Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. 2 Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, 3 for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. 4 They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. 5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” (Jeremiah 10:1–5 ESV)
We are begin a series of lessons on idolatry. The immediate problem with speaking about idolatry is that our natural reaction is to believe that idolatry is not a problem today. We look at life and we do not see anyone bowing down to idols. There are not idols in our house. When we think of idols we think of images made of stone, wood, or metal that are placed in a shrine where we physically bow down before it. This, however, is an archaeological view of idolatry, not a biblical view. My concern is that we have scarecrows in our lives that we do not recognize, idols that we are serving that have carried our hearts away from God. In our lesson today we are going to define idolatry biblical and then try to identify idols in our lives.
John Calvin said, “The human heart is a perpetual factory for idols.” The scriptures also validate this truth. Notice what God said through the prophet Ezekiel.
Then some of the leaders of Israel visited me, and while they were sitting with me, 2 this message came to me from the LORD: 3 “Son of man, these leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests? 4 Tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: The people of Israel have set up idols in their hearts and fallen into sin, and then they go to a prophet asking for a message. So I, the LORD, will give them the kind of answer their great idolatry deserves. 5 I will do this to capture the minds and hearts of all my people who have turned from me to worship their detestable idols.'” (Ezekiel 14:1–5 NLT)
The people of Israel, even the leaders of the nation, had set up idols in their hearts. Idolatry is something that captures our hearts. Idolatry is not only serving stone, metal, and wood. Idolatry is anything that captures our hearts away from the Lord. Notice that God said he would act in a way to recapture their hearts and minds because they had turned away from him. Idolatry is what we spend most of our passions, energy, emotions, and financial resources toward. Here are what a couple people said to try to help us recognize the problem of idolatry.
“An idol is anything in my life that occupies a place that should be occupied by God alone. An idol is something that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves and rouses and attracts me so easily that I give my time, attention and money to it effortlessly.” — Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones
“Idolatry is valuing any thing or any person more than the one true God. An idol is any thing or any person that takes center stage in our affections. God is a jealous God. He deserves center stage in our lives. Anything that usurps that place becomes an idol, whether it be a spouse, a child, a humanitarian project, or pornography, or drugs, or power over the poor, or religion. An idol is a god-substitute. Archeology limits idols to stone statues; biblical theology teaches that idols are any things that take the place of God in our lives. When understood this way, we can realize that idolatry is not ancient history but is alive and flourishing in America as we rush toward the twenty-first century.” — John Piper
The question is not if we worship. The question is who or what do we worship. We all worship something. We are created for worship. So we do not need to ask if we are worshippers. We all are. We need to consider what we are worshipping. Let’s frame this problem another way. Turn in your Bibles to one of the most famous idolatry incidents in scriptures: Exodus 32.
Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the commandments of the Lord. While Moses is up there the people begin to panic because he has been up there so long. The people want gods to lead them. Aaron instructs the people to take off their gold, fashions the gold in the fire, and makes a golden calf. We read this story and we are amazed at the people of Israel for falling into this blatant idolatry. Before we condemn these Israelites too severely, consider where the people of Israel found this gold. Where did this gold come from? After the final plague, the scripture record that the people plundered the Egyptians of their gold, silver, and clothing (Exodus 12:35-36; 3:20-22). God had given the people their gold. The people turned and used that gold to make a physical idol. Idolatry is taking the good things given to us by God and making them the ultimate thing, thinking it can give us significance, security, safety, and fulfillment. The people could not handle trusting in the unseen god so they need to make a physical idol that they could look at and find their fulfillment in it. Everything that is seen is given to us by God. Yet we take these physical, seen things and make them important. We give them purpose. They become the priority in our lives. We find our worth in the things of this world or the things we do in this world.
“The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.” — John Piper
The wrath of God is severe against those who have idols in their hearts. God repeatedly called this adultery and unfaithfulness against him. In Ezekiel 16 God calls Jerusalem a faithless bride. In essence, we are cheating on God. Listen to God’s condemnation:
“When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the LORD will answer them myself. 8 I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 14:7–8 NIV2011) Consider the first two commandments given in the Law of Moses. God’s people are not to have any other gods but the Lord himself and are not to make or have any idols.
What we need to do is perform an idol check. We need a serious inspection of our hearts to identify the idols that are in our lives. Write these questions down and examine yourselves, not only right now, but meditate and pray about these things this week. Idolatry brings God’s wrath. We need to seriously dig deep within us to determine what we need to do to fix the problem. These questions come from David Powlison and are worthy of our consideration.
- What, if I failed at or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not want to live?
- What do I use to comfort myself when things go bad or get difficult?
- What do I worry about?
- What preoccupies my time? What do I do when I have down time?
- What gives me self-worth? What do I want to be known for? What makes me feel good about myself?
- What do I expect out of life? What would really make me happy?
- What do I spend my money on? To find your idol, follow the money.
There are two ways to deal with idols. It is the same two ways that we can deal with anything in life. I will illustrate this with our children. When our children get their hands on something that they are not supposed to have, there are two options. I can simply take it away from the child since I am bigger and stronger, or I can give the child something more desirable so that the child will want to let go of the thing they are not supposed to have. All parents will know the more effective thing to do with to replace what they have with something more desirable. Otherwise, the child will try to get back what they are not supposed to have. Removing idols from our lives works the same way. You can try to remove the idol and leave it at that. But the better thing to do is to let go of the idol by turning our affections to better, godly things. We need to turn our affections to Jesus and elevate our love for God above the worldly passions and desires. To return to the language of Ezekiel 14, fixing idolatry is about letting God recapture our hearts and minds away from the world and toward him.
“If you want to get warm you move near the fire. If you want joy, peace, eternal life, you must get close to what has them.” — C.S. Lewis