Idols, Old and New

My question is about idolatry and the Israelites. The Lord did so many great things for them, but most of the time they worshiped other gods. Why would they do that? Your question is a good one.

June 13, 1997

My question is about idolatry and the Israelites. The Lord did so many great things for them, but most of the time they worshiped other gods. Why would they do that?

Your question is a good one.

In the ancient world the gods were usually conceived of as having control over specific and limited geographical areas. The inhabitants of each nation or region, possibly each city, had their own specific gods and goddesses who were worshiped in those areas. They believed those gods had control over the fertility of the land, of the animals, and of the worshipers themselves. The citizens of those communities also looked to the gods to protect the territory over which they supposedly had control.

When people moved to a new territory, one of their main concerns was to seek the blessing and protection of the local deities by worshiping them. The people would continue to worship their own gods, the gods of the land from which they came, who were probably called the "gods of their fathers" (cf. Joshua 24:15). The worship of this plurality of divine beings had the purpose of providing the individual a sense of security. Idolatry was, in a sense, an insurance system that, if practiced carefully, would provide for the person security and protection she or he needed.

For the Israelites the worship of Baal was an almost irresistible temptation. This is understandable, although not justifiable. The cult of Baal was extremely attractive not only because of its immoral nature, but particularly because of what it promised to the worshipers. Baal, as a Canaanite fertility god, was supposed to control the fertility of that land, its livestock, and its people. In an agrarian society the financial well-being of the individuals was dependent on the fertility of the land, and nothing was more important than to receive the rain at appropriate times.

It was precisely that which Baal promised. But it was not just a promise; people believed they were actually able, through the performance of certain rituals, to influence Baal. That is to say, they thought they could do something to obtain the rain they needed and to preserve or establish their financial security and survival.

The God of Israel was essentially different. There was nothing the Israelites could do to move the Lord to love them any more than He already did. In terms of the weather, the only thing they could do was to wait quietly in the Lord, who at the proper time would send what they needed (cf. Ps. 147:8-11).

The cult of Baal gave worshipers the impression that they had control over their ultimate social and financial security, while the worship of the Lord required complete trust in the covenant Lord. There was no room for a compromise, because the Lord was a jealous God (verses 19, 20). The pagan gods were not jealous. They tolerated and even encouraged their worshipers to adore many other gods. Not so with the Lord. He wanted to be the exclusive God of His people and could not tolerate seeing them worshiping Him and other gods. The reason: the Lord knew that there was no other being in the universe who deserved to be worshiped by His people.

In today's Western society people do not worship idols in the narrow sense of the word. Modern idolatry is more abstract and difficult to identify. However, an idol continues to be what it has always been: that which we consider our ultimate source of security; that to which we surrender our energy, time, and loyalty; and that which determines our values, beliefs, and conduct.

Please allow me a homiletical detour. If our search for inner peace and joy leads us to ignore the Word of God, if our search for financial security leads us to violate God's will and to oppress or ignore the needy, if the search for self-fulfillment has crowded out the time we used to spend with the Lord, then we have an idol. The problem with idolatry was and continues to be related to our anxious concern for personal, economic, social, and psychological security. The experience of the psalmist should be ours: "Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord" (Ps. 27:14, NIV); "My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken" (Ps. 62:1, 2, NIV).