Reimaging Idols

If you ask your local Sunday School student to give a Biblical description of an idol, he will likely say that in the past it might be a statue to Caesar or Molech or Baal or Chemosh, but these days, an idol is anything we value more than we value God: money, houses, cars, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, etc. And he’d be mostly right. I say “mostly” because not only is this true for things that we value more than we value God, but it’s also true for things that we value more than God intends for us to value! For example, if we love our Porsche more than we love our kids, but not more than we love God or our spouse – we’ve still made the Porsche an idol because we value (idolize) it more than we value our kids. We have made it more than God intends for it to be – even if we haven’t made it more important than God.

If you ask that same SS student to describe a priest or prophet for an idol, would he be stuck with a mental image of an eccentric man wearing a hooded robe, chanting obscure verses while preparing a human sacrifice? How would he describe a modern priest or prophet for the modern idols he just described? Does the Bible’s pronouncements for idols and their false prophets still apply today even though we don’t have hooded weirdos running around looking for something to sacrifice to their idols?

If the description of the modern false priest and prophet falls apart, it’s probably because our understanding of the false idol isn’t firm. So let’s backtrack.

As we saw in the first paragraph, idolatry is the elevation of anything in our lives above what God has assigned the thing to be. If God has assigned us enough money to buy an Acura, but we buy a Ferrari, we’ve made an idol of the car. We bought it because we expect that it will give us more comfort/status/whatever than God has assigned to us. Or if God has assigned us a grass hut to live in but we buy a stone hut, we’ve made an idol of it – nevermind that our next-door neighbor has a brick hut with AC. We are worshiping the comfort/peace/security that the thing gives us instead of deriving that comfort/peace/security from God and His provisions for us. This is the pursuit of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. This is idolatry.

Like any false religion, false idols also have false prophets. The false prophet is anyone or anything that encourages us to promote things to the point to where they become idols in our lives. So if the false idol in question is money, then the false prophet would be someone like Warren Buffet, a man who teaches people to pursue money with an attitude that does not honor God’s appointment for money in our lives. If the false idol is a Porsche, the false prophet might be a car magazine. If the false idol is relationships, then the false prophet might be Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil or Ann Landers (all of whom disagree with God’s morals and/or standards for how we should treat people and things in life). If we accept this relationship of false idol to false prophet, we could easily expand this list: Anthony Robbins, Eckhard Tolle, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins… come to think of it, the world is full of people who will happily tell us how we can “better” our lives by using what God has given us in ways that God did not intend – in short, by idolizing these things.

What does all of this have to do with you and me? More than we might otherwise think.

If we study what the Bible has to say about false idols and false prophets, we see some pretty interesting statements and promises that God makes. At the top of the list would be (but feel free to read v6-10 for context). In these verses, God promises that if an idol worshiper turns to a false prophet, He will deceive both the worshiper and the false prophet so that they both might be destroyed and that He will receive the glory.

My guess is that this will sound totally bizarre to our hypothetical Sunday School student in the first paragraph. Yet that’s exactly what this passage teaches, and it’s exactly how God behaves throughout history – and promises to do in the future:

  • Like a good Egyptian, Pharaoh considered himself a god, so God destroyed his country (and his followers) systematically with ten “gods gone wild” (each of the Ten Plagues centers around an Egyptian idol). (Exod 4-12)
  • Pharaoh put his trust in horses and chariots and military might, so God deceived him into thinking his military might could survive the Red Sea. (Exod 14)
  • The Children of Israel idolized the cravings of their bellies, so God gave them meat till it was “coming out their nostrils” ()
  • Ahab trusted false prophets, so God deceived the false prophets into telling lies so Ahab would enter battle and die ()

There are plenty more examples in the OT, but lest we fall victim to the tired old lie that God changes and that “God did that in the past – He doesn’t work that way today”, we have this assurance from God:

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (ESV)

We also see this beast raise his evil head again in and 13, being allowed by God to utter blasphemy and lies for 42 months. I have no clue what exactly that means, but one thing is for sure: this business of God using deceiving people for their destruction is not new nor is it out of bounds for God to do. Somewhere along the line we need to stick that in our pipes and smoke on it for a while.

I’m curious to know what, exactly, a “strong delusion” looks like, but my guess is that it looks for all the world like truth, but is against what the Bible says. I’m thinking things like evolution, old earth, global warming, etc, are good candidates. Personally, I think we had better get used to training ourselves to spot these lies, wherever they may be, and reject them, as well as anyone promoting them. Heaven forbid we become one of the ones almost lead astray ().

And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 10 And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike— (ESV)

19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” (ESV)

22:1 For three years Syria and Israel continued without war. But in the third year Jehoshaphat the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel. And the king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and we keep quiet and do not take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?” And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.” 10 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 11 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 12 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

13 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 14 But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” 15 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 16 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” 17 And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” 18 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” 19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.” (ESV)

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (ESV)

12:1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea. (ESV)

24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (ESV)

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