In Jonathan Swift’s satirical book, Gulliver’s Travels, the first nation that Gulliver visits is Lilliput ─ where the inhabitants are tiny compared to Gulliver. They find this ‘man mountain’ intriguing and want to examine him closely. At one point he puts a tiny Lilliputian into his pocket to examine his silver pocket watch. This is what they report:
“He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill: and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us, (if we understood him right, for he expressed himself very imperfectly) that he seldom did anything without consulting it.” ─ Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
“Or the god that he worships…” That’s quite an amusing line, with a certain ring of truth about it. Perhaps we are tempted to think of idolatry as something trivial or even harmless. We often jokingly refer to musicians or actors as our idols, watch shows like ‘American idol’ and generally see idolising someone or something as simply part of everyday life.
Despite this, God takes idolatry seriously and asks us to take it seriously too. Look at Moses’ prayer at the end of the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32:
So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin’ (v31─32)
“Oh what a great sin these people have committed!” I wonder if we see idolatry as a ‘great sin’? Probably not ─ I’m not sure I did really until I started to think some more about it. Yet this is an important subject to consider. A. W. Tozer puts it:
Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes God is other than He is—in itself a monstrous sin—and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness. (A. W. Tozer)
So what is going on in this incident with the golden calf In Exodus 32? What brought God’s people to this point of committing such a great sin? And how does it reveal to us something of our own tendency to idolatry today?
Let’s turn back to the start of the chapter. Like many good TV shows, we get the caption, ‘24 hours earlier…’
Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God. But the people are down at the foot of the mountain, waiting. And things take a bit longer than they expected. They didn’t get an exact timetable from Moses before he climbed Sinai and now they don’t know what’s going on. “As for this fellow Moses,” they say to Aaron (as if he’s only a vague acquaintance!), “we don’t know what has happened to him.”
They are impatient with God, his work and his timing. And so they turn to idols instead in their impatience.
Might we be tempted to do the same? When we are impatient with God’s timing or God’s methods, the easy thing is to make a more manageable and more controllable god instead? If we don’t get what we want, we can run off to where we think we might get it instead?
We see it with children and their parents. A small child might go to their mother and ask for something they want ─ a cookie or a chocolate bar. Their mother says no ─ it would spoil their appetite for dinner. So what do they do? They go to Daddy instead… with no mention that Mummy has previously turned down the request!
Our heavenly Father knows us and knows what is best for us. But when we don’t always get what we want from his hands; when he seems slow in responding and we get impatient, then the danger of turning to idols instead looms large.
This is perhaps the most surprising cause of Israel’s idolatry: they want to worship. “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” Once Aaron has constructed this golden calf, he says to the people, tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.
The suggestion is that the people haven’t tried to abandon the worship of the Lord. But they want to bend it and tweak it to suit their ways. Moses has gone up the mountain, and what they’ve experienced of the Lord in fire and smoke has scared them. They want the Lord, much in a smaller and easier to contain form. So they make a version of God that they want. No doubt influenced by the images and worship of the Egyptians, they used the Egyptian plunder, in the form of gold earrings, to make it.
But this isn’t the way that God has revealed himself, nor is it the way that he has called his people to worship him. Yet God’s people could hide behind a form of worship and religiousness to justify their actions. Their idols weren’t first in the workplace, but rather in the church.
I wonder if we too can hide our idols behind the mask of the church? Can we justify the things we chase after instead of God because other Christians do it too? Perhaps it’s the easy tendency to idolise our favourite Christian leader? Or perhaps our own status and position in the church can become more important that our status as Jesus’ disciples? We can become more devoted to what we do than devoted to our Lord and Saviour.
This is such a great line of Aaron’s isn’t it? “I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!” I don’t know where it came from. One moment there was some jewellery, the next moment there was a golden calf. It’s astonishing!
Now we know from elsewhere in the Bible that Aaron is not a stupid man. He’s quite capable and shrewd at times; he is able to speak to those in authority. He’s a talented leader.
But even the most able and gifted of us are prone to a lack of understanding and awareness. Nobody is exempt from the temptation to idolatry, Aaron teaches us that. Each one of us is able to be naive about our idols, and unwilling to look carefully at our lives and see where we are drawn away from God.
Our prayer needs to be that God will enable us to see ourselves clearly, and the areas where we are vulnerable and where we are tempted to idolatry. Let’s not be like Aaron ─ unaware and unperceptive about the things that we place instead of God in our lives. But let’s pray that God, by his Spirit, would make us aware and make us concerned about the idols in our hearts. To see idolatry not as trivial or laughable, but serious. Wonderfully, we can also ask God to deal compassionately with us ─ by removing our idols and putting himself back in the central place in our lives.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me tear if from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
─ William Cowper, O for a closer walk with God