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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. [Exodus 20:4-6 ESV]
God equates idolatry as hatred toward Him. Worshipping an idol is an act of hatred toward God. Only the enemies of God would do such a thing.
Of all the sins God hates, and He hates all of them, the one He punishes consistently throughout the history of Israel is the sin of idolatry. In His first statement He declares He alone is God. There can be only one God. In this second statement He states the rebellious attitude of sinful man to commit idolatry as an act of hatred toward Him. Idolatry does not simply affect the person worshipping a false god but cascades through successive generations. When children see their parents worshipping they will follow suit. Those taught to worship idols will continue worshipping idols. Those who worship God, the only God, and teach their children to follow their example are shown God’s “steadfast love” because of their love for Him.
It is too easy to describe examples of idolatry. Every idol is characterized by the superstitious beliefs given by the imagination of the idolater. I see three basic characteristics. First, the object is manmade, created by sinful hands or a sinful imagination for whatever reason. Secondly, the object is worshipped, which includes obsessive rituals and actions. Finally, the object is believed able to fulfill an imaginative promise when obsessed over correctly or to withhold what is promised when the ritual is not correctly fulfilled.
When the imagined promise is not fulfilled superstition places the blame on the person’s incorrect worship and not the inability of the created thing. Thus, faith is placed in an object which can deliver nothing. For some reason, the person believes with their intellect there is evidence of the objects ability, then emotionally trusts the object is able to deliver what is misbelieved as promised. Finally, the person obeys the anticipated expectations believed to motivate the created object to fulfill its end of the bargain.
Under these conditions, all of the evidence seen, when viewed subjectively, assumes the created object has a moral standard, defined subjectively, which must be followed. Idolatry begins in the mind and the heart. Place this template upon any object or obsession and you will discover an idol.
In the history of Israel idols were those created things worshipped by the enemies of God. Israel is told to completely devote to God, execute and destroy the peoples of the land they were given by God lest the people lead them astray to worship the idols of the land. God judged the people of Canaan because of their idol worship. Israel did not fulfill God’s command and soon turned away from Him, the only God, to worship idols.
God, speaking through Isaiah, describes the stupidity of idolatry.
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” [Isaiah 44:9-17 ESV]
Idolatry increases wickedness and immorality. It is the logical next step in rebellion against God, our Creator. Those who worship idols find in their idols the excuse they need to justify their rebellion against God. If God is not god, and the thing worshipped defines the moral standard demanding obedience then there is no rational, emotionally justifiable reason to not follow the thing in which ones faith is placed and to reject all else. If you call the thing a god then it can easily replace the things others call their gods. Idolatry results in make nothing god.
But what if you worship something and don’t call it a god? Suppose one obsesses over making money, playing games, filling one’s mind with inappropriate images, taking drugs. Doesn’t Jesus say “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” [Matthew 6:21 ESV]. Idolatry becomes anything which takes God’s place. Either way, you are displacing God from His rightful position in your life.
Idolatry is fuel for persecution. Look at those who persecute Christians. They believe their god has told them to, making their wicked, sinful actions justifiable and righteous. Facing and enduring persecution is part of the evidence God uses to justifiably condemn the world, those who have rejected Him. Our testimony for God is part of our inherent desire to love Him, and worship Him in both Spirit and truth.