Anyone reading the Old Testament will not get very far before he encounters the problem of idolatry. When Israel was given the Law of Moses, the subject of the first two of the ten commandments was idolatry. Jehovah told them not to make any likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or under the earth as an object of worship, nor to worship any other gods. Their obedience was short-lived—just over a month (while Moses was still on the mountain receiving the law).
In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God repeatedly warned His people about practicing idolatry and what would happen to them if they did. The warning was repeated so often some probably think it was excessive. It was not. In spite of the repetition, Israel carried on a long-time love affair with this most despicable of all sins.
Since they were determined to practice idolatry, God allowed them to be oppressed by their heathen neighbors time after time. Jehovah raised up judges to deliver them when they repented. Following their deliverance, they quickly lapsed back into the worship of false gods. Later in their history, God used prophets to warn the nation, but to no avail.
Some of the prophets ridiculed the absurdity of using part of a tree as firewood for warmth or to cook a meal. Then, carving a god out of the remainder and falling down before this block of wood (Isa. 44:13-20). They poured additional contempt and scorn on their Maker by attempting to worship Him at the same time they stubbornly continued the practice of idolatry. Only the complete collapse of the nation brought an end to Israel’s worship of images.
A more subtle form of idolatry persisted in Israel throughout her long, often-stained history. It was also soundly condemned in the New Testament (Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5), indicating that it was a problem in the Lord’s church in the first century. It is still a barrier, standing between man and the one, true God in the twentieth century.
Someone has said, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon; that is properly your god.” It need not involve images of wood or stone. Jesus warned us about trying to worship wealth and God at the same time: “where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also…No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mat. 6:21, 24-25).
Anything that lures us away from our heavenly Father functions as an idol. Whatever supplants Jehovah and obedience to His will as being of first importance in our lives is an idol. Any allegiance that takes precedence over responsibility to God is idolatry. Whatever is of highest priority in our life is the god we worship. Replacing the wisdom of God, revealed in the Scriptures, with the world’s wisdom (including the foolishness of theology) is a form of idolatry God despises. (Read the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians.)
Our highly secularized society is dominated by an almost universal desire for status and image. Such idols come in many different forms. Mammon (wealth), beauty, pleasure, physical health, political correctness, success, and plain old worldliness are some of the deities we worship. Intellectual, cultural, national, or racial superiority can be other gods we worship. Other, more sinister gods in our pantheon are greed and power. Over all of them, reigning like Zeus of old, is the worship of self. Still farther back in the recesses of darkness lurks the source of our estrangement from Jehovah and the true object of our idolatry—our adversary, Satan.
It is easy to see and condemn the idolatry of the Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans—and the nauseating depravity to which it led (Rom. 1:21-32). Our patience with Israel wears thin. It is difficult to understand how these people could be so incredibly gullible and stupid.
They had witnessed marvelous displays of divine power. They had been given the Spirit inspired Word to guide them in their lives. They had been recipients of God’s endless bounty. Yet, they repeatedly turned from the living God to worship a block of wood.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question (or series of questions) Paul asked the Jews in Romans 2:17-24. At one point, he queried: “Thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” While we seem to have no difficulty finding fault with others, it is not so easy to identify our own. Idolatry can be deceitful. A Christian can practice it and never be aware of what he is doing. It is only by constant vigilance and sincere heart-searching by the light of God’s Word that the Christian can keep himself free from this evil.