It’s easy to see the idolatry in Hinduism, a little less easy to nail it down in the Roman Church, and still harder to recognize it in her Orthodox daughters, though both are full of images and icons.*
Then there is the second tier: amulets—not quite worshipped in and of themselves but thought to possess power to influence the spirit world. They run the gamut from overtly pagan ones to rosary beads to even Jewish “hamsa hands”. Not quite idols, exactly, but, like the hex signs in Pennsylvania where I grew up, they are supposed to ward off evil spirits or “the evil eye”.
But to influence spiritual beings takes more than physical objects; crediting that power to a man-made object seems too close for comfort to the divination that is forbidden by Torah. Going to “fortune-tellers” would be in the same vein.
But sometimes those spiritists do seem to have internal antennae that pick up signals from “the other side”. Why is this forbidden? The prophet tells us the real issue:
“When they say to you, ‘Resort to those who consult the dead or those “knowers” who chirp and mutter’, shouldn’t a people consult their Elohim? (The dead on behalf of the living?!)” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 8:19)
Another prophet, Eliyahu (Elijah), cut to the chase when he asked King Akhazyah of Shomron (Samaria), “Is it because there is no Elohim in Israel that you go to inquire of the god of Eqron?” (2 Kings 1:3)
He hit the nail on the head. Why do we, who have access to the King of the entire universe, need to look anywhere else for answers or provision? By doing so, we are essentially saying YHWH is not enough—or doesn’t even exist. When you’ve already got everything, why would you want to trade it for something partial and fragmentary? How ungrateful, and how disloyal!
But I also want to look at images from a different angle—one that gets more to the root of the problem.
The way we use the term in the singular--“IMAGE”. An image is a picture or depiction of something real or, in many cases—as the word itself hints at—imagined. As diagrams or schematics, they can be helpful in many ways, as the old adage about “a thousand words” says.
Even “self-image” can be simply a benign description of how we see ourselves, which might sometimes correspond with the proper realistic humility that our strengths and weaknesses warrant. But more often than not, the image we feel the need to maintain becomes enough of an obsession to tempt us to deceive others about just how good we want them to think we are, and that makes us allies with the Father of Lies.
I’m not talking about genuinely putting our best foot forward and snuffing out temptation, as we are supposed to, but if we have already succumbed to our worse potential but then we do a “PhotoShop” job on our own history, concealing the parts we don’t want anyone else to see, we are creating a lying image because it is a half-truth, a picture of something that really does not exist—just like the false gods others worship by way of their idols. The ones who really receive that worship, Paul says, are demons. (1 Cor. 10:20)
The obliterating of the bad side of our history is YHWH’s job. Only He can do it in a truly clean way, not the way that the masters of sleight try to achieve.
Ray Stedman said, “Self-love--the worship of another god--is the vilest form of idolatry. It deprives God of the worship due to his name, and it places a rival god, oneself, on the throne of an individual life.”
That’s exactly what the witchcraft mentioned above did, and that is the heart of the matter. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden: we wanted to have something permanently in ourselves that would allow us to be independent of our Maker, as if even our very breath did not depend on His sustaining us! Unlike dependence on a human parent, dependence on our Creator is not something we are meant to outgrow. Is our desire to do so evidence that we secretly want to get away from Him or even be rid of Him?
Anything that gets in the way of our obedience to YHWH—or even just our relationship with Him—is an idol. Nobody can define any such idol until it rears its head, because it shows up as the displaced or overgrown version of many a good thing. It could even be your own child, whom you allow to overrule your better understanding of Scripture, out of a misplaced sense of love. It could be your own parent, if you compromise your convictions to earn their respect. It could be that piece of furniture you want to have right now, but which will keep you from being able to give YHWH what He is due. It could be a job that you think you will not be able to keep if you don’t go ahead and work just this one Sabbath.
But YHWH says, “Those who honor Me I will honor.” (1 Shmu’el 2:30) If we keep Him in His proper place—seeking FIRST His Kingdom and His righteousness, as Yeshua said—and giving Him the first and best of our increase, the rest will fall into place. (Mat. 6:33; Mal’akhi 3:10)
Looking at these examples above shows us that it is not really the thing itself that it is the idol, but the importance we give to it. Our own minds and hearts make many otherwise-innocent things into idols.
Anything that is important enough to sideline YHWH in our hearts or minds is an idol. But nothing is THAT important.
Yeshua was especially alert to and critical of the easy-to-fall into trap of letting good (nearly the best) things like morality or purity or piety become too big—so big that they stand in the way of loving our neighbors or supersede YHWH’s actual words in our minds because we carry certain principles too far (Mikha 6:6-8), and therefore go on tangents that lead us farther and farther away from the actual “circle” of balanced truth (Deut. 4:2)—the narrow way that leads to life. (Mat. 7:14)
When we look at it that way, we have to admit that we are all probably guilty of some form of idolatry. Is YHWH really first in our lives? If not, what will we do about it?
*Is adoration of Yeshua idolatry? That depends. He is our king; it is proper in Biblical Hebraic custom to bow to one’s king. Paul said, probably quoting a song already circulating in his day, “At the name of Yeshua every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Yeshua is the master, to the glory/honor of YHWH the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) That context keeps us on the fine line of balance between possible extremes. The Hebrew equivalent of that word for “glory/honor” is kavod, which really means “weightiness”, with the connotation of greater authority and esteem. Since Yeshua is the king authorized by YHWH, honoring him does honor the One who gave him that “highest place”—highest, of course, with the exception of the One who placed all things under Yeshua’s feet (1 Cor. 15:27). Only when we place Yeshua at the same level as YHWH is it idolatry, for he constantly emphasized the fact that the One who sent him was greater than he.