What is idolatry? What does God say about idolatry in the Bible?
When you think of idols you likely think of something from the past. Golden statues, trinkets, and the worship of many gods. And that certainly is part of what an idol is. But we often miss the fullness of the real idolatry definition and how it applies to our lives today.
In this blog post we are going to look at what exactly an idol is and examples of idolatry in the Bible. I think we will find that idolatry is still around today and is something that we need to look out for.
Let’s start by looking at an idolatry definition that sets the foundation for us.
Idolatry Definition (What Is Idolatry?)
Idolatry typically refers to worshiping idols, images, or other substitutes for the one true God.
The most common forms of idolatry are:
- The worship of trinkets, statues, or images of gods.
- The worship of trees, rivers, hills, stones, etc for the magical/spiritual powers they hold (Fetishism)
- The worship of nature. The sun, moon, and stars as supreme powers of nature.
- The worship of heroes or deceased ancestors.
Here’s how a few dictionaries define idolatry:
Merriam-Webster Idolatry Definition: the worship of a physical object as a god or immoderate attachment or devotion to something.
dictionary.com Idolatry Definition: the religious worship of idols. Or excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.
Oxford’s Dictionary Idolatry Definition: the practice of worshiping statues as gods or too much love or admiration for someone or something.
So far all these idolatry definitions probably check the boxes of how you and I think about idolatry. But I think those idolatry definitions fall a little short in grasping the fullness of what an idol is. To be clear, I don’t think those definitions are wrong. Just that their view is too narrow.
Here’s how I would define idolatry: Idolatry Definition: When something becomes more important to us than God.
I think this definition gives us a broader scope of what idolatry is. It’s not just about worshiping trinkets, statues, or images. It’s about placing something above God.
I love how Tim Keller defines it in Counterfeit Gods. Idolatry definition: “An idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.”
I think this helps us see that idolatry isn’t just something in the past, but is still all around us. We’ll look more at that in a minute. First let’s look at idolatry in the Bible.
Idolatry In The Bible
Idolatry in the Bible is regarded as a pagan practice that was imported into the nation of Israel. Most every other nation believed that worship many gods was far better than worshiping one God. Thus most nations had multiple gods that they worshiped for specific purposes (fertility, crops, health, etc…).
Israel was a unique nation in that it did not have any idols or worship multiple gods. But they were constantly tempted by their counterparts. If you were to just thumb through the Old Testament you will see that they regularly gave into idolatry.
God sets the precedent for his people early on that his people shall have no gods except him, and they shall not worship any idol. The 10 Commandments lead off with a command against idolatry (Exodus 20:3). And in most subsequent books in the Old Testament echo this commandment (Exodus 23:13, 24, Deuteronomy 4:23-24, 6:14, Joshua 23:7, Judges 6:10, and 2 Kings 17:35-38). But Israel continually struggled to actually follow this commandment.
The first reference to idol worship is found just a few chapters into founding of the Hebrew people. In Genesis 31:19 Rachel steals her father’s household gods. Thus the nation of Israel begins their affair with idols.
The first instance of the entire nation of Israel engaging in idol worship was at Mount Sinai where they gathered to worship a golden calf. After this idolatry in the Bible it really picks up in frequency.
The book of Judges is chock-FULL of the God’s people turning to false gods and idol worship. Eventually the nation of Israel was divided into a northern and southern kingdom. And all the rulers of the northern kingdom engaged in idolatry (2 Kings 17:6-18). The southern kings had a slight better track record, but not by much.
Just about all the hardships the nation of Israel faced was due to their worship of idols and false gods. Just about all the prophets warned the nation of Israel against this practice (2 Kings 21:10-16). But they went largely unheard. (Isaiah 48:4-5, Jeremiah 2:4-30, Ezekiel 8)
There were periods of little to no idol worship. During the reign of King Saul and King David, there is no evidence of idolatry. And after the exile the worship of gods and idols ceased.
The New Testament is also vocal about idolatry. Colossians 3:5 and Romans 1:22-23 remind us of the dangers of idolatry. Many times the New Testament warns of being seduced by the things of this world to the point where they become the most important thing in our life- which is, by definition, idolatry.
Idolatry in the Bible is prevalent and is always condemned. Instead God’s people are told to worship only the one true God and to avoid the worship of worthless idols.
We see time and time again in the Bible that we tend to drift away from God. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are full of warnings against idolatry because we are so prone to wander. We must be diligent in examining our life for idols.
Here’s a full list of what the Bible says about idols if you want more context: Bible Verses About Idolatry
Idolatry Meaning For Us Today
Now that we have a good idolatry definition and we know a little more about the history of idolatry in the Bible, let’s look at what this means for us today.
My guess is when you think of idolatry you think of the golden calf or little trinkets people worship. But as we saw in our earlier definition, an idol is anything that becomes more important to us than God. And by that definition idol worship is still happening today.
Dwight L. Moody says it this way: “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.”
If you want to learn more about what idols are most prevalent today check out: The Top 10 Idols Still Worshipped Today
So how do we find idols in our life?
What I want to encourage you to do is to prayerfully evaluate your life and make sure nothing has become more important than God. Ask yourself, what is an idol in my life? Be honest with yourself, don’t try to answer the way you think you should.
Here’s a few questions that I think can help you identify any potential idols in your life:
Where Do I Spend My Time?
Where Do I Spend My Money?
Where Do I Get My Joy?
What’s Always On My Mind?
Actually think about those questions. Answer them honestly. Pray through them. They will lead you to what either is an idol or what you might be tempted to make an idol. Spend some time in prayer asking and seeking what is an idol in your life.
Idol worship today might look different, but it still exists. We shouldn’t let anything, even a good thing, take the place of God in our life. When we look at idolatry in the Bible that’s the main message. Keep God in his rightful place.
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