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Most Westerners have struggled at one time or another to understand the attraction of idolatry in the ancient world. What could be so compelling about an inanimate block of wood or chunk of stone? Hard core idolatry feels as tempting as beet juice. It’s likely someone out there loves a frothy glass of obscure vegetable extract, but the temptation doesn’t weigh heavily on our souls.

But idolatry made a lot of sense in the ancient world. And, had we lived two or three millennia ago, it almost certainly would have been tempting to each one of us. In his commentary on Exodus, Doug Stuart explains idolatry’s attraction with nine points. You’ll likely want to save this list and file it for future sermons or Bible studies.

1. Idolatry was guaranteed. The formula was simple. Carve a god out of wood or stone and the god would enter the icon. Now that you have a god in your midst, you can get his (or her) attention quickly. Your incantations, oaths, and offerings will always be noticed.

2. Idolatry was selfish. Scratch the gods backs and they’ll scratch yours. They need food and sacrifices; you need blessings. Do your stuff and they’ll be obliged to get you stuff.

3. Idolatry was easy. Ancient idolatry encouraged vain religious activity. Do what you like with your life. So long as you show up consistently with your sacrifices, you’ll be in good shape.

4. Idolatry was convenient. Gods in the ancient world were not hard to come by. Access was almost everywhere. Statues can be used in the home or on the go.

5. Idolatry was normal. Everyone did it. It’s how woman got pregnant, how crops grew, how armies conquered. Idolatry was like oil: nothing ran in the ancient world without it.

6. Idolatry was logical. Nations are different. People are different. Their needs and desires are different. Obviously, there must be different deities for different strokes. How could one god cover all of life? You don’t eat at one restaurant do you? The more options the better. They can all be right some of the time.

7. Idolatry was pleasing to the senses. If you are going to be especially religious, it helps to be able to see your god. It’s harder to impress people with an invisible deity.

8. Idolatry was indulgent. Sacrificing to the gods did not often require sacrifice for the worshiper. Leftover food could be eaten. Drink could be drunk. Generosity to the gods leads to feasting for you.

9. Idolatry was sensual. The whole system was marked by eroticism. Rituals could turn into orgies. Sex on earth often meant sex in heaven, and sex in heaven meant big rain, big harvests and multiplying herds.

Can you see the attraction of idolatry? “Let’s see I want a spirituality that gets me lots, costs me little, is easy to see, easy to do, has few ethical or doctrinal boundaries, guarantees me success, feels good, and doesn’t offend those around me.” That’ll preach. We want the same things they wanted.  We just go after them in different ways. We want a faith that gets us stuff and guarantees success (prosperity gospel). We want discipleship that is always convenient (virtual church). We want a religion that is ritualistic (nominal Christianity). Or a spirituality that no matter what encourages sexual expression (GLBTQ). We all want to follow God in a way that makes sense to others, feels good to us, and is easy to see and understand. From the garden to the Asherah pole to the imperial feasts, idolatry was the greatest temptation for God’s people in both testaments.

A look around and a look inside will tell you it still is.

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26 thoughts on “Why Idolatry Was (and Is) Attractive”

  1. donsands says:

    Who was the saint that said: “The human heart is an idol factory”?

    Nice post. Good to check my own heart and mind, and to go to His Word so I don’t stray.

    I was thinking this morning I should be under God’s wrath for all my sin, which includes idolatry. I deserve God’s righteous judgment. Yet, God the Father judged His Beloved, and most precious Son, for me.
    If would took all the amazingness in all the universe and piled it up high, so that it was beyond enormous, it would pale into insignificance next to the Cross. And by Cross I ean our Savior’s death, and its full meaning.

    Have a good day in our Lord’s soverign hands.

  2. Jeanie Schwagerman says:

    Nice Nice Post! I am saving that one. We are not that much different from the ancient world and what is sad is that we have turned the Gospel into something that it is not and leads to the idolarty of self. Something we need to mindful and always be abiding our Lord

  3. Jeremy says:

    Thank you so much for this (providential) post! I am teaching on idolatry from Isaiah tonight. Printing this now to incorporate into the lesson!

  4. forgiventhief says:

    John Calvin said The human heart is an idol factory. :-)

  5. donsands says:

    Calvin. Should have known. Thanks.

    I also thought that even the “Tradition” of the people pf God, the Church, can become our idol. Just as Paul had to do some rebuking of many in the Church in his day (Gal.5-6).

  6. I was just reading in Exodus and found myself thinking: HOW can you be so dumb to worship something you made yourself? And then…realized how prideful that thought was. This post drove that home. I needed it. :-)

  7. I look at this list and see years of my life flash before my eyes. So many times I have been guilty of living my life for an idol. Getting off that train is hard, but focusing on Jesus is the only thing that can make the world fade away.

  8. Tom Doidge says:

    “We Become What We Worship” by GK Beale

  9. Melanie says:

    I couldn’t help but think of Joel Osteen speak as I read this. What’s GLBTQ?

  10. Melanie,

    Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgendered, Queer = GLBTQ

  11. Randy Harris says:

    Can you see the attraction of idolatry? “Let’s see I want a spirituality that gets me lots, costs me little, is easy to see, easy to do, has few ethical or doctrinal boundaries, guarantees me success, feels good, and doesn’t offend those around me.”

    Working in Thailand among Thai Buddhists the first eight points are readily evident in their daily religious activities. The quote above is a good summary of some of the reasons Buddhism remains popular and why the option of Christianity makes no sense.

  12. Kyle says:

    Great list! Because man has a spirit within him it was inevitable that these idols would be wildly popular to fill the void. They were attempts to meet this need in man. The mixture of the spiritual craving with the fleshly indulgence proved potent. The mystery religions were especially alluring. When Paul wrote to the Philippians he adopted the terminology that was in vogue. Phil 4: 12 says, “I have learned the secret…” He had been initiated into the mysteries of Christ and the church.

  13. Luke says:

    Thanks for this Kevin!

    This is very helpful for my talk on prayer tonight with my youth group teens. It totally connects with how I find myself praying to God like he is an idol. I often try to say the right formula of words, pray when it’s convenient, pray for selfish things, and use prayer as a way to make things easier. My prayers can be an attempt to control God, complete idolatry!

    Anyhow, I’ll make sure to give you ample credit. Thanks again.

  14. Kim K. says:

    I believe the Q in GLBTQ can also stand for Questioning.

  15. Thanks, Kevin! Would you mind providing us with the page number(s) in Stuart’s commentary?

  16. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Pages 450-54 I believe.

  17. Even now I hesitate to buy ceramic Jesus pieces or really anything like this.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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