What Are Idols in the Bible?

See why God's Word makes a big deal about idols and idolatry.

Idols in chlorite and limestone, circa 2000 BC, from Bactria, Afghanistan, Afghan Civilization, 3rd-2nd millennium BC. (c) DEA Picture Library / Getty Images

As you read through the Bible -- whether in the Old Testament or New Testament -- you probably won't make it very far without coming across a reference to an "idol." You probably know what an idol is. (At the very least, you've seen one of the movies.) Yet these references can still be somewhat strange, since Western culture typically doesn't feature physical idols or idol-worship.

However, as we'll see throughout this article, idols were a big deal in the ancient world -- and they remain a big problem for modern folks like you and me.

Idols in Scripture

Throughout God's Word, the basic definition for an "idol" is anything that someone chooses to worship instead of God. One of the main principles in the Bible is that only God is worthy of being worshiped. Therefore, setting up an idol of any kind is a bad idea:

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:4-6

It's important to note that most of the idols referenced in the Scriptures were physical objects. In the ancient world, families and tribes often created these objects to represent local gods or deities they believed had influence over the world around them.

Sometimes, these created objects were believed to be the physical forms of such gods.

The Book of Exodus provides a good example of the creation of such a god:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Exodus 32:1-4

Ironically, these verses describe the Israelites -- God's chosen people -- making an idol to worship instead of Him. Even more ironically, all of this was happening while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments (including the command against making idols) at the top of Mount Sinai.

One of the main questions surrounding the practice of idol worship is: Why? Why would people worship something they, or someone they knew, had created?

The main answer to this question revolves around our need for control. As I stated earlier, most idol worshipers did not believe the idols they worshiped were actually gods. However, they did believe the idols were somehow connected to local gods and their powers. Therefore, the idols were a way to forge a connection between the people and those gods. In a sense, then, idols are a reflection of humanity's built-in desire to connect with the true God.

Just as importantly, idols allowed people to have a sense of control over the world around them. Ancient people believed their local gods had power to increase fertility, produce rain, provide success in war, and so on. By creating idols that gave them access to such gods, they were also attempting to gain control over those critical elements of their world.

They desperately wanted to believe that by making sacrifices to idols and polishing physical objects, they could somehow guarantee success in life.

The prophet Isaiah was ruthless in pointing out the foolishness of such a system:

12 The blacksmith takes a tool
    and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
    he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
    he drinks no water and grows faint.
13 The carpenter measures with a line
    and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
    and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
    human form in all its glory,
    that it may dwell in a shrine.
14 He cut down cedars,
    or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
    or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
15 It is used as fuel for burning;
    some of it he takes and warms himself,
    he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
    he makes an idol and bows down to it.
16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
    over it he prepares his meal,
    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
    he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
    “Save me! You are my god!”
Isaiah 44:12-17

Idols Today

As I mentioned above, the practice of idolatry in the ancient world was mostly connected with worshiping physical objects. We don't see that very often today -- especially in Western culture. However, that doesn't mean idolatry is no longer a problem. It is.

In fact, idolatry remains a common and corrosive aspect of our society, even within the church.

Remember, the definition of idolatry is choosing to worship anything other than God. In the modern world, then, we are practicing idolatry if we make anything more important than God -- if we lift up or dedicate ourselves to anything other than serving Him.

The apostle Paul addressed this truth in his letter to the Colossian Christians:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Colossians 3:5

There's a big problem in all of this. Namely, our culture is built around pushing people to worship all sorts of different things -- celebrities, athletes, money, fame, power, attractiveness, youth, food, fun, freedom, and so much more. Just think about your average commercial break on television, and you'll see exactly what I mean.

We must remember that applauding any of these categories more than we applaud God is idolatry. Submitting ourselves to any of these ideals at the cost of submitting ourselves to God is idolatry. Giving our resources -- time, energy, money -- to pursue any of these categories instead of pursuing God is idolatry.

And here's the real kicker: our modern forms of idolatry are just as silly and stupid as the physical idols people worshiped in the ancient world. We know that money or sex or fame won't make us happy in the long run, just as the ancient people knew they were worshiping the same idols they created with their own hands. Yet we can't stop.

I'll conclude with the words of the apostle Paul, written with hope and fear to the idolatrous Christians in the city of Corinth: "Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:14).