place on them. You can think of just about any very wealthy person and you will see the similarities between themselves and their belongings. Expensive cars are expensive only because of their name brand, and not really because of the quality underneath. The most expensive homes are just big, spacious, sterile, empty and unfriendly. The most popular clothes do not have more quality than the cheaper clothes; they just have the right look.
But if we make these material things the goal in life, and if we are consumed in our pursuit of them, then they will not hear us when we call to them for help. When you are drowning, does your new pair of designer jeans hear your cries? When your marriage falls apart, does that big, empty, cold house comfort you with encouraging words and advice on how to repair your relationship? When you are in your darkest hour, do any of your possessions hear your voice?
To whom can we turn, then? God. He will listen if we will only call on Him. “I love the Lord, because He hears my voice and my supplications. Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live” (Psalm 116:1-2). What a stark contrast between God and idols!
Turn with me to Jeremiah 2:27-28. Can you imagine the frustration for God? For hundreds of years, He had been putting up with the incessant idolatry of the people of Israel. Finally, He seems to say to them, “Okay, go ahead and have all the idols you want, O Israel! Have as many idols as you can count! But we shall see how those idols help you when you cry to them. We shall see how those idols rise up and aid you in your time of need!”
The concept that we sometimes forget when it comes to idols is that no man-made god, object, job, or religion can truly help us at all when we need a higher being the most. We see it all the time among the false religions today. The pope is just a man, and when the time comes to know the will of God, the pope is just as weak as his followers. Some of the more odd cults are the same way. When the big millennium scare was going around and people were saying the world was going to end at midnight, how disappointed were they in their “religion” when nothing happened? Now consider how disappointed countless souls are going to be on the Day of the Lord when He returns on a cloud and brings judgment upon all souls? Will their idols help them on that day? Will their selfish religions aid them? Will their trust and faith in any human come to their rescue?
Notice how little idolatry seemed to help King Ahaz in 2 Chronicles 28:22-27. In the time of his distress, he figured that turning to idolatry would save him. Unfortunately, he forgot the command from the Lord in Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” So his idolatry, as it says in the text, became the downfall for all Israel.
When it comes to modern idolatry, the most common mistake is when we think that anything in this life is going to be more beneficial than preparing for the next life. As odd as it may sound, even our families can become idols to us when we are willing to risk our salvation for the sake of our loved ones. Christ says in Matthew 10:37-38, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”
Some people put their trust in positions of power. They see their office or their badge or their title as something that endows them to eternal life, as if a title is a god itself! But we know from the Word that God is not a respecter of persons. He cares not what a person’s title is, and no title or position of authority is going to be able to help any of us on the Day of the Lord. Why is this? Because all authority is from Christ, and even kings will bow down before Him on that Day (Psalm 102:15, Acts 10:34).
More than anything else, though, people in this materialistic world of ours seem to put their jobs far ahead of their mission to serve the Lord. It is so difficult for some people to just admit that they do not have to work on Sundays. When offered the right incentive ($$$), most people will quickly sacrifice things like “church” in favor of a job. Some people do not have the motivation to get out of a job that forces them to neglect their worship to God, and so they believe that “a Sunday every now and then will get me to Heaven.”
Perhaps this is the same attitude that the rich man had in Luke 12:16-21. Can we say that this man was a workaholic? Certainly. He was so consumed with building bigger barns and filling them with the produce of his fields that he neglected entirely his need for salvation. It would seem that this man had spent a lifetime concerned only about his job, and his pursuit of more wealth, that he never even stopped t consider eternal life. He was too preoccupied with his ambition.
Perhaps the same can be said of us! Maybe that new office and a raise and a fancy title are more appealing than Heaven to you. Maybe you are thinking that there will be time to serve God after you have retired. But we do not know when God will come! He may require your soul tonight, just like the fellow in Christ’s parable! As James says in James 4:14, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
With this knowledge, what kind of people should we be? Should we put our trust in the idols of this life? In our jobs, or our families, or our positions of power? Or should we put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and make Him our hope and salvation?
Idols are completely incapable of carrying you, lifting you, pushing you, or holding you when you are slipping. They are, in fact, just the opposite! Idols are a burden to all who worship them. They are dead weight, and a pain on your back. And it is not as though God has not warned us! Take a look at Isaiah 46:1-7. Bel and Nebo were Babylonian idols, the objects of worship for these immoral people. “Bel” was the title given to the supreme Babylonian god “Marduk.” His son was “Nebo” who was worshiped as the divine interpreter.
But as destruction befalls the people of these gods, it is discovered that more trouble arises from having to carry these idols than is beneficial. They are a burden, a load, and an anchor that will not come up out of ocean floor. When invaders breach a city, these gods cannot defend themselves and are, instead, taken into captivity. They are just as easily carried away by bandits as they are by their worshipers!
And that is the key to all idols! They cannot carry you when you need help! They cannot be anything more than a burden for your soul and your body.
And it is the same way with our own “modern idols.” We tend to believe that money is the answer-all, that it can carry us and make us happy. We believe that having a better will make life more fulfilling. We think if we can only find the perfect spouse (is there such a thing?) that our families will fall into place and everything will be grand. But is this not what the worshipers of Bel and Nebo thought? “If only we had a better gods to worship, then those gods will carry us through danger. Bel and Nebo could never be a burden to us!”
But that is exactly what those idols became to them! Burdensome! Wealth does the same thing. Wealth does not make us happier and more carefree. It only brings more worries and troubles. It only brings greater concern for the safety and happiness of our families. Imagine how stressful Bill Gates must be when it comes to his daughter! Just think of the ransom someone could ask if they were to kidnap such a helpless one! With all this wealth comes greater responsibilities, bigger bills to pay, more services to buy, and so on and so on. Turn to Proverbs 13:8, 11:4,28.
I would rather be poor but know that I have Heaven waiting than to be rich and be concerned about my spiritual welfare. Consider what Christ says about wealth in Matthew 19:24. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” With a burden like this, who would even want wealth!
What a difference God makes, though. Turn back to Isaiah 46:1-7. Re-read the description of our God and you will see that God is not a burden at all. He is, instead, the One who lifts burdens. Unlike an idol, which must be carried from place to place and must be polished when it gets dirty, and must be guarded because of its gold and jewels, and must be picked up and lifted when it drops to the ground (1 Samuel 5:1-4), God does all of this for us!
One of the loveliest descriptions of God in the entire Word is found in Psalm 37:5-7a, 23-24. God will hold our hands and lift us when we fall. We shall never be hurled headlong because He will not let us.
When it all boils down to it, idols cannot save us, nor can they do what the One, True God can do. As Christ says in Mark 6:24, “You cannot serve God and riches.” So we must choose today who we will serve. Will we make our fleshly desires and the pursuit of wealth our gods? Will we put all our trust into the work of man’s hands, objects that can be destroyed in fire? Will we place anything in this world ahead of the master and Creator of all?
Or will we trust God and make Him our only object of worship? God can save us from eternal damnation. His hand is extended, all we have to do is take it!
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. . .” (Mark 16:16).