Vulgar Idolatry

I imagine just about everyone has heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This saying is common because often it is true. I have been to the Grand Canyon many times. I could describe it by saying the canyon is vast and colorful, and it is very deep, long, and wide. That is a valid description but, because the description is so subjective and vague, it is not helpful. How vast is vast? What colors make it colorful? How deep is very deep? A picture does a much better job of describing the Grand Canyon because a picture captures an image of exactly what is there. (Even a picture, though, does not compare to standing at the edge of the canyon and looking for yourself.) As useful as pictures are, God chose to give us his Word, not his photo album. We don’t need pictures to see how great God is since we see his creation, but we do need to hear from God to know who he really is. He must tell us about himself if we are to truly know him. What pleases God? What displeases God? What is his character? What is important to him?

For example, idolatry is giving anyone or anything the honor or the place that God deserves. The first commandant is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). God does not like idolatry, but how much does God not like idolatry? In answer to that question we would normally say things like, “Idolatry is very bad,” or “God hates idolatry.” With answers like this we are not giving a concrete answer. How bad is very bad? Does God hate idolatry the way I hate eating liver or is it something more or something less? When using language like this without any biblical clarification, my understanding of God’s attitude towards idolatry is based on my understanding of what “very bad” is and my understanding of the concept of hate.

Fortunately, God gives us word pictures to help us understand his message to us. Consider how Ezekiel addressed Judah’s idolatry in chapter 16 of his prophecy. God used vulgar word pictures (not vulgar words) to show just how offensive idolatry is to him. Judah is compared to an abandoned infant girl that God took and raised as his own. This girl grew up into a beautiful woman that God entered into covenant with, but this girl trusted in her beauty and became a whore. The prophet is using the metaphor of a prostitute to speak of Judah worshipping pagan gods. The people were idolatrous. But how serious was the idolatry? Verse 15 says she “lavished her whorings on any passerby”, and verse 25 says in the Hebrew she “spread her legs” to any man that passed by. (In order to reduce the offensiveness of that image the ESV translates that verse by saying she offered herself to any passerby.) Also, this woman was not the typical prostitute. She did not accept payment for sex but paid others to violate her.

How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different. (Ezekiel 16:30-34 ESV)

Chapter 23 of Ezekiel uses similar language to describe Israel and Judah’s unfaithfulness by seeking alliances with other nations instead of trusting the Lord for protection and deliverance. Here Israel and Judah are portrayed as two sisters. Their seeking protection from Egypt is described as playing the whore in Egypt where “their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled” (vs 3). Judah saw the unfaithfulness of Israel and was even more unfaithful running after foreign men that could satisfy her lust.

But she (Judah) carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, wearing belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. When she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoring lust. And after she was defiled by them, she turned from them in disgust. When she carried on her whoring so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister (Samaria, the northern kingdom). (Ezekiel 23:14-18 ESV)

The prophet goes on to speak of Judah turning to Egypt and the image is not just of sexual lust but sexual perversion.

Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.” (Ezekiel 23:19-21 ESV)

Judah trusted in alliances with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon and worshiped the gods of the foreign nations with their despicable practices. Therefore God promised judgment on Judah.

You don’t hear preaching like this on Sunday morning because of fear of offending the congregation. I am not suggesting that sermons need to press the limits of decency, and I am certainly not suggesting vulgar words should be used. What I am saying is we should not tone down what God is saying in these passages for the sake of decency. If we do we miss the message. God uses these vulgar word pictures to emphasize the fact he considers idolatry and unfaithfulness vulgar and offensive. Are you offended by these chapters in Ezekiel or even just the small portions quoted in this article? I certainly hope so. Without us being offended we cannot even begin to grasp how offended God is by our own idolatry and unfaithfulness.

Thankfully, though, God promised to remove the shame of his people and atone for their sins. So even though we, like the people of Judah, are by nature idolaters, God atones for our idolatry and unfaithfulness by sending his Son to die on a cross. Jesus suffered the offense of the cross to remove the offense of our vulgar idolatry, and he ever lives to make intercession for us. Because of that we make it our aim to flee from idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14) and do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

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