16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.


10. Facing Idolatry

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  10 :  Facing idolatry

1 Thess 1:9   They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

It is very easy to pass verses or words by with little thought – especially when we don’t like the word!  Idolatry is just such a word that we mostly don’t like because it seems to us (mistakenly) to come from a bygone age and to have little relevance to us.   How wrong we can be.

The Ten Commandments start off, You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them,” (Ex 20:3-5) and therein is the clue to the heart of idolatry. It is the bowing down to worship a thing or person. Now to fully appreciate that, we need to think what ‘worship’ is because this may be very much more common than we realise.  Worship is the acknowledgment that something or someone is greater than we are, and the subsequent exaltation of that person or thing.  Now hold on to that definition because it very important. Put aside the thought that singing spiritual songs on a Sunday morning is all that worship means; it is much bigger than that!

I have always been slightly bemused by one verse: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Col 3:5)  That all seems fairly straight forward until you come to the end of it when Paul refers to ‘greed’ as ‘idolatry.  Now greed is simply wanting more and more of something, whether it be food or possessions or whatever. Now whether we like it or not, wanting more and more of something means we have exalted that ‘thing’ whatever it may be and we think so much of it that we must have more and more of it. We have, without realizing it, made an idol of that thing.

Oh yes, get rid of the picture of some little wooden or metal figure. Yes, that was what was referred to so often in the Old Testament and in some parts of the world they are clearly visible, these little monstrosities that are people’s ‘gods’. But the New Testament looks beyond the merely physical and looks at the reality of the spiritual. When the apostle John finished his first letter with, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21) he probably had in mind these little figures, but when you start thinking of the meaning of these things, we realise that it is a warning that is equally valid for today in the West, perhaps more so in our affluent society than for a long time in history.

So let’s recap what we have said:

1. Idolatry is the bowing down to worship a thing or person.

2. Worship is the acknowledgement that something or someone is greater than we are, and the subsequent exaltation of that person or thing.

Now of course when you stop and think about it, God is The One who is greater than we are and is worthy of our exaltation, but before we came to Christ, we put our trust in a whole raft of wrong things – wrong in that they were not, in truth, things worthy of our exaltation! We trusted in ourselves and you can made an idol out of self-image, or personal status and qualification, exalting ourselves above all else. We trusted in science, in medicine, in technology, in education, in learning, in possessions, in ambition, and so on. In themselves none of these things are wrong but when we raise them to the place where we esteem or exalt them and lift them up above us, we make idols of them and, by definition, we worship them.

If we put ourselves, or other people, or things before God we have made them an idol and we are in reality ‘worshipping’ them. Never seen that before?  Struggling to cope with that? Well go back and look at the definitions of idols and worship and see how it fits. Whatever we put in God’s placed becomes an idol and we are in our minds at the least, worshipping it.  If something is so important that I must have it or do it, it has become something I am worshipping.  It may be a desire to have my way, it may be a point of view or an attitude. If it is something I MUST hold on to, it has been an object of worship that replaces God, and it is an idol. I must be right, my viewpoint is always right, what I do must always be right, all of these things become something that become more important than God and we are worshipping them.

When we came to Christ we should have given up all these things when we surrendered our lives to him, but one of Satan’s ploys is to say, “Did God say…..?” and he makes a particular thing seem so reasonable and before we know where we are, an attitude replaces God as first in our lives, or a behaviour or expectation or…….

If you wondered did you need the work of Christ upon the Cross, this subject drives us back to the foot of the Cross as we realise we have allowed idols to become established in our lives and we need forgiveness, cleaning and even deliverance. If you smoke or are addicted to anything, that thing has become your source of comfort that replaces God’s provision of comfort. We need forgiveness, we need cleansing, we need deliverance.  Dare you ask Him, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psa 139:23,24)

9. Remember Sinai

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 9:  Remember Sinai

(Focus: Deut 4:10-20)

Deut 4:10-12 Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.

Moses has just made a preliminary call to obedience, to obey the laws that God has given them, to learn those laws, take them in, understand them, keep them, and hang on to them, never forgetting them. This is what this book is all about. But now he goes on to reinforce that call with a reminder as to how all these laws came about. They were not just a good idea that Moses had; they originated with God.

He calls them to think back to that encounter at Sinai (otherwise known as Horeb): Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb.” (v.10a) That is what this is all about – working out the fruits of that encounter! He continues, “when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” (v.10b) God had spoken and called them together with Him.

So, he says, “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. And the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (v.11-14) That’s what happened – do you remember it? You saw it all and you heard it all – this is part of your memory – it happened forty years ago, but you were there so you know it is true!

Now look, he continues, “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars–all the heavenly array–do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (v.15-19) Now this is very important. God did not show Himself to you in any form that you could see; you just heard Him. Stop and think – this IS important (you may not realise how important!) – you must never try and make any representation of Him and worship that, for (implied) whatever you make can never represent Him, it will only make Him smaller in your understanding and you mustn’t do that – He is the all-powerful Creator of all things.

I have come to believe that mostly we just do not understand the significance of the call to refrain from idolatry. All the nations of this area had images of their gods but they were lesser deities in their thinking, superstitious expressions of their fear of the world. These deities, images, idols, call them what you will, needed to be appeased or satisfied and the ways that the peoples of the world did that were often horrific, even sacrificing their own children. That is what superstition leads you into!  This was so far from the truth – that there is only one God, the almighty God of Creation who is all-loving and who does not need appeasing. Israel must never fall into the error of their neighbours for they have had the unique experience of encountering The Living God at Sinai and they must never forget that.

Indeed, they must never forget the bigger picture: “But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.” (v.20) They were a people who had been slaves and God had come and miraculously delivered them from that slavery in Egypt and was taking them to give them an inheritance of a new land to be lived in under His guidance and that means under His laws. Laws are simply rules for living in a harmonious and peaceful society. That is what God has in store for this people. First of all they have to take the land from the pagan Canaanites and their idols, and we are going to see reminder after reminder not to get entangled in that idolatry.

It is absolutely vital to their future welfare. If they turn to idols it means they will be turning away from God and if they turn away from God they will not be able to receive His wisdom or His guidance or His help and provision. They will be moving into a life of isolation whereby they will have to rely on their own wisdom and their own strength – and they don’t have enough of either to survive in a world that will be out to get them! They need to cling on to the memory of Sinai and of their experience of the Lord and cling on to Him for their future wellbeing. The same is true for us today!

14. To Solomon (3)

“God turned up” Meditations: 14 :  To Solomon (3)

1 Kings 9:1,2 When Solomon had finished building the temple of the LORD and the royal palace, and had achieved all he had desired to do, the LORD appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon.

When I watch and listen to the affairs of the human race, I am sure that there will be those who, when they face God eventually in heaven, will say, “But I didn’t know.” Yet I am equally convinced that their excuse will not be accepted because, as I have stated before in these mediations, I am sure the Lord speaks to every person, even though they are not aware that it is actually His voice that is speaking to them. They may grudgingly concede that they ‘wondered about it’, wondered if it was their conscience speaking, but ‘another voice’ suggested, ‘take no notice!’ so they didn’t. But they will be held accountable, and accountability comes in this life as well as the next.

Solomon is a tragic case. Earlier in life he had received a remarkable dream and a remarkable promise and abundant blessing had flowed as a result. He has built the Temple and a fine palace for himself and life seems settled – and then the Lord turns up again.

As the Lord speaks again to Solomon, He first of all affirms His acceptance of the Temple: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” (v.3) That is really encouraging. Solomon has done the right thing. Then comes a challenge and a promise: “As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, `You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.” (v.4,5) There it is very clearly stated: obey God and blessing will flow.

But then a sharper warning is added: “But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, `Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, `Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them–that is why the LORD brought all this disaster on them.” (v.6-9)

Now the one thing that Solomon will never be able to say is, “I didn’t know.” The warning is very clear and it is against straying to worship ‘other gods’. If that happens in this nation, the nation will be ‘cut off from the land’, they will lose their inheritance and they will lose the Temple and the whole passing world will see and know and marvel at it. A disaster will come that will be seen by everyone!

Now you can’t get much clearer than that. It is a warning that there is one thing that God will not tolerate and that is apostasy in the form of idolatry – worshipping other gods or idols that are in fact no gods. If they stray from God, their ethical standards will fall and their society will fall apart and become unjust, and they will be weak so that they will not be able to withstand the approaches of neighbouring nations, and will become subservient to them. No longer will they be a nation under God. THAT is how clear it is!

To see the tragedy of Solomon we have to read the terrible detail of what happened later on. I include all of it because of the detail and the awfulness of it: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter–Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.” (1 King 11:1-8) He disobeyed God, thinking his wisdom was wiser than God’s, for why else would he do what God said not to do and, just as God had warned, he fell prey to their pagan religions. The monument to his jaded life in old age is the book of Ecclesiastes where he has clearly lost contact with God and the world seems meaningless. What a tragedy!  He knew it but didn’t do it. May that not be the epitaph on our gravestones!