Idolatry, Social injustices, and Religious Ritualism

    October 19, 2019 | Articles | Old Testament Survey | Old Testamant Orientation | Scholarly Article by Mike Prah

    The writing prophets in the Bible speak clearly about the consequences of idolatry, social injustices, and religious ritualism.


    Webster’s dictionary defines idolatry as “the worship of a physical object as a god or immoderate attachment or devotion to something.” [1] An idol is anything that replaces the one, true God. God demands absolute fidelity from His people, as clearly stated in the first and second commandments (Exodus 20:2-3). Besides Him, there is no god, so it is foolish to trust in other gods who cannot save. The Prophet Isaiah tells us: “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6). “I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me, there is no savior (Isaiah 43:11). Idol worship robs God of the glory that is rightfully His, and that is something God condemns. Isaiah prophesies: “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8). The testimony of Scripture is that we should worship God exclusively because He alone is worthy of worship. To refuse to worship God but to worship another is idolatry, a grave sin condemned throughout Scripture. 

    God illustrated the seriousness of idolatry by commanding the prophet Hosea to marry a cult prostitute, Gomer. “Israel had prostituted itself by turning away from the Lord and following other gods. [This] “outrageous act of a prophet marrying an immoral woman graphically demonstrated how the Lord viewed Israel’s covenant defection.” [2] Hosea prophesized that such disobedience conveyed the prospect of judgment from God. “The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah; He will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds” (Hosea 12:2).

    Continuing with the marriage metaphor, the prophet Jeremiah “like a prosecuting attorney presented God’s case against His unfaithful people” [3]. Like an unfaithful wife, Israel and Judah prostituted themselves by trading their relationship with Yahweh for idols, and they made foreign alliances with Egypt and Assyria against the warnings of God. Their decision to trust in idols and men rather than God was condemned by God with this indictment: “Is there any place you have not been defiled by your adultery with other gods? You have polluted the land with your prostitution and your wickedness. That’s why even the spring rains have failed. For you are a brazen prostitute and completely shameless … Judah had no fear, and she, too, has left me and given herself to … committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted” (Jeremiah 3:1-11). Jeremiah warned that if Judah did not repent, “judgment would take the form of military invasion by a powerful enemy from the north.” [4] Sadly, Judah and their kings did not heed his numerous warnings and did not turn from idolatry and their wicked ways, so Jeremiah lived to see his beloved Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians.  

    In the Old Testament, the writing prophets fearlessly voiced God’s disdain and judgment against perpetrators of social injustice, exploitation, and oppression. In ancient Israel, the land belonged to the Lord, and He gave it to His people - every tribe, clan, and family as their property. Therefore, property in Israel was not to change hands permanently. “Land sold because of debt was to revert to the family of the original owner in the Year of Jubilee – every 50th year (Leviticus 25)”. [5] The Lord was angry that social injustice became common in Israel and Judah. Through various legal and illegal means, the wealthy and powerful conspired to steal the land of the needy families (Micah 2:1-11). To steal a family’s inheritance from the Lord was a serious crime”. [6] Following are judgment from prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk against perpetrators of social injustice.

    “The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “it is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 3: 13 – 15).

    “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, “I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.” So, he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar, and decorates it in red” (Jeremiah 22: 13-14).

    “Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion. Woe to him, who builds his realm by unjust gain. Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime.” (Habakkuk 2: 6 -12)

    Social Injustice

    The Prophet Isaiah also addressed social injustice in the opening passages of his prophecy. “Israel, you are a sinful nation loaded down with guilt. You are wicked and corrupt and have turned from the Lord, the holy God of Israel” (1:4). In verse nine, the Lord likened the activities of Israel to the condemned Sodom and Gomorrah cities. Isaiah adds: “Jerusalem, you are like an unfaithful wife. Once your judges were honest, and your people lived right; now you are a city full of murderers … Your leaders have rejected me to become friends of crooks; your rulers are looking for gifts and bribes. Widows and orphans never get a fair trial” (1:19-23). God then delivers severe judgment on Israel. “I am the Lord All-Powerful, the mighty ruler of Israel, and I make you a promise: You are now my enemy, and I will show my anger by taking revenge on you. I will punish you terribly and burn away everything that makes you unfit to worship me” (1:24-25).  This is a clear message that the God of justice strongly condemns social injustice. He hates injustice, oppression of the poor, the exploitation of the marginalized and vulnerable people.

    Religious Ritualism

    About religious ritualism, the prophet Jeremiah “courageously announced that the Lord was prepared to destroy Jerusalem and His temple because the people substituted empty rituals for true obedience.” [7] The Bible says: “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—Only to go right back to all those evils again? …  I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever” (Jeremiah 7:8-10, 5-7).


    Here are practical applications from the prophet’s teachings. Idolatry extends beyond the worship of idols and images and false gods. Even for those who do not bow physically before a statue, idolatry is a matter of the heart. It involves attitudes such as pride, self-centeredness, greed, gluttony, a love for possessions, and ultimately rebellion against God. Anything or anyone that we love more than God Himself should be considered an idol. John Calvin taught us that our hearts are perpetual idol factories [8], always leading us to worship something other than God.  Jesus makes this point implicitly in Matthew 10:37–39 when He cautions us not to love our family members and our life more than Him. Therefore, we must periodically assess the state of our hearts to ensure that we are not drifting into idolatry.

    Jesus came to earth on a social justice rescue mission. He quotes from Isaiah 61 as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4: 18 – 19). In this Scripture passage, Jesus makes it clear that supporting and defending the poor, the prisoners and the oppressed were part of His mission. As His ambassadors, we are commissioned to carry on His work to be social justice advocates in our communities and generation.

    The prophet Micah reveals a precise application on religious ritualism. The Bible says: “What can we bring to the Lord? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves? Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins? No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what He requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8). As Micah reveals, God was not primarily interested in Israel’s sacrifices and offerings, no matter how extravagant they may have been.  In today’s culture, people place greater emphasis on rituals such as attending church services, hearing a sermon, attending small group meetings, tithing, and yet their hearts are far away from God. Just as Micah stated, God is still interested in our worship when it is borne out of humble obedience to Him reflected through a lifestyle of mercy, integrity, and God-honoring, faith-based action. 




     [2]. Ed Hinson, and Gary Yates. Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 371

    [3,4]. Ibid. 318

     [5]. Ed Hinson and Gary Yates: Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 389

    [6]. Ibid. 406

    [7]. Ibid. 319


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