Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol 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.”
This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.
How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?
Ancient Israel’s matrix of power
When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.
Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.
He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.
The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.
Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.
While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.
When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.
In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.
With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.
The anatomy of idolatry
Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:
An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.
A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.
An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.
A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).
A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.
How then should we treat created powers?
Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.
But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?
I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.
If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.
God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.