What Is an Idol?
Welcome to 2022 and to the first episode in our tenth year on the podcast. Amazing. I had no idea we were launching something that would last a decade. Here we are, Pastor John. The year begins with a question over idolatry, of all things. It’s a good one too. It’s from an anonymous man.
“Hello, Pastor John. What exactly is an idol? Christians use the term all the time, especially in sermons. So, I go to my Bible. There I find that idols were statues or figurines, worshipers bending down to ‘gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone’ (Daniel 5:4). Sometimes it seems idols were talisman-like items to ward off bad things — trinkets in the form of golden tumors or golden mice. I’m thinking here of 1 Samuel 5:6–7:2. But today’s idols are very different. They seem to be desires of the heart for money, sex, power, and things like that. How did this come to be? Idols used to be carved things; now they are heart obsessions. I don’t understand the link between statues and heart-idols. In fact, when I look at Old Testament idols of tumors and mice, I don’t really understand those either. Can you explain both forms of idolatry and how they’re connected?”
Well, I’ll try. Let’s start with a definition. I think to cover all the cases, we should probably define an idol (and I think this is a biblical definition) as anything that we come to rely on for some blessing, or help, or guidance in the place of a wholehearted reliance on the true and living God. That’s my working definition of idol. So you can see that would cover, for example, a rabbit’s foot in your pocket, or a picture of a saint hanging on your wall, or a relic from some sacred shrine sitting on your mantle, or the more forthright images taken from Hindu or Buddhist temples, or the golden calf that Aaron made while Moses was on the mountain.
What makes all of those idols is that we are looking away from a wholehearted reliance upon the true and living God through Jesus Christ, and we are looking at the rabbit’s foot, or the relic, or the picture for some special protection, or blessing, or guidance, or help that we don’t think we could get by just looking to God.
Anatomy of an Idol
Now, our friend who sent this question in is right, I think, that in the Bible the word idol is uniformly used for an actual object from nature or, more often, made by human hands. You don’t find the word idolatry used to describe excessive love for your wife, or your lands, or your money, or your pocketbook. So I think he’s right that in the Bible there’s this distinct focus on a manmade object or something from nature, rather than just this strong craving and desire for stuff.
Now behind that is, correctly, the second commandment:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. (Exodus 20:4–5)
In other words, God is so jealous for our direct, personal dependence on him, and reverence for him, and adoration of him, that he disapproves not only of competing so-called gods represented with idols, but even the creation of idols presuming to represent him — not just false gods being turned into statues, but himself being represented with some manmade object that we look to. I think if we ask why — that is, why is he so jealous for that kind of direct, personal dependence of reverence and adoration? — then part of the answer is found in Psalm 96:5: “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”
In other words, one of the problems with idols is that they contradict the transcendent nature of God as Creator. Any representation of God made with human hands leads to the misunderstanding of God’s transcendence. It gives the impression, if not the direct assertion, that God is somehow in our power — we can carve him, or paint him, or put him in our pocket or on our shelf, or carry him on a cart. And so the psalmist says, “No! The Lord made the heavens.” In other words, he’s absolutely transcendent, and you can’t carve him or control him in any way.
Another reason why God is so averse to images, either of so-called gods or of his very self, is found in, I think, Psalm 115:4–8:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see,
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4–8)
“Not only do images misrepresent the nature of God, they destroy the nature of man.”
In other words, not only do images misrepresent the nature of God, but they destroy the nature of man. They turn human beings into mindless, powerless clumps of unspiritual flesh. We become like those statues. The nothingness of idols turns human beings into nothingness.
Exchanging God’s Glory for Images
So now we come to our friend’s question. Okay, if that’s what the Bible treated as idols, then “today’s idols,” he says, “are very different. They seem to be desires of the heart or for money, sex, power, things like that. How did this come to be? Idols used to be statues, not just heart obsessions.”
And I say, “Very good question.” How did that come to be? Here’s the first thing I would say — namely, that this change of focus in defining idolatry is owing to the fact that we live, in the West, in cultures where outright use of images for religious worship is less common than in some other cultures. So the question then arises, Well, do these biblical teachings about idolatry have any relevance for those of us who live in cultures where the use of statues before which people actually bow down and worship is less common? Is there any relevance to it at all?
The answer is yes. I don’t think the use of the term idolatry to refer to God-demeaning love of money, sex, power is a misuse of the term idolatry when one presses into the essence of what is really going on with an idol in the Bible. Here are a couple of New Testament pointers in that direction to show why I think it’s okay to use idolatry the way he says modern people tend to use it.
First, Romans 1:21–23 refers to people who don’t have direct knowledge of the gospel, but they do have general revelation in nature, so they can know God that way and be held responsible to glorify him and thank him. Here’s what it says:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Now, I think this text points to the essence of the problem beneath the outward display of idolatry; namely, we exchange the glory of God for images. The first kind of image that Paul mentions is images resembling man, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the foremost image of man that threatens to replace God is the image we see in the mirror. We are lovers of self-exaltation, which threatens continually our love of God-exaltation. I think it’s right to call this exchange a form of idolatry.
Keep Yourselves from Idols
So, back to my broad definition. It went like this: anything that we come to rely on for some blessing, or help, or guidance, in the place of wholehearted reliance on the true and living God. If we come to crave, love, depend upon, and trust for a blessing people’s praise to enhance our self-exaltation, or money, or power, or sex, or family, or productivity, or anything else besides God himself for the greatest blessing, help, guidance, and satisfaction, then in essence we are doing what idolatry has always done.
“Anything in the world that successfully competes with our love for God is an idol.”
Let me give you one more passage from 1 John 5:21. It’s the very last verse of John’s letter, and it says this: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Why does John in his letter end that way? He had never even referred to idols in the whole book. He never referred to idols in his whole Gospel. Out of the blue comes this closing sentence with the very word idol that ordinarily means a statue of something that we use to replace God with. “Don’t give in to idols; keep yourselves from idols.”
So why did he end that way? Here’s my closing suggestion. He had said in 1 John 2:15–16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world.”
Now, John the apostle may have had literal material images in mind when he said, “Keep yourselves from idols.” But I think he is also thinking of the more general deadly problem that anything in the world that successfully competes with our love for God is an idol. So keep yourselves from idols — that is, love God and all that he is for us in Christ more than you love anything.