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 Ezekiel 14:9-10 (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” (Numbers 11:19-20)
  • Ahab trusted false prophets, so God deceived the false prophets into telling lies so Ahab would enter battle and die (1 Kings 22:1-23)

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. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 (ESV)

We also see this beast raise his evil head again in Rev 12 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 (Matt 24:24).

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