I-dol or Image?

There are many ways to get at the heart of the biblical message.  One way is by considering the contrasts between i-dolatry (I’ll explain the spelling below) and image.  Created as God’s image-bearers humanity has insistently if inexplicably turned away from God to other supposed deities.  This i-dolatry is the fundamental human problem according to the Bible. 

The difference between the 1st Commandment and Jesus’ 1st Beatitude makes this clear.  God commands exclusive commitment to him above all and in place of all other deities.  Jesus blesses his followers with “poverty of spirit” – being bankrupt to stand before God and knowing and embracing it.  That Jesus has to gift his followers with such an awareness speaks volumes about how far and how deep we have “fallen.”

Created to be God’s glorious image-bearers, that is, his royal representatives reflecting and implementing God’s will and way throughout the creation and overseers of creation’s growth to maturity and flourishing, we have become i-dol worshippers instead.  As you can see in the chart below, there is what I presume is a deliberate paralleling/parodying by the author of Genesis 2 of God’s creation of his image-bearers and the formation of idols (images of gods for temples) in the ancient Near East.      
                   Idol                                                     Image
made/fashioned by human hands
Created by God (Gen.2:7a)
Given life (ritually)
Given life by God’s breath (Gen.2:7b)
Brought to full life (ritually)
Brought to full life by God (Gen.2:7c)
Installed in temple
Installed in Garden (Gen.2:15)

          Second Isaiah probes playfully and wickedly pokes fun at the “reality” of such i-dols.  Isa.44:9-20 is perhaps the most biting and illuminating of these attacks.  I hope you will take time to read it in full.  The gist of it is that i-dols are human creations invested with our hopes and dreams and intended to protect us from our fears and insecurities. 

This is why I spell it i-dols.  Idolatry is finally about us – the “I” – taking charge of our lives from God and seeking to run them according to our best lights and wisdom (see Isa.65:2:  “following their own thoughts”).  In the spirit of Second Isaiah we could say i-dolatry amounts to us telling God what my young grandchildren often say, “You aren’t the boss of me!”

The cruel and tragic irony is that this posture and the i-dol-making it generates always turns around to bite its adherents in the butt.  Thinking to exercise control of our lives by giving ourselves to those pursuits, values, entities, or people that we deem able to “save” us, we end up in the sad state described by Second Isaiah.  The i-dolater’s “deluded mind has led him astray.  He can’t save himself and say, ‘Isn’t this thing in my hand a lie’” (v.20).

Created by God to be “reflectors” of his glory, i-dolaters end up reflecting whatever “i-dol” they embrace.  The irony is thick here.  Those who seek to control their lives cede that control to their i-dol!  They do its bidding rather it serving the interests of those committed to it.  Rather than providing the peace, security, and well-being sought,                   i-dolaters are remade in the images of that on which they rely (their “ultimate concern” as Paul Tillich put it) and reflect that to the world. 

Tragically, these i-dols are unable to bear the weight of our reliance and commitment.  They will collapse and bring us crashing down with them.  Death is the final crucible that unveils our i-dols emptiness, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes saw so clearly and acutely.  Fear of death is perhaps our primal bondage as it was the curse pronounced by God on covenant-breakers in the Garden of Eden.  If we flee the Lord God and his Christ, through whom alone death has been defeated and defanged, our only option is to work as hard as we can to deny, delay, or defraud death of its fearsome reality.

Of course idolatry is more than literal i-dol worship.  In the NT we find one thing is particular that draws the moniker i-dolatry to it:  greed.  Four texts clearly make this connection – Ephesians 5:5 (“the greedy person is an idolater”); Colossians 3:5 (“greed is idolatry”),and the clear implication of the mammon saying in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:14.  It would be next to impossible to deny that this i-dol is the preferred i-dol on most in the western world!

Perhaps the distinguishing mark of i-dolatry is how profoundly it corrupts our perception.  Like the i-dols in the OT, whom the prophets excoriate for their inability to “see,” such is also the case for their adherents.  We become like them in our inability and lack of desire to see the world God’s way.  Perhaps we should call this eye-dolatry!  Our ability to perceive, understand, and follow God’s way, reflecting his character and will as his appointed images in his world, is irredeemably corrupted apart from the life and work of the one is who truly and fully God’s image (Col.1:15), Jesus Christ our lord!

One way, then, to get at the heart of the biblical message, is to say that life is to lived “as if the 1st Commandment matters.”  And to rely on the gift of “poverty of spirit” Jesus promises his followers to enable such living.  It makes all sorts of sense, then, that John closes his first letter with these words:  “Little children, guard yourself from idols”!


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