The Sin of Idolatry
Of all God’s commandments, the ban on idolatry might seem to be the most outdated. It’s one commandment that must certainly be for another age, many assume—when people offered sacrifices before man-made statues or deified the sun, moon and stars.
In fact, idolatry is just as common today as it was in the Stone Age. Of course, the materials, technologies, trends and fashions are much different than they were then.
But human nature remains the same.
In the pivotal Old Testament prophecy of Leviticus 26, God reaffirmed the birthright promises He had made to Abraham. He told the Israelites of Moses’s day that they would receive the birthright blessings then, if they faithfully obeyed God’s laws. In outlining these conditions to Israel, God placed special emphasis on two of the Ten Commandments.
Notice: “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God. Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 26:1-2).
Keep my sabbaths, God said, and don’t bow down to idols. These were the two great test commandments for the people of Israel. Now why would God emphasize these two in particular? Because these two, more than the others, were designed to keep man in the closest, most intimate contact with his Maker!
“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” God thundered at Mt. Sinai, before reiterating the ten indispensable laws mankind has always needed to regulate their relationships with God and man.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” God continued (Exodus 20:1-3). That word before means “in place of.” God must have first place in our lives—always; without exception. This First Commandment forbids man from placing anyone or anything in front of God. It forbids idolatry.
Now notice how the Second Commandment flows right out of the great command to put God above all else. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God …” (verses 4-5).
This commandment obviously forbids the use of any physical substitutes or aids man sets up in order to “worship” God. But what about the spiritual idols we set up in our hearts, as it says in Ezekiel 14:3? We may not bow down to any physical idols made of stone, wood or precious metal, but our modern world is filled with idolatry, just the same!
“Every person has his idol,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote in his Autobiography. For Mr. Armstrong, it was an egotistical sense of self-importance—the desire to attain status in the eyes of his peers.
For us, it may be an inordinate love of self—or vanity—as it was with Lucifer. His heart was lifted up because of his own beauty—so much so that he wanted to raise his earthly throne above his own Creator’s (Ezekiel 28:17; Isaiah 14:13).
Maybe it’s pursuing the physical beauty of others that we place in front of God. Just look at how our Western culture glamorizes beauty, among women especially—as if good looks and a youthful appearance are all that matters. It seems the reverential treatment of celebrity icons has reached near-saturation point in society today.
Perhaps it’s physical wealth and materialism that prevents us from putting God first, like the young man who told Jesus he had obeyed all of God’s commandments since the days of his youth. But when Jesus told him to give up his earthly possessions, he went away sorrowful because his heart was so attached to material things.
Pleasure seeking also separates a lot of people from God—things like entertainment and sports or excessive television viewing. God’s way of life, after all, is very demanding. Among other things, He expects us to observe His weekly and annual sabbaths, to tithe on all of our income and to seek Him daily through effectual fervent prayers and diligent Bible study. If we find ourselves spending most of our leisure time pursuing things other than God, then pleasure-seeking might be an idol.
Some make an idol out of gluttony, drunkenness and other such addictions. Instead of looking to God in time of need, they turn to physical substances in order to cope or to escape.
Still others insist on putting friends or family members ahead of God. They would rather give God second or third place in their lives than face alienation from loved ones over their obedience to God’s laws.
And what about our profession or career? God praises those who work with all of their might, but if we turn to work, as some workaholics do, in order to avoid responsibilities at home or in the Church, then we can make a god out of working.
On the other hand, there are also those who simply refuse to work—who make a god out of idleness and ease.
Whatever it is, if we place it ahead of God and living according to His laws, it becomes a false god! If it interferes with our relationship with God, the Bible says, then it becomes an idol—and it must be crushed!
In the case of Mr. Armstrong, it took God 28 years to finally stamp out every last vestige of self-assured confidence, which was vain idolatry!
“Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry,” Paul wrote to the brethren at Corinth, well over a thousand years after Israel had come out of Egyptian captivity. He knew well that the idolatry command was not meant for some bygone age. It was written for us. Like the rest of the Ten Commandments, it applies to our time today!
And it remains, even to this day, as one of two critically important test commands. If faithfully obeyed, it automatically draws us closer to our Maker!
Keep yourselves from idols, as John wrote to conclude his first epistle. Give God first place in your life. Make your relationship with Him more important than anyone or anything else.
Nothing in this material life, after all, is as important as that.