Idols of the Heart

1 Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord. And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 10 And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike— 11 that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 14:1-11 ESV

After exposing the lies of the false prophets and pronouncing judgment upon them, God turns His attention to the religious and civic leaders of Israel. A group of these men showed up at Ezekiel’s house with the likely intention of confronting him about his pessimistic messages and the negative impact they were having on the exiles. It seems apparent from the text that they had come to ask Ezekiel to tone down his rhetoric and to have the prophet intercede with God on their behalf. They sensed that He had a direct line to the Almighty and could do something to assuage His anger. But before they could utter a word, God spoke up and dressed them down. He knew why they were there and was not going to give them an opportunity to express their grievances or put in a request for Ezekiel’s intercession. Instead, God warned the prophet to see these men for who they really were: Idolatrous hypocrites who had no intention of giving up their false gods and returning to Him.

“Son of man, these leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests? – Ezekiel 14:3 NLT

With this statement, God exposes the true source of Israel’s problem. It wasn’t that they had erected shrines, altars, and high places all over Judah and even in the remote environs of Babylon, it was that they had made a home for these false gods in their hearts. They had developed a deep and abiding affection for “logs, blocks, and shapeless things.” That is what the Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) means. The chosen people of God had fallen in love with shapeless and lifeless blocks of wood. And that was true of those men sitting in Ezekiel’s home preparing to request his intercession with the one true God. Their own hearts had become the shrines at which they bowed down and worshiped their false and formless gods.

The prophet Isaiah used biting satire to expose the ridiculous nature of idolatry.

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit? – Isaiah 44:9-10 NLT

The Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) could actually be translated as “dungy thing” and was anything but a compliment. Idols were worthless because they were powerless. They were little more than blocks of wood, bits of stone, and chunks of metal formed by human hands to represent non-existent deities. And Isaiah describes with thinly veiled scorn the transition of a block of wood to a worship-worthy idol.

Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood
    and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
    and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
    and puts it in a little shrine.
He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!
He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!” – Isaiah 44:13-17 NLT

What seems readily apparent is that the men sitting in Ezekiel’s home had most likely called upon their false gods to rescue them from the wrath of God Almighty. These “idols of the heart” had probably gotten an earful from their fearful admirers but, as the psalmist points out, “They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear…” (Psalm 115:5-6 NLT). Their gods had failed to answer them so they were hoping Ezekiel might have better luck with Yahweh.

But the truly sad thing is they couldn’t see the futility and foolishness of their situation; a point that Isaiah expresses quite well.

Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
    “Why, it’s just a block of wood!
I burned half of it for heat
    and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
    Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?”
The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.
    He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” – Isaiah 44:18-20 NLT

God was personally offended by their actions. They had the audacity to replace the One who had created them with gods they had made with their own hands. And to make matters worse, when their false gods failed to deliver, they had shown up at the prophet’s house expecting Yahweh to do them a favor.

“The people of Israel have set up idols in their hearts and fallen into sin, and then they go to a prophet asking for a message.” – Ezekiel 14:4 NLT

But the message they received was not what they were hoping to hear. God gave them an ultimatum: They would have to repent. If they wanted to hear from Him, they would have to abandon their idols and return to Him in humble obeisance and faithful obedience to His commands.

“Repent and turn away from your idols, and stop all your detestable sins.” – Ezekiel 14:6 NLT

And if they refused to do, the consequences would be sorrowful and severe.

“I will turn against such people and make a terrible example of them, eliminating them from among my people.” – Ezekiel 14:8 NLT

This was not the message Ezekiel’s guests had hoped to hear. God’s non-negotiable call to repentance was repellant to them. They couldn’t fathom the idea of giving up their idols of the heart. God was asking too much. They viewed His requirement of unwavering, faithful devotion to Him alone as too restrictive and repressive. And God knew that when they heard His conditions, they would make a beeline to one of the false prophets in hopes of getting a more favorable response. But God warned that the lies of the false prophets would do nothing to thwart His sovereign will.

False prophets and those who seek their guidance will all be punished for their sins. In this way, the people of Israel will learn not to stray from me, polluting themselves with sin. – Ezekiel 14:10-11 NLT

Fake gods and false prophets would prove helpless and hopeless in the face of God’s judgment. Idols of the heart would disappoint. The popular prophets would be punished for promoting lies. But when the dust settled, everyone would know that Yahweh alone was God. That was always God’s purpose and plan. His blessings had always been intended to demonstrate His existence as the one true God. But His curses were meant to accomplish the same thing. When He poured out His wrath on the rebellious and unrepentant, it would serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the nation. His punishment of the wicked would serve as a powerful incentive for His chosen people, prompting them to return to Him in humility and brokenness. And when they did, God would restore them, just as He had promised.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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