The reformer John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. Humans have a proclivity to take things, even good things, and turn them into objects of worship. As I was reading through 2 Kings last week I found a powerful example of this – one I had never caught before.
Throughout 2 Kings we are witness to a series of bad kings pushing the nation of Israel towards worshipping local gods and breaking God’s covenant with His chosen people. But then, in 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah comes along and has had enough.
“[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).” – 2Ki 18:4
The Israelites took a good thing that God used (the bronze serpent) and turned it into an idol. It happened slowly over time, but eventually a good thing God used replaced Israel’s worship of God Himself.
But first, let’s back up for a moment. What’s up with the Nehushtan? (Say that ten times really fast). Why was it a “good thing God used”?
WHAT’S A NEHUSH…WHATEVER?
In Numbers 21:4–9 we have a story of God’s recently freed people (the Israelites) becoming rebellious against God and complaining to Moses about being brought out of Egypt into the wilderness to die. They wanted to go back into slavery and sought a response from God about their request. In response to their complaints, God sends snakes which was probably not what they had in mind when they were complaining.
Some of them began to die from poisonous snakebites. This is when the people realized they needed God’s help. They repented and asked that the snakes be taken away from them. Moses took the request to God who told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Moses was then instructed to hold the pole up in the air, and if the people would look at the pole (or Nehushtan), they would not die from the snakebites.
All in all, this story points ahead to Jesus – the pole represents the cross and the snake (sin) represents Jesus on the cross. Jesus taught this interpretation Himself in John 3:14.
FROM GOOD THING TO IDOL
Fast-forward hundreds of years to Hezekiah and 2 Kings 18:4. Apparently, the Israelites had been making offerings to the bronze serpent that Moses had fashioned. Instead of worshipping the God who saved their ancestors, they were worshipping a thing that God used to save them.
This must have been extremely frustrating for God watching His chosen people worship a thing that was used instead of the one who used it. It would be like thanking the life-ring instead of the lifeguard for saving you from drowning. Or thanking the fire hydrant instead of the fireman from dousing the flames engulfing your home.
The bronze serpent was something God used, not God Himself. Instead, the Israelites took a good thing and turned it into an idol.
The more I reflected on this story the more I realized how relevant this is for us today because we tend to do the same thing. Sometimes we forget that even good things can become idols. Of the many ways this is possible, here are three that come to mind.
1. Idols can be things God used many years ago, but has since moved on.
The bronze serpent was something God used while the Israelites were wandering through the desert. That was roughly 750–780 years before Hezekiah was king. Even still, people were holding on to the relic of God’s work in the past and worshipping it in the present.
Don’t we do this as well? We being to idolize a movement, ministry, or minister who God used in the past. We look back at the glory days when God used someone or something and then we put them or it on a pedestal.
Like the Israelites, we need to be careful not to fixate (and even worship) something that God used many years ago, but has since moved on. The only thing worth looking back in time to worship is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Anything else could become an idol.
2. Idols take the focus off the things God does and on to the things God uses.
Notice that the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent and not for what God did through the bronze serpent. There’s a huge difference.
If the Israelites were making offerings for what God did through the bronze serpent (i.e., giving Him thanks for what He had done for their people all those many years ago) there wouldn’t have been a problem. But the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent. In essence, they were thanking and worshiping the thing rather than the being who used the thing.
This happens to us all the time. We tend to gravitate towards things or people or movements that God uses, then eventually replace them for God altogether. For example, we may appreciate a particular preacher God is using. We gravitate towards that person and slowly begin to focus only on them. We only listen to their sermons or podcasts. We only read their books or blogs. Soon, they become the object of our affection rather than God.
Is there anything wrong with gravitating towards a person God is using? Of course not. The problem begins when we replace them with God. Like the bronze serpent, we forget that they are a tool being used by God and not actually God Himself.
3. Idols can be anything, anywhere, at any time.
The Israelites were worshipping a ~780 year old bronze serpent that God once used for good. Sounds really weird, doesn’t it?
We tend to think of idols as something archaic. Backwards ancient people worshiped golden calves and sacrificed their children to giant statues, but we’re modern and evolved. We don’t worship idols and sacrifice children like those foolish people in the past.
However, we must remember that an idol is anything that shifts our focus of worship off God and onto something else. For the ancients it was a fabricated deity that took the form of some statue made by a craftsman – big business back in the day. They focused their worship (time, efforts, finances, etc.) to a fabricated deity rather than God in hopes of success, fulfillment, and/or blessing.
Today, we tend to worship fabricated deities that take the form of things like careers and hobbies – big business today. We focus our worship (time, efforts, finances, etc.) to a career or a hobby rather than God in hopes of success, fulfillment, and/or blessing.
We’re no different than the ancients. We’ve just found more complex ways of being idolaters. The ancients sacrificed to a deity’s statue for health, wealth, and enjoyment just like we sacrifice to careers and hobbies for the same thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with careers and hobbies (or bronze snakes), but when they become gods to us we start to veer off course.
TO SUM UP
How do we keep from ending up like the Israelites and worshipping a good thing that God used instead of worshipping God Himself?
I think the answer is in Hezekiah’s actions – he broke the bronze serpent into pieces.
If there is something in our lives that we can’t help but worship, then maybe it’s time to “break it” into pieces. We need to take it off the pedestal in our minds, break it, and replace it with God.
Sure, it could be painful. I’m not sure Hezekiah took pleasure in destroying a wonderfully important piece of his people’s history, but if it becomes an idol then it needs to go. The idol needs to be broken into pieces.
The good news is that there is liberation in breaking our idols into pieces. After Hezekiah destroyed Israel’s idols we read that “the Lord was with him.” This is not to say that God wasn’t always there and had just now shown up, but that Hezekiah (and Israel’s) relationship was restored with God. It was fuller, richer, more complete.
When we destroy our idols, we begin to experience God’s joy in worshipping Him. After all, that’s what we were made to do.