1 Samuel 15:23
“For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king."
Saul sinned and lost everything our Elohim had given him. The prophet Samuel even called Saul’s sin “idolatry,” even though Saul had not worshipped any statue or graven image. How was Saul guilty of idolatry? Why was his sin so serious that Yahushua permanently rejected him? This study examines these two questions.
Saul’s sin was a common one for religious people. He simply followed his own opinions and will. He departed a little from what the Lord revealed. He offered sacrifices to Elohim, and he thought Yahushua should be satisfied. Yet he sacrificed something the Lord had said He did not want. Religion does not care what God really wants; religion gives God what it wants to give, and expects God to accept anything. When it came to obedience, Saul would obey parts of what the Lord revealed, and he thought God should be satisfied with that. He did not understand that neglecting the other parts of God’s will constituted simple “disobedience.” Yahushua sent Saul into a battle with a specific enemy, and told him to take no plunder and no captives. Yet Saul took a little plunder to offer as a sacrifice to God, and a few captives who were royalty, who seemed special. Saul disobeyed, deviated from God’s plan. The prophet Samuel calls this idolatry.
Today, God has a project, a Work that He is completing according to specific plans and guidelines. When we deviate from this plan and follow our own preferences and desires, this is idolatry. We can be idolaters even if we do not have statues or religious images. Idolatry is deviating from the revealed project. We are not talking about emotions or sentimentalism here, or about the vague idea of “idolatry in our hearts.” We are talking about what we do - whether we obey Yahushua or not.
Suppose our Elohim reveals that He does not like a certain kind of music in worship, or that He wants us to baptize people in a certain way. Perhaps the revelation does not fit with our personalities, our culture, our preferences, or our opinions. As a result, we decide to obey everything except the parts we don’t like. This is what Saul did. The scriptures call it idolatry.
Idolatry takes subtle forms, as when people take a good thing – like family – and turn it into an idol, something we obey instead of Yahushua. Family should be a priority, and it is godly to have a loving family. Yet Messiah cautioned us: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37). Sometimes the Lord reveals something in the church, and one of the mothers in the church wants the pastor to make an exception for her son or daughter. If the Lord revealed the exception (not to the mother, who is biased), that is one thing – but if we are deviating from God’s revealed plan or project because of family affection, this can be idolatry.
Idolatry also takes blatant forms. We must be careful about this as well. False religions make statues of their imaginary gods and the men who founded their faith. Even Christians sometimes do this, thinking idols are acceptable as long as they represent Jesus, angels, or characters from the Bible. When God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, He explicitly forbids making or worshipping carved images. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…you shall not bow to them nor serve them…” (Ex. 20: 4-5). Making them and worshipping them are both violations. The Lord forbade even images that represented the true God – this was not just a prohibition against false gods. “…you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you…lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” (Deut. 4:15-19). Because of these rules, the Israelites could not make images representing God, the prophets, or any other image, whether carved images or drawings. This ban carries into the New Testament.
The New Testament warns us that idolatry always connects people to evil spirits, even though the idol itself has no spiritual value:
Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to Yahushua, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:19-22)
Paul says, “Do not be partakers with demons.” Idolatry makes us partakers with demons, regardless of the good intentions we think we have in our hearts. Idols “arouse the Lord’s jealousy,” putting us under judgment.
It is not only worshippers who are idolaters, but anyone who partakes in idolatry. When the Bibles talks about idolatry, it includes making the images, possessing the images, treating the image like it has spiritual power, participating in religious services where the images are present, as well as worship or reverence for the image.
Idolatry has even infiltrated Christianity. Misguided Christians make, own, and use crosses, crucifixes, etc. They have pictures of messiah, pictures and statues of Mary, pictures of angels, etc. It is still idolatry; just as in the Old Testament, it constituted idolatry if the image supposedly represented Yahweh or some angelic being. Some Christians say that the picture of our messiah, or movie of Jesus, is not an idol as long as we do not worship it. Yet they treat the image with care and respect, as something holy, and they believe it helps them feel closer to the Lord. The scripture includes such reverence and spiritual usage of images in its definition of idolatry.
The early Christians did not use crosses or pictures of Jesus. We have artwork from the first-century Christians on the walls of catacombs underneath the city of Rome, where those early believers met secretly to have services. Interestingly, the early Christian artwork is completely missing crosses, or pictures of a man with long hair and a beard, or of angels – the three images most common among Christians today. It is striking that the early Christians avoided the very things that modern evangelicals consider so essential. These images came into the church much later, after most of the people in the church were no longer believers.
Idolaters always raise various objections or arguments to defend them. One objection is that the visual images help us with our faith, help us focus our prayers or understand the Bible stories. The exact opposite is true – it teaches people not to trust an invisible God, or to trust the Word, but instead that faith must be in material things. In fact, biblical faith “comes by hearing,” not by seeing. (Romans 10:17). “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7)
“Yahushua is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (Jo. 4:24) The Holy Spirit will not establish His Work completely in churches where there are idols. The warnings about idolatry run throughout the New Testament, just as they are everywhere in the Old Testament:
1 Corinthians 5:10 “the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.”
1 Corinthians 5:11 “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.”
1 Corinthians 6:9 “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters … will inherit
the kingdom of Yahushua.”
1 Corinthians 10:7 “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry."
1 Cor. 10:14 “…flee from idolatry.”
Ephesians 5:5 “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
Galatians 5:20 “[deeds of the flesh are] idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions”
Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
1 Peter 4:3 “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.”
1 John 5:21 “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Rev. 22:15 – “outside the holy city are the idolaters…”