Hezekiah demonstrates how trust in Yahweh is the opposite of idolatry

Exhibiting a strong trust in God should be based on defending God’s honor for his glory.

Today we will be looking at the topic of trust, and how exhibiting a strong trust in God should be based on defending God’s honor for his glory and not relying on the idolatrous practices of our culture. To do so, we are going to be reviewing a pivotal event in the life of King Hezekiah, considered to have been one of the most faithful kings in all of Israel’s history.

2 Kings 18:5-6 – Hezekiah relied on Yahweh God of Israel; not one of the kings of Judah was like him, either before him or after him. He remained faithful to Yahweh and did not turn from following him but kept the commands Yahweh had commanded Moses.

One of the primary achievements of Hezekiah’s reign was the removal of idolatry from Israel.

2 Kings 18:3-4 – He did what was right in Yahweh’s sight just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles.

As we look at the descriptions of some of his actions, we find that he had “shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles.” These are descriptions of the implements that were used in the worship of false gods. The sacred pillars were roughly the equivalent of a type of memorial obelisk made of stone used in the worship of false gods. Poles of Asherah were wooden carved images or sacred trees, sometimes translated as a grove. These were locations where idolatrous worship of the Phoenician goddess Ashtoreth or Asherah took place.

However, it is important to note that Hezekiah also removed the worship sites known as “the high places.” These were ancient worship sites that had been used by the Canaanites long before Israel inhabited the land. Especially before there was a temple in Israel, and sometimes after, it was a common practice to worship gods, including Yahweh, in areas on high mountains that were considered sacred. Both the prophet Samuel and Solomon are recorded as frequenting high places in the worship of the one true God, Yahweh.

1 Samuel 9:19 – “I am the seer,” Samuel answered. “Go up ahead of me to the high place and eat with me today. When I send you off in the morning, I’ll tell you everything that’s in your heart.

1 Kings 3:2-4 – However, the people were sacrificing on the high places, because until that time a temple for Yahweh’s name had not been built. Solomon loved Yahweh by walking in the statutes of his father David, but he also sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.  The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there because it was the most famous high place. He offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.

It was from this environment, the high place at Gibeon, that God appeared to Solomon in a dream and granted him wisdom above his contemporaries.

From these few examples, it can be seen that the worship of Yahweh had become intermixed with the worship of the false gods of the land of Canaan. But this was something that God had specifically warned the Israelites not to do.

Deuteronomy 18:9 – “When you enter the land Yahweh your God is giving you, do not imitate the detestable customs of those nations.”

Albert Barnes in his commentary on this passage relates how the high places had become part of the culture of the land.

“They were the rural centers for the worship of Yahweh, standing in the place of the later synagogue, and had hitherto been winked at, or rather regarded as legitimate, even by the best kings. Hezekiah’s desecration of these time-honored sanctuaries must have been a rude shock to the feelings of numbers…”

For Hezekiah to remove the high places and re-direct everyone’s worship to the temple in Jerusalem was a monumental task. In today’s terms from an American perspective, it would be the equivalent of a state governor essentially destroying rural church buildings in every small town and telling everyone they can only worship God “officially” in the capital city of the state. Not likely to be a popular move. But Hezekiah was not doing this as a popularity concession; he was dutifully upholding the law of God, as a king should:

Deuteronomy 12:10-11, 13-14 – “When you cross the Jordan and live in the land Yahweh your God is giving you to inherit, and he gives you rest from all the enemies around you and you live in security, then Yahweh your God will choose the place to have his name dwell. Bring there everything I command you: your burnt offerings, sacrifices, offerings of the tenth, personal contributions, and all your choice offerings you vow to Yahweh. … Be careful not to offer your burnt offerings in all the sacred places you see. You must offer your burnt offerings only in the place Yahweh chooses in one of your tribes, and there you must do everything I command you.”

Hezekiah took this command seriously because the people had strayed back into their comfort zone of local idolatry. But by any standard, this was a bold move that demonstrated just how zealous Hezekiah was for God’s honor. In fact, his zeal was so strong that he even took action against a shameful practice of his own people regarding the one, true God.

2 Kings 18:4 – He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.

The Israelites had become so corrupted in their idolatry that they had even begun to worship the bronze snake that Moses had made during the wilderness journeys of Israel six or seven hundred years earlier. Apparently it had become a religious relic that was elevated to the status of an object of worship. Ironically, that which had brought the Israelites healing in the desert had become the corrupted focus of worship rather than keeping their focus on the God who had healed them.

From these examples, it would seem that, left to our own devices with no regard for God’s law, people will always default to a type of personal worship of our own choosing based on the cultural norms of their environments. All of these actions that Hezekiah was forced to take on God’s behalf only underscore the reforms that were necessary against the ingrained idolatry of the land. He was adamant he would not succumb to the cultural influences that continually crept in among the people of God, and he would stand firm for God’s honor at all costs.

In a moment, we are going to look at the pivotal event in Hezekiah’s reign that forced him to rely even more strongly on his trust in Yahweh than he had demonstrated with his reforms against idolatry. In doing so, I’m hopeful we can glean some principles which we can apply in our own lives to grow our own trust in God for his increased glory and honor.

—–

The events surrounding Hezekiah’s encounter with Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, are so prominent in Israel’s history that the story is recounted in three different books within the Tenakh or Old Testament: 2 Kings 18, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36. Assyria at that time, roughly 700 B.C, had become the equivalent of an ancient superpower and was on a military campaign against the surrounding nations when Israel had come into its sights. In pursuit of his objectives, Sennacherib had declared war on Jerusalem. Prior to setting up a siege, the commander of Sennacherib’s army was declaring the king’s intent to the people of the city. This was a common practice as a form of intimidation and as a way of undercutting potential resistance against the forces that would seek to overpower them.

To begin this process of intimidation, he first tries to destroy the character of Hezekiah in the minds of the people who were within earshot of his message:

2 Kings 18:22 – “Suppose you say to me, “We rely on Yahweh our God.” Isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You must worship at this altar in Jerusalem”?’

Notice how he zeroes in on the contempt many in Israel likely felt when Hezekiah had destroyed the high places which were their familiar places of worship. He tries to undermine the righteous actions of Hezekiah by accusing Hezekiah of destroying the altars of Yahweh in the high places. But the reality, as we have seen, is that God forbade the Israelites from worshiping at all the “sacred places” that they would see when they entered the land. He never authorized worship of himself at the high places, only at the place he would name. By removing the high places as worship sites for Yahweh, Hezekiah had actually been upholding the law. Sennacherib tried to use this righteous action against him, and convince the people that Hezekiah was against the worship of Yahweh.

So, one of the first principles we can see is that our detractors will try to use our righteous actions against us, because when we act in faith according to God’s Word, our actions typically don’t line up with the cultural norms.

Next, we see how the commander of the Assyrian army levels his sights on the trust and faith in Yahweh that Hezekiah had been trying to instill in his people.

2 Kings 18:30-32 – “Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to rely on Yahweh by saying, “Certainly Yahweh will rescue us! This city will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.” ‘  “Don’t listen to Hezekiah, for this is what the king of Assyria says: ‘Make peace with me and surrender to me. Then each of you may eat from his own vine and his own fig tree, and each may drink water from his own cistern until I come and take you away to a land like your own land ​– ​a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey ​– ​so that you may live and not die. But don’t listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you, saying, “Yahweh will rescue us.”

Our next principle for application is that if the detractors can’t malign our character and actions, they will then turn to undermining our faith. They will attempt to provide reason and examples as to how our faith in Yahweh is worthless in the face of their superior reasoning and practical provision.

Notice he says he would allow them to return to their own homesteads and have autonomy until he was to take them away to a land like their own land. He essentially is trying to get them to trade their faith and trust in Yahweh’s protection for a return to their homes and a larger security that he claims he can provide. “No need to believe in all this Yahweh stuff,” he says, “when I can clearly provide you what you really are expecting from Yahweh anyway.” Believers need to be aware that the detractors will always offer some form of security outside of the provision of God to compromise their faith.

Finally, after defaming Hezekiah and the peoples’ faith in Yahweh, the commander then crosses a line that spells the doom of the Assyrian campaign against Jerusalem: he maligns, not just the character and actions of Hezekiah or the faith of the people, but the character of Yahweh himself.

2 Kings 18:33-35 – “Has any of the gods of the nations ever rescued his land from the power of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they rescued Samaria from my power? Who among all the gods of the lands has rescued his land from my power? So will Yahweh rescue Jerusalem from my power? ‘ “

This is the common mistake of those who would come against the people of God: they equate Yahweh with the rest of the false gods in the world, and in doing so, they attempt to set themselves in the place of, or even above, God himself. They position themselves as the final authority, claiming the ability to operate independently of any deity, and in their own interests. The sad reality, though, is that in taking this stance, the commander had now made the conflict with Israel not about Hezekiah, or the faith of the people in the city, but he had set the Assyrian army in conflict with God himself.

Having heard this rant of the commander of the Assyrian army and having received a letter outlining their demands, Hezekiah, being strong in faith and not being deterred by the king’s arrogance, did what all of us should do when confronted with intimidation against the honor of God: he brought the situation before God. He laid out the demands of the Assyrian king before God in the temple, and simply prayed for God to make himself known in the midst of the conflict.

2 Kings 19:14-19 – After Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it, he went up to Yahweh’s Temple and spread it out before Yahweh. And Hezekiah prayed this prayer before Yahweh: “O Yahweh, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the mighty cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You alone created the heavens and the earth. Bend down, O Yahweh, and listen! Open your eyes, O Yahweh, and see! Listen to Sennacherib’s words of defiance against the living God. It is true, Yahweh, that the kings of Assyria have destroyed all these nations. And they have thrown the gods of these nations into the fire and burned them. But of course the Assyrians could destroy them! They were not gods at all–only idols of wood and stone shaped by human hands. Now, O Yahweh our God, rescue us from his power; then all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, O Yahweh, are God.”

Notice, Hezekiah recognized that this was not a battle of armies or protection, but a battle for the honor of God’s Name. “Listen to Sennacherib’s words of defiance against [you], the living God.” This isn’t about Hezekiah’s honor, or the faith of the people, but about the Name and character of God himself. Hezekiah knows that this is the opportunity for God to demonstrate his superiority over the fake gods of the land, and to let the other kingdoms know he really is the one, true God. Hezekiah rightly places the battle in God’s hands, since it was to be a demonstration of his power against the enemies who had defied him. If God were to deliver Jerusalem, known even to his enemies as his favored city, then “all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, Yahweh, are God.”

Although Hezekiah had previously attempted to placate the king of Assyria by sending him silver and gold, he knew that now was the time, not to act, but to step out of the way and to trust Yahweh to accomplish his purpose in defending his chosen city and his Name. Through this act of incredible trust and humility demonstrated by Hezekiah, God responded through the prophet Isaiah that he would indeed protect Jerusalem and the honor of his Name.

2 Kings 19:20, 32-34 – Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent a message to Hezekiah: “Yahweh, the God of Israel says, ‘I have heard your prayer to me about King Sennacherib of Assyria.’ … “Therefore, this is what Yahweh says about the king of Assyria: He will not enter this city, shoot an arrow here, come before it with a shield, or build up a siege ramp against it.  He will go back the way he came, and he will not enter this city. This is Yahweh’s declaration.  I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

True to his word, the very next day, almost the entire Assyrian army was dead:

2 Kings 19:35-36 – That night the angel of Yahweh went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. When the surviving Assyrians woke up the next morning, they found corpses everywhere. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and returned to his own land. He went home to his capital of Nineveh and stayed there.

It’s one thing to trust God for one’s own private needs or the needs of one’s own family, but consider how much faith Hezekiah was displaying by trusting God for an entire city, and even the nation of Israel against a foreign invading army! Think of some of the alternatives he could have reasoned through with his advisors: he could have mustered troops to come out in battle against Assyria, trusting in the might of his own army. Or he could have sent word to Egypt trusting in a foreign country as an ally to come and defend the city, but he didn’t do either of these things. When he recognized the battle was really not about him or his faith, but about God’s honor, he simply laid out the situation before God and prayed humbly and sincerely for God to act. Through his simple act of faithfulness, the aggression of a military superpower was averted.

So, what other kinds of applications can we draw from the story of this encounter?  Well, the main thrust of the story appears to center on Hezekiah’s faith and trust in Yahweh, relying on Yahweh to provide the necessary and appropriate resolution to the defense of his favored city. When we truly trust God, we need to learn to get out of his way and allow him to move in situations and arrange outcomes that are far beyond our capacity.

But there is also a strong, underlying subtext regarding Hezekiah’s zeal against the idolatry and complacent worship prevalent throughout the land. It took a clear understanding of God’s Word and bold action to re-set the time-honored practices of God’s people who had strayed from the truth. This corruption of idolatry is contrasted with the faith and zeal of Hezekiah. That which can be seen (a false god) is devalued in light of that which cannot be seen (the one, true God). We must not only repent of our own idolatrous tendencies, but to provide God’s perspective for those who may not yet realize the depth of their own complacency and compromise with the culture, much like those who would worship Yahweh at the idolatrous high places throughout the land of Israel.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Consider the things we worship today (that is, things that we look to for refuge, rescue. or solutions to our problems). Things like our phones and devices, social media, television, movies, celebrities, politicians, sports, our homes, sometimes even ourselves. On the religious side, we may have a favored denomination, or place of worship, or tradition that does not line up entirely with God’s Word. What types of “Hezekiahan” reform would be necessary in our culture today to honor God? How is God’s honor and Name being maligned today? How can we lovingly but firmly present the case for God’s honor to those who are wrapped up in the idolatry of these worldly distractions?

But be aware, as we remove some of those “high places” in our lives, we may begin to feel the pressure and resistance of those who have not yet reached that same level of trust and faith. This is where we have to consider deeply where we are making our stand for God, and like Hezekiah, be prepared by laying out the oppositional positions before God and praying for his honor to be maintained, not ours. Hezekiah staked everything on God’s honor and reputation above the gods of the invading force and the culture around him. He had reached the point where he had removed himself as being able to do anything further in his own might over these false deities, and instead allowed God to manifest himself as a demonstration to others that “all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, Yahweh, are God.”

As individual believers in Messiah, we can only look at the patterns and habits of our own lives as examples to others. We are not authorized to go around tearing down other peoples’ idols, but we are authorized to teach them how to do so. When we not only trust in God for ourselves but live out actions and practices in our interactions with others match that internal perspective, we honor God and then have the potential to rally others to the cause of Messiah in this world.


If you enjoy these articles, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive on our Podcast Page, at Core of the Bible on Simplecast, or your favorite podcast streaming service.

Now also on YouTube, find us at: Core of the Bible on YouTube.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me at coreofthebible@gmail.com.

Vigilance in worship

It takes effort, consistency, and sacrifice to worship God in a way that he desires.

It takes effort, consistency, and sacrifice to worship God in a way that he desires.

Worship today has come to mean many different things to different people. For most, worship is what happens every Sunday at the local church building from 10:30 am to noon. The style of worship varies; some prefer traditional hymns in a quiet, classical style from the European Middle Ages; for others, it is a celebratory party-like atmosphere with flashy performances and contemporary, upbeat tunes. In yet other congregations, it is complete silence, waiting for God’s Spirit to move upon someone to speak and provide insights from God’s holy perspective.

In the Bible, we see that worship encompassed many of these different expressions. The priesthood of Israel had specific and intentional responsibilities within the service of the Temple that had grown and morphed over time. While their primary sacrificial duties were laid down by Moses, as the temple was established in the days of David and Solomon, we find that other duties relative to music and singing became established within the realm of the priestly worship.

1 Chronicles 23:1-5 – When David was old and full of days, he installed his son Solomon as king over Israel. Then he gathered all the leaders of Israel, the priests, and the Levites. The Levites thirty years old or more were counted; the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand by headcount. “Of these,” David said, “twenty-four thousand are to be in charge of the work on Yahweh’s temple, six thousand are to be officers and judges, four thousand are to be gatekeepers, and four thousand are to praise Yahweh with the instruments that I have made for worship.”

These traditions carried on throughout the years and became part of the Israelite priestly and liturgical environment. However, with the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D., the earthly priesthood and the liturgy of the temple worship were abolished. There were no more proscribed rites or ceremonies for the people of God in relation to liturgical worship.

Now, don’t think that I am saying it is somehow wrong or misguided to continue to create songs or sing together to honor and praise God; that is not the point. In fact, believers in Messiah have been encouraged by Paul to do so.

Ephesians 5:18-20 – …be filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to Yahweh, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Yeshua Messiah…

Rather, I am describing something that goes beyond any type of liturgical and sometimes mechanical praise toward to God. Even though the second temple was still standing in Paul’s day, God had provided him insights into the future of his Kingdom and the coming age. Paul knew that God was working a spiritual work among his people that would far surpass any physical representation or temple service that God could provide.

When it came to describing the type of worship that was acceptable to God, Paul naturally grabbed hold of a principle taught by Yeshua about what true worship in the service of God looks like:

Romans 12:1 – Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship.

The believers who were presenting themselves, body and spirit, to God were the ones who were honoring the true spirit of worship that God desires. Yeshua had taught this same principle.

John 4:23-24 – “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.”

Living a life of sacrifice means diligently and consistently laying down our own desires at the feet of God and seeking to accomplish his purpose in our life. This is the path of believers in abiding in him, walking according to his commandments above the demands of the culture around them. To love Yahweh your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, to truly do this, is to walk a sacrificial path of true worship that honors God and brings glory to his name. The new covenant is a martyr’s covenant; we must die to ourselves in order to live for him.

Matthew 16:24-25 – Then Yeshua said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it.

This is the heart of true worship: becoming a living sacrifice where every thought is captive to Messiah and every action is an action based on the love of God for all of his Creation. This is where true worship lies, not in the halls of music and self-performance, but in the quiet and determined attitude of self-sacrifice.


If you enjoy these daily articles, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive on our Podcast Page, at Core of the Bible on Simplecast, or your favorite podcast streaming service.

Now also on YouTube, find us at: Core of the Bible on YouTube.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at coreofthebible@gmail.com

Facing certain death with the integrity of defiant obedience to God

An ancient story challenges our own commitment to the principles of integrity taught by Messiah.

An ancient story challenges our own commitment to the principles of integrity taught by Messiah.

In the third chapter of Daniel, the story is told of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were three Hebrew captives during the Babylonian captivity. Recognition of their names has come down to us in this day and age because of their staunch refusal to worship an idolatrous statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Enraged at their disobedience to the the royal command, the king confronted these three rebellious subjects.

Daniel 3:14, 16-18 – Nebuchadnezzar asked them, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I have set up?” … Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.”

The magnitude of their defiance to the idolatrous command of the king reverberates through the millennia to our day. Interestingly, the actions of these three young men were completely aligned with the principles of integrity that Yeshua was to teach hundreds of years later.

  • Matthew 5:6 – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Matthew 5:10 – “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
  • Matthew 5:16 – “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
  • Matthew 5:19 – “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

There is a Hebraic tradition that during their time in the fiery furnace, that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego worshiped and praised Yahweh for all of his acts of Creation. In the depths of their most severe trial they chose to honor and praise the God for whom they were being sentenced to the cruellest of deaths.

The qualities of integrity demonstrated by these three young men illustrate for us how consistent the Torah or Instruction of God is. The same principles of integrity that guided these three men have been the guiding light of God’s people throughout the biblical record and the history of believers. They defiantly stood for the principles of an eternal kingdom in the face of certain death, just as we should stand for the same principles and the same kingdom today.

The writer to the Hebrews captures the motivation that should guide our actions in our current age of cultural idolatry and blatant disobedience to the principles of God’s kingdom. After listing the deeds of the righteous ancestors of the faith, he concludes this remembrance of their faithfulness and integrity in the face of the bitterest persecution provides the promptings necessary for our own battles.

Hebrews 11:39-40; 12:1 – All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us. Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us…

Even though they were willing to give their lives, God protected Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego through the fiery furnace, a miraculous occurrence which caused the king himself to worship the God of Israel.

Daniel 3:28-29 – Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed, “Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him. They violated the king’s command and risked their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I issue a decree that anyone of any people, nation, or language who says anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump. For there is no other god who is able to deliver like this.”

If this story stands for anything today, it should remind us that whether or not God delivers us from our own fiery trials, to honor and obey him above the dictates of our culture should be our guiding principle. Through his teaching and exemplary sacrifice, Yeshua corroborated the same principles of integrity that these Hebrew men demonstrated in the face of their greatest persecution. We can honor their commitment to the truth of God and the teaching of our Lord and Messiah by likewise being defiantly obedient to God.


If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive on our Podcast Page, at Core of the Bible on Simplecast, or your favorite podcast streaming service.

Now also on YouTube, find us at: Core of the Bible on YouTube.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at coreofthebible@gmail.com.

Humble service in a kingdom without icon

God simply desires our sincere honoring of him every day by the outworking of our practical faith among the rest of his Creation.

Core of the Bible podcast #58 – Humble service in a kingdom without icon

Today we will be looking at the topic of the Kingdom, and how the Kingdom of God should not have any type of iconography or attempt to represent God through any physical location or facility. All of these detract from the simple essence of who he is in Spirit and truth. Idolatry is the most represented affront to the majesty of God and his Kingdom throughout the entire Bible.

Right after God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and told them he wanted them to be representatives of his kingdom as priests, he then gave them the Ten Commandments. One of the primary commandments was against idolatry.

Exodus 20:4-5 – “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them…”

Yeshua confirmed that God abhors idolatry, and further revealed how God desires spiritual worship based on the truth, not some physical representation of him.

John 4:23-24 – “But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

If I were to paraphrase these two passages, it might sound something like this:

Have nothing to do with tangible representations of any god, including the one true God. Worship the Father (Yahweh) alone, and in spirit and in truth only.

For whatever reason, humans love icons and iconography. We seek to identify everything with a symbolic representation of some sort, whether it is a brand logo, an app, or a digital navigation menu. In honesty, I must admit there is a certain logic to this mode of communication: it acts as a type of shorthand for a larger idea or concept that can be communicated quickly and simply.

In a similar way, throughout history civilizations have represented their concepts of their gods with a plethora of iconic representation, from statues to intricate carvings of various symbols to grandiose temples. The idolatry of the Bible, however, is generally concerned with the statues and carvings of the various gods that continually led Israel away from the one true God, Yahweh. Baal and Ashtoreth were two of the most notable “local” gods in the land of Canaan which threatened to lure Israel away from Yahweh.

Judges 3:7 – “The Israelites did what was evil in Yahweh’s sight; they forgot Yahweh their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.”

Judges 10:6 – “Then the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh. They worshiped the Baals and the Ashtoreths, the gods of Aram, Sidon, and Moab, and the gods of the Ammonites and the Philistines. They abandoned Yahweh and did not worship him.”

The cultural power of these gods was so strong within the land of Canaan that the Israelites suffered with them throughout their history, in spite of dramatic showdowns with the likes of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

1 Kings 18:17-19 – “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one ruining Israel? ” He replied, “I have not ruined Israel, but you and your father’s family have, because you have abandoned Yahweh’s commands and followed the Baals. “Now summon all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

After watching the false prophets attempt to provoke their gods to manifest themselves at their offering altars, God reveals himself at the simple invocation of Elijah to make himself known.

1 Kings 18:37-40 – “Answer me, Yahweh! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Yahweh, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then Yahweh’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God! ” Then Elijah ordered them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let even one of them escape.” So they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

The reason that God had even brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan in the first place was so that they would eradicate these false representations and the wicked practices, such as child sacrifice, that went along with them.

Deuteronomy 9:4-5 – “When Yahweh your God drives them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘Yahweh brought me in to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ Instead, Yahweh will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness. “You are not going to take possession of their land because of your righteousness or your integrity. Instead, Yahweh your God will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness…”

This is how strongly God is opposed to false gods and the idolatrous worship that goes along with them.

Sometimes, during periods of reform and return to the worship of the one true God, the Israelite tribes were successful in removing the idols and false worship of the nations around them.

1 Samuel 7:4 – “So the Israelites removed the Baals and the Ashtoreths and only worshiped Yahweh.”

1 Samuel 12:10 – “Then they cried out to Yahweh and said, ‘We have sinned, for we abandoned Yahweh and worshiped the Baals and the Ashtoreths. Now rescue us from the power of our enemies, and we will serve you.’

However, there are indications that even when the Israelites were doing what they were supposed to do in removing the false gods and idols, in typical fashion, they were still missing the true meaning of having Yahweh as their God, since they continually desired him to simply save them from the power of the their enemies, but not from the power of their own sinfulness.

Ultimately, the Kingdom of God was not to be just about an idyllic kingdom to be protected from its enemies, but to be a kingdom made up of individuals who were to practice “righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit,” (Romans 14:17).

—–

Additionally, the idolatry of Israel was not always focused on other gods, but on the one true God, just through some form of statue or representation of their own making.

Consider the golden calf incident. Most people think that the golden calf was a foreign god that the Israelites were worshiping, however, they made the golden calf in honor of Yahweh God and instituted a festival to him! The Israelites created it as a representation of the God who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 32:4), and also as a representation of the God who would go before them and conquer. They bowed down to it and danced around it.

Exodus 32:4-5 – “He [Aaron] took the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your god, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! ” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and made an announcement: “There will be a festival to Yahweh tomorrow.”

This shamed the magnificence of the one true God and Moses rightly and immediately destroyed it.

Consider the bronze snake that Moses had made in obedience to Yahweh’s command for healing of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21).

Numbers 21:6-9 – Then Yahweh sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that he will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.”

When Hezekiah became king, he ended up having to destroy it because it had become an object of worship in and of itself (2 Kings 18:4)

Consider the ephod or breastplate that Gideon made to represent the victories of the Israelites over the Midianites (Judges 8:22-27).

Judges 8:22, 24-27 – Then the Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you as well as your sons and your grandsons, for you delivered us from the power of Midian.” … Then he said to them, “Let me make a request of you: Everyone give me an earring from his plunder.” Now the enemy had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites. They said, “We agree to give them.” So they spread out a cloak, and everyone threw an earring from his plunder on it. The weight of the gold earrings he requested was forty-three pounds of gold, in addition to the crescent ornaments and ear pendants, the purple garments on the kings of Midian, and the chains on the necks of their camels. Gideon made an ephod from all this and put it in Ophrah, his hometown. Then all Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household.”

While Gideon’s intent was to honor God, it became an object of worship itself and created corruption among the Israelites.

All of this is a form of syncretism, a blending of what is true about God with the falsehood of idolatry and foreign culture. This is the most dangerous type of idolatry because those who are engaged in it believe they are truly worshiping the one true God through it, yet they are demeaning everything he stands for.

To this day, iconic representation can be found throughout the world, some even becoming popular tourist destinations due to their magnificence.

As I have been reviewing current popular religious destinations, I have been a little shocked to find that many of the most well-attended religious sites are actually based on Christian lore, such as Fatima in Portugal where there were alleged visions of Mary, Lourdes in France, or any of the Roman Catholic sites within Rome. These locations are filled with idolatry of all sorts: images, statues, and various representations of Mary and other religious saints and figures.

There are also magnificent and extravagant temples throughout India and Asian countries with representations of various gods and goddesses and many well-meaning religious traditions.

However, in the Bible God warns us that although this may be typical and commonplace among our various cultures and religions, we are not to identify him in this sort of way. He is to be worshiped in spirit and truth only, not by some sort of symbolic representation. The wisdom in this instruction is that he knows that the thing that is created to represent him can then replace him in the minds of the worshipers.

Idols of other gods are an offense to him, because there are no other gods that have created all things, and ascribing power to something other than him is an insult to his sovereignty over his Creation.

Idols meant to represent him or aspects of his power are also offensive to him, because no one thing can represent his majesty and glory in all of Creation. Ultimately, as we have seen, he knows that the representative thing becomes the object of worship. Any created thing is not a thing to be worshiped, even if we believe it is representing the one true God. No one thing in all of Creation can represent him, and is therefore offensive to him.

What if I was to create an icon of my wife, and in order to honor her, I burnt incense to that statue every day, or got down on my knees and professed my love for her to the image? I don’t need an iconic representation of my wife to honor her; I just need to demonstrate my love to her every day in how I live my life by respecting her and caring for her.

In the same way, God doesn’t want to be worshiped through some shallow representation of a portion of his being; he wants to be recognized for the beneficent Creator that he is in all of his qualities and honored from the heart. Similar to the simplicity and sincerity that I would show my wife, God expects these plain and humble actions in my worship of him.

—–

Additionally, from a practical standpoint, I am extremely saddened by the idolatry present throughout the world for another significant reason: the sheer waste of resources that could be used to help people in real need.

If we were to total all of the money and resources that are sacrificed in the worship of these false idols and their traditions, I am convinced that hunger and poverty throughout the world could be eradicated many times over. I am convinced that resources spent on religious idolatrous enterprises in every culture, including Christianity, are consuming what is available for the ever-growing population of humanity.

Think of the largest religious festivals and the resources they consume: Hajj (Islam); Chinese New Year; Diwali (Hindu); Ramadan (Islam); Setsubun (Shinto); Krishna Janmashtami (Hindu); Navarati (Hindu). These all, while time-honored examples within each of these cultures, are from the biblical perspective considered idolatrous festivities to the gods of those religions.

Lest anyone think that we in American Christian culture are any less guilty of idolatry, simply consider the resources allotted to Easter, Halloween and most significantly, Christmas. According to statista.com, the financial value spent at Christmas is 843 BILLION dollars, and that is in the US alone! Easter has been in the 18 billion-dollar range, and Halloween has gone from 3 billion to 10 billion over the last 15 years. That totals 871 billion dollars spent annually on these idolatrous festivals in the US alone.

Now, a quick search of world-wide poverty initiatives brought me to borenproject.org, where they quote a Columbia University professor’s estimate of ending world poverty:

“In his book End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, provides one answer to the question “how much does it cost to end poverty?” He argues that poverty could be eliminated by the year 2025 thanks to “well-placed development aids”. Investment in local farms to boost capital and productivity, education for both children and adults, enhancing access to health services and leveraging renewable energy resources are the best ways to end poverty.

“So, how much does it cost to end poverty? Sachs, as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty, stated that the cost to end poverty is $175 billion per year for 20 years.”

Looking at only one year’s spend on religious idolatry, and in only the United States, this equals less than one-fourth of the combined financial impact of Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Now, if we were to estimate the costs of these other global religious festivities and their idolatrous practices, it is clear that the ability to raise up the quality of living and eradicate poverty around the entire world currently exists, if only we could have our eyes opened to the offerings still being made to idolatrous practices around the world.

This is why it is so important for people everywhere to understand the true nature of the Kingdom of God, and to recognize the simple and humble service he expects of his people, not extravagant displays like the pagans!

I believe it is clear we should also re-think some of our own practices in our believing congregations in light of this focus on idolatry. Beyond the seasonal holidays, there are plenty of idolatrous offerings occurring right here in American congregations, as well. How many times have people been admonished to “give sacrificially” to a building fund or to reach some financial goal for the congregation’s sound system or some other facility related function? We spend literally billions on parking lots, building improvements and maintenance, media systems and staffing to manage all of these facilities which remain mostly unused for most of any given week. These are real funds that could be better spent helping those in need while the congregation finds humbler means of gathering once or twice a week.

If this kind of commentary sounds jaded, then so be it. When I served as an intern pastor and also an elder over a number of years in small, local congregations, the amount of ministry time and resources wasted on building campaigns and maintenance was staggering to me. These tax-exempt corporations we have set up as ministry centers suffer from the same myopic budgeting that many secular businesses do. In essence, the facilities themselves have become idols for these congregations, idols that need constant attention and exorbitant resources. Instead, our facilities can be humble places of week-long ministry rather than just fancy audience arenas for a single isolated time each week.

I have heard time and time again that the description of an idol is simply “anything that comes between you and God.” However, from a biblical perspective, that is not really accurate at all. According to the Bible, an idol is an image or practice of some sort to which the powers of God or a god are ascribed, and therefore honor and sacrifice should be paid to it. It may be a figure, an institution or an ancient tradition. Idolatry of this sort in today’s day and age looks like this:

Candles, financial gifts, or food that is offered to statues of gods or supposed saints.

Costs to travel to religious sites for idolatrous religious festivals.

Thinking that by giving to the church building program or giving sacrificially to rescue the church budget is giving to God.

The financial debt and ruin incurred at Saturnalia in an effort to “decorate for the holidays” and to ensure no family’s “Christmas” gifts were overlooked.

These are examples of what modern idolatry looks like. Idols are real things created by people to somehow substitute or represent the one true God and their service to him, not just emotions or feelings that come between us and God. Emotional distractions are all legitimate ways we can be swayed away from God as well, don’t get me wrong. However, true idolatry is the participation in a physical event or honoring of traditional, physical icons in lieu of worshiping the one true God in spirit and in truth.

Yahweh, the God of the Bible, sets himself apart from all other gods by demanding we stop trying to represent him or his kingdom symbolically, whether through some type of iconography, grand facility, or through wasted resources on idolatrous traditions and practices. We can’t represent him fairly in those instances and, even if it is attempted, whatever we make becomes an object of corruption.

There are quite literally thousands of faith traditions throughout the world, even in regards to the God of the Bible. Whatever our personal faith tradition, we must find ways to combat the idolatry that is present through iconography, statues, and symbolic representation.

God simply desires our sincere honoring of him every day by the outworking of our practical faith among the rest of his Creation. This is what living in and for his kingdom should be.


If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive on our Podcast Page, at Core of the Bible on Simplecast, or your favorite podcast streaming service.

Now also on YouTube, find us at: Core of the Bible on YouTube.

Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at coreofthebible@gmail.com.

The integrity of praising the Creator of all

A realization of the truthfulness of God’s word and his works all throughout his Creation should provide all the motivation needed for us to lift our praises to him.

Psalm 33:1 – Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous ones; praise from the upright is beautiful.

According to the Psalmist, those who are righteous are expected to be praisers of God. We have reviewed before how the righteous ones of God are people of integrity; the tzaddikim, those who are just or righteous in conduct and character. Rejoicing by those of integrity is appropriate and beautiful.

True to form, it is evident that God’s people are a praising people. Worship music is not only a primary aspect of services around the world, but it is also a huge industry in and of itself.

Unfortunately, I have seen musical tastes divide congregations and create tensions and hard feelings among members who have differing views on what would be considered appropriate worship styles. Some people prefer traditional, hymn-like worship, others prefer contemporary music styles along the lines of pop culture. The Bible, though, makes no distinction between these styles.

Psalm 33:2-3 – Praise the LORD with the lyre; make music to him with a ten-stringed harp. Sing a new song to him; play skillfully on the strings, with a joyful shout.

However, regardless of the abuses and contentions about the role and place of music in congregations today, it is definitely scriptural for God’s people to praise him. A realization of the truthfulness of God’s word and his works all throughout his Creation should provide all the motivation needed for us to lift our praises to him.

Psalm 33: 4, 6, 8-9 – For the word of the LORD is right, and all his work is trustworthy. … The heavens were made by the word of the LORD, and all the stars, by the breath of his mouth. … Let the whole earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came into being; he commanded, and it came into existence.

I typically will listen to instrumental music while I write, and, as if to validate this point further, even as I am writing, the hymn below has begun to play. This is a perfect indicator of this very principle put forward by the Psalmist. How amazing is the working of God in continuity and encouragement!

This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world,
the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

This is my Father’s World, by Maltbie D. Babcock

“Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” People of integrity everywhere should be encouraged by this message of hope and positivity based on the eternal and all-powerful nature of our God. I hope in some way it also blesses your life today.


If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive at https://core-of-the-bible.simplecast.com/ or your favorite podcast streaming service. Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at coreofthebible@gmail.com.

Serving in a kingdom without icon

Idolatry is the most represented affront to God and his majesty throughout the entire Bible.

You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them…

Exodus 20:4-5

But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:23-24

Have nothing to do with tangible representations of any god, including the one true God. Worship the Father (Yahweh) alone, and in spirit and in truth only.

Humans love icons. We seek to identify everything with a symbolic representation of some sort, whether it is a brand logo, an app, or a digital navigation menu. In honesty, I must admit there is a logic to this mode of communication: it acts as a type of shorthand for a larger idea or concept that can be communicated quickly and simply.

Throughout history, civilizations have represented their concepts of their gods with a plethora of iconic representation, from statues to intricate carvings of various symbols to grandiose temples. To this day, iconic representation can be found throughout the world, some even becoming popular tourist destinations due to their magnificence.

However, God warns us that although this is typical and commonplace among our cultures, we are not to identify him in this sort of way. He is to be worshiped in spirit and truth only, not by some sort of symbolic representation. The wisdom in this instruction is that he knows that the thing that is created to represent him can then replace him in the minds of the worshipers.

Consider the golden calf incident. The Israelites created the golden calf as a representation of the gods who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 32:4), and bowed down to it and danced around it. This shamed the magnificence of the one true God and Moses rightly and immediately destroyed it.

Consider the bronze snake that Moses had made in obedience to Yahweh’s command for healing of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6-9). When Hezekiah became king, he ended up having to destroy it because it had become an object of worship in and of itself (2 Kings 18:4).

Consider the ephod that Gideon made to represent the victories of the Israelites over the Midianites (Judges 8:22-27). While his intent was to honor God, it became an object of worship itself and created corruption among the Israelites.

Idolatry is the most represented affront to God and his majesty throughout the entire Bible.

Idols of other gods are an offense to him, because there are no other gods that have created all things, and ascribing power to something other than him is an insult to his sovereignty over his Creation.

Idols meant to represent him or aspects of his power are also offensive to him, because no one thing can represent his majesty and glory in all of Creation. Ultimately, as we have seen, he knows that the representative thing becomes the object of worship. Any created thing is not a thing to be worshiped, even if we believe it is representing the one true God. No one thing in all of Creation can represent him, and is therefore offensive to him.

What if I was to create an icon of my wife, and in order to honor her, I burnt incense to that statue every day, or got down on my knees and professed my love for her to the image? I don’t need an iconic representation of my wife to honor her; I just need to demonstrate my love to her every day in how I live my life by respecting her and caring for her.

In the same way, God doesn’t want to be worshiped through some shallow representation of a portion of his being; he wants to be recognized for the beneficent Creator that he is in all of his qualities and honored from the heart. God expects the same simplicity and sincerity that I would show my wife in my worship of him.

God sets himself apart from all other gods by demanding we stop trying to represent him or his kingdom symbolically. It can’t be done, and if it is attempted, whatever we make becomes an object of corruption.

There are thousands of faith traditions in regards to the God of the Bible. Whatever your personal faith tradition, you must remove all idolatry, iconography, statues, and symbolic representation in your practice. God hates all of it. He just desires our sincere honoring of him everyday by the outworking of our practical faith among the rest of his Creation. This is what living in and for his kingdom should be.