Idolatry Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Idolatry

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A violation of the first commandment, idolatry consists in having an alternative god either in place of the one true God or alongside the one true God.

In Scripture

Ten Commandments "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (Ex. 20:3, 5).

Golden Calf "When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, `Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' Aaron said to them, `Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, `Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord'" (Ex. 32:1-5).

Greatest Commandment "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5).

The Work of Human Hands "The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them" (Ps. 135:15-18)

"Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made" (Isa. 2:8).

God Will Save Israel "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle; these things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals. They stoop, they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save" (Isa. 46:1-4).

Fools "Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen" (Rom. 1:22-25).

There Is No God but One "Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that `no idol in the world really exists', and that `there is no God but one.' Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

Enslaved to Beings "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods" (Gal. 4:8).

Points to Ponder

Israel's relation to God is regulated by the covenant of grace God established with Abraham and renewed at Sinai with Moses. The idea in the covenant is "I will be your God" and "you will be my people." The very first of the Ten Commandments states what follows from the covenant relationship: "You shall have no other gods before me." The relationship is laden with promise-making and retainable only by promise-keeping. It is like a marriage. The first thing to say about idolatry is therefore that it is a treacherous piece of covenant-breaking. It is the betrayal of the vow Israel made to God at Sinai (Ex. 19:8). Idolatry is a form of adultery. An idol wedges a foreign element into a relationship in which there is properly no room for it.

Exodus 32 tells of the golden calf, as riveting a story as Scripture has to offer, and a dramatic example of the fact that idolatry can include having an alternative god alongside the one true God. Aaron builds the golden calf and then is struck by an uncomfortable thought. What if the mountain-climbing Moses comes back? What if Yahweh is for real? So he orders an altar to be built in front of the golden calf and calls for a church service. "Forget about these new Egyptian-style idol services," he says. "Tomorrow we're going to hold a more traditional service — a festival of devotion to Yahweh. So there is the altar to Yahweh. Behind it stands the fertility god, a golden cud-chewing stud. Both items! Both gods! A stricken Aaron wants an altar to Yahweh, but nobody thinks to throw a tarp over the golden calf.

Idols are ravenous. They may consume us. Both Yahweh and the idol are jealous gods who want all that we have and all that we are. If you find the center of your life in your stock portfolio, it will never be thick enough. If you want to live through your children as your final glory, they can never be smart enough, athletic enough, never accomplished enough. If you want your religion to make you feel good, you won't feel good enough till your religion turns to orgy. Even then, it won't be enough.

Idols Have to Be Carried Isaiah 46 marvels at the fact that idols have to be carried. Else they are strictly local gods. But then the prophet marvels that, by contrast, God carries us. As John Timmer once preached, this contrast proposes the central question of religion: Who is carrying whom?

Futility of Idol-Worship Biblical authors are constantly struck by the futility of idol-worship. They have in mind carved and molten idols. Worshiping them is not just wrong; it's dumb. Imagine the incongruity of worshiping something we have made ourselves. Idols are our creatures, not our creator. They're not going to save anybody. And, says, Psalm 135, if we stare at our idols long enough we become hollow and lifeless too. People tend to resemble what they worship.

Whatever My Heart Clings To As the reformers knew, my god is whatever my heart clings to. That makes the list of possible idols familiar and depressingly long: myself, my family, power, wealth, reputation, my nation, my people-group, pro football, cars, boats, planes, alcohol, cocaine. . . .

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.