There may be many reasons why God does not seem to answer our prayers. Indeed, some suggest that God always answers prayers, but perhaps not always the way we want them answered. Thus he will answer, but with a yes, no, or wait.
But it is clear from Scripture that our prayers may go unanswered because of sin in our lives. Consider just two texts on this truth. In Psalm 66:18 we find these words: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”
And in Isaiah 59:1-2 we read this: “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”
But the reason I am discussing this here is because of a related passage I came across in my daily reading. It comes from Ezekiel 14:1-11. This passage speaks forthrightly to this issue, focussing on how God deals with his people when they cling to sin and idolatry in their hearts:
Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the LORD will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’
“Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!
“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the LORD will answer them myself. I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the LORD.
“‘And if the prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the LORD have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel. They will bear their guilt—the prophet will be as guilty as the one who consults him. Then the people of Israel will no longer stray from me, nor will they defile themselves anymore with all their sins. They will be my people, and I will be their God, declares the Sovereign LORD.’”
They are strong words indeed, but necessary words. As long as the people retain their idolatry, God cannot answer them as they may want, but he will answer them as he wants: in judgment. But the judgment is to wean them off their idols, and to win them back to himself. And these idols were bad news indeed – not something to trifle with.
As Lamar Cooper comments, “These leaders served the worst idols, the idols of their minds (v. 4). Their thoughts were under pagan control, so they were open to all forms of apostate practices. The same word used here for idols (gillulim) is also in 6:4-6, 9, 13, where they are characterized as ‘dung pellets’. Such sin was grounds for excluding a person from the community of worship because it was a spiritual ‘stumbling block’ (v. 4).”
This idolatry was serious business, since God will not allow his people divided loyalties: they must choose God or their idols, but it cannot be both. As Daniel Block writes, “They seemed unaware that Yahweh tolerated no rivals, and that he was under no obligation to respond to any who are determined to keep one foot planted in each of the two worlds – Yahwism and paganism.”
So the counsel and instruction – the word of the Lord – that these idolatrous elders were looking for will not be found. Instead, judgment will be their lot. So God certainly answers them, but not in the way or manner they expected. Says Douglas Stuart:
“God would answer them, then, not by a prophetic message but by His wrath. The purpose was to purify the people, to ‘seize’ them ‘by their heart’ (v. 5) so that they would be wholly loyal to the Lord. In other words, God’s judgment against idolaters was for the sake of proper belief, a generous act of cleansing so that His people might not continue estranged from Him who alone could save them, but might turn to Him away from idolatry (v. 6).”
And as always, we must not sit back, shake our heads, and point the finger at ancient Israel. We are of course no better, and are just as prone to idolatry as they were. So we must apply these lessons to ourselves as well. This is what Iain Duguid does in his commentary on Ezekiel.
He remarks, “Idolatry, then, is simply the desire for something other than God at the center of our lives as our guiding star, the source of meaning in our life. As such, idolatry is the sin behind every sin, the life-lie that drives all of our choices and values. The object of that idolatry varies from person to person. There are probably as many different idols as there are human beings. However, the fact that we have idols is an inescapable truth. Our hearts are, in Calvin’s vivid image, factories that mass-produce idols.”
He goes on to say that much of the counselling within the church today fails to take idolatry seriously and biblically. Either we focus on individual sins, but not the real issue of idols in the heart, or we focus on feelings, and the need to believe God really loves us a lot.
“Both approaches fail to see the sin that lies behind the sin, the fundamental issue of idolatry. A better approach is to recognize that driving both our behaviors and feelings are deep-seated heart idolatries. Our fundamental problem lies in looking to something besides God for our happiness.”
A.W. Tozer was right to say that “An idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.” And as D.L. Moody reminded us, “You don’t have to go to heathen lands today to find false gods. America is full of them. Whatever you love more than God is your idol.”
And let us remember how easy it is for us to seek to juggle both at once. As J. C. Ryle wrote, “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.”
Or as Charles Spurgeon said: “False gods patiently endure the existence of other false gods. Dagon can stand with Bel, and Bel with Ashtaroth; how should stone, and wood, and silver, be moved to indignation; but because God is the only living and true God, Dagon must fall before His ark; Bel must be broken, and Ashtaroth must be consumed with fire.”
The Bible is perfectly clear on the dangers of idols and idolatry. Let me conclude with just one passage, that of 1 John 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”