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What is idolatry?

They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshipped Baal. (2 Kings 17:16, NIV)

Idolatry is one of the sins most mentioned in the Bible.  It is also mentioned in much contemporary preaching.  “What are the idols in your life?”  “Identify the idols in your heart, and deal with them!”  The kinds of things which are then mentioned include sex, money, power, material possessions, career and more.

This is correct, because an idol is something which takes the rightful place of Almighty God in our affections.  In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed idolatry.  The Lord God calls for our exclusive affection.  It can be helpful to reflect on to what extent we are living for attractions other than the Lord himself.

But this is not the only application of idolatry in the Bible; more often, the term refers to something else.

In the verse quoted above, idolatry took the form of worshipping foreign gods, and / or worshipping the true God by means of human-made images.  This was the desperate, repeated sin of Israel in the Old Covenant.  It refers to constructing an imaginary view of God, to fit in with our own preferences.  

In the chapter “The one true God” in his great book Knowing God, J.I.Packer explores this theme.  He talks about how physical images of the deity (a widespread feature in much religion) deceive us, but then goes on to show us how idolatry really can happen in our heads and hearts:  Just as [the second commandment] forbids us to manufacture molten images of God, so it forbids us to dream up mental images of him.  Imagining in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining him by the work of our hands.  How often do we hear this sort of thing: “I like to think of God as the Great Architect (or, Mathematician, or Artist).”  “I don’t like to think of him as a Judge; I like to think of him simply as a Father.”

In a popular commentary I saw not long ago on the book of Judges, the author applied the repeated theme of idolatry to the idols in each of our hearts.  But more likely the primary application is to the churches, in what we say and believe and do about the one true God.  The tragedy of so many churches, departing from Biblical truth, is very similar to the tragedy of the Old Testament people of God in making idols and following other gods.  Look behind false teaching on morality and you sometimes find a view of God which is human-made and more pagan than Christian.

So: let’s guard our hearts - but also, both individually and corporately, guard our understanding of God.  Now that Jesus has come and made God known as he has, we have even less excuse to depart from what God has revealed to us.


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