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Where Do Idols Come From?

God is our maker and not what we have made.  That’s major!  Yet, it’s astonishing that people even today will gather materials and fashion for themselves an idol made of wood or metal.

The Bible in several places shows the foolishness of this sinful practice.  One explicit passage is Jeremiah 10:1-6:

  • Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD, “Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them; For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool.  “They decorate it with silver and with gold; They fasten it with nails and with hammers So that it will not totter.  “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, For they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good.”  There is none like You, O LORD; You are great, and great is Your name in might.

While idolatry is astonishing, it’s also very sad.  The earth is replete of idols, which shows that we’re innately spiritual.  We naturally seek the divine.  That’s why all peoples everywhere worship something, even if it’s themselves.  That’s just part of how God has created us.  In fat, it’s hard work to be an atheist.

However, there’s a problem.  We’re not only innately spiritual.  We are also innately depraved, and when innate spirituality collides with innate depravity, the result is idolatry.

Innate Spirituality + Innate Depravity = Idolatry

As we innately seek the divine, our sin leads us away from the true and only God.  Romans 1:18-23 explains how this process works:

  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

We naturally want a faith, but we don’t naturally want truth.  We naturally want a faith, but we don’t want to walk by faith.  And that’s where idols come from.  We want a God we can see, which requires no faith.

The Reformer John Calvin said it the following way when he wrote about the origin of idols being man’s desire for a tangible deity (The Institutes, 1.11.8).  Some in Calvin’s day were apparently arguing that idols came from the desire to honor dead ancestors, but Calvin disagreed.  He wrote:

For it appears from Moses that idols were in use before this eagerness to consecrate images of the dead prevailed, which is frequently mentioned by secular writers. When he relates that Rachel stole her father’s idols [Genesis 31:19], he is speaking of a vice that was common. From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…

Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth…

Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. In almost every age since the beginning of the world, men, in order that they might obey this blind desire, have set up symbols in which they believed God appeared before their bodily eyes.

That’s why we, our hearts and minds, are idol-making factories:  we’re uncomfortable with an invisible God.  It was true for the Israelites as they made a golden calf to represent Yahweh while Moses was on Sinai (Exodus 32), and it’s true today.

For example, a couple years ago, I was having a discussion with my older son Zachariah.  He had just turned 4-years-old.  I was up against a deadline and had to get some work done immediately, but he really wanted me to play.  Zach’s very social and doesn’t like playing alone.  Since none of his buddies were around, and his little brother was napping, good ol’ dad was his anticipated playmate.  Our exchange went something like this:

“Dad, I want you to play with me,” Zachariah declared.

“Son, I’d love to, but I’ve really got to get this work done.  It has to be done today.  Why don’t you go upstairs and play.  Build a big house with Lincoln Logs!”

“Dad, I don’t want to go upstairs by myself,” he answered back, beginning that whiny voice that kids employ so well.  “It’s kinda dark up there and sometimes I get scared up there by myself.”

Looking for one of those teachable moments and given that we’d just done a VBS about not being afraid, I asked him, “Zachariah, why should you not be scared to go up stairs and play?”

“Because God is always with me,” he answered correctly.

“That’s right,” I said.  “You don’t have any reason to be scared.”

And then he said it as matter-of-factly as possible, “But, daddy, sometimes I wish I had a god I could see.”

Wow!  That was raw and heart-penetrating!  I’ve felt the same way too.  Haven’t you?  Well, that’s the spirit behind the birth of idols.  We want a faith, but we don’t want to walk by faith.

While idolatry is everywhere on the earth, we really don’t see many physical idols made of wood or metal here in our area of the earth.  Trust me:  idols are there but just invisible.  In a sense, I wish the idols that you and I have to deal with were made of wood and metal so that we could easily smash them, melt them down, or set fire to them.  But they’re not, which makes them more difficult to recognize and eradicate.  We nevertheless must destroy them!

That’s where Christian music artist Ross King has been so helpful in his song “Clear the Stage.”  In the bridge of that song, he gives very helpful idol-detecting definitions:

  1. Anything I put before my God is an idol.
  2. Anything I want with all my heart is an idol.
  3. Anything I can’t stop thinking of is an idol.
  4. Anything that I give all my love is an idol.

Think through those definitions.  Do any idols in your life become apparent.

Now that we understand where idols come from and have definitions to help discover our invisible ones, I’m really praying that we’ll work to find and crush them for our good and the glory of God!

I’m really interested to hear feedback from you about what potential idols you see in your life and others.

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