Cartoons, especially those created by Warner Bros., are filled with hilarious and impossible moments. One image that’s always stuck with me is the one in which a factory is pulsing and belching smoke, as an endless line of identical toys or machines travel along twisting conveyor belts. And as comical as that image might be, it’s not far from the truth when it comes to the human heart’s tendency to create idols. Consider Isaiah 44:9-20 where the prophet describes a carpenter who puts a tree to two distinct uses: “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat, he roasts a roast, and is satisfied … Yet the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He bows down before it and worships” (Isa. 44:16-17). We may scoff at the illogicality of it, but the fact is that we do the same silly thing ourselves.
There are several words translated as idol in the Old Testament: teraphim, a type of household idol; gillul, which roughly translates to “shapeless things” or “doll-images”; and pesel, which refers to a “carved image,” often the likeness of a man or animal. In the New Testament, the most commonly used word is eidólon, a Greek term that means “image or likeness.” However, its earliest known usage predates Paul by a few centuries and means something far more specific than a simple carved statue. In Greek literature, the word referred to a spirit-image of a deceased person—a ghost of sorts. Homer used this term in both of his epic poems to describe the lingering dead at Troy and at Odysseus’s home on the island of Ithaca.
In most cases in the ancient world, a physical idol resembled humans, and it’s easy to understand why. Have you looked at us recently? Humans are beautiful. The graceful architecture of our bones and supple curves of our flesh make us living works of art, which only makes sense, considering the fact that God created us by hand and, as He did with everything else in Eden, declared us very good. But in our desire to be gods ourselves, we twist beauty to our own dark ends. Our idols, unlike great art, do not celebrate the splendor of the human form. They corrupt it.
Our tendency toward idolatry was so pervasive that it was one of the last things Joshua spoke about to the people of Israel before he died: “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and do away with the gods which your fathers served beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15). Bob Dylan spoke the same truth centuries later when he sang, “You may be an ambassador to England or France / You may like to gamble, you might like to dance / You may be the heavyweight champion of the world / You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls / But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed / You're gonna have to serve somebody.”
In most cases in the ancient world, a physical idol resembled humans, and it’s easy to understand why. Have you looked at us recently? Humans are beautiful.
What both of these men recognized—and what we too must understand—is that humans are filled to the fingertips with a good desire: to worship. But that yearning must be directed to the proper recipient: the One who is worthy of all praise and adoration.
We may not use wood or stone these days, but we’re still turning things to evil purposes. Consider money, for instance. It can be used to do such kindness in the world—feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the foreigner, bring about justice. But more often than not, love of money leads people to hoard their wealth, usually to the great detriment of others.
Children, too, can become idols: miniature selves we spoil and pamper and groom for success. Careers, families, interests, and achievements—they all quietly become worshipped possessions without drawing much attention to the fact, and this is why it’s essential for us to keep them in their proper place. As Dr. Stanley has said, “Idols are subtle kinds of things. They come in all shapes and forms and sizes, animate and inanimate. And sometimes they slip in, and we’re not even aware they’re in there. They compete with God in our life.”
It’s shockingly easy to replace the Creator with the created. We do it a thousand different ways every day, misplacing our love thoughtlessly. It requires a conscious effort to keep our minds and hearts focused on the Father. It’s a decision we must make over and over again—a resolution we must hold ourselves to with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Illustration by Adam Cruft