We Are Not Immune!
The concept of idolatry is not a particular cultural corruption of the children of Israel; it is, however, a narrative arc. The story of Israel’s redemption is tainted by persistent idolatry throughout each generation, from the time God led the people out of Egypt. Holding to syncretistic worship, idols, and corrupted means of worship are common occurrences throughout the Israelite nation’s historical narrative. And we would do well to pay attention to its prevalence, as it shows us that God’s chosen people are by no means immune to the allure of idolatry.
The idolatrous tendencies of God’s people are apparent when we consider that Israel and Judah were punished with catastrophic consequences for their idol worship. Of course, we must remember that Israel’s syncretism started with Jeroboam—the very first king of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 12:28). And then we must remember that Judah’s idolatry started at the same time with Rehoboam’s worshipping of Asherim (1 Kings 14:23-24). But then again, Solomon had already sown those salacious seeds by incorporating the idolatrous practices of his innumerable pagan wives (1 Kings 11:4, 8). Even Solomon was not the beginning, though, for the entire book of Judges narrates the corruption of nation and land through embracing the pagan practices of the surrounding peoples. But before Israel ever made it into the land, they turned to idolatry—barely a month after being freed from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 32:1, 4). Therefore, the prophetic pronouncement of Psalm 95:10 is both descriptive and foreshadowing: “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways” (ESV).
The major contrast in Psalm 135 illustrates how critical it is to choose the Lord and not the many idols mankind has often chosen instead. The psalmist begins with the claim that “our Lord is above all gods” (v. 5). He supports this claim by highlighting God’s power over nature as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He then shifts his attention to God’s power over even the kings and nations of the earth as the Leader and Deliverer of His chosen people. The psalmist makes sure to emphasize, though, that even with all this power, the Eternal Lord and Judge is a compassionate provider. What follows the psalmist’s poetic display of God’s power and mercy, however, is the brutal reality of idol worship:
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” (vv. 15–18 ESV)
The central thought of this passage is the principle that what we idolize, we imitate. Whatever we look up to is what we long to be like. We know this to be true when we see children grow to resemble their parents or older siblings, and when we see fans imitate celebrities. It affects the way they dress, the way they speak, and the causes they care about. But the sad truth for idol worshipers is that they consistently forsake the greater in order to embrace the lesser. Rather than seeking the Maker of the elements, they sing the praises of things made from those elements. Instead of knowing the mind of Him who made them, mankind prefers magnifying mere matter. And in exalting that which cannot speak, see, or hear, the idolatrous themselves are unable to speak appropriately, are blind to reality, and are deaf to the words of truth. Ultimately, as idols are inanimate, those who make and trust in them become lifeless, as dead and useless as what they worship.
The dichotomy of Jehovah and idols, of holiness and profanity, and of the submissive and the self-willed, then, is an interpretive relationship in understanding every image presented in the Bible. Every story, every poem, every law, and every letter written in Scripture presents us with the same decision: God or self. Will we choose the One who made us or the things that we have made? Will strive to be holy as God is holy, or will we profane His holy name by besmirching the very image we were created to bear? Will we submit to divine authority or choose carnal autonomy? The warning we receive when we consider the story of God’s people who have gone before is that those who do not diligently seek God will find themselves soon turning to a sinful self. The exclamation point at the end of that warning is the fact that a great many of those claiming to be God’s people have chosen self, sin, and separation from the Lord of life. It is what informs the somewhat surprising fact that God’s true people have only ever been a remnant. It is within this narrative framework, then, that we understand the history of God’s people, our present day, and our own relationship with God.
I am convinced that we can never overemphasize the fact that the problem for God’s own people has always been choosing self-direction over submission to the Sovereign Lord. And it is still our choice today. Any manifestation of self-will, which inevitably overrides submission to God, is inherently one of an idolatrous heart. The desires of selfish humans, then, and the sins to which they lead, transcend culture and time period. Thus, it is arrogant to contemplate the truth of Scripture and conclude that we are nothing like God’s unfaithful people in ancient times. It is arrogant because we are at the same mercy of the same God who surely is as holy as we are sinful. The assumption is also foolish because we find God’s chosen ones throughout the biblical narrative claiming the very same innocence—until they were destroyed for ignoring the messages of repentance that they thought did not apply to them. As the apostle Paul clearly states, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were….Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:6–7, 12 ESV) Do not be deceived, then, brethren: we are not immune.
BJ Young (2019-03-17)