The third of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (Exodus 20:4).
Several years ago, while I was living in Korea, I visited several Buddhist temples. I vividly remember seeing their idols – carved images that reminded me of the totem poles of my youth in the Pacific Northwest. It was hard for me to think anyone could take them seriously. They looked like a fantasy decoration I would find at Disneyland but they left me with a big question: “What is the attraction of idolatry?”
Douglas Stuart has a fascinating excursus in the second volume of his commentary on Exodus. He offers these nine reasons:
- Guaranteed. Have you ever felt God was missing? Perhaps you’ve prayed and wondered if anyone was listening? If you can see the idol perhaps it must feel like you have a telephone to god. You have a connection.
- Selfish. While idolaters ascribe great power to their gods, the one thing a so-called “god” can’t do is eat. The worshipers “feed” the god and this in turn obligates the god to grant favors. Of course many Christians mistakenly feel the same way. They believe God is somehow obligated to us by our worship, obedience and prayers. When their prayers are left unanswered they shake their heads and say, “Well, sometimes God say’s ‘No.’” They forget the sovereignty of God and the intent of prayer which is to align our will with God’s rather than force him to do our bidding (Matthew 6:10).
- Easy. Idolatry doesn’t typically demand much more than their presence and perhaps a few rituals. It doesn’t take much to please an idol whereas Christianity has a very strong ethical code.
- Convenient. In the Old Testament, the Israelites had to go to Jerusalem three times a year to worship. An idol is often portable and can travel with you. Of course Christians don’t even need to pack up their “gods” because they are the temple of God and possess the indwelling Holy Spirit!
- Normal. Idolatry is pervasive. What do you trust in? What do you sacrifice for? What do you believe will help you make it through the day? There are many modern idols.
- Logical. Idolaters are typically polytheistic. There are many gods in many places with many functions. In contrast, Christians believe there is only One God Who is everywhere and all powerful.
- Sensual. The art of many idols is quite appealing and invites meditation.
- Indulgent. This point requires a bit of thought. In the ancient world, eating meat and drinking wine was part of the worship service. The more you ate; the more you drank; the more the “god” was honored and the more favor you curried. The logic reminds me of an Austrian food court in Salzburg. The proceeds from the food and beer sales supported an orphanage next door. There was a large sign above the tables exhorting the patrons to “Get drunk for the orphans!”
- Erotic. In ancient times, in their agrarian societies, their mythology portrayed a cycle of birth, life, death, re-birth. Their religion was sympathetic – in other words, if the worshipers engaged in reproductive activity, it encouraged the gods to do the same producing fertile fields on earth.
Idolatry was “normal” in the past and I suspect it is normal in the present. If an idol is something you trust in, something you are willing to sacrifice for, then there are many modern idols. Some people worship wealth. Others sacrifice for beauty, or power, or popularity or (fill-in the blank).
As Christians we must guard against anyone or anything that would dare to stand in the place of the living God we worship!
 Stuart, D. K. (2006). Vol. 2: Exodus. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.