Throughout the Old Testament in the Bible, we find what seems a confusing trend of idol worship among the Israelites, who especially struggled with the worship of Baal and Asherah (or Ashtoreth). God had commanded Israel not to worship idols (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7)—indeed, they were to avoid even mentioning a false god’s name (Exodus 23:13). They were warned not to intermarry with the pagan nations and to avoid practices that might be construed as pagan worship rites (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12). Israel was a nation chosen by God to one day bear the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Yet, even with so much riding on their heritage and future, Israel continued to struggle with idol worship.
After the death of Joshua, the worship of Baal and Asherah became a plague upon the Israelites and was a perennial problem. Baal, also known as the sun god or the storm god, is the name of the supreme male deity worshiped by ancient Phoenicians and Canaanites. Asherah, the moon goddess, was the principal female deity worshiped by ancient Syrians, Phoenicians, and Canaanites. The Israelites neglected to heed the Lord’s warning not to compromise with idolaters. The ensuing generations forgot the God who had rescued them from Egypt (Judges 2:10–12).
Of course, the period of the judges wasn’t the first time Israel had been tempted by idol worship. In Exodus 32, we see how quickly the Israelites gave up on Moses’ return from Mount Sinai and created an idol of gold for themselves. Ezekiel 20 reveals a summary of the Israelites’ affairs with idols and God’s relentless mercy on His children (also see 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles).
As for why the worship of Baal and Asherah specifically was such a problem for Israel, there are several reasons we can cite: first, the worship of Baal and Asherah held the allure of illicit sex, since the religion involved ritual prostitution. This is exactly what we see in the incident of Baal of Peor, as “the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). It was during this episode that an Israelite named Zimri brazenly brought a Midianite woman into the camp and went straight to his tent, where the two began having sex (verses 6–8, 14).
Another reason that the worship of Baal and Asherah was a perennial problem for Israel is due to what we could call national peer pressure. Israel wanted to be like the other nations (see 1 Samuel 8:5, 20). The other nations worshiped Baal and Asherah, and so many Israelites felt a pull to do the same.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact of Satan’s temptations and mankind’s basic sinfulness. The enemy of our souls tempted Israel to worship idols; the sacrifices made to Baal and Asherah were really sacrifices to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). The stubborn willfulness of humanity works in tandem with Satan’s seductions and causes us to jump at any chance to rebel against God. Thus Israel repeatedly forsook God’s commands, despite losing God’s blessings, and chased after the Baals and Asherahs to their own destruction.
The book of Hosea aptly uses adultery as a metaphor in describing Israel’s problem with idol worship. The Israelites were trapped in a vicious cycle of idol worship, punishment, restoration, then forgiveness, after which they went back to their idols once more. God’s patience with Israel is unfathomable by human standards; God’s nature is the essence of love, and He gives His sons and daughters chances to repent (1 John 4:8; Romans 8:38–39; 2 Peter 3:9).
The problem of Baal and Asherah worship was finally solved after God removed Israel from the Promised Land. Due to the Israelites’ idolatry and disregard of the Law, God brought the nations of Assyria and Babylon against them in an act of judgment. After the exile, Israel was restored to the land, and the people did not dally again with idols.
Idolatrous sins still lure and tempt the modern-day believer (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8–10), though perhaps they have taken new shapes. Instead of ancient forms of Baal and Asherah, we today sometimes honor possessions, success, physical pleasure, and religious perfection to the dishonoring of God. Just as God disciplined the Israelites for their idolatry and forgave them when they repented, He will graciously discipline us and extend the offer of forgiveness in Christ (Hebrews 12:7–11; 1 John 1:9; 2 Peter 3:9).
So this is the answer to the question “Why are idols dangerous?” — namely, the wrath of God is coming upon "idolatry." Nothing is more dangerous than the wrath of an omnipotent, all-righteous God. And Paul says the wrath of God is coming on idolatry. Now why would that be?
Listen to Exodus 20: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness or anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4–5)
The wrath of God comes on the idolater because God is jealous. There is a righteous and holy jealousy and an unrighteous and weak and insecure jealousy. And God’s jealousy is not only righteous — that is, he deserves our deepest and strongest affections and admiration — but it is loving.
“God is jealous that he be honored by being treasured, and he is jealous that we be satisfied by treasuring him.”It is a loving jealousy, because we were made to find our greatest joy when he is our greatest treasure. He is jealous that he be honored by being treasured, and he is jealous that we be satisfied by treasuring him. So he is jealous in a loving way and he is jealous in a righteous way. And if we find God to be so boring or so negligible that we must put other things in his place that really satisfy us more than he does, then we not only offend him, but we also destroy ourselves. Those two things make God angry. He doesn’t want to be offended and he doesn’t want us to destroy ourselves. Idolatry contradicts both of those things and so his wrath comes upon the idolater. So that is the answer to the first question: Why it is so dangerous?
The other two questions can be taken together, I think, something like this: What is an idol and what does it look like today?
First in the HeartPaul says, “Covetousness, which is idolatry.” So what idolatry looks like today is the activity of the human heart. This is not a deed of the body. That follows — a fruit on a branch. It starts in the heart: craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God. That is an idol.
Paul calls this covetousness — a disordered love or desire, loving more than God what ought to be loved less than God and only for the sake of God. But covetousness is the condition that this disordered heart is in, an act of loving too much what ought to be loved less. And that is why the wrath of God is coming. That is what idolatry looks like today. And it is everywhere in our culture.
“Idolatry starts in the heart: craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God.”So finally: What is an idol? Well, it is the thing. It is the thing loved or the person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, enjoyed more than God. It could be a girlfriend. It could be good grades. It could be the approval of other people. It could be success in business. It could be sexual stimulation. It could be a hobby or a musical group that you are following or a sport or your immaculate yard. I was looking for some yard stuff the other day and I clicked on a video ad for a yard service and three people came on and all of them made the point that this yard service enabled them to brag that they had the best yard in the neighborhood. I thought: What a motivation! I want to be number one in green grass! So that could be an idol. Or your own looks could be an idol. It could be anything.
So Paul puts it like this in Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature” — anything that is created — “rather than the Creator.” But there is no wrath for the children of God. And why is that? Because Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 1: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
(1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)
So when we turn to Christ from idols we escape the wrath of God because he is for us.
God is for us in Christ on the cross.
John 9; Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind
1Now as Jesus was passing by, He saw a man blind from birth,
2and His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God would be displayed in him.
4While it is daytime, we must doa the works of Him who sent Me. Night is coming, when no one can work.
5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6When Jesus had said this, He spit on the ground, made some mud, and applied it to the man’s eyes.
7Then He told him, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came back seeing.
8At this, his neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging began to ask, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”
9Some claimed that he was, but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
But the man kept saying, “I am the one.”
10“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
11He answered, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and anointed my eyes, and He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed and received my sight.”
12“Where is He?” they asked.
“I do not know,” he answered.
The Pharisees Investigate the Healing
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.
14Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened his eyes was a Sabbath.
15So the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight.
The man answered, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.”
16Because of this, some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for He does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others said, “How can a sinful man perform such signs?”
And there was division among them.
17So once again they asked the man who had been blind, “What do you say about Him, since it was your eyes He opened?”
“He is a prophet,” the man replied.
18The Jews still did not believe that the man had been blind and had received his sight until they summoned his parents
19and asked, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he can now see?”
20His parents answered, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. 21But how he can now see or who opened his eyes, we do not know. Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.”
22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. For the Jews had already determined that anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.
23That was why his parents said, “He is old enough. Ask him.”
24So a second time they called for the man who had been blind and said, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25He answered, “Whether He is a sinner I do not know. There is one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see!”
26“What did He do to you?” they asked. “How did He open your eyes?”
27He replied, “I already told you, and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?”
28Then they heaped insults on him and said, “You are His disciple; we are disciples of Moses.
29We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this man is from.”
30“That is remarkable indeed!” the man said. “You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes.
31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but He does listen to the one who worships Him and does His will.
32Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.
33If this man were not from God, He could do no such thing.”
34They replied, “You were born in utter sin, and you are instructing us?” And they threw him out.
35When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, He found the man and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Manb?”
36“Who is He, Sir?” he replied. “Tell me so that I may believe in Him.”
37“You have already seen Him,” Jesus answered. “He is the One speaking with you.”
38“Lord, I believe,” he said. And he worshiped Jesus.
39Then Jesus declared, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind.”c
40Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?”
41“If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”