The Lord God told Moses, who then repeated it to the Israelites what was going to happen to them once they turned away from Yahweh and gave themselves over to the worship and idolatry of other gods. (see Deut 31:15ff)
But, you may say that was back then, so what is the reason God is no longer working (seemingly) in the world and in the lives of his people? We don’t sacrifice animals to idols! We don’t celebrate heathen festivals! We don’t burn people at the stake! We don’t celebrate and adore other gods – so why have you deserted us?
Idolatry takes many forms only one of which includes bowing down physically to foreign gods. Think on this – we cannot do without our mobile phones, our computers, our motor vehicles, our fast food or our fancy wardrobe – let alone our plastic credit cards! Technically we worship these things.
I found the following essay very revealing as an example of modern idolatry.
In an essay written in advance of his book, Rosner defines idolatry as “an attack on God’s exclusive rights to our love, trust and obedience.” The rejection of physical images served as an important boundary marker for early Jews and Christians. But in the Bible, “idolatry” was not limited to opposition to images, because our love, trust, and obedience run to principles and gods even if they are not associated with a physical idol. So sexual immorality and greed are tied to idolatry (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5) even though they do not always involve a tangible image.
Idolatry is dangerous because it almost always involves the offer of good things as substitutes for God. Wright highlights three pairs of idols: power and pride, success and popularity, and wealth and greed. Keller similarly highlights money, sex, and power, noting that even churches and efforts in ministry can become idols.
The main thesis of Beale’s biblical theological study is, “All humans have been created to be reflecting beings, and they will reflect whatever they are ultimately committed to, whether the true God or some other object in the created order. Thus … the primary theme of this book, we resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.” This theme is succinctly found in Psalm 115:8: “Those who make idols are like them; so are all who trust in them” (cf. Ps. 135:18). Throughout the Old Testament this theological principle leads prophets to taunt Israel’s enemies or Israel herself: they are just as blind, deaf, mute, and hard-hearted as their lifeless wood and metal gods, for those who worship idols will mirror their traits.
Application abounds. David B. Hart excises a vivid illustration from the ancient world:
Atargatis, the “Syrian Goddess,” was a demanding mistress. For one thing, her priests (the galli) could win their way into her affections only by emasculating themselves.
According to the De Dea Syria, attributed to Lucian of Samosata, any young man disposed to dedicate himself to her service in Hierapolis had to make this first and most extravagant oblation on one of her high holy days, in a fit of divine ecstasy, with a single economic slash of a sacred sword kept at her temple.
Now, admittedly, we all do our best to lay up treasure in heaven, and I suppose one ought not to cast too many peremptory judgments on other people’s pieties; but I think most of us can agree that this was a fairly exorbitant sum to place in escrow on an uncertain bargain.
Cults like Atargatis flesh out the important theme summarized by Beale. When worship involves slicing off the ability to reproduce, the worshiper becomes as impotent as his goddess, who is a dead idol unable to create or sustain life.
Closer to home geographically, ideologically, and temporally, we find the same effect. The most famous statue in the United States is the Statue of Liberty. Many Americans are unaware that the image atop the base is the Roman goddess Libertas.
Now we may not worship this goddess in the traditional manner. But it is not too much to say that our radical allegiance to self and independence is idolatrous worship, nor that such worship manifests itself in extravagant offerings of money spent and relationships sacrificed—even the sacrifice of the unborn. And if we worship freedom, we may become the personification of Libertas, unable to experience healthy dependence on God and others, even as others find they cannot depend on us. Freedom can ironically enslave us, crippling our service to God and others.
The temptation to idolatry is multifaceted and ever-present, and therefore must be fought without respite. Harmonizing Keller, Wright, Beale, and Scripture leads us to three antidotes: (1) the identification of idols and their attractions; (2) the embrace of the gospel and its idol-destroying promises; and (3) the worship and imitation of the One True God rather than false gods.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.