What is an Idol, and what is Idolatory?

What is an Idol, and what is Idolatory?

J.C. Philpot

Now, what is an idol? Something my carnal mind loves. How may I know whether my carnal mind loves it? When it thinks of it, is very much pleased with it, we pet it, love and fondle it, dallying and playing with it, like a mother with her babe; see how she takes the little thing and gazes at it. Her eyes are fixed on it; she dotes upon it because she loves it, and it too often becomes an idol. Thus we may know an idol if we examine our own hearts, by what our imagination, desires and secret thoughts are going out after. I do believe nothing is too small or too insignificant which, at times, may not be an idol; even a tulip or a gooseberry! What a wonderful large gooseberry! What a beautiful tulip! Some will walk up and down their garden on the Lord’s day admiring their gooseberry trees, and praising the fruit, how fine and large it is; others their tulips or anemonies. They look at them and admire them, fearful the frost may have done them some injury. This is idolatry, because it is something, which, for the time, the mind is looking at before God.

Now, what is idolatry? What is an idol? The bringing or meeting together in the human heart of two opposite principles. These are in every human heart, and are seen in various shapes and lusts, and mixed with natural religion. Idolatry embodies two things that are quite distinct and opposite. Idolatry embodies a false notion of God; at the same time it deifies some lust or corruption. These heathen idolaters had their god of war, of love, of murder, of wine, and the god of death. Their idols were deified vices, lusts, passions, corruptions, and the wickedness of the human heart. Such was the working of Satan on the human mind, that he brought forth an idol representing two things apparently distinct, yet united: religion and lust, worship and devilism; the prostration of the body before a god that truly was nothing less than some deified lust and corruption. This is devilism, a false religion, worshipping some lust or corruption under the mask of religion; our natural corruptions under a profession; worshipping our pride, our respectability, our covetousness, or love of the world.

And all these are worshipped under the garb of religion, which is idolatry; and this is what every man does, except so far as he is delivered from it by the power and grace of God. Men must worship something. All have a natural religion. When the mind is dark through sin, the heart ignorant, the old veil remaining on the heart, no teaching of the Spirit of God in the soul, we must worship something, as the Athenians of old had an altar to the Unknown God. We must worship something; and if what we worship is not the true God, then we worship idols.

Some persons bow down before the great golden idol that Nebuchadnezzar set up. Many, very many hearts are set on this golden idol; they give a little money towards religion, and if they appear to be liberal in the cause, they then think that in other things they may be as covetous as they please; so that their religion is just as the heathen’s; they worshipped golden gods, these worship their gold. They imagine by giving a little away that it is sanctified, therefore they may worship it. A man worships his own righteousness under the mask of religion: worships his self righteousness, falsely called holiness. He prides himself upon his gloomy and solemn countenance: so he indulges his pride, and makes his religion a mask to cover his sin.

This is what the people of God do, more or less, until they are delivered from it by the Spirit of God. Some are constant in attendance on the means, and go to the “sacrament,” as a means to wash away their sins. Just as a man once said, he could not commit sin so greedily till he had said his prayers. Some, to pacify their consciences, will not go to rest or rise in the morning without saying their prayers: then they can rush into sin with greater pleasure. This is idolatry, deifying their sins, worshipping their lusts under the garb of religion. We have no occasion to go to the heathen in order to find out what is idolatry. It is not merely worshipping a wooden or stone god, but it is the lust and depravity of the human heart. If we dig down into the heart, deep down, we shall see the principle embedded there, like the coal in the pits at Bedworth; as the deeper you dig to discover the seams of coal, so it is with the heart of man; the deeper you go the more you find: “Son of man thou shalt see greater abominations.”

There is no real religion until God is pleased to touch the heart with his gracious finger; there is no spiritual light until the Lord is pleased to shine into the soul; no spiritual life until life is breathed into the conscience.

When the Lord is pleased to begin his gracious work, the soul is turned from idols to serve the living and true God; the living God who fills all time and all space, a God who knows all motives, a God who sees into the depth of our being. I do believe that no man living knows the everlasting God, until he is pleased, in some measure, to manifest himself and to shine in his soul. Then, then he knows the living God; as the psalmist says: “Thou compassest my path and my lying down and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether” .[Ps 139:3,4]

This is true religion, to know the living God, a holy God, a sin-hating God, a sin-punishing God, a God who will not be mocked, a God before whose awful bar we must stand at the Great Day, a God who reads all hearts and knows all motives, a God who knows what sins are indulged in, a God who beholds all the evil-workings in the heart, and who drives us out of all the holes and corners in which we may take refuge, a God who lifts up the veil of unbelief from the heart, and whose awful prescience sees all our impurity at a glance, a living God who must have a living worship. A dead god may have a dead worship: but a living God must have a living worship. There is no living worship of a living God until he himself is pleased, by his Spirit, to give it. He is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. If you look back at the first dealings of God with your soul, you will see there was living worship, that you could not rest satisfied with a dead religion. Dead prayers would not do; you wanted living prayers, living sighs, living groans, and a living movement towards God; a living feeling, a living religion, because it is addressed to him that liveth and abideth for ever.

The child of God is a wonderful paradox; a mystery not only to others but also to himself. As every branch and member of the old man still continue within him, so among the members and branches of the old man is that one, idolatry. Remember this, that though a child of God has a living God for his God, and that this living God will have living service and worship, that those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth; yet idolatry is still in the heart. Lusts, pride, self-righteousness, unbelief, and every member of the old man. Among these members is that of idolatry.

The child of God has, more or less, all these propensities working within. There was a time I should not have believed it, if this had been told me. But I now know it, and it is from knowing what I have in my own heart that I can read others. I know your hearts by mine. From painful experience I know there is idolatry in every man’s heart. But what a mercy it is to be turned to God from all these, from all these idols, to serve the living and true God.

When is this? No man can turn till the Lord makes him. Then his prayer is, “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned.” This was the prayer of the prophet Jeremiah. When the Lord is pleased to turn us, then we shall be turned. Something like our blessed Lord, when he turned and looked upon Peter; what was the effect? It broke Peter’s heart; he went out and wept bitterly. As the Lord is pleased to turn the king’s heart as rivers of water, which way he will, so he turns the heart of his children.

What a blessed thing it is now and then to be turned to God from these idols, to feel the misery, wretchedness, and dissatisfaction which these idols cause! There is something in idolatry so debasing, so unsatisfying, which makes a man thoroughly miserable, when he has been indulging in it, worshipping his idols, and his heart departing from the living God. When the Lord, in mercy, by his gracious Spirit and presence, turns to us, then we are turned from idols, and serve the living God. What is it to serve the living and true God? The apostle says. “Whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son” .[Ro 1:9]

We may be serving God with our bodies and serving the devil with our souls. There is a great deal of wickedness committed on a man’s knees. A man may be on his knees, and his heart in all manner of wickedness: a man may sit in a chapel, hearing a sermon and his heart practicing all manner of abomination. That is serving God with the lips, but not with the spirit.

A man may have a hearty appetite, but if indulged in to excess may be a snare to him. So in many other things, as children, wife, family, and conversation. How soon may they degenerate into idolatry, occupy the thoughts and affections, and turn the soul away from God. Like David, who idolized Absalom, Eli with his sons, or Samuel, that great and good man, who made his corrupt sons judges in Israel. How deep this idolatry is rooted in a man’s heart, how it steals upon his soul! Whatever is indulged in, how it creeps over him, until it gets such power that it becomes master. What work for conscience to get out of this snare; how the conscience is defiled when these idols become an object of worship! There is something so detestable and abominable in an idol that it should be our earnest prayer for God to deliver us.

If a man knows anything of the idolatry of his fallen nature he knows also the desire to serve the living and true God. He will also know that he never can blend these two things. He may try to do it-while serving idols to serve God, but he cannot; “for what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial?” There can be no communion between a dead soul and a living God. How these things make a man wince, to give up his idol, to be obliged to part with it. How he pleads so hard: just this time. What work it makes. Especially if the conscience is tender, struggling with the idolatry of the heart, the lust, concupiscence, and devilism of our fallen nature. I have compared it to a spider watching a fly. The poor little fly has just been caught in the extremity of the web; the spider lies in a hole: as soon as he sees the web shake, down he runs, and draws the threads around his victim, kills him, sucks his carcass, and leaves it.

Thus the devil may be compared to the spider working in his web, waiting, lurking, in reality to suck the very bones and blood of a child of God and cast him into hell; and so he would, were it not for preserving grace. What conscience work there is between the idols struggling for mastery and for the grace of the Spirit of God, groaning, crying, and sighing continually to cast these idols out. Then we turn to God with weeping and lamentation, rending our hearts and not our garments; turn to the Lord with weeping and supplications. A man does not know himself if he does not know what power this idolatry has over him. None but God can make the man know it; and when the Lord delivers him, he then turns to God and says, “What a vile wretch I have been! What a monster to go after these idols, loving this thing, and that. A wretch, a monster of iniquity, the vilest wretch that ever crawled on the face of God’s earth, for my wicked heart to go out after these idols!”

When the soul is brought down to a sense of its vileness and baseness and God’s longsuffering and forbearance, it turns to God from idols to serve the only living and true God, waiting for his Son from heaven, who pardons the idolater, heals the backslider, and communicates special mercy to his soul. “Delivered them from the wrath to come.” Wrath which we find drawn down upon our guilty heads through these idols. Delivered us from the wrath to come by interposing his body and blood.

He delivered His people from wrath, the tremendous displeasure of God’s hand that will be poured out upon a guilty world: upon all idolaters who live and die in their idolatry, upon all false professors, false religionists, upon all that are not turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

To a poor soul sunk into carnality and sin, with everything that is base and horrible, what a mercy it is to have some little evidence of a work of grace in the soul! Here is the milestone found, first being turned to God from idols; the man can read the inscription-besides, he can read another: that is, secondto wait for his Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, who hath delivered us from the wrath to come.” Whoever can find these two marks written with the finger of God in the soul, let the devil and unbelief say what they may, if they have these two Scripture marks in the soul, they will bless and praise God for his mercy and thank Him for His unmerited favour.

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4 thoughts on “What is an Idol, and what is Idolatory?

  1. “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned.” This was the prayer of the prophet Jeremiah. How true it is that we can do nothing and can be nothing without our Sovereign God! May we always have his grace to be vigilant against idolatry! Blessings!

  2. Dear Sarah, this may sound a little crazy, but there was a time when I have made an idol of my exotic birds, my dogs, my electronic gadgets and why even my leather bound Bible!

    Yes as strange as it may sound, one can even make a ‘god’ out of their leather bound bible or their theology books, in that you become so worried that none of the pages should me smudged or stained and if someone borrows your books you can’t go to sleep wondering if they are handling you books ‘carefully’ as you do! Etc.

    And Philpot is right when he says even the most insignificant thing like a gooseberry can become your idol! And so when the Apostle admonished us saying – “keep yourselves from idols” it just does not mean an idol in a pagan temple!

    But I must add in closing that GOD smashed all my idols in style and showed me the vanity of them. Sometimes it takes time but sinner or later the child of God is brought to cry out with Ephraim- “What have I to do any more with idols”?! [Hosea 14:8]

    For the promise is “Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be My people, and I will be their God”! [Ezk 37:23] And “In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats”! [Isa 2:20]

  3. Amen my friend!
    That passage from Hosea is so comforting! I pray that God will smash my idols as well! I worry too much about comfort and the things of life. A while ago I read a book on the desert fathers. They lived an exceedingly austere life. However, even in that very austere environment they created idols of small comforts or sometimes their austerity itself. It seems to confirm that no matter how hard we try, we can not do anything without God’s willing and intervention!

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