The Tragedy of Idolatry

We have just began to look at the beginning of the second prophetic task of Ezekiel, and in particular thinking of the reactions of his fellow citizens – and also the leadership team. They were still coming to terms with the weirdness of the year and a half long task that Ezekiel had performed, and now he lost consciousness while they were visiting him.

We have Ezekiel’s report that he was taken, in spirit, to Jerusalem. Specifically he was taken to the north gate of the inner court where the ‘idol that provokes to jealousy’ was situated. Ezekiel 8:5-12:

Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, look towards the north.’ So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy.
And he said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing – the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.’
Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, ‘Son of man, now dig into the wall.’ So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.
And he said to me, ‘Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.’ So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising.
He said to me, ‘Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, “The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.”’

Here we begin to see more specifically the place where Ezekiel had been taken in spirit. It was not the north gate of the city, but of the inner court – in other words, of the temple complex in Jerusalem. This place that was originally built to the glory of God, but which was now being defiled with the presence of foreign idols.

We also have further evidence that Ezekiel is present here in spirit, and not physically. He has the experience of going through the walls into the darkened room – and if he was digging through the walls in actual physical reality, he would have been noticed and stopped. There were the temple guardians, men who protect the religious complex in the middle of the city. They would not allow anyone to begin to dig through walls – and of course this would also have taken some time to do. The walls were very thick and made of stone. There would have been a lot of noise, and this would certainly have disrupted the meeting going on inside those walls.

And then there is more to indicate that this is a vision more than the actual physical reality. We are given significant numerological numbers – 70 elders. And then, in this inner room within the temple complex we see depictions of unclean crawling things – unclean animals – on the walls and all the idols of Israel.

Whether there was actually such a room fitting this description in physical reality has been a subject of debate, but it is the symbolic significance that is so strong here. And as numbers and symbols are at the front of the description, it is often taken to mean that this is just part of the meaningful spiritual vision that Ezekiel was having.

So what is so significant about the number 70? It is debatable whether Ezekiel stopped to count, or whether he had this number given to him in spirit because of the significance. But in the biblical sense, this number is taken as 10 times 7. Ten symbolising the law and doing things right. 7 symbolising perfection. 70 elders were appointed by Moses at mount Sinai to represent the Israelites. So, bringing these things together, we begin to see the significance. Ezekiel describes these as the 70 elders of Israel, and so they represented the whole people. The number represents the fullness of the old covenant – law and perfection.

The room, with its depiction of unclean crawling creatures (let your imagination roam here, this will be various arachnids, cockroaches, snakes, and such like) covering all the walls, and the idols in the room. So we have the representatives of all Israel, representing also the old covenant and the perfection of God and His works, in an unclean place. So everything about Israel and what God has done for Israel is being defiled and disgraced. In addition, there are idols, and every elder has a censer with incense burning and giving a fragrant cloud in the room.

When you read through the books of the law, you can see that the incense was to be one of many things bringing a sweet savour to the Lord. Something used when people came before God, bringing their prayers and requests, their hopes and dreams, or their regrets and sorrows. It was a representation before God of the desires of their hearts, but here being offered up in an unclean place and to idols. And all of this within the walls of the temple.

You can find a detailed account of the significance of each part of this vision in the many published studies of the prophecies of Ezekiel. But in summary, we have the concept that the holy place, dedicated to the Most High, has been defiled and made unclean. The people of Israel, represented by the 70 elders, come into an unclean place and offer their incense of worship to idols. The covenant and perfection of God is being publicly disgraced, although the people doing it consider it a private and unseen act. It is not. God sees. And it is anyway an ‘open secret’ – because there is the idol in the gateway. This is in itself significant. It says that all is not well within. It is a challenge and an insult to the Lord – and we can understand it all from the way it is referenced in the text: the idol that provokes to jealousy.

I do not propose to go into a detailed discussion about all the significances in the law, and what, according to the Levitical teachings, all of this represents. Nor, from those same teachings, what was supposed to be done to put things right. I am saved by the work of Christ on the cross, and so am therefore saved by grace and not the works of the law. Our salvation is not of works, but by faith. We are not under the law, but under grace. To preach legalism is to deny the work of the cross, by which we do not need to do works to be right before God. We are right before God because of the works of Jesus that enabled us to be clothed in his righteousness.

Yet there are many things here that are significant for us to consider. Not least of these is the idea of idolatry. Let’s place this in a new testament context…

People often speak of the three love commands of Jesus, two of which come from the old covenant and the third ‘new commandment.’ These are: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbour as yourself; and love one another as he loved us. For a moment let’s focus on the first of those.

How often do you make choices based on your heart’s desires rather than God’s promises? How often, when you go to church, is your heart really set on the new car you wish for, or the new home you wish to be able to move to, or the new piece of technology you wish to purchase? How often do you notice what other people are wearing and doing rather than focusing on the Lord in worship? How often do you find that you have been wishing to have this and that in your life, and then find and realise that you have even missed some of what has been going on in the service because you have been in the dreamworld of personal desires?

I think it is pointless to deny these things, because such affects us all. The desires of our heart are what demand attention in our thoughts. They come between us and God and make it harder to hear his voice or to feel the promptings of the spirit. Desire twists interpretation, because we want things ordered so that our desires can be fulfilled.

I am not saying necessarily that God doesn’t want you to have the new car, the new house, the new computer, the new dress, the new shoes, or whatever else it is that is on your heart. But there is something that God desires greatly: you! It doesn’t need dressing up in flowery or religious words, it is plain and simple. God desires you! He wants your love for him. And when he sees our love is divided, it brings sorrow and jealousy.

Let’s remind ourselves again that God is not a god who is quick to anger and waiting to pour judgement on us at the first opportunity. This judgement on Jerusalem was after hundreds of years of patience. And also it is worth remembering that God wants to bless us and prosper us. But here is the thing that people often miss about this: He wants to do it! He wants to bless us. It is His work, not ours – although he expects us to perform our earthly tasks with diligence and commitment.

But our thoughts become full of how to get these things that we want. We begin to find ways in our own thoughts of how to accomplish things, and we plan and think of the steps.

How about this: how about coming to the Lord with your desires and leaving them at his feet? Then you are free to focus on him, and not on your ‘idols.’ You can let him move in your life and let him bless you. Sometimes you may even learn that he has better for you than you imagined for yourself, and so this thing that filled your thoughts and desires loses significance altogether.

Basically I am saying this, from the inspiration of these scriptures: that anything that becomes more significant to you than our Lord has become an idol. It takes the worship that belongs to the Lord. It takes the energy and devotion that should belong the Lord. It takes our focus away from the Lord, and therefore we find inspiration, logic and ideas that have not come from the Lord.

Yes, the Lord blessed us with free will and intelligence to be able to work things out for ourselves. I am not in denial of that, or of any part of our humanity. But our thoughts need to be taken captive to the Lord and the desires of our hearts brought before him (do I really need to quote chapter and verse? These things should be familiar).

Why do I say these things? Because we can easily become sidetracked by our desires and before we know it we have lives that are not given to God, but given to things. Idolatry.

So is your life ruled by your stomach? By your favourite TV programs? By the woman or man you wish to attract or keep? By the things you must do to purchase that expensive whatever? By the enjoyable games you have become addicted to? Or by any other addiction, like smoking or alcohol or drugs or sex or gossip or confectionery? (Sugar has been shown to be more addictive than heroin in experiments with rats!)

Bring everything to God. Leave them at his feet. Bring him all your desires – yes all of them! Even those things that you know he will not like!

Listen, when a young child goes out to play, sometimes they come back in covered in all kinds of disgusting dirt, and may also have soiled in their own pants. Does the father or mother shut the door on this child in disgust, not letting them in to the home and not desiring them any more? Of course not! They even overcome their own gagging reflex, put the child in a bath, and clean all the filth off. Soon the child is clean and sweet smelling again. The parent does more! After drying the child, the parent puts clean clothes on the child. That’s better!

God is our Father. He is a better father than any earthly father, and he cares for us very much. He loves us. So he will not hold his nose and shut the door on you with anything that you bring to him. He will wash you and cleanse you and clothe you with clean clothes of righteousness.

So again I say: bring all the desires and addictions of your heart to the Lord.

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