…For until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. 2 Kings 18:4
The reformer John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. Humans have a proclivity to take things, even good things, and turn them into objects of worship.
In Numbers 21:4–9 we have a story of God’s recently freed people (the Israelites) becoming rebellious against God and complaining to Moses about being brought out of Egypt into the wilderness to die. They wanted to go back into slavery and sought a response from God about their request. In response to their complaints, God sends snakes which was probably not what they had in mind when they were complaining.
Some of them began to die from poisonous snakebites. This is when the people realized they needed God’s help. They repented and asked that the snakes be taken away from them. Moses took the request to God who told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Moses was then instructed to hold the pole up in the air, and if the people would look at the pole (or Nehushtan), they would not die from the snakebites.
All in all, this story points ahead to Jesus – the pole represents the cross and the snake (sin) represents Jesus on the cross. Jesus taught this interpretation Himself in John 3:14.
Fast-forward hundreds of years to Hezekiah and 2 Kings 18:4. Apparently, the Israelites had been making offerings to the bronze serpent that Moses had fashioned. Instead of worshipping the God who saved their ancestors, they were worshipping a thing that God used to save them.
This must have been extremely frustrating for God watching His chosen people worship a thing that was used instead of the one who used it. It would be like thanking the life-ring instead of the lifeguard for saving you from drowning. Or thanking the fire hydrant instead of the fireman from dousing the flames engulfing your home.
The bronze serpent was something God used, not God Himself. Instead, the Israelites took a good thing and turned it into an idol.
Idols can be things God used many years ago, but has since moved on.
The bronze serpent was something God used while the Israelites were wandering through the desert. That was roughly 750–780 years before Hezekiah was king. Even still, people were holding on to the relic of God’s work in the past and worshipping it in the present.
Don’t we do this as well? We being to idolize a movement, music, or minister who God used in the past. We look back at the glory days when God used someone or something and then we put them or it on a pedestal.
Like the Israelites, we need to be careful not to fixate (and even worship) something that God used many years ago, but has since moved on. The only thing worth looking back in time to worship is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Anything else could become an idol.
Idols take the focus off the things God does and on to the things God uses.
Notice that the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent and not for what God did through the bronze serpent. There’s a huge difference.
If the Israelites were making offerings for what God did through the bronze serpent (i.e., giving Him thanks for what He had done for their people all those many years ago) there wouldn’t have been a problem. But the Israelites were making offerings to the bronze serpent. In essence, they were thanking and worshiping the thing rather than the being who used the thing.
This happens to us all the time. We tend to gravitate towards things or people or methods that God uses, then eventually replace them for God altogether. For example, we may appreciate a particular style of preaching or music God is using. We gravitate towards that person and slowly begin to focus only on them. We only like that kind of preaching or music in worship services. Soon, they become the object of our affection rather than God.
Is there anything wrong with gravitating towards a person God is using? Of course not. The problem begins when we replace them with God. Like the bronze serpent, we forget that they are a tool being used by God and not actually God Himself.
Idols can be anything, anywhere, at any time.
The Israelites were worshipping a 780 year old bronze serpent that God once used for good. Sounds really weird, doesn’t it?
We tend to think of idols as something archaic. Backwards ancient people worshiped golden calves and sacrificed their children to giant statues, but we’re modern and evolved. We don’t worship idols and sacrifice children like those foolish people in the past.
Or do we?
We can worship our possessions, our reputations, our hobbies, families, styles of preaching or worship music. We can even worship our vocations: Preacher, Doctor, Physical Therapist. We can worship our politics, churches, and denominations.
How do we keep from ending up like the Israelites and worshipping a good thing that God used instead of worshipping God Himself?
I think the answer is in Hezekiah’s actions – he broke the bronze serpent into pieces.
If there is something in our lives that we can’t help but worship, then maybe it’s time to “break it” into pieces. We need to take it off the pedestal in our minds, break it, and replace it with God.
Sure, it could be painful. I’m not sure Hezekiah took pleasure in destroying a wonderfully important piece of his people’s history, but if it becomes an idol then it needs to go. The idol needs to be broken into pieces.
The good news is that there is liberation in breaking our idols into pieces. After Hezekiah destroyed Israel’s idols we read that “the Lord was with him.” This is not to say that God wasn’t always there and had just now shown up, but that Hezekiah (and Israel’s) relationship was restored with God. It was fuller, richer, and more complete.
When we destroy our idols, we begin to experience God’s joy in worshipping Him. After all, that’s what we were made to do.