Religious syncretism may sound good to worldlings – both secular and religious. One big happy religious party – what could be wrong with that? Plenty, as it turns out. Those who take the Christian faith seriously can never countenance a religious mix ‘n’ match set up.
Warnings about such syncretism are found throughout Scripture. The principle of Isaiah 42:8 (and 48:11) must be taken with utmost seriousness: “I will not share my glory with another”. Yahweh demands exclusive loyalty and allegiance, and brooks no rivals. We dare not think that we can worship God while at the same time serving idols.
There are both warnings against this found in the Bible, and tragic examples of it. 2 Kings 17 is a classic text on all this. It tells about the wanton idolatry which God’s people were engaging in, and how he judged them and sent them into exile.
The irony here is palpable. Yahweh had used Israel to dispossess the land of the Canaanites because of their great immorality, sin and idolatry. Now Yahweh had to dispossess the land of most of the Israelites because of their great immorality, sin and idolatry.
They were to have purged the land of all its idolatrous shrines and practices, but over the centuries things became just as bad as when the land was under pagan Canaanite control. In verses 24-41 we read about how non-Israelites from far and wide were sent in to occupy the land, bringing with them their own pagan, idolatrous religious practices.
And the remaining Israelites even seemed quite happy with all this. Verse 41 says this: “Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols.” And in vv. 32-33 we find this said about the new inhabitants: “They worshiped the LORD, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.”
August Konkel notes how strongly this chapter expresses “the impropriety of syncretistic religion. Such incongruity – fearing Yahweh but serving other gods – does not begin with the Assyrian importation of foreign peoples. The whole history of Israel has been a failure to observe the covenant according to the exclusive standard required by Deuteronomy.”
Israel was meant to keep the covenant conditions and be a unique people, a light to the surrounding pagan nations. They were meant to show the other nations the wisdom and wonder of the ways of Yahweh, and as a result be the envy of the nations.
However, they failed miserably, and had to suffer the consequences. Russell Dilday comments on the spiritual diseases which killed the nation. Verses 7-17 list 20 sins that helped to bring down the nation. He reminds us that these same sins will ruin any people or nation today as well.
“But one of the most vivid lessons in this passage is in verse 15. The New King James Version translates the phrase, ‘They followed idols, became idolaters.’ The original is more accurate at this point: ‘They worshipped emptiness and became empty.’ The word here is hebel meaning ‘air,’ ‘delusion,’ or ‘vanity.’ The idea is that they became like the gods they worshipped. They bowed down to nothingness and became nothing.”
In his very important book We Become What We Worship (IVP, 2008), G. K. Beale devotes some 340 pages to this very theme. He notes how the sins described in 2 Kings 17 parallel the first idolatrous sins of Israel back in the book of Exodus.
The golden calf episode recorded in Ex. 32 provides a clear metaphorical teaching to this. A stubborn cow will not go in the direction its master wants, and this is a good picture of rebellious and stiff-necked Israel. Thus Israel is mocked “for having become as spiritually rebellious like the calf that it worshipped, like a straying young and untrained calf. Second Kings 17:15 is to be understood in this light: ‘And they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them’.”
And as already mentioned, idolatry was not just a problem for ancient Israel. It is a constant problem for all of God’s people for all times. And evangelical, Bible-believing Christians today can be in exactly the same boat as Israel of old: “Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols.”
As J. C. Ryle said a century ago, “It is not necessary for a man formally to deny God and Christ, in order to be an idolater. Far from it. Professed reverence for the God of the Bible and actual idolatry are perfectly compatible. They have often gone side by side, and they still do so. The Israelites never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf.”
Quite right. And believers are doing it all the time. They may go to church and say all the right things and appear to be doing all the right things, but they still have a heap of idols in their lives. They see no problem with what we read about back in Kings: “while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols.”
That is why God is ever the great iconoclast, seeking to break the lousy idols in our life. He loves us too much to allow us to cling to our lifeless and deadly idols. And for God to be true to himself, he must oppose and detest all idolatry. Otherwise he would not really be God.
As Sam Storms writes in Pleasures Evermore: “For God to fail or refuse to value Himself preeminently would implicate Him in the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is honoring anyone or anything as god, instead of God. If God were ever to act in such a way that He did not seek His own glory, He would be saying that something more valuable than Himself exists, and that is a lie. Worse still, it is idolatrous.”
So what are our idols today? There would be millions of them. If we take the definition by A. W. Pink, then we all need to take careful stock of our lives. An idol is “anything which displaces God in my heart. It may be something which is quite harmless in itself, yet if it absorbs me, if it be given the first place in my affections and thoughts, it becomes an ‘idol’. It may be my business, a loved one, or my service for Christ. Any one or any thing which comes into competition with the Lord’s ruling me in a practical way, is an ‘idol’.”
Israel of old thought they could worship the Lord and also worship their idols. They paid a heavy price for such foolishness. Can we expect to be let off any lighter for doing exactly the same thing?