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Can we have idols in our minds?

The Jewish Publication Society of America, in its 1917 version of the Bible, translates Ezekiel 14:3, 4 by using the expression “idols in their minds” and “idols in his mind”. This seems to be the only translation which renders it this way, while others use the word “heart” rather than “mind,” saying in verse 3: “…these men have set up their idols in their hearts.” The Hebrew word used here can be translated either as “heart” or “mind,” depending on the context. So, the question that needs to be answered is, what is an idol? Is it only an image of something that is made to be worshipped, or can it be more than this?

The second commandment states that we must not make a carved image, a likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth or in the water under the earth to bow down to them or serve them (compare Deuteronomy 5:8-9). This refers clearly to some kind of physical idol or image.

When we read through the book of Ezekiel, we find many references to the house of Israel being condemned by God because of their multitude of idols. In fact, idolatry was a major reason why God sent them into captivity. Even in the modern-day house of Israel, including the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, there are still large numbers of people that have idols or images in their homes and elsewhere and bow down to them and serve them. So, not much has changed over the past thousands of years. Some make the excuse that the idol represents God, but considering that God is the Almighty, no inanimate image made of wood or stone can represent Him truly. It distorts the understanding of what God is.

But does this commandment only refer to religious idols or images? The apostle Paul tells us that we are to put to death covetousness which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Therefore, the tenth commandment is linked to the second commandment. If we covet anything belonging to another person, we are making an idol of what we covet. This would include our neighbor’s spouse, car, house, job, holiday, etc. We would be coveting something that God says is not ours to have because it is someone else’s possession.

From this we see that an idol is not just a religious symbol or image, but it can be any object, person or animal or even profession for which we have a wrong desire. In fact, anything we put before God basically becomes our idol. We know that God commands us to give thanks for all things, but if we covet, then instead of giving thanks for what we have, we are complaining about or coveting what we do not have. That is the reason why the apostle Paul tells us in 1Timothy 6:8-9: “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”

However, idolatry is more than the worship of images or even the wrongful desire for physical things. Returning to Ezekiel 14:3, 4, the Soncino commentary explains: “More lit. ‘have brought up their idols to their hearts,’ an idiom for ‘have set their mind upon their idols.’ The phrase does not imply that they were worshipping idols, but that their thoughts were influenced by pagan ideas, such as believing in magical spells and divination. This has been a stumbling block to them willfully placed by themselves in their way and leading them into iniquity.”

Just reading through chapter 13 of the book of Ezekiel, we see many references to false divination, false prophets and magical charms—all things that God hates because they turn people away from Him. Today this would include séances, mediums, astrology, horoscopes, fortune telling, etc. In this case, the idolatry would be leading us not to rely on God and His revealed Word, but on a false diviner or fortune teller.

Matthew Henry in his Concise Commentary gives still an additional possible meaning: “No outward form or reformation can be acceptable to God, so long as any idol possesses the heart; yet how many prefer their own devices and their own righteousness, to the way of salvation! Men’s corruptions are idols in their hearts, and are of their own setting up…”

This reminds us of the book of Job where we find Job stating: “Till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go…” (Job 27:5-6).  Job believed in his own righteousness so much that he accused God of wrongdoing (compare Job 19:6-12). As long as he made an idol of his own righteousness, which was self-righteousness, he could not understand God and His righteousness.

In conclusion, idols can relate to physical objects and the desire for the possessions of others, but they can also include the belief in things like charms, divination or astrology. They can even pertain to our reliance on our own self-righteousness and integrity. As we read in Ezekiel 14:3-4, idols can indeed be in our minds. And any idol, whether an object or a wrong thought pattern or concept, can lead us away from obeying God and can cloud our understanding as to what and who He is.

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)