The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Cut off Every Trace (1:4-6)

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

“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)

It’s Personal

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.

Wrong.

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.

Again, wrong.

Baal

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!”

Love it.

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

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)

Reflection

  1. Read Romans 1:18-32. Where does idolatry lead us? To life or to destruction?
  2. Read James 3:13-18. What is the evidence of human wisdom? Of heavenly wisdom?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Idolatry

(2) Baal

(3) The Aten

(4) Milcom

(5) Ammonites

(6) Molech

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

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2 thoughts on “The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Cut off Every Trace (1:4-6)

  1. I’d like to suggest that even the best of us can be vulnerable to idolatry, perhaps without even realizing it. Another definition of idolatry is when we put anything in our lives as a higher priority than God.

    That’s actually pretty tough, because for most of us, our families are really important to us. If someone were holding a gun to your loved one’s head, would you renounce Jesus to save their life? Sure, if it were your own life, you might say “no,” but if it were your spouse’s or your child’s life, can you be so sure?

    That said, how many people in church, maybe without realizing it, put their house, or their car, or their income ahead of God? Probably a lot.

    I think God realized that, in this age, we would be terribly vulnerable to idolatry, just as we are to any other kind of sin. That’s why there’s a New Covenant coming with Jesus (no, it’s only cracked the door in our world so far, we’re not living in New Covenant times yet).

    Here’s the key passages in the New Covenant language in the Old Testament (and I really object to calling that portion of the Bible the “Old Testament”):

    “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

    -Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)

    I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

    -Ezekiel 36:23-27

    Notice several things.

    First, in the Jeremiah passage, God is talking to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” in other words, the Jewish people.

    During that time (and in the modern era), the Jewish people were (and are) charged with obeying the commandments of the Torah, the Law of Moses, as a condition of the Sinai covenant. As you pointed out Marie, they weren’t very good at it, not because the ancient Israelites were bad or horrible people, but because they were human. I’m sure if we looked into the lives of modern Christians, we’d probably find that we too are not very good at obeying God, even when we really want to.

    So what’s God’s solution? Up to this point, all of the standards for obeying God, whether it’s a Jewish person observing the Torah commandments or a Christian observing the commands of Jesus, the standard we look to is external.

    God’s solution, at least for the Jewish people, is to make that standard internalized by giving them a new Spirit and writing the Torah on their hearts. In other words, it would become second nature for the Jewish people to obey God.

    We know the standards themselves don’t change from reading Ezekiel. “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.. The covenant is new because the conditions of the covenant are written on hearts and not on scrolls or in books, but the conditions themselves don’t change.

    So what does that do for we Christians? After all, we’re banking on the New Covenant and the mediator of that covenant, Jesus, for our very souls.

    The answer is complicated and goes beyond the scope of this comment, but in His grace and mercy, God has allowed any non-Jew, that is, any non-covenant member to be “grafted in” so that we too can possess the Spirit and receive a place in the life to come.

    Acts 15 makes it clear that we can benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant without observing the Torah commandments as the Jewish people do, so we’ve been given quite a sweet deal.

    I know all this is controversial, but my point is that we imperfect humans can’t totally avoid sin, which includes idolatry. Fortunately for us, God has a better plan, one He’ll write on our hearts. Oh, we’ll still have free will and can choose to disobey, but we’d be betraying our natural impulses to obey God once the New Covenant age fully arrives with the return of Jesus.

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    1. Right on, James.

      Every last one of us deals with idolatry. I think that’s why we have to ask the Lord to make us sensitive to it. We won’t escape the problem this side of fulfillment (I’m starting to like that term better than “eternity” for some reason), for sure, but we can, by His grace, battle it.

      Like

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