Through His prophets and leaders, God called upon the people of ancient Israel to obey Him so their lives would be filled with purpose, joy and contentment. At the same time He strongly cautioned them to spurn the veneration of false gods (Leviticus 19:4 Leviticus 19:4Turn you not to idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×, Ezekiel 20:18 Ezekiel 20:18But I said to their children in the wilderness, Walk you not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols:
American King James Version×). But the people’s curiosity with idols got the better of them. The fascination they found in such worship quickly turned them away from their Creator. They would not heed His instructions or warnings but gave their time, treasure and devotion to useless idols (2 Kings 17:12-15 2 Kings 17:12-15  For they served idols, whereof the LORD had said to them, You shall not do this thing.  Yet the LORD testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn you from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.  Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the LORD their God.  And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them.
American King James Version×). Through their idolatrous practices the people became so acutely corrupt that it led them into demonism and the ritual sacrificial killing of their own little children (Psalms 106:36-38 Psalms 106:36-38  And they served their idols: which were a snare to them.  Yes, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to devils,  And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.
American King James Version×).
Why did people, who had the Eternal God in their midst, depart from Him into senseless idolatry (Jeremiah 2:5 Jeremiah 2:5Thus said the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?
American King James Version×)? Why did they abandon a way of life that would guarantee their happiness, serenity and productivity (Deuteronomy 28:1-14 Deuteronomy 28:1-14  And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the LORD your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth:  And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God.  Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.  Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep.  Blessed shall be your basket and your store.  Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.  The LORD shall cause your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before your face: they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways.  The LORD shall command the blessing on you in your storehouses, and in all that you set your hand to; and he shall bless you in the land which the LORD your God gives you.  The LORD shall establish you an holy people to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways.  And all people of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of you.  And the LORD shall make you plenteous in goods, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground, in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.  The LORD shall open to you his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain to your land in his season, and to bless all the work of your hand: and you shall lend to many nations, and you shall not borrow.  And the LORD shall make you the head, and not the tail; and you shall be above only, and you shall not be beneath; if that you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, to observe and to do them:  And you shall not go aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
American King James Version×)?
Deep roots of idolatry
When the tribes of Israel entered Palestine, after having wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (Exodus 16:35 Exodus 16:35And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan.
American King James Version×), the land’s inhabitants, the Canaanites, already had deep roots in idolatry. Canaanite worship had descended into profound degradation through fertility cults, which exalted such fictional deities as Mot, the god of death and Shapash, the Sun goddess. Likewise they worshiped Molech [also named Milcom], the Canaanite version of the Egyptian god Set, the deity of fire and evil.
Molech and his fertility goddess consort Ashtoreth are described in Scripture as an “abomination,” partly due to licentious sex used in their worship (1 Kings 11:5 1 Kings 11:5For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
American King James Version×). Referring to this goddess, “… the primary motive of the worship of Ishtar [Ashtoreth] was the impulse to deify sensuousness and sensuality. She not only legitimated the sexual indulgences … but she was naturally taken as the authoress of the sexual passion …” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Volume I, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc01.html?term=ashtoreth).
Ancient Israelites enticed and influenced
How did the enticing attraction of such libertine sensuality affect the Israelites? “Many Israelites succumbed to the allurements of the fertility-laden rituals and practices of the Canaanite religion, partly because it was new and different from the Yahwistic [Godly] religion, and possibly because of a tendency of a rigorous faith and ethic to weaken under the influence of sexual attractions” (The International World History Project, essay: “Canaanite Culture and Religion,” http://history-world.org/).
God knew that pagan worship, which often included illicit sexual practices, could lead the Israelites into personal immoral conduct. Sadly however, His many admonitions against it went unheeded which resulted in the people participating in degenerate sexual acts as part of fertility rituals. Pagan worship also included child sacrifice to Molech (Leviticus 18:21 Leviticus 18:21And you shall not let any of your seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×). The most common reason for this was the “fulfillment of a vow before or after obtaining a special favor from the gods, a favor that brings blessing or success to the dedicant” (Associates for Biblical Research, “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” by Andrew White, M.D., January 5, 2012).
How appalling was this heathen death ritual? “The image of Moloch was a human figure with a bull’s head and outreached arms, ready to receive the children destined for sacrifice. The image of metal was heated red-hot by a fire kindled within, and the children laid on its arms rolled off into the fiery pit below. In order to drown the cries of the victims, flutes were played and drums were beaten; and mothers stood by without tears or sobs, to give the impression of the voluntary character of their offering” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume III, page 2075).
Considering the horror of such depraved practices, it is any wonder the Bible describes idolatry with terms such as abominable and filthy (Ezekiel 16:36 Ezekiel 16:36Thus said the Lord GOD; Because your filthiness was poured out, and your nakedness discovered through your prostitutions with your lovers, and with all the idols of your abominations, and by the blood of your children, which you did give to them;
American King James Version×; Ezekiel 20:8 Ezekiel 20:8But they rebelled against me, and would not listen to me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt: then I said, I will pour out my fury on them, to accomplish my anger against them in the middle of the land of Egypt.
American King James Version×; 1 Peter 4:3 1 Peter 4:3For the time past of our life may suffice us to have worked the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, parties, and abominable idolatries:
American King James Version×) and vain, lying and delusional (Zechariah 10:2 Zechariah 10:2For the idols have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie, and have told false dreams; they comfort in vain: therefore they went their way as a flock, they were troubled, because there was no shepherd.
American King James Version×)?
God’s clear warnings against idolatry are found in numerous biblical passages. For example, Ezekiel 14:6 Ezekiel 14:6Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus said the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.
American King James Version×declares, “’Thus says the Lord God: Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.’” Also, the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:14 1 Corinthians 10:14Why, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.
American King James Version×“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
Idolatry—only a past problem?
In today’s Western world, most people would likely agree that the former worship of fictitious deities, represented by wood or stone idols, was absurd. But does that mean idolatry is a long-forgotten problem of past ages and has little or nothing to do with contemporary society?
We need to first understand the definition of idolatry, which is, “… the paying of divine honors to any created thing; worship in the form of idealism or abstractions or mental qualities …” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, page 512). Also, the Bible itself defines idolatry as covetousness, which is setting one’s heart and mind on anything other than the Creator and His perfect, living laws (Colossians 3:5 Colossians 3:5 Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
American King James Version×). Author Tim Keller wrote, “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (Counterfeit Gods, pages xvii-xix).
So although idolatry may not often resemble its ancient predecessors, it actually occurs today in many other ways. What comprises idolatry now? What can come before God in one’s life? It could be materialism and the attainment of wealth and riches. Consider also the desire for status, power and control. What about achievement, work, politics and even patriotism? These too can absorb a person’s utter devotion. Also, what about recreation and entertainment, including pop-culture, celebrities, music, hobbies and sports? Let’s not forget television, the Internet, smartphones, movies, books, tobacco, food, drinking and drugs.
Additionally, what about relationships, including one’s family, wife, husband, children, girlfriend, boyfriend and even oneself as an idol? Besides these, we could add image, physical appearance and sex.
Moreover, consider religion, including its many traditional, long-held doctrines and beliefs. In this regard, even though various professing Christian churches purport to obey God, they actually teach and promote doctrines and practices not found in the Bible. As Christ said in Mark 7:7 Mark 7:7However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
American King James Version×“… in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (For more information see our Beyond Today video “Hard Questions: Are Christians Guilty of Idolatry?” found at www.ucg.org/beyond-today/.)
No room for God
So when God said, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3 Exodus 20:3You shall have no other gods before me.
American King James Version×), He wasn't just describing fictional deities that seem ridiculous to many people today. Rather, He was telling us that an idol can be anything that usurps His place as Creator, Ruler and Sustainer in our lives. A person can become so absorbed in the daily whirl of activities that he or she leaves no room for God or His Word.
Richard Keyes wrote, “Rather than look to the Creator and have to deal with His lordship, we orient our lives toward the creation, where we can be more free to control and shape our lives in our desired directions. An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions toward them.” (The Idol Factory, pp. 31-33).
Also, C. S. Lewis wrote, “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ... be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other” (Mere Christianity, pp. 49-50).
“Their land is also full of idols”
So, a question: have we not become a society, a nation, indeed a world of idolaters? If it was not so, would nations and individuals be struggling so intently with the countless intractable problems that seem to defy solution? The prophet Isaiah was inspired to write to ancient Israel and Judah, “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 2:8 Isaiah 2:8Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made:
American King James Version×). How is our current age described in biblical prophecy? “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people" (2 Timothy 3:2-5 2 Timothy 3:2-5  For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,  Without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,  Traitors, heady, high minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;  Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
American King James Version×).
Rather than focusing attention and devotion on our Creator as He rightly deserves, we tend to cram all kinds of created things, projects and activates into our daily lives. In our quest to find our own way to happiness and meaning, we heap up idols for ourselves, which can never give us true, lasting joy and satisfaction. They in fact blind us to life’s true purpose and our incredible potential future in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33 Matthew 6:33But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
American King James Version×; Ephesians 4:18 Ephesians 4:18Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:
American King James Version×; Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
American King James Version×).
Tim Keller wrote, “Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our heart’s deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us” (Counterfeit Gods, p. 1).
The solution to idolatry
In the end, these idols—anything we put before God—leave us unfulfilled and empty because they were never intended to satisfy the place God should occupy. So, what is the solution to this problem? Certainly we must earn a living, care for our families and carry out other daily responsibilities, but does God and His way of life come first and foremost? Do we truly obey all of His commandments, which He designed for our happiness? When we violate any of God’s laws are we not effectively placing something before Him? True worship and obedience go hand-in-hand. Attempting to venerate God outside of compliance to His Ten Commandments is in fact idolatry (1 Kings 9:6-7 1 Kings 9:6-7  But if you shall at all turn from following me, you or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them:
 Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people:
American King James Version×).
Dispense with idol curiosity
Our world, this nation, and each of us individually, must beware of idolatrous influences that we choose to place ahead of our Creator. Such idols will only leave us unsatisfied and frustrated (Proverbs 10:2 Proverbs 10:2Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivers from death.
American King James Version×). The many biblical admonitions warning against idol worship do in fact apply to us today. The answer to the problem of idolatry is to always give God first place and to diligently obey His commandments (Acts 3:19 Acts 3:19Repent you therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.
American King James Version×; Colossians 3:5 Colossians 3:5 Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
American King James Version×).
So let us leave no space for idol curiosity nor pin our hopes and dreams on people, things, projects and humanly-designed concepts. Rather, let us always give top priority to God and His Word and the wonderful future that awaits us in His coming, great Kingdom (Matthew 6:33 Matthew 6:33But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
American King James Version×; Matthew 13:43-45 Matthew 13:43-45  Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who has ears to hear, let him hear.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to treasure hid in a field; the which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
American King James Version×).