I’m currently preaching through the book of Judges and it’s been amazing how practical and relevant this book is to us today. We were only into the second chapter when we hit the issue of idolatry. Now I’ve touched on this subject before but there was no getting around it this time – I had to go for the throat.
Let me briefly explain the context and then you’ll see why. When the book opens we find the 12 tribes of Israel in the Promised Land. God says to them, “Take possession of it all, it’s yours.” They begin well, driving out the enemy and conquering much of the land. But then they start to compromise, choosing to co-exist with their enemies rather than overcoming them. This is when things start to go wrong. We see all the signs in chapter one but it’s not until chapter two, with the 2nd generation that the chickens come home to roost.
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger” (Judges 2:11-12)
Let me tell you a little about Baal worship. Baal was the god of storms and fertility, which for the Canaanites was everything. Fertility meant crops, produce, livestock and of course REVENUE. Baal had a female counterpart and her name was Ashtoreth (or Astarte). And this is how it all worked: the fertility of their land and livestock depended on the sexual activity between Miss ‘A’ and Mr ‘B’. But the Canaanites didn’t just sit back and say, “Let go, let Baal.” No, they needed to give him some encouragement. And guess how they went about that? Temple prostitution. The more sexual activity from the worshipers, the more likely Baal would do his thing and thus more rain, grain, wine, oil and everything else.
This is what the 2nd generation of Israelites got drawn into. They became just like the culture they lived in. You say, Well I don’t have any Baal’s or Ashtoreth’s hiding away in my cupboard, and I’m certainly not going along to some temple late at night and messing around with temple prostitutes. No probably not. But you could easily be doing exactly what the Israelites were doing spiritually, in your heart.
Let me explain: Idolatry, in simple terms is turning from loving and trusting the One and only true God, and giving yourself to lesser, inferior substitutes. Call them what you might: mini-gods, mini-saviours, surrogates – they present themselves in a great variety of forms in our culture today – money, sex, entertainment, materialism, power, success, comfort, approval from others etc. And we readily give ourselves to them. That’s why the apostle Paul says that we don’t need an actual physical idol to be an idolater. If we look to anything and you say, “I have to have this in order to be satisfied” then you’re an idolater.
Now I’ve got you thinking haven’t I? You’re thinking, Goodness, what are the idols in my own life? Can I identify them? You can identify them all right. You just need to ask yourself the right questions. Ask yourself this:
- What do I think most easily about? (what am I preoccupied with?)
- What is my greatest nightmare? (what do I worry about the most?)
- What is it (or who is it) that I cannot live without?
- What gives me the greatest joy and the most intense grief?
- What is it in life that gives me the most self-worth?
- What prayer, if unanswered would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
- Where do I find comfort when things go bad or get difficult? What is it (or who is it) that I turn to?
Or here’s another way you could frame it: what is the hell I need to be saved from? If you are single, the hell you fear is being alone for the rest of your life. And your saviour is whoever will keep that from happening, regardless of whether he or she is the right match. If you are insecure, your hell is rejection and your saviour is whatever or whoever makes you feel special. If you are a control-freak, your hell is uncertainty and you’re your saviour is whoever succumbs to your expectations and demands. If you’re a workaholic your hell is inactivity and your saviour is whatever keeps you productive and on task. If you’re a materialist your hell is lack of money and your saviour whatever pays you enough to get the stuff you want.
Do you get the point? Can you see how we can fall into the same trap as the Israelites?
And listen to how God describes their activity: he says,
“Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:17)
Now that’s very provocative language. God says they prostituted themselves – spiritually. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City offers some very insightful words here:
“Prostitutes are people whose lives are out of control, who are desperate, and who are giving themselves without getting any real pleasure or love in return. The use of the word ‘prostituted’ here tells us that when we serve an idol, we come into an intense relationship with it, within which it uses us, but does not truly care for us. We become completely vulnerable to it, little more than a slave to it.”
The Israelites, when they gave themselves to the Canaanite gods were guilty of spiritual adultery. And when you, as a follower of Jesus, give yourself to the gods our age – gods of money and power and sex and sport and work and family, you are guilty of the same sin. It is a form of spiritual betrayal, spiritual unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. It is like sleeping with the enemy. God becomes the jilted lover. And you become the unfaithful bride.
We are left now with the question: How do I get rid of these idols in my life? You can’t. I guess you could throw out your TV or your computer or your X-box or whatever else you’re in love with. But if you have idols in your heart, you still have the problem. The Lord raised up judges who delivered them out of the hands of their oppressors. And then as soon as that judge died what happened? They went right back to what they were doing.
So what is the answer? The answer is that we need a judge, a saviour who doesn’t just change our circumstances but also changes our heart.
The gospel is this: God knew we couldn’t break free from the cycle of idolatry ourselves. But God sent the ultimate Judge, who not only rescues us but changes our heart as well. By His death on the cross in our place and His resurrection from the dead, He frees us from the penalty for our sin, the power of our sin and one day praise God, the presence of sin in a new heavens and new earth.
If you have identified idols in your life today then repent of those idols and return to wholly trusting in the Son of God who will free you from the bondage of idolatry. You can’t have victory over those things that enslave you until Jesus has the victory over you.
So give you heart wholly to Him. Idols only enslave. But Jesus gives life.