Idols of the Heart: We are repeatedly warned, even in the New Testament, to avoid, in fact flee from, idolatry. But giant statues aren’t the only kind of idols. What “idols of the heart” do we worship that can hinder our relationships with God and with others?
Exodus 19 & 20
Idols of the Heart
The Ten Commandments
In chapter 19 God displays His power and majesty so that the people will have no doubt that He is God and that Moses is His representative. The need for them to be outwardly clean was a visual representation of the inward cleanliness with which they were to approach a Holy God.
Then in chapter 20 God gives the Ten Commandments to the people Himself. Later He will write them on stone tablets.
The first command is “Have no other gods before me” (20.3). This, of course, was a prohibition against worshiping false gods of any kind. It was spoken to people in a culture where most nations believed in and worshiped many gods, polytheism.
The second was to “Make no images, no likenesses of anything in heaven or on earth” (20.4). They were not to make an image of anything that was in heaven (angels, God Himself, or people who had gone to heaven) or on earth (man, woman, animals, or anything else). This command did not forbid artistic expression, but forbids the use of these items as part of our worship.
Idols of the Heart
We must also guard against idols of the heart: things that are more important to us than God.
Ezekiel 14 says, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity” (v. 3).
Almost anything can become an idol—success, money, power, prestige, having a better home, children, or a spouse. When addressing their “idols of the heart” God told Ezekiel to tell the people:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations. For anyone of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who separates himself from Me and sets up his idols in his heart and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity, then comes to a prophet to inquire of him concerning Me, I the LORD will answer him by Myself. I will set My face against that man and make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from the midst of My people. Then you shall know that I am the LORD'” (Ezek. 14:6-8).
Think about that phrase, “[he] puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity.” If you take something, even a good thing, and put it in front of your face, it’s hard to see anything else, including God. And when we stop looking to God and begin focusing on the thing that we want, it can quickly become an idol. It’s alright to pray for those things, but they cannot become the focus of our lives. God must always be enough!
Sins of the Fathers
One verse that frequently raises questions is Exodus 20:4. What does it mean “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations”? Moses said in Deuteronomy 24:16:
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.”
So it’s clear from that passage that children are not punished for their parents’ sins. Ezekiel 18 reiterates that fact.
So what does it mean that the sins of the fathers are “visited” on the children? Though God doesn’t hold children accountable for their parents’ sins, children are greatly affected (“visited”) by their parents’ lifestyles. When we live a sinful or hypocritical lifestyle, our children often suffer the consequences (growing up in an abusive home or a baby being born to a crack-addicted or aids-infected mother). And while they are ultimately responsible for their own choices, children raised in an ungodly environment will often repeat the same behavior. I believe today we are seeing the effects of our lifestyles in the 60’s and 70’s and beyond. Sadly, even what we do in, so-called moderation, our children will often do in excess.
Remember the Sabbath
What about the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (20.8)? The New Testament makes it clear that Christians are not required to keep this command as dictated under the Mosaic law (Col. 2:16; Acts 20:7; Rom. 14:5-6), but the principle of Sabbath rest should still be followed. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). We need times of rest and time set aside to focus on God.
While we are not under the Mosaic law, it doesn’t mean that we should take church attendance lightly, either. In fact, the writer of Hebrews said:
“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).
Today’s Other Readings:
All Glory to Him
It’s so easy when life is going well and we are experiencing success, to take the credit for it ourselves, but in these verses David gave all the glory to God.
Instruction in the Way of Life
Verse 23, “For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light; reproofs of instruction are the way of life.”
God’s Word and, even, His correction are always for our good.
All the Law & the Prophets Summed Up in These Two
In verse 36 Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” He answered, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, all the Old Testament laws and all that the prophets said can be summed up in this, “love God and love others.” He said the second is like the first. It all comes from the same heart attitude and we demonstrate the first to a large degree by doing the second.
If we truly love God, we won’t worship other things or use His name in vain and we will want to spend time worshiping Him.
If we love others, we won’t commit murder or respond to them in anger which Jesus called murder in the heart (Matt. 5:21-22). We won’t lie or steal from them. If we love our sister we won’t commit adultery with or even lust after her husband. We won’t covet what someone else has, instead we’ll rejoice in their blessings.
John said, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21).
We won’t do these things perfectly—that’s the point of the Gospel—we could never keep the law perfectly. But we can “fulfill the law” by what John MacArthur calls “gracious obedience.” In his book, How to Study the Bible , he says, “… if He sees a sincere and loving and humble willingness to obey; if He sees a positive response to His Word, even though there are times when we fail, then He counts us as obedient because that’s the spirit in our hearts. Even though our gracious obedience may be filled with defects, it’s the proper attitude that God is after.” This is God’s mercy and grace towards us and the heart of the Gospel message.
Ask God to give you that heart today.
Elyse Fitzpatrick has a great book on the subject of idols of the heart entitled Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone, if you’d like to read more.
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