Understanding Idolatry

6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. 9 And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. 10 They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, 11 and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, 12 and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” 13 Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

14 But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. 15 They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:6-18)

This morning as we look at the Word together, we’re going to discuss a topic that’s very serious. The passage we just read is not a happy passage. It’s not very pleasant. It’s filled with tragedy. And it contains stern warnings against the sin of idolatry. 

God has burdened my heart as I’ve been studying through this passage. And my hope, and my prayer, is that He would do the same for you. It’s my hope that you would be burdened where you have idols, and I would be burdened even as I speak regarding the idols in my heart.

At this point in history the people of Israel who had been living in Samaria were just taken captive and brought into Assyria. This happened, as verse 7 tells us, because of their sin. Specifically because of their idolatry. It says the Israelites feared other gods, they served idols. These idols were false gods of human invention. If you look at verse 10, the biblical writer mentions that the Israelites set up Asherim. These Asherim were poles set up in honor of the Canaanite goddess of fertility, named Asherah. We also see, in verse 16, that the Israelites served Baal, another false god.

In our world today, the false gods have different names, but they’re still just as false. Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Shiva – all false. Yet most people in the world today worship false gods like these. The world worships idols, whether it’s these false gods, or other idols, like money, or power, or fame. Idolatry is just as big a problem today as it was thousands of years ago.

And it’s not just a problem for the world. It’s also a problem for us, as Christians. Even in the church, we are susceptible to this sin. I’m sure none of us has a shrine to a false god in our closet. I know we’re all more sophisticated than that. But because our sinful flesh still dwells within us, we are still susceptible to the sin of idolatry.

What is an idol? Let me give you a very simple definition. John Piper defines an idol in this way: he says it’s “a thing…or a person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, enjoyed more than God.” Something we love, want, desire, treasure, or enjoy more than God. What that definition means is that anything can be an idol in our lives.

Do you ever desire something more than God? Is there anything, or anyone that you’ve desired more than God? If we’re honest, we have to admit that every one of us has sinned in this way. We are all well-experienced at making idols. Even down to the children among us. We all have this problem. Each of us is a proficient idol maker. We take God out of first place, we desire other things more than Him. We turn away from Him to chase after other lovers.

Just a few minutes ago we sang to Him, and we said, “You alone are my heart’s desire…I want you more than any other, so much more than anything.” That’s the way it should be! And in eternal glory with Him, that’s the way it will be. But right now? Right now where is our heart? Maybe at the moment it is on God. We’re gathered with the church, so hopefully our heart is set on God right now. But what about in daily life? In every day life where is our heart? Is it set on God, or an idol? Is it focused on gaining other people’s attention? Other people’s approval? Is it set on the promotion we’re seeking at work? Are we driven by a desire for more money? Or for material comfort? Do we value comfort and entertainment more than we value God? What about other people in our lives, are they more important to us than God is? Our spouse, our kids, our friends – do our lives revolve more around God, or around them? These are just a few examples. There are a billion more things we can make idols out of.

What’s interesting about our idols, is that often the things that we make into idols aren’t bad things. In many cases it isn’t even sinful to want them. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a promotion. There’s nothing wrong with wanting comfort. We should have a deep desire for our spouse and our children. There may be times when we make an idol out of something sinful, but often that’s not the case. Often there’s nothing inherently wrong with the thing we’re desiring. The problem comes in how much we desire it. John Calvin wrote, “The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.” So what we want may be a good thing to have, and thus, a good thing to want, but the problem is that we want it too much – more than we want God, more than we want God’s will for us.

In many cases there is nothing wrong with the object of our desire. But there is everything wrong with it ruling our lives. And when we want something too much, it does rule our lives. When we have to have something, when we demand it, when our days are consumed with thoughts of it, when our decisions are driven by our pursuit of it rather than being driven by the will of God, in those cases we have made that thing into an idol.

What’s really scary about our idols is that often they can be invisible to the outside world, and even invisible to us. Unlike the Israelites’ idols that we saw in 2 Kings, there’s no big pole in our backyard that pays tribute to a false god. If you hung out around one of these Israelites, you would probably see some idols. But let’s say you hung around me for a day. You could follow me around all day, and never see any idols in my life. We could go to lunch, you could observe me as I work, come to my house and inspect every nook and cranny, and after doing all of that, you likely wouldn’t have any idea if there were idols in my life or not. You certainly wouldn’t find a little statue of Buddha in my house. In fact, if you came over you would find lots of Christian books. You may think, “Wow, he must be close to God.” By all appearances you wouldn’t see anything wrong. But you couldn’t see my heart.

What do you think is more dangerous, an idol that’s visible, or invisible? Is it more dangerous to have an idol that’s out in the open, an idol that other people can question you about, call you out on, or is it more dangerous to have an idol that no one knows about, that’s secret, an idol that can hide in your heart and soul and go unnoticed? Which is more dangerous?

If your idol is out in the open for all to see, then hopefully other Christians in your life will talk to you about it, they’ll lovingly come alongside you with the truth about how destructive idols are, and how Christ alone is worthy of our worship. But if your idol is hidden in your heart, invisible to outsiders, no one’s going to have that conversation with you. They’ll just assume that everything’s fine. And all the while your soul is being steered away from God. Away from the one who has the power to free you from the grip of idols. It’s being steered away from the only one who can bring real fulfillment and joy. The one you were created for.

Idols lead us away from Christ, and they lead us in the path of this world. In verse 8 of 2 Kings 17, it says the Israelites “walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.”

Now, just think for a second about the history of the Israelites. They knew that the nations who served false gods had been driven out of their land. They had seen firsthand how God punished those who committed idolatry, and rewarded those who were faithful to Him. And yet still they walked in the customs of the nations. They walked in the ways of the world.

We too have evidence all around us of how harmful it is to serve idols. We hear stories about people who neglect their marriages, their children to climb the corporate ladder. Then when they reach the top, they find themselves all alone. Other people gain enormous amounts of wealth, only to find themselves miserable and empty.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon provides a perfect case study for us. He is a great example of someone who turned away from the Lord to follow every desire of his heart. And what was the result?

1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10)

Let’s pause there a minute. Solomon clearly sought joy and fulfillment in every avenue he could. Anything he could dream of, he had. But he abandoned the Lord. And how did that turn out for him?

11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

It is a destructive thing to spend ourselves on empty pursuits, to spend ourselves on created things while rejecting the Creator.

Idolatry is walking in the path of the world around us, not in the path of Christ. It is for the world, not for the church, not for us.

Because this is such a serious issue, God makes every effort to warn us against it. Back in 2 Kings 17, in verse 13, it says: “the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

God warns us through His Word, but He also warns through other people. For the Israelites this was the prophets and seers. Notice it says He warned them with every prophet, and every seer. The prophets and seers were God’s mouthpiece so that the Israelites could be warned against the danger of their sin.

Are we open to receiving those kinds of warnings from other people? Are we open to receiving instruction from church leaders, or from those closest to us? If our spouse notices a pattern in our life that’s concerning to them, do we want to hear about it? Do they know that we want to hear about it? Or do they know that if they brought it up, we would just snap at them, and point at their sin?

God’s warnings won’t do us any good if we harden ourselves against all instruction and counsel. Verse 14 says the Israelites “would not listen, but were stubborn.” Their stubbornness cost them dearly.

When idols are revealed in our lives, the right response is to repent, and receive the grace and forgiveness of Christ. But often that isn’t the way we respond. Often we try to minimize our sin. We may tell ourselves that our idols aren’t that big a deal. We can try to convince ourselves that they aren’t really hurting us.

But in our passage we see a terrifying, but honest picture, of the cost of holding on to idols. We’ve already seen that the Israelites were carried into captivity because of their idols. There are three more costs of idolatry that I want us to see, in verses 15-17.

15 They despised [God’s] statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. (2 Kings 17:15-17)

What is the cost of holding on to idols? We see it here.

First, we see in verse 15 that idols lead us to hate the word of God. It says the Israelites “despised his statutes and his covenant…and the warnings that he gave them.” Now, it’s important to note that you can’t love God while hating His Word. Hatred of God’s Word means hatred of God. If there’s an idol in your life, and you’re fiercely holding on to it, then when God’s Word tells you to loosen your grip and let it go, you’re going to resent God for that. Love for idols leads to hatred for God. It’s that simple.

The second cost we see in 2 Kings is that idols change who we are. Look again at the second half of verse 15. It says, “They went after false idols and became false.” Have you ever heard the saying, “You are what you love?” It means that whatever you care most about is what you will become like. A lover of God will become like God, and a lover of false idols will become false. We are fools if we think that our idols can’t change us. They can, and they do.

The third cost of holding on to idols that I want us to see from our passage is found in verse 17. It’s that idols lead us to sacrifice what should be precious to us. Verse 17 says, “they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD.” The Israelites sacrificed their children.

This is what idolatry does to us. This is what we’re talking about here. When you have an idol in your life – anything you love more than God, desire more than God – it is not harmless. It’s never harmless. Now, I know that no one here would burn their children alive as a sacrifice to idols. We know that’s wicked, and barbaric. But even though we wouldn’t burn them as a sacrifice, children are often sacrificed to idols in other ways. They’re neglected, they’re ignored, they’re mistreated, and all because their parents are too consumed with something that they shouldn’t be consumed with. So children are sacrificed.

If each of us here was consumed with God, and nothing else. If we were driven, not by idols, but by a burning desire to know God, to worship Him, to love Him, if that’s what our lives were about, then we would be better parents, better spouses, better employees, better students, better children – better human beings overall. Because when God is supreme in our hearts, it affects everything else in life. Things are ordered as they should be. But when God isn’t supreme, because we’re holding on to an idol, things become disordered. And as a result, everything and everyone else in our lives suffer for it – including us.

The cost of idols is that they lead us to despise God and His Word, they change who we are, and they lead us to sacrifice what should be precious to us.

The Israelites sacrificed their children to their idols. What do we sacrifice to our idols? 

The Israelites sold themselves to their idols. What do we sell ourselves to?

Idolatry is a matter of the heart. It comes down to who or what we love, and how much we love those people and things. The reality is that our hearts can be a messy place. We may not even realize that something’s an idol in our life. So I have some questions that can help you, and help me, to identify any possible idols in our lives. Many of these questions come from David Powlison, an author and biblical counselor. Listen as I read these, and answer them for yourself…

What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for?
Whose desires do you obey? God’s desires for you, or your own fleshly desires?
What do you fear? What do you tend to worry about?
Where do you find safety, comfort, escape, pleasure, security?
Who must you please? From whom do you desire approval and fear rejection?
What dreams are eating away at you because they haven’t yet come true?
What is there in your life that you have a tight grip on? That you fight to hold on to, even though you know it needs to be laid down before God?

The answers to these questions may expose the idols in our lives. And when idols are exposed, we are to repent, and turn to Christ as our supreme treasure.

Jesus is better than idols. In every single way, Jesus is better. Whatever idol may be in your life now, Jesus is better. Whatever you’re tempted to make into an idol in the future, Jesus is better. He is perfect. Absolutely perfect. We may know that in our heads. But in our hearts it’s easy to forget. So we have to preach to ourselves every day. We have to preach about His perfections. Preach to ourselves about the beauty of our first love.

Do we remember that at one time we had all rejected Him? We were lawbreakers, and God-haters. We were among the worthless, the least. Yet Jesus loved us. He came to earth on a rescue mission, to save us from sin, to save us from idolatry.

And when He got here, how was this Savior received? How was this Redeemer welcomed? For a while some people followed Him, but in His time of greatest need He was betrayed by one of His close friends. In fact, all of his close friends abandoned Him. He was arrested. And the people He came to save shouted, “Crucify Him!” Had we been in that crowd’s shoes, our cries would have been no different.

Imagine what He must have felt through all of that. As He poured Himself out for the very people who hated Him, who murdered Him, His heart must have broken over and over again. Not just because of what was being done to Him. But also because He saw firsthand the weak and helpless state of those He loved. Christ’s heart breaks when He sees His loved ones enslaved to sin. That breaks His heart.

Have you ever had someone close to you who was caught up in their sin? Seemingly enslaved to it? Maybe it was your child, or spouse, or a close friend. And you could see firsthand the damage their sin was doing to them. But they couldn’t see it! They were stubborn, they refused to turn away from the thing that was destroying their lives. How did that make you feel? If you’ve been through that with someone, how did it make you feel? It hurts. It hurts your heart.

We were that person. Being killed by our sin, yet refusing to turn away from it. And Christ’s compassion toward us, His heartbreak over us, led Him to the cross. He endured the cross so that we, as His people, precious to Him, could be liberated from sin, freed from idolatry. And so that we could have the joy of intimacy with Him.

He knows that our hearts are a mess. One minute we can sing love songs to Him, with full passion and conviction, but then the next minute we somehow move on to something else. He knows that. He knows we’re prone to wander. Prone to chase the things of this world rather than Him. And yet, knowing all of that, He came to earth and died for us.

He cares for us. And He cares what we love because He knows that we will never find fullness of joy in anything or anyone but Him. So He welcomes us into arms, He welcomes us into His love. He calls us into the deepest, and best of relationships. A relationship with Him, the only one who will never let us down.

He is far better than all idols. And for us to remember that – not just in our heads, but also in our hearts – we have to preach these things to ourselves every day. We have to preach the gospel to ourselves every day, because in the gospel we see the supreme beauty and majesty of God on display. And when we see the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ, we’ll realize that nothing else can satisfy.

Idols crumble in the presence of Christ’s glory. They fall into ashes. While He – the lover of our souls, our Redeemer, our Savior and Lord – He becomes our everything.