I want to begin by defining what I mean when I use the term “idolatry”. Over the years, I have noticed a number of definitions for the term, definitions that are intended to extend far beyond the making of a wooden or a stone statue and worshiping it as a god. One of the more popular definitions today is that idols are those things that we can’t live without. And so, if there is anything other than God that we can’t live without, that thing is your idol.
While I am sympathetic to the truth that we must find the Lord God to be our highest joy, I am also sure that this is not the biblical definition of an idol. When we encounter idols in the Old Testament, we soon become aware that people can very easily switch allegiance from one idol to the next. Indeed, if one idol is discredited, loyalties can be changed. That seems to be the advantage of idolatry: you never have to commit a lifetime to one idol. Varieties abound!
The First Testament presents us with a definition of idolatry, which consists of two essential things. The first is that idols are the works of men’s hands. Habakkuk 2:18 says, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it?” Or consider Isaiah 2:8, which is a denunciation of Judah. “Their land is filled with idols; thy bow down to the work of their hands to what their own fingers have made.”
The key here is that human beings make the gods. And if we can create the gods, we become masters of our own gods, and they can easily be manipulated to be made in ways that please us. That is why idols don’t need to be made of wood or stone. Idols can exist in the mind. Any time we imagine a god that is more to our liking than the One Who objectively reveals Himself, we have made an idol.
The second definition of an idol is not only that we have created one, but that once the idol is created, the created god becomes the object of our trust. This idea is very well illustrated in Jeremiah 10:3-5 – “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”
The image of a scarecrow in a cucumber patch is crucial. The power of the scarecrow rests solely in the belief structure of the birds who see them. If the bird believes in the scarecrow, it flees. But the scarecrow on its own is unable to do a thing. The power of the idol rests not in the idol, but in the belief structure that one has in it. That why Habakkuk 2:18 adds, “For its maker trusts in his own creation.”
And so, idolatry is the creation of a God of our own making, and out of that creation, we come to trust in what our hands or imaginations have made.
This is precisely the sin of universalism. Universalism rejects the God who has objectively revealed Himself in Scripture because it finds this God to be offensive. Talk of wrath and of judgment leaves the universalist either uninspired or angry. And so, a new god that fits the spirit of the age is put in His place.
But as the Old Testament are so apt to ask, “What will you do in the day of trouble?” Those gods will not save us from the judgment to come.