“I will stretch out My hand against Judah,
And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place,
The names of the idolatrous priests with the pagan priests—
Those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops;
Those who worship and swear oaths by the LORD,
But who also swear by Milcom;
Those who have turned back from following the LORD,
And have not sought the LORD, nor inquired of Him.”
– 1:4-6 (NKJV)
God doesn’t tolerate idolatry. Period.
We like to think that there are many ways to God. We like to think that He’ll let anyone and everyone into Heaven because we’re “good people,” except for, you know, Hitler and Stalin. We like to think that all religions are equal and really teach the same things and if everyone would just hold hands and sing a little Kumbaya we’d all be fine.
Couldn’t be more wrong.
Idolatry is simply defined as the worship of idols. It took (and continues to take) three common forms:
Fetishism, or the worship of trees, rivers, hills, stones, etc.
Nature worship, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as the supposed powers of nature.
Hero worship, the worship of deceased ancestors, or of heroes. (1)
Paul writes in Romans 1:28 that idolatry happens because men turn away from God and sink into ignorance and moral decay. Despite the claims of atheism, we do not have the ability to eradicate our need to worship. Turning away from God simply means that we turn to something or someone else. In ancient times this often looked like altars under trees or carved images shrouded in dark, incense-filled temples or philosophical debates in city squares. Today this often looks like workaholism, materialism or self-centeredness.
Six verses into the book of Zephaniah and we’ve seen the covenant Name of God five times. This announcement of judgment is personal. This is the God making His displeasure known. The people of Judah are facing a bleak future because they assumed that they could do whatever they wanted, worship whomever and whatever they wanted. They thought that perhaps God was merely part of a pantheon. They could love Him and love another.
The most significant male deity of the Canaanites and his consort Asherah were the most alluring deities confronting Israel in the promised land following the conquest. The numerous references to Baal in the Old Testament indicate his attractiveness and influence on the Israelites. …
Baal’s name derives from the Semitic word ba’lu, meaning “lord.” He was assumed to fulfill several significant roles by the peoples who worshiped him. As god of the storm the roar of his voice in the heavens was the thunder of the sky. He was the god who both created and granted fertility. … He was the god of justice, feared by evildoers. …
The cult of Baal involved the offering of many animal sacrifices. Priests would officiate on behalf of the persons presenting sacrificial animals to the god. Some of the northern kingdom rulers even “made their sons pass through fire”offering their own sons as sacrifices to Baal. “Holy prostitutes” both male and female were available to worshipers, encouraging the fertility of both land and people. (2)
Israel had a long history with Baal. One generation after the Conquest (outlined in Joshua), the people turned away from God. (One generation. Think on that). They decided it would be better to align themselves with Baal. Judges 2:14 says that “the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel” because of this. By Zephaniah’s time, it’s a case of “that same ol’ sin.”
One of the funniest Old Testament stories involves the worship of Baal. In 1 Kings 18:16-45, the prophet Elijah confronts the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel. It’s basically a throw-down designed to reveal who the true Lord really is. Elijah says,
“Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”
– 1 Kings 18:23-24a (NKJV)
He stands there watching as the priests of Baal do their thing. They call out to their god. They weep. They dance around the altar. They even cut themselves. Elijah mocks them the whole time:
“Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
– vs. 27b
I can just see him there, rocking his long righteous beard and some sweet robes. “Oh, is he napping? Should we check back later? Oh, wait – maybe he went on a trip and didn’t tell you!”
Take some time to read the rest of the story, for God clearly reveals Himself to be the only deity present that day.
Host of Heaven
Sun, moon, stars.
One of the most famous examples of this type of worship comes to us from Egypt:
During the reign of Akhenaten The Aten was installed as the principle god of ancient Egypt, and the worship of many of the traditional gods of ancient Egypt was rejected. The Aten was not a new god but an obscure aspect of the sun god worshipped as early as the Old Kingdom. “Aten” was the traditional name for the sun-disk itself. (3)
Pharaoh Akhenaten turned Egypt on its head by insisting, at first, that The Aten was chief among the ginormous pantheon, then later impressing upon his people that The Aten was the only god they should worship. (To be fair, some scholars believe that Akehenaten understood The Aten not as a god, but as a manifestation of the god).
Then as now, astrology was an important and popular practice. Attempting to ascertain life patterns or future events based on the positions of stars and planets at certain points in time made about as much sense in ancient Judah as it does now. Ever notice how horoscopes are vague? How they can be interpreted to mean a myriad of things?
Yeah. That’s because Mercury being in retrograde or whatever has nothing to do with anything. Astrology is about as useful for directing your life as fortune cookies are.
Milcom, called the “abomination” of the Ammonites, was apparently the chief deity of the Ammonites or Moabites. The “abomination” label seems to convey both the detestable aspect of origin and of the worship of Lot’s descendants. Solomon built a worship facility for this foreign deity (see 1 Kings 11:51 Kings 11:71 Kings 11:33 ). Milcom is sometimes identified with Molech, but this is incorrect since the two gods were worshiped individually. (4)
The Ammonites, descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with one of his daughters (true story – Genesis 19), were related to the people of Israel. This didn’t mean that they had a warm and cozy relationship, though. The Ammonites constantly pestered the people of Israel, despite this kinship. King David seems to have subdued them after a nasty diplomatic incident (2 Samuel 10), but a spirit of bitterness and resentment remained.
Their hostility to both kingdoms, Judah and Israel, was often manifested. In the days of Jehoshaphat they joined with the Moabites in an attack upon him, but met with disaster (2 Chronicles 20). … Their hostility to Judah is shown in their joining the Chaldeans to destroy it (2 Kings 24:2). Their cruelty is denounced by the prophet Amos 1:13, and their destruction by Jeremiah 49:1-6, Ezekiel 21:28-32, Zephaniah 2:8, 9. … Tobiah the Ammonites united with Sanballat to oppose Ne[hemiah] (Nehemiah 4), and their opposition to the Jews did not cease with the establishment of the latter in Judea. (5)
It makes little sense why the people living in Jerusalem would give themselves over to worshiping the chief deity of people who absolutely despised them. Perhaps they did so in an effort to undermine their enemies; to get this god on “their side.” Nobody knows for sure. Some argue that, though Milcom and Molech are distinct, this passage could be referring to the latter instead of the former. If so,
Molech or Moloch was another “abomination” of the Ammonites. Solomon also built a high place for this god in Jerusalem. The worship of this god was particularly odious, as it required human sacrifice. (6)
- Read Romans 1:18-32. Where does idolatry lead us? To life or to destruction?
- Read James 3:13-18. What is the evidence of human wisdom? Of heavenly wisdom?
- In the New Testament, idolatry can sometimes be understood as referring to covetousness, or the strong desire to have what someone else has. How are these concepts related? There’s no right or wrong answer.
- Read Zephaniah 1:1-6. Meditate on it. (Christian meditation is not the emptying of the mind, but rather focused thinking on God’s word). What stands out to you? How are you moved to worship the Lord?
- Every single person struggles with idolatry. It’s easy to put all of our attention and affection on something or someone other than God. What is the thing or person in your life? Spend some time in prayer over this. Confess and repent, assured that He will forgive you. Ask God to make you aware of when you’re turning from Him. Ask Him to give you an undivided heart.
(3) The Aten
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.