In the Old Testament, idolatry was a frequent sin by the nation of Israel. God didn’t mince words with how much He hated it. Although it’s easy to wonder what kept Israel from quitting this sin for good, the notion of worshipping other gods might be something we actually struggle with today. The first step toward freedom from this sin is awareness. Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about idolatry and what it means for us.

This is an excerpt adapted from the Fire Bible Study Notes

“Do not be afraid … You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless.

1 Samuel 12:20-21

Definition of Idolatry

Idolatry refers to worshiping idols, images or other “God-substitutes” (things in place of the true God). It is a severe offense against God that happened again and again throughout the history of God’s people. The first clear recorded instance was when Jacob (renamed Israel, Ge 32:28) commanded members of his extended family to get rid of their foreign gods just before he arrived in Bethel (Ge 35:1-4). The first time the Bible describes the entire nation of Israel engaging in idolatry was when they gathered to worship the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Ex 32:1-6). During the time of the judges, God’s people frequently turned to false gods and participated in idol worship. Though there is no evidence of idolatry during the time of Saul or David, during the latter years of King Solomon there is a continuing pattern of idolatry in Israel (1Ki 11:1-8). At the end of Solomon’s reign, Israel became divided. After the division, all of the rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel engaged in idolatry, as did many of the southern kings of Judah. Only after the exile did the worship of other gods cease among the Jews.

Attractiveness of Idolatry

Why was idolatry so appealing to the Israelites? Several factors were involved.

(1) The Israelites were surrounded by pagan nations.

The pagans believed that worshiping several gods was superior to worshiping one God. That is to say, they felt that more was better. God’s people constantly imitated the evil religious practices and lifestyles of the surrounding nations instead of obeying God’s command to keep themselves holy (morally and spiritually pure and devoted to God) and separated from such practices.

(2) The false gods of the other nations did not require the kind of obedience and moral purity that the God of Israel demanded.

For example, many of the pagan religions included sexual immorality with temple prostitutes as part of their religious rituals. This practice became appealing to many of the Israelites. But God required His people to obey the high moral standards defined in His law in order to maintain a saving relationship with Him. They had to resist the pull toward immorality and other sinful practices accepted and practiced by the pagan religions.

(3) Because of the demonic character of idols, idolatry at times produced appealing results for the people who worshiped the images.

The demonic powers were able to provide temporary material and physical benefits for the worshipers. Fertility gods promised the birth of children; weather gods promised agreeable conditions for abundant crops; warrior gods promised protection from enemies and victory in battle. Such “benefits” were attractive to the Israelites, and for these reasons many were willing to dedicate themselves to the worship of these idols.

Basic Character of Idolatry

We cannot fully understand the appeal of idolatry unless we understand its true nature.

(1) The Bible makes it plain that an idol is nothing (Jer 2:11; 16:20).

It is only a piece of wood or stone, carved by human hands. It has no power of its own. Samuel calls idols useless things (1Sa 12:21), and Paul clearly states: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world” (1Co 8:4; 10:19-20). Because of an idol’s worthlessness, the psalm writers (Ps 115:4-8; 135:15-18) and prophets (1Ki 18:27; Isa 44:9-20; 46:1-7; Jer 10:3-5) often mocked and ridiculed idols, pointing out how ridiculous it is to trust them.

(2) However, behind all idols of false gods are demons–spiritual beings ruled by Satan.

Both Moses (Dt 32:17) and the psalmist (Ps 106:36-37) declared false gods the same as demons. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says the same thing when explaining to the believers about eating meat sacrificed to idols: “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God” (1Co 10:20). The power behind idolatry is the power and activity of demons, who have much influence in this world. Christians know, of course, that the power of Jesus Christ is greater beyond any limit than that of demons. The Bible does, however, describe Satan as “the god of this age” (2Co 4:4), who exercises very great power in the world at this present time (1Jn 5:19; Lk 13:16; Gal 1:4; Eph 6:12; Heb 2:14). He has the power to produce counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders (2Th 2:9; Rev 13:2-8, 13; 16:13-14; 19:20) and to cause or provide physical and material benefits to some people. There is no doubt that this power sometimes contributes to the material gain and success of the wicked (Ps 10:2-6; 37:16, 35; 49:6; 73:3-12).

(3) The relationship between idolatry and demons becomes more clear when we realize how closely connected pagan religions are with…

  • spiritism (receiving messages from the dead)
  • sorcery (use of magic through evil spirits)
  • divination (predicting the future)
  • enchantment (casting spells)
  • witchcraft (the practice of magic)

These and other practices attempt to communicate with ungodly spiritual forces or the dead in order to receive power, gain hidden knowledge or determine the future (2Ki 21:3-6; Isa 8:19). According to Scripture, all of these occult practices involve worship and admiration toward demons. For example, when Saul asked the witch at Endor to summon Samuel from the dead, she saw a spirit “coming up out of the ground,” which proved to represent Samuel (1Sa 28:8-14). This shocked her because she had expected a demon to come up from the underworld.

(4) The NT calls greed a form of idolatry (Col 3:5).

In this sense, people put love and desire for riches and power ahead of God. In fact, these things can become a person’s “gods.” But on a deeper spiritual level, demons are able to give limited material benefits. For that reason, people who are not satisfied with what they have will not hesitate to compromise with, or “sell out” to, corrupt and evil powers who may get them what they want. Such people may not worship gods made out of wood and stone. In reality, they worship the demons that stand behind greed and evil desires. Jesus warned that we “cannot serve both God and Money” (Mt 6:24). Speaking on the same subject, Paul later warns that believers should “not drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (1Co 10:21).

God’s Response to Idolatry

God will not tolerate any form of idolatry.

(1) He frequently warned against it in the Old Testament.

(2) The history of the Israelites was all too often a rebellious history of idol worship.

God became very angry with His people for failing to destroy all of the idols in the promised land and for adopting the worship of false gods instead. He punished them by allowing their enemies to gain control over them.

  • The book of Judges presents a cycle that is often repeated:
    • First, the Israelites began to serve the false gods of the nations that they failed to remove from the land.
    • Then, God allowed their enemies to gain power over them.
    • Finally, God’s people cried out to him for help. Then, the Lord heard and sent a judge to rescue them.
  • The idolatry of the northern kingdom went on for nearly two centuries. Finally, God allowed the Assyrians to destroy Israel’s capital and to scatter the ten tribes (2Ki 17:6-18).
  • The southern kingdom of Judah did have a number of faithful, God-honoring kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah. Because of wicked kings like Manasseh, however, idolatry became commonly accepted in the daily life of Judah (2Ki 21:1-9). As a result, God sent prophets to warn His people that Jerusalem would also be destroyed (2Ki 21:10-16). In spite of these warnings, idolatry continued (Isa 48:4-5; Jer 2:4-30; 16:18-21; Eze 8) until God finally fulfilled his prophecy through King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who captured Jerusalem, burned the temple and destroyed anything of value in the city (2Ki 25).

(3) The NT also warns Christ’s followers against idolatry.

  • Idolatry can be seen in various forms today. It is clearly evident in the false religions of the world, as well as in sorcery (use of magic through evil spirits), satanism (worship of Satan and self) and other forms of the occult. It is also present when people give themselves over to greed and materialism rather than trusting in God alone. In fact, idolatry is an issue whenever anything in a person’s life takes priority over God. Finally, it occurs within the church when people believe they can serve God and experience his salvation and blessings and at the same time participate in the immoral and wicked practices of the world.
  • As a result, the New Testament warns us not to be greedy, immoral, or to desire what belongs to others (Col 3:5; Mt 6:19-24; Ro 7:7; Heb 13:5-6), but rather to flee from all forms of idolatry (1Co 10:14; 1Jn 5:21). God makes it very clear that those who engage in any form of idolatry will have no part in His kingdom (1Co 6:9-10; Gal 5:20-21; Rev 22:15).

Where have idols popped up in your own life? Tell us in the comments below!

Fire Bible Study Notes

fire bible study notes idolatry

This blog is adapted from the Fire Bible Study Notes. Visit our store to learn more about how this helpful tool works and add it to your library today.

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