Take a moment to pray. Ask God to speak to you through his word—for his Spirit to convict you of sin, teach you the truth, and lead you in walking by faith.
Setting the Scene
The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.
-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Technically, an idol is a physical thing that is designated a god. Practically, an idol is anything that we love and value more than true God. Idolatry in general—the worship of anything other than God—is complex because every culture values different non-gods.
In the 6th century BC, idolatry was an issue in the hearts of the Israelites in exile. In Ezekiel’s first vision, God reminded his people that he was still reigning over the universe. But they still had a lingering problem: their idolatry. So one year after the first vision, God gave Ezekiel a second vision (roughly 592 BC). Idolatry had always been the problem, but in the case of those in exile with the prophet Ezekiel it was particularly persistent.
This second vision confronted Israel with the depth and breadth of their idolatry problem. In the vision God transported Ezekiel’s spirit to a virtual Jerusalem. God showed Ezekiel the spiritual sickness still present in Jerusalem at that time, even after six years of exile. This vision is a tour of idolatry, and shockingly, it focuses on the Temple.
In theory, the Temple was the one place where you would think you wouldn’t find idols. Yet as God reveals the truth of present day circumstances to Ezekiel, he shows him that whether they had literal idols or not, Israel’s heart was far from him… even in worship.
This is a longer chunk of text, but we will see it all focuses on one major idea. What God makes clear by the end of the vision is that Israel must choose between God and their idols. They cannot have it both ways; they cannot play both sides of the fence. As we get into this vision, we will learn that idolatry has many variations, and that none are acceptable.
Ezek. 8:1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting in front of me, and there the hand of the Lord GOD came down on me. 2 I looked, and there was someone who looked like a man. From what seemed to be his waist down was fire, and from his waist up was something that looked bright, like the gleam of amber. 3 He stretched out what appeared to be a hand and took me by the hair of my head. Then the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and carried me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner gate that faces north, where the offensive statue that provokes jealousy was located. 4 I saw the glory of the God of Israel there, like the vision I had seen in the plain.
When Ezekiel has this second vision (592 BC), he was sitting at home with the elders of Judah. These were the leaders of the people in exile at that time. In a best case scenario, they would have been leading God’s people to repent of their sin and trust God in faith. As we will see, it was a worst case scenario.
In Ezekiel’s second vision a man—ish character physically took him and transported him via the Spirit to Jerusalem. This vision host was shining with the same amber light that he saw emanating from the throne of God in his first vision. For this reason we know that God himself is Ezekiel’s guide.
At the northern gate, Ezekiel describes “the offensive statute that provokes jealousy.” This means that an idol was setup, probably as a divine guardian of the city, and that it provoked the Lord to jealousy. Older English translations use the word “abomination” to describe this idol. The idea is God hates them because they compete with him for the love, faith, and worship of his people.
This vision of Jerusalem begins with a tour of four specific abominations, of which this is the first. Each abomination is a representation of a different kind of idolatry. The sum total of the tour leads to one conclusion: no idolatry is innocent or harmless.
Why did this particular statue provoke God to jealousy? Because God is jealous for his people to worship him. We see the same principle at work in Deuteronomy 32:16, “They provoked his jealousy with different gods; they enraged him with detestable practices.”
This works on two levels: God wants us to worship him alone because he alone is worthy of worship, but also because we benefit from worshipping him and we suffer when we worship false gods.
Take a moment to consider your own heart. What do you love more than God? What do you chase harder than him? What do you find pleasure in more than him?
Ezekiel says he also saw the glory of God like in his first vision. The contrast is clear: the idol is a lifeless statue, in theory representing a real god or goddess. God’s glory, however, is living and shining brightly. Let there be no confusion, God’s glory is incomparable. His is the ultimate and eternal beauty.
If only we could see our idols side by side with the visible glory of God! They would pale in comparison. We would see how they offer no eternal satisfaction, how they deceive with their promises of fulfillment, and how God is superior to them in every way.
Ezek. 8:5 The LORD said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” I looked to the north, and there was this offensive statue north of the Altar Gate, at the entrance. 6 He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing here—more detestable acts that the house of Israel is committing so that I must depart from my sanctuary? You will see even more detestable acts.”
God addresses Ezekiel directly, giving him an explanation of Israel’s idolatry. He calls his attention directly to the idol. “Do you see what they are doing here—more detestable acts that the house of Israel is committing so that I must depart from my sanctuary?” Six years into exile, and those left behind are still pursuing false gods. There is a consequence to this idolatry: God will leave the Temple.
Don’t forget that the Temple was considered God’s dwelling with his people. They understood him to be enthroned above the cherubim in the holiest place. In one sense, God leaving the Temple meant God was leaving his people. What choice did he have?
God furthermore tells Ezekiel this idol isn’t even the worst of it. He said, “You will see even more detestable acts.” As sad and tragic as this idol was, Israel’s idolatry had more manifestations. The point is clear: idolatry does serious spiritual damage. People who chase false gods cannot expect God to go along with it.
The Lord then continues to the second stop on Ezekiel’s idolatry tour.
Ezek. 8:7 Then he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked there was a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, dig through the wall.” So I dug through the wall and discovered a doorway. 9 He said to me, “Go in and see the detestable, wicked acts they are committing here.”
“The court” here means the court of the Temple. Ezekiel digs through the wall and finds a door. Rather than leading to devoted worshippers of God, it leads to more sin.
Ezek. 8:10 I went in and looked, and there engraved all around the wall was every kind of abhorrent thing—crawling creatures and beasts—as well as all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 Seventy elders from the house of Israel were standing before them, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had a firepan in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising up. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his idol? For they are saying, ‘The LORD does not see us. The LORD has abandoned the land.’” 13 Again he said to me, “You will see even more detestable acts that they are committing.”
This sight shocks Ezekiel for two reasons. First, Israel is worshipping created things. This violates the second commandment in Exodus 20:4, “Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.” Second, the seventy elders of Israel were worshipping before these carved images and other statues of false gods. The idols were probably some of the Canaanite gods Israel had adopted as their own. Ezekiel describes the leaders offering an incense sacrifice to these false gods.
God speaks again, here revealing to Ezekiel what they were thinking. They thought God didn’t see them. He did. They thought God had abandoned them and the land. He hadn’t. Here are two common justifications for sin we all struggle with. First, we tell ourselves no one sees us. We pretend that God doesn’t see us. Second, we let despair drive our decision making. We tell ourselves, “God doesn’t care about me,” but he does more than we know.
The tour isn’t done yet. God took Ezekiel further into the Temple and showed him yet more idolatry.
Ezek. 8:14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the LORD’s house, and I saw women sitting there weeping for Tammuz. 15 And he said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see even more detestable acts than these.”
Taking Ezekiel into the court of the women (which was accessible to men and women), God shows him Israelite women worshipping the Babylonian goddess Tammuz. In Babylonian theology, Tammuz died and rose in cycles connected with the agricultural calendar. Women wept for her death, in hopes that their mourning would motivate her to come back to life and cause crops to grow. They weren’t desperate for food at that moment, they were chasing prosperity. For the average Israelite family, their wealth would have been expressed in agricultural terms. A large crop meant more profit.
Did you catch it? They wanted to have a large crop so that they would be rich. In many ways, idolatry boils down to chasing wealth. The principle at work is we believe we have to be rich to be happy. We think we have to provide for ourselves. But God had always provided for Israel, and he promised to always provide for them. He makes the same promises to us, but just like Israel we often worship the latest idol that we think will give us wealth.
At last God brings Ezekiel to the last stop on his tour of idolatry in Jerusalem. This is most shocking to Ezekiel and the most offensive to God.
Ezek. 8:16 So he brought me to the inner court of the LORD’s house, and there were about twenty-five men at the entrance of the LORD’s temple, between the portico and the altar, with their backs to the LORD’s temple and their faces turned to the east. They were bowing to the east in worship of the sun.
In the Temple proper Ezekiel saw twenty-five men worshipping the sun instead of God. The blasphemy could not be more clear. They were worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. They had rejected God for the sun he created.
Ezek. 8:17 And he said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? Is it not enough for the house of Judah to commit the detestable acts they are doing here, that they must also fill the land with violence and repeatedly anger me, even putting the branch to their nose? 18 Therefore I will respond with wrath. I will not show pity or spare them. Though they call loudly in my hearing, I will not listen to them.”
God points out here not only the idolatry, but the resulting sinful actions. Worshipping a false god was bad enough, but it led to violence in the form of rape and murder. The statement “putting the branch to their nose” is probably some kind of pagan ritual, but we don’t know exactly what it means. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t worshipping God and living for him. They were worshipping other gods and living for themselves.
The net result of this sin was nothing less than the judgment by God. Israel had earned his wrath. This generation had refused to repent, and they had crossed the point of no return. In this vision, God offers those in exile a theological explanation for why they were there. He also sets the stage for an event that will happen about six years after this vision was given: the destruction of the Temple.
When those Israelites in exile got the word about the destruction of Temple, God wanted them to know exactly why he let it happen. They had underestimated God’s hatred for idolatry, and here he corrected their wrong thinking. We need to hear this warning: Because God loves us, he wants us to know he hates idolatry.
The Big Picture
As we zoom out and consider Ezekiel 8:1-18 in light of the whole Bible, we see that God confronting idolatry at the Temple is not a one time occurrence. We read in John 2:13-22 about Jesus confronting sin at the Temple during his ministry. The main idol in that exchange was the god of profit. The money-changers and salesmen had turned a space that was supposed to be dedicated to worship into a space dedicated to profit.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He declared that if they destroyed the temple he would rebuild it in three days. John clarifies, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus was, in essence, declaring himself to be a better temple. Beyond that, he also was foretelling his death and resurrection which would make it possible for people everywhere to worship God.
So rather than travel to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices for our sins, we are able to worship by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is both God and the sacrifice that enables us to be in relationship to him. Yet we still struggle with worshipping other gods.
Taking It Home
What if God gave you a tour of your idols? Where would he take you? What would he show you? Think of it this way: what is your most important pursuit? What do you believe will bring you the greatest happiness or joy? When you are frustrated or discouraged, where do you go for comfort? Answering these questions will help to clarify where we struggle with the false gods of our culture.
We’ve seen four faces of idolatry at the start of Ezekiel’s second vision: actual false gods, creation, wealth/prosperity, and a twisted definition of God. Some of these categories overlap, but we can use them to help us identify some of the main forms of idolatry in our culture.
First, we might think that our culture doesn’t struggle with literal idols. After all, we don’t find stores filled with little statues of Marduk or Baal or Asherah. Even so, the literal worship of false gods persists in our culture. American worship some of these gods in false religions: Allah, the innumerable Hindu gods, saints in Roman Catholicism or Christian Orthodoxy. We also worship false gods in non-religious contexts. Think about the monetary value of the superhero world. We love a good superhero story, and we do find stores filled with little statues of these gods and goddesses. We must ask ourselves, “Do I love this hero more than Jesus?” “Do I long to be like this hero more than I long to be like Christ?”
Second, the worship of creation is not just the quaint practice of an unreached people group. God’s creation is a blessing, and it is wise for us to steward it well. That being said, our culture has turned the earth itself into a goddess. Our culture uses the phrase “mother earth” with far more ease than “Jesus.” They celebrate earth day, using religious language. They spend massive amounts of money on environmentalism, often to the detriment of humanity, the pinnacle of God’s creation. The worship of creation is alive and well in our world.
Third, the worship of wealth/prosperity is a constant temptation. We can think of many expressions of this sin: love of money, love of the status that comes from wealth, love of material possessions, love of the latest fashions, and more.
Even more dangerous than these temptations is the false teaching of the “prosperity gospel.” In short, this gospel says if you really have faith in God you will be healthy and wealthy. In this thinking, poverty and sickness are signs of unbelief. This teaching distorts passages from the Bible that describe God’s blessing on believers and ignores the scores of passages where God teaches us to expect trials and to trust him through them.
Finally, redefining God is a virtual past-time in our culture. Don’t like what Jesus says? No problem, just ignore it or claim he never said it. Don’t like a Biblical teaching on an issue? Find someone in a church who will offer a clever twist that changes the meaning. When people do this, they steal the name of God and the label Christian, but they are worshipping a false god. They are standing in the temple with their backs to God.
No matter which kinds of idolatry we struggle with, the point of the first part of this vision is clear: because God loves us, he wants us to know he hates idolatry. Idolatry is incompatible with his presence.
- Ask God to give you wisdom as you seek to root out idolatry in your heart. Confess your false gods, and think about ways you can so no to the temptation of worshipping a false god.
- Pray for discernment to see where you are weak. Ask God to help you say no to temptation. Ask him to help you see through the lies of whatever idol is tempting you.
- Praise God that forgiveness and redemption is available for idolators. Praise Jesus for dying for our false worship, and praise him for rising from the dead. Ask him to help you follow his Spirit today.