false-worship

1 Kings 12, Ezekiel 41

Today we’re reading 1 Kings 12 and Ezekiel 42.

This devotional is about 1 Kings 12.

Just as God promised, the kingdom of David and Solomon was torn apart into two kingdoms: Judah and Israel (aka “the Northern Kingdom”). This division happened as a consequence of Solomon’s idolatry, a divine act of judgment, as we read yesterday. That was the divine side of the division. The human side was accomplished by the foolishness of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Instead of lightening the burden of taxation on the people of Israel, he promised to make things worse than ever. The Northern kingdom rallied around Jeroboam, a capable leader from Solomon’s administration, and made him king.

David and Solomon reigned over Israel for a combined 80 years and the two of them centralized political, economic, and spiritual power in Jerusalem. Jeroboam was delighted to be king but he worried that his fragile kingdom would “likely revert to the house of David” (v. 26) if people kept going to Jerusalem to worship. Instead of trusting God, who decreed this division and prophesied about it before it happened, Jeroboam decided to make his own gods to keep people from traveling to Jerusalem. Verse 28 told us that he ordered the creation of two golden calves. If you’re making your own religion, you might as well make it easy for people and offer them two convenient locations (vv. 28, 29). Everything he did made sense on a human level. What does not make sense is his statement in verse 28: “Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

What?! These idols were so new, so freshly manufactured, that they were still warm from the gold smelting furnace. Yet somehow the people were to believe that these idols had led God’s people out of Egypt generations earlier?

Well, yes, if the calves represented gods rather than actually being gods. That seems to be what Jeroboam was saying to the people. “You don’t need no stinkin’ Ark of the Covenant to be the place where God is represented. Let these calves represent our gods instead.

This was a clear attempt to appropriate Israel’s redemption story for Jeroboam’s advantage and apply it to the idols he made. This is often what false doctrine, false religion does. It claims aspects of God’s true revelation and reapplies it some significant but false way. A little bit of truth can help people swallow a whole lot of error. Ask Jeroboam; he built his career on that principle.

Someone who knew God and wanted to be faithful to Him should have pointed out that the God who brought Israel out of Egypt was One Lord (Deut 6:4) not two calves. A faithful servant of the Lord should also have said that the God who rescued them from Egypt commanded no graven images. The same person should have pointed out what happened when Aaron made a golden calf for Israel to worship after the Exodus.

Instead, the Northern Kingdom liked the ease of having two convenient locations for worship as well as the ability to keep their redemption story without maintaining any connection to Jerusalem. As Christians, we should be very careful. Many self-help books quote scripture but are filled with advice that is directly unscriptural. Don’t allow our faith to be pasted like a label on a can of manmade ideas.

1 Samuel 7-8, Jeremiah 44

Today’s readings are 1 Samuel 7-8, Jeremiah 44.

This devotional is about Jeremiah 44.

The remnant in Judah went to Egypt (v. 1) even though God told them not to do that. They dragged Jeremiah there, too (Jer 43:6c). I’m not sure why they brought him because he did what he had always done, namely, confront their sins and call them to repent.

Recall from Jeremiah 42 that God had promised peace and prosperity for the remnant if they stayed in Judah (42:10) and disaster if they went to Egypt (42:19-22). Despite the fact that God had done exactly what Jeremiah prophesied when Nebuchadnezzar defeated Jerusalem, the remnant still went to Egypt in open defiance to God’s word through Jeremiah. Why?

The answer to that question is contained in the way this chapter is framed: a direct confrontation between God and “the Queen of Heaven.” The people of the remnant reasoned that they were better off worshipping the Queen of Heaven. In verses 17b-18 we read, “...we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” So they re-interpreted God’s judgment as a bad consequence for forsaking the Queen of Heaven.

Jeremiah knew that God was more than equal to this challenge. Put God’s word up against the Queen of Heaven and God will win bigly. Verses 27-28 say, “...the Jews in Egypt will perish by sword and famine until they are all destroyed.... Then the whole remnant of Judah who came to live in Egypt will know whose word will stand—mine or theirs.”

There are plenty of false religions offering false doctrine today. There are also a bevy of self-help gurus offering much different advice than God’s word does. They preach the message that happiness is not found in Christianity or in dying to self. Instead, they tell us to be true to ourselves, to follow our passions, to find a life that is worth living. In contrast to these false message, the Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23) and that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The fact that everyone does wrong and suffers for it is daily proof that God’s word is true. Yet people still cling to the idea that truth to improve one’s life is available outside of God, outside of his word, and definitely outside of His church. When sinful life-happiness strategies crash, bringing disaster, sorrow, great pain, and death, God’s word is vindicated. When false doctrines fail to deliver what they promise, God’s word is likewise vindicated.

We cannot help but be exposed to false ideas and doctrines because we live in this world. But, are you believing their lies? Are you taking in those lies in greater number, not incidentally but deliberately? Be warned that God will prove his word to be correct; if you choose to sin because someone else is telling you that sin is the way to happiness, you will pay a heavy price as God’s word proves itself true again.

So, be wise. Believe God’s word and do what it says, even if someone makes a compelling argument for something else.

Judges 8, Jeremiah 21

Today we’re reading Judges 8 and Jeremiah 21.

This devotional is about Judges 8.

Gideon was a very reluctant leader from the beginning of God’s call on his life. Although he stepped up to the demands of leadership in verses 1-21 of today’s chapter, he didn’t fundamentally change. After he did what God commanded him to do, he retired as Israel’s judge and committed Israel’s further leadership to the Lord (v. 23).

But, before leaving the scene, he accepted a large amount of gold from the jewelry taken from the dead Midianites Israel had defeated (vv. 24-26). Verse 27 told us that “Gideon made the gold into an ephod” which is a garment worn by the priests when serving the Lord or asking for Him to reveal his will. Our passage doesn’t tell us why Gideon did this but it is very possible that Israel’s priesthood was not functioning well. In Judges 17 we’ll read about a man who hired a Levite to be his priest and in Judges 20 we’ll read about God’s people going to the ark to inquire of the Lord. That’s really about all we find of the formal aspects of worship in Judges. So Gideon may have made this ephod to assist his own personal worship of God.

Whatever his reason for making it, the ephod became an object of disobedient worship for Gideon, his family, and Israel. Verse 27c says, “All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” Instead of being something that honored the Lord, it became a means by which people broke the first two commandments.

This is why God commanded his people not to make graven images in the Second Commandment. Graven images can become “other gods” by which some people break the first commandment. Anytime we give more reverence to an object of worship than we give to God, we are in the territory of idolatry. It might be a cross on a pendant or hung on the wall, a painting or stained glass window of Jesus, water from the Jordan river, the elements of communion, the old Bible of a family member or loved one, or the writings of some Christian author that we study with more reverence than we do God’s word itself.

Is there anything that started out as a reminder of God that has taken on too much reverence for you? Is there any person or writing who has become more authoritative in your life than God’s word? Are you more likely to ask for the advice of a trusted Christian pastor/teacher/friend than to ask God directly for wisdom? Don’t let tools for serving the Lord become more important than the Lord himself.

Judges 4, Jeremiah 19

Today we’re scheduled to read Judges 4 and Jeremiah 19.

This devotional is about Jeremiah 19.

Idolatry is the most frequently mentions of all the sins of Israel and Judah that God complained about through the prophets. God’s judgment against his people was closely tied to breaking the commandments about having any other gods and making idols for worship. From God’s perspective, we can understand this. God is real and other gods are not so it is offensive to give his glory to false gods and deeply unjust to worship something that people created instead of the true Creator.

For those who don’t know God, however, it may seem strange that the Old Testament spends so much time and ink addressing idolatry. The list of human problems is long. It contains moral issues like murder, assault, theft, rape, adultery, as well as societal problems like starvation, poverty, war, infant mortality, etc. These are more pressing issues, when it comes to human life and the quality of it, than idolatry. At least, that’s what people might think.

Here in Jeremiah 19, however, we see another reason why idolatry was so offensive to God. Of course it was offensive because he is the true God and idols are not but it is also true that human problems sprout from bad theology like branches sprout from the trunk of a tree. In verse 3 God prophesied “a disaster” on Judah and Jerusalem and, in verse 4, the reason he gave for doing so was “they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew.” But notice what followed his complaint about their false worship: “they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.” Israel’s idolatry wasn’t just a waste of time caused by praying to something that wasn’t real. Israel’s idolatry led them into unimaginable human wickedness. Thank about how depraved someone would have to be to take their beautiful newborn baby and burn it alive as an “offering” to Baal. It is incredibly cruel and unspeakably evil.

This is what happens with bad theology. Bad theology is a symptom of a wicked, unredeemed heart but it also leads to greater wickedness such as cruelty and inhumanity toward other people. We Americans don’t worship Baal but we do worship unrestrained sexuality which leads to abortion. We worship money and wealth which leads to many other kinds of sins. There is only one true God and only he can say what is truly right and wrong. Worship any other god--even one called YHWH or Jesus but detached from God’s revelation--and you will get all kinds of human wickedness, too.

Judges 17, Acts 21, Jeremiah 30–31, Mark 16

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Judges 17, Acts 21, Jeremiah 30–31, Mark 16. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read Judges 17.

Judges 17 begins the last cycle of stories in the book of Judges, and it is a very dark series of stories. Like dominoes, one evil triggers another and things get bad for the people of Israel. The cycle starts with a man named Micah—not the one who has a book in the Minor Prophets named after him. This story begins with Micah confessing to his mother that he stole eleven hundred shekels of silver from her (v. 1-2a). She had responded to this theft by asking God to punish the thief with a curse (v. 17b). Maybe her words scared him or at least made him feel guilty about what he had done; whatever it was, something motivated him to confess. His mother’s response is perplexing to us. First she prayed a blessing from YHWH (the personal, covenant name of God) on Micah (v. 2c). Then she dedicated the silver Micah returned to the Lord, but as a gift to Micah. She made a graven image out of it, violating the Second Commandment but in the covenant name of God (vv. 3-4). Already we see that there is spiritual confusion among God’s people. Just a few generations removed from Joshua, people think they are worshipping God by violating his commands about idols.

Micah installed this idol in his little home shrine along side other idols (v. 5: “some household gods”) and made an “ephod,” which is a garment for Jewish priests to wear. God’s law taught that there is only one God, that God’s people were not to make graven images, that all sacrifices to God were to be made at the central sanctuary, the Tabernacle, and that those sacrifices were to be offered by the priests—sons of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. Against all these commands, Micah decided to worship many gods, in the form of idols, at his own home shrine and with his son installed as the priest (v. 5). Verse 6 described why this was so: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” The rule of Law should have been sufficient, but without a central leader to enforce the Law, people did their own thing.

In verse 7, a young man left Bethlehem looking for a new home (v. 8a). Notice that at the end of verse 7 the Bible tells us that he “been living within the clan of Judah.” Remember that all the priests were Levites—from the tribe of Levi but that the tribe of Levi had no land assigned to them. Instead, they were to spread out through all the tribes and towns of Israel and only go to serve in the Tabernacle during the times assigned to them. This is subtle, but really important. The priests and Levites were supposed to be everywhere, scattered all over Israel. The purpose was so they could teach God’s law to the people so that they wouldn’t do what Micah did here, namely whatever he “saw fit” (v. 6). This unnamed priest was looking for a new home, but when Micah heard his pedigree, he eagerly offered him a place to live and financial support (v. 10b). In exchange for this, he wanted the young Levite to “be my father and priest.” In other words, he wanted personal spiritual instruction and guidance (that’s what “my father” is suggesting) as well as someone to offer animal sacrifices to his collection of idols. This man, who knew better as a Levite, agreed (vv. 11-12). And Micah was very happy; having an honest-to-goodness authentic Levite as his personal priest legitimized, in Micah’s mind, his whole spiritual arrangement. In verse 13 he said, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.” Once again he used the covenant, personal name of Israel’s God, YHWH in this statement. This indicates that he saw his actions not as idolatry but as evidence of his deep devotion to Israel’s God.

This chapter is just the beginning of the story of Micah; there is more to come. But it should serve as a warning to us. On one hand, here is a man who appears to have a deep commitment to worship because he was willing to devote some serious resources to worship. He put his money where his religion was, so spirituality was a strong concern for him. He even had some good, pious talk to go with it, invoking the covenant name of Israel’s God and claiming his idol and his whole religious thing to be devoted to that God. But despite his dedication and godly talk, he was sinning against the Lord. His approach to worship was manmade; it violated so many of the key tenets of Israel’s faith as revealed by Moses. 

Furthermore, Micah’s motives were clear from his statement, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.” There is nothing wrong—and everything right—with wanting God’s goodness. What assured him of God’s goodness in his life, however, was not the thing God promised to bless. It was not his deep faith in God, manifested in careful obedience to God’s laws. Instead, what assured Micah of God’s goodness to him was “…since this Levite has become my priest” (v. 13). In other words, when the Levite agreed to become his priest and sacrifice to his gods, Micah felt sure that things would go well for him in life. He saw the priest, in effect, as his “good luck charm” and he was certain that, with this Levite onboard, more and more prosperity would be headed Micah’s way.

Unfortunately, the kind of self-made spirituality in the name of the true God was not confined to this horrible episode in Israel’s history. Instead, there are always people in every era who proclaim to want to worship the true God but in their own ways. They may have the right name for God and some correct theology. They may desire deep spirituality and devote significant time and attention to it. They may have nice, pious talk; but their approach is all selfish. It is an approach to God that “clicks for them,” that makes sense to them, regardless of the fact that it violates a number of the clear commands of scripture. They may even employ well-pedigreed religious leaders and earnestly seek their wise counsel. But, despite all of this, their worship is vain; it is empty because it is a perversion of the true worship of God, not the true substance of biblical worship. We should beware of anyone who wants to baptize their approach to God in Christian language. It doesn’t matter if is a church that is 2000 years old or 2 years old; if it departs in its worship from God’s word, it is idolatry. Let’s be discerning, then, in the kinds of “Christian” authors and leaders we allow to influence us. Let’s be like the Bereans, listening carefully to those who purport to teach God’s word but, after listening carefully, do their own investigation of the scripture to see if the teaching is true or not.

Finally, this Levite was totally compromised as well. Instead of teaching this man what God’s law required and urging him to forsake his gods and follow after the true God of Israel, he accepted the nice stipend that was offered to him. He was more than willing to legitimize this man’s idolatry and disobedience because there was a steady paycheck in it.

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.