You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol [פֶּסֶל pesel – an idol or carved image], or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship [שָׁחָה shachah – to worship, bow down] them or serve [עָבַד abad – serve, work] them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me. (Ex. 20:3-5)
What is idolatry?
Idolatry is the selfish sin of substitution in which we devote ourselves to worship something or someone in the place of God. It is foremost a sin of a covetous heart that leads us to desire more than what God provides, and to trust something or someone lesser than God to satisfy our wants and needs. Paul addresses the heart of idolatry when he writes that covetousness “is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Covetousness is idolatry because the covetous heart desires things and pleasures more than God. The believer who is satisfied with God is content with what he has (1 Tim. 6:7-11; cf. Phil. 4:11), but the covetous heart is never content and always seeks more (i.e. money, success, friends, etc.) in order to feel secure or to please the flesh.
In a general sense idolatry is the paying of divine honor to any created thing; the ascription of divine power to natural agencies. Idolatry may be classified as follows: (1) the worship of inanimate objects, such as stones, trees, rivers, etc.; (2) of animals; (3) of the higher powers of nature, such as the sun, moon, stars; and the forces of nature, as air, fire, etc.; (4) hero-worship or of deceased ancestors; (5) idealism, or the worship of abstractions or mental qualities, such as justice.
What is an idol?
Throughout Scripture an idol is almost always a carved image, something crafted by human hand, made of wood or stone. An idol can be either a physical object that symbolizes a deity, or it can be an abstract concept such as greed or justice. A physical idol is merely the work of a craftsman (see Isa. 44:9-19). There is no life in it (Ps. 115:1-8; Jer. 51:17; Hab. 2:18-20), nor can it deliver in times of trouble (Isa. 46:5-7). Ultimately, an idol is the thing or person we trust more than God to provide, protect, or guide us in life. Biblically, there is only one God, and He demands that His people worship Him (Ex. 20:3-6). The exclusive worship of God is for His glory and our benefit.
Can God’s people engage in idolatry?
Yes. We can engage in idolatry. The record of Israel’s history—with the exception of a few generations—is a record of their unfaithfulness to God as they worshipped pagan idols (Ex. 32:1-6), which at times included human sacrifice (Deut. 12:31; 18:10; 2 Ki. 21:6; Ezek. 16:20-21). The books of Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea (just to name a few) all reveal Israel regularly committed idolatry, and this caused them to suffer greatly under God’s discipline as He faithfully executed the cursing aspects of the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 28:15-68).
Idolatry is dangerous because it is connected with the activity of demons (1 Cor. 10:19-20), who seek to steal God’s glory and wreck our relationship with the Lord. Many of God’s people have fallen into idolatry. Aaron led Israel into idol worship (Ex. 32:1-6). Solomon, by the end of his life, bowed down to idols (1 Ki. 11:6-10), and there is nothing in the biblical record that suggests Solomon ever turned back to the Lord. The apostle Paul addressed idolatry in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33; 2 Cor. 6:16). The apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). John knew the sinful proclivity of all Christians and I believe this is why he warns us, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
Why do we commit idolatry?
Even though we are born again believers with a new heart (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23), we still possess a sin nature (Rom. 6:6; 13:14; Gal. 5:16-17, 19; Col. 3:9), and there is always a conflict within us (Rom. 7:19-25; Gal. 5:16-17). We commit idolatry because we seek to satisfy our sinful desires over God and His will. In American culture we tend to worship at the altar of self-interest, greed, personal achievement, personal security and self-satisfaction.
How do we guard ourselves from falling into idolatry?
First, realize our hearts are sinful and bent toward idolatry. It is the natural proclivity of mankind to worship things and people in the place of God. It comes very easy to us, even as Christians. Second, be devoted to God. Paul writes to Christians, stating, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1). This is a lifetime commitment to God in which we bring all of our life under His directive will. Third, constantly be in God’s Word, letting it guide our thinking and behavior. As Christians, we do not worship the Bible, but neither can we worship God without it (John 4:24). The Bible is God’s inerrant and enduring written revelation that tells us who He is and what He’s accomplished in time and space. The Bible is written in understandable language and made acceptable by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14-16; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:3-4). Our walk with God depends on rightly understanding and applying Scripture (John 17:17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). Fourth, surround yourself with Christian friends who will help you in your daily spiritual walk with the Lord. Our fellowship with other growing believers is paramount concerning our spiritual health and growth. The Bible is very clear when it states, “bad associations corrupt good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). This is true in every way, and it helps us to have growing Christian friends who influence us to worship God and stay close to Him always. Fifth, make time to worship the Lord daily, singing to Him and praising Him for all His blessings (Ps. 95:2; 105:2; Eph. 5:18-21; Phil. 4:6; Col. 3:16-17; 1 Thess. 5:18). A heart that is satisfied with God will not seek lesser people or things to fill the void that occurs when we turn away from Him.
Steven R. Cook, M. Div.
- Do God’s People ever Behave Poorly?
- Restoring Fellowship with God.
- I am a Saint.
- I am a Sinner.
- The Sin Nature Within the Christian.
 Merrill F. Unger, ed. R.K. Harrison, “Idolatry” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).