People and Their Idols

The likelihood of a Westerner knowing someone who makes idols of religious worship for a living is pretty slim. I contend that it is even rarer to have acquaintances, friends, or relatives who make religious idols for use in their home. This was widespread during the days of the Old Testament (OT) and in the New Testament (NT). Due to space limitations, I will focus only on the OT. There are many OT prophecies and/or oracles of judgment pronounced against the idolatry of the nations and God’s OT people, the nation of Israel. Reading any of the four, major prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, will bear this out. In fact, reading just one of those books is more than enough to realize that idol worship and idol-making are abominations before the Lord of heaven and earth.

For example, here is a chilling passage from the book of Isaiah:

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.” (Isaiah 44:9-11, NIV)

Now, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words sometime during the last decades of the 8th Century BC. Some OT scholars believe that the prophet’s ministry overlapped with the start of the 7th Century BC. The point being that Isaiah lived and ministered for several decades. During his ministry, he prophesied that the Assyrians would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He saw this take place with his own eyes in 722 BC. Why is this significant? Portions of Isaiah’s prophecies in the seventh and eighth chapters of his book place the certainty of the Northern Kingdom’s demise precisely because of their idol worship and idol-making. The leaders and the people dismissed the prophet’s warnings about their impending doom. Their destruction exemplified the truth of the eleventh verse in the above quoted text: “People who do that will be put to shame…they will be brought down to terror and shame” (Isa. 44:11, NIV).

Did the Southern tribes of Israel pay attention to what happened to their northern brothers and sisters? The answer is no. Isaiah directs most of his prophecies against the people of Judah, which comprised of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin (see 1 Kings 10:29-36; 2 Chronicles 11:5-12, ESV). They also were called the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Now, common sense would seem to dictate that the people of Judah would learn from the disaster that befell their brothers and sisters to the north. Isn’t it better to learn from others’ mistakes? The Southern Kingdom knew all about the spiritual idolatry of their northern brothers and sisters. The people of Judah heard the prophet Isaiah himself speak the words that he recorded for them, which the Lord preserved for us in Isaiah 44:9-11. These words are neither hypothetical nor cryptic. The passage is crystal clear about what happens to those cities and peoples who worship and make idols. 

The Southern Kingdom loved their idols so much that they rejected the prophet Isaiah’s warnings much like their brothers and sisters to the north. Tradition has it that Isaiah suffered martyrdom during the reign of King Manasseh, who ordered the prophet’s execution. Many bible scholars believe that the reference in Hebrews 11:37 to those being sawn in two refers to Isaiah’s manner of death. Manasseh’s reign represented the nadir and the soon coming end of the Southern Kingdom (2 Kings 21:1-9, ESV). In the OT book of second Kings, the Lord prophesies judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem because of Manasseh’s sins and his peoples’ sins, which included idol worship, witchcraft, child sacrifice, and shedding innocent blood; consequently, there was no way for them to avert the coming disaster (2 Kings 21:10-15; 24:2-4, ESV). In 586 BC, the Babylonians overthrew the Southern Kingdom. 

One terrible truth comes to the forefront at this point. No civilization wants to be told to give up its idols and idol-making. Manasseh’s bloodthirsty reign epitomizes this, which also overshadows the fact that he genuinely repented and reversed from his murderous ways near the end of his life (2 Chron. 33:12-16, ESV). Sometimes one is able to turn back from the deep darkness of idolatry and idol-making like Manasseh. There are other times when this is not the case. In fact, Isaiah spells this out near the end of the forty-fourth chapter:

“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think…Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'” (Isa. 44:18-20, NIV)

Those are powerful words that hit home even today. Like I said at the very beginning, most Americans do not have physical idols. What we do have are spiritual ones, which dwell within our souls. These idols may be rising to the top at all costs, pursuing pleasure for its own sake regardless of the consequences, and seeking spirituality without the Lord. There is another idol that is more insidious and much more ancient than those three. I call it the idol of the autonomous self. It lead to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. This idol is all about pursuing the right to live my life in whatever way I want free its creator, the Lord. I am the sole arbiter of what is valuable to me. Nearly every magazine, commercial, television show, movie, or news item trumpets the idol of the autonomous self. Social media only has made things worse. May we heed Isaiah’s warning about the ultimate end of those civilizations who worship and fashion idols.