Reference: Idol, Idolatry
The word idol signifies literally a representation or figure. It is always employed in Scripture in a bad sense, for representations of heathen deities of what nature soever. God forbids all sorts of idols, or figures and representations of creatures, formed or set up with intention of paying superstitious worship to them, Ex 20:3-4; 34:13; De 4:16-19; 7:25-26. He also forbids all attempts to represent him by any visible form, Ex 32:4-5; De 4:15; Ne 9:18.
The heathen had idols of all sorts-paintings, bas-reliefs, and all varieties of sculpture-and these of many kinds of materials, as gold, silver, brass, stone, wood, potters earth, etc. Stars, spirits, men, animals, rivers, plants, and elements were the subjects of them. Scarcely an object or power in nature, scarcely a faculty of the soul, a virtue, a vice, or a condition of human life, has not received idolatrous worship. See STARS. Some nations worshipped a rough stone. Such is the black stone of the ancient Arabs, retained by Mohammed, and now kept in the Caaba at Mecca.
It is impossible to ascertain the period at which the worship of false gods and idols was introduced. No mentioned is made of such worship before the deluge; though from the silence of Scripture we cannot argue that it did not exist. Josephus and many of the fathers were of opinion, that soon after the deluge idolatry became prevalent; and certainly, whenever we turn our eyes after the time of Abraham, we see only a false worship. That patriarch's forefathers, and even he himself, were implicated in it, as is evident from Jos 24:2,14.
The Hebrews had no peculiar form of idolatry; they imitated the superstitions of others, but do not appear to have been the inventors of any. When they were in Egypt, many of them worshipped Egyptians deities, Eze 20:8; in the wilderness, they worshipped those of the Canaaites, Egyptians, Ammonites, and Moabites; in Judea, those of the Phoenicians, Syrians, and other people around them, Nu 25; Jg 10:6; Am 5:25; Ac 7:42. Rachel, it may be, had adored idols at her father Laban's, since she carried off his teraphim, Ge 31:30. Jacob after his return from Mesopotamia, required his people to reject the strange gods from among them and also the superstitious pendants worn by them in their ears, which he hid under a terebinth near Shechem. He preserved his family in the worship of God while he lived.
Under the government of the judges, "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim. They forsook the Lord God of their fathers, and served Baal and Ashtaroth," Jg 2:11-12. Gideon, after he had been favored by God with a miraculous deliverance, made an ephod, which ensnared the Israelites in unlawful worship, Jg 8:27. Micah's teraphim also were the objects of idolatrous worship, even till the captivity of Israel in Babylon, Jg 17:5; 18:30-31. See TERAPHIM.
During the times of Samuel, Saul, and David, the worship of God seems to have been preserved pure in Israel. There was corruption and irregularity of manners, but little or no idolatry. Solomon, seduced by complaisance to his strange wives, caused temples to be erected in honor of Ashtoreth goddess of the Phoenicians, Moloch god of the Ammonites, and Chemosh god of the Moabites. Jeroboam, who succeeded Solomon, set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel, and made Israel to sin. The people, no longer restrained by royal authority, worshipped not only these golden calves, but many other idols, particularly Baal and Ashtoreth. Under the reign of Ahab, idolatry reached its height. The impious Jezebel endeavored to extinguish the worship of the Lord, by persecuting his prophets, (who, as a barrier, still retained some of the people in the true religion,) till God, incensed at their idolatry, abandoned Israel to the kings of Assyria and Chaldea, who transplanted them beyond the Euphrates. Judah was almost equally corrupted. The descriptions given by the prophets of their irregularities and idolatries, of their abominations and lasciviousness on the high places and in woods consecrated to idols, and of their human sacrifices, fill us with dismay, and unveil the awful corruption of the heart of man. See MOLOCH. After the return from Babylon, we do not find the Jews any more reproached with idolatry. They expressed much zeal for the worship of God, and except some transgressor under Antichus Epiphanes, the people kept themselves clear from this sin.
As the maintenance of the worship of the only true God was one of the fundamental objects of the Mosaic polity, and as God was regarded as the king of the Israelitish nation, so we find idolatry, that is, the worship of other gods, occupying, in the Mosaic law, the first place in the list of crimes. It was indeed a crime, not merely against God, but also against the fundamental law of the state, and thus a sort of high treason. The only living and true God was also the civil legislator and ruler of Israel, and accepted by them as their king; and hence idolatry was a crime against the state, and therefore just as deservedly punished with death, as high treason is in modern times. By the Jewish law, an idolatrous city must be wholly destroyed, with all it contained, De 13:12-18; 17:2,5.
At the present day, idolatry, prevails over a great portion of the earth, and is practiced by about 600,000,000 of the human race. Almost all the heathen nations, as the Chinese, the Hindoos, the South Sea islanders, etc., have their images, to which they bow down and worship. In some lands professedly Christians, it is to be feared that the adoration of crucifixes and paintings is nothing more nor less than idol-worship. But when we regard idolatry in a moral point of view, as consisting not merely in the external worship of false gods, but in the preference of, and devotion to something else than the Most High, how many Christians must then fall under this charge. Whoever loves this world, or the pursuits of wealth or honor ambition, or selfishness in any form, and for these forgets or neglects God and Christ, such a one is an idolater in as bad sense at least as the ancient Israelites, and cannot hope to escape an awful condemnation, Col 3:5.