The religion of Israel was very different from its neighbors. The other nations had gods they could see. God’s people were often tempted to follow the gods of their neighbors. They could be drawn into the ways of false worship and away from the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. The temptation to show a representation of their God was severe. One early form of idolatry was a golden calf to represent the Lord. They did not suggest it was a different god, just an image for the LORD (Exodus 32:1-8). To be sure of avoiding idols, God’s people had to be sure they did not copy the practices of their neighbors.
Idol worshippers went to a variety of places. They liked the tops of high hills. They liked being under large spreading trees (the bigger the better). They liked places lush with growth. Isaiah refers to gardens as centers of idolatrous worship. They might also go to graveyards.
There was music and dancing. They had offerings of food, drink, and incense for their gods. They prayed and fasted, making a big show of it.
Around their shrines they had prostitution. With the gaiety of music, dancing, wine, and the availability of prostitutes, heathen worship often had all the ingredients of an orgy. The sexual activity was intended to arouse the gods to be productive in the fertility of their animals.
They wanted children, so in gratitude they were expected to give some of them back to these idols, yet the Lord God of Israel said those children were His! They placed babies in the arms of the hideous Molech. His hollowed-out back held a raging fire so that his stone arms were heated. In those unloving arms, children belonging to the Lord were fried in their own fat like chicken on a spit in the grocery store. Not only the heathen did this; so did some kings in the line of David (2 Chronicles 28:1-4; 33:16).
Their prophets brought them false visions and lying divinations, (Ezekiel 21:29). These prophetic messages were always what the people wanted to hear. They had no view of one holy, transcendent God, sovereign over all of nature and all nations, so they concocted gods in their own image – male Baals and female Asherahs. Some worshipped the sun, moon and stars. Such gods were credited with bringing rain and good crops. To them farmers prayed for a good harvest.
Idols were local gods. The heathen pondered whether the gods of their city could deliver them from the gods of some invading army. There was not one God over all with no other god beside Him. The gods of Israel’s neighbors were of the heavens above and the earth below.
The worship God commanded Israel in the Old Testament also had a location and required rituals. All images of the Lord were strictly forbidden. In fact, bowing to any image was condemned in the Ten Commandments.
The PLACE Israel gathered to worship as a nation was the Temple in Jerusalem. God said He was there in the midst of His people. There was to be only one Temple (Deuteronomy 12:4-11). Jeroboam knew that one central gathering would ensure that there would be one nation, so he erected alternatives. Worship designed to suit the agenda of the worshipper is obviously a heathen principle.
The PRACTICE was that God was to be approached with blood sacrifices He required. Only animals identified as clean were offered – offered morning and evening. They would bring some of their crops in thanksgiving to the Lord their provider. Many offerings were made to atone for their sins – all done at God’s tabernacle or temple. Israel was not to be a worshipper of nature. When they came to the Lord at His tabernacle, they turned their backs on the rising sun to approach His presence. (It is a pity to hear in a common evangelical chorus, “With my face to the rising sun, O Lord, have mercy on me.”)
Offerings could be brought by the people, but were offered only by priests, chosen by God. They could not come to God as they might choose. Nor could they represent themselves before Him. The Lord appointed priests to intercede for the people and pronounce blessings in His Name. Since Israel’s religion was more than ritual, priests, such as Ezra, were also teachers of God’s Word (Ezra 7:1-6; Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
The people sang joyful psalms in public gatherings. They were to review and keep the commandments of God and teach them to their children.
Their week had a Sabbath to commemorate God’s finished work in creation and their redemption from Egypt. Their year had special feasts, (Leviticus 23). Three were prominent: 1) Passover, the first, began with a celebration of being delivered from bondage in Egypt. 2) Seven weeks later when the first new grain was just appearing, they offered some to the Lord. 3) They ended the year at harvest time with a big feast of thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord. “Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field,” (Exodus 23:16).
They reviewed the past kindnesses of the Lord. He had given them the land. After leaving Egypt they lived in tents in the desert; in the land they had houses.
Once a year on a special day the high priest entered the presence of God in the Most Holy Place, (Leviticus 16). Only the high priest was allowed to do so. He entered with blood to cleanse the place and atone for the sins of the people. That blood was placed in the presence of the Lord on the lid of a box that contained the law of God. Every Israelite had broken that law. Blood was placed between the broken covenant and the eyes of avenging angels. On that special day they fasted and did no work.
The Rationale of False Worship
There must be some reason why the whole world worshipped idols! When man fell into sin, he lost fellowship with God and had no natural love for Him. Sinners are hostile to God and His law.
Probably some offerings were made to give thanks to idols, yet the main motivation was an appeal for more of what they wanted. There was a lot of activity. People really prayed to these demons, trusted them, and hoped to receive from them. They brought their gifts and sacrifices. I cannot think of any place in the Bible where idolaters sought forgiveness from their gods. Their gods were not holy and did not demand righteousness of them. They had created these gods in their own likeness. Why bother to offer sacrifices for sin? Their interest was not reconciliation with a holy God but good harvests of grapes and grain.
When the priority is food for the stomach, walking in fellowship with the Lord has no appeal. They needed cows to calve, children to be born, and protection from hostile neighbors. Their religion was therefore mere favor-seeking. Their prayers were not the same as knowing and loving God.
They wanted the gods to do something for them; so one key element in heathen religion was to induce the gods to respond. It was a matter of manipulation. Gifts were given in order to receive. They wanted to get out of the gods something the gods might not be willing to provide without inducements. So they would impress them with music, loud cries, and offerings that were really bribes. In that way they sought to persuade the idols to fulfill their wishes. They had no assurance that these gods loved them or cared for their needs.
They met on high places because up there closer to the clouds, they had a better chance of gaining Baal’s attention to bring on the rain. They liked to be under big spreading trees since they were dealing with nature gods that made things grow. They offered babies to the gods so their women could conceive. The prostitutes were intended to arouse similar activity in fertility gods. This was lobbying and cajoling reluctant gods to do their will. In true worship, the main thing was and is to believe in the Lord God and do His will.
False religion took advantage of human nature. Little children learned that these are our gods, the gods of our people. Humans naturally crave communal identity and acceptance. They feel it is treason to turn against their gods, because to do so is to turn against their people. Their religion pandered to their desires with wine, women, and song. It was a dual strategy – solidarity as a people under gods in their image. Satan cleverly provided gods to their liking, fed their lust, and snared them in bondage.
In all of this there was no recognition of the One God Who created and controls all things. It was the God of Israel Who had placed man over creation. He alone sent rain and made their grain to grow and the olive trees to give oil. He even fed the wild animals.
The worship of the idols was a great insult to the true Provider. There were no other gods, only lying spirits with no intention to care for them. No wonder the Psalms so often credit the Lord with control of the elements. Nature gods are a farce; claims for them must be denied. The chief thing these wicked spirits could do was deceive people about God. Since God commands obedience, their worship was immoral. Since God reveals truth about Himself, the theology of Israel’s neighbors was error.
The Rationale of True Worship
“…We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (I Corinthians 8:4-6).
Since He alone is God, there was to be one temple--His. There the Lord made His presence known; there sacrifices were to be made to Him.
All worship in the Bible is of the Lord God who commands how sinners may come to Him. True worship is not the invention of men. The activities of worship are not to be decided by man. “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way,” (Deuteronomy 12:4).
The people of God were not left to persuade God to help them. He had promised to feed them. He covenanted to be their God and made promises that bound Him to them. He not only said He would give rain, He said He would be their God! He was not a reluctant God but a providing Father. So His people did not need to beg or bribe for rain. He was more committed to blessing them than they were to receiving it! In love, He had given them a land of milk and honey. (See Deuteronomy 11:8-12.) The skies above them would bring rain and the land would be so productive that the reaper could not finish harvesting one crop because the planter was coming to sow another one. Their barns would be bulging. Their animals would multiply. All they needed was faithfulness to their God. By turning to idols they lost everything.
God’s true people have always been a people of His Word. In it He reveals information to adopt, promises to trust, and commands to obey. Since He even revealed how He was to be worshipped, no room is left for us to manufacture our own religion!
God will not compromise the glory of His purity by condoning our sin. For us to have any approach to Him and acceptance by Him, our sin must be dealt with to His satisfaction. God’s policy is that the sinner must die, but in His grace He made a provision far greater than corn and oil; He would send a substitutionary sacrifice for them. This was illustrated in the bloodshed of many innocent animals. These continued until the day God provided the sacrifice of Christ. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the Lamb of God, offered Himself for His people. So God demanded and provided a system of sacrifice that addressed His holy justice concerning human sin.
Both the true religion and the false had priests, prophets, sacrifices, altars, and rituals. They had oracles, music, festivals, and identified places for corporate worship. The nations had many counterfeits. Others had lying prophets, but Israel received the Word of the Lord from holy men called to speak for Him. Idolaters tried to manipulate demons but ended up in their service. Those who believed in the God of Israel became His sons. One people lived in response to the Lord Who loved them, while idol worshippers were always trying to get their gods to care for them. Molech had his people die for Him, but our God came here to die for us!
Each spring the emperor pleaded with gods that did not love them for a good harvest. Israel began every spring with dates in its calendar of an autumn harvest festival. That there would be something worth celebrating was a commitment made by God.
The Temple of Heaven
I have written this article because my visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing impressed on me two things: how similar the pleading with false gods was in the Old Testament with what the Chinese were doing; and how different their hopes for a good harvest were from the assurance the Lord gave to Israel.
I am sadly familiar with Chinese idolatry. In many Chinese homes I have seen kitchen idols, idols in the front yard, and mantles with food for ancestors between two red lights. I have a Chinese friend, baptized as a Christian, who turned his back on the true God and went to visit the Goddess of Mercy. These practices are similar to those Isaiah wrote about. But the great difference in the Temple of Heaven is that the temple in Beijing had no physical idols!!
Merely seeing the Temple of Heaven is not what made clear to me what had gone on there. A book on sale there explained that their ancestors sought to induce the God or gods of heaven to favor them and give them good harvests. It sounded familiar. Approaching God (in a way similar to the eye appeal of the Vatican) with impressive pageantry, skilful music, ornate buildings, ritual, and sacrifice does not impress the real God. God did not promise a good harvest would be granted in that way. It is not that there is some powerful spirit out there somewhere who might help us if we can only get his attention and do enough to win his favor.
This is all backwards. It is God Who has initiated communication with His creatures. He has addressed the earth through His prophets and by sending His Son. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in Heaven to ask for daily bread. The Lord does not require an extravagant show, with the possibility that without the fuss our petition might be denied. His promises do not tease us. He welcomes childlike prayers.
Since He is God, holy and sovereign, we cannot approach Him on our terms. In the past He instructed the Israelites how they were to come. He ordered a tent in which He would be among them. Everything had to be built according to the pattern He revealed (Exodus 25:40). Divine worship was not and never will be the product of human creativity. He does not respect our “devices” (Isaiah 65:2). God decides how men may approach.
The people of China long ago felt they might gain a good harvest by a display of splendor. They did not realize that God’s favor is a free gift, not something sinners may win. By His grace He wins hearts to come to Him and trust Him. In Christ’s blood, God has acted to satisfy Himself concerning our sin. His blessing is promised; never is it something we manage to draw out of Him by the display of anything no matter how spectacular.
Instead of beginning by conjuring up a good harvest, the children of Israel could plant their fields in faith, assured by the promise of God of a bountiful harvest (Deuteronomy 28:1-6; 11-12). The Lord said He would open to them the heavenly storehouses. Building a massive Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest was a (physically beautiful) waste of time and truth.
They began every year with such assurance, and they would end every year with a celebration for the gifts received. God had appointed an annual Feast of Ingathering, and He had no intention of making a fool of Himself by letting them down. By His initiative He covenanted a good harvest for His obedient people, so much so they could even give their land a Sabbath.
This principle of grace has not changed. We cannot win God’s favor. God has shown His kindness to us by sending His Son, now found by people who did not seek Him (Isaiah 65:1). Our life does not hinge on what we use to dazzle God, nor what we wear, or compose, or play, or sacrifice. Our Thanksgiving comes from the real Temple of Heaven from whence the Son of God came. The pageantry of God’s salvation was not in the fine silk of China’s artisans, but in the Son of God taking on our human flesh. His descent resulted in a sight so abhorrent men would turn their faces. Yet in going to the cross, Christ has sprinkled many nations--and China is certainly one of them.
It is in receiving, not providing, that we are accepted as sons and daughters and guaranteed eternal life – blessings never induced from God. We need not try to ascend into heaven to gain His favor. We do not begin by begging or bargaining; rather we accept gifts we do not deserve – gifts given because of Christ.
Many Chinese now worship the true God. He has been found by millions who did not seek Him (Isaiah 65:1). The Temple of Heaven in the south of Beijing is a tourist attraction and a world historical site but no longer a center of worship. We do not reach out for Him to win Him over to us, as China’s emperors once did. In sending Jesus, God has reached for us. The heathen pleaded with their gods at a high cost to them. The real God calls on us to respond to Him. The Great Emperor in heaven has sent us the true bread to give life to the world. Jesus’ ministry was not in splendor but poverty and humiliation that we might be made rich and glorified.
The greatest Thanksgiving harvest ever will be the final Feast of Ingathering with God’s grateful elect gathered from all nations to the throne of the Lord (Jeremiah 3:17). They will be brought one by one by the Lord Himself to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9).
Mr. David Linden was ordained in the RPC,ES. He is a member of the Bethel United Reformed Church of Calgary, Alberta.