Before we enter upon our subject it may not be superfluous to determine what we mean by idolatry. This is the more necessary because of the definition which is so familiar to us, from the Heidelberg Catechism. For it is only because of the very practical purpose of the Catechism on the first commandment that we accede to and justify the very broad and somewhat figurative definition. It is also from this motive that Dr. A. Kuyper in his commentary, “E VOTO” includes all those things in which men seek their welfare without God and with bold and forceful strokes of a genius brings it all into a construction.
But strictly speaking it is undoubtedly better to limit the idea of idolatry as the act whereby man seeks a fellowship and favor which is due only to God, with some being in whom he assumes a conscious reaction possible toward himself.
However even so limited the field is of immense embrace and brings us to the very beginning of peoples as we know them from Scripture and the pages of profane history.
The statement is often made that the explanation of man’s tendency to worship idols lies in the fact that he is so created that he has to worship something. We may take the presentation of “E Voto” as typical. The author writes Vol. Ill, p. 516: “By virtue of his existence as conscious creature man must worship (eeren) something above himself, but that something can be either God or something else, and from this follows the necessity that the urge of man’s being to worship something, must receive guidance and direction and therefore man must receive the command: ‘you must worship God and not something else in His stead.’”
Now there is indeed in this presentation a very important element of truth, namely, that man does easily because of his nature turn to the worship of something, yet it does not give the true cause and as it stands leads in the wrong direction.
To say that man must worship something does not at all express the true nature of his being. In this presentation the worship of God as the highest purpose is left out of sight and the idea, of an impulse to serve is greatly exaggerated.
The fact, however, is that the purpose of man’s creation is not to serve something merely but to serve God his Creator, and the only necessity that is laid upon him is to fulfill that service. Hence, if he does not fulfil that service he is not of necessity shifted to another alternative, namely, to find another object but he can also, and may just as well serve nothing at all”
We may demonstrate this with both an illustration and a parallel case.
As an illustration I may say man must eat. Then having severely established this dictum I can say he must eat food, but if he does not do this then he must eat ashes or poison. Now plainly this; alternative is rot valid and that for the simple reason that the eating and ingestion of foreign material is not the ruling necessity and is not the end in itself, but the need of nourishment must control this ingestion. Man must eat food; if he does not ingest food there is no reason for continuing to eat.
But we also have a parallel to the case we are considering. We see in the angels, namely, a case of creatures who are made to serve and worship, even as men are made to worship God. And yet when the angels apostatize from the service of their Creator they do not turn to idol worship. We have no reason to believe otherwise than that they serve nothing. And should we here be inclined To counter that even the apostate angels serve themselves, then we are plainly transgressing the definition of idolatry.
If then we would desire to persist that man must serve something because he is so created we can only maintain this in the sense that he must and shall and ultimately does even now serve Him who made him for that end.
There is another approach sometimes made to this problem. This view begins with man’s corporeity. It holds that because man is a material corporeal being he easily turns to the worship of some tangible, visible object; and so his sin lies in his desire to visualize the wholly invisible one.
Against this two considerations are effective to show its invalidity.
In the first place the cause is thus sought not in his perversity, but in the manner of his creation.
Secondly, that this desire to see God is not in itself sin appears from the fact that vision is one of man’s mast noble senses whereby he receives contact and knowledge of things outside of himself, and that God the Invisible One has exactly made Himself known by coming within the reach of man’s senses. That fact is evident in creation, in the Tabernacle, and in the Incarnation. But man’s perverse desire to deal with a god who is the perversion of the true God, causes him to misuse his power of visual contact.
What then must we consider man’s motive for turning to idols? Our first remark by way of an answer is that Scripture nowhere gives a direct answer. The reason for this is evidently that Scripture in all of its dealings with idol worship is very positive, and especially toward His own people, simply condemns it as wickedness and folly.
ln this connection we must remember that Israel did not have its own idols and did not worship them as the heathen did. Israel borrowed its idols from surrounding nations and is so usually for political and social reasons, further with the idea that they might also help them as they did the heathen, and finally often for the very debaucheries and orgies that accompanied the worship.
But we find an indication of the motive in the Scriptural characterization of it as fearing idols, trusting in idols, boasting in idols, and being led by dumb idols. And to explain this we must remember that idolatry grew up out of the life of the nations. The idols of the various peoples are very closely related to that which is prominent in their several environments. The sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers, the mountains, the wind, the fire, the lion, the ox, the ancestors, all became object of worship for the various peoples.
In view of this the motive is plain. Although man has lost God and the knowledge of Him through sin, yet he remains surrounded with His revelation, His power, His wisdom, His wrath. These virtues are manifested in all the impressive powers and movements of the creature. Man sees and knows that there are greater and stronger than he; by comparing them with himself and other living things that he knows, he comes to the conclusion that they are great and mighty conscious powers and he learns to fear, trust and adore them as deities.
This view is sustained both by the fact that the history of primitive religions reveals to us this animistic origin and by the fact that even modern man reveals a dependency on the creature that often lapses into trust in magic and charms.
This motive or motives of idol worship is also very instructive for us as Christians. Is it not evident that if man does not retain his proper relation to his God he can no longer be the master that he is meant to be over the creatures in which God lays and reveals His mighty power? If man is a faithful willing servant of God he has dominion over all the creatures of the earthly creation, but when he forsakes God’s service, he loses dominion and control and stands often frustrated and in fear in trembling amid those powers and creatures and in his folly kneels to them and implores their favor. He does not know or understand the creature since he has lost the light of God’s revelation and so he tremblingly worships the river that carries his boat or destroys his crops and endangers his life. He worships the sun that can warm his body and advance his tillage. He trembles before the wind and lightning and rain or adore them when they prosper him.
And let us not forget that this is essentially true even today with modern man. Although he may no longer seek conscious favors from the powers of nature yet man strives continually and futilely to bring nature under his subjection. With all his apparent progress we must confess that he has not at all succeeded in really making the creature his docile and dependable servant. Wars and famines and economic reverses continue to vex him and he fears and trembles in anxiety at the prospect of what that mystifying power of nature may have in store for him.
Now wherein is the situation of the Christian different from this?
Then in the first place we must answer that also the Christian has fallen under the curse with its resultant loss of dominion over the creature. The ground yields thorns and thistles under his tilling hand; the ox that should pull his plow gores him to death in an unguarded moment; the car that should so much elevate his life plunges him to destruction.
But that is not the last word. In principle his dominion has indeed been restored. Not now in himself it is true, but through the second man who has received all things in subjection under His feet and we do see all things now put under Him. And so he goes about his service with the creature. He goes about his plowing and his motor trip in the consciousness that all these things are in Christ’s hand, that all things whatever betide, must and are working together for his salvation and his service of the one only true God.
He is no longer an idol worshipper who trembles in anxiety at the fortune that overcomes him from the mystical power and course of creation, but he is a worshipper of the one only true God and knows that in His Almighty hand are also the powers of nature for his good.
In the New Testament this principle is carried through so that in a figurative sense any trust in the creature is called idolatry, as also our Catechism does. So the apostle Paul calls covetousness something that is of the nature of idolatry, (; ) and John warns that any departure or untrue conception of the only true God whom he has testified gives place to a god that is colored by our own imaginations and that is an idol. Therefore—little children, keep yourselves, guard yourselves from the idols. .
The ultimate manifestation of this principle of idol worship will be revealed in the end-time when Antichrist shall appear. He indeed will have such power over nature that the inhabitants of the world will stand in awe at his lying wonders. They will really see in him that which they have always sought and they will worship him as God.
Yet in the midst of those times when all the powers of nature seem to be against the Christians and their cause even when they will not be deceived to worship this glorious idol, for they will testify by faith that although God is nowhere to be seen and seems to be against them yet they know that all things are still in His hand and that all things are for them, because they by the exaltation of Christ have become the true lords of “creation” and the God of peace shall also presently crush Satan under their heels.