Why do people worship idols? To sophisticated modern minds, the thought of worshipping a lump of wood seems absurd. So why have people from time immemorial done so? And do we continue to do it in our own more subtle ways?
At the heart of all idolatry is the desire to get what we want. Having rejected the God for whom we exist, we create gods that exist for us. It’s a form of wishful thinking: the wish that we can be as gods. And the wish that, given our frailty, we can access and control additional powers to guarantee us what we want.
In simpler cultures, the nature of people’s wishes was simpler. Survival was as much as most could hope for. Having rejected the God from whom all good gifts come, it became necessary to wish for other powers from whom the bare necessities of life could be procured. Much idolatry revolved around fertility: the fertile field and the fertile womb.
And so the idols were worshipped. The hope was that they would give us what we wanted: a good harvest for now and plenty of children for a good future. Elaborate rituals deceived us into believing what we had invented in our own imagination: that we can control our destiny,
Hosea unequivocally exposed the futility of this hope: “A people without understanding shall come to ruin” (4:14). He denounced Israel’s fall from the real world of their Creator into the idolatry of their fantasy world: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). They were being punished for ignorance: not simply missing certain pieces of knowledge, but rejecting the very concept of true knowledge. Hosea says they lacked knowledge “...because [they] have rejected knowledge”.
Israel spoke of her vines and fig trees, her agricultural wealth, as “... wages which my lovers have given me” (Hos 2:12). They really thought that their harvests were gifts given by the various false gods to which they had given themselves. Here is the heart of idolatry. We give ourselves to serve that which we believe to be the source which provides for our needs. Theirs was a simple culture – so their needs were the basics for survival. And theirs was a superstitious culture – so they saw the source in spiritual terms: gods and idols. But their thinking was wrong. Their needs were not being met by pagan gods rewarding their services, but by the Lord who was graciously providing harvests year after year in spite of their failure to serve him!
Before we ridicule their simplistic idolatry, we should pause for thought. Are we living their lie? Having decided what want, we worship whatever we believe will provide it for us. Our idols are whatever we imagine will give us what we want. They come in many shapes and sizes.