Modern Idolatry

Golden Calf
Israel's Idolatry - A Warning?

I have always wondered at the apostasy of ancient Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. God had recently brought them out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand. He had shown them many signs and wonders.These signs and wonders reached an acme when he dried the Red Sea before them so that they may pass through. And yet despite this, the narrative of Chapter 32 of Exodus presents a sorry tale. Israelites indulge themselves in wanton idolatry and revelry.

Now, as 21st Century Christians, we may presume that we are beyond such behavior. We abhor idols, don’t we? Some Christians don’t even enter a Hindu’s house because his house might contain a few images of his deity. Some object to the wooden cross in the Church claiming that it’s an idol. Now, some of us may not be so extreme on these issues but we may harbour a comfortable thought that Israel- like apostasy is too far from us. Lest we be misled by such thinking, let’s look more closely at Scriptures and understand what idolatry really means and then make a sober judgement about ourselves.

Idolatry is not just confined to the worship of metal images. That is too narrow a definition although that is its crassest form. When a few Israelite elders, who were in exile in Babylon, came to Ezekiel to consult the Lord, the Lord testified to Ezekiel saying that they have “set up their idols in their hearts” (Eze 14:3 NASB). In Chapter 20 the Lord says the same thing about the Israelites who were in the wilderness (the people whom we are focusing), that “their heart went after their idols” (Eze 20:16). Even Stephen, before his death, said that the Israelites, “in their hearts they turned to Egypt… and made a calf” (Acts 7:39). The New Testament
even extends idolatry to evil desire and covetousness (Col 3:5). From all these we see that idolatry has much to do with the heart. Mere absence of its worst form does not absolve us of the sin that starts in the heart.

In Exodus 32 we read “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

The first thing to notice is that their impatience drove them towards idolatry. They apparently were in a hurry to get to the land of milk and honey. They hurried up to make gods “to go before them.” Saul made a similar mistake by not waiting for Samuel and offered burnt offerings which were unacceptable (1 Sam 13:8). Our impatience can similarly drive us towards many modern day idols. The idol of going abroad and settling there can lure so many of us into making impulsive decisions. How many Christians do we see going abroad supposedly today to do “God’s” work when there is so much to do right here in India?

The second thing to notice is the way the Israelites speak about Moses. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt” and so it goes. Notwithstanding their disrespect for Moses, they speak as if it was Moses who brought them out of Egypt. Was it Moses? Was it not the Lord (Exo 20:2)? Again we see the Israelites’ failure to trust the Lord. They could not trust him enough to keep Moses safe. They supposedly pinned all their hope on Moses rather than the Lord and hence when Moses delayed, they were dismayed. (However, Moses is not on the wrong here). We can do the same mistake of elevating some people in our lives to such an extent that we give them the position of God. And hence when they fall, the consequences for our faith can be devastating. No Pastor, TV Evangelist, Musician, or Bible Teacher can take the position of God. Neither should we make converts of our self and become larger-than-life figures for those whom we have discipled. We must point people to Jesus and set example, not become idols for anyone.

Thirdly, we also see how after setting up the idol, the Israelites still claim that they are worshipping the LORD. For example, Aaron says “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exo 32:5). The peace offering and burnt offerings that were offered to the idol were also exactly the same as ones offered for the ratification of the covenant (Exo 24:5). We can also be masters at such syncretism. We may claim to do ministry on the Internet, but we may be only gratifying ourselves by spending unnecessary time on Orkut, Facebook and Twitter. We may claim to glorify God through our passion for music, but it may only be another excuse to stay away from studying the Word of God. We may give hundreds of excuses for not praying, not attending Bible Studies, not giving to the ministry– it may only be because we are serving another master while claiming Jesus to be the only master we have (Mat 6:24 )

So, we see, how so many of the modern attractions fall into the Biblical category of “idols.” The only thing which has changed is their final form. As Apostle John exhorts us, let us keep ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)

[Also, read an excellent article by Tim Challies on the same subject here and by Carl Trueman here]

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