Can you fear God and serve idols at the same time?
We are told in James 1:8 that “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Or as Jesus put it, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). This is also true of entire groups of people, and of nations. If we live lives of compromise, we will suffer for it. If we seek to please various lords, we will come to real strife.
The other day I wrote about some of the Israelite Kings (at least in the southern kingdom, Judah) who were a mixed bag. Scripture says they were approved of by God for the most part, but they often did not go all the way. Usually they left the high places where pagan worship continued. As I said in that article:
“God could use these earthen vessels, even though they were not 100 percent obedient and sold out to him. That should give us all some hope. No, we do not want to make excuses for sin, and we want to go on to full maturity in Christ. But still, God works with flawed and failed creatures.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/04/24/yet-he-still-uses-us/
I went on to discuss the new Jesus Revolution film and how God could use those who were far from perfect, and often deeply flawed. I said that should give all of us hope as well. As I wrote:
If a film is ever made of my life (hardly likely!), I would be grateful if not every single sin and shortcoming of mine was covered in full technicolour detail. I am painfully aware of all my faults and failings. The filmmakers were gracious in showing some real issues with Frisbee, but not lingering on every single one. But plenty of Christians over the past few months have condemned the film and tried to show us how bad he was. Well, the truth is, we are all bad in so many ways. None of us measure up to our perfect Lord.
But here I want to further discuss the ancient kings and how they fared. If some did compromise but still had God’s approval – more or less – then some compromised but were condemned by God. We find this in various places, including in 2 Kings 17.
In that chapter we read about how God used Assyria to judge Israel, the northern kingdom, for its sin and idolatry. After the people are exiled, the king of Assyria brings in other peoples to settle there, including in the capital Samaria. We then read this in verses 25-28:
And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.
His of course was just a move of expediency. The pagan king was not interested in serving the true God – he just wanted all those killer lions outta there. So he went through some religious motions in the hopes of dealing with this matter. The text continues (in verses 29 and 32-32):
But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. . . . They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.
This was religious syncretism in action. It was not the fear of God that Yahweh could look down upon and bless. It was unholy religiosity. As August Konkel comments:
Though the people fear Yahweh (v. 33a), they serve their own gods according to the rites of the nations that Yahweh drove out of the land (v. 33b). A standard word pair (“fear/serve”) is used to express 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 (vv. 34-35). The values of that covenant should have been their wisdom in the eyes of all the nations (Deut. 4:6-8); it should have set them apart and made them the envy of all the other nations. The requirement was that the Israelites not neglect (forget) this covenant, but teach it continuously throughout their generations (v. 9). The problem is that they failed to meet the obligation (2 Kings 17:38); they continuously returned to their earlier practices (17:40).
And Peter Leithart says this: “Israel came into the land charged with the duty of purging the land of pagan shrines and establishing Yahweh’s worship. In a tragic reversal, the land is back to its preconquest state, full of idolatrous shrines. Even exile does not change the face of the northern kingdom.”
Lessons for us
From this article and the previous one that I mentioned above, we can get several morals of the story:
One, sin is never something to be trifled with. We must deal with it seriously, resolutely, and consistently, both as individuals and as groups. Not to do so is an open invitation to big trouble. The two kingdoms of ancient Israel are a case in point.
Two, as God’s people, we are all a mixture of self and Spirit. We often do things with a mixture of motivations. God is very patient and gracious with us as we slowly grow and become more Christlike and less selfish. Thankfully he does not wipe us out at the first hint of our sin and failure.
Three, if however we persist in sin, disobedience and idolatry, God’s grace will not go on forever. Sin must always be judged, and religious syncretism is not the way to proceed. God wants our full and total allegiance. Yes, he patiently allows us to grow in grace, but we must not presume upon that grace.
Four, we are all a work in progress. We are all compromised to some extent. We are all battling between flesh and Spirit. None of us are fully where we should be. Just as God could use some of these kings even though they could be rather half-hearted at times and not fully where they should be, so he can use us as well. And that is amazing grace in action.
Five, there are Pharisees lurking inside every single one of us just waiting to come out. We love to call out the sin in others, while ignoring or downplaying it in ourselves. We should do both of course, but in the right order. We should concentrate on our own sin first and foremost, and then also call out obvious sins in others when and where appropriate.
I am not foolishly saying we can never call out sin elsewhere until we are first perfect. That will never happen this side of eternity of course. But we should concentrate on getting our own house in order as much as possible. Too many Christians obsess over others and their shortcomings while ignoring their own. That should not be.
Six, there is obviously a place to hold one another to account, and to call out clear sin and disobedience. When one member of the body sins, it has an impact on the rest of us. So we should all seek to encourage and exhort one another. At times this may include offering words of rebuke.
Seven, God’s grace and patience with us really are quite amazing. We should thank him every day for these tender mercies, and where possible, we should seek to extend these mercies to others. We all have so much more to learn about his matchless grace.
Oops, as sometimes happens, just as I was finishing this article, I noticed that I already wrote an article on 2 Kings 17. Oh well, they differ sufficiently to hopefully both be of some value. The earlier piece is this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/04/20/the-horrific-costs-of-syncretism/
The final two paragraphs of that article were these:
This chapter was written – like all the Old Testament – for our warning and our learning. We all would do well to pause where we are at right now, read this chapter, and then engage in a careful spiritual check-up. We all need to do some spring cleaning here, and weed out any idols that might be found.
If we don’t, God Almighty certainly will soon enough deal with them. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “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.”