Religion, Worship, and Idolatry

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.”

Image of We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry
We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by Beale, G. K. (Author) Amazon logo

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?

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11 Replies to “Religion, Worship, and Idolatry”

  1. I worry about what happens to good people, like devout people of other faiths, when they die. What’s your view of this Bill?
    Roger Murray

  2. Thanks Roger

    Of course my views are not so important here – what God has told us about these matters is terribly important however. What do you mean “good people”? God’s word makes it clear that this is not how we should be viewing people. Instead, we are all sinners who are separated from God and deserve his just judgment. Consider such texts as Psalm 51:5; Is 64:6; Jer 17:9; 30:12-13; John 3:18; 3:36; Rom 3:9-18; 1 John 1:8-10; etc.

    And The New Testament makes it perfectly clear as to who gets right with God, and how, as in John 3:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5; etc.

    But we also have promises that those who really seek him will be found by him, as in Deut 4:29, Jer 29:13; Heb 11:6; etc.

    I discuss some of this further elsewhere, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/07/24/891/

    So the short response to your comment is this: if we really do worry about other people and their status with God, we should be doing everything in our power to tell them about Jesus and what he has done on their behalf. We need to give them the gospel in other words, letting them know that if they will receive his word, repent, and allow Jesus to become the boss in their lives, they too can have forgiveness of sins and newness of life.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Roger, Matthew 7: 13-14 talks of the broad way whereby many go in to eternity, but also the narrow gate, of which Jesus says ‘difficult is the way which leads to life and there are few who find it.’ If you believe what Jesus says ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’, then it settles your question. This is a point of offence for many, but all will have a chance to hear the Gospel message concerning the wrath to come. In terms of different faiths, you can see what’s working and what’s not. Jesus said it won’t be easy, but far better than fooling yourself.
    Russell Guy

  4. So much meaning in the Bible can become “lost in translation”. Emptiness (coming out from “worship of idols”) is very evident in today’s Western Society — other translations render it: “they followed vanity and became vain”. We can easily call this malady of society by another name — Acedia (spiritual sloth; apathy; indifference).
    Monica Craver

  5. Thanks guys. But what if they never hear the Good News of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour? What if they live in a place I can never reach? What if they’re Chinese and live their whole lives without ever meeting a single Christian who’s able to tell them the Good News? I’m not talking about our atheist buddies who are clearly throwing away every chance of eternity with the Lord so they can follow their own selfish desires, I’m talking about souls lost through no fault of their own. I guess God knows best.
    Roger Murray

  6. Thanks again Roger

    But it seems there are only two options here, respectfully: either you are simply asking rhetorical questions, or this is a genuine concern (which it should be for all Christians). If the latter, then as I already said, you start doing something about it. In the case of China, you start learning Chinese and take the necessary steps to go there and reach them. At the very least you start sharing the gospel with your next door neighbour, or your co-worker.

    If people are not prepared to act on their concerns, then they obviously are not really concerned at all, and are just making objections which atheists make all the time.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thanks Bill, sure I’m concerned. In fact, I have a friend who is working in China so I will send him my copy of the bible and get a few other copies sent out too and ask if he can distribute them to the non-Christian locals. I can’t afford to learn Chinese or travel to China myself, sadly.

    I’m a bit confused, I’ve no idea why atheists would worry about souls being lost through no fault of their own since they don’t believe in the soul surely. If they do worry about that for whatever reason then they’re right as it is a genuine problem. Are they looking for answers to this problem? No. And that’s the difference. All the countless millions of souls lost to false religions and atheism every year can be balanced by winning just a few converts, and if we were all passionate about the problem and do our bit, the world would soon be Christian and better for it.

    Just need to buy myself a new copy of the bible now.

    Roger Murray

  8. Thanks Roger

    Of course we are not all called to be missionaries in China, or overseas missionaries at all. Finding God’s particular will for each Christian life is vital. But we all should have the right attitude here: a love for the lost, and concern about the gospel getting out far and wide, and so on. We all can pray for the lost. We all can share our faith with family, friends, neighbours and co-workers. We all can contribute financially to global missions. So there are plenty of things we all can do even if we ourselves do not go overseas.

    And with plenty of non-Christians coming to our own countries, we have great opportunities at home to share with everyone the good news. So we all have a job to do, and we all can ask God to put a burden on our hearts for the lost who are headed for a lost eternity.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Roger

    On your question: I watched a dvd last night with friends which has on it 5 first person testimonies of Muslims from 5 different countries about how they came to Christ. I only watched one of a radical follower of Islam who while in training to go and kill Christian missionaries in Egypt got the task of studying the Bible as their new tactics would include actually using apologetics to refute the biblical texts. He got confronted with truth however and prayed to Allah to reveal truth to him. That night after some of his belongings (including his Bible) got stolen, Christ came to him in a dream and told him that He is the way and to continue reading his Bible which is to be found in his cupboard – which he found at waking up. If you study salvation stories from many of those ‘closed’ nations you will find many of them encounter Christ in dreams/visions/personal visits etc. If your heart is after truth you will encounter Christ.

    Personally, I consider my own salvation which happened within a predominantly Christian culture a massive miracle and in the bigger scheme of things no less likely/unlikely than someone who is not exposed to the gospel as I was.

    Servaas Hofmeyr

  10. If one’s potential ‘quiet time’ starts getting usurped by the net is that a modern form of idolatry? How do people manage that?
    Terry Darmody

  11. “The idea is that they became like the gods they worshipped. They bowed down to nothingness and became nothing.”

    It’s true. I was just reading my online Bible and came across this in Psalm 115:8 – Those who make them [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.

    Annette Nestor

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